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 the 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 is offended by the man’s remarks, and so verbally threatens his adversaries before storming off.  He makes clear his position when 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 scene that shows and foreshadows 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 not impossible to think Lincoln walked or talked any other way. It reminds me of the story of the painting of America’ first president George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, known as the Lansdowne Portrait, which conveyed such a regal and dignified portrayal of the president that despite it not being the most accurate likeness of him, it came to become the image that would define how he looked forever in history. Every minted coin and paper bill 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 with our work has happened. 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. (This author is no exception.) 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 that 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 and self-worth, it fails miserably. A musician isn’t judged by how quickly he plays and neither should an artist be judged by the speed at which he paints or animates. 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

TheGodfather_MichaelCorleone

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.

modigliani-JeanneHebuterne

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.”

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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

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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

Inputs & Outputs

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The various interfaces and accessories of the computer define the very way we interact with them. The human mind and body has its own inputs and outputs that we must learn to respect to get what we wish out of them.

“You are what you eat.”

“A man is defined by his actions.”

– Two Common Proverbs

Sometimes life’s not fair. Or at least it seems that way. But we pretty much get out of it what we put in. Whether we’re talking about personal lives, economics or the environment, there’s a constant flow between what moves in and what moves out. Treat the earth or our fellow humans poorly, and we’re gonna suffer the consequences. The artistic process is no different, although the results of creative effort don’t always turn out the way we expect. The real beauty in anything is in the surprises.

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Pangu is the center of the ancient Chinese creation story. With the swing of his giant axe, he separated Yin from Yang creating the Earth (Yin) and the Sky (Yang). Yin and Yang is often interpreted as a symbol of balance between dueling forces but it’s also about the flow of things, how elements and actions counter-balance each other and the continued pattern of events that are inevitable. What we put in, we get out, which in turn, affects what we put in – making it all part of a huge encompassing circle of activity.

Balance, which is achievable in art, is a most challenging thing to achieve in life. It’s what we must strive for because without it, we’re bound to lose track of life and ourselves. But here’s one scientific fact that reminds us that we can always determine our future pretty much at any time. Aside from some noted brain and heart cells, we astonishingly replace 98% of the atoms in our body each year! We really can be what we choose to be! Neither mind or body are as fixed as we believe.

“If a man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit.” – Thomas Merton, from Thoughts in Solitude

The whole mind-body-spirit axiom is highly under-estimated in the daily act of living. Caught in an age of accelerated technological advancement and constant busyness, it’s far too easy to lose ourselves in one type of activity or another. We are seldom aware and scarcely mindful of what we’re doing. We often don’t even realize where we are in space or in time. Pure, distraction-free presence is all too absent.

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Few artists have accomplished as much or given as much of themselves to the art of animation as Richard Williams. Today, even at the age of eighty, he continues to devote to the art he loves. He won his third Academy Award Nomination this past year for his latest short film, Prologue.

When we talk about inputs it’s important to recognize what we put into ourselves – what we feed our minds, our hearts and our bodies. In other words, we can choose what enters our being, and in turn, our universe. The quality of our “inputs” and our choice of subsequent actions – our “outputs” – determine both our immediate and long-term reality.

It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things. – Leonardo Da Vinci

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Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci was not only a prolific artist, inventor and scientist, he was also a healthy, strong vegetarian, capable of great physical feats of strength. He’s the ultimate renaissance man – a total mental, physical and spiritual embodiment of excellence.

To maintain some semblance of balance and good health, here our some things that we can attest to as being very helpful “inputs” as well as the necessary “outputs” that complement them with respect to the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of our lives:

Physical Inputs – Insist on quality and consistent consumption of quality foods, liquids and fresh air. Artists and technicians studying and working in the arts are notorious for their poor diets. The image of the vice-inflicted, physically weak and impoverished artist is over-rated and out of date. Don’t live down to those expectations.

