Paying Attention

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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 raise. More importantly for us artists is that our perception and ability to express our experience of what we see is crucial to our work.

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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.

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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, spiritual dances or prayer — so they could be attuned 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.

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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.

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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, its 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.

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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 Mark 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 Milt Kahl 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.

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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

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“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!

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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

One Thing At A Time — The Power of Less

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The danger and complexity of Wile E. Coyote’s plans (and his use of ACME products) were a sure sign of imminent failure. Images courtesy of Warner Bros.

“The more simply you see, the more simply you will render. People see too much, scatteringly.” — Robert Henri

Less isn’t more, but it can be more effective. The modern world may not agree, but our obsession with doing more, acquiring more and being busy all the time hasn’t exactly created more happiness. As artists, constant doing doesn’t necessarily equate to greater success or creativity. We need to be present and focused to be at our best. Our art demands it.

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” — Aristotle

If there’s one word in the 21st century that haunts us it’s multi-tasking. The excuse is that we’ve got so much to do with so little time that we all have to multi-task. We sadly think that by doing it all, and doing it all at once, is balance. We couldn’t be more wrong.

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Cartoon strip from Scott Adam’s comic Dilbert.

Science has shown time and time again, that multi-tasking doesn’t work. Many people claim they can multi-task, but what they’re actually doing is jumping from one task to another while doing none in particular at any level of respectable competence or honest attention. Some individuals can appear to juggle many things at once successfully — switching quickly between activities — but a majority of individuals fail and tend to do so spectacularly. Juggling is a rare skill which can be learned, but regardless of our adeptness, there is always a risk and price associated with it.

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The Letterman Techroom at Lucas Film in San Francisco. Render farms are a huge collection of processors designed to handle all the rendering needs of an animation studio. Photo by Peter Sciretta.

What about computers? Don’t they multi-task? Aren’t we just computers? Well, even computers don’t multi-task — they operate by time splicing which consists of giving a very short period of time (usually milliseconds) to one task, then a few to the next and then to the next and so on. In other words, even the fastest computers in the world only switch from one task to another, only they do so at very high speeds. Now, computer systems with multiple CPU’s connected and working together are able to drive multiple programs or calculations at the same time. In animation studios, we all know the look and size of those render farms (stored in that one big room no one dares to enter except the IT guys). Substantial computing requires substantial power.

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The two halves of the human brain. Each side has its own priorities and responsibilities. Illustration by VaXzine.

As humans, at least for now, we only have one brain (one processor) and even then that one processor is split into two halves — a right hemisphere (for gestalt, social and creative tasks) and a left hemisphere (for logical, analytical and mathematical calculation). Even these two halves of our one brain tend don’t work so well together or even at the same time. One tends to dominate over the other with the balance of power constantly shifting at different rates among different individuals.

“It’s very hard to get your heart and your mind in the same place.” — Woody Allen

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Image from Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. Are you also juggling too many things of different size, weight and complexity in your life?

Multi-tasking is like juggling eggs. With two hands, we can hold on to two eggs quite easily even if we can only feel the weight and texture of one egg at a time. Once we add more eggs, we need to keep our hands moving in order to keep them eggs in mid-air. This can be fun, if not entertaining, at least for a short period of time. The more eggs we add however, the more speed and focus you need to place on the act of juggling while risking dropping any or all of the eggs. The fun stops and the stress rises. Not only does multi-tasking rob us of the entire physical and relational experience we have with the object(s) in our grasp, we also exponentially increase both the size and the odds of failure. We’re talking eggs in this example, but we could easily swap these eggs for more substantial things, such as our job, our health, time with family or our personal happiness. A significant fail in any one of those departments have incalculable effects on the others.

Here then, is a list of some of the benefits of doing less:

1) Increased attention (focus)

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Archery requires the utmost in focus and strength. Here, Errol Flynn stars as the legendary archer-hero, Robin Hood in the 1938 classic film of the same title directed by Michael Curtiz.

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” — Alexander Graham Bell

When we reduce our attention to fewer things, more our of creative and physical energy gets directed to the immediate challenge before us. With decreased distractions, we give our minds and bodies the opportunity to get in sync, coordinate and align together for maximal performance. When the path is clear and empty of distraction, deviation is limited and the job is actually easier.

2) Achieving simplicity

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Picasso’s remarkabe sculpture, Head of a Bull, which is made out of bicycle parts is perfect in its simplicity.

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak” — Hans Hofmann

This is true in art as it is in life. To accomplish the simple things well is often the hardest. It’s why the greatest performers, when they reach their peak, act and express simply. Their work is clear, decisive and remarkably effective. This is true in sports, music, and the arts. The masters always seem to be able to slow time down while expressing themselves with directness and clairvoyance.

3) Seeing the bigger picture

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Artist Franz Kline was a very skilled, traditional easel painter who discovered a new way of painting to address his individual needs and the needs of an emerging America. By venturing into abstract expression, he and his fellow modernists helped define a new era of art, one that was grand in size and remarkably bold, much like its homeland.

“Big thinking precedes great achievement.” — Wilferd Peterson

With less on the table, it’s far easier to see what’s at stake. We can access problems, pitfalls and make better plans. We gain time to question our desires, assess our options and by default decrease the tendency to rush into action, which in turn of course, decreases the odds of failure and having to do it all over again. As artists, we don’t want to repeat the past. Doing something new has always been the aim of artist, both past and present. We are not here to copy or mimic. We want to boldly step forward. To do this, we must step back and look at what’s really here or there.

4) Remaining flexible

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The strength of bamboo is in its flexibility and is both commonly used and revered by Asian societies.

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”  — Albert Einstein

With less obligations, we’re also more flexible to adapt to unexpected challenges that are sure to happen. Taking on less things opens up our reserves for handling adversity. The best people aren’t necessarily the ones that can do more, but those who are most adaptable the forces at hand. In our age of advancing technology and accelerated human and economic activity, flexibility is a powerful asset.

5) Improved learning & performance

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The great Bruce Less practiced a multitude of techniques and trained with all kinds of equipment, but he always worked on one thing at a time, fully committed, fully focused.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” — Bruce Lee

We gain both effectiveness and efficiency when we’re focused.  We learn better when we give things the time that they need. And when we repeat those tasks our skills develop, making us stronger and more adept at handling similar challenges in the future. This is the essence of practice — the ritual of rehearsing our minds and bodies on singular tasks for excellence. It’s the foundation of greatness.

6) Ability to see the details that matter

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The Artist’s Mother by Lucien Freud. Freud’s pain-staking approach to painting revels in the details. They make the picture.

“There’s something in the very small minutia of life that tells us something about the big, big picture that we see every day all over the place, and so I think the more specific and creative and revelatory you are in the micro, the more powerful the macro will be.” — Philip Seymour Hoffman

When we are looking at too much or doing too much, we simply can’t see or feel the details. The mind needs to be clear and calm to do so. If you multi-task, it can be pretty much guaranteed that you’re missing out on the easily overlooked, but important details. Sometimes these seemingly minute concerns, are like that tiny screw that holds the whole thing together. We all know that a slight miscalculation or misstep here or there can be the difference between success or failure in our art. Life is oftentimes very fragile and temperamental. We need to know when things matter, no matter how small they may appear.

7) Higher level of engagement

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Bill Waterson’s funny and often poignant comic book series, Calvin and Hobbes.

“Never mistake activity for achievement.” — John Wooden

Being constantly busy or doing a million things at once robs us of the experience of doing. It’s like cooking ten dishes at once and not getting the chance to taste or eat any of them. All presence is gone when attention is so fleeting, and such is the state we’re in constantly when we attempt to multi-task. To feel presence, we have to be present. One thing at a time assures us living in the now.

8) Greater fulfillment & more memorable experience

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Arnold Schwarzenegger, seen here during a break from his training enroute to his 6th Mr. Olympia title. From the definitive film on bodybuilding, Pumping Iron.

The most powerful thing to emerge from doing one task at a time with complete and utter devotion is that we get more out of it, both immediately and in the long-term. When we’re fully engaged, we’re completely absorbed and sight, sound, touch and feel become ingrained in our minds. How wonderful it is engrave our sweetest experiences into memory! Think back to the many mindless, busy tasks that we’ve all succumbed to in our past, and you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about here.

Many of our actions and feelings are so fleeting when we’re not fully engaged. I don’t remember a single thing from my numerous hours studying organic chemistry or macroeconomic equations in University where I was often going through the motions. They feel blank, like time and energy sucked into a black hole. But I always  remember the time when I was so immersed in my evening figure drawing class that all the existed for me was the model and the drawing. When I “awoke” from my trance, I was alarmed to see that the entire class was standing behind me watching me draw. Singular focus has great power.

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“So much to do and so little time.” Such are the words of the Mad Hatter from Walt Disney’s interpretation of Lewis Carol’s Alice In Wonderland.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with shifting from one task to another — we must all do that once in a while or else we couldn’t function. Staying with any one activity for too long can also be taxing and unsustainable. But our aim most of the time should be to tackle one sustained challenge at a time. Life is complex enough and we’re all riding this wave towards the unknown, hoping to grow, hoping to battle through the tough times and enjoying the ride while it lasts. Why complicate each and every precious moment with ever more stress and responsibility by trying to do too much in too little time?

We mustn’t feel obligated to rush or to multi-task just because everyone else is doing it. We can choose our own way — one of presence and fulfillment — doing one thing, one moment at a time.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Viktor E. Frankl

Acting Analysis: Daniel Day-Lewis

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Daniel Day-Lewis plays the heroic Hawkeye from Michael Mann’s inspiring epic, The Last of the Mohicans, one of many character portrayals in his brilliant on-going career.

“I like things that make you grit your teeth. I like tucking my chin in and sort of leading into the storm. I like that feeling. I like it a lot.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

There are actors and then there are ACTORS. Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson — these artists command the screen and have come to forever define the characters they played. Any thought of an alternative encompassing those roles is unfathomable. Today, we look to the acting talents of Daniel Day-Lewis, an artist some would consider to be the greatest actor of all-time. It’s a proclamation that is difficult to argue with.  A winner of the Academy Award an unprecedented three times, he’s widely known as a devout performer completely immersed in the method form of acting, an actor who becomes the personalities he creates. From moving our hearts with his performance as a man suffering from cerebral palsy to playing one of the most important leaders in American history, there aren’t that many actors that have demonstrated such great range and receive such wide critical acclaim.

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Daniel Day-Lewis and Lina Olen star in Unbearable Lightness of Being, directed by Philip Kaufman, a film about a man who battles with his choice of sexual freedom over matters of the heart.

“I suppose I have a highly developed capacity for self-delusion, so it’s no problem for me to believe that I’m somebody else.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

Today, we’ll take a look at a few scenes of his from a small four-film sample. In each one, we’ll see that not only are Day-Lewis’s creations wholly original but that he utterly encapsulates the full range of human expression — mental,  physical, and emotional. Like the aforementioned legends before him, he has formulated characters that have come to define the very films in which they place.

Gangs Of New York (2002):

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In Martin Scorcese’s colorful, if sometimes cartoony portrayal of turn of the century America, Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the charismatic villain, Bill The Butcher, a principled yet violent man, who leads an array of characters fighting for the rights to the underworld in the Five Points district of New York City in the late 19th century.

In this magnetic scene, Day-Lewis delivers a lesson in presence, rhythm and texture. Moments of stillness contrasts assertive action giving the scene weight and magnifying tension. Watch how he balances the use of body language, hesitations in his voice and cold hard stares, all of which culminates into a character who both interests us yet frightens us at the same time. When he reminisces, he lets us inside, and his Bill The Butcher is charming, human and likeable. Then, in the blink of an eye, the tone changes and the directness in which he dictates the terms pushes both us and his adversary (Amsterdam, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) back, as if he owns us, like we’re only here because he lets us be here. Afterwards, he draws us back in again, forcing us to listen attentively, playing us back and forth like the master puppeteer that both he and his character is. The scene wraps up beautifully with a series of telling physical gestures marking the end of a tale well told.

Gangs of New York may not be one of legendary director Martin Scorcese’s best, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill The Butcher shines, stealing scene after scene with his physicality, vocal delivery and command of any scene he’s in.

My Left Foot (1989):

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In Director Jim Sheridan’s moving biography My Left Foot, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the real life story of Cerebral Palsy victim, Christy Brown — a spastic quadriplegic who later becomes a successful writer, poet and artist using only his left foot. The character is both inspirational yet unsentimental which is an unusual take on disadvantaged film characters who are typically portrayed with excessive melodrama and likeability. Day-Lewis creates a completely convincing character who challenges his environment and our view of someone living under the kind of circumstances which are beyond our comprehension.

In this five minute scene, Day-Lewis transforms his character midway by breaking out into a physical performance that grips the audience, first with stillness and then with action. Here, the physical challenges are magnified by the expression of the character’s deep emotional loneliness, creating both discomfort and empathy. Watch carefully how the tension builds and is ultimately expressed in violence. What results is tremendous sorrow and relatability. Director Jim Sheridan’s nice touch with the camera — panning around to other characters during Christy’s change in state — results in a larger perspective of the darkness and tragedy of human behavior. We feel like them — awkward, frightful and helpless — much like Christy has felt his whole life never knowing what might happen next.

The film is inspirational (and marks the first of Daniel Day-Lewis’ three Oscars). The performance is unforgettable.

There Will Be Blood (2007):

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Day-Lewis plays oil prospector Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, P.T. Anderson’s turn of century film about a man whose family, faith and fortune culminates into madness. A thoroughly enrapturing character study, it’s a film that haunts us long after the film credits roll.

In these two scenes from the film (they need to be seen together to understand them), we have Daniel first having a meeting with some company men who aim to purchase his land. At the end of this clip, Plainview storms after being offended by the man’s remarks. But before doing so, he verbally threatens him as he makes clear his position when he’s pushed by either aggression or patronization. In the second scene, he’s with his young son at a restaurant before being irked by the arrival and presence of those same adversaries. It is in this scene, where the acting really shines, as we begin to witness his pride and view of injustice (according Daniel’s own principles anyway) boil in his eyes. You witness his outlandish mockery with his little playful act with the napkin, and then, when it becomes too unbearable to stay put, he makes his displeasure known directly.  The final act of drinking the other man’s whisky is the perfect exclamation mark of a proud and imposing man, who despite his flaws, earned his keep. (Note: This action affirms his character. There is a brilliant earlier scene in the movie where his character crawls his way back to town after having broken his leg from falling down a mine shaft. It’s a scene that showcases his character’s most admirable trait – his grit and determination – one that allows the audience to respect and follow him even if doesn’t morally justify his more abhorrent actions later on.

Lincoln (2012):

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In this most subdued direction by Steven Spielberg, we get to witness one of Daniel Day-Lewis’ latest and most perhaps most brilliant creation — America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. It’s been rumored that the actor spent eight months in seclusion to develop the character, from his voice all the way down to how the president would walk, sit and gesture. The portrayal is so convincing, that it’s impossible to think Lincoln walked or talked any other way. It reminds me of the story of Gilbert Stuart‘s painting of America’s first president George Washington, known as the Lansdowne Portrait. It conveyed such a regal and dignified portrayal of the president that despite it not being the most accurate likeness of him, it came to define how he would look forever in history. Every minted coin and paper currency uses that particular portrait of Washington.

“A voice is such a deep, personal reflection of character.” – Daniel Day-Lewis

In this crucial moment in the film, Day-Lewis’s character expresses not only his angst but his absolute determination and resolve when it comes to abolishing slavery in America. Here, you witness not only dignified physical expression but absolute control through his voice, which reveals deeply his frustration with the political process and the pain it has caused him. The verbal here leads and implies the physical. And as the scene plays, he becomes more animated and his drive extends more and more into his physical being, his strength building with his anger and resolve. It’s a great escalation of total human expression.

“Leaving a role is a terrible sadness. The last day of the shooting is surreal. Your soul, your body and your mind are not ready at all to see the end of this experience. In the following months after a film shoot, one feels a deep sense of void.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

There has already been so many accolades and so much said about Daniel Day-Lewis that one can easily disregard all this as another glorification of actors and their celebratory status. But if we do that, we forget to actually look at the work and study it.  We must always search for and analyze the technique, form and intent of great artistry to understand it and be touched by it and to come closer to it in our own work. And ultimately, we need to look and listen to it to be inspired because we always need inspiration. Day-Lewis’ devotion as an actor displays such tremendous comprehensiveness — taking in everything and then giving everything and more — that it reminds us that when our craft begins to defines us and us the craft, a great symbiotic relationship has been founded. This is a great personal joy to us as artists.

“At a certain age it just became apparent to me that this was probably the work that I would have to do.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

Time

Time

Time seems so endless and yet ever-diminishing at the same. Never in our brief human history has the concept of time become as dominant as it is now.

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” — Albert Einstein

As an animation artist the issue of time is a serious matter. As a subject it represents both a tool we use to execute our artistry and a constraint in terms of production (i.e. deadlines). But in life, time has come to be viewed as a commodity — something to possess, to get more of and to take advantage of. Speed and efficiency have become the buzz words of the 21st century.

Charlie Chaplin stars in one of his funniest films, Modern Times. Despite being made over 80 years ago, the theme of Chaplin’s film is just as significant today in its profound statement about the progress of technology and its impact on humanity.

For animators, time is represented by frames — units of measure that depict the spatial travel of objects or shapes. In typical film work, animating 24 fps (frames per second) is standard, while in Virtual Reality, the goal now is a mind-whopping 120 fps (to prevent nausea for the gamer). A solid understanding and control of time’s properties can help an animator tell a story by controlling the mood or energy of a shot. And when used in conjunction with sound posing and composition, wonderful patterns emerge forming rhythms not unlike what music creates — moments of action and stillness that trigger sensations that can’t be described verbally. Such is the beauty and power of this craft.

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The suspension of disbelief through the astute usage of “hang time” are what helped make Wile E. Coyote’s foibles ever so interesting. From Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies series directed by Chuck Jones.

But like anything in film or any computer-enhanced imagery, nothing about animated time is actually real. Both the shapes made and the speed at which they travel are illusions. They can’t be physically touched and its information is contained only in an invisible digital format. Much like money and social approval, time is ultimately insubstantial — it has no physical bearing or weight. There’s nothing there. Units of time are just symbols, mere markers for the sake of convenience.

“We mistook the symbol for the real thing.” — Alan Watts

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Chow Yun Fat burns counterfeit currency in his spectacular performance in director John Woo’s 1986 Hong Kong mafia flick, A Better Tomorrow, a film about money, power and brotherhood.

So the irony remains — the animator controls the units of time in his craft but not in his life. Tight external and sometimes unrealistic deadlines and creative demands generate immeasurable pressures on the production artist. We don’t have to be animators to live or understand that. This pressure is now everywhere, in every industry. We work to find time, and use that time to do more work. When do we stop or rest? What has happened to presence and leisure?

“Pruning minutes and seconds and hundredths of seconds become an obsession in all but a few segments of our society.” — James Gleick, from his book, Faster.

Having already mistaken money for wealth and social approval for love, we’ve now confused time  — or its synonymous cousin, speed — for power. The most valued artists, or workers, are not necessarily the most effective ones anymore but those that deliver “acceptable” quality the fastest. The most successful and popular product isn’t the best product but one that reaches the market in the most timely fashion. It’s why release dates, and thus deadlines, have become so important, so pressing. How did this come about? How did we so blindly and voluntarily give in to such madness? Is there truth in that old saying “It’s not a lie, if you believe it”?

Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishbourne star in the Warchowski’s brothers iconic film, The Matrix. Our minds often confuse fantasy with reality.

As a society, we have all bought into the hurry-sickness of our times. It’s hard to break free from this mindset when everyone else is on board the same ship. It’s why crowd behavior is so powerful, and manias and financial asset bubbles form. Trends and formulas get repeated. A wave of belief assures even the most suspicious-minded, luring them also towards conformity. As a modern people, we can’t stand idleness — we’re all Type A personalities now. We’re all rushing to get things done so we can do even more. Wants become needs and time is something everyone wants. Unfortunately, the more time we have, the more we tend to fill it up.

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” — William Penn

Is it no surprise that every CEO, producer, manager and coordinator is trying to cram as much as possible in the schedule? I once knew of a producer who was constantly pressing his programmers to design tools to deliver animations ever faster, to reduce the need for customization and ultimately, to cut down the need for staff while at the same time, demand greater artistry and emotional connection (which of course, requires that same customization and personalization he sought so hard to eliminate). Motion capture tools, auto-animate controls, special dynamics scripts and preset lighting modules are all the rage when it comes to speeding up the animation pipeline. The motivations behind these technologies rarely have to do with advancing the art form or improving quality, but rather reducing costs in order to increase profits, which ironically is diminishing because of the constant out-bidding among studios. It’s truly becoming a fruitless and futile, lose-lose scenario. All we did was get faster.

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Untitled V. The art of Abstract Expressionist Willem De Kooning looks like it’d be easy to duplicate to the untrained eye, but that’s far from the reality. Fantastic personal artistry is impossible to duplicate.

Fortunately, nature has its limits. Creativity, and the emotional impact that responds to the highest quality — which can only come from the personal space that lies within the artist’s mind and soul — can’t be duplicated. Did photography remove the need for drawing or painting? Do realistic animations remove the need for live actors? Will machines or programs replace artists? The answer to all these questions is a resounding NO. We don’t connect to any work that is impersonal.

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If you’re Olympic Champion Usain Bolt, or any professional athlete for that matter, speed is paramount. But we must ask, for most other things in life, such as artistic creativity, why should it?

Time is a tool. As much as it is a tool to help us get things done, it’s a tool to help express our craft. Furthermore, clocks and watches helps us measure things like cooking times and athletic performance, as well as set up conveniences like meetings. But when time is used to measure artistic merit or self-worth, it fails miserably. A musician isn’t judged by how quickly he plays and neither should an artist be judged by his rate of production. No great piece of art in history, whether in the realms of music, film or painting is remembered for how quickly it was done. Yet again and again, we commonly hear how successful a person or company is because of the speed of execution or how quickly a fortune has been amassed. Let’s get over this delusion. Society has yet to realize that when one person or one company has gotten faster, so has everyone else. The end result being no one is further ahead. The goal of art (and life) shouldn’t be to do it faster, but to learn from it, dance with it, and having a bit of fun with it.

South Park Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker lend a little animation to some Alan Watts wisdom.

But what if the world refuses to behave and our deadlines remain just as real and foreboding? Well, then hard difficult decisions have to be made. We must ask, is the work we’re doing worth doing? If not, why should we keep doing it? And if it is, can we find balance somehow?  Is there a way of working within the external constraints? Musical talents like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen found ways to express their poetry in the standard three minute song. Within our everyday performance,there are many ways of working to improve our focus and effectiveness. Improved skill is highly correlated with improved efficiency and execution — it’s part of being a professional to bolster our abilities. Asking the right questions helps us get stronger. At the end of the day, we’re all  judged by the quality of our contributions. Shortcuts don’t work, they never have.

“There are no secrets that time does not reveal.” — Jean Racine

Now, the other concern we may have is whether our work will suffer if we can’t work quickly or be able to endure super long hours. My own experience has shown me that rushing decisions (for example, skipping the planning stage) and working when we’re tired both diminishes performance and results in poor delivery — which ultimately results in having to do things over and taking even longer. Bottom line is, we can only do the best we can in the time allotted — the key word being allotted. Mistakes and failure are bound to happen and we have to learn from them. They are acceptable outcomes of being an artist and being a human being. Wise organizations will make adjustments and set more achievable milestones. The unintelligible ones will remain short-sighted and have short life spans.

Always remember that lack of success doesn’t break us, but rather helps us grow — it’s good and proper feedback. Rushing and pressing for more and more, with less and less time and resources, however, can break you. In fact, it will lead to a mental state that turns us sick in mind, body and spirit. If we let something as abstract as time dominate us, we will have invited impatience, irritation and aggressiveness into our lives and allow these attributes to define us. If we let go of expectation and perpetual haste, the anxieties attached to our creative performance diminishes.

At the end of the day, art requires the time that it needs. Varied pacing and balance are needed for great and interesting art. It’s only logical that the same goes with working and living.

Perhaps this moment from John Lasseter’s marvelous film, Toy Story 2, says it best. Good work requires skill, technique, care, and most of all, time.

“Art tends toward balance, order, judgment of relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living – very good things for anyone to be interested in.” — Robert Henri

Dealing With Criticism

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The always opinionated Statler and Waldorf from Jim Henson’s marvelous creation, The Muppets. This comedy duo lambasts everything and everybody. 

“Nature’s wants are small, while those of opinion are endless.” — Seneca

Everyone’s a critic. Family, friends, peers, the boss, the visiting executive, and your mother-in-law all have signed up as candidates. If your neighbor’s dog could speak, it’d probably have something discouraging to say too. Being an artist means facing an endless barrage of opinion and conjecture. And that’s just from people with neutral to positive opinions of you. Then there are the jerks — those busy-bodies with nothing better to do than put other people down. These small vermin, by the way, should be completely ignored and their comments erased from memory. There is no value in defending against their tired vituberations, especially if they hide under the cloak of anonymity.

ShallowHal

Shallow Hal, starring Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow, is an awkward comic romance that exposes the blindness of the small minded, judgemental critic.

As for those ‘impossible to ignore’ members of your social circle, you can (and must) forgive them. For most of the time, they do not know what they speak. When people don’t get what they expect, they get upset and frustrated, and voicing their displeasure is just a dolorous yet natural consequence.  When they’re the audience, it’s their right to do so. At the same time, however, that doesn’t make their opinions necessarily valid or worth paying attention to either. Unfortunately, whether the points contended are valid or not, and no matter who they are or how strong you are, it always stings at least a bit, and sometimes a lot. No one’s immune to painful criticism or attack. Art is a personal affair exposed to the world and dealing with feedback, mean-spirited or not, is an inevitable part of being a real artist.

“Watch out for the joy-stealers: gossip, criticism, complaining, faultfinding, and a negative, judgmental attitude.” — Joyce Meyer

Film-making is hard. Making ANY art, in fact, is a tremendous struggle. But mockery, that’s easy, and a lot of the time, it’s both weak and sad. The harshest critics are, more often than not, those who have never created anything. They can’t bear to look at themselves or their own work because they haven’t done anything worth analyzing. So why should we give these people any credit or attention?

Jurassic-Park

Director Steve Spielberg and company on the set of the landmark film of CGI technology, Jurassic Park. Despite his numerous accomplishments, he is often derided for both his directing choices and choice of projects. Spielberg has five films in the AFI Top 100 Films of All Time List — Jaws,  E.T. — The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. How many can his critics claim?

“The better a work is, the more it attracts criticism; it is like the fleas who rush to jump on white linens.” — Gustave Flaubert

Making art is an accomplishment. Courage, effort and diligence is to be commended. It’s an eye opener to respect the creator. It’s brave to be willing to see with eyes wide open, to let in what we’re not yet comfortable with. Action speaks much louder than words, and the active use of our imagination is the ultimate action of all actions.

BladeRunner

Image from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was very poorly received when it was released in 1982. It has since proven to be one of the most loved and creatively acclaimed science-fiction films of all time.

What about sought-after or professional criticism? As a teacher, I have one cardinal rule — don’t judge the person when judging the work. We all have a right to an opinion, but we must remember that what connects or disturbs is personal, and quite often illogical. If criticism is expected or required, it’s got to be delivered constructively — it mustn’t be vindictive or political. That said, when worthwhile and constructive opinion is present, it is usually insightful, additive and generous. It takes time and care to do it right and its contribution must be respected and gratefully accepted.

“Art appreciation, like love, cannot be done by proxy.” — Robert Henri

It’s easy to be especially susceptible to external feedback. Given how much of an artist’s success and survival is dependent on factors such as appealing to the mass market or expert opinions from art journals — we shouldn’t be surprised that any lack of appreciation or respect for our efforts digs so deep. A single critical opinion can appear to make or break books, films, and careers.

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Abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock seen here with wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner. Pollocks’ radical painting style and life of strife and alcoholism brought great fame to his work and his persona, but ultimately, it is his art which shines and endures. Photo by Hans Namuth.

That said, formal criticism and the business implications associated with it, is not necessarily a realistic or true assessment of your work or abilities. Neither does positive or negative critical feedback guarantee financial success or predict failure. Therefore, we must take all such news in stride and with a healthy does of perspective. Of course, this is easier said than done. We are human after all, and as artists, we are all sensitive sentient beings whose work necessitates our keen sensory attributes. It is our willingness to expose our dreams and emotions in the most vulnerable fashion that makes us artists. How could it not hurt?

Want to know what it feels like to be a literary genius? Well, here’s a tiny sample of the criticism for Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick:

“I found myself having mini emotional break downs trying to comprehend how anyone could possibly enjoy such a terrible book.”

“Like choking down a week old doughnut.”

“‘Call me Ishmael.’ It’s undoubtedly one of the most widely recognized opening lines of any classical novel. Unfortunately, it’s also the best line in the book.”

“I think Melville was a genius*, yes, but the structure in which he wrote the book did not make sense. Don’t read this book if you don’t have to.”

(*Notice that even when you’re recognized as a genius, your work is still deemed unnecessary!)

A beautiful moment from Pixar’s Ratatouille, directed by Brad Bird. This wonderful gem about rats and cooking, tells a much deeper tale – one of prejudice and judgement.

So remember when things get hard, take solace in the fact that you’re the one doing the work, taking the chance and making it happen. Whether it’s received well or not, is irrelevant. It’s always good to know your work is special because it’s personal. The unknown, which both frightens and excites us, is also what frightens and excites others. It’s what makes this whole journey worthwhile.

“I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettiness.” — Søren Kierkegaard

This disruption to the status quo has always been received with opposition — harsh criticism or disdain by both critics and the masses is likely if not expected. It takes time for the world to catch up to our ideas and our artistry. What’s considered great today, has only become so after the test of time when all the dust settles.

“The big men have been rare because most men heed the dictators. Nobody wanted Walt Whitman, but Walt Whitman wanted himself and now we have Walt Whitman.” — Robert Henri

Still not convinced? Still feeling raw from hurtful feedback? Well, here’s a rule to remember that should soften the blow and that is: critics say much more about themselves, then they do of the work when they criticize. If you bear this in mind, then those rather painful moments of anger or self-doubt that accompany those nasty remarks will lose its power over you.

“Everything external is but a reflection projected by the individual machine.” — Henry Miller

Seinfeld is a great comedy series that exposes the hypocrisy of mankind, and in this case, critics. Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.

Throughout history, the greatest artists have been mistreated, disregarded and misunderstood. The track record of the world’s juries and critics is incredibly poor. So ignore the noise — all the main stream media and social internet chatter — and just make your art. No one EVER remembers a critic. The greatest contributors to humanity became what they became because they took risks and lived with the consequences, both good and bad.

dali-dream-sequence

An image from the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film, Spellbound which received mixed reviews. Hitchcock was never afraid to try new things. Here, he explored the themes of psychoanalysis working with the visually creative mind of Surrealist painter Salvador Dali.

A final point to remember is that we artists are not alone — other artists share our pain. A powerful kinship exists that’s built on our mutual respect for our creative dedication and courage, one that stretches beyond the mere barriers of time and geography. And as a collective, we strive to work within the shackles society might put on us or break free from them altogether. We know that the solutions and hope always lie in our hands.

