The Goldilocks Principle

bugsthreebears

Mama Bear tricks Bugs Buggy into grabbing the carrot soup in Chuck Jones’ interpretation of the Goldilocks story in Warner Bros’ 1940 short, Bugs Bunny and The Three Bears.

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” — Confucius

The story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears is an odd fairy tale that illustrates the important principle that the right way forward often lies in finding a middle path between two polar opposites. Or to put it more succinctly; don’t let the perfect get in the way of the better.

Big Hollywood studios, for example, often represent the high watermark for animation artists in the industry but artists shouldn’t let the lack of immediate or eventual achievement of such lofty goals determine their level of happiness and sense of self-worth. What is most important is ALWAYS the process. We mustn’t forget that any destination or material achievement is merely a marker and doesn’t necessarily signify real success or happiness. It’s not wise to put anything on a pedestal.

“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.” — Bruce Lee

When we’re challenged in our lives, both creative and otherwise, we’re often faced with the decision of choosing between two opposing views: this way or that way.  A win/lose mindset becomes apparent and the pressure that mounts before any decision can be made can only be offset by the exaltation from being proven successful. More common than not, unfortunately, is the resulting disappointment and regret that comes from choosing “incorrectly” because a win/lose approach naturally creates with it the blame and shame game that we all play with ourselves from time to time. Living a life in the extremes carries with it tremendous stress, drama and heartache.

homerdecisions

In charge of Springfield Nuclear Safety, Homer Simpson faces too many choices in The Simpsons episode, The Many Jobs of Homer Simpson.

The Goldilocks Rule, on the other hand, says that we can look to a third option; a tempered alternative to otherwise seemingly “all in” alternatives. An updated approach to this kind of thinking is the win-win mindset commonly applauded in business circles and political negotiations. In win-win applications, parties involved come to compromised solutions that satisfy the essential needs of both groups without the necessity of costly confrontation whereby everyone gets hurt. Looking beyond the limitations of two very real and risky extremes is often the best solution when it comes to social and multi-person issues.

Now, how does this apply to us artists?

Artists are often encouraged to swing for the fences. The “Go Big or Go Home” slogan carries with it hefty implications; you’re either a born creative genius or you’re not. In other words, society says that creative people are to deliver brilliance or they shouldn’t be artists at all; it idolizes the genius while condemning the rest. This all or nothing mindset is most surely very romantic and helps to raise the price of established art collections but serves little good in the development of the creative individual. True creative success is always dependent on a solid foundation based on skill, hard work, imagination and persistence — all of which can be developed.

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” — William Shakespeare

But when goals are set too lofty and deemed too frightening to approach, we can easily be discouraged from trying or even starting. Paralysis by analysis is a very real phenomenon. Alternatively, if we push ourselves too hard or reach for peaks too far above our current capabilities, we risk the kind of failure that’s irreparable. This has happened to artists, musicians and athletes lost throughout history. The most common thing I see in my time directing and teaching is young artists and students biting off far more than they can chew. They set themselves up for almost guaranteed failure right from the start and what results is them never living up to their potential or giving up their creative careers entirely. Artists have to be mentally and fundamentally ready for the daily grind of being a top flight professional.

bowls-1

The bowls are merely symbols. Under the Goldilocks Rule, the best option in choosing between tasks is the one that encourages us to test our mettle but still be achievable. It’s about choosing the option that’s “just right.”

But it’s not just inexperienced artists who forget to take the proper path. Seasoned professionals often skip essential steps and preparation not because they’re acting on spontaneous insight — which is great — but often because they subconsciously think they know better or even feel themselves above the process. In other words, veterans are always susceptible to complacency or overconfidence, two things that are sure to prevent their ascension towards higher levels of excellence (and fulfillment). Shortcuts aren’t ever the answer, not even for pros. Masters of the craft, on the other hand, do the same “boring” mental and physical preparation each and every time; they find joy, challenge and confidence in the act of doing them and know that it opens them up to real and often new possibilities.

giacometti_photo_alexanderliberman

The great sculptor Alberto Giacometti seen here contemplating deeply about the challenges before him. (Photo by Alexander Liborman)

The Goldilocks Principle is an important reminder that reaching for something in the middle is the best possible way to growth and achievement. If the challenges in front of us are too easy, boredom and lack of enthusiasm results. If the challenges set forth are too difficult, then the probability of success reduces to zero. It’s essentially telling us to do one thing at a time and to take on one level of challenge at a time. And with that, lies the opportunity for real sustainable growth and building a sense of achievement that’s necessary to further our interest and advancement. Small victories build confidence.

steppingstones

While the road towards mastery is both long, difficult and unpredictable — one that can only be taken with care and attention one step at a time — it can also be beautifully fulfilling.

Now sometimes, pushing the boundaries of an artistic or scientific paradigm require us to go much further than the next logical step or the “merely” challenging; it’s important to stretch beyond our apparent limitations. But most of the time, taking smaller incremental steps is a more assured way to success. Repetition of important tasks and establishing solid rituals helps far more than it hinders.

Therefore, by keeping the targets just ahead of us — enough to make us take significant action — allows us to focus on what’s most important: learning and putting in the time.

“I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.” — Steve Martin from his memoir, Born Standing Up.

Shortcuts

QQQPickTWO

An old colleague at Lucas used to have this sign above her desk. Underneath the diagram were the words: PICK TWO

“So much to do and so little time.” – The Joker

We all love speed and I’m as guilty as the next person — I think fast, talk fast and act fast. It’s become part of my nature. It’s also my disease, something I need to remedy on a daily basis if I’m to continue my journey towards being a true human being.

dances_with_wolves

Kevin Costner and Graham Greene star in Dances With Wolves. Costner’s brilliantly written and directed film captures a time and place when America had not yet become the America it is today, with its unblemished landscape and natural way of life as embodied by the indigenous Native Americans.

Being fast and doing things quickly may be a coveted skill but it definitely comes with a hefty price and until we learn better, we have no idea what we’re actually paying. It sneaks up on us because before we realize it, we’ve likely stopped giving people, things and moments their due attention.

There is indeed such a thing as “timing” — the art of mastering rhythm — but timing and hurrying are … mutually exclusive.” — Alan Watts

hummingbird_doa

Poor little fella. This hummingbird killed himself smashing into my glass balcony. This accident might not be common, but it’s well known that the fastest and most hurried animals on the planet all live incredibly short lives. How’s that for a wake up call?

If someone were to offer us a great stock tip that promises to make us rich without learning how to invest, we’d know to take caution. But the same thing applies to secrets or shortcuts that promises to make us better artists. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. It’s simply impossible to get good at something as complicated as art (or anything worthwhile for that matter) utilizing quick tips and easy tricks. The ideas may be sound and inspiration is important, but nothing works without real understanding and effort. Meaningful results require meaningful commitment.

“History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.” — John F. Kennedy

Now, we all like to be faster. We’re all in a hurry to save those precious minutes not realizing that time isn’t something that can be saved; it can only be experienced. And although being snappy-minded and physically active is impressive within the workplace or social circle, it doesn’t take much to cross over that fine line towards anxiety and irritability, symptoms that now plaque almost every facet of our society. Hurried activities and the sensations that come with it fog up the mind and entangle the entire creative process. Nerves and adrenaline lead to rushed plans, expedited execution and ignoring valuable feedback. The desire to find any and every competitive edge at the expense of all else ultimately leads to the most logical of outcomes— repeated failure.

wileecoyote

Wile E. Coyote is famous for his botched plans to capture the Road Runner. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

We’re all guilty of the rush mindset to some degree because slow means death for production workers, producers, marketing teams and the corporate world in general. Wall street demands CEOs to report profits consistently or stock prices drop under the weight of expectations. Journalists rush (or even cheat) stories to get them before social media does. The substantial marketing costs of Hollywood films naturally limit the kinds of films now being made. In the fashion industry, the transition into the high turnover phenomena called Fast Fashion where agile and lean (i.e. cheap and fast) is the mandate has magnified both the exploitation of slave labor and the destruction of the environment. The sloth doesn’t survive in the 21st century. But will the jack rabbit?