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Actor Kirk Douglas plays Vincent Van Gogh in Vincent Minelli’s 1956 film, Lust For Life (based off the Irving Stone novel). Van Gogh’s tragic story made him the poster child for the starving artist. People forget he suffered severe mental illness and loneliness, which ultimately lead to his death. Had he survived his condition beyond his meager 37 years, he might’ve prospered for his magnificent artistry was recognized shortly after his passing.

Physical Outputs – Move the body. Sitting for too long is the equivalent of a slow death. Recent scientific evidence shows that when the body is idol for too long, it goes into states not unlike that of hibernation where the body works to conserve as much energy as possible and thereby shut down important metabolic processes that would otherwise be active. You’ll still get hungry but you won’t be burning off any of those calories in front of the computer. The common occurrence of the pot belly is only one small evidence of this fact. Chronic illness and cardiovascular disease are far more deadly outcomes of a life in stasis.

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Matt Groening’s famous anti-hero, Homer Simpson is the modern day parody of the non-athletic, unintelligible and underachieving male. From The Simpsons.

Mental Inputs – The pace of the modern day artist is, all too often, too fast and too furious. It’s very easy to fall prey to inhaling the same nervous air and soupçon of limited taste and creative exposure. Feed your mind like you feed your body with quality literature, inspirational blogs, visits to museums and outdoor excursions to refresh and reboot the cerebral taste buds. We need outside inspiration so we can be reminded to live each day anew.

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Blogging maestro, Maria Popova. Maria’s marvelous blog, Brain Pickings, is one of the best and most followed sites in the world. It’s a beautiful and generous source for literature, art, poetry and meaningfulness. (Like this blog) Brain Pickings is also completely free and ad-free. (Photo by Elizabeth Lippman)

“Art appreciation, like love, cannot be done by proxy: It is a very personal affair and is necessary to each individual.” – Robert Henri

Mental Outputs – If you’re a working artist, this is the one area you’re probably fulfilling, at least mechanically. Artistic creation, after all,  is a challenging mental activity. That said, the nature of commercial work can be at times creatively stifling and the constant, hurried pace of production can sap the drive and energy of even the most battle-tested warriors. Many artists need to find alternative creative outputs to satisfy the mind, when paid work doesn’t. Personal art or a passionate dive into an alternative creative expression such as writing, music, or sports, often help visual artists achieve not only balance, but find deep inspiration and fulfillment.

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United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas. This brilliant new science fiction novel, which supposes an altered history of WWII, is the latest creative expression of the long-time accomplished digital film artist. Peter has numerous films under his belt from VFX blockbusters to Pixar’s latest features, but it’s his personal writing, that frees him to create his own worlds and express his wildest and most personal ideas. His books (including his Folio Prize nominated novel, Bald New World) have received critical acclaim and worldwide exposure.

Spiritual Inputs – Find time for peace and being alone. Give yourself the allowance to contemplate the meaning of things, even the seemingly littlest of things, no matter how trivial they may seem to others. Consider the practice of prayer or meditation, or just regular isolated walks in the woods. Moments alone are quite sacred and we’re all in great danger of losing this beautiful horological practice.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” – Henry David Thoreau

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The Universe Unmasked. Painting by Rene Magritte, a surrealist who dared to imagine the strange, the absurd, and the unimaginable.

Spiritual Outputs – Find ways to connect to things outside of yourself. Consider a commitment of at least a small allotment of time for others, not just family or friends, but to the community or the environment – so that we may give away and give back some of ourselves to the forces unknown. We ultimately enter and leave this world alone, but our connection to it, while we are here, give it meaning and fulfillment. We don’t have to look far into the future or past, or so deep into the galaxies to realize we are only an infinitesimal part of existence.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”- Carl Sagan

Doing Something New

 

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Gertie the Dinosaur. It’s been over 100 years since Winsor McKay first showed the world his animations. Not only did he create the first animated films, he was able to express movement, life and personality in his creation.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney

We live in a time in art and entertainment, where rehashing the same old stuff over and over again has become the norm. Sequels and reboots of franchises either long forgotten or just recently finished, make their way like fast food stuff from a conveyor belt. The attempts to makeover the same concepts, characters, and worlds with a “twist” tire quickly, and succeed only due its seemingly effective flash and dash afforded by the current advance in digital technology and its exposure to new markets – the young, the foreign and the forgetful.

