Smaller, Simpler, Slower

Al Pacino stars in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II. Coppola is one of the few directors in the history of film that has been able to successfully create projects both large in scale and scope. But even for such a great artist such success has been rare. (See my analysis of a shot from the first Godfather movie here.)

“What we need is more a sense of the wonder of life and less of this business of making a picture.” — Robert Henri

As working artists, we are constantly confronted, both externally and internally, with the demand to do things on a grand scale, with  great complexity and accