Detachment

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The Terracotta Soldiers, perhaps the most famous collection of funerary art, symbolizes the mass armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The physical site is an unmatched visceral sensation. But despite its great archeological importance to human history, it’s also a reminder of human arrogance and our fear of death.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” — Albert Camus

Recently, I’ve been deeply distressed over what happened to a painting I’ve made. Working to rediscover myself in this traditional medium, I was quite pleased with what had developed, which makes this story all that much more difficult to share. The sessions that built up to that point of arrival was filled with challenges; experiments with technique and expression, huge emotional ups and downs, the struggle with the medium itself. Each day was a full-on battle, and at the end of the war, I was completely exhausted from the cumulative exertion of energy. The near-final results showed promise.

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The painting I made and lost. With the technique and approach I take, working very fluidly and dynamically with the medium, what once was is no longer. (I took this only photo from the side to avoid the glare on what was then, very wet paint.)

The problem occurred the next day when a sudden urge to “repair” a small area in the painting (forgetting that imperfections are what makes an artwork unique) drove me back into the foray. And this happened on a day that was not even scheduled for painting; my paints were put away and I usually take the painting off the easel for drying but in this instance I didn’t. Therein, came the disaster. I was already not in the right mindset and being physically spent from the hard days before, the mind and body fought hard against my heart. Add to the dilemma of having run out of the original paint I was using —I needed to re-mix some of the colors, one which came from a new brand of paint, a sienna whose potency turned out far greater than expected — it’s now clear I set myself up for failure. Upon applying the “fix” something went wrong and one fix led to another as I altered things on the fly, and before I knew it, I lost both the sense of the painting and myself. Sixty minutes later (and it’s always quicker to destroy than to create) I awoke to find myself lost, akin to the experience of suddenly realizing that you’re driving and not knowing how you got there. Except this time, I crashed. The painting was ruined.

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The famous Jean-Luc Picard face palm has been an excessively dominant and recurring expression of mine in recent weeks. Image from the brilliant science fiction television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

You can imagine the panic that ensued. This panic and soon to be massive frustration and regret led to an obsession with the past result — a result (in a photo!) that looked better and better in comparison to what was now there in front of me. For the past two weeks, I could not regain the freshness and feel of what I had no matter how desperate or valiant the effort. I was so certain that I could bring it back but it was gone.

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is absurd.” — Voltaire

This was real life and there are no do-overs. Unlike working with digital mediums, there was no magical “undo” button or previously saved file. I felt like an athlete who delivered on the hardest elements of a performance only to trip just at the finish line. I was this attached to the results of the past experience. Many days of agony ensued. Why didn’t I leave it alone?

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Self-Portrait by Edgar Degas . Degas was one of the most skilled and devoted artists in history, a man obsessed with capturing the beauty and honesty of life with his brush.

My experience brought to mind the story of the master Impressionist Edgar Degas, who was so obsessed with a painting he’d done that he broke into his client’s home to steal the painting back to make the changes he wanted to it. I guess I’m not alone in my craziness. And perhaps you can say there are worse things to be obsessed over than a piece of art. But still, I couldn’t seem to grasp why I couldn’t get over what was first, the expectation and obsessive desire to make things “perfect” (which wrecked things in the first place) and then subsequently, the regret and obsession with what had already passed (which dragged out the mistake and the pain).

After a small reprieve from painting and taking a moment spared for absorption and contemplation, another story came to mind — that of the practice by Tibetan Buddhist monks in their tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from colored sand, a ritual that symbolizes the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.

Tibetan Buddhist monks create these gorgeously intricate sand mandalas, which are subsequently and ceremoniously destroyed. From the beautiful documentary, Samsara.

It had finally hit me. I had to move on and not try to re-live any past pain or glory (the two states seem indefinitely intertwined). It’s my job and joy as an artist to always be moving forward, to build something out of this experience and each subsequent experience. Artistic creation, like life, moves in cycles and phases. This realization — the profound truth that every moment and element is unique to its own time and place — is what makes life so incredibly beautiful and special.  It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that! And in this age of global mass production and contrived uniformity of tastes, imagery and material obsessions, it serves as a stark and powerful awakening of what it means to be alive.

“The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” — Epictetus

A most powerful scene from Tony Kaye’s 2011 film Detachment, starring Adrien Brody, on the importance of being aware and avoiding attachment to the false ideologies outside of ourselves. (Please be warned that this scene contains mature language)

To know the noble truth that nothing is permanent is actually incredibly liberating, even if it take something as trivial or insubstantial as a troubled painting to remind us. But switch the experience of painting to an important project at work, our core relationships, or the health of ourselves and our family, and the same lessons apply. Living detached from results and being focused on process is the only way to be truly happy.

