Smaller, Simpler, Slower

Al Pacino stars in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II. Coppola is one of the few directors in the history of film that has been able to successfully create projects both large in scale and scope. But even for such a great artist such success has been rare. (See my analysis of a shot from the first Godfather movie here.)

“What we need is more a sense of the wonder of life and less of this business of making a picture.” — Robert Henri

As working artists, we are constantly confronted, both externally and internally, with the demand to do things on a grand scale, with  great complexity and accomplish it as quickly as possible. We’re endlessly torn between results and process.

Having been a director, teacher and consultant to many students and professionals in the field of animation over the years, the most common failure I noticed among artists has almost everything to do with the obsession with quick and grand results, rather than say, a lack of natural talent, good fortune or the right environment. With such lofty expectations, it’s nearly impossible to develop the right kind of skills and attitude to properly grow as an artist.

“Reverse” by Jenny Saville. Large scale work (the above piece measures 7 ft x 8 ft) requires the kind of vision and skill few acquire. It’s an ability that’s built upon years of study, contemplation and hard work.

This blog was created in hopes of helping people break free from the mindset of expectations, a thought process driven typically by greed or fear and is often tied to the need for security and social approval. Unfortunately, the mind is a very powerful thing and once habituated to think in such a manner, it is very hard to break free of this sort of self-torture.

“The brain is clever enough to see the vicious circle which it has made for itself. But it seeing that is is unreasonable to worry does not stop worry; rather, you worry the more at being unreasonable.” — Alan Watts

So what is the solution to this daunting dichotomy?

One approach that I’ve been preaching for years is to do things smaller, simpler and slower. If we remember that a work of creation, especially in the field of animation, is much akin to building a skyscraper, we’ll be reminded that there must be at first an idea — a decisive vision — that is then supported by a succession of secondary decisions, both artistic and technical, that ultimately form the entire structure.

My Pyramid of Priorities. The most stable structure, the hierarchy of the pyramid, is an apt reminder of the approach and mindset when creating a significant piece of art. The idea drives the whole project, but it’s built upon the design and stability that lies beneath it. Most of the volume of the pyramid is in the lower two-thirds — where all the planning, skill and hard work lie.

But imagine the shape of our pyramid of priorities flipped upside down, with all the time and energy placed at the very top with the base, the art and mechanics, becoming mere stilts holding up a world of ideas. Then those grand plans and visions in all its complexity and grandeur become too much to handle and, without a sufficient base of skill and preparation to support such goals, we fall and fall hard. Sometimes such grand failure can further inspire us — testing our persistence and passion— but often times it can hinder or even deter us completely from ever trying anything ever again. If we’re a juggler who is barely capable of juggling three balls standing still then adding more balls while balancing ourselves on a tricycle might not be such a wise idea. We must always be careful of biting off more than we can chew, especially at the beginning. We mustn’t let this self-absorbed pattern of thinking be our undoing with goals becoming measuring sticks rather than targets, and actions becoming duties rather than experiences. There’s a reason why the Goldilocks Principle is such a good one to follow most of the time.

“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” — Mother Teresa

Smaller:

We love big things don’t we? We’re all easily impressed by the guy with the biggest muscles, the large mansion or the epic film production. Unfortunately, it’s the absolute worse mindset to have when starting out. My worst and most painful ventures have all been tied to doing something that was far too large for my abilities and experience. Regardless of skill, talent or effort, doing something ridiculously large is a recipe for disaster. In animation this means doing projects or shots that are far too long (for the size of a scene is determined by its length of time). Animators seem to be obsessed with shot length. But I say, quality trumps quantity every time. If we want to do it better, we must do it smaller (at least until we’re ready to go bigger).

Roger and Pongo by Milt Kahl from Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmations. Would you dare to judge this animation by its shot length? People forget this, but the creativity, passion and abilities of an animator can be easily spotted in just a single shot. (See my full, detailed analysis of this shot here.)

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci

Simpler:

The other disastrous mistake beginning animators make is in the area of complexity. Not only are they juggling too many balls in the air, they want to juggle knives and chainsaws too. This art form, or any art for that matter, is hard, terribly hard. Why make things so difficult and messy? The odds of success drop dramatically when the complexity is raised. If, in our work, we’ve added complex themes, multiple characters or fancy camera moves, we better watch ourselves. When possible, always trim down the number elements involved or simplify them, so that there’s only one area that’s more challenging. Besides, great artwork directs the eye and focuses the attention of its audience towards one dominate theme or area. Just because there’s a lot going on doesn’t mean it’s gonna be good. In fact, the contrary holds true; complicated work is often difficult to watch, confusing and often filled with distraction and error.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Watterson’s brilliant strip captures the attitude of many young artists when they begin their first creations.

“The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.” — Moliere

Slower:

The final suggestion is to slow things down. Tame those desires for immediate success. What’s the hurry? We can’t rush our improvements or skill development anyway. Nature takes its time, and straining our brains won’t make any difference. The brain is not a muscle. It works better when relaxed and clairvoyant. Doing art requires preparation, skill and focus and a rushed mindset prevents all of that which is needed for success. Doing things slowly but attentively builds real ability and strength. Patience is a powerful tool. Allow time to help. But what about deadlines? I’m not talking about being unprofessional, but merely suggesting that spending our time focused and undistracted is the fastest route to success. Speed is a mindset and shortcuts are NOT the answer. The fastest people do things slowly (i.e. the long way) because they do it creatively, assuredly and effectively. Doing the right thing is always more important than doing things quickly.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” — Peter F. Drucker

Is this contrary to the sign of our times? Of course it is! But we don’t stand out because of our speed. We make a difference because of who we are and how we do things. We all know that we’re living in THE century where machines will soon replace most of the things that we do, including most manual labor and calculation, blue collar or white collar it won’t matter. The advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence is sure to change the entire socioeconomic make up of our world. This much is certain and inevitable.

As artists, our value is in our ability to bring to light that which has never existed and our individuality will become more and more important. It is our knowledge plus our creative and discerning abilities that will separate us from the merely mechanical. If all we do is do things faster, we’re already obsolete. If we play that game, then our greatest competitor is not our fellow humans but technology. It’s a game we’re sure to lose.

This now famous clip of legendary animator Hiyao Miyazaki attending an Artificial Intelligence video game demonstration shows only the beginning of AI in its application to animation. Although it might be comical (or tragic) to witness Miyazaki berating the creators of this technology, it nonetheless shows that AI is not far from being used to take over much of the less performance-based animation in the near future. The issues of achieving greater weight, appeal and believability isn’t far behind. In fact, the criticisms of it being “not very good” or “not ready” remind me of the scornful echos of classically-trained 2D animators during the advent of 3D technology.

Of course, we might argue that all this may be true but we can’t think that far ahead (although the future is already here) and that our minds just can’t let go of the incessant demand for security and the rules and habits that’s been our indoctrination. There’s no denying that this journey is anything but difficult. But in the end, we can only focus on the moment, tackling one thing at a time with integrity, attention and diligence. Only then do we stand a chance against a rational mind that has become irrational in its self-obsession. We must look at all that’s in front us and decisively take creative action — action that’s smaller and simpler — and to take our time doing it. The only security is knowing that this is the only way of building long-lasting strength in anything.

“It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.” — Alan Watts

Chart & Track

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” — Buckminster Fuller

Much has been said about setting goals if we are to get anywhere in life. But artists in general are not known to be good at setting goals. It’s supposed to be against our nature for the liberal stigma attached us — a persona that implies that our lives be selfishly carefree and aloof — says that our work (when we actually do work) is totally dependent on our gifted talent and spur of the moment inspiration. How else could we be so both lovingly revered and widely shunned by society at the same time?

