Favorite Films: Part 5

To finish off our series of Favorite Films, we’ll feature the genre that drove many of us to do what we do: Animation.

There are countless films that feature the use of animation, from live action to fully-animated cartoon features, including those that have lost their grasp in our fast-growing technological society, namely Hand-Drawn (2D) animation and Stop-Motion (sometimes referred to as claymation). Despite the host of good CG films that have been made in the past couple of decades I opted for this select group of traditionally crafted films because of their extraordinary quality and their impact on me personally. You may feel differently. That said, I hope that you’ll revisit these films (assuming you’ve watched them all before) and see them as the incredible wonders that they are.

Pinnochio (directed by Ham Luske & Ben Sharpsteen)

According to Animation critic and historian, Charles Soloman, “Pinocchio remains the most perfect animated feature Walt Disney produced.” It’s hard for me to disagree. Despite its age, having been made in 1940 just before the advent of WWII, it still holds strong in almost every category; story, layout, color, and, of course, character animation which featured the likes of pioneers Freddie Moore and Bill Tytla whom essentially established the style and character appeal that would come to define Disney animation. Although it’s not Disney’s first film to launch cartoon features seriously — that honor belongs to Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs — it was really the first animated film to tell a truly human story, one that honors the power of myth, features the strength of human courage, and displays the importance of living true and good. Unlike the films of today, which primarily feature characters who don’t fit in or seek individual greatness, themes very typical of modern society that glorifies a more selfish, ego-centric, achievement is everything mentality. Instead, Pinnochio is a story of faith, honesty, love and redemption. Here, we learn that a lifetime of service symbolized by the kindness and generosity of the elderly Gepetto (who has devoted his entire existence to making charming toys for children), is rewarded with the gift of a puppet son. But just because he deserves a boy of his own doesn’t mean the boy himself deserves this gift of love and the blessing of life.

Despite being guided by an official conscience (in the being of Jiminy Cricket) we see how quickly Pinnochio fails to uphold his end of the deal. We’re all familiar with temptation, only in greater variation and abundance today than ever before. Yet we completely understand the young puppet’s trials in his journey. First, he’s lured into the life of fame and glory by the clever fox and then, despite being exploited by the flamboyant yet frightening Stromboli, Pinnochio still refuses to learn his lesson on living up to higher principles. He lies, and then after his release, is easily coerced back towards the easy life of drinking, smoking and gambling before both he and his newfound friend Lampwick get shipped off as donkeys for slavery and slaughter. It’s only in the last act that our protagonist redeems himself, in his search for what’s most important — his father who loves him. Braving the dangerous ocean and the whale Monstro, Pinnochio sacrifices all, not for himself, but for another human being. Can there be a better, and more meaningful message for young people today than that?

My Neighbor Totoro (directed by Hayao Miyazaki)

Hayao Miyazaki has made many fabulous films, but none have captured the wonder, magic and innocence of being a child like his perrenial classic, My Neighbor Totoro. The title character himself has become the iconic symbol of the Studio Ghibli since its inception. A story that seems almost “plotless,” it’s a tale that simply details a few summer days in the lives of two young children who reside alone with their father while their mother is away at the hospital.  No reasons or explanation of her stay are given, nor are they necessary. There are no good guys versus bad guys, no chase sequences or fight scenes or any outstanding obstacles that need to be overcome. Such scenarios are not the focus here, but rather the everso peculiar, minute and attentive moments that intrigue the minds of children. In the grounds of their charming country home, Satsuke and Mei discover magical creatures abound, from the fuzzy black dust critters — “Makkuro Kurosuke” which literally translate into “Pitch-black Blackies” — to the marvelously strange yet cute bunny-like character Totoro and his furry companions. Here are the kinds of experiences that are being taken away from children today; the experience of risk and discovery, of joy and wonderment. The blend of reality into imagination is seamless, much like all the best experiences of childhood. And like the best of all modern art, it’s a film that can’t really be explained but one that grabs hold of you and pulls you into its imaginative world.

And did you know that director Miyazaki actually designed and hand-animated much of the film himself?  Can you imagine, especially in our age of corporate hierarchy, mass production and outscourcing of labour, such devotion? All around, the film is gorgeous to look at. Each background of My Neighbor Totoro is meticulously painted in luminous watercolor — the purity and translucency of the medium required to capture the marvelous mix of nature and Japanese architecture. In the end, we have a perfect piece of art, a film about experience, friendship and exploration.  A world created that we want to become real, a place where we want to hang out and stay, perhaps forever.  I still remember the first time I saw that crazy “Cat bus,” I said to myself “I want one” — it didn’t matter that I was already a full-fledged adult male. Such is the magic and charm of this incredibly beautiful film.

Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick)

Tim Burton made three absolutely brilliant and imaginative movies: Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and his stop-motion masterpiece, Nightmare Before Christmas (which was actually directed by Henry Selick). Unbelievably strange yet intriguing, the underground world of Halloween characters taking over the Christmas holidays is not only original in its conception, but brilliant in its execution.  The story begins with Jack Skellington, the lone prince of Halloween, in a state of boredom and depression. Despite his stange looks and the bizarre world in which he inhabits, we somehow can relate to him. Despite all his comforts and position of authority, Jack has simply found that life has become all too repetitive and predictable. No challenges, no discoveries. No meaning. Then suddenly, during a detour into the alter-worlds of holiday seasons, he comes upon the idea of hijaking Christmas Day itself, including an elaborate plan to kidnap Santa Claus. Unaware of the damage his actions cause, Jack find himself in greater trouble than he can possibly imagine, as he proves to be a disasterous Santa Claus substitute. All goes to hell, literally, as his selfish adventure disrupts the entire order of the holiday universe.

With stunny creativity and design, Nightmare Before Christmas is filled with memorable characters and character set pieces. From the utterly awesome design of the two-faced Mayor, to those of the wonderfully freakish Dr. Finklestein and Oogie Boogie, Burton’s imagination factory is on full display here. When I was visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Ar) featuring a special touring collection of artworks created from all of Tim Burton’s films, the most delicious pieces were the drawings, sculptures and setpieces from this particular film. And to boot, the movie’s got a great plot, an endearing hero and a marvelous score composed by Danny Elfman (who also provided the voice for Jack Skellington). All of it’s weird, a little scary and a helluva lot of fun.

Akira (directed by Katsuhiro Otomo)

There are few films that are as explosively dynamic as Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 cyberpunk anime classic Akira, based on the writer-director’s own legendary Manga comic series. With a theme that is debated to this very day, it’s a film that’s mandatory viewing when being introduced to Japanese animation. Set in the post-apocalyptic city of Neo-Tokyo, its story features a cast of youths, headed by Kaneda, the leader of a local biker gang whose childhood friend, Tetsuo gets hospitalized after a motorcycle collision. In a dynamic turn of events, Tetsuo becomes infected with super-kinetic abilities, powers he’s inherited from the other victim of the vehicular accident, a psychic esper named Takashi. Not used to his new powers, Tetsuo is overwelmed with headaches and allusions, leading him towards a rage of mass destruction, the kind of destruction that could destroy everything as foreseen by Takashi. In a bid to stop Tetsuo, the gang’s leader Kaneda is forced to battle his friend to prevent absolute destruction of Neo Tokyo, a world only recently rebuilt after a previous disasterous event caused by another esper from before their time, a character named Akira.

The film’s themes and prophecies are both complex, convoluted and controversial. Mixing the themes  of lost youth with the visions of a cyber-tech world, including telekinesis and singularity (a topic much discussed in today’s fast approaching world of AI and Robotics), Akira is a daring film that would invite endless post-viewership conversation. Accompanied by a kinetic techno score by Shōji Yamashiro and featuring breath-taking hand-drawn animation including some of the best VFX animation ever seen, it’s a film that explodes violently on screen while taking its audience with it. The energy and emotions are so intense, it’s an experience unlike any other film, whether animated or live action. It’s a true science fiction masterpiece.