The fact that events and material items can’t be fully preserved emphasizes the importance of what is actually there in front of us now, in real-time. The past is merely memory, the future only an unforeseeable possibility. Living in a digital age where EVERYTHING is recorded, there’s more urgency to capture the moment than to live it. The more we hang on to things — possessions, ideals and expectations — the more we create conflict with our environment, our fellow human beings and within ourselves. My experience these past few weeks reminds me again of the wisdom and power of art in its ability to reflect the truth of who we are and what we can be.

“And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.” — Albert Camus

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Shot Analysis: Sword In The Stone

The Sword in the Stone (1963) Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman

One of Disney’s all-time classics in terms of pure character animation at its finest, Walt Disney’s Sword In The Stone (1963) is a film I would come back to again and again for inspiration and learning in my entire career as an animator.

Today we’ll look at a favorite shot of mine from the marvelous Frank Thomas*. At first glance, this appears to be a simple scene but it’s actually one loaded with ingenuity, strong staging and elegantly-timed action.

The Shot:

Since film passes by so quickly in real time, it’s easy to miss out on the wonderful thought process and all the juicy details that go into a shot such as this.  Notice, for instance, that (if we listen carefully to the dialogue track) there is no basis for the creative and convoluted business that is Merlin’s battle with his wand and beard. Since the sound effects — like in all animated films — are added afterwards, that contrasting element is created entirely by the artist alone to add fun and personality to the scene that might not have been present in the storyboards or script. From Disney’s Sword In The Stone.

The Breakdown:

In this analysis, I’ll be focusing mostly on the fundamental importance of the key posing, placement of action and directional elements that I believe Frank Thomas had intended. Please enjoy!

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In this starting position, Thomas composes Merlin in the midst of thought and action. He’s looking at the younger Arthur (off screen) and is about to turn his attention to the objects lying about the room. The shape (as recomposed in lite blue on the left) is stable yet interesting. The wand, hands and head clearly display his direction of focus.

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Here the artist draws your attention with his rhythmical tapping of his wand against the stool and, like a conductor, he begins his work with his orchestra. A nice touch is displayed here when Merlin moves the beard towards his waistline, clearing space for the action to read.

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As Merlin shifts upwards, you can see the arms and body curve inward, creating a nice inside-outside maneuver of his hands before ending up in the commanding position which follows. A lessor animator would’ve taken a less interesting path.

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Here Merlin stands in command like the wizard he is, holding this position of strength with order and dignity in a perfectly timed pause before the main action. The line of action (in red) is clear and strongly arced as his energy is projected upwards and outwards.

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Merlin “pops” into the next action jumping right into the air — a surprising yet colorful move for an old wizard. The dramatic anticipatory movement gives the action and the character a sense of fun and vitality. Note the strong underlying anatomy as the head overlaps the chest cavity giving the pose depth and volume.

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Here the pose is curled up small, as Thomas directs your attention towards the open bag. The head and face along with the curvature of the hands and arms, triangulate the action.

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As Merlin performs his spell, he unknowingly curls his beard into his wand in a beautiful display of the artist’s control of movement and drawing capability.

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The swirling spell action ends in an abrupt and sharp halt, pulling Merlin’s chin and head forward while sending reverberations throughout his entire body and clothing. The sharpness of the action and clear directional forces give the movement power and thrust.

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A series of actions and poses play out, as the character zigzags in chaotic fashion and frustration to free himself of the entanglement.

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In a final anticipatory pose, Thomas creates a complex yet decidedly clear arrangement, displaying multiple forces at play, each taking turns in different directions of push and pull. He even uses his feet!

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The battle with his beard and wand end in a explosive release — one that splays out in a beautiful star-like formation.

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After that great expenditure of energy, Merlin is decidedly fatigued — the ordeal proving too much for a wizard his age — as he deflates slowly sagging down towards the stool, the weight of everything bearing downwards along with the force of gravity. All of this is completely consistent with the acting choices that define the character.

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After the brief reprieve, the wizard re-composes himself, as he calmly erects his posture back upwards, displaying the fortitude fitting of a commander in charge of his subjects.

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A final rotational move back towards screen left — where the action started — completes the scene perfectly. All in all, a great performance created by well-planned acting, strong staging and perfectly executed timing.

In summary, shots like this are great to study and learn from. It should, at the very least, keep us inspired. The appreciation of the works of other artists, especially great ones like Frank Thomas is critical to the understanding of the craft and retaining the humility necessary to stay grounded. We must be always looking, seeing and learning.

“Observe Everything. Communicate Well. Draw, Draw, Draw.” — Frank Thomas

Check out my analyses of other shots, including work by Frank Thomas colleague, Milt Kahl, from 101 Dalmations, and modern animations by my own colleagues, Mike Thurmeier from Robots, and Aaron Hartline from Horton Hears A Who.