The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done. Jean Piaget, Psychologist

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Friend and ultra-talented artist, Vincent Nyugen is a gifted concept artist at Blue Sky Studios. His independent work as a writer, children’s book illustrator and here, as mural artist is fun, beautiful and fresh. To see more of Vincent’s work, go here.

Taking chances is not at the heart of modern day business. The very nature of capital ventures is to maximize profits and reduce risks. In art, our concerns are worldly and personal, taking risks is mandatory. In order to find any kind of meaning in our efforts, both physical and emotional, artists need to dig inside, and explore far into the unknown. We need to express our uniqueness (and retain) that uniqueness in spite of the current environment.

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Today men and women everywhere look pretty much as interchangeable as the cities they live in. India is one of the few places in the modern world, where they still wear and promote their traditional style of dress, signifying their confidence in the uniqueness and beauty of their culture. From the bridal collection by Indian designer JJ Valaya.

Throughout history, artists have found ways to do new things – hence the word create, rather than say, copy or re-do. That’s what excites us. The challenge then is how do we keep that creative, exploratory spirit in this gentrified and increasingly hurried world that we live in today?

“I wanted to do new things with dance, adapt it to the motion picture medium.” – Gene Kelly

I believe in the youth of our times. I believe that the advent of technology can be used for bettering ourselves, freeing ourselves and bettering our world. There are people NOW that are using their skills and passion to better communication and preserve our environment.

Moom” is the new film from Tonko House founders, Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo. These two former Pixar artists, are out there taking the world by storm, tackling worldly issues in refreshingly bold, beautiful and innovative ways. To see more from Tonko House, go here.

But of course, we as human beings will have our battles during the transition from our current mindset of scarcity and selfishness. Our species needs to continue evolving, rather than going backwards in time or practice. We need to move past our fears. As creatives, our job is to tell the world about the new ways of living and being by using our literal, visual and musical skills. This has been the responsibility of the artist for ages, since the dawn of man.

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A profound moment from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s inevitable that when we make discoveries, we move forward.

Directors, painters, writers and performers that have excelled the most have always studied the past and then took society to somewhere new. The great Masaki Kobayashi, for example, was a classically-trained filmmaker who was always trying to find fresh, inventive ways to discuss deep, historical human problems.

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Harakiri. Starring the masterful Tatsuya Nakadai, a rogue samurai comes to tell a tale of woe and renounce the cruelty of the samurai code. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi.

In a scene from his powerful 1962 film about Japanese ritual suicide, Harakiri, a character hopes to attain employment by gaining respect and sympathy by asking a Lord if he could use his courtyard to commit ritual suicide (so as to die with honor rather than face poverty). Unfortunately, his intentions are exposed and, under the circumstance, is forced to kill himself with a bamboo blade. The director then had to find a way of how someone could actually do that:

“I drank sake and was thinking about it all night. At dawn it came to me suddenly that it was impossible for him to stab himself with a bamboo sword. There was only one way to kill himself namely, if the sword were stuck into the tatami mat, and the man threw himself over it.” – Masaki Kobayashi

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A sensational mixed-media piece by NY illustrator and feature film concept artist Robert McKenzie. Robert’s work is dark yet warm, powerful yet articulate. Working with him was a treat, as his heart is as big as his talent. To see more of his lovely work, go here.

After days or even years of struggle, artists tend to find solutions that appear to others like flashes of brilliance, as if the whole thing were revealed like an epiphany. No one ever knows the search and internal battles that we, alone, must face to solve our problems. At the same time, being forced to face something new activates the best of what we have to offer us as artists.