Bangladeshi volunteers and rescue workers assist in rescue operations after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on April 25, 2013. Survivors cried out to rescuers April 25 from the rubble of a block of garment factories in Bangladesh that collapsed killing 175 people, sparking criticism of their Western clients. AFP PHOTO/Munir uz ZAMAN (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2013 Rana Plaza factory disaster that killed over a thousand textile workers in Bangladesh exposed one of the many perils of Fast Fashion Industry as seen in Andrew Morgan‘s True Cost documentary.

As I’ve aged and gained some insight and experience, I’ve learned that although my drive and ability to learn fast helped me adjust and succeed in the certain facets of work and life, it also (ironically) hampered my development in those very same areas. Things learned fast and easy, aren’t learned deeply. It’s why we don’t remember those last years of formal education. If the last thing we learned in mathematics is calculus then the only thing we’ll remember how to do (at best) is algebra. We lose whatever we learned shallowly and also whatever we cease to practice regularly. If we’ve only completed one basic class in anatomy, we DON’T know anatomy. The route to success is commonly misunderstood. Efficiency comes from effectiveness, not the other way around.

“Short cuts make long delays.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien

Rushing is also dangerous. Not only does it get us no where faster, it’s a concept and habit prone to error that magnifies itself. Athletes who rush their execution or stage performers too eager to please their audiences make more mistakes. Complex challenges require time for analysis, planning and mindful execution. We simply can’t drive high speed into corners. Maybe we need speed limits for life and not just the road.

dumbo_tytla

Walt Disney’s Dumbo as animated by the legendary Bill Tytla. Can you imagine rushing through this shot if you were the animator?

What’s often forgotten is that quiet and boredom are powerful states — they drive both awareness and action. Going off course periodically can be very beneficial. Time spent alone, or with nature remind us to feel and use our senses — senses we need to improve not only our work but every aspect of our lives. Visual artists often focus too exclusively on sight, forgetting that we must use our ears to understand rhythm and our touch to encompass volume or texture. Closed-eye imagination breeds insight. Doing things slowly and attentively helps us feel things as they are or even as we hope they could be.

“See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. O, that I were a glove upon that hand that I might touch that cheek!” ― William Shakespeare, from Romeo and Juliet

Taking the time to physically experience our emotions,  absorbing ideas and letting lessons sink in, make them far more permanent and ultimately more useful. Skills that take years to develop build on top of each other through experience and set back, reinforcing the lessons that go beyond the craft. The journey you spend becoming a true craftsman brings with it incalculable experience and unexpected turns of fate. My own life never took on any meaning till I chose to become a daily practicing artist. It has fundamentally changed everything I was, everything that I do and who I have become. It’s quite stirring when we decide to devote ourselves to something.

snowinnewyork_henri

Snow in New York by Robert Henri, an artist who brought the purist and most complete devotion to his craft. Henri dedicated almost every moment of his life doing, teaching and writing about art. I suspect it made for a great and fulfilling life.

So, in summary, take time for things. Allow enough minutes, hours or days to learn, experience, fail and reflect. Forget about shortcuts and enjoy the process. Make time instead of trying to cheat it.

“Do whatever you do, intensely.” – Robert Henri

Selective Repetition

michelangelo-drawings-anatomical-study-of-legs

One of hundreds (if not thousands) of studies done by the great Michelangelo Buonarroti. Is it any surprise he mastered human anatomy?

The eight laws of learning are explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition.” — John Wooden, NCAA record-winning Basketball Coach at UCLA

How we make ourselves is perhaps the most important thing we can do for ourselves. And, if we do a good job, we get to make our mark in the world. Therefore, it’s essential that we be conscious of what enters our bodies, minds and hearts because what goes in must come out.

joanMiro_studio

Joan Miro’s studio in Mallorca. Surrounding ourselves with art, open air and quality people keeps us inspired and creative.

But what’s just as important is how often we repeat those constructive actions for repetition strengthens the act that’s being repeated and its results. Hence the importance of paying attention. The quality and frequency of deep focus is heavily tied to excellence. The greatest and happiest artists have always been those who practiced diligently. We might regard it as simply devotion (to their craft), but it’s really about finding harmony in the act of being a creative person. To qualify as true artists, we must create with focus and do so regularly.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” ― William James

And how does this tie into our happiness? Well, perhaps the world is in you just as much as you are in the world. And while it’s often said that it’s not good to be inside our own heads all the time, the truth is that our personal reality is our only reality. And since what we repeat becomes our truth, we are always biased. This is why it’s so wrong (and dangerous) to pass quick judgement on others. An astute mind will seek to understand first before trying to be understood. Only then can we learn and grow personally and with each other. That is the bond that all true artists share.

paulklee-senecio

Senecio by Paul Klee. Klee’s art playfully resembles that of a child with its beautiful presentation of simple form, color and innocence.

So each day we must really look to see the world with fresh eyes, not to find “THE TRUTH” but “A TRUTH”.  We must share and make tangible what’s uniquely inside each of us.

“Art does not reproduce the visible but makes things visible.” — Paul Klee

Unfortunately, when we don’t own our minds or bodies we get  confused. The often used but sometimes misguided advice of “follow your heart” becomes no more than a reaction based on pure adrenaline. “Feelings” are hardly objective — the biological mechanism of fight or flight is ill served in our current times. When our ego is fearful, lost or overly proud, we don’t see clearly as to where we’ve gone wrong or how to do things better. Often times, the solutions lie elsewhere — in reflection, in understanding and synergy. When our minds and bodies are sick, our compasses become misaligned. Silence and peace of mind is terribly underrated.

rafiki_meditation2

Rafiki from Disney’s The Lion King. Are you ensuring that your body and mind are healthy and balanced? How do you expect to do great (or even decent) things if they are not?

But when we’re balanced and healthy, ours heads and hearts can follow what we can properly call intuition. Only then are we able to choose our routines, rather than succumb to unintended behaviors that form so insidiously. Poor habits are easy to acquire.

optical_illusion

Depending on our own biases, we’ll see either a beautiful girl or an old lady. This classic optical illusion test is proof that we all see the same things differently no matter how “obvious” it may appear to us individually.

Since we live in a world bombarded with constant headlines, advertisements, and “free” advice from experts and gurus, we must stay sharp and mindful in order to separate the wheat from the chaff — we need to be conscious of what we see, hear and absorb. Without a clear head and healthy body to suit, we are ill-prepared to handle this endless invasion of dubious information.

escardariaselaron

The Escadaria Selaron is a world famous set of steps created by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selaron. (Image from Daily Mail UK.)

specialk_stairads

Advertisement in public places being passed off as public art. (Image from NBC News)

Habits are tricky things. We might make “positive” ones but without persistent effort, they fade away and die (exercise is a common example). It’s almost funny how “negative” habits seem to form and stick so effortlessly. Quick and easy adaptation sure has its price. But perhaps the bigger reason poor behavior ingrains itself so strongly is because it’s just being repeated more often. We’ve simply been far more exposed and conditioned to behave in negative and destructive ways than the other way around. Positive, inspired living requires us to choose it. In other words, we need to choose what we repeat.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” – George Bernard Shaw

So here are some simple things to ponder as a working artist:

a) If your routine is that of chaos, disorder and lack of preparedness, then expect to see the same in your work. You will repeat many of the same trials and make many of the same mistakes over and over again. And you’ll get used to it. But the opposite is also true, if you’re well-structured, you’ll get stronger, for order begets more order.

“Repetition is the reality and the seriousness of life.” — Soren Kierkegaard

deja_scar

A model sheet for Scar by the masterful Andreas Deja (a former teacher of mine) done for Walt Disney’s 1994 masterpiece The Lion King. No doubt just a small sample of the countless studies done by Andreas to explore and find all the visual and emotional nuances of the character.

b) If you have the habit of always doing only what’s required (or even less than that), know that that will become your moniker, your signature among your brethren. What we do and how we do them, defines us.  Our travails (or lack thereof) leaves footprints.

“There is no reality except in action… Man is nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre

dicetsutsumi_toystory3

Color study for Toy Story 3 by former Pixar Art Director (and current Co-Founder of Tonko House) Dice Tsutsumi. Dice is a master colorist, but he’s also an innovative and much valued creator/collaborator inside the animation community.

c) If you only copy what’s in front of you, you’re doing a disservice to you and to art. Whether you’re using live models or objects, photographs or video reference, you mustn’t blindly copy. Art is not duplication but imagination — it’s your physical expression of what’s being filtered through you and you specifically.

“The big artist does not sit down monkey-like and copy… but he keeps a sharp eye on nature and steals her tools.” — Thomas Eakins

bellows

Both Members of This Club by George Bellows. An ardent Robert Henri follower, George Bellows embodies all the spirit of his teacher. He created work that was a gorgeous reinvention of the world around him.

d) If your working routines begin to tire or bore you, know that your intuition is working. It’s telling you to try something new, to shake things up a bit. Experiment or take a leave and then do something unusual, perhaps extraordinary.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results” — Albert Einstein

30 x 40 cm

Betty by Gerhard Richter.

ludorff_gerhard_richter

Ludorff by Gerhard Richter. One thing exciting about modern painter Gerhard Richter is that he’s continually experimenting. From his early days of nostalgic photo-realism to his modern day abstract expressionism, Richter has continued to excite (and perhaps upset) his audience.

e) Be mindful of your surroundings. If your environment is one that’s not conducive to creativity consistency or happiness, make an effort to change it or move to a different one. That said, know that the most influential environment is the one you build in your head.

“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” — Goethe

giacomettistudio

The great sculptor Alberto Giacometti in the comforts of his studio. Artists should always “own” their space — the physical space if possible, the mental space always.

f) Don’t worry about style. Let your influences show, let yourself come through in your work. If you’re true to yourself, then you’re the best possible version of yourself in all that you could possibly do. Uniqueness is inner truth expressed.

“I am not interested in being original. I am interested in being true.” — Agostinho da Silva

basquiat-beat-bop

Jean-Michel Basquiat, who tragically died at the young age of 27, was one of the most exciting and original artists to arrive in the art scene in the 1980’s. His fresh and intuitive work was a by-product of his upbringing, environment and the cultural history of his people.

In summary, we all know that we have to think for ourselves but responding takes effort and requires conscious design and action. Reactivity, on the other hand, is easy. We must choose our habits. If we don’t take control of our minds, others will do our thinking for us. We can’t be lazy nor should we think of such action as selfish. On the contrary, it’s probably the most generous thing that we can possibly do.

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Detachment

terracotasoldiers

The Terracotta Soldiers, perhaps the most famous collection of funerary art, symbolizes the mass armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The physical site is an unmatched visceral sensation. But despite its great archeological importance to human history, it’s also a reminder of human arrogance and our fear of death.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” — Albert Camus

Recently, I’ve been deeply distressed over what happened to a painting I’ve made. Working to rediscover myself in this traditional medium, I was quite pleased with what had developed, which makes this story all that much more difficult to share. The sessions that built up to that point of arrival was filled with challenges; experiments with technique and expression, huge emotional ups and downs, the struggle with the medium itself. Each day was a full-on battle, and at the end of the war, I was completely exhausted from the cumulative exertion of energy. The near-final results showed promise.

Red_JamesChiang_painting

The painting I made and lost. With the technique and approach I take, working very fluidly and dynamically with the medium, what once was is no longer. (I took this only photo from the side to avoid the glare on what was then, very wet paint.)

The problem occurred the next day when a sudden urge to “repair” a small area in the painting (forgetting that imperfections are what makes an artwork unique) drove me back into the foray. And this happened on a day that was not even scheduled for painting; my paints were put away and I usually take the painting off the easel for drying but in this instance I didn’t. Therein, came the disaster. I was already not in the right mindset and being physically spent from the hard days before, the mind and body fought hard against my heart. Add to the dilemma of having run out of the original paint I was using —I needed to re-mix some of the colors, one which came from a new brand of paint, a sienna whose potency turned out far greater than expected — it’s now clear I set myself up for failure. Upon applying the “fix” something went wrong and one fix led to another as I altered things on the fly, and before I knew it, I lost both the sense of the painting and myself. Sixty minutes later (and it’s always quicker to destroy than to create) I awoke to find myself lost, akin to the experience of suddenly realizing that you’re driving and not knowing how you got there. Except this time, I crashed. The painting was ruined.

picard

The famous Jean-Luc Picard face palm has been an excessively dominant and recurring expression of mine in recent weeks. Image from the brilliant science fiction television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

You can imagine the panic that ensued. This panic and soon to be massive frustration and regret led to an obsession with the past result — a result (in a photo!) that looked better and better in comparison to what was now there in front of me. For the past two weeks, I could not regain the freshness and feel of what I had no matter how desperate or valiant the effort. I was so certain that I could bring it back but it was gone.

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is absurd.” — Voltaire

This was real life and there are no do-overs. Unlike working with digital mediums, there was no magical “undo” button or previously saved file. I felt like an athlete who delivered on the hardest elements of a performance only to trip just at the finish line. I was this attached to the results of the past experience. Many days of agony ensued. Why didn’t I leave it alone?

degas-self-portrait-jpglarge

Self-Portrait by Edgar Degas . Degas was one of the most skilled and devoted artists in history, a man obsessed with capturing the beauty and honesty of life with his brush.

My experience brought to mind the story of the master Impressionist Edgar Degas, who was so obsessed with a painting he’d done that he broke into his client’s home to steal the painting back to make the changes he wanted to it. I guess I’m not alone in my craziness. And perhaps you can say there are worse things to be obsessed over than a piece of art. But still, I couldn’t seem to grasp why I couldn’t get over what was first, the expectation and obsessive desire to make things “perfect” (which wrecked things in the first place) and then subsequently, the regret and obsession with what had already passed (which dragged out the mistake and the pain).

After a small reprieve from painting and taking a moment spared for absorption and contemplation, another story came to mind — that of the practice by Tibetan Buddhist monks in their tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from colored sand, a ritual that symbolizes the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.

Tibetan Buddhist monks create these gorgeously intricate sand mandalas, which are subsequently and ceremoniously destroyed. From the beautiful documentary, Samsara.