(* Note: This shot was incorrectly credited to Milt Kahl in the original posting.)

Artist Spotlight: The Films of Woody Allen

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A caricature that marvelously captures Woody Allen’s signature look by the one and only, Al Hirschfeld.

“Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” — Woody Allen

Woody Allen is one of the most prolific and unique voices in American cinema. To quote a friend; “When Woody Allen is at his best, he’s one of the best.” I wholeheartedly agree.

In his long cinematic career as writer, actor and director, Woody Allen has created over 53 films in his sixty plus years. He’s as famous as much for his brilliant writing and studious humor as he is for the character he often plays — a slightly neurotic yet likeable Jewish left-wing intellectual living in New York City. In reality, this persona is ironically nothing like him at all — Allen’s known to inner circles to be calmly articulate, organized, athletic and a wicked Jazz musician and enthusiast. He also doesn’t get enough credit for his acting abilities because he plays his character so well. No one ever accused Charlie Chaplin of being a type cast actor for creating the Tramp.

“I’ve never been an intellectual but I have this look.” — Woody Allen

Woody Allen, seen here playing his clarinet with his New Orleans Jazz Band inside the legendary Café Carlyle at the ripe old age of 75.

Woody Allen created a personal and distinct style of writing, acting and directing that’s unique in an industry that’s sorely lacking in diversity and innovation. And despite making films on very low budgets that appeal primarily to more sophisticated yet limited audiences, he still manages to be continually busy and make so many of the kind of films that no one else gets to make. Famous actors have lined up to be cast in his movies and every one of them takes significant pay cuts to do so. (His actors are paid an identical fixed fee.) This isn’t all so surprising considering his films have garnered over 18 Oscar Nominations for acting alone. As for Allen himself, he’s received 24 nominations and has won 4 (one for Best Picture and three for Best Original Screenplay). That said, he’s true to his principles of avoiding spectacles and excessive accolades. He has never once attended the Academy Award Ceremonies.

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Woody Allen — A Documentary (2012) is a marvelous film about the prolific American filmmaker. Directed by Robert B. Weide.

“I think being funny is not anyone’s first choice.” — Woody Allen

Today we’ll look at four of what I feel are his best films — Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan— my personal favorites. Each one delivers a combination of innovative cinematography, brilliant writing, memorable characters and, of course, his signature humor at its very best. Whether you’re a story artist, camera enthusiast, editor or animator, you will learn much from his films. The writing, cinematography, cutting and acting are all first rate.

If you haven’t seen these films, or have not seen them in some time, I highly recommend grabbing a free night for a viewing. Woody Allen is one of the most creative voices America has ever produced.

Annie Hall (1977)

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In Annie Hall, Woody Allen created a film first with his now trademark humor, deeply introspective characters and playful plot developments that surround themselves around one central theme — the romantic human relationship. The story begins with the childhood upbringing of standup comedian Alvie Singer, played by Woody Allen himself, but dives very quickly into his relationship with Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton (who would go on to win an Academy Award for her performance as Best Actress).

A creative and comical scene set in upstate New York where Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) is introduced to the upper-middle class family of his girlfriend Annie Hall ( Diane Keaton). The innovative split screen interaction with Alvie’s lower Brooklyn family magnifies the wonderful contrast in their status and cultural upbringing.

From the excitement of new found romance to the final break up, all the wonderment and inevitable challenges that relationships go thru are explored here in depth. Allen does this while toying with recurring themes such as creative integrity, psychoanalysis, anti-semetic paranoia and even the merits of adult education. It’s a delicious tale that holds its viewer from beginning to end with originality and humor. The film signaled the arrival of Woody Allen as a premier film-maker, winning him his first Oscars  for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Buoyed by memorable scenes and a sensational Diane Keaton (who delivers a performance that captures the spirit and beautiful nuance of femininity as perfect as any portrayal I’ve ever seen), it’s a film that’s worth multiple viewings. It’s arguably the funniest film he ever made.

Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)

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Hannah and Her Sisters is a story about three sisters whose lives are intricately linked by their famous yet overtly dramatic former movie-star parents and their relationships with men. Hannah, played by Mia Farrow, is the perfect sister — too perfect for anyone’s liking, including her own husband, played marvelously by Sir Michael Caine who also happens to be lustfully obsessed with Hannah’s youngest sister Lee, played by Barbara Hershey. Lee is young, bright and beautiful but completely unsure of herself and the direction of her life. The middle child Holly, played by Diane Wiest, is the offbeat and neurotically-insecure sibling —considered by the family (and herself) as the undesirable and talent-less “loser” of the three sisters.