But we know better. We know that without discipline our wants and visions become nothing but mere hope and memory. Because without a carefully constructed vision and game plan to build ourselves into productive and happy artists, we’ll never develop either the skills or strength necessary to accomplish anything, let alone our dreams.

“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger

There are many rules to success. They include faith in ourselves, hard work, discipline, the ability to ignore naysayers as well as the strength to endure failure. We also need good habits and rituals, so that we do the right things regularly and automatically. But all that is for naught, if we do not chart and track our progress.

Remember these? I wasn’t always goal oriented. I still remember my best friend and I had, by far, like the least gold stars of anyone in my grade 2 class.

Charting and tracking our goals forces us to acknowledge them every single day. So, not only do we have to spend the time thinking about and writing down our goals, we must place them visually in front of us where we can see them regularly. This idea goes beyond just being inspired. It’s about keeping focused and staying on track. We all know how easy it is to fall off the wagon so to speak. Dreams and goals always feel distant — all finish lines do — and as terrible it is to say this, the odds are we will fail.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion of him, Arnold Schwarzeneggar is the definitive example of someone who set his goals high and created an effective game plan to accomplish them. Coming from a small Austrian town with limited access to both opportunity and education, the odds were all stacked against him. From becoming a five-time Mr. Olympia bodybuilder and iconic movie star to sitting on the throne as Governor of California, few people have accomplished as many grand and diverse dreams in a single life time.

But odds are irrelevant when it comes to actual living. We all know that anything can happen. Yes, we can win OR lose aiming for our goals, but by not setting any goals, failure is all but GUARANTEED. Dreams are achieved by first envisioning them, then by inching closer to them day by day. In charting our progress, we are forced to acknowledge whether we are actively doing anything to make them come true.

Personally, I set two types of goals that are charted and tracked: outcome goals and action goals.

Outcome Goals:

Outcome goals are what most people think of when they think of goals. Examples include winning a marathon, becoming a great animator or become as big as Arnold Schwarzeneggar. These types of goals are easy to identify and may be inspiring, but their success is dependent on many factors, some of which are completely outside of our control. Sometimes these goals are vague and even hard to measure — what does becoming a great animator really mean anyway? or happiness for that matter? Outcome goals are also large and distant, in that they can rarely be achieved quickly (if at all). Their grandiosity and the difficulty involved make them very hard to hold onto consistently in your heart and mind. Life gets busy and soon, we forget or give up on them. For far too many people, such goals, no matter how achievable, become like those bygone childhood dreams and the very language that they use — words like “wish” and “hope” — give these people away.

“Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives.” – Viktor E. Frankl

Therefore, when making our outcome goals, we must make them as specific and inspiring as possible. Something that is worthy of our efforts and drive but can also be visualized. If, for example, we want to become a great painter, we can aim to be selected for a solo show at a famous museum. Or if we need to get back into shape, we can say we’d like to be able finish a 20 km marathon by the end of the year. The best goals are not only inspiring and grand, they are completely measurable.

This SMART goal chart should be familiar to all, but again, common sense is not common practice. In fact, most people don’t set any goals at all.

Action Goals:

These are the types of goals that we can quickly and easily see whether we’re accomplishing or not. They are small, immediate and can be easily scheduled. They have fast approaching deadlines and can be checked off on any “to do” list or calendar. The beauty of action goals is that the outcome of whether they are achieved or not have nothing to do with our environment or circumstances — they depend only on our will do them. And when they need fine-tuning, we can adjust them accordingly but only to get us closer to our vision rather than to take a step back or worse, flake out on our promise to ourselves. If our work day has run long, and we can’t do our usual 30 minute workout, then we do 15 minutes instead. (Anyone who says they can’t spare 15 minutes is lying.)

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” — Confucius

I love action goals. The reason is because they are not only simple and direct, they give an immediate sense of accomplishment. There aren’t too many things in our lives that give us that, not following orders, not doing our errands and certainly not watching TV or playing games all day. We’re talking about actionable activities we designed to better our own lives. Each time we do an action goal, we are one step closer to reaching our outcome goal. That feeling of accomplishment is almost indescribable — a sense of fulfillment that boosts the soul, confirms our intelligence and strengthens our character.

The Gossips by Norman Rockwell. Regarded primarily as “only” an illustrator during his lifetime, Rockwell was generally rejected by the fine art community. But despite this, and the strain of having to constantly produce and work with tough deadlines, it never stopped him from creating formidable art — art which was often loaded with wit, character and beauty.

So what does all this look like, working with a tandem of outcome and action goals? Well, as a personal example, I was recently diagnosed with Type II diabetes.* After going thru a few hours of justifiable despair I decided to take action; I didn’t waste one further minute and immediately set three outcome goals that were to be accomplished within six months:

(1) Drop 20 lbs

(2) Lose 5% body fat

(3) Become 90% vegan.

All three of the  goals were specific, serious and ambitious and the impact and change required in my lifestyle would be huge. Next, I set aside actionable goals, each one with its own chart that I’d place on my walls to see everyday:

(1) Find out as much as I can about the disease by reading a minimum of 3 books/research papers on the subject every week. (Ultimately, I read a total of 12 books and over 30 articles on the subject within the first three months.)

(2) Begin a rigid exercise plan of 45-60 minutes everyday. (Since that day I’ve missed a total of 22 days in 6 months and that included moving to another city and taking a 14 day trip to Japan.)

(3) Gradually transition my kitchen to becoming a vegan one, setting aside 1-2 meals per week where I’d be non-vegan as a cheat day to make the adjustment more palatable and realistic. Every time I failed to comply, I’d trimmed the content and size of my meals in proportion.

And the end result? Well, let’s just say I surprised even myself. By the fourth month, I’d lost 21 lbs and dropped 4% in body fat. I’ve now lost almost all craving for meat or dairy. My blood glucose levels are balanced and I’ve never felt more respectful of other life forms and the environment. Honestly, I didn’t fully expect to reach those goals so quickly, even as I weighed myself daily witnessing the predictable yo-yo effect of my weight and my emotions. But what was most amazing about this process was seeing the chart fill with simple annotations both in success and failure. More often than not, the sight of any unchecked boxes drove me to action almost immediately. And more incredibly, since achieving my milestones, I’ve gotten more confident and inspired to do better not just for my body, but for other areas of my life. Again I’m reminded of the power of following the process. Small success breeds further successes.

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” ― Robert Henri

Lucian Freud, seen here working on his very last painting only two weeks before his death at the age of 88. He was a prolific painter who painted slow but dutifully his entire life. Everyday he worked and everyday he gave his full attention to his craft leading him to become the greatest realist painter of the 20th century.

I illustrated my story not to impress but only to demonstrate that setting goals in this fashion can work for anyone. The most important point is this: big identifiable goals are necessary because they serve as targets so that we can reach the not-so-measurable goals of happiness and meaning in our lives. Without them, we won’t reach beyond the merely comfortable, regular and safe. Entropy is a natural scientific law — if we do nothing, we slide insidiously from higher order to lower order, from growing to dying. Large visions and colorful dreams give us the drive necessary to move forward and, more importantly, to take action. Outcome goals inspire action goals. Action goals lead to a process of living a better, healthier and more meaningful life regardless of any future outcome.

“A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then the painter realizes that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope the picture might spring to life.” — Lucian Freud

 

*Note: The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 3 people in America will have diabetes by the year 2050.

Judgements & Dreams

The original Superman was never viewed as a brilliantly creative or well-drawn superhero. But this didn’t stop the long and immense fan following due to his unique and interesting mythology about why he chooses to be who he is — the protector of humanity.

“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking” ― Albert Einstein

I was watching a film the other night, and it wasn’t great by any standard measures, but by the time the credits rolled at the end of the picture, a couple of thoughts were refreshed in my mind. One, was that a lot of people (hundreds in fact) were required to make a project like this happen. It had the commitment of talented actors, established producers and a whole slew of artistic and technical crew. The second, in spite of its failure to engage on the whole, was that the film still had some very nice moments in it: good camera setups, thoughtful discourse and some excellent performances, all of which helped enliven individual scenes. This reminded me of a most important fact about art; any piece of art, created individually or by a group of individuals, is always worthy of respect. Simply put, making the long and hard effort to get something as difficult as a film (or even a painting or poem) complete is a huge accomplishment. The public always forgets this but shamefully, so do we — even as we battle day in and day out exercising our craft, trying to produce something of value.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 dream-like science-fiction thriller Blade Runner, featuring a riveting performance by Rutger Hauer as the replicant Roy Batty, was very poorly received by critics for its ambiguous characters and seemingly thin human story line. (A voice over narration was even inputted in its theatrical release out of fear that no one would understand it.) Today, those same critics rave about the subtle and imaginative brilliance of the film and respect it for much more than its legendary production design.

Now, that doesn’t mean we should applaud every piece of art out there or pat ourselves on the back for everything that we do, but we shouldn’t be so quick to undervalue creative effort either. I didn’t name the film that I watched because I’ve long believed that our time and energy is better spent in analysis, learning and appreciation of the creations by fellow artists rather than criticizing and judging them — I simply have too much respect for the people involved. We artists are already on a very lonely road and there is enough judgement and cynicism out there and I need not add to that. Constructive criticism — citing inconsistencies or problems based off dutiful analysis — is valuable and necessary, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. There’s a huge difference between cynical criticism and critical thinking.

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” — Abraham Lincoln

As I have matured as both a man and an artist, my own attitude towards the judgement of things and people have changed significantly. I don’t have much interest it in anymore. I’ve begun to realize more and learn less. And while one can age without gaining any real experience (unfortunately), as we travel further in art (and life) we begin to see with greater clarity, which of course means, that we see both the good and the bad with greater obviousness and distinction. But instead of being overwhelmed by its flaws, I’ve found deeper appreciation and greater discovery. The more we see, the more we accept. We begin to see both the minutiae and the big picture, and how it’s all connected and how it all matters. There’s less room or reason for preconceived attachment to ideals or standards. There’s less desire to hold on to any expectations.

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” — Stephen Hawking

Over time, I’ve found that intense emotional and mental focus on mistakes and failure limited in its usefulness — especially when it comes to viewing the works of others. We don’t look for “errors” in the works of Rembrandt or Van Gogh, not because they don’t exist, but rather because it serves no pragmatic purpose. Furthermore, their existence takes nothing away from the excellence of the work itself. Moreover, what we perceive as imperfect may be exactly what makes a piece of art so distinct and brilliant. Contrast is a fundamental component of great artistry.

Alberto Giacometti’s sculptural work is a brilliant display of contrast in shape and proportion. His “imperfect” representation of the real world is a “perfect” display of his creativity.

Again, it’s popular and even fun (in a childish way), to judge and criticize. It seems rational, harmless and natural to do so. And in this day and age where it’s so much simpler to blame others for our own insecurities and failures, being an armchair critic can be a veiled form of protection from ourselves; for the responsibility of not taking action, for not taking the risks associated with following our dreams. Having a cynical and disparaging attitude is also a very easy (and weak) way of demonstrating our so called superiority and knowledge. Unfortunately (or fortunately), what counts is action. We are defined by what we do and how we do it. Even making the most simple piece of art, whether that be a brief piece of music, a drawing or a short performance on stage or in the field, is much more valuable than the criticism lay upon it. It takes the powerful combination of verve and bravery to take this road less traveled.

“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” — Robert Henri

Each day as a creative, I try to do my best just like all the rest of us. We work hard to create something new, we put our backs and hearts into it. No one deliberately makes “bad” art. No performer aims to fail or displease. It takes a kind of courage and nobility to do art because art appears to offer no pragmatic purpose; in the public’s eye, art serves only the artist’s ego. How many times have we heard that the artist is a “selfish” being? Society forgets that it’s the artist’s spirit that brings joy, beauty and realization to this world. Without visual art, music, theatre, writing or even sports —all of which are categorized as mere “entertainment” — the world would be bland beyond belief, with neither an appreciation of the present nor a sense for the future. It’s not surprising that the paying public is primarily obsessed with the established art of the past — it fails to accept and see what’s directly in front of them. It needs to be told what’s good and what’s not. But it is art, in fact, that teaches. It instructs us on how the world works and how to live by showing us how to see. Creativity is the ultimate act of living. Nature demonstrates its creativity each and every second with its continual birth of living things. Us artists are merely trying to do the same.

The late and brilliant Robin Williams stars as the inspiring English teacher John Keating in Peter Weir’s marvelous film, Dead Poets Society.

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ― Sylvia Plath

More often than not, we are our own worst critic, the primogenitor of judgement. Art is so responsive, so reflective, it’s hard to not see every flaw in our work and, more alarmingly, within ourselves. That is its power — we can learn more about who we are from our own work than from most anything else. At the same time however, we must be careful in the presence of such magic and veracity. A young or growing artist is not always ready to maturely handle such powerful truths which can be easily misinterpreted as damning indictments; it is all to easy to get too down on ourselves when witnessing our own inadequacies. To properly deal with our inability to perform requires time and reflection — to stand back and respond with calm and insight. Hence the importance of teachers and mentors who can keep us on that straight and narrow path (of not losing our mind or spirit). And sometimes, artists have to be their own greatest cheerleaders because, since the day we were born, we’re always dealing with loneliness.

“Dreams have only one owner at a time. That’s why dreamers are lonely.” — Erma Bombeck

As creatives, we have to battle each day with our mental, emotional and financial insecurity in order to proceed. This is just to get by, to survive. Throughout history, the world has been unkind to artists, lauding them only after official critical and financial success. It’s all much simpler to jump on the bandwagon of a “winner.” But should art be viewed in terms of winning or losing? Is that how we should define the value of our efforts? I think not. Because each creative act is built upon the foundation of many smaller creative acts such as planning, experimentation, practice and physical dedication — and it is physical because making and doing are not mere mental activities. Conception and inspiration may come first, but dreams stay dreams when they are not acted upon in the physical universe. Artists bring things into existence where there once was none.

“Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.” ― Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Marc Chagall’s paintings have a dreamy magic to them. They are filled with love, playfulness and joy. This painting is now perceived to be the inspiration that gave birth to the theme of “The Fiddler On The Roof” which is now one of most famous and beloved musicals of our time.

Hence, we cannot judge the success of our work or our lives by anyone’s opinion — and especially so if it’s particularly denigrating. An artist’s work is continual. We have to trust that this endless imaginative process has no choice but to reveal itself in the most honest and beautiful fashion. Because it’s all process. And in such a process, there is no room for invasive criticism or judgement. So why spend any of our time engaging in it? Our energy is best saved for making dreams come true.

“(There is) No end, no conclusion, no completion. (Only) Perpetual becoming.” — Henry Miller

Shot Analysis: True Romance

Directed by Tony Scott, True Romance (1993) features a playful script, fun characters and a multitude of excellent scenes and acting performances.