It had finally hit me. I had to move on and not try to re-live any past pain or glory (the two states seem indefinitely intertwined). It’s my job and joy as an artist to always be moving forward, to build something out of this experience and each subsequent experience. Artistic creation, like life, moves in cycles and phases. This realization — the profound truth that every moment and element is unique to its own time and place — is what makes life so incredibly beautiful and special.  It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that! And in this age of global mass production and contrived uniformity of tastes, imagery and material obsessions, it serves as a stark and powerful awakening of what it means to be alive.

“The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” — Epictetus

A most powerful scene from Tony Kaye’s 2011 film Detachment, starring Adrien Brody, on the importance of being aware and avoiding attachment to the false ideologies outside of ourselves. (Please be warned that this scene contains mature language)

To know the noble truth that nothing is permanent is actually incredibly liberating, even if it take something as trivial or insubstantial as a troubled painting to remind us. But switch the experience of painting to an important project at work, our core relationships, or the health of ourselves and our family, and the same lessons apply. Living detached from results and being focused on process is the only way to be truly happy.

The fact that events and material items can’t be fully preserved emphasizes the importance of what is actually there in front of us now, in real-time. The past is merely memory, the future only an unforeseeable possibility. Living in a digital age where EVERYTHING is recorded, there’s more urgency to capture the moment than to live it. The more we hang on to things — possessions, ideals and expectations — the more we create conflict with our environment, our fellow human beings and within ourselves. My experience these past few weeks reminds me again of the wisdom and power of art in its ability to reflect the truth of who we are and what we can be.

“And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.” — Albert Camus

Special Announcement: Animation Services

star-wars-7-luke-skywalker-and-yoda

Luke carries Yoda in George Lucas’ Star Wars. Private training is the best way to get to the next level.

After various inquiries and interest shown by readers and industry professionals, I’ve decided to offer PRIVATE TUTORING as part of my services to the animation community.

If you’re an aspiring animator or a professional seeking to upgrade your skills and push your career to the next level, I may be able to help.

For more details, please visit my SERVICES page.

Shot Analysis: Sword In The Stone

The Sword in the Stone (1963) Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman

One of Disney’s all-time classics in terms of pure character animation at its finest, Walt Disney’s Sword In The Stone (1963) is a film I would come back to again and again for inspiration and learning in my entire career as an animator.

Today we’ll look at a favorite shot of mine from the marvelous Frank Thomas*. At first glance, this appears to be a simple scene but it’s actually one loaded with ingenuity, strong staging and elegantly-timed action.

The Shot:

Since film passes by so quickly in real time, it’s easy to miss out on the wonderful thought process and all the juicy details that go into a shot such as this.  Notice, for instance, that (if we listen carefully to the dialogue track) there is no basis for the creative and convoluted business that is Merlin’s battle with his wand and beard. Since the sound effects — like in all animated films — are added afterwards, that contrasting element is created entirely by the artist alone to add fun and personality to the scene that might not have been present in the storyboards or script. From Disney’s Sword In The Stone.

The Breakdown:

In this analysis, I’ll be focusing mostly on the fundamental importance of the key posing, placement of action and directional elements that I believe Frank Thomas had intended. Please enjoy!

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-27-27

In this starting position, Thomas composes Merlin in the midst of thought and action. He’s looking at the younger Arthur (off screen) and is about to turn his attention to the objects lying about the room. The shape (as recomposed in lite blue on the left) is stable yet interesting. The wand, hands and head clearly display his direction of focus.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-26-57

Here the artist draws your attention with his rhythmical tapping of his wand against the stool and, like a conductor, he begins his work with his orchestra. A nice touch is displayed here when Merlin moves the beard towards his waistline, clearing space for the action to read.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-27-39

As Merlin shifts upwards, you can see the arms and body curve inward, creating a nice inside-outside maneuver of his hands before ending up in the commanding position which follows. A lessor animator would’ve taken a less interesting path.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-28-13

Here Merlin stands in command like the wizard he is, holding this position of strength with order and dignity in a perfectly timed pause before the main action. The line of action (in red) is clear and strongly arced as his energy is projected upwards and outwards.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-28-26

Merlin “pops” into the next action jumping right into the air — a surprising yet colorful move for an old wizard. The dramatic anticipatory movement gives the action and the character a sense of fun and vitality. Note the strong underlying anatomy as the head overlaps the chest cavity giving the pose depth and volume.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-28-36

Here the pose is curled up small, as Thomas directs your attention towards the open bag. The head and face along with the curvature of the hands and arms, triangulate the action.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-29-27

As Merlin performs his spell, he unknowingly curls his beard into his wand in a beautiful display of the artist’s control of movement and drawing capability.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-29-41

The swirling spell action ends in an abrupt and sharp halt, pulling Merlin’s chin and head forward while sending reverberations throughout his entire body and clothing. The sharpness of the action and clear directional forces give the movement power and thrust.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-29-52

A series of actions and poses play out, as the character zigzags in chaotic fashion and frustration to free himself of the entanglement.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-30-02

In a final anticipatory pose, Thomas creates a complex yet decidedly clear arrangement, displaying multiple forces at play, each taking turns in different directions of push and pull. He even uses his feet!

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-30-12

The battle with his beard and wand end in a explosive release — one that splays out in a beautiful star-like formation.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-30-22

After that great expenditure of energy, Merlin is decidedly fatigued — the ordeal proving too much for a wizard his age — as he deflates slowly sagging down towards the stool, the weight of everything bearing downwards along with the force of gravity. All of this is completely consistent with the acting choices that define the character.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-30-32

After the brief reprieve, the wizard re-composes himself, as he calmly erects his posture back upwards, displaying the fortitude fitting of a commander in charge of his subjects.

flysketchworkflow-2016-10-15-15-30-41

A final rotational move back towards screen left — where the action started — completes the scene perfectly. All in all, a great performance created by well-planned acting, strong staging and perfectly executed timing.

In summary, shots like this are great to study and learn from. It should, at the very least, keep us inspired. The appreciation of the works of other artists, especially great ones like Frank Thomas is critical to the understanding of the craft and retaining the humility necessary to stay grounded. We must be always looking, seeing and learning.

“Observe Everything. Communicate Well. Draw, Draw, Draw.” — Frank Thomas

Check out my analyses of other shots, including work by Frank Thomas colleague, Milt Kahl, from 101 Dalmations, and modern animations by my own colleagues, Mike Thurmeier from Robots, and Aaron Hartline from Horton Hears A Who.

(* Note: This shot was incorrectly credited to Milt Kahl in the original posting.)

Artist Spotlight: The Films of Woody Allen

woody_alhirschfeld

A caricature that marvelously captures Woody Allen’s signature look by the one and only, Al Hirschfeld.

“Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” — Woody Allen

Woody Allen is one of the most prolific and unique voices in American cinema. To quote a friend; “When Woody Allen is at his best, he’s one of the best.” I wholeheartedly agree.

In his long cinematic career as writer, actor and director, Woody Allen has created over 53 films in his sixty plus years. He’s as famous as much for his brilliant writing and studious humor as he is for the character he often plays — a slightly neurotic yet likeable Jewish left-wing intellectual living in New York City. In reality, this persona is ironically nothing like him at all — Allen’s known to inner circles to be calmly articulate, organized, athletic and a wicked Jazz musician and enthusiast. He also doesn’t get enough credit for his acting abilities because he plays his character so well. No one ever accused Charlie Chaplin of being a type cast actor for creating the Tramp.

“I’ve never been an intellectual but I have this look.” — Woody Allen

Woody Allen, seen here playing his clarinet with his New Orleans Jazz Band inside the legendary Café Carlyle at the ripe old age of 75.