Beauty and the Beast (directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale)

In the post “Walt” era, it can be said that Disney studios produced several really successful films, notably The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King, all of which helped revive the animation industry after decades of forgetful stewardship. But it’s the studio’s 1991 hit Beauty and the Beast that signaled a serious turn in the studio’s (and the industry’s) fortunes in the 1990’s. A “rough” work-in-progress reel was debuted at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in front of hoard of film critics  who got to witness, for the first time, the magic of behind the scenes storyboards, pencil tests and colored backgrounds, and all in the form of a full feature-length film. It opened the eyes of an entire new audience to the magic of hand-drawn animation. With a great story and a marvelous set of characters from the Beast, to Mrs. Potts and Gaston, the film delivered the kind of imagination unseen in decades. The result was, for the first time ever, an animated feature film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar — which is much different from the current format that automatically gives an Academy Award to a feature film for the year under its own category. Back then, animated films were grouped together with other films, and just like any other feature had to compete against a mulititude of live action movies. Furthermore, only five films were selected for Best Picture nominations, rather than ten today. The achievement was both offensive to some and fantastic in the eyes of others.

Based on a classic story, Disney’s Beauty and The Beast was magical in its beauty, warmth and wonderment. The arrival of Glen Keane’s Beast and James Baxter’s Belle showed the kind of acting that was possible in animation even without the likes of Walt’s Nine Old Men at the helm. Although critics at the time lauded the now-dated computer graphics displayed in the ballroom scene, it’s the mind-blowing quality of the character animation and solid storytelling that has made the film a perfect fit with its timeless tale. Until I saw those wonderfully loose drawings done by likes of Glen Keane, and that I could possibly do THAT for a living, I never would’ve  continued my pursuit of animation as a career. It was the magic of the rough “moving” drawing that hooked me. To see that so much can be expressed with so little — literally just a line — was astonishing to me. All this because of the concept of the persistence of vision — a skill animators today often take no notice of, given that a CG puppet already exists in front of the screen as opposed to a blank piece of paper where a character needs to be first imagined and then created. This experience of creating something from nothing is the magic of this craft and the ultimate essence of being an artist. Beauty and the Beast is a film that’s loaded with creative elements that’s also supplemented by a marvelous set of memorable tunes by the trio of Tim Rice, Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. Modern-day Disney has yet to match that level of excellence in terms of creating a musical that works so beautifully.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (directed by Wes Anderson)

I really like Wes Anderson’s films. But I really loved his animated Fantastic Mr. Fox. Based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, Anderson’s bold entry into feature film animation surprised me. Taking his centrally-focused, one-point perspective camera stylings and his off-beat quirky humor to this classic English children’s tale was a marriage made in comic heaven. The film starts off with Mr. Fox who, despite leading a life of comfort and relative bliss with a lovely home and family, finds himself irritably disquieted by his animal instincts; he needs to chase chickens. He’s a wild animal after all and living the life of a conservative newspaper reporter just won’t do. And when he breaks his promise to his wife to never to steal again, and instead plans a fantastic heist of Boggis, Bunce and Bean’s poultry farms, he ends up endangering all the animals in his neighborhood, forcing them to hide and live underground as the viscious farmers set out to destroy them.

The film features an all-star voicing cast including the likes of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Willem Dafoe and Bill Murray. But unlike most other animated films where celebrity names primarily serve marketing aims rather than provide rich characterizations, the actors here really give weight and substance to their roles.  The dialogue here is sharp, mature and yet still marvelously funny to young children. Perhaps because it’s so real — these are conversations adults have all the time and the children are listening. Make no mistake, this is a family film, but it’s also a seriously honest film about human behavior. The vibrant yet nuanced voice performances, witty dialogue and delightful antics by the team of talented stop-motion animators combine harmoniously to make Fantastic Mr. Fox a joy to watch and listen to. Fast-paced, funny and wonderfully-weird, as all Wes Anderson films are, this adventure of Mr. Fox and his cohorts makes for a tasty treat all the way to the very end. There’s even a strange little song that gets interrupted because it makes absolutely no sense at all! What perfect imperfection! The very kind of imperfection that makes stop-motion animation an artform to be treasured.