“Through art, mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men. They are the bonds of a great Brotherhood. Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them.” — Robert Henri

So don’t worry about criticism too much. As professionals, we can only (and must) do our best. If our work is good, it will stand the test of time. Trends, fads, and trivia fade. Pay no heed to such nonsense. Trust in yourself and make your art instead.

The late Robin Williams, shares a little Walt Whitman poetry in Peter Wier’s Dead Poet’s Society, one of the most inspirational films of the 20th century.

“If you shape your life to nature, you’ll never be poor, if according to other people’s opinions, you’ll never be rich.” — Epicurus

In Search of Imperfection

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Al Pacino plays Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece series, The Godfather. The destruction of Michael’s original dreams, honesty and faith, makes him a sympathetic character — one that is flawed and relatable. The dark path he takes creates tremendous interest in its tale of lies, circumstance and inevitability. To see a dissection of a moiety of The Godfather, go here.

“The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.” — Ben Okri, Poet

We strive so hard as humans to be perfect, and by default we set ourselves up for failure. Now, failure itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, failure is required for growth and happens every time we do something new. But if we become dominated by failure by being obsessed with perfection, we kill the very thing that makes our art worth doing. Nature is perfect in its imperfection, as is humankind. Each journey is a deeply personal challenge to ourselves, and thru that journey we learn about our world and discover what makes each of us and our creations unique. It’s the imperfection in things that make everything interesting.

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Modigliani’s off-kilter portraits of his most common subject, Jeanne Hebuterne, remain continuously interesting because of its strange and beautiful perspective of the human form. He took the simple, common-place portrait and gave it strangeness and uniqueness, influencing numerous artists and illustrators ever since.

In art, we don’t want just balance, but ‘imperfect’ balance. In film and animation, this applies not only to character development, but design, composition, color, timing and mood. Each is impacted by this principle that’s most difficult to master, not only in concept, but in practice. In our industry, thoughtless symmetry, tired visual gags, mindless action, cliche dialogue, and formulaic characters and stories have become an accepted norm. As artists we must fight this trend that could ultimately kill our craft.

“As a real person, he wouldn’t last a minute, would he? But drama is about imperfection. And we’ve moved away from the aspirational hero. We got tired of it, it was dull. If I was House’s friend, I would hate it. How he so resolutely refuses to be happy or take the kind-hearted road. But we don’t always like morally good people, do we?” — Hugh Laurie, on his character House

For education and inspiration, let’s look at some definitive examples where gorgeous imperfection does reign, where contrast, texture and appeal is maximized for the greatest possible enrichment of the cinematic experience:

Story: 

(From left to right) Anthony Quinn, Peter O’Toole and Omar Shariff star in Lawrence of Arabia, originally released in 1962.

David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is a sprawling tale of desert warfare that apprises themes of tremendous aspiration, loss, tragedy and triumph. It’s a bold classic that explores every aspect of the human spirit through the life story of T.E. Lawrence who goes from being naive and likeable, to violent and vengeful in a marvelously soulful performance by Peter O’Toole. Along with stunning, unforgettable cinematography and a sweeping score, it’s compelling film-making that contrasts greatly from what’s being screened today.

A similar but more controversial example is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, from Martin Scorcese’s brilliantly directed Wolf of Wall Street. Lead characters don’t have to be likeable, they just have to be interesting. Check out this marvelous video by Film/Screenplay Instructor, Jennine Lanouette, for more on this subject.

Characters: 

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The Toy Story Series from Pixar Animation Studio is arguably the best trilogy of all time.

John Lasseter’s Toy Story is a magical and landmark creation for many reasons. One of the keys to its success however, is its characters — each one unique, each one taking turns serving as either contrasting or complementary elements to each other, all the while ramping up the stakes for the audiences that feel so attached to them. The imperfection, both in the physical make up and personalities of the characters, make them fun and worth following through all their adventures. The entire series is a wonderful collated gem that will forever define Pixar.

For another great example of multi-dimensional casting, check out the wonderful ensemble of memorable characters in Akira Kurasawa’s 1956 classic, Seven Samurai. It may be the film that set the standard in multi-character development and thematic arrangement for modern films.

Composition:

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A powerful climatic image from the third sequence of Stanley Kubricks’ 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Stanley Kubrick’s immeasurable science fiction epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey (released in 1968) couldn’t be more relevant at this time in human history. Ahead of his time in dealing with themes about space travel, robotics and artificial intelligence, Kubrick laid out the atmosphere of his films using grandly open space. This space, often aligned with single point perspective, may give the illusion of simple symmetry and layout, but in fact allows for the contrast of mood and movement, which was often centrally located. The backgrounds serve as an encasement, as voids and tunnels that focus our attention to action where it matters most — in our hearts and minds.

Another film-maker who bucks the trend with standard composition rules is Wes Anderson, whose films’ stylistic choices (like in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic) play a huge role in both the atmosphere of the story and its impact on its characters.

Design: 

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The three good fairies from Walt Disney’s 1951 classic, Sleeping Beauty.

In Sleeping Beauty, the three little old fairies are the stars of the show. The leads, Prince Philip and Princess Aurora, are mere place holders that represent the standard heroes and damsels in distress from a bygone era of storytelling. All the color (both literally and thematically) lies with the fairies — Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather —  who feature the most important ideals, emotional interest and conflict. Their physical design reflects all their different strengths, personalities and flaws. They make for beautifully perfect ‘imperfections’ that drive the humor and heart of the story.

Mood/Energy: 

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Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman star in The Shawshank Redemption, a film about injustice, self-evaluation and absolution.

Frank Dabaront’s 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, is the kinda of drama that seems to flow so beautifully due to its largely unseen yet carefully constructed action. In this film, two clearly but subtly flawed individuals, Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) and Ellis Redding (played Morgan Freeman) take turns finding humor, sadness, victory and defeat. Nothing looks or feels perfect here, not the characters, nor the surroundings which make up their environment and their predicament. Excellent writing, direction and editing move this film along in a way that results in a experience that moves swiftly and surprisingly, rewarding us each step of the way.

Color:

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The Incredibles color script by Pixar Art Director Lou Romano.

These beautiful color keys by Lou Romano show the carefully assembled alignment of chromatic magnitude and arrangement. Color is often the biggest factor in relaying mood, tension and atmosphere, and in feature films, art directors like Lou carefully assess the storyboards and script to formulate the most appropriate designs for each individual sequence. Changes in color intensity, hue and value can alter the energy of a scene or sequence dramatically. These changes can be monumental, miniscule or unexpected. They are never perfectly the same.