Woody Allen created a personal and distinct style of writing, acting and directing that’s unique in an industry that’s sorely lacking in diversity and innovation. And despite making films on very low budgets that appeal primarily to more sophisticated yet limited audiences, he still manages to be continually busy and make so many of the kind of films that no one else gets to make. Famous actors have lined up to be cast in his movies and every one of them takes significant pay cuts to do so. (His actors are paid an identical fixed fee.) This isn’t all so surprising considering his films have garnered over 18 Oscar Nominations for acting alone. As for Allen himself, he’s received 24 nominations and has won 4 (one for Best Picture and three for Best Original Screenplay). That said, he’s true to his principles of avoiding spectacles and excessive accolades. He has never once attended the Academy Award Ceremonies.

woody-allen-documentary

Woody Allen — A Documentary (2012) is a marvelous film about the prolific American filmmaker. Directed by Robert B. Weide.

“I think being funny is not anyone’s first choice.” — Woody Allen

Today we’ll look at four of what I feel are his best films — Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan— my personal favorites. Each one delivers a combination of innovative cinematography, brilliant writing, memorable characters and, of course, his signature humor at its very best. Whether you’re a story artist, camera enthusiast, editor or animator, you will learn much from his films. The writing, cinematography, cutting and acting are all first rate.

If you haven’t seen these films, or have not seen them in some time, I highly recommend grabbing a free night for a viewing. Woody Allen is one of the most creative voices America has ever produced.

Annie Hall (1977)

annie-hall-poster-2

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen created a film first with his now trademark humor, deeply introspective characters and playful plot developments that surround themselves around one central theme — the romantic human relationship. The story begins with the childhood upbringing of standup comedian Alvie Singer, played by Woody Allen himself, but dives very quickly into his relationship with Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton (who would go on to win an Academy Award for her performance as Best Actress).

A creative and comical scene set in upstate New York where Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) is introduced to the upper-middle class family of his girlfriend Annie Hall ( Diane Keaton). The innovative split screen interaction with Alvie’s lower Brooklyn family magnifies the wonderful contrast in their status and cultural upbringing.

From the excitement of new found romance to the final break up, all the wonderment and inevitable challenges that relationships go thru are explored here in depth. Allen does this while toying with recurring themes such as creative integrity, psychoanalysis, anti-semetic paranoia and even the merits of adult education. It’s a delicious tale that holds its viewer from beginning to end with originality and humor. The film signaled the arrival of Woody Allen as a premier film-maker, winning him his first Oscars  for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Buoyed by memorable scenes and a sensational Diane Keaton (who delivers a performance that captures the spirit and beautiful nuance of femininity as perfect as any portrayal I’ve ever seen), it’s a film that’s worth multiple viewings. It’s arguably the funniest film he ever made.

Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)

hannahhersisters

Hannah and Her Sisters is a story about three sisters whose lives are intricately linked by their famous yet overtly dramatic former movie-star parents and their relationships with men. Hannah, played by Mia Farrow, is the perfect sister — too perfect for anyone’s liking, including her own husband, played marvelously by Sir Michael Caine who also happens to be lustfully obsessed with Hannah’s youngest sister Lee, played by Barbara Hershey. Lee is young, bright and beautiful but completely unsure of herself and the direction of her life. The middle child Holly, played by Diane Wiest, is the offbeat and neurotically-insecure sibling —considered by the family (and herself) as the undesirable and talent-less “loser” of the three sisters.

A surprising yet delicately textured scene that exposes Elliot’s (Michael Caine) longing for Lee (Barbara Hershey) and how far he’s willing to go to pursue her. The setting is the most unlikely of places for Elliot to make an advance towards his target— inside the apartment of Lee’s live-in boyfriend Frederick (Max von Sydow). The scene ends in wonderful two-folded conflict, first between Lee and Elliot, and then almost at the same time, between Frederick and Rusty (Daniel Stern) who are engaged in the negotiation of a possible art purchase arranged by Elliot himself, concluding how ridiculously far and stupid men can get when overcome with lustful obsession.

The intertwined actions and reactions of the three sisters and their counterparts make for fun social experiment. Sometimes poignant, other times laugh-out-loud funny, the movie bounces elegantly yet playfully between moments of beautiful human desire and fear. Hannah and Her Sisters is one of the richest yet most positive stories told by this master story-teller.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

crimes-and-misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors is Woody Allen’s most daring and challenging film. It’s one that not only ponders the meaning of existence but also how the interpretation of life’s events plays into our own beliefs. Allen beautiful juxtaposes these questions in the telling of two stories, one a drama (the crime of murder) and the other a comedy (the misdemeanor of questionable flirtation).

In the story of Judah Rosenthal, Martin Landau plays an upper class ophthalmologist (the theme of seeing and being seen is a powerful metaphor here) who is challenged with dealing with the obsessive clinging by his mistress played with empathy and consuming intensity by Angelica Houston. In his decision to rid himself of his problems — since she threatens not only his marriage but the revealing of Judah’s financial indiscretions — he’s forced to confront his ethics and religious upbringing. It’s a test of whether he can weather the storm of his own fears knowing that the eyes of God are watching.

In a chilling scene, bathed in shadow and ominous lighting, Judah (Martin Landau) contemplates doing the darkest deed — murder — as he lays out his dilemma before his friend and client Ben (Sam Waterson), a Rabbi sworn to trust and confidentiality.

In the second story, Woody Allen plays Clifford Stern, a financially deficit, but seemingly noble documentary filmmaker who seeks hope and redemption through the possible romance with his producer, Halley Reed, played by Mia Farrow, who also happens to be the targeted love interest of his brother-in-law and super-successful TV mogul Lester (brilliantly played by Alan Alda) whom Clifford vehemently despises. Clifford, who proudly voices his economically self-sacrificing way of life, is conflicted in his choice to pursue Halley given that he is married.

A short but funny moment between Clifford (Woody Allen) and his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) regarding finance and the integrity of film-making.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is brilliant not only in its execution of such complexity in story-telling but also in the way that it tempers the emotional heaviness of the viewer — deftly balancing the scenes of dark and serious drama with moments of witty and delectable humor. There’s a plethora of rich acting performances and purposefully subdued cinematography (by Sven Nykvist who is famous for his gorgeous work with the legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman). The film may be nihilistic —it pulls no punches with its themes — but it’s also daring and gripping story-telling that’s illuminated with creative discourse and compassion. This is Woody Allen’s boldest film.

Manhattan (1979)

manhattan-film-poster-hd-woody-allen-diane-keaton-michael-murphy

Manhattan is Woody Allens’ most sumptuous film. Shot in glorious black in white by the incomparable Gordan Willis (who also photographed Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather) it’s a film that resonates with anyone who’s ever lived in New York City. A story about unrequited love, social approval and loss, it’s also an essay on maturity, suggesting that it might have little to do with age. This is evidenced by the subtle yet poignant portrayal of the romance between Isaac (Allen) and the teen-aged Tracy (played with beautiful innocence and sincerity by Mariel Hemingway). But convinced by both himself and his friend Yale (Michael Murphy) that a relationship with a girl half his age is not worthy of further development, he focuses his attention on the alluring Marie (Diane Keaton) who shields her own loneliness and insecurity with her high level of intellect and esprit. The problem is that Marie is also Yale’s former mistress and this makes for interesting emotional baggage.