Doing it with Joy and Confidence

There are very few people out there, especially on the big stage, who carry as much confidence and joy in what they do as Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” — Ansel Adams, Photographer

 

“All real works of art look as though they were done in joy.” — Robert Henri, Artist

 

Most people think of joy and confidence as states we feel AFTER we’ve met expectations. Unfortunately, not feeling joy and confidence BEFORE any outcome, diminishes both the meaning behind our actions and the odds of success. In other words, without joy, we forget to live presently and without confidence we’ll never fully commit ourselves to the attainment of our goals.

CYCLE OF CREATION: 

Will to Create —> Decisive Action —> Results —> Confidence —> Will to Create

When we think of the cycle of creation, it’s like the question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg?  In reality, it doesn’t matter, because we know that when one is present, the other is not far behind. Confidence creates success and success builds confidence.

But, since life is full of surprises, including at times being completely unfair, irrational and unpredictable, success sometimes doesn’t show up and certainly not on time. Is it any wonder that our commitment to remain disciplined is constantly challenged?

Goals + Hard Work (+ Lag time) => Positive Results

As prolific a painter Lucien Freud was, his success was far from being an overnight one. He was painting in relative obscurity until his mid 50’s and 60’s, when his daring turn on realism was fully developed and finally recognized.

Most people are impatient (myself included). We forget about lag time. Most of us give up just before things start to turn. As they say: “the night is darkest just before the dawn.” Things always look hopeless and futile when the effort required counts the most.

“The last 3 or 4 reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain is what divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger

And, since results rarely look like what we expect them to, most of us never develop the confidence to continue or find the joy we so much desire. The universe not only makes you work for it, it makes you really wait for it.

The key to countering this difficulty is altering our narrative in terms of what brings joy and how confidence relates to our actions.

Importance of FAITH: (CONFIDENCE)

“If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life.” — Marcus Garvey, Writer

 

We may develop our skills, build good strategies, and strengthen our resolve, but none of this will matter if faith is absent. Self-doubt is the number one killer of all positive action. Besides indifference, the lack of belief in oneself, is the most assured way of failing before getting started.

Each day I need to re-affirm my own confidence in myself so that I can get going, so I don’t sit there and frizzle away the day just going thru the motions. Lack of focused physical and mental activity defeats the state of being truly human. And both our emotions and our art reflect that. Attentiveness requires anticipation. We must have faith in the process in order to fully engage in it.

Joan Mitchell’s abstract art is a reflection of her physicality (she was a nationally competitive figure skater), her emotions, and her love of nature. She’s one of the most successful female painters in modern art history.

“All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail.” — Dorothea Brande, Writer

Because we can’t afford to wait for results to confirm our hypotheses, we must proceed “as if” all will turn out. That way, we work with the right mindset and in the proper spirit regardless of what obstacles turn up. Remember; slow is good. Lag time opens the opportunity to build emotional strength.

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” — Leo Tolstoy, Writer

 

Importance of  REWARDS: (JOY)

This blog has preached the spirit of focusing on the process since its inception. The idea has always been that to be able to have meaning in our work, we must enjoy it.

“Success is a pleasure.” — Jim Rohn, Motivational Speaker

It’s extremely important to be rewarding ourselves for good work, for taking risks, for taking action, and for standing by our principles. It’s necessary to value ourselves, and made to feel valued. It’s good to pat ourselves on the back once in a while.

