Shot Analysis: 101 Dalmations

101DalmationsPoster

There are certain films I watch periodically for knowledge, growth and inspiration. In live action, they include films like The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Akira Kurasawa’s Ran. I never seem to get enough of those films because they are so epically crafted, rich in human emotion, and nearly flawless. I learn something new each time, and find myself in awe of the artistic mastery on display. It’s like experiencing a dream.

“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” – Vincent Van Gogh

Animated films don’t carry nearly that kind of complexity, grandeur or critical acclaim. But I do have a special list of animated films that rank amongst the most magical. One of them is Walt Disney’s 1961 classic, 101 Dalmations. Both the story and animation are a charm. The designs are unique and timeless, and within its 103 minutes of run time lie some of the most original and appealing scenes in animation history. It’s a landmark film amongst Walt Disney’s bounty of animated productions.

But today, we’ll focus specifically on one scene from the movie animated by the magnificent Milt Kahl. It’s a clip that describes Roger and his dog Pongo anxiously awaiting the birth of puppies, like expectant fathers. The scene is short (more than half the shot is a series of small movements and holds) but loaded with personality, contrast and beauty.

Let’s break down some of the key areas of the animation choreography:

RogerPongo_Setup

Set up

The initial setup is simple, clear and nicely balanced. A geometrically perfect triangle tells you exactly where to look. The line along Roger’s legs, back and arm, along with Pongo’s elongated neck, create a continuous line of travel for the viewer’s eyes. There is physical contact in the hands which pat Pongo’s head, as well as social-emotional contact created by the direct eye-to-eye connection.

RogerPongo_antic

Anticipation

In the first bit of significant action (anticipation), you see a strong coil-like build up of the bodies in nearly simultaneous action. The lines of action (depicted in blue) reverse. Compression occurs between the heads and shoulders, while areas like the hands, sweater, hair (red) and Pongo’s ears reveal shapes that contrast from their previous positions, either dragging, or expanding.

RogerPongo_Stretch

Action/Expression

In the action/expression phase, you can see that Kahl has taken advantage of the elasticity of animal anatomy to demonstrate extreme force and expression. The lines of action of the bodies now spring almost straight and upwards towards the screen, while elements of the arms, hands and jaws reflect drag (yellow), giving them weight and interest.

RogerPongo_Hangtime

Hang Time

The most visually impressive and kinetic action occurs in the hang time, where Pongo frantically pedals his paws and Roger’s arms open upwards and outwards. Again, there is beautiful line of action in the main body masses, excellent display of overlapping action and shapes that give the shot depth, and a wonderful, almost floral texture and sense of excitement in the movement.

RogerPongo_Arc

Follow thru

As the characters collide into each other, Kahl achieves another marvelous contrast from the previous phase of action. Here, you can see and feel the force of the bodies compress into each other, as the follow thru of elements like the ears, hair, tail, sleeves and paws give the action real heft and believability. The arcs are beautifully conceived, as each body part flows naturally from one position to the other. It’s most intelligently displayed in the action of Roger’s arms as they envelop his dog in circular motion.

RogerPongo_End

Final Pose

In the final part of the scene, you see that Roger and Pongo, who were originally united by muted concern and only the slightest of contact, are now in full embrace at the end. Their arms and legs intertwine and overlap, their bodies glue together as one, while their attention jointly focuses towards the sudden alarm off screen. The conclusion of the action culminates perfectly.

People often attribute Milt Kahl’s notoriety due to his marvelous skill as a draftsman but when you look at a shot like this, you witness more than just beautiful draftsmanship or even perfect execution of technical elements. You realize that it’s all elegantly preconceived with much deliberation, effort and sincerity that shows how true the animator is to the characters and their situation.

“… it’s not the draftsmanship. It’s the conception.” – Milt Kahl

This sensational clip of animation is less than five seconds long, yet its quality and appeal is timeless. It’s a stark wake up call to all those animators who complain of doing “short shots.” It’s not the size or complexity that matters, it’s what you do with it.

Fear

Indianajones_LeapofFaith

Harrison Ford takes a leap of faith, in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Fear of the unknown is scary, but it can also be a good thing. It’s a natural reaction. It warns you of danger but it can also prompt you into decisive action.

Industrial pioneer, Henry Ford stated:

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”

In art, fear of the unknown is a necessity. It can paralyze you like any other kind of fear can but it can also be the perfect confirmation that you’re onto something curious — something new and exciting. If it ain’t there, you face the most serious dangers an artist can face — sloppiness, stagnancy and banality.