Much has been said about True Romance already, this being Quentin Tarantino’s first ever full Hollywood script and how it made the world aware of his exciting new talent at the time of its debut. As a film, it pays tribute to my favorite genre, the gangster flick, which has always held a place in my heart as perhaps the funnest, most daring and dramatic playground for exploring humanity. History, culture, politics and the dominion of family are all deeply embedded in the classic gangster movie. I could watch great gangster films all day (and have).

Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater play lovers Alabama and Clarence, the main stars (and heroes) of Tony Scott’s True Romance.

The scene we’re about to look at is the most famous scene in the movie, one featuring the incredible talents of two real heavyweights in the acting world, Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. In fact, the scene is so good, it almost overpowers the movie itself; the directing, writing, acting and music here all work in picture-perfect unison. It’s almost ironic — and not one talks about this — but here we have one of the greatest scenes in film history and it doesn’t feature any of the main actors, as both Walken and Hopper only play very short supporting roles in the story (I believe each of the two actors have only one other scene that precedes this one). I don’t believe that has ever happened before. The only comparable actor making such an impact in such limited screen time would have to be Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s The Third Man; although in that film, Welle’s character, Harry Lime, is the title character talked about by the main characters throughout the film.

Orson Welles plays Harry Lime in the 1949 noir classic, The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed. Welles delivered one of the most magnetic screen performances in film history despite being in the film for only 15 minutes.

Although, the popularity of this scene is magnified due to the nature of the “content” discussed, this should not be a reason for it to be dismissed by anyone, especially not by any artist trying to learn more about the craft of acting or film-making in general.

The following breakdown of the scene are simply moments and characterizations I personally found intriguing in terms of story and acting performance.

The Scene: (please be warned that the scene contains coarse language, racial slurs and graphic violence)

Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance script really shines here in this magnificent scene starring Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. That said, I doubt even Tarantino himself could have envisioned such a powerful result.

The Breakdown:

In this opening shot, Worley (Dennis Hopper) is struck immediately upon entering the doorway. He will be struck again both midway during the scene and at the very end. The idea that violence is inevitable here is being sent loud and clear to both Worley and the audience, and because of his situation we empathize with this character almost immediately. His time on screen may be short but Worley will play the tragic character here in this story.

Next, we cut to the physical set up of this little cat and mouse game we are about to witness. In this section, the frankness of Walken’s character, Vincenzo Coccotti, is contrasted by Worley’s act of stupidity — a natural defense mechanism to parry way responsibility by pretending like he knows nothing — one that is seen right thru by Coccotti. The pronounced activity with the cigarette first, followed by his calm and direct expression of his intentions makes this character extremely frightening and real. He’s here for business. It’s an excellent use of the environment and props by Walken.

After hearing Coccotti confirm his greatest fears, Worley sits in a brief moment of realization. Look carefully and you’ll notice this beautiful moment of acting by Hopper, his eyes glancing to screen right momentarily, reflecting his awareness of the situation (i.e. he knows that he’s screwed). He sinks his head downwards. A deep breath and a series of fast blinks reveals the difficulty in accepting his current predicament and his concealed efforts to compose himself. The most telling acting is often between the lines of dialogue where nothing is spoken.

This a nice moment by Walken, again using movement and props to give texture and rhythm to his acting.  After kindly offering Worley a cigarette, he gets up and takes off his coat signifying a character about to get down to work. His position is now physically higher and even more dominant over his adversary. The polite gesturing in his request for truth is balanced by his prepared position to act as needed. When Worley fails in his feeble attempt to lie to someone higher up in the food chain, it is met with swift confirmation about who’s the boss here.

Here Walken’s character does a little exposition, reviewing the events of the story both for Worely and the audience, to make sure everything is absolutely crystal clear. He even has a little laugh at the expense of Worley’s son Clarence, for leaving his driver’s license at the scene of the crime (an important story point indicating the kind of stupidity and carelessness in the family genes which is later confirmed when we discover that his son also left his LA address on the fridge door). Writer Quentin Tarantino has sneakily introduced the element of humor here which will pair itself beautifully when Worley exacts the last laugh and punishing blow against Coccotti.

After another brave effort to stand up to his adversary and then having his palm sliced, Worley is left hopelessly digesting more of Coccotti’s demands and lecturing, this time with the counselor proudly informing him of his superiority and that it’s genetic. The small section showing Hopper tilting his head indicates he’s now tired of hearing more from Coccotti. It appears this is where Worely has decided what he’s gonna do despite the final threat of death, should he continue to be so uncooperative.

It’s obvious at this point that Worley knows for sure there is no hope, nor is there any point in delaying this any further. He agrees to be forthcoming by asking for that cigarette initially offered, a gesture that should confirm to Coccotti that this guy finally gets it and he’s gonna tell him everything. But Worley’s eyes reveal that he has not thrown in the towel — they are focused. Cocotti’s paused reaction before agreeing to give him that cigarette shows he’s not 100% convinced either, but he’s willing to let this play out. I really love the way Worley first asks for a match and then proceeds to pull out a lighter. It makes the scene feel so real and genuine — because that’s what real people do — acting instinctively and behaving according to habit. As the music slowly creeps into this transitional moment, we know we’re about to witness a change in the mood. We do, but it’s not what we nor Coccotti expects.

Trapped in a chair and surrounded by a handful of gangsters, the only weapon Worley’s got is his mind. You can see Coccotti lean back initially as Worley begins his tale and he’s uncertain where Worley’s is going with this. Then of course, comes the surprising first blow, one that not even someone as powerful as  Vincenzo Coccotti can deflect.

What follows — the famous Moor/Silician fable portion of the scene — is really dynamite here. The dialogue is so fun and the actor’s expressions only magnify the playfulness of the scene. Thematically, here is where the tables are turned, Worley is now the storyteller, physical and animated as he gestures with his arms, cigarette in hand. Coccotti is now the passive listener, being toyed with by Worley, who goes on and on with one insulting jab after another. Coccotti continues to sit mostly motionless except for the odd smiles and glances backwards towards his posse as he expresses his utter disbelief of the gall of this measly little security officer. Worley has caught Coccotti in unfamiliar territory and he’s got no prepared response to this except to laugh and reluctantly join in on the joke, even if it’s at his expense.

After begrudgingly laughing along with his adversary, Coccotti finally and swiftly acts out his anger in the most demonstrative fashion — issuing six bullets directly to the head of his victim. The inevitable ending doesn’t deny who the real victor is in this little game. The mouse may have been killed here — that was never in doubt — but the cat has been mortally wounded in a battle that shouldn’t have been any contest. Coccotti’s very last words state as much as he wipes his hands and spits out his gum in frustration, emphatically closing out the scene.

Final Word:

Great lines and story are what give real meat for actors to hold on to and build from. Writing and story is first and foremost. Ideas matter. That said, its proven time and time again, that even though dialogued moments may be the most memorable ones of any movie, it’s the acting — the combination of verbal expression and the acting between the lines — that make them so convincing and powerful. Great actors, such as Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, clearly build their characters internally. But ultimately, that internal creation can only be communicated to the audience externally. How a character speaks and moves is everything; we can only comprehend what we see and hear. This is a lesson we, who are trying to deliver the best possible performances in film or animation, must continually be aware of.

Creative Confidence

Image from James Cameron’s 1989 science fiction epic, The Abyss, a film about exploring the unknown beneath the earth and within ourselves.

“The rule for all terrors is to head straight into them.” — Alan Watts

We all know that in order to do something new and exciting, or to find true fun and real meaning in whatever we’re doing, we’ve got to face our fears; fears of the unknown, fears of rejection and the greatest fear of all, that of failure. But if we don’t take that plunge, our lives are bland. Empty of challenge and devoid of curiosity, life loses its significance both inwardly and outwardly. Mankind’s creativity is what makes us so distinct a species.

“Change is not a threat, it’s an opportunity. Survival is not the goal, transformative success is.” — Seth Godin

But sometimes the problems we face, both in art and life, seem too grand, too complex and impossible to overcome. There are times when effort alone isn’t sufficient. We need mental fortitude and steadfastness. We have to keep trying and keep digging away at it, even when it appears futile to do so. Why? Because failure is the strongest step towards success. Each time we make mistakes, we discover another way of how NOT to do something. Failures reveal weaknesses in our game and expose (sometimes deep) inadequacies. Setbacks are nutrient-rich experiences; like seedlings, they serve a purpose only to be seen much later. We must be careful to attend to them with thoughtful analysis and reflection.

Setbacks are like tiny seedlings but ones that we don’t consciously plant. It’s easy to mistake them for weeds. So in all likelihood, we don’t notice them or the benefit that they will bring in the future. And if we ignore them, nothing valuable will sprout from those experiences.

Only by pushing beyond our current limits (risking failure) can we find alternative solutions and, more importantly, greater insight. Doubt and difficulty then, drive our spirit upwards and outwards. Then events turn and fortuitous accidents occur. We don’t get those things for free. Because when we continue our battle into the field of the unknown we trigger all sorts of forces into play, such as unexpected visions or chance interactions with significant individuals. Determination invites serendipity.

“We can not win unless we learn to lose.” — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

It ain’t just genetics. Perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, the 7’2″ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stills leads the NBA in all-time points scored (an astounding 38,387 points) and has had more individual and team success than any other player in league history.

No one likes to talk about hard work because it sounds boring. It lacks the sexy appeal of the individual who was born special — the “prodigy” — or the artist who was “only” creative because he was high on drugs or alcohol, the so-called price of greatness. In reality, none of those stereotypes have more than an ounce of truth in them. Substance abuse and extreme behavior destroys clarity and creativity while many who are gifted never develop their abilities beyond the ordinary.

“Do not envy those who seem to be naturally gifted; it is often a curse, as such types rarely learn the value of diligence and focus, and they pay for this later in life.” — Robert Greene

At the end there is only one commonality for excellence, that of tenacity and open-mindedness. All the greatest feats of humanity were accomplished in such manner. No one ever talks about the years of emotional struggle and hard work. I can only presume that editors think it doesn’t sell. But I do remember a billboard I once saw while I was living in Los Angeles, and although I don’t remember the featured athlete, I haven’t forgotten the quote:

“You train so hard, people think you’re lucky.”

The official trailer for the animated biopic, Loving Vincent. Each frame of the animation, incredibly, has been hand-painted by hundreds of artists creating in total over 56,000 individual oil paintings all done in the colorful and visceral style of Van Gogh’s artistry.

Hard work doesn’t have to feel awful. Once incorporated into our being as part of what defines us — discipline, dedication, fortitude and persistence — we begin to take pride in the blood, sweat and tears we put into our cause, whatever that may be. Our practice of mental and physical determination becomes our ritual. Excellence, then, translates into an approach to life that in turn becomes habitual. Continually putting in the hours, learning and unlearning, exploring new ways to expand and enrich our knowledge and abilities comes to define us as individuals who care about what they do. The ultimate destiny, mastery, is achieved in such manner.

“The artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself; and the agony of the artist, far from being the result of the world’s failure to discover or appreciate him, arise from his own personal struggles to discover, to appreciate and finally to express himself.” — E.E. Cummings

The road to mastery, is a long and unpredictable one. That’s its nature, that’s the road that the gods of have built for us. We only have to choose to take the path or leave it. But once on it, we must endure; self doubt, financial struggle and ridicule must not be allowed to distract or divert us from our journey. We need to keep in mind the the power of repetition. Choose what you tell yourself; make it up if you have to.

Bart Simpson borrowed from Matt Groening’s hit TV series, The Simpsons.

“Perceptions can make us or destroy us.” – Billy Mills, Olympic Champion

Frequency is more powerful than sheer force. If we repeatedly tell/show those whom we love messages that convey kindness, respect and sharing as a means to greater happiness, the odds of sustaining meaningful relationships is greatly enhanced. Same too, applies to our relationship with ourselves and our work. Being an artist is hard enough; we needn’t add further strain and doubt on top. If required, we must alter our perceptions. Some of us (like myself personally) have to do that regularly having grown up in an environment of full of doubt, harsh criticism or bullying. Reality is what we make of it. There are theories abound that show that the link between the scientific and the spiritual/intuitive is not as distinct from each other as we’ve come to assume.

A Black Hole seen via x-ray, optical and radio light. Does this feel real to you? You can’t touch it or see it without the aid of modern technology. Looking out into space is a gentle reminder of how much we don’t know that’s right in front of us the whole time.

Therefore, we mustn’t be scared of the challenges ahead. We need to grab hold of our whole being and direct it towards the positive — focused on excellence, dignity and determination. With the world being so complex today, creative thinking is the best (maybe only) way to get ourselves out of our current predicaments. We have to explore, drive hard and aim for the stars. And, love what we do.

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress: Working hard for something we love is called passion.” — Simon Sinek

Style & Substance

Painting by Alex Kanevsky, a modern yet classical painter from Philadelphia who produces some of the most beautiful and expressive figurative portraits today. Kanevsky is an artist who admits to working very fast but at the same time, takes the time, sometimes months, for a painting to evolve into its final state.

“I prefer to arrive at the painting with some sort of clarity of intent and purpose. It’s sort of like a dialogue. You do things to it and it does things to you. At this point, I think I’m done doing things to it. It’s doing things to me and I have to respond.” — Alex Kanevsky

Style is a funny thing. In animation, some favor it, even worship it, others dislike seeing it, fearing it takes away from the essence of a piece of work or genre, especially in our field, where consistency and continuity of performance is more important than an individual scene that draws too much attention to itself by sticking out from the others. In general, I’ve always believed that in films and theatre, the project’s vision belongs to the director and hence, any decision on style belongs to him/her alone. After that, everyone else has to come on board. They have to support that vision for it to all work as one.

Woody and Buzz are both the foundation and the heart of Pixar’s Toy Story movies. Each film individually, and together as a series, defines a unique and particular world view where toys live, prosper and struggle. Pixar, since its inception, has done a great job submitting all its creative talent to serve the greater cause of the story and style of their individual projects.

The style of a group of artists’ work, like that in a studio, attract like-minded individuals. The old school Disney has long claimed ownership of the princess/classic western fairy-tale — no one does it better. Both a set of preferences and fundamental skills are required to meet those particular demands for consistency and appropriateness. Style carries with it no influential power if there isn’t substantial weight and substance behind it. As animators, our roles are always to serve that greater purpose with our energy and our unique individual talents. If the mastery of the craft isn’t there, the story no matter how good, can falter. But neither can good visual artistry and technical wizardry save a badly told story.

Artists from Bill Tytla to Glen Keane all helped define and distinguish the Disney style, founded on the solid artistic principles of physical reality, visual appeal and magic. Disney’s latest film, Moana, directed by old school artists, Ron Clements and John Musker, carries that same charm with great success.

As artists, we’re always conflicted between doing the new and staying with the old. If we don’t try new things, we get stale and the environments (in both the studios and cities) we work in will reflect that.

