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.

The marvelous Gene Kelly helped bring music and dance to the height of its craft in the all-time classic musical Singin’ In The Rain.

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 in our transition from a still-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, and 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 — 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