A surprising yet delicately textured scene that exposes Elliot’s (Michael Caine) longing for Lee (Barbara Hershey) and how far he’s willing to go to pursue her. The setting is the most unlikely of places for Elliot to make an advance towards his target— inside the apartment of Lee’s live-in boyfriend Frederick (Max von Sydow). The scene ends in wonderful two-folded conflict, first between Lee and Elliot, and then almost at the same time, between Frederick and Rusty (Daniel Stern) who are engaged in the negotiation of a possible art purchase arranged by Elliot himself, concluding how ridiculously far and stupid men can get when overcome with lustful obsession.

The intertwined actions and reactions of the three sisters and their counterparts make for fun social experiment. Sometimes poignant, other times laugh-out-loud funny, the movie bounces elegantly yet playfully between moments of beautiful human desire and fear. Hannah and Her Sisters is one of the richest yet most positive stories told by this master story-teller.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

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Crimes and Misdemeanors is Woody Allen’s most daring and challenging film. It’s one that not only ponders the meaning of existence but also how the interpretation of life’s events plays into our own beliefs. Allen beautiful juxtaposes these questions in the telling of two stories, one a drama (the crime of murder) and the other a comedy (the misdemeanor of questionable flirtation).

In the story of Judah Rosenthal, Martin Landau plays an upper class ophthalmologist (the theme of seeing and being seen is a powerful metaphor here) who is challenged with dealing with the obsessive clinging by his mistress played with empathy and consuming intensity by Angelica Houston. In his decision to rid himself of his problems — since she threatens not only his marriage but the revealing of Judah’s financial indiscretions — he’s forced to confront his ethics and religious upbringing. It’s a test of whether he can weather the storm of his own fears knowing that the eyes of God are watching.

In a chilling scene, bathed in shadow and ominous lighting, Judah (Martin Landau) contemplates doing the darkest deed — murder — as he lays out his dilemma before his friend and client Ben (Sam Waterson), a Rabbi sworn to trust and confidentiality.

In the second story, Woody Allen plays Clifford Stern, a financially deficit, but seemingly noble documentary filmmaker who seeks hope and redemption through the possible romance with his producer, Halley Reed, played by Mia Farrow, who also happens to be the targeted love interest of his brother-in-law and super-successful TV mogul Lester (brilliantly played by Alan Alda) whom Clifford vehemently despises. Clifford, who proudly voices his economically self-sacrificing way of life, is conflicted in his choice to pursue Halley given that he is married.

A short but funny moment between Clifford (Woody Allen) and his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) regarding finance and the integrity of film-making.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is brilliant not only in its execution of such complexity in story-telling but also in the way that it tempers the emotional heaviness of the viewer — deftly balancing the scenes of dark and serious drama with moments of witty and delectable humor. There’s a plethora of rich acting performances and purposefully subdued cinematography (by Sven Nykvist who is famous for his gorgeous work with the legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman). The film may be nihilistic —it pulls no punches with its themes — but it’s also daring and gripping story-telling that’s illuminated with creative discourse and compassion. This is Woody Allen’s boldest film.

Manhattan (1979)

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Manhattan is Woody Allens’ most sumptuous film. Shot in glorious black in white by the incomparable Gordan Willis (who also photographed Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather) it’s a film that resonates with anyone who’s ever lived in New York City. A story about unrequited love, social approval and loss, it’s also an essay on maturity, suggesting that it might have little to do with age. This is evidenced by the subtle yet poignant portrayal of the romance between Isaac (Allen) and the teen-aged Tracy (played with beautiful innocence and sincerity by Mariel Hemingway). But convinced by both himself and his friend Yale (Michael Murphy) that a relationship with a girl half his age is not worthy of further development, he focuses his attention on the alluring Marie (Diane Keaton) who shields her own loneliness and insecurity with her high level of intellect and esprit. The problem is that Marie is also Yale’s former mistress and this makes for interesting emotional baggage.

Isaac (Woody Allen) and Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway) bump into Yale (Michale Murphy) and Marie (Diane Keaton) at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and go on to engage in an academic and comical debate about art.

Manhattan is a film that juggles the delicate moments of human life in the midst of big city aspirations in the world’s most interesting place in the 1970’s, New York City . The look, feel and sound (Gershwin!) of Allen’s Manhattan captures a time and place that is forever unique to America and to American cinema. It’s perhaps the most beautiful film in the Woody Allen library.

In Summary, the films briefed here are the meatiest in terms of originality and theme. But Allen’s made many excellent movies: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Husbands and Wives, Zelig, Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, Bullets over Broadway and, more recently, Before Midnight to name but a few more. They are all worth exploring. In fact, even when he’s not in top form, his films are better than most of his peers. That’s the trademark of greatness.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” — Woody Allen