New York City has been, for the longest time, the beacon of creative activity due to its plethora of museums, galleries, street scenes, and festivals all boosting its art, theater, dance and music scene. And despite its rich foundation and history, it still continues to birth new and exciting talent, unafraid of finding new ways of saying things.

In personal work, however, individual style couldn’t be more important for it defines our artistry in its time and place. Our personal history, environment and preferences all play a huge role in our development and ultimately the execution of our craft. New and exciting work often finds it source from individuals, even within an artistic movement or group collective, such as what we see in modern day animation or design studios. Hence, individual creativity must always be encouraged to allow environments, which consists of both veteran and new artists, to grow and push boundaries, to come up with new stories to tell. If such risk is not taken, both the artistic spirit and the studios/companies themselves die while those that continue to embrace change and exploration, break new ground and commit to something greater. Serendipity — the unexpected and inconceivable that surface spontaneously — must be allowed to take place. There must exist imagination.

“The things that do not fit the paradigm — the anomalies —tend to be ignored or explained away. In truth, anomalies themselves contain the richest information.” — Robert Greene (from his book, Mastery)

Travis Knight’s 2016 directorial debut, Kubo and the Two Strings from Laika Studios, is one of the most magical and emotionally moving film in years. The beauty compiled by both digital and stop-motion artists (who are as famous for their artistry as much as the hard physical labor they put in) has created a film of remarkable beauty while carrying a story full of wonder and meaning.

Furthermore, we must be always be careful not to let theory or preconceived ideas of excellence or “correctness” dominant a piece of art. The vision of art — its desire and its purpose — must supersede that of its foundation. The ideas direct the collective effort while the foundation of hard work, creativity and solid skills supports it. The audience should only see and feel the ideas presented.

“The work of art in which one can see the imprint of theory is like a present on which the price tag was left.” — Marcel Proust

I’ve been showing people this “Pyramid of Priorities” for as long as I’ve been teaching animation. The fundamentals — in this case, the understanding and control of the body mechanics and graphic artistry of our animation — serves the one and only top goal, that of performance; acting that moves an audience, action that tells the story. The size and proportion of the three definitive sections is not accidental. Much of our time as creatives is spent building that two-layer base that supports the main idea.

This is why it’s so important for young artists to spend adequate time and energy learning their craft. We must be patient. Without any real knowledge and practical ability, there is no way to tell any story — at least not one anyone will sit thru and listen. This perhaps explains why so much dubious “modern art” has lost much of the public’s interest. Real good, fundamentally strong and thoughtful work has real weight, personal history and energy (effort) behind it, regardless of visual style.

The great John Coltrane both defined and transcended his art, influencing artists the world over. Jazz is one of the most distinctive forms of art ever created (and one that was uniquely founded in America). Strong on style and fearlessness, it’s also arguably the hardest, most technically challenging of the musical art forms.

So to sum up, if we want to express our greatest “self” and push beyond our own boundaries, never mind that of any particular craft or industry, then we better muster up the goods and become as rock solid as we can with the fundamentals. For visual artists, it means mastering things like line, shape, color and composition. And for the animator, it means things like pose, space, timing and choreography will be paramount to any kind of success.

Frank Thomas’ rough sketches for Hook and Schmee from Walt Disney’s 1953 classic, Peter Pan. Frank Thomas was one of the ultimate “actors” in Disney animation history. Always thoughtful, creative and expressing the most personality out of his characters. He could do this because technically and graphically he was an outstanding animator and artist.

The fundamentals are the springboard — the substance. After we’ve learned them, they become part of the many tools in our toolbox. We never forget about them, but they stop being our focus or fear. But without a solid foundation of skill and knowledge, things like serendipity can’t happen and our efforts will be limited in its power. Only with enough grasp of our craft can we open up the possibility for our minds to focus on higher challenges. We must not be the painter that can’t draw or the animator that doesn’t understand weight or timing. Because then we won’t — can’t — say anything important. We cannot let laziness or indifference hold us back.

“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” — Louis Pasteur

Sharpen The Saw

The Bald Eagle is America’s symbol for freedom. I live in an area where many Bald Eagles nest and it’s hard not to feel the power and freedom that emanates from this beautiful bird of prey.

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” — Albert Camus

I equate time to freedom because until we can travel backwards in time, time is the only non-renewable and non-replenishable resource that we’ve got — sooner or later, we’ll run out of it. So when I first read Steven Covey’s paramount non-fiction best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People many years ago, I felt as many did; completely inspired by his approach to time management and his philosophy for modern living based on solid ethical principles. It was the preeminent self-help book that launched the self-help industry into the stratosphere. Some critics argued that Covey sold what seemed like common sense and built a financial empire from it, but like Covey himself said, common sense isn’t common practice.

The 7 Habits from the Steven Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

As artists, we know that much of what we “should” do, we don’t do.  For example, why can’t we see the flaws of our work while we’re doing it but only afterwards? Why do things such as twinning, even spacing, or repetitive acting choices continue to plaque our craft? Why are good rituals so hard to form while bad habits stick like gum on your boots? And why do we continue to repeat the same mistakes despite the pain that it causes us?

Notes by Disney veteran and legendary illustrator, Carson Van Osten, on the matters of twinning in animation posing.

The answer, so it seems, appear to lie in the underlying approach to how we view our time and how we use it.  Now, while Covey listed some brilliant principles on how to live, I have to date, only retained two concepts from his writing, namely his Time Management Matrix and his seventh and final habit Sharpen The Saw. Both are tied to the belief in doing the right things and doing them regularly.

The Covey Time Management Matrix:

The Covey Time Management Matrix, consisting of the four quadrants of time usage, couldn’t be more apt in our current times of rushing, obsessing with busyness and addiction to convenient technology and social media.

Since us artists are people too, we’re just as susceptible to the pull of immediacy both at work and outside of work. Important short term matters such as approaching deadlines and other emergencies naturally demand our attention — that’s biological. We need to survive before we can work on improving our efficiencies and before we can find deeper meaning and fulfillment.  These are “Quadrant I” activities, the ones we have to live with and must do. This quadrant will always exist, that’s just life. But just surviving is not life — zombies move too — because being consumed with urgent demands is both taxing and soul destroying.

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” — C.S. Lewis

Artists, of all people, can ill afford to spend their time on unimportant matters, whether they be urgent or not. Quadrant III and IV activities are such time wasters, things that offer little value. Checking or answering every text message or Facebook posting/response may seem harmless but they distract from our current duties. In fact, they destroy our abilities to concentrate, which has very serious consequences and leads to more urgent problems and habitual stress.

But the same goes with spending hours and hours on excessive television watching, video gaming or mindless browsing on the internet (who isn’t guilty of that?) If you’re gonna take time for rest and leisure, do it right. Same thing applies for screwing around during a recess from work — something that may seem like a legitimate break from some hard time in front of the computer but is often energy spent unwisely dealing with trivia, or worse, whining and complaining about projects or people. That’s neither fruitful nor restful. A much wiser course of action would be take a walk out in the fresh air and empty the mind of the physical and emotional intensity that’s been hard at work for the last couple of hours.

Art Criticism by Honoré Daumier. There are those that do and those that talk. The masterful Daumier made many brilliant caricatures of societal behavior.

In order to develop our craft, we need time to explore our artistry. We need to create space for visual education, skill development, exploration and research. You can’t think outside of the box if you can’t even see the box. Study is important; history and reflection instruct. This is all Quadrant II activity — activity that requires what we call slow time — where we can engage in high value actions that are pragmatic and deeply fulfilling. The further beauty of Quadrant II activities is that they reduce the amount of Quadrant I emergencies. The time we put into planning our work properly (instead habitually rushing right into it) saves us time by limited the odds of having to re-do it. Those evenings or weekends diligently spent studying our craft or taking supplementary seminars or private lessons, improves our visual vocabulary and even address “blind spots” in the approach to our artistry. Fundamentally, raising our skill set raises our efficiencies on the job and helps to limit the number of high urgency demands created by poor preparation or inadequacy. Proper fun and restful activities that aid in physical recovery and improve mental clarity also serve as wonderful Quadrant II activities.