Isaac (Woody Allen) and Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway) bump into Yale (Michale Murphy) and Marie (Diane Keaton) at the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and go on to engage in an academic and comical debate about art.

Manhattan is a film that juggles the delicate moments of human life in the midst of big city aspirations in the world’s most interesting city at the time, New York City in the 1970’s. The look, feel and sound (Gershwin!) of Allen’s Manhattan captures a time and place that is forever unique to America and to American cinema. It’s perhaps the most beautiful film in the Woody Allen library.

In Summary, the films briefed here are the meatiest in terms of originality and theme. But Allen’s made many excellent movies: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Husbands and Wives, Zelig, Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, Bullets over Broadway and, more recently, Before Midnight to name but a few more. They are all worth exploring. In fact, even when he’s not in top form, his films are better than most of his peers. That’s the trademark of greatness.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” — Woody Allen

Paying Attention

the-little-prince

Mark Osborne’s wonderfully directed film The Little Prince, based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, captures the real spirit and beauty of the wonders of childhood and the joys of living 100% in the moment.

“You´re not perceiving what’s out there. You’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you.” ― David Eagleman

Dr. David Eagleman, the notable Neuroscientist and author of the book Incognito: The Secrets Lives of the Brain, showed that time is always relative to our experience. Einstein hinted as much in his own scientific experiments. We also know, at least subconsciously,  that time expands and contracts based on our levels and quality of perception. For instance, whenever we face life threatening situations or novel encounters, time seems to take longer and the memory of it lingers for a more notable overall experience. Car accidents and scary spiders come to mind. So do first dates and big pay raises. More importantly for us artists is that our perception and ability to express our experience of what we see is crucial to our work.

infinity_mcescher

Infinity by M.C. Escher. Escher’s work is both intriguing, creative and mind-boggling. What is real, what is logical and what is not? Perception is relative and thus experience.

Time, and our level of attention in a sense, are intricately related. Things are hardly objective. We’re more often wrong than right in our estimations of the longevity of events or the size and color of things. Contrast is what helps us identify things and helps us make sense of it. Relativity matters. The quality of our interpretation matters. And when it comes to living, we know that time poorly spent is time that’s forgettable. What doesn’t really grab our attention vanishes into the ether.

“When you kill time, remember that it has no resurrection.” ― A.W. Tozer

Paying attention to things changes everything. Our ability to focus and our sincerity of attention to something changes our relationship with it. Look at our efforts long enough and you can either begin to see what’s not working  or we begin to see in it what we want to see. There’s no laws or rules of logic here. It’s up to us how we respond to the things around us and how we make our art.

Yoda gives Luke SkyWalker a lesson in focus and faith in George Lucas’ landmark 1977 film, Star Wars.

Slowing down to see things clearly and really giving something the due time and thought opens up our ability to perceive but also to receive. Perception is heavily dependent on our reception to the data in front of us and vice versa. It’s why a teacher or a master can see things the student or novice can’t — experienced eyes see farther and deeper. Great artists respond to their art as much as they envision or create it.

moodforlove-wp

The longingly romantic film In The Mood For Love, starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, is a beautiful and moving viewing experience. Auteur Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar-Wei is notorious for not following a strict outline when filming his scenes yet his movies seem to glide effortlessly and elegantly all the while delivering powerful statements about the human condition.

That said, really paying attention is tough and it’s why attention is something that needs to be practiced — an ability that needs to be developed. It’s why ancient civilizations, from the Native American Indians to the Taoist Chinese, adapted to ways of living that paid great respect to their surroundings — by listening and abiding by the laws of nature. They developed techniques — like meditation, prayer or spiritual dance — so they could attune to its forces and be aligned with the universe, to gain clairvoyance and live conscientiously. It’s not surprising that even today, those who devote regular episodes to such practices achieve greater levels of happiness and fulfillment at greater rates of frequency.

spring-summer-autumn-winter

A visually memorable and profound scene from Kim Ki-Duk’s serene and critically acclaimed 2003 film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring.

As artists, we need our attention to be razor sharp. The conscious practice of mindful attentiveness helps. In many ways we’re not too different from athletes or musicians or stage actors; we need to perform when it counts and that performance hinges heavily, not only on preparedness and planning, but an acute ability to see and react with clarity and precision. Without such focus, it’s not possible to have any sort of boldness of action in living and being true to ourselves. Too many artists (in both the commercial and fine art camps) scramble mindlessly, hoping only that the mess in front of them becomes something usable. Haphazard approaches often lead to haphazard results.

de-kooning-excavation

Excavation by Willem De Kooning. People get the wrong idea that abstract artists just messed around hoping for something to come to form. There is much deliberation and internalization prior to what seems to look like mere “action” painting. De Kooning, like Franz Kline, Vasily Kandinsky and many others were thinkers who felt very strongly about their ideas and their technique.

Many artists, both young and old, rush through their choices, actions and responses. The young do it out of immaturity, impatience or lack of knowledge, while the old do it out of habit, laziness and loss of inspirational spirit. When this happens, we can’t make the best choices, and hardly ever does it make for something unique or original. Remember that it’s new experiences that jostle our minds and bodies.

In Dr. Eagleman’s discovery of the cognitive phenomenon called repetition suppression, it seems that “once the brain has been exposed repeatedly to the same stimuli, it doesn’t have to expend as much time and energy recognizing it.”  In other words, with new experience the brain makes quite the effort to absorb, interpret and store the information but once it’s recognized, any subsequent repetition of the same stimuli loses its shock power and we begin to formulate shortcuts to save both time and energy. This principle is what makes habits both effective and dangerous. The efficiency created by this biological ingenuity is also what sacrifices the novelty of experience. This is harmful to the artist who is trying to do something new.

guernica

Guernica by Pablo Picasso was his statement about how he felt about the war in his native Spain and is one the most powerful pieces of political art ever created. Much of what makes Picasso so fascinating has a lot to do with his constant reach for new ways of seeing and new ways of interpreting the world around us. Few artists stretched themselves in so many different aspects of visual art.

How do we keep things fresh then? Especially when so much of life seems so regimented and repetitious? How do we fight off our tendencies to just react as usual, short-cutting our experiences?

Dr. Eagleman’s own suggestion to this dilemma is both simple and incredibly profound: engage in life-long learning.  Being a dedicated artist demands everything we’ve got as human beings. You’ve got to engage in it, love it and nurture it. We create our art and it in turn creates us. And this thing —  this way of living, this challenging road towards mastery — will take up an entire lifetime. Learning is hard, but it’s truly the most interesting and fulfilling way to live each and every day. We must allow more moments that force us to think, see and behave differently — and always with a greater mind and more open heart.

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” — Molière

Our biology and our ability to survive owes a lot to habits and building efficiency but it also depends on our ability to innovate and see things anew. We grow by breaking new ground. Creativity is one of the biggest things that separate man from beast. And when the opportunity arises, we must give it our all; we must make it personal. To derive what we can from our direct experience is to accept the challenge that’s directly presented to us.

sunbather

Sunbather. British artist David Hockney’s art is intensely personal. He moved to sunny California and painted his experiences there. His paintings consists of people and places he knew intimately and to this day they remain as fresh and innovative as they did when he made them.

Learning encourages physical and direct interaction, both with nature and our fellow human beings. It’s why feedback is important and how we respond to criticism. We also learn when we alter our schedules or our environments. I personally re-arrange my home and studio set up every six to eight months, and each time I do so, it seems that not only do I feel re-invigorated creatively but I’ve actually gained more physical space and openness! (Another skill developed!)