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Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean was a curious cat.

When I animated I was always unsure. Do I know enough about the character? Do I understand the sequence? How will this connect with the shots around me? Can I make this work and do it on budget?  If I wasn’t sure of a detail I’d go find out. Confirm the pitch. Do the research. Shoot the video reference. Act it out. Prepare, plan, and test. I had the same concerns and took similar action as a director. Even after all the preliminary work, that uncertainty would always persist. It’s there to remind you that you’re actually doing something new — an experience you can learn from, something that might matter. When that’s missing you won’t have fear. You also won’t make any big mistakes. Nor will you impress anyone let alone yourself.

The lesson is this: If you haven’t suffered any fear or uncertainty in your work process, then you know you’ve missed the target or worse, you weren’t even aiming for the right one. If you’re near what you think is completion yet you hadn’t faced any real difficulties then you’ve likely not challenged yourself (or your team). You’ve chosen the safe, easy path — the formulaic — the one you’ve chosen many times before or at least one that others have. Now, there are moments where it might be wise to pull out the old tricks, to cash in some hard earned chips over a long career, but be careful — this is how artists get careless or lazy and seasoned pros are especially susceptible.

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Tortoise beats Hare by master director, Tex Avery.

It can be as simple as letting that first part of the sequence slide. You know, the part that no one commented on,  or a semi-standard color key that slipped by with a relatively unconvincing “approval” during dailies. You’ve let it slide, setting aside any issues you saw earlier. But later on, you’ll notice that the other areas, those that displayed obvious problems and you’ve worked hard at, are now far better than those early, easy successes. You’re like the runner who’s coasting at the end of the race because of a  good start or lucky break, and later finds himself shocked to see other runners surpass him at the finish line. We see this movie replayed all the time. Be wary of it in your work process. I look back at my career, and the work I’m most proud of, that is, work that has some hope of surviving the test of time, is work where I battled my ass off. The other stuff? eh.

JobsWozniak

The very young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, co-founders of Apple computers, 1976.

Throughout one’s career, you’ll notice that some people have formulas or routines that give them comfort, that get them thru it all. They have skill and confidence. They also know they’re not doing anything surprising or special as they repeat what’s been the tried and true. Formulas tend to do that in art. They fail to connect. The truly brave and tireless take on their challenges with zest despite fear or fatigue. They know they might not succeed but feel the calling that is theirs in each task they take on. These are your warriors, your innovators.

“Innovation distinguishes between leader and follower.” — Steve Jobs

So take chances. Embrace the fear and move forward. You’ll thank yourself later.

Importance of Caricature

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Jones_Cat

This  marvelous comparison of reality versus caricature by the ever creative and humorous Chuck Jones from his autobiographical book, Chuck ReDucks.

Caricature — it’s one of the “12 Animation Principles” if you remember.

My favorite artists in this field are those whose caricature (both in design and performance) is so good, that you start to accept it as the real thing. The devotion to making the work believable is so authentic, it becomes real. Among such artists, the great Chuck Jones comes to mind. So do Charles Schulz, Glen Keane, or Bill Watterson.

calvinhobbes-dancing

Amongst the greatest characters ever created, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes‘ beauty, ingenuity and humor lie it’s in simplicity in design and caricature of real life.

There has been such great technical advancements in 3D digital technology that we’ve become a little too accustomed to and inundated with realism, both in design, story structure and character performance (as evidenced by the copious amount of motion capture and frame by frame duplication of live action reference). I suspect this is just a phase as we grow familiar with (and tire ourselves of) the “realism” eye candy bug, and begin to place our focus back onto to things more substantial, such as originality, beauty and sincerity — the real essences of our medium and of all art.

Toystory1_Woody

A very funny moment from the first Toy Story by Pixar. Despite it’s age, it still stands, in my opinion, as one of the best animated films ever due to its originality, story-telling and all-around creativity.

I’ve always believed that this medium’s greatest disadvantage (its limitations in realistic representation and acting performance), is precisely its greatest advantage. Namely, that where it fails in microscopic details in comparison to live action, it’s relatively stronger when it comes to caricature, namely exaggeration in terms of the boundaries of believability.

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The 1994 film, The Mask, starring the marvelously creative Jim Carrey, was a tribute to Tex Avery’s Wolf shorts. This character’s rubbery, transformational nature made him really fun and enjoyable to watch in a live action setting.

So, even if hyper-realistic representative art has its place, like in VFX, is it not wiser to continue to explore the medium more creatively, rather than be obsessed with the duplication of reality? Why invest so heavily in that which has such a low rate of return (relatively speaking)? Let live action be live action, let cartoons be cartoons. In the words of Frank Thomas:

“You are in a crude medium. There is no way of getting the refinement, the delicacy you’d like to get.”

Although Frank Thomas’ words referred in part to the limitations of the hand-drawn nature of the medium, I believe they were also referring to the limitations of the kind of subtlety that can be achieved in terms of representation, not so much mere physical “appearance”, but of performance. With the exception of the most capable superstars like Glen Keane or James Baxter, it’s near impossible to deliver the kind of acting that live actors can deliver, at least not on a consistent, convincing basis.

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Scene from Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt by James Baxter. Baxter’s acting choices are among the most sincere and believable in the entire industry. His animation skill is so high, that it’s near impossible for others to duplicate such complexity in a medium of simple lines and color.

Although improved storytelling, camera work and animation acting over the years have allowed for more subtle and quiet performances, the beauty of this art form still comes from the juxtaposition of seeing a screwy rabbit delivering a line that we all can understand or enjoy listening to.

BugsBunny_drag

The preposterous idea of a rabbit dressed in drag triggering the excitement of human hunter can only work in animation, thanks to Chuck Jones and Warner Bros.

On the flip side, sometimes this implicit “crudeness” gives the world just the right amount of believability,  so that we can relate to it’s characters and understand the deepest, hardest ideas without making it unbearable to absorb or experience, especially to a potentially broader audience. This is most definitely the case in the film, Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata.

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One the most powerful films ever produced by the giant of Japanese animation, Ghibli Studio’s Grave of the Fireflies, is a beautiful yet piercing film that deals with the harshest of subjects — the cost of war.

Limitations in the visual believability of a cartoon can be a boon to artists at times, forcing him/her to use cinematic staging and creativity to deliver ideas even more powerfully than if you just “acted it out,” as can be seen in this shot by Bill Tytla:

dumbo

The love and tenderness displayed in this scene is so heartbreaking and beautiful, that it’s hard to believe there could be a better way to portray those same emotions. From the 1941 Walt Disney Classic, Dumbo, animated by the legendary Bill Tytla.

At other times, animation, in it’s glorious “cartoon” design, can take it somewhere that even live action itself can not go — a platform delivering daring and meaningful messages about life without pandering or melodrama. In Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo’s animated short film, The Dam Keeper, the subject matter of rejection and retaining one’s principles regardless of outside acceptance, would lose it’s power in live action, while at the same time becomes more palpable to younger audiences to savor and absorb, even if only, subconsciously.

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The Tonko House production, The Dam Keeper, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film of 2014, is a gorgeous example of the poignancy that can be achieved with caricature in design, color and movement.

So don’t beget the limitations of this art form, for it’s precisely those limitations, regardless how much technology advances, that makes it truly great, and not merely a weaker and cheaper alternative (which it no longer is) to live action cinema. Let’s hope that a positive reception to the releases of films like Pixar’s Inside Out and Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie, mark a big return to the more visually imaginative and joyous advantage that this medium offers.

 

 

Welcome to the Animated Spirit Blog!

What is the “Animated Spirit”?

It’s a blog written in the spirit of my favorite teacher, author and artist, Robert Henri, who wrote the popular 1923 classic, The Art Spirit. His book was about painting, this site is about animation, and all the beauty and wonderment that it entails.

Art spirit_robertHenriThe Art Spirit, By Robert Henri

It’s gonna be a place for ideas, discussions, reviews, tips, demos and interviews with a variety of talented and prominent artists, both young and veteran, in the animation community. What this blog is not, is a site criticizing other artists, studios or their films, shows, or projects. It will also not be a place to vent inequities or injuries related to labor practices. Such discussion and concern is important, but these matters are for other bloggers and their sites. This blog here is strictly about the craft, passion and life of the artist.

Stromboli-drawingAnimation by Bill Tytla, one of the legends of Disney Animation.

This art form is not only fascinating, but also hugely rich and diverse, requiring the skills, mastery and devotion of numerous artists of all ilks and specialties. Everything from film to painting has bearing here, so we will look at all of them and be inspired by all of them.

RobertHenri_photoRobert Henri, The man himself.

In perhaps the greatest summation of Henri’s message to artists and people of all backgrounds and occupations, he grandly states:

“It takes wit, and interest and energy to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is a great activity. One must be open and alive. It is the greatest feat a man can accomplish, and spirits must flow.”

I look forward to you joining me here, and hope that this humble blog can add a little extra boost to your spirits on your visit!