A well-planned weekend for some real fun with friends/family or engaging in comprehensive outdoor activities provide both pure release from “work” and give us something to look forward to during the week.

Sharpening The Saw (Habit #7)

Knowing the quadrants of time expenditure is fine and dandy, but applying it without a game plan is difficult. It’s all too easy to be swept up into our old ways. Saying to ourselves “someday, I’ll lose that extra body weight or work on my timing issues” isn’t going to amount anything more than a hill of beans. One way I personally deal with this is ensuring that I practice what Steven Covey calls “Sharpen The Saw.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln.

Wisdom is something that is commonly ignored in today’s me-me-me, rush-rush-rush society. We want quick answers, we don’t read unless it’s entertainment, and we certainly don’t make time to listen and watch things patiently. It’s much easier to buy a solution than to build or create one on our own. But oh, how fulfilling it is to make and create things ourselves! Are we not artists?

The locomotive is one of the greatest inventions in human history. Creativity is not only the best solution to our problems, it may be the only solution to the problems we face today.

“Only someone who is well prepared has the opportunity to improvise.” — Ingmar Bergman

But to create and build requires time and skill. Spending the hours sharpening the saw equates to being prepared for success. Success rarely comes to those that aren’t ready for it. And if it were to arrive at the hands of the unprepared, the unprepared are ill prepared to manage it . (This probably explains why weak talents who achieve quick and early acclaim have incredibly short careers and why lottery winners are often financially worse off two years after winning the prize money than before they hit the jackpot). Our minds simply won’t allow us to skip any steps. Once again, there are no shortcuts to happiness.

Steven Covey’s Seventh Habit: Sharpen The Saw. In order to maintain balance and be prepared for living well, we must make the quantifiable effort to fulfill these four human requirements.

The four areas of Sharpening The Saw are remarkably clear and simple. We are to simply ensure that we leave no major area of our lives unexamined or neglected. For each of us, what we choose to pursue actively in the mental, physical, social and spiritual aspects of our lives is, like our art, entirely personal. The important thing is that we do them and that they be measurable. For some, these actions are to be performed weekly, while for others, like myself, they are daily requirements. I draw out a chart whereby I tick the boxes to each of those elements every day in my life. I don’t always succeed in filling in all four boxes everyday, but seeing that mounting accomplishment is not only rewarding but satisfying and motivational. Selective repetition is what leads to real change and there’s nothing like experiencing success to inspire further success. Sharpening the saw is preeminent Quadrant II activity; it forces us to actively examine and engage in the most meaningful areas of our lives and do so regularly. Only then, do we have hope of advancing and doing something new, perhaps even great.

“You are an explorer, and you represent our species, and the greatest good you can do is to bring back a new idea, because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness.” ― Terence McKenna

In light of the new year (and new year’s resolutions), I believe it’s important to take stock and reflect on the past. Only then, can we have some basis to work from. Knowing where we currently stand in the management of our time, and in effect, our lives, is crucial to future action and the future of our growth as creative individuals.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates

Shot Analysis: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The French poster for Walt Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of Disney’s most interesting films made in the late 1990’s. Based on Victor Hugo’s Gothic novel about a hunchbacked servant who resides in the Bell Tower of Notre Dame Cathedral, it was both bold and timid. It had a dark foreboding undertone and featured a genuinely realistic villain but it was also conflicted in its choice of supporting characters, most notably the Gargoyles — formula sidekicks who were more suited to a modern Broadway comedy-musical. That said, there is brilliant animation throughout the film and none more prominent than the work of superstar animator James Baxter who headed up the team responsible for Quasimodo, voiced beautifully by Tom Hulce. It was this film in particular, and the visual acting portrayed here by Baxter, that made me such a huge fan of character animation and his work in particular. It signaled to me what was possible when it came to pure and believable acting in animation.

Sequence Analysis: Quasimodo’s entrance

The sequence of two shots introducing Quasimodo, the Hunchback from Walt Disney’s 1996 The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Animation by Supervising Animator, James Baxter.

Today, we’ll look at the two shots at about half speed in slow-motion so that we can see in acute detail what actually happens in the animation.

Part 1:

As the powerful score and ringing bells carry us from the opening sequence to this shot, we see our hero Quasimodo emerging from the darkness, face hidden. He swings athletically downwards (with the camera trailing him) to the wooden floor. His movements are perfectly in unison with the movement of the swinging bells which never obscure our vision of him.

Notice the central placement of the character as he enters the scene. It signifies his importance as he emerges from obscurity into focus coming out from the direction of the viewer, as if we are him. We are meant to relate to him (and like him), even if we don’t know him quite just yet.

The design and choreography give huge hints to the story about a character usually hidden out of sight, now emerging onto the scene out of darkness and into the light, while carrying with it the corresponding undertones of the religious environment. Baxter’s animation here displays great draftsmanship and rhythmical brilliance as Quasimodo travels with speed, power and control. This is an important indicator of the incredible capabilities of this character which will be revealed in the explosive finale in Act Three.

In the final pose of the shot, Baxter chooses to leave Quasimodo hanging momentarily at screen right, on “thirds” where we can see clearly where he’s looking and where’s he’s about to land. In this case, “X” marks the spot, as displayed prominently in the shadows on the floor. The surrounding pigeons and their reaction will help with continuity into the next shot.

Animating to a moving camera is perhaps the hardest thing to do for a character animator. It requires great knowledge and control of the camera, as well as superb abilities on the body mechanics side — all movements must be smooth, display believable weight and be dynamically appealing. In 2D animation, it requires the kind of drawing/animating abilities that very few animators in the world have (James Baxter and Glen Keane are the only two animators I know of who have delivered such shots with unparalleled consistency). Notice that despite the heroics displayed with the physical action, it’s the opening and closing images of the shot that tell the most about the character and his story. How you start and end shots do much more than simply connect them together.

Part 2:

In this second half of the sequence, Quasimodo is centrally placed, seen from behind, heading towards the light. His landing activates the pigeons, whose scattered arrangement and flight help the shot “bloom” as they give way to our hero who travels towards them. After recoiling from his heavy, yet controlled landing, the drag of his arms and “gam” leg signify part of his physical handicap and deformity. This is further caricatured by his hunched movement which is both awkward and one-sided as he hobbles towards the sunlight.

As Quasimodo transitions from his powerful landing, you see that Baxter uses a strong “croissant” like shape for his key pose, a design that would stay consistent throughout the film. A beautiful mix of straights and curves both contrast and complement each other while the counter-balance of movement between those shapes, which are elegantly-timed, help define the character’s difficulty and heft which encompasses him — clearly a symbol of the burden he carries in his heart and mind.

I love the rhythm of this shot. The walk has a pace that is both unusual and dignifying. The huge drag and overlap of the limbs along with the quickness of their recovery make for a very appealing performance. It’s quite hard to explain, but you can feel his pain and physical confidence at the same time. I only wish that thematically the film would have further explored that in his character — physical deformities accompany with them more than just emotional and mental burden, but physical suffering as well.