Check out the color scripts of other films and artists that inspire you for it’s important to be periodically touched by outside inspiration. There are many, seemingly ‘unsung’ talents, that help make these films so effective.

Timing:

A scene during Woody’s escape from SunnySide from Pixar’s Toy Story 3, animated by Doug Sweetland.

This marvelous Toy Story 3 shot by then Supervising Animator, Doug Sweetland, showcases brilliant contrast in design and timing. The poses, movements and phrases of action are dispersed in a framework that is rhythmically colorful and textured. The irregular and unexpected actions displayed offers a great variety of patterns of movements from the beautifully awkward jump to the frantic circular actions that suddenly follow Woody’s brief moment of accomplishment. Furthermore, the purposely ‘unrefined’ designs of Woody’s postures fit his character and toy design to a ‘T’ — making for a wonderful display of character and action formulation by the artist.

In Summary, it’s good to remember that our obsession for perfection can cloud us and deliver us away from our ultimate goals. For maximum results or more importantly, maximal experience, we must seek change, contrast, balanced asymmetry and imperfection in our artistry. If we must step back or away in order to do so, then that is what we must do.

“The detail adds an element of unexpected something. All fiction is false; what makes it convincing is that it runs alongside the truth. The real world has lots of incidental details, so a painting also has to have that element of imperfection and irregularity, those incidental details.” — Shaun Tan, author/artist of The Arrival

Process over Product

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The art world suffered a great loss recently. Argentine painter/illustrator/writer/sculptor/cartoonist Carlos Nine (1944 – 2016) left behind a legacy of creativity and immeasurable beauty. He lived completely devoted to art and his creations are evidence of a life fully expressed. To see more of the artist’s work, go here.

“What do I mean to infer? Just this – that the art, the art of living, involves the act of creation. The working art is nothing. It’s only the tangible, visible evidence of a life. ” — Henri Miller

As artists, we’re always fighting that battle to create. Whether it’s getting ourselves off our butts to make something that matters, or finding the spirit to give that little bit extra for paid work that has lost its luster.

There’s dignity to doing the work, and doing it the best we can. We can call it professionalism or we can simply call it living fully, each and every moment. We have to keep feeding the mind and express what’s inside.

“The unfed mind devours itself.” — Gore Vidal

Duet. The great Glen Keane could easily just ‘hang up the skates’ so to speak – he’s achieved everything imaginable as an animator – having created numerous memorable characters, achieving all kinds of awards and accolades that will assure his legacy. But instead, he continues to explore, and continues to create, testing new mediums, sharing what he wants to say and expressing his craft, the way only he can.

It’s not always so easy to do — keeping in mind “process over product.” External pressures such as deadlines and quotas put intense strain on the faculties. Sometimes what weighs more heavily is our own internal pressures — our desires to improve and our wish to excel, our wish to not disappoint. We all suffer these challenges as creatives.

What helps is getting lost in the work. But that can’t happen without first getting started.

Here are some simple tips that can be helpful:

1. Have a regular ‘start-up’ routine. Top athletes and musicians all have that little “thing” that they do that gets them going before the performance. Visual artists should do the same. You may construct your art, but the doing of it, is still very much a performance. You need to enter a state of mind, body and spirit to create at the highest level. The famous psychologist William James noted that only by rendering daily life as “automatic and habitual,” are we able to “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.”

Shamus-Culhane-Animation-From-Script-To-Screen

Former Disney animator, Shamus Culhane wrote one of the very first books on how to become an animator. Animation From Script to Screen was first published in 1990. It stressed the importance of quick sketching as a warm up before animating, and thus helped numerous artists (the author included) to become better draftsman and more prepared for the rigors of classical animation. He was also one of the first classical artists to insist that new animators at the time learn computer animation which “would be” the future.

2. Have a well-prepared work station, or open space. Nothing is worse that having to clean and prep everything in order to work. Any inertia or laziness you have at the time will soon overwhelm you. This is part of being a professional. Inspirational urges don’t wait – you‘ve got to be ready for action.

“Once it starts to go, it requires no effort.” — David Foster Wallace

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World renown architect Le Corbusier, seen here in his studio in 1961. An artist’s work space needs to be a place of comfort, inspiration and be conducive to creative activity . It should trigger the mind.

3. Focus on the work. Close the doors if you can, turn off distractions, and set aside a time slot free from appointments or meetings. (This is especially important for those who both create and lead teams.) Social media and checking your neighbors new addition to his figurine collection might be fun, but when you work, keep it a working atmosphere, one that remains conducive to creative production. It’s hard enough getting into the groove of things at the best of times, so don’t let others take you out of it once you’re there.

“There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” — Ernest Hemmingway

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The great Ernest Hemmingway wrote early in the mornings to avoid distractions. He was a soldier, and carried the discipline of a soldier to this artistry.

4. Look at the big picture of what’s working and what’s not, but break things up and start with a manageable section or piece. Top professionals all work on one section/phase at a time. This is especially important on large or complex pieces. Do not feel small or overwhelmed. Every little accomplishment builds confidence, results and fortitude.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu

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Studies of Four Jockeys. Impressionist master Edgar Degas did numerous studies before proceeding with any final painting. Creation is a journey, not a race. One thing at a time, is best.

5. Proceed regardless. Once you’ve decided to work, WORK. Trick yourself if you have to. Whether I was designing, animating or directing, I was never ever 100% sure of anything — I took action in spite of strain or fear. I made choices. Your art is defined by your choices. Know that you’ll be challenged as you go through the various of phases of work from preparation to finish. As they say, just do it.

“Painting completed my life.” — Frida Kahlo

FridaKahloWorkstation

The details of Frida Kahlo’s work station reveal her preparedness and dedication. Despite being crippled with pain and incapacitated from her over thirty-five operations, she was always ready to create. Art’s a lot of work. You’ve got to fight through resistance and overcome the unexpected. Creation and excellence is not for the weak-minded.

6. Practice and develop your skills. That’s all part of the process of being an artist. Again we come back to how performers in other competitive fields do it. It’s common knowledge that professional athletes should train like they compete. So whether you’re doing a life class, sketching or acting out a shot, don’t do it sloppily. Do it with focus. This doesn’t mean not having fun, but just know that our monkey minds are easily weakened by the sloppy repetition of bad habits. And if you get used to only giving 60%,  that’s likely what you’ll get when the stakes are higher and the pressures mount. Our attitude matters.