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus

But as amazing as a change in scenery can do for our minds, the most important thing is how we choose to interpret our circumstances. Learning to live a creative life is in many ways about interpretation — finding ways of seeing it all fresh, with a new mind as much as a new set of eyes. Learning is growth. This is what raises our odds of getting the most out of life. If we do that, anything anywhere at anytime can be exciting and inspiring. Being an artist is both fun and a privilege. So be grateful about choosing a life dedicated to learning, creation and contribution. We just have to remember to pay attention.

kubrick_shining

Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining. Kubrick was always tackling something new. Visually and thematically he dared and devoted himself to explore as many genres of cinema and human history as he could. His films couldn’t be more diverse, ranging from dark comedy (Dr. Strangelove) and drama (Eyes Wide Shut) to ancient history (Spartacus) and far into the future (2001: A Space Odyssey).

If This, Then That

gears

To mankind, gears and machinery represent both progress and automation. Their function is decisively simple — it goes one way or the other.

We all deal with problems, large and small, from time to time. More often than not, there just seems to be too many of them. It’s all very overwhelming and yet we know that it’s all connected — failure in one area of work or life is bound to affect another. We know that multi-tasking doesn’t work. A simpler way to approach this dilemma is to have a bit of a strategy in how to approach all these challenges, especially those that force us to act with immediacy.

“IF THIS, THEN THAT” is a tactic to eliminate the hassle from the entire decision-making process. It helps with both the mundane repetitive chores that hound us and sometimes the tougher, more meaningful challenges as well. It ensures that we get things done and that we keep moving forward.  We don’t want to use up all our time and energy for every single task we face. That’s not a wise usage of those rather limited resources.

There is one profound rule to apply however, and that is, we must stop and look before proceeding. We must always gauge the situation first because gaining perspective is paramount to any kind of progress.

“Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy” ― Isaac Newton

cosmosfox

The 13-part scientific documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s marvelous 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was the milestone documentary that gave us a newfound perspective of our universe and our significance in it.

Here are some basic examples of applying “IF THIS, THEN THAT” to make our lives easier.

ISSUES OF COMPLEXITY

a) IF your work is looking messy, too confusing or hard to read, THEN it’s time to simplify. Take an overall view of the whole shebang. Ask yourself, what it is you’re trying to do? Have you strayed off the main path? If so, what can you remove or reduce to get back to your original vision? How can you simplify your artistic choices so that the essence of it reads while still attaining the levels of depth that you want? Are you listening to the track or the internal direction your body is leaning towards? Did you get external feedback throughout the various phases of work?

This wonderful scene by Supervising Animator Michal Makarewicz disregards complex movement for simplicity. The effort perfectly captures the state of the character’s dilemma. From Pixar’s Inside Out.

b) IF the work is looking bland or flat, THEN perhaps it’s time give it something extra. Here’s an opportunity to step up and do something special and original — the time to dig in for a bit more research and get more feedback. Can a new element be introduced? Or is there a way of adding some texture to your work to make it really sing? How about a change in rhythm or boosting the level of caricature either in shape, timing or attitude? What more can you give of yourself so that you can rest assure knowing that you’ve fulfilled your call of duty? As long as you’re careful not to deviate too much and let the icing ruin the cake so to speak, giving more of yourself is the only way to achieve something spectacular.

Done with careful thought and planning, this Frank Thomas scene is a perfect presentation of contrast, texture and simplicity. From Walt Disney’s Sword In The Stone.

ISSUES OF DIFFICULTY

a) IF the task looks too overwhelming, THEN you must look to reduce either the quantity or quality of what you’re doing. Too many people try to do too much with too little resources. If your deadline is in two weeks, but the work you want to do requires four — and you can’t get that extension — you must redesign you work so that it can be accomplished. Professionals always finish their work. It might be time to take out that extra move or idea you had or reduce the complexity of certain parts that are probably extraneous anyways. Sometimes doing less is more. Doing one thing at a time assures progress. Using the simpler, less original option might actually be the better option. Simplification is a very powerful and underrated concept.

In this marvelous scene by Glen Keane, an incredibly rich and meaningful moment of the story takes place — the deep inner connection of what it means to be human. A lessor animator would’ve tried to do too much. From Walt Disney’s Tarzan, released in 1999.

b) IF the work you’ve done seemed easy or lacking in challenge, THEN you must go back and look for what’s missing. Chances are you saw something you liked and lowered the critical bar in your analysis. You’ve either attained an excessive feeling of accomplishment or you’ve fallen back on you laurels and got formulaic. We’ve all done it from time to time. Rarely is great work accomplished without some sort of serious challenge being met. If you have time and energy here make better use of it otherwise you’ll regret it. If something looks too easy, it’s a glaring sign that you’ve missed something.

“I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

ISSUES OF FOCUS

a) IF you can’t see straight, THEN you must step away. If you’re tired, dazed or confused, you can be assured your work reflects the same. You can’t do serious work without serious focus. Too many of us today are easily distracted. We’ve losing our ability to focus and mindfully attend to the tasks in front of us, and by default, we’ve become more fatigued, lowering both our stamina and potential at the same time. It’s good to take a time out. Taking a break away from work isn’t laziness, it’s wisdom. How often have you put in tons of overtime in the evening only to realize the next morning that you did absolutely nothing of positive consequence in those extra hours? People max out in terms of performance. Sacrificing endless hours to battle your inability to see or act effectively is never the solution regardless if you’re being paid overtime or not. Doing more bad work ensures only a bigger mess to deal with the next day. Only by gaining perspective can you see the sum of all moving parts.

“We have as many planes of speech as does a painting planes of perspective which create perspective in a phrase. The most important word stands out most vividly defined in the very foreground of the sound plane. Less important words create a series of deeper planes.” — Constantin Stanislavski (Author of An Actor Prepares)

b) IF you’re feeling sharp and energetic, THEN your job is to dive right in. Take advantage of that wonderful feeling or deep inspiration and activate yourself! A visit from the creative muses must not be wasted.  It’s time to grab the brush, move the pen or start animating. If you’re in bed, and great ideas pop into your head, write it down somewhere. Be ready to receive, be ready to perform. A failure to act here — usually caused by inertia or even the sudden onslaught of fear (our left brains like to do this) — will result in not only the loss of the idea or inspiration, but will ingrain in you the habit of laziness or worse, paralysis by analysis.

matisse_bedworking

Henri Matisse, in his old age, was very much incapacitated by his physical troubles but that didn’t stop him from creating at any time.

In summary, we can’t and shouldn’t always make our decisions in this sort of automatic or binary way — many things require the dedicated time and contemplation to make the right choices. That said, “IF THIS THEN THAT” is a useful tactic in our arsenal to achieving success and happiness. We’ve all been trained to brush our teeth when we wake up — there’s little debate or thinking about the consequences —  we simply do it because the benefits of doing so far out weigh the costs of not doing so. Automating certain processes saves us the strain on the mental and physical resources that our craft demands. Sometimes, the simplest way is the best way.

“Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury – to me these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best for both the body and the mind.” ― Albert Einstein

Special Guest Interview: Mark Behm

markbehm_theft

“Theft” by Animation/Illustration Artist Mark Behm. Personal work done using himself as reference — a common practice among artists in every era.