In the ending key frames of this shot, we again see the dominant croissant shape that defines Quasimodo. His walk ends in transition to the next cut just like how he entered the scene — in movement and dynamically engaged in the moment. The composition re-affirms the central focus as he moves towards the light; a hero about to emerge towards the possibility of hope and change.

The two shots together looks remarkably simple at first glance (which, by the way, is no longer than eight seconds in total). Yet who could believe that a sequence of two shots that don’t even show the face of the character — never mind show him speaking — can reveal so much about a character and his role in a film. With intelligent design and brilliant execution in acting and animation physics, animators like James Baxter prove that it can be done.

Whenever I see this animation, I look back into my past and remember how I was first introduced to this shot by my old mentor and most gracious teacher, Wayne Gilbert (whom I’ll be forever grateful). He told me to study it in detail and find out why it works. To this day, this shot by James Baxter continues to hold its drawing power, carrying with it all the things we need to excel as animators: weight, rhythm, choreography, acting and appeal.

Control

Atlas was a Titan in Greek mythology who was responsible for holding up the heavens and earth. It can’t be much fun carrying the weight of the entire world on your shoulders.

“Out of clutter, find simplicity.” — Albert Einstein

We live in a world today obsessed with growth and addicted to consumption. In newsrooms and boardrooms across the globe, the masses are routinely referred to as consumers rather than persons. Producing, buying and selling dominate almost every aspect of our lives. We’ve forgotten what Vicki Robbin said in her book, Your Money or Your Life, that we’ve lost sight of what the word “consumption” really means. Although “to consume” carries the rather banal definition “to purchase for the sake of ownership” it also means to “absorb, use up, squander, and destroy.” Consumption is an irreversible process and we’ve become a society that’s now constantly tied to the chains of commerce, immersed in the accumulation and disposal of materials and energy leading to incalculable consequences on our planet and our humanity.

“Our lives are so woven into the fabric of the economy that many of us no longer have the other kinds of wealth to fall back on— close knit families and communities, growing our own food, knowing how to make and fix the tools of daily life.” — Vicki Robbins.

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s Money Walls. $100,000 worth of used bills—which the 70 year-old artist won for the Hugo Boss Prize normally given to upcoming artists — is displayed at the Guggenheim in New York City. A conceptual stunt or a message about money and art?”

Today, if the art we create isn’t meant to be sold as a product itself, it’s designed to help sell other products. Fine art, theater, TV and film all seem like independent creative outlets but we’d be foolish to think that advertising, corporate sponsorship and merchandising tie-ins aren’t part of the equation. The financial side is a reality no matter how we choose to view the situation. Unfortunately, this truth puts an immense pressure on people — and creatives in particular — as we struggle to maintain some semblance of balance between productivity and personal fulfillment as well as between survival and living in excess.

“Technology is notorious for engrossing people so much that they don’t always focus on balance and enjoy life at the same time.” — Paul Allen, Co-Founder of Microsoft

What makes it even more distressing sometimes is knowing that much of the way things are run seem unfair or at least unreasonable. In the animation industry, for example, quotas are more often than not too high, job security is scant, and the pressures never seem to abate. The often relentless and cumulative strain puts other areas of our lives in jeopardy. Everything seems too busy, too cluttered and too difficult. And so much of it seems out of our control.

Bruce Lee seen here strengthening his abdominal muscles during a break on the set of The Game of Death. If we look for it, there’s always opportunities to practice our craft.

Even for the astute and dedicated artist a sense of helplessness can’t help but ensue. We feel like we’re not producing enough, not learning quickly enough, and not being good enough. We recognize that the system is not conducive to creative growth or even short-term fulfillment. However, we mustn’t forget that the speed at which we succeed or advance is not entirely up to us. Many factors come into play that impact our abilities and execution as creatives. The mind needs freedom, balance and peace to function properly for only an uncluttered mind is a healthy and productive one. We mustn’t be too hard on ourselves — periodic detachment is necessary. 

Egon Schiele was one of the most famous poster boys of struggle, impoverishment and tragedy. In many ways, life was horrible for many artists in history, but each found real joy and truth in one place — their art. And the world is a better place because of their commitment.

Furthermore, the universe might have its own plans for us or at least a schedule that doesn’t coincide with our own. That said, there’s one thing that we can control and that is our attitude. Regardless of our immediate circumstances, we can always choose our level of involvement with money (or consumption) and hence our level of commitment to our art. This in turn raises our overall contentment.

Take your work, but never yourself, seriously.” — Chuck Jones

I believe there is real salvation in the devotion to craftsmanship, whatever our craft may be. When we turn our attention to the big picture and to the intricacies of our artistry, we narrow our focus and expend our most concentrated time and energy on something that we know gives us the most direct and honest response to our actions. We must always remember that how we spend our time is how we spend our lives.

Lucian Freud spent most of his waking hours painting. He was completely devoted to his craft until the final days of his life.

What we have to be weary of, especially in today’s society of mass technological convenience, is our minds being too scattered. I witnessed this regularly among former colleagues and now among the young students and professionals that I take under my wing. A million things both inside and outside our heads are always vying for our attention, each one a potential snare that will take us away from the deep focus required to do our best work. Distraction is the great enemy of creative activity.

A page from Bruce Lee’s book on his craft, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Lee wrote and diagrammed all his thoughts on the philosophy and art of combat. He knew that his experiments with his craft needed to be regularly scheduled and its ideas/results recorded. To be fully committed to excellence, we must set aside time for preparation, practice, execution and reflection.

The best people I know at doing anything, do it with passion but also with a narrowly focused sense of calm. They act quickly, but don’t look rushed. They do things one at a time and make it look easy. When we see such people work, we usually chalk it up to natural talent, unaware of the numerous hours, days and even years of preparation, practice and struggle.

“The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed.” — Carl Jung

An example that has always stood out in my collection of life experiences was playing hockey with this one fella who came in as a substitute for a university teammate of mine (an exchange which I’m sure was illegal). I was told that he was the best player in his league (his team would win Silver at the Nationals) and that I was in for a treat, especially given that he would be my line mate for the evening. Anyhow, watching him play was both intriguing and mesmerizing. He had the “ball on a string” and seemed to glide even when his feet looked to be barely moving. It was bizarre how calm and slow he looked as I witnessed his adversaries desperately trying to check and chase him to no avail. He moved just quickly enough to evade them, never wasting any excess energy.  And given his uncanny vision, I knew that all I had to do was to get open and he’d find me. I scored a hat-trick on the night including the game-tying and overtime game-winning goal — all directly assisted by my new magician-like line mate. Each goal I scored was right in the slot into a wide open net or at least with the goalie caught in the confusion of the moment created by “him” of course. I played the hero, but he was the real star.  The best people always make it look easy and in my case being around that made for one of the most memorable events in those four rather unmemorable years in university.

The masterful Chuck Jones spent most of his life drawing screwy rabbits, wily coyotes and romantic skunks. He never complained despite the fact that he received neither the financial compensation or accolades he deserved — his producers at Warner’s claimed most of the credit and the awards. He focused on what he could control and was happier because of it.

People who perform at the highest level are so completely absorbed in the act of excellence they have no time for distractions — not gossip, politics or appearances. They have the beautiful presence of mind to slow things down, simplify, and focus on what matters most. They are craftsmen and just devote to what they love most, their art. Both the environment and the outcome matter much less.

“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” — Bruce Lee

The Goldilocks Principle

bugsthreebears

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

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

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

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

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

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

homerdecisions

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

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

Now, how does this apply to us artists?

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

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

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

bowls-1

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

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

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

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

steppingstones

The road towards mastery is a long, difficult and unpredictable journey but it’s also incredibly beautiful.

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

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

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