Style & Substance

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

Sharpen The Saw

The Bald Eagle is America’s symbol for freedom. I live in an area where many Bald Eagles nest and it’s hard not to feel the power and freedom that emanates from this beautiful bird of prey.

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” — Albert Camus

I equate time to freedom because until we can travel backwards in time, time is the only non-renewable and non-replenishable resource that we’ve got — sooner or later, we’ll run out of it. So when I first read Steven Covey’s paramount non-fiction best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People many years ago, I felt as many did; completely inspired by his approach to time management and his philosophy for modern living based on solid ethical principles. It was the preeminent self-help book that launched the self-help industry into the stratosphere. Some critics argued that Covey sold what seemed like common sense and built a financial empire from it, but like Covey himself said, common sense isn’t common practice.

The 7 Habits from the Steven Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

As artists, we know that much of what we “should” do, we don’t do.  For example, why can’t we see the flaws of our work while we’re doing it but only afterwards? Why do things such as twinning, even spacing, or repetitive acting choices continue to plaque our craft? Why are good rituals so hard to form while bad habits stick like gum on your boots? And why do we continue to repeat the same mistakes despite the pain that it causes us?

Notes by Disney veteran and legendary illustrator, Carson Van Osten, on the matters of twinning in animation posing.

The answer, so it seems, appear to lie in the underlying approach to how we view our time and how we use it.  Now, while Covey listed some brilliant principles on how to live, I have to date, only retained two concepts from his writing, namely his Time Management Matrix and his seventh and final habit Sharpen The Saw. Both are tied to the belief in doing the right things and doing them regularly.

The Covey Time Management Matrix:

The Covey Time Management Matrix, consisting of the four quadrants of time usage, couldn’t be more apt in our current times of rushing, obsessing with busyness and addiction to convenient technology and social media.

Since us artists are people too, we’re just as susceptible to the pull of immediacy both at work and outside of work. Important short term matters such as approaching deadlines and other emergencies naturally demand our attention — that’s biological. We need to survive before we can work on improving our efficiencies and before we can find deeper meaning and fulfillment.  These are “Quadrant I” activities, the ones we have to live with and must do. This quadrant will always exist, that’s just life. But just surviving is not life — zombies move too — because being consumed with urgent demands is both taxing and soul destroying.

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” — C.S. Lewis

Artists, of all people, can ill afford to spend their time on unimportant matters, whether they be urgent or not. Quadrant III and IV activities are such time wasters, things that offer little value. Checking or answering every text message or Facebook posting/response may seem harmless but they distract from our current duties. In fact, they destroy our abilities to concentrate, which has very serious consequences and leads to more urgent problems and habitual stress.

But the same goes with spending hours and hours on excessive television watching, video gaming or mindless browsing on the internet (who isn’t guilty of that?) If you’re gonna take time for rest and leisure, do it right. Same thing applies for screwing around during a recess from work — something that may seem like a legitimate break from some hard time in front of the computer but is often energy spent unwisely dealing with trivia, or worse, whining and complaining about projects or people. That’s neither fruitful nor restful. A much wiser course of action would be take a walk out in the fresh air and empty the mind of the physical and emotional intensity that’s been hard at work for the last couple of hours.

Art Criticism by Honoré Daumier. There are those that do and those that talk. The masterful Daumier made many brilliant caricatures of societal behavior.

In order to develop our craft, we need time to explore our artistry. We need to create space for visual education, skill development, exploration and research. You can’t think outside of the box if you can’t even see the box. Study is important; history and reflection instruct. This is all Quadrant II activity — activity that requires what we call slow time — where we can engage in high value actions that are pragmatic and deeply fulfilling. The further beauty of Quadrant II activities is that they reduce the amount of Quadrant I emergencies. The time we put into planning our work properly (instead habitually rushing right into it) saves us time by limited the odds of having to re-do it. Those evenings or weekends diligently spent studying our craft or taking supplementary seminars or private lessons, improves our visual vocabulary and even address “blind spots” in the approach to our artistry. Fundamentally, raising our skill set raises our efficiencies on the job and helps to limit the number of high urgency demands created by poor preparation or inadequacy. Proper fun and restful activities that aid in physical recovery and improve mental clarity also serve as wonderful Quadrant II activities.

A well-planned weekend for some real fun with friends/family or engaging in comprehensive outdoor activities provide both pure release from “work” and give us something to look forward to during the week.

Sharpening The Saw (Habit #7)

Knowing the quadrants of time expenditure is fine and dandy, but applying it without a game plan is difficult. It’s all too easy to be swept up into our old ways. Saying to ourselves “someday, I’ll lose that extra body weight or work on my timing issues” isn’t going to amount anything more than a hill of beans. One way I personally deal with this is ensuring that I practice what Steven Covey calls “Sharpen The Saw.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln.

Wisdom is something that is commonly ignored in today’s me-me-me, rush-rush-rush society. We want quick answers, we don’t read unless it’s entertainment, and we certainly don’t make time to listen and watch things patiently. It’s much easier to buy a solution than to build or create one on our own. But oh, how fulfilling it is to make and create things ourselves! Are we not artists?

The locomotive is one of the greatest inventions in human history. Creativity is not only the best solution to our problems, it may be the only solution to the problems we face today.

“Only someone who is well prepared has the opportunity to improvise.” — Ingmar Bergman

But to create and build requires time and skill. Spending the hours sharpening the saw equates to being prepared for success. Success rarely comes to those that aren’t ready for it. And if it were to arrive at the hands of the unprepared, the unprepared are ill prepared to manage it . (This probably explains why weak talents who achieve quick and early acclaim have incredibly short careers and why lottery winners are often financially worse off two years after winning the prize money than before they hit the jackpot). Our minds simply won’t allow us to skip any steps. Once again, there are no shortcuts to happiness.

Steven Covey’s Seventh Habit: Sharpen The Saw. In order to maintain balance and be prepared for living well, we must make the quantifiable effort to fulfill these four human requirements.

The four areas of Sharpening The Saw are remarkably clear and simple. We are to simply ensure that we leave no major area of our lives unexamined or neglected. For each of us, what we choose to pursue actively in the mental, physical, social and spiritual aspects of our lives is, like our art, entirely personal. The important thing is that we do them and that they be measurable. For some, these actions are to be performed weekly, while for others, like myself, they are daily requirements. I draw out a chart whereby I tick the boxes to each of those elements every day in my life. I don’t always succeed in filling in all four boxes everyday, but seeing that mounting accomplishment is not only rewarding but satisfying and motivational. Selective repetition is what leads to real change and there’s nothing like experiencing success to inspire further success. Sharpening the saw is preeminent Quadrant II activity; it forces us to actively examine and engage in the most meaningful areas of our lives and do so regularly. Only then, do we have hope of advancing and doing something new, perhaps even great.

“You are an explorer, and you represent our species, and the greatest good you can do is to bring back a new idea, because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness.” ― Terence McKenna

In light of the new year (and new year’s resolutions), I believe it’s important to take stock and reflect on the past. Only then, can we have some basis to work from. Knowing where we currently stand in the management of our time, and in effect, our lives, is crucial to future action and the future of our growth as creative individuals.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates

Shot Analysis: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The French poster for Walt Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of Disney’s most interesting films made in the late 1990’s. Based on Victor Hugo’s Gothic novel about a hunchbacked servant who resides in the Bell Tower of Notre Dame Cathedral, it was both bold and timid. It had a dark foreboding undertone and featured a genuinely realistic villain but it was also conflicted in its choice of supporting characters, most notably the Gargoyles — formula sidekicks who were more suited to a modern Broadway comedy-musical. That said, there is brilliant animation throughout the film and none more prominent than the work of superstar animator James Baxter who headed up the team responsible for Quasimodo, voiced beautifully by Tom Hulce. It was this film in particular, and the visual acting portrayed here by Baxter, that made me such a huge fan of character animation and his work in particular. It signaled to me what was possible when it came to pure and believable acting in animation.

Sequence Analysis: Quasimodo’s entrance

The sequence of two shots introducing Quasimodo, the Hunchback from Walt Disney’s 1996 The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Animation by Supervising Animator, James Baxter.

Today, we’ll look at the two shots at about half speed in slow-motion so that we can see in acute detail what actually happens in the animation.

Part 1:

As the powerful score and ringing bells carry us from the opening sequence to this shot, we see our hero Quasimodo emerging from the darkness, face hidden. He swings athletically downwards (with the camera trailing him) to the wooden floor. His movements are perfectly in unison with the movement of the swinging bells which never obscure our vision of him.

Notice the central placement of the character as he enters the scene. It signifies his importance as he emerges from obscurity into focus coming out from the direction of the viewer, as if we are him. We are meant to relate to him (and like him), even if we don’t know him quite just yet.

The design and choreography give huge hints to the story about a character usually hidden out of sight, now emerging onto the scene out of darkness and into the light, while carrying with it the corresponding undertones of the religious environment. Baxter’s animation here displays great draftsmanship and rhythmical brilliance as Quasimodo travels with speed, power and control. This is an important indicator of the incredible capabilities of this character which will be revealed in the explosive finale in Act Three.

In the final pose of the shot, Baxter chooses to leave Quasimodo hanging momentarily at screen right, on “thirds” where we can see clearly where he’s looking and where’s he’s about to land. In this case, “X” marks the spot, as displayed prominently in the shadows on the floor. The surrounding pigeons and their reaction will help with continuity into the next shot.

Animating to a moving camera is perhaps the hardest thing to do for a character animator. It requires great knowledge and control of the camera, as well as superb abilities on the body mechanics side — all movements must be smooth, display believable weight and be dynamically appealing. In 2D animation, it requires the kind of drawing/animating abilities that very few animators in the world have (James Baxter and Glen Keane are the only two animators I know of who have delivered such shots with unparalleled consistency). Notice that despite the heroics displayed with the physical action, it’s the opening and closing images of the shot that tell the most about the character and his story. How you start and end shots do much more than simply connect them together.

Part 2:

In this second half of the sequence, Quasimodo is centrally placed, seen from behind, heading towards the light. His landing activates the pigeons, whose scattered arrangement and flight help the shot “bloom” as they give way to our hero who travels towards them. After recoiling from his heavy, yet controlled landing, the drag of his arms and “gam” leg signify part of his physical handicap and deformity. This is further caricatured by his hunched movement which is both awkward and one-sided as he hobbles towards the sunlight.

As Quasimodo transitions from his powerful landing, you see that Baxter uses a strong “croissant” like shape for his key pose, a design that would stay consistent throughout the film. A beautiful mix of straights and curves both contrast and complement each other while the counter-balance of movement between those shapes, which are elegantly-timed, help define the character’s difficulty and heft which encompasses him — clearly a symbol of the burden he carries in his heart and mind.

I love the rhythm of this shot. The walk has a pace that is both unusual and dignifying. The huge drag and overlap of the limbs along with the quickness of their recovery make for a very appealing performance. It’s quite hard to explain, but you can feel his pain and physical confidence at the same time. I only wish that thematically the film would have further explored that in his character — physical deformities accompany with them more than just emotional and mental burden, but physical suffering as well.

In the ending key frames of this shot, we again see the dominant croissant shape that defines Quasimodo. His walk ends in transition to the next cut just like how he entered the scene — in movement and dynamically engaged in the moment. The composition re-affirms the central focus as he moves towards the light; a hero about to emerge towards the possibility of hope and change.

The two shots together looks remarkably simple at first glance (which, by the way, is no longer than eight seconds in total). Yet who could believe that a sequence of two shots that don’t even show the face of the character — never mind show him speaking — can reveal so much about a character and his role in a film. With intelligent design and brilliant execution in acting and animation physics, animators like James Baxter prove that it can be done.

Whenever I see this animation, I look back into my past and remember how I was first introduced to this shot by my old mentor and most gracious teacher, Wayne Gilbert (whom I’ll be forever grateful). He told me to study it in detail and find out why it works. To this day, this shot by James Baxter continues to hold its drawing power, carrying with it all the things we need to excel as animators: weight, rhythm, choreography, acting and appeal.