Painting by Alex Kanevsky, a modern yet classical painter from Philadelphia who produces some of the most beautiful and expressive figurative portraits today. Kanevsky is an artist who admits to working very fast but at the same time, takes the time, sometimes months, for a painting to evolve into its final state.
“I prefer to arrive at the painting with some sort of clarity of intent and purpose. It’s sort of like a dialogue. You do things to it and it does things to you. At this point, I think I’m done doing things to it. It’s doing things to me and I have to respond.” — Alex Kanevsky
Style is a funny thing. In animation, some favor it, even worship it, others dislike seeing it, fearing it takes away from the essence of a piece of work or genre, especially in our field, where consistency and continuity of performance is more important than an individual scene that draws too much attention to itself by sticking out from the others. In general, I’ve always believed that in films and theatre, the project’s vision belongs to the director and hence, any decision on style belongs to him/her alone. After that, everyone else has to come on board. They have to support that vision for it to all work as one.
Woody and Buzz are both the foundation and the heart of Pixar’s Toy Story movies. Each film individually, and together as a series, defines a unique and particular world view where toys live, prosper and struggle. Pixar, since its inception, has done a great job submitting all its creative talent to serve the greater cause of the story and style of their individual projects.
The style of a group of artists’ work, like that in a studio, attract like-minded individuals. The old school Disney has long claimed ownership of the princess/classic western fairy-tale — no one does it better. Both a set of preferences and fundamental skills are required to meet those particular demands for consistency and appropriateness. Style carries with it no influential power if there isn’t substantial weight and substance behind it. As animators, our roles are always to serve that greater purpose with our energy and our unique individual talents. If the mastery of the craft isn’t there, the story no matter how good, can falter. But neither can good visual artistry and technical wizardry save a badly told story.
Artists from Bill Tytla to Glen Keane all helped define and distinguish the Disney style, founded on the solid artistic principles of physical reality, visual appeal and magic. Disney’s latest film, Moana, directed by old school artists, Ron Clements and John Musker, carries that same charm with great success.
As artists, we’re always conflicted between doing the new and staying with the old. If we don’t try new things, we get stale and the environments (in both the studios and cities) we work in will reflect that.
New York City has been, for the longest time, the beacon of creative activity due to its plethora of museums, galleries, street scenes, and festivals all boosting its art, theater, dance and music scene. And despite its rich foundation and history, it still continues to birth new and exciting talent, unafraid of finding new ways of saying things.
In personal work, however, individual style couldn’t be more important for it defines our artistry in its time and place. Our personal history, environment and preferences all play a huge role in our development and ultimately the execution of our craft. New and exciting work often finds it source from individuals, even within an artistic movement or group collective, such as what we see in modern day animation or design studios. Hence, individual creativity must always be encouraged to allow environments, which consists of both veteran and new artists, to grow and push boundaries, to come up with new stories to tell. If such risk is not taken, both the artistic spirit and the studios/companies themselves die while those that continue to embrace change and exploration, break new ground and commit to something greater. Serendipity — the unexpected and inconceivable that surface spontaneously — must be allowed to take place. There must exist imagination.
“The things that do not fit the paradigm — the anomalies —tend to be ignored or explained away. In truth, anomalies themselves contain the richest information.” — Robert Greene (from his book, Mastery)
Travis Knight’s 2016 directorial debut, Kubo and the Two Strings from Laika Studios, is one of the most magical and emotionally moving film in years. The beauty compiled by both digital and stop-motion artists (who are as famous for their artistry as much as the hard physical labor they put in) has created a film of remarkable beauty while carrying a story full of wonder and meaning.
Furthermore, we must be always be careful not to let theory or preconceived ideas of excellence or “correctness” dominant a piece of art. The vision of art — its desire and its purpose — must supersede that of its foundation. The ideas direct the collective effort while the foundation of hard work, creativity and solid skills supports it. The audience should only see and feel the ideas presented.
“The work of art in which one can see the imprint of theory is like a present on which the price tag was left.” — Marcel Proust
I’ve been showing people this “Pyramid of Priorities” for as long as I’ve been teaching animation. The fundamentals — in this case, the understanding and control of the body mechanics and graphic artistry of our animation — serves the one and only top goal, that of performance; acting that moves an audience, action that tells the story. The size and proportion of the three definitive sections is not accidental. Much of our time as creatives is spent building that two-layer base that supports the main idea.
This is why it’s so important for young artists to spend adequate time and energy learning their craft. We must be patient. Without any real knowledge and practical ability, there is no way to tell any story — at least not one anyone will sit thru and listen. This perhaps explains why so much dubious “modern art” has lost much of the public’s interest. Real good, fundamentally strong and thoughtful work has real weight, personal history and energy (effort) behind it, regardless of visual style.
The great John Coltrane both defined and transcended his art, influencing artists the world over. Jazz is one of the most distinctive forms of art ever created (and one that was uniquely founded in America). Strong on style and fearlessness, it’s also arguably the hardest, most technically challenging of the musical art forms.
So to sum up, if we want to express our greatest “self” and push beyond our own boundaries, never mind that of any particular craft or industry, then we better muster up the goods and become as rock solid as we can with the fundamentals. For visual artists, it means mastering things like line, shape, color and composition. And for the animator, it means things like pose, space, timing and choreography will be paramount to any kind of success.
Frank Thomas’ rough sketches for Hook and Schmee from Walt Disney’s 1953 classic, Peter Pan. Frank Thomas was one of the ultimate “actors” in Disney animation history. Always thoughtful, creative and expressing the most personality out of his characters. He could do this because technically and graphically he was an outstanding animator and artist.
The fundamentals are the springboard — the substance. After we’ve learned them, they become part of the many tools in our toolbox. We never forget about them, but they stop being our focus or fear. But without a solid foundation of skill and knowledge, things like serendipity can’t happen and our efforts will be limited in its power. Only with enough grasp of our craft can we open up the possibility for our minds to focus on higher challenges. We must not be the painter that can’t draw or the animator that doesn’t understand weight or timing. Because then we won’t — can’t — say anything important. We cannot let laziness or indifference hold us back.
“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” — Louis Pasteur