Today we are privileged to have the multi-talented Mark Behm join us at the Animated Spirit. I’ve known Mark for over 15 years, and he’s one of the most diverse, talented and humble artists in the industry. He can draw, paint, animate, design, model, rigg and program. Seriously, I don’t know what Mark can’t do. He’s animated at the highest levels for feature films at Blue Sky Studios and Dreamworks Animation, and created gorgeous designs as a visual development artist at Valve and Epic Games (where he now serves as a Senior Concept Artist). His work has been showcased in art galleries, “Art Of” books as well as in highly acclaimed collections like Spectrum, which showcases the absolute best in science-fiction illustration. He’s a prolific artist whose spirit and creativity is highly valued in the art community. You’re in for a visual treat!

Watch Mark demo his work live, on his Twitch Stream!


1. Welcome Mark! Thanks for joining us!

Thanks for the opportunity, James!

steel

“Riddle of Steel.” Personal art by Mark Behm.

2. Can you share a little about yourself, as to where you’re originally from and what your early interests were before becoming an animation artist?

I’m from New Jersey — in the pine barrens east of Philadelphia. My early interests were about the same as what I do during the day.

paizopublishing_pathfinder1

Mark Behm artwork for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Role Playing Game.

3. What inspired you to be part of the animation industry, and what were those first steps like breaking in?

Toy Story! I was working doing multimedia stuff and freelance illustration. A few artists and I went to see it and I was blown away. It set in motion a plan to make a change. I’d spent my childhood around animation art and defaced all the corners of my notebooks and schoolbooks as little flip-books. I got the Illusion of Life for Christmas when I was 9. I wanted to be in special effects when I grew up. I invested a ton of money in an old SGI workstation and a copy of Maya 1.0 and set to making a reel.

paizopublishing_pathfinder2

More Pathfinder Art done for Paizo Publishing by Mark Behm.

Through a friend, I met Chris Gilligan, a stop-motion animator who was starting a NYC animation shop and wanted to mentor some guys in a more traditional way. He asked if I would be interested and I jumped at the chance. I took off work (multimedia artist at the time) twice a week to take a 3 hour bus and subway ride to the studio” to work on mentoring and projects. It didn’t last very long but it solidified my childhood foundation, wet my appetite and focused me on what was important. From there I worked on a series of short physical and dialog clips for my reel. That is what got me working. First in NYC commercial work, then direct-to-video work in Chicago, then my first feature job back in New York at Blue Sky where we met.

dota2_valve_4

Concept Art for Valve’s DOTA 2 by Mark Behm.

4. You’re one of the rare artists that excel in multiple aspects of this art form; character animation, rigging, modeling, and visual development (concept art). How did that happen?

When I started animating, rigging and modeling was a requirement. If you wanted to animate a character there was only one way: go make one. I don’t enjoy rigging or the technical aspects of modeling but I do enjoy modeling and sculpting in 3D. I like to make stuff and that’s just another creative outlet. I use that skill all the time in vis-dev work.

dota2_valve_1

Concept work for Valve’s DOTA 2 by Mark Behm.

5. You primarily do concept work now, what made you ultimately decide on this path? and do you miss the other aspects of animation pipeline?

Like I said, I like to make stuff. I’ve been inventing things and drawing heroes and monsters since I was a kid. I went to school for illustration. The whole time I worked in animation I was doing concept art and illustration in a freelance capacity. It’s more like I detoured to work as an animator. An Intentional detour to be sure, but what I do now is more where I belong. When I was animating full time in features, I spend too much of my free time drawing, painting, designing monsters. It was a sign. When you are painting on your tablet PC as you wait for a playblast… you need to start asking why.

dota2_valve_2

Concept work for Valve’s DOTA 2 by Mark Behm.

I don’t miss animation from a large scale production standpoint. I’d rather reserve it for personal work. I also enjoy the creative and advantageous scheduling aspects of the early part of the pipeline. Everyone is less rushed and stressed. They tend to be more free and creative. A little pressure and touch of fear can be a good motivator but the sharp teeth of a deadline and the ‘suits’ tapping their watches rarely makes for good work.

dota2_valve_3

Concept Art for Valve’s DOTA 2 by Mark Behm.

Someday I’d like to work on an independent short with a friend. We’ve been talking about it for a decade but we both still have bills to pay. He somehow finds time to do his but I’m too ADD to focus on one big project at the moment.

 

epicgames_fortnite_hammershot_

Hammershot Concept Art done for Epic Games’ Fortnite by Mark Behm.

6. Tell us a bit about your work day. How do you get started each day? What’s your routine?

At Epic Games we have Dailies with our art director just like we do in film. I get in early, work on whatever is on my plate and maybe go to Dailies if I have something to show or want to keep up on what’s going on. After that I spend the rest of the day drawing and painting — and sometime modeling if I have some hard-surface thing to work out and 3d might be faster. Go out to lunch w the guys. 2pm is workout time. After that the AD comes around to desks if you have something else to show. Work on changes and new stuff till I go home. I have anywhere from a single task to a half dozen to work on at any given time. It might be a character, creature, costume, environment, or hard-surface design. That kind of variety is something I love about this part of production. I have been lucky enough to work on both Paragon and Fortnite, so I get to play with two stylistically divergent worlds.

epicgames_paragon_khaimera_

Epic Games’ Paragon Khaimera character designed by Mark Behm.

7. You’ve produced a book and continue to creative work outside of production. What inspires you to keep creating?

When I produced the images for the book I was in a particularly un-creative point in my career. At the time I felt my directors were getting more and more conservative in their decision-making processes.The focus seemed to shift from idea and performance to polish and finish. Watching great work from all my peers get neutralized in Dailies was hard. As a creative person — that energy had to go somewhere. So I spent all my down-time on 2D art. I didn’t even realize it was happening for a long time. I noticed this trend in my behavior at some point and have since found it’s been a reliable indicator that something is off with my day job.

markbehm_wotc_cloaker

Concept Art for Wizards of the Coast’s Dundgeons and Dragons by Mark Behm.

wizardsofthecoast_dnd3

Concept Art for Wizards of the Coast’s Dundgeons and Dragons by Mark Behm.

wizardsofthecoast_dnd1_ogre

Concept Art for Wizards of the Coast Dundgeons and Dragons by Mark Behm.

8. Being an artist is challenging. As a family man, how do you balance yourself in the face of all the external, as well as personal demands?

Yes – something has to give! I made sure it wasn’t my family or my relationship with my wife, or my art. So it was sleep. I tend to need less sleep than most people and I often take even less than I need. Even when I’m not working I don’t like to put the day away! It’s not good or healthy, but it’s what I do. I think I inherit it from my uncle. I’d go to bed — him reading in the living room at 2am. I get up at 7 — he’s up reading in the same chair. Wait — did he change clothes? Can’t remember. Does he sleep? I never found out.

personal_maysketchaday

A beautiful environment piece done for “Sketch A Day” by Mark Behm.

9. A hypothetical; if you were to choose anyone in history that you could apprentice under, who would it be?

Oh there’s a new one every couple months and many are still alive and younger than I am! I’m a big fan of the apprentice/mentor relationship model when done right. As it implies the critical element of skill-development rather than just knowledge acquisition and accumulation.

Creature

Creature” by Mark Behm. Another personal piece displaying Mark’s lovely sense of color and light.

Can I have a few?! I’d love to sit in and watch Norman Rockwell’s work in the 30’s. And J.C. Leyendecker. And Mucha. And Sargent. Wait – Frazetta!! How much juice does this time machine have?

Another live video demo of Mark’s marvelous working process. Absolutely amazing!

10. Thank you so much for your time Mark! We look forward to seeing more of your awesome work!

To see more of Mark’s artistry, visit his Website or his various accounts at:

Facebook

Twitter

Twitch