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In director Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or :  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” the marvelous Peter Sellers plays three separate personalities (he was scheduled to play all four leads until he broke his leg and couldn’t get into the airplane cockpit to suit up as the bomber pilot).  Each character represented a unique perspective of events that were to unfold leading up to global nuclear annihilation. Created during a time of great anxiety between America and the former USSR,  Stanley Kubrick’s bold dark-humored masterpiece may be the most daring, farcical and important film he ever made.

Artists are always the most responsible for finding new ways of seeing things, new ways of telling truths and even new ways of having fun with what we’ve got. It needn’t always be so serious. Take the work of a former colleague of mine, Scott Campbell, whose mind and talent is “off the charts” unique and fantastical. Scott remakes the world in his ideal – playful, strange, and deceptively simple.

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Scott Campbell’s magic can bring a smile to anyone’s face. This image, from his awesome book, “The Great Showdowns” is an illustrated gem of the great confrontations from films in the 20th century. If you want to be successful, be true to yourself, like Scott and you’ll be respected (even revered) in your own way. To see more of his genius, go here.

So, to all you young and exciting artists/filmmakers out there, ask yourself what you can bring that might possibly push the boundaries of your craft, of our humanity? What does it mean to be successful? We live in a time, for the first time in our existence, where we believe anything is possible. I like to think that when the challenges of our work get hard, we need to take this question seriously. Only then can we find what drives us to act and to create. Only then can we find real solutions and actually make a difference and not just earn a paycheck or boost corporate earnings. We need to think bigger.

“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them.” – Marcus Aurelius

Film Anaylsis: The Jungle Book

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Based off Rudyard Kipling’s  famous collection of stories, The Jungle Book movie is one of Disney’s most beloved classics, with characters that have charmed audiences since the day it was released.

Walt Disney’s 1967 hand-drawn animated classic is, in my humble opinion, one of the landmarks of Disney character animation. Despite a limited budget and story, The Jungle Book was a huge success, accumulating over $205 million in worldwide box office for the studio while delighting families all over the world. To put that into perspective – accounting for inflation using today’s dollars – the film has made an astounding $632 million according to boxofficemojo.com. And almost all of that success lies in the hands of the performers – the voice actors (such as the musical Phil Harris, who plays Baloo) and more significantly, the visual actors – the animators.

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Baloo and Mowgli singing “The Bare Necessities” – one of the many delicious scenes animated by the marvelous Ollie Johnston for Disney’s The Jungle Book.

“Gee,  this will make me immortal. The way you guys animate me I can do no wrong.” – Phil Harris, voice of Baloo the bear

At the time The Jungle Book was being produced, Walt Disney was busy in the design and formation of his landmark theme park, Disneyland. The film didn’t have guidance or the focus of its leader, nor the money to back its production. (In fact, Walt passed away before its theatrical release.) However, this was also a time, when its animators, and the famous Nine Old Men in particular, were at the peak of their creative powers.

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Animated magic by the talented Milt Kahl make the interaction of characters like Shere Khan and Kaa an absolute delight to watch. From Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Some the best scenes ever animated by the very best of this craft are in this one humble movie. Anytime I want to be inspired by pure, unadulterated beautiful and entertaining character animation I look to this film. When I get tired of this craft imitating live action with little to no deviation, I pick up this old classic. If I feel exhausted or even jaded about the industry, a sneak peak at any one of the numerous scenes of magic on display, and I’m quickly cheered up and inspired again.

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The lackadaisical buzzards from The Jungle Book may only have a small role to play, but they too, are conceived and animated with charm and elegance. One would be hard-pressed to find weak or thoughtless animation in this little gem of a movie.

When I teach new and veteran animators alike, scenes from The Jungle Book show up for discussion and demonstration more often than any other film.

“None of it is possible, however, if the crew has failed to develop the characters to the point where their thoughts and their actions seem natural and believable. It cannot be achieved mechanically, or by copying, or by wishful thinking, but only the careful build-up, understanding, and a love for the characters.” – Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, from The Illusion of Life.

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The magical leaders (Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsbery) of The Jungle Book‘s character animation brought great rhythm and joy to everyone, and especially so, in the song and dance sequence “I Wanna Be Like You.”

The Jungle Book is a film archive that serves as an encyclopedia of animation knowledge, technique and execution. All the principles that make the craft great are on display, with the primary focus on what’s most important in character animation – performance. There are scenes that are so natural, they wouldn’t feel out of place in a live action movie. Yet there are others, that do things only this art form can do – display and communicate a visual language that delights not just the eyes but the soul.

To finish this tribute to this favorite character film of mine, let’s take a look at these two scenes, one by Milt Kahl and the second by John Lounsbery. Both scenes display elegant phrasing, are immeasurably creative and are executed to perfection. If you can, re-watch them in slow-motion, and you’ll be blown away.

This marvelous scene is a tour de force of animated magic that can be delivered only by the hands of a master (Milt Kahl). The walk is convincing in weight and timing, and the energy and spirit is perfect. Just look at how the foot placement, staging and rhythm of the shot progresses throughout the scene. From Disney’s The Jungle Book.

This short scene, by John Lounsbery, is a perfect example of the type of animation that is almost never seen today. It’s just a small scene – depicting a tiny moment of silliness and visual playfulness – but it’s a perfect display of the merger of fantastic drawing (posing) and musical rhythm that help make this movie so vibrant. The creativity on display here never ceases to amaze me.

“The audience understood the characters and identified with what each was trying to do. Every sequence gave new opportunities to see other facets of the personalities. And even though there was very little story as such, these character relationships and interesting personalities made this the most successful cartoon up to that time in our history.” – Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

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This Baloo model sheet shows the kind of research and exploration that was put into the development of the characters. Property of Walt Disney.

I wish today’s executives, producers and directors would remember that statement by Frank and Ollie. If we make room for truly organic character development and interaction – i.e. scenes for animators (the actors) to visually and emotionally explore the characters on screen – we can begin again to create something memorable. As a test, try to name how many characters you see in today’s animated features where you remember more than one or two of them after you’ve seen it. In a film like The Jungle Book, you can remember and name them all.

Going Off Course

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Bridges of Sighs” by master painter John Singer Sargent. In my humble opinion, Sargent’s loose and playful watercolor studies, done when he was free from commissioned work, have more vigor, life and beauty than even his masterpieces in oil paint.

“I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.” – Henry Miller (from Tropic of Cancer)

First off, my apologies for “disappearing” for a couple of weeks. This blog is now almost a year old, and I’ve kept the posts going pretty much weekly since its inception. However, there are times in life when we need to go “off course” – to be free of routine, free from habit (even good ones) – in order to be re-routed or reminded about how to live. As artists, it’s essential that we take stock once in a while. In business it’s called taking a snap shot of your company by looking at the balance sheet, to see what you’ve got and where you’re at. In life it’s a hard look at the now, a pure and unbiased reality check on the totality of life.

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Image from a segment directed by the kind and talented Roger Allers (co-director of The Lion King) from the Salma Hayek-produced animated film based on writer-poet Kahlil Gibran’s beautiful book, The Prophet. This unique independent film boasts the talents of eight different directors and numerous visual artists.

Taking time out is something many artists in this industry forget to do. Fearful of not having stable employment, constantly looking for or setting up the next gig has become the routine of the animation artist. It’s a chaotic way to live and a rather large price to pay in order to do what we love. Where does family, friendships and personal time fit in? Should they not be our priorities, rather than an afterthought?

My own recent dilemma – contemplating a huge change in lifestyle that might bring both excitement and joy but also a return to daily challenge and uncertainty – has in itself forced me to take stock, to see and ask what I myself really want and how I’m most useful in the rather short time that I’m here on this planet.

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The Song of the Sea is a gorgeous hand-drawn film by Tomm Moore, who also created the wonderful Secret of Kells. Nominated for an Oscar in 2015, the film is a beautiful exploration and expression of grief and magic done in a visual style that’s fitting for this moving Celtic Tale.

And of course, we can only assess our situations properly if we step back or away. Taking the time to breathe while falling off course or being lost can sometimes serve as a great reminder of the things that make us who we are. Some routines, such as daily drawing, painting or writing were dearly missed as I wandered. As strong creatures of habit, human beings don’t do well without routine. And as long as those routines are healthy, both mentally and physically, we know that they serve to strengthen our resolve and better our lives. Being away from that re-affirms their necessity.

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BlackSad. Juan Díaz Canales (writer) and Juanjo Guarnido (artist) created magic with their anthropomorphic noir-styled graphic novel crime thriller.

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Watercolor studies done to explore color and atmosphere for Blacksad. Juanjo Guarnido’s artistry is beautiful in concept and execution with each panel and page carefully planned and constructed.

It’s good as an artist to always remember to see things in a new, weird way.” – Tim Burton

The other good thing that taking time out does, is it allows us to refresh ourselves, a chance to reboot our initial drives and dreams. Abandoned goals and “to-do” lists get a second chance. In the studio, I’ll wipe out everything on my four by six feet wall-mounted whiteboard that I use to set weekly goals or meetings and turn it into a place to play with my immediate future. I’ll do some free-form or visual mapping – a brainstorming technique that allows ideas to organically and sporadically form – to help me. Sometimes a new story or creative idea evolves, while at other times, the idea of calling or visiting an old friend pops up. Now that it’s visually in front of me, it gives me the extra push to make the commitment.

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Visual mapping page  by Steal Like an Artist author, Austin Kleon. Kleon is a big fan of using visual mapping and here he does one after reading John Berger’s book on the Ways of Seeing.

“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” – Henry Miller

Taking time off from creating and working diligently also allows us to see clearly again. Every artist knows that if you stare at something for too long (especially your own work) you can no longer see its faults. It’s why counsel or coaching is often necessary to improve our skills because objectivity is not possible when our senses have become conditioned to its surroundings.

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The beautiful art of Vincent Van Gogh has become so commonplace that people forget its beauty. Look at something long enough and you won’t see what you saw before. Our perspective changes with time and exposure.

Things that looked special, stop being so special. Things that looked off, start to appear okay. Our eyes (and senses in general) adapt so we don’t become obsessed or overly sensitized to our environment. In harsh times, that’s good for survival but as modern-day working artists, we must never let that happen for any sustained period of time. We must keep a higher standard. We must stay fresh.

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

Of course, falling off course sometimes is just that – a much needed break from being on course. Even the best of artists, writers and musicians go into periods of non-thinking voids, free from actual physical creation.

“To be silent the whole day, see no newspaper, hear no radio, listen to no gossip, be thoroughly and completely lazy, thoroughly and completely indifferent to the fate of the world, is the finest medicine a man can give himself.” – Henry Miller.

Vacations are hard for me personally. My wife teases me, often saying that I don’t know how to relax or do nothing. This period of a lack of productivity drives my mind mad with guilt, sadness and discomfort. It’s practically clinical! But time off is healthy and this obsession with productivity (or success for some people) has become the common malaise of our times. Our accelerated lifestyle and our easy access to technology make taking time off a near impossibility. It takes strong unsung discipline to do nothing these days.

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The prolific Norman Rockwell, seen here in his studio, painted his last commissioned painting at the ripe old age of 82, two years before his passing. There is no greater activity for an artist than that of the act of creation.

Finally, the most beneficial aspect of time off is that it propels us to get back to our business of doing art, but hopefully with greater vigor and new found inspiration. As we return to our craft and accept the impact we might have on others, we know that this is what we’re meant to do. And that, when all is said and done, is very re-assuring.

“I suppose the only word for me, when the chips are down, is that I am an artist.” – James Baldwin