Of course, we need to earn those rewards. We’ve got to put in the time. Without massive devoted action, nothing will result. This simply because if success arrives without effort, it’s unfulfilling and empty. It certainly won’t inspire. I have friends who are only now getting recognized for their art — Annie Awards, Oscar nominations, and literary accolades. They’re being rewarded for their persistence and devotion to their craft —  a lifetime of hidden labors. They inspire me and others because we’re fully aware of their commitment and patience. What looks like luck is birthed from diligence.

Bruce Lee was the definition of will power and discipline. But he also enjoyed every moment that he spent working on his craft.

But what matters is not being recognized publicly, but the commitment that brings the joy. That diligence alone becomes the reward, knowing day in and day out that we live up to our expectations, stay true to our principles, and that we’ve focused our minds and bodies, shared with others and did some actual good. We expressed ourselves and gave back. Anyone who’s worked a hard and honest day or has taken any kind of step to help anyone, knows the feeling of deep fulfillment. True value — in fact I would say ALL VALUE — is created in such fashion. That’s real happiness. It’s not dependent on results. The confirmation is in the commitment to our craft, whatever that may be.

“I always did everything with a smile on my face.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger

CAVEAT: Countering the Negative Forces

Now, if our situation feels bad or untenable, know that it’s not necessarily our fault — a bad upbringing, unforeseen misfortune, poor guidance and exploitative management have much to do with our state of mind in today’s economy. With technology and communication so omnipresent, we’re constantly exposed to dangerous influences, from cyberbullies to Negative Nancies that prance the workplace. So stay away from that, for they can be miserably contagious. From what I’ve witnessed, naysayers who do little more than judge, criticize and put others down are usually insecure and hugely lacking in any real knowledge or talent regardless of their position. Steer far away from that kind of interference and learn to manage the disappointment.

“Negativity is the enemy of creativity.” — David Lynch, Filmmaker

That said, we can’t go on justifying our failures and blaming external circumstances. Because then we’d be placing the responsibility of our lives outside of our control. There will always be doubters out there. Just don’t let yourself become one of them. We need to look within and be solutions oriented, focused on the future while enjoying the moment. That, and surrounding ourselves with people who love and believe in us. Life is too short for the alternative.

In summary, remember this: Make sure Joy and Confidence come FIRST and let the Results come AFTER. Work daily to add trust and create confidence. Help in creating a more trusting, innovative and connected society. Take action towards the empowering and joyful.

“When you love something — like reading or drawing or music or nature — it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great.” — Anne Lamott, Writer

Simon Sinek’s vision and actions in today’s society is a much needed revolution in the way we operate at home and in the workplace. (Just ignore the unfortunate title of the video!)

Putting it Down on Paper

The beautiful notebooks of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo display both her thoughts and visual explorations of shape and color.

“Speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Writer

There’s one thing I know for sure; if I don’t put things down on paper, any idea I have begins its gradual descension towards nothing. In other words, all goals, bright ideas or moments of genius have very little chance of surviving beyond their initial birth.

This may seem obvious, but we’d be surprised at how few people actually put their goals or ideas on paper. Choosing to rely only on their brains to hold onto to their dreams or visions, they’re simply unprepared for the onslaught of everyday demands that rob them of their ability to think and remember. Short-term memory is SHORT TERM. Putting ideas down on paper counters this reality. In fact, it’s the most formative step towards massive purposeful action.

“Very often, gleams of light come in a few minutes’ sleeplessness, in a second perhaps; you must fix them. To entrust them to the relaxed brain is like writing on water; there is every chance that on the morrow there will be no slightest trace left of any happening.” ― Antonin Sertillanges, Philosopher

Great creators always record their ideas and often so immediately after their ideas come to them. Putting our thoughts down on paper is one of the most reliable and useful habits an artist can have. It’s why journals are important. And it’s why smart people have notebooks and writing pads around their bedside tables and all around their living areas. We can never know when or where ideas might come from nor which ones will become something special, so we can’t take the chance of letting them escape. This is the only place where FOMO (fear of missing out) has validity. Moments of inspiration are remarkably fleeting and in today’s environment that’s doubly scary.

Homer Simpson is no longer the symbol for uncommon behavior. According to a recent study by Microsoft Corporation, the average human being has the attention span below that of a goldfish which typically loses its focus in as little as nine seconds. The digitized brain today loses concentration after a lowly eight seconds.

Throughout history, documents were not only made and preserved so that great knowledge can be made useful to its creators but so that its wisdom can also be passed on to future generations. Records of thought leave great blueprints of not only wisdom but also marvelous traces of history and important confirmations of process. All inventions, both creative and scientific have been formed in such fashion.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld reveals his box of hand-written notes where he kept every single funny idea or joke that came to him over his entire career. From the documentary, Jerry Before Seinfeld.

Furthermore, the mere act of making an idea which is intangible onto something tactile like paper, is that it brings it into the real world. Like a farmer’s seed that’s been taken out of its bag, it now has the opportunity to breathe and be cultivated. Despite technology’s portability, most of us work in a physically confined space, the digital world being much more cerebral than physical. Thinking or voicing our ideas is often not enough. Only by writing, drawing and recording them onto a solid surface can our ideas take on that plastic quality and become more accessible. Tactile formation of cerebral information brings all the senses into play.

Exploratory watercolor sketches by Dice Tsutsumi examine both color and mood. Created for his and Robert Kondo’s Oscar-nominated short, The Dam Keeper.

So what methods of putting it down on paper apply to the artist or animator? And how do they help? Here is an assortment of techniques that I’ve found helpful:

Mind-mapping:

Mind-mapping, which can uses assortment of imagery or words, is a great way to explore ideas in the funnest and most liberated way. Especially powerful when it comes to personal development and discovering tangible items that we can only subconsciously think or dream of, it’s a place for uninhibited exploration of possibilities using free association. If problems allude your “overly-analytical” thinking brain, mind-mapping is a great place just to throw all ideas out there on the table. The visually tangible web-like associations allows one thing to lead to another in the most natural and unexpected way to generate the most original ideas.

Free associative mind-mapping is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used in all aspects of creative thinking.

Character studies:

This is probably the most obvious and most useful form of putting down ideas for animators. Unfortunately avoided by many young artists who lack the confidence in drawing, those same artists don’t realize they’ve just thrown out the most powerful tool an animator can possibly possess. Even just using rudimentary shapes like stick figures and circles, an artist can explore endless possibilities of expression and story while ensuring solid presentability. Strong shapes, clear lines of action (LOA) help simplify and give order to the work. That said, the most important thing is attitude and presenting an idea with utmost clarity. Poses tests can also help predict unusual problems with staging that may require adjustments to cameras, props or even the rigs.

Character studies of Dumbo by master storyteller Bill Peet explore all the various attributes and scenarios that help define a character.

Layout tests :

2D composition and choreography is one of the weakest skills of animators working today. Laying out visually the paths of action and composition is essential for seeing what it all might look like BEFORE putting it all into the digital universe. Like a painter, we need to treat the screen like a canvas, only potentially a moving one, whereby the placement and subsequent movement of characters are responsible for leading the eye of the viewer. Poorly planned and poorly placed action, loses or confuses the audience. Furthermore, knowing and even having some say with the layout might help improve staging and improve the dynamics of a scene.

Awesome layout designs by the masterful John Nevarez, done for the movie Brother Bear. Great design and staging can really inspire an animator’s creativity.

Topographical (alternate view) diagrams:

Seeing the world from different perspectives give us a world view of things. Like an architect that would NEVER build a home without one, they serve as plans for everyone to follow. As an animator, one should know where the character is in space relative to its environment — sets, entry and exit points, props, and position of other characters. It’s very hard to acknowledge how large the virtual space is and even mechanically how long it might take a character to travel in such a space. A bird’s eye view helps put things in perspective physically, especially when cutting back and forth or when characters move both towards and away from camera.