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American artist and social activist Keith Haring (1958-1990) seen here in one of his many famous exhibits. Prolific, daring, and personal, Haring’s remarkably simple yet beautiful work both profoundly altered the art scene and emotionally moving millions around the world. He produced as much art as he could before he succumbed to HIV-related illness.

“What is an artist? He’s a man who has antennae, who knows how to hook up to the currents which are in atmosphere, in the cosmos.” — Henry Miller

It’s a huge privilege to be a working artist. Yes, it’s not easy. Failure is a necessity and we often have to make compromises. In commercial fields such as illustration or animation — where deadlines, quota, and the need to appease our superiors or clients is paramount – it’s all part and parcel of working in a craft that requires the talents and efforts of many. That is more the reason to enjoy every bit of the action. It’s what fills the day. And so we shall embrace it all the best we can and not get too insanely focused on the end results. The outcomes are inevitably a natural by-product of our efforts. Being an artist is all about the process of being alive and expressing ourselves as fully as we can.

Icon and martial artist Bruce Lee was all about the process — using each and every creative moment as an opportunity for full-out, honest personal expression.

Here’s the great teacher-painter, Robert Henri, to remind us of the value of our efforts:

These results, however crude, become dear to the artist who made them because they are records of states of being that he has enjoyed and which he would regain. They are likewise interesting to others because they are to some extent readable and reveal the possibilities of greater existence… The object therefore is the state. We may be even be negligible of the byproduct, for it will be, inevitably, the likeness of its origin, however crude.”

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Another insatiable piece from the collection of Carlos Nine’s many creations. There aren’t too many better than Carlos, a master who lived a life of constant creation. Rest in Peace.

Shot Analysis: Horton Hears A Who

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Vlad Vladikoff is one of the funnest characters from Blue Sky’s Horton Hears A Who.

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” — Dr. Seuss

Blue Sky Studio’s 2008 film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who is a visually underrated, animated treat. Loaded with beautiful color, sets, characters and delightfully inventive animation, it’s a film that showcases loads of creative fun while remaining faithful to the essence of Dr. Seuss, both thematically and graphically.

Today, we’ll dissect a sequence of shots from Horton Hears A Who performed by then Supervisor Animator, Aaron Hartline (who currently resides at Pixar Animation Studios). Aaron is a tremendously talented and devoted animator whom I had the privilege to sit next to during my time at Blue Sky Studios many years ago. It was one of the most enjoyable working arrangements I’ve ever experienced.

Now, let’s breakdown this beautiful shot and decipher the amount thought, deliberation and creativity that flows from one set of actions to another:

The shot sequence in its entirety. Aaron Hartline’s shot is a marvelous demonstration of careful planning, dynamic staging and sharp timing applied to character animation.

(Note: The following divisions made here are arbitrary and don’t necessarily represent how the artist constructed or executed his shot)

Section 1:

Here you can see how the character sharply pops into position (perfectly staged on thirds) right in front of Sour Kangaroo’s moving position, ending with his swooping wings and cowered vampire-like position before slowly revealing the prop in his hand. The snappy entrance, held pose, and slow reveal give the entrance punch, clarity and texture.

Section 2:

This second section is both more elegant in movement and sophisticated in execution. Here, the artist chooses to showcase some playful action with a prop (a bone). He does so first, with an assertive grip which is confirmed by the attitude of the body language and stern facial expression. Then secondly, he tosses the prop up and catches it before lowering the overall body position in a lovely display of weight transfer. This sets up the big dramatic duo-wing pose and forward head motion as he delivers the words “DEVOUR IT,” which is followed by the final flourish of some chomping jaw action. The balanced yet textured rhythm closes out the sentence that precedes the wild events that are to follow.

Section 3:

This is where the big change of mood and energy occurs in the sequence. The visual comedy begins with a sudden unexpected cackle, which Vlad first contains. He subsequently loses control/comfort — which is depicted by the awful face in the second choking — before a third, monstrous cough forces him to completely abandon his wide-winged stance to one of a more humble position. A series of head/neck gestures and a quick glance of embarrassment then forces him to retreat to far screen left, where he hides behind his cloaked wing. The final choke and smile he delivers as he looks back to Kangaroo re-affirms his embarrassment before we cut to her tepid response.

Section 4:

I love how this new cut starts with him central in the composition, with his back facing the camera. The head peaking out to screen left directs your attention of where to expect subsequent action. The dialogue “HOLY MOLY” reads beautifully in profile after the wonderful shrug of the shoulders. Then comes another cough which is more severe, built up nicely with the exaggerated action of the body first, then anticipating the next major action with the claws flexing in open isolation before a ‘grab the chest’ move leads us to a discharging action reminiscent of a horrible sneeze. The final extra ‘flop’ of the head/jaw gives the scene a wonderful flair before showcasing the stuck bone in his throat which he pulls out in a textured sequence of pause, snap and crackle.

Section 5:

In the concluding action, Vlad regains his composure and gets back into his fiendish pose. He thrusts forward with speed and confidence but then hesitates — his eyes and head shift in search for answers before the light bulbs flash inside and he thrusts upwards in sudden discovery saying proudly “I WILL DEVOUR IT.” The following move forward is another nice touch by the artist. As he says “SECOND TIME” he does so in an expression of self-assertion and persuasion — like when one tries so desperately to convince someone of something that’s in doubt. The final expression — which is preceded by a stupid yet genuine face that all dumb henchmen do when they suddenly figure out the math — is triply stated with a goofy face, forward nodding head and fork-like display of his two claws. It’s a great finish.

The Reference:

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Character sketches of Vlad by Sang Jun Lee. Property of Blue Sky Studios.

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Photo reference of the iconic Bela Lugosi in his 1930’s role as the immortal Count Dracula. Property of MGM.

Video reference performed by Supervising Animator Aaron Hartline. Notice that his video serves primarily as a base for the acting, as his timing, graphic choices and details all surface later in the process. Creation is often a multi-tiered process. (Thank you Aaron for kindly providing the extra references to this shot. What a most welcome update!)

In conclusion, it’s good to note that complicated shots and sequences like this require a serious knowledge and search for what ‘makes’ the character. Only a detailed exploration via video reference and intensive visual foraging for the best possible layout of the various phrases of action on paper can yield shots like this.  Aaron Hartline’s animation, like those of other top flight animators out there, are well worth the time studying in detail. You learn both craft and appreciation. It’s also a reminder of the kind of fun we can have with the job that we do.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” — Dr. Seuss