Respect

“The art is not something you apply to your work
The art is the way you do your work, a result of your attitude toward it.” – Charles Eames

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The famous (and incredibly comfortable!) Eames Chair and Ottoman, designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1956.

Some people think art is something you add. It’s why many organizations can’t seem to understand their creative staff or be able to get the most out of them.  Catch phrases like it’s “all about the team” or “all about the family/company” may gain compliance in the short run but will tire quickly when not backed up by real support (which includes the reward of recognition as well as fair compensation and sufficient rest). There must be real accountability.

Extreme quota demands. Monotonous repetition. Continuously harsh and inflexible deadlines place incredible strain on the animation artist. Turning creative people into widget makers simply doesn’t work.

Oh, those TPS reports! From Mike Judge’s 1999 comedy classic, Office Space. (It’s hard to believe now, but I once had a job like this!)

When art becomes something that is applied like icing on a cake, the end product looks and feels like something from a production line.  Don’t expect creativity or innovation if what you mainly demand of your staff is productivity and/or compliance. If you treat them like widget makers and provide the kinds of conditions conducive to generating that kind of work, you shouldn’t be surprised with the kind of results you’re seeing. Nor should you expect loyalty (i.e. it won’t be the weakest members that will jump ship but your very best and most reliable because real talent, that which is truly indispensable, is rare and always in demand). If that doesn’t scare you, realize this; don’t expect loyalty (or a great reception) from the paying customer either.

chaplin_ModernTimesThe “tramp” loses his mind in this comical critique of the industrialization of the work place, in Charlie Chaplin‘s 1936 Classic, Modern times.

If you expect predictable and easily measurable outcomes (numbers) you certainly can’t expect artistic or financial breakthroughs. Your organization risks becoming, as the marvelous Seth Godin points out, a follower, one that can only sell its brand by doing it cheaper and faster – a road ultimately doomed to failure in a world of expanding global competition and technology that’s become more available to more and more organizations world wide. It’s like making common running shoes and your only choice will be to spend the most in marketing your product to make up for a lack of distinction in quality or impact. Any and all financial benefits gained from cost cutting in the first place will be completely eliminated, especially considering that marketing costs these days can be as high as 100% the cost of actual animation production.

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Walt Disney Studio’s box office hit, Frozen, cost approximately $150 million to produce, but at least as much or more to market and distribute. Fortunately, its artistry and its ability to connect to audiences world-wide helped it reach over $1.2 Billion in gross revenues .

So it’s not surprising to commonly see disharmony and disenchantment within the production environment. Animation as a product requires the input of so many people that it multiplies the complexity of product and people management. It’s also a product whereby the consumer has come to expect greater and greater quality. How can you whip and chain so many to comply? What possible gimmick, motivational speech or rule change could be used to streamline the creative process and get exciting yet regularly productive results? The answer is nonethe only solution is trust, freedom and respect between a company’s leaders and it’s creative members. People have to become self-accountable and self-guiding for a company to be strong and manageable.

Respect and cooperation is usually the best solution. Harvey Keitel’s Mr. Wolf from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, is one of the coolest characters in modern film history.

Artists need respect. They are fragile beings sure, but it isn’t because they are weak but precisely because they are courageous. Artists bravely throw their heart and soul into their work – a risk few others take on a regular basis – exposing themselves to constant rejection and failure, being vulnerable to judgement by others and even more harshly, themselves. (Hear how Milt Kahl would torture himself while animating here).

After all, what artist strives to disappoint? It’s a very humbling process.

“There’s no amount of external validation that can undo the constant drone of internal criticism. And negative self talk is hungry for external corroboration. One little voice in the ether that agrees with your internal critic is enough to put you in a tailspin.” – Seth Godin

But provide the right atmosphere, one that honors people and allows for freedom and risk of the unknown, and you’ll be rewarded with the kind unexpected ingenuity and loyalty that is unmatched. Artists who feel respected and happily engaged in their work regularly, put in countless unpaid hours building and solving problems for their organizations (after work, during their sleep, and even on their vacations!)  This is an attribute usually applied exclusively to entrepreneurs, who you’d correctly expect to worry day and night about their investment.

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Brad Pitt plays Floyd, the ultimate slacker, in Tony Scott’s 1993 film, True Romance.

On the flip side, artists who themselves disrespect the work and craft, and only do hack work, shouldn’t expect accolades or the respect from their employers or even their fellow artists. Somewhere along the way they’ve stopped being artists (and just because you’re animating or holding a brush doesn’t mean you are one.) Being an artist is about a soulful, personal commitment to the craft. It’s being part of a unique membership – it has to be earned, much like the professional athlete on his team or musician in an orchestra.

Burgess Meredith tells Rocky the hard truth, in Sylvestor Stallone’s 1976 Best Picture-winning movie, Rocky. Screenplay by Stallone himself, the film changed his career (and grossed over $225 million worldwide while sporting a nifty production cost of less than $1 million).

Work that’s done like a job, and done only because you’re getting paid, is not art. Artists should know better. If an environment is set up for you to learn, with flexibility and resources to be collaborative and creative, then they should reward that support system, by respecting the work itself. The old saying applies – any job worth doing, is worth doing well. That said, even if things aren’t perfect, you still must respect yourself, by respecting the craft. As the wonderful Neil Gaimen noted:

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art.”

But for the most part, the slacker animation artist is rare. This incredibly difficult and risky field is one that invites the dreams and labors of creative, emotionally dedicated and diligent investors of passion and energy, not the free-loader.

So, to you supervisors, directors, producers, executives and owners out there, know your artists (which includes your programmers, technicians, production assistants etc.) Provide and care for your teams and they will reward you in such unpredictable and intangible ways that you’ll marvel at the results – results that will help your product, your team and organization standout and prosper globally, and thus, financially.

Good work done by good people in good work environments. That’s a win-win-win.

Dealing with doubt

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Self-portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci. So much has been written and idolized about this renaissance man that it’s  impossible to compare him to ourselves. And it’s probably best that we don’t.

We often begrudge our lack of ability.

Having enough skill and technique often appears as the greatest worry for the animation artist. We all “know” that if we had the necessary skill, things would be so much better, easier and less frightening. Sometimes, we might even catch ourselves thinking those ugly words,  “if only.”  If only we’d gone to a better school, had better teachers, had more money, gotten better breaks or given more choice, etc, etc.

“The cruel words of regret.” From Babe 2, Pig in the City, directed by the brilliantly skilled and diverse, George Miller (who also directed Happy Feet and Mad Max: Road Fury).

But at the end of day we have but one choice, taking action. Build that skill. Do the work. Get stronger. Cross that scary bridge. In other words, there’s no choice but to put in the hours. Of course, it’s not easy. But it’s not supposed to be — failure is guaranteed for all artists a majority of the time.

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Alex Ovechkin is the most prolific goal scorer in the National Hockey League. He lead all goal scorers last year, a season which he took 47% more shots (395) than the next best goal scorer, Steven Stamkos (268). In other words, he also fails on more shots than any other player.

“Failure is an option here. If you’re not failing, you’re not innovating enough.” — Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX

But what if you don’t become the best animator, best goal scorer or greatest innovator? Then why do this? Who wants to put in all that effort when the likelihood is that you could, and most likely, will fail? Because effort matters, and it is its own reward.

“Once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and wisdom, life ceases to be a task and becomes natural and simple, in itself an ecstasy.” — Nisargadatta Maharaj

 Art is about choices, and choices require the most challenging yet wondrous kind of labor; mental-emotional labor. Emotional labor can be fun, interesting and inspiring especially when driven by a desire for something greater than ourselves such as the love of the craft itself, the will to better ourselves (and our communities), or the pure necessity to feed our families.

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Martin Luther King Jr was a man who worked for a cause far greater than himself. There was never a guarantee that he, or others like him, would succeed. (Image courtesy of Biography)

Therefore, there mustn’t be any sort of begrudging in the process of work.  Whether for you, as an animator it’s all that time spent on planning, battling through shots, making revisions or absorbing all that challenging feedback. Whining and moaning is all too common a practice in our industry (and in this world in general.)

I grew up on a farm and I was always amazed how my father (and my family in general) kept putting in the labor. Day in, day out, he’d grind it out. Tilling one plot of land after another. And everything that grew on it was all made by hand. What he didn’t know, he learned. He got good and efficient at it because he did it so often and for so long. But he also suffered — customers would disappear, costs would fluctuate or nature itself would be uncooperative, destroying crops mercilessly. Building a business is a lot of work, there’s a lot of risk involved. So much of the outcome of all that effort is unknown — there are no guarantees. But the work matters because it changes you. My father was a better man for it, and he never complained.

All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without the benefit of experience.” — Henry Miller

As an artist, you’re always pushing into the unknown, but each mark you make does show up in your final efforts. Even when shots are removed and projects get cancelled, know that you’ve been changed by the effort you put in. If you’ve given your work thought and took real chances, you’ve gotten better and with luck, might’ve even developed greater mentor fortitude. That much can never be taken away from you. So always give your task your full attention.

Tom Cruise marvels at the dedication of the samurai in Edward Zwick’s 2003 film, The Last Samurai. This mindset still permeates much of modern day Japanese culture, as witnessed by their continued attentiveness to detail, respect and work ethic.

And it’s not about just being a good employee or boss.
It’s not even about gratitude.  It’s about living the process and building towards something. It’s moving yourself outside of ‘the’ self.  Whether it be animating a shot, building a shelter or composing a piece of music, work can only be exciting or important when it becomes meaningful and it’s surprising how much of that meaning comes from within.

If we approach our work as an artist like how an individual builds a home, a life, and hope for his/her family, the process gets easier, and a bit less difficult to sustain. Not because it makes it less hard — because it’s always hard — but because there’s a purpose. What matters are your choices and the meaning you place behind it. You choose your level of commitment, and by default, your level of fulfillment.

In a sense, your journey into the unknown is remarkably personal, yet at the same time, all-encompassing and universal. Or, as author Henry Miller puts it:

“One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”

Quick Tip: Always Carry a Note Pad (and a Pen)

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A shelf displaying a very tiny percentage of a collection of sketchbooks made over the years.

“There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.” — Robert Henri

Art is all about observation, imagination or some combination of both. Sometimes, if you’re lucky the universe throws you a gift — a brief exaltation of brilliance or insight. Without recording the evidence of such experience, there is no hope of unique education, expression or contribution. An artist should never be without his sketchbook. Yet, I still witness artists (even students!) not carry a sketchbook or notepad of any kind. In this day and age, it’s pretty much unacceptable.

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During my Disney training, former supervising animator, Ron Husband, shared with us pages and pages of these marvelous progression thumbnail drawings he did in his sketchbook — all done from his imagination and memory. To see more of the artist’s work, visit here.)

My own home is littered with sketchbooks, notepads, loose paper, post-its, and whatever else I can record a drawing, a note or tape something into. I make very sure that there’s a surface and a pen everywhere — the studio, living room, kitchen, bedroom, and even the glove compartment of the car. I have stickies or taped notes on our walls, bedside tables and even bathroom mirrors! (My understanding wife has yet to mind — she knows the price of living with a crazy artist!) When I travel, I carry not only my pen-ready smartphone, but at least one empty sketchbook, which sometimes gets filled by the time I return from my trip. And I absolutely love airports — they’re a treasure trove of ideas, personalities and cultural diversity.

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The prolific Woody Allen, seen here with his pile of notes collected in his bedside table drawer. From Robert B. Weide’s marvelous 2012 documentary on the iconic American director.

Why be so obsessive? The reason is simple; your best ideas don’t come to you when you want them to. It’s the dreaded, cruel truth of being a creative and there’s nothing worse than having a revelation or a novel idea and you not being ready to receive it and record it. You can and will forget. I guarantee it.

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Draw everywhere, on anything. On the left, a tiny digital sketch made on the smartphone. On the right, a doodle on a dry-erase white board.

It’s not uncommon for me to wake up from a dream, frantically searching for my pen and paper. Sometimes it’s so fleeting I can barely record anything or make them legible enough for deciphering later. But at least I tried. At least I was ready. Yes, it’s true that half those “magical” ideas are more hair-brained than hot. But the point is, you don’t want to be ungrateful (and unready), when you’re being gifted something important or, even possibly, amazing.

The tragically forgetful Lenny, played by Guy Pearce, in Christopher Nolan’s breakout movie, Memento.

Moments of truth are sneak peaks at what is possible. And art is all about that – finding, discovering and recording those revelations and mysteries of mankind – then sharing it with the world.

In the words of Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club:

“Who knows where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses.”

So have your sketch book/notepad/smartphone handy. Because you never know.

Animation Tip: Phrasing

Dumbo_BillPeet

These marvelous story sketches of Dumbo and his mother by Disney story maestro Bill Peet lay out all the action and emotions. Such poignant storytelling requires nearly perfect animation – animation that is sophisticated, layered yet unmistakably clear.

In the words of Disney great, Ham Luske:

In your work, the thought comes first — think, see and feel before you begin to draw… never make a movement or gesture without a reason.

The key thing I believe Luske was saying is that, first,  you have to have an idea to start — something to grab on to before making any attempt at expression — and second, that the expression of any such ideas must be in the form of physical action. There really is no other way to animate.

Sure, there’s a trendy movement towards subtlety in animation now, owing heavily to the dominance of ideas from live action, and from directors/supervisors who are demanding more realism, or subtlety, but remember, it’s movement that conveys ideas in animation not talking heads.

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My Dinner with Andre might be an acclaimed film, but it’s hardly visually-arresting, and mimicking such limited visual activity, for the most part,  should be avoided in animation.

Phrasing is the effort to present ideas through a series of movements. Well-planned and expertly-transitioned phrasing makes for animation that is both entertaining, beautiful and natural – you’re convinced of its believability while awed by its beauty.

Complete stillness fails in animation and especially in 3D where the technology is “too perfect”. Pixels freeze, as the character, and the light that catches it, fail to register “aliveness.” If there’s one good thing about motion capture data, it’s that it reveals how much movement actually exits even when a character is “still” — there is movement in non-action, just that it’s really small. Good phrasing consists of a carefully planned series of actions and non-actions that make the scene feel textured and well-balanced. In the words of master animator, Eric Goldberg:

“This pattern of movement should serve two purposes; one, to make a visual equivalent of the highs and lows found in the actor’s delivery (and) two, to express visually the thought behind the spoken words.”

The delicious introduction of the genie in Walt Disney’s Aladdin. The sharp display of timing, shape change and rhythm, make this scene a great precursor to the style of movement that would dominate the film’s humor and energy. Animation by Eric Goldberg.

Again, the focus is on finding the right visual representation of ideas through movement. After all, animation is essentially about controlling how shapes look and how they move. Those are very tangible, physical elements being used to create performance. It really is a simple as that, for such are the tools we are limited to. As an animator, neither the story nor the voice that drives the performance belong to you. Both context and content have been provided. You simply have to play the part (and do it justice).

A clip from an ABC special on the late Robin Willams, and his marvelous contribution to Aladdin’s genie.

That, of course, means that you not only have to plan well and know what you want, but you must also have a strong understanding of forces — for physicality is all about forces. In the words of Eric Larson, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men:

“Action is a manifestation of force – something caused it. This we must understand before we can interpret it in our drawings (animation).”

In general, when laying out your action, it’s good to time less activity at the start of your actions/phrases and express the high lite of the performance towards the end. This way, the dominant idea reads clearly and more powerfully. Nothing gets lost, in priority or presentation. Do this, and you will have performed your duty.

Michal Makarewicz’s animation of Syndrome from Pixar’s The Incredibles, is rhythmical, textured and fun. Watching it repeatedly you can see how he builds the energy and anticipation for the final release of expression at the end, syncing perfectly with Jason Lee’s excellent voice acting. (To see more of the artist’s work, visit here.)

When there are multiple ideas in a shot, or when the scene is particularly long, find ways to expand the variation of highs and lows in emotion and the use of visual space, both two and three dimensionally. Use the layout, use the screen space, take advantage of the time you have to present your ideas by easing into space and time in some areas while punching into others, giving the work texture and a varying crescendo of peaks and valleys.

Variation is essential because audiences today, unfortunately, lose interest quickly. Work to alter paths to and away from camera, as well as within the broader 2D layout (frame of the camera). The best animators make use of such visual (and virtual) space astutely to create depth, impact and texture.

More Eric Goldberg genius; this time we see a fine textural display of setting up tempo, exit and re-entry of forms, showcasing the quick and magical transformations of the character.

A scene should set up and play out like a beautiful little tune or a short theme park ride with varying speeds, ups and downs, moments for rest, anticipation and excitement. Even naturally gentle and quiet scenes have their changing levels of visual energy. The key is giving the animation weight, both physically and emotionally.

Beautiful compilation of the various stages of animation used in Blue Sky Studio’s Epic by the ever-talented Jeff Gabor . The thought, phrasing, and layering of ideas and action he puts into his artistry make him one of the best in the industry. (To see more of the artist’s work visit here.)

Phrasing can be a simple or complex concept. The idea is to give the audience as fulfilling a ride as possible regardless of its length or level of energy. When executed well, phrasing is a great way of adding complexity without confusing things and taking away from the central message of shot.

 (Correction: Author’s apologies to Michal Makarewicz for incorrectly giving credit of his Ratatouille shot to John Kahrs in the original posting.)

The Five Phases of Work

In the words of author, Marianne Williamson:

“Nature is infinitely creative. It is always producing the possibility of new beginnings.”

Phase One: Beginnings

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Mufasa counsels Simba, on how to hunt prey from Walt Disney’s The Lion King. Animation by Supervising Animator, Tony Fucile.

Everyone’s been there — whether you start a new job, begin a new project, or work with new people — that tingle down your spine only happens once. The anticipation is both tantalizing and frightening at the same time. You have ideas, but it sits before the vast unknown. This is what happens when you’re doing something new and art is all about that. The truth is, every situation is new — every shot, sequence, layout or painting — and that’s the challenge. Such a professional mindset and standard is what you strive for regardless of the task. That way, the work stays fresh, and more importantly, you stay fresh. Your mental and emotional attitude should be right even before you take your first step into production.

Phase Two: Preparation and Planning.

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Thumbnail sketches sit atop final key drawings by Supervising Animator David Pruiksma (one of my favorite instructors ever). In these marvelous tiny sketches, the artist shows wit and wonder while exploring the peak moments of the dialogue.

Here’s where you begin. Here’s where you plan, play and explore. You seek out the greatest possibilities. It’s also the stage where most beginners and amateurs falter — too eager to dive right into the work, they skip out the thinking,  not realizing that only good preparation and planning will give the work a chance at being original or effective. Professionals devote hours conducting research, shooting video, collecting resources, doing thumbnail sketches and preliminary tests — work never meant to be seen in any sort of final form but give a good logical sense of what might or might not work. Top craftsmen spend as much as half their time doing this kind of preparation. The process is not unlike that of top musicians or athletes who spend half their time in study as much as in practice to achieve the highest performance. Solid preparation and planning is often what separates the top performers from the rest of their peers.

Phase Three: Doing the work.

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Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s crew in their the historic ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.

This phase, for many people, is mentally the hardest. This is when you know what to do, you suspect you know how to do it (with art, you never know for sure), and you’re about to plunge right into the grind. You’ve got your plans in front of you, the rough first steps begin, and a deadline awaits, sitting there at the end of the hall, like a shylock waiting to collect (in this case your inevitable mistakes and miscalculations). The task suddenly appears monumental and there’s the danger of paralysis by analysis or worse, staying in the comfort zone, and never jumping into the water out of fear. But you know that no amount of practice or planning will get you anywhere without actually doing the real thing. It’s the only way to see if any of it works, and until you try, you’ll never know. You’ve got time,  you’ve got energy, and now’s the time step up and just do it. Some people never start. That’s not you.

In the words of Mark Twain:

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started”

Phase Four:  Struggle

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Michelangelo’s famous unfinished sculpture of Atlas, emerging from a huge block of stone.

The experience of struggle only happens to those who have dove right in and gotten themselves in trouble because they took the risk. Challenges appear, both the expected and the unexpected. You find out whether you’ve prepared or even capable of delivering the effort and quality demanded. You’re challenged physically, mentally and emotionally, as you or your crew lose steam in the midst of frustration. Here is where you need to show your mettle and scratch your brain to move beyond the tired and formulaic. This is where you battle.

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Jackson Pollack, seen here working feverishly on one of his “drip” paintings.

The good thing is, that this phase of struggle is the least deceptive — it tells you right away what your problems are — you can see them, you just have to beat them. You’ve made your initial charge, but there’s resistance or a set back. Here’s when it’s best to get feedback. You’re open to it, because you’re desperate, you’re hungry and you’re receptive. It doesn’t feel like the most productive phase in the process but it’s actually the most fruitful and effective. You find your focus here. And you get going again. The troops gather, either internally in your mind, or physically with other artists. You dig down deep with all your effort. You show your true grit and get the job done.

Phase Five: Completion

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Closing shot of Steven Speilberg’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.

The best part of finishing, is, just that! You’ve finished! You did it! That’s a monster accomplishment all on it’s own. I like to take a small break when it’s done, and so should you, regardless of the results. In sports, everyone knows there can only be one winner. In art, the distinction between success and failure is less clear. All you can ask of yourself is this: did you give it your best effort? Did you try doing things in a new way? Were you true to the material and to yourself?  Or have you wimped out, relied on old formulas or worse, mailed it in? If so, then know that you’ve cashed in your chips and it’s time to earn some new ones.

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” — Robert Frost

He’s right. And another journey lies ahead.