It’s crucial to know where your characters are relative to each other and its environments. Top views bring clarity. From Eric Goldberg’s excellent book, Animation Crash Course.

Rhythm charts:

I like to think of animation as a form of visual music. There are repeated patterns and broken ones. The tempo and flow of a piece of moving art requires a deep analysis and prevision of how it all plays out. Here you find and design the highs and lows, as well as how short or long moments of action or pause need to be. What repeats, and what doesn’t and where the contrast is gonna be. Rhythm charts help define the energy of the scene. It unifies the entire scene.

Dialogue/Facial Charts:

Sometimes it might be prudent to make little diagrams of how a piece of dialogue or music might play out visually. To know or test ahead of time where the peaks in sound or emotion are in the track can heavily affect where we might place a particular pose or action. Do we want or need a certain part of the line to read visually? Then we must be careful that the physicality required there doesn’t obscure the reading of the face or mouth shapes. All too often I see animators missing out on great opportunities for nailing the potential of a great line by having crucial words expressed during the midst of a fast head turn or complicated action. Know where to simplify and where to add sophistication.

Look at these marvelous studies exploring the flow and timing of the dialogue to work with the action by master animator Charlie Bonifacio. Notice the little facial poses that accompany held body poses as well as the tiny charts denoting the spacing and kind of rhythm the artist has in mind.

Written notes:

Not all forms of note taking for the artist need to be drawings. It’s important to make annotations of all sorts, including mental notes and ideas that are just as fleeting as visual ones. Simple guidelines and decisions we want to make, such as who the character is and what the intentions/motives are are very important. Putting down that choice can prevent us from constantly changing our minds. My own thumbnails are almost always accompanied by mental notes, such as little head shakes, or emphasis of an idea, anything that’s too difficult to draw or show. They serve as reminders of things I might use during the physical animation process.

Glen Keane is famous for his amazing draftsmanship and animation, but he also makes copious amounts of notes. They indicate the kind of thinking that goes on in his mind as he discovers, develops and forms his characters.

Special Note:

To those of us who feel incredibly uncomfortable drawing and haven’t adapted to making regular notations, realize this: NO ONE has to see our scribbles. They are there to serve the creator and the creator ALONE. They’re not meant to be stand alone pieces of art. We mustn’t be intimidated by those gorgeous Glen Keane sketches we see online and think that we’re not qualified to use this tool. The final presentation of our work as 3D animators is all digital. To me, making thumbnails is only research and development — part of the process of coming up with something great. Often times, after laying out the poses and rhythm charts for my entire scene, I don’t even look at them anymore. During animation I just fly through it. The ideas and feelings I want have already been burned into my brain thru the act of sketching and note making.

Furthermore, for those of us who rely strictly on video reference, know this: Unless we spend an extensive amount of time learning and practicing real acting and we’re very comfortable in front of the camera, we will not get much useful reference material. The diversity of shape and designs of animated characters seldom correspond to the physics and visual weight of any live human form. Not only will appeal be missing, copying live action recordings might even lead to poor presentation of the body mechanics. Know also that video is only one source of material that can be used. We’re here to create, not copy.

Blue Sky Studio’s super-talented (and super hardworking) Jeff Gabor uses lots of video reference. But he does it in a way that is appropriate with expertly laid out camera work, rich scene analysis and a deep devotion to acting. This compilation is from Jeff’s work from the movie Epic.

Summary:

Remember that putting things down on paper is primarily a form of preparation. To know where we are and what problems we might have going forward. It defines the path we’re about to take and where we’re heading. It’s crucial to have a destination in mind and written down.

At the same time, we mustn’t overstay our venture in the preparation phase. Once it’s clear we’ve exhausted the exploration process it’s time to move on. It’s wise to set a budget for how much time we can afford to plan and experiment. Ultimately, we must DO IT. And because things almost never go to plan, we must temper our expectations. Then why go thru all this you might ask? Well, if we don’t we’re even worse off. If you’ve got a fight coming up, and you’re not the least bit prepared, odds are you’re gonna get hurt badly. Those who take a casual approach, become casualties.

“Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.” — Ludwig van Beethoven, Composer

Gratitude

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
― Seneca, Philosopher

As another year comes to a close and another begins, we all must take the time to reflect as well as to prepare.

Time moves so swiftly doesn’t it? Even without counting the minutes of the day or the days of the week, it consistently moves forward, regardless of what you do with your life and what thoughts and feelings occur within you. This is precisely the reason why we must continue to remind and encourage ourselves (and others) to live presently – to create and experience moments that matter.

French artist, Jean Dubuffet seen here at work. Dubuffet is famous for his radical and graphic style of painting that he felt was a more authentic and humanistic approach to creation.

When I look back at the last 18 months or so, I can logically say that’s it’s been at least an eventful if not a trying year; I lost a dear friend, received a health scare, had a fire (which cost me half my home, most of my art, and rattled my marriage), and I had to move not once, but three times. Even my daily routine of visual creation and the writing of the blog lost its consistency. Yet, despite all that, all I can feel is gratitude.

The Firebird by Marc Chagall. Whenever I see a Chagall, it feels like love.

Why? Because at the end of the day I’m still here. And so many of the people I care and think about are also still here. The opportunity to create and learn and share continues to exist each moment, and as an artist — in fact, as a human being — this is all that matters. We must welcome all experience (even those that may seem painful at the time) because we don’t know which one will turn us on.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Philosopher

Without difficulty, we don’t get to experience the events and emotions that challenge us to be better. We don’t get to see things that would’ve never appeared otherwise, nor would we meet those all important people who change our lives. Sometimes disruption, misfortune and unanswered prayers are blessings in disguise.

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
― Marcel Proust, Writer

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh. What we plant, we reap. Good conditions — positive thoughts, good people, and serene environments — make for a good life.

In fact, the disruptions to my life became opportunities to reinvent myself and think outside of the box. It forced me to bear down again, make tough decisions, and take positive action.  The result was that my art took on a new stylistic direction and my perspective of the universe grew both broader and deeper. If I had chosen the alternative — to sit helplessly, whining and complaining — I would’ve gone no where, or even worse, backwards. It’s far to easy to be consumed with past regret or worry for the future. Even the smartest person in the world cannot tell us what will happen next, not even in the short term. History has proven that prediction is as useless as complaint and condemnation. We must stay away from arrogant or negative thinking which can come from any source, both self-serving and benevolent.

“Every day, stand guard at the door of your mind.” — Jim Rohn, Motivational Speaker

As creative people, we can’t afford to waste our time with envy, competition, and non-constructive criticism. Such passive approach to living is antithetical to the art of creating. To be consumed in that world invites the potential for exponential negativity and judgement. Sure, real violence and injustice exists but we must park the bad elements of life into an area that can be managed. Our focus must be on the positive and the actionable. We must be persistent and patient.

Italian composer Ennio Morricone  is always working at his craft and continues to do so right into his eighties. Despite a magnificent career — one which consists of composing over 500 scores including for films such as The Mission, Cinema Paradiso, The Untouchables, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and many others — he only won his first Oscar for Best Original Score (for Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight) last year at the ripe old age of 87. Yet he has always remained productive, humble and grateful.

“There isn’t a great soundtrack without a great movie that inspires it.” — Ennio Morricone, Composer

Artists need to look within themselves, while engaging in the world outside of themselves. We invite, interpret and respond — all of which are beautiful and enriching actions. This is where our self-expression comes from. And upon the execution and delivery of our ideas and feelings, we experience not mere happiness — a short term state of being which can be easily achieved via various artificial means —but real joy and fulfillment.  What could possibly be better than being caught up in the creative process?

The artist that lives fully in the moment, continually observing, both within and outside of himself, who is constantly learning and discovering, and ultimately productive is one that lives with absolute truth, joy and wisdom. Everything else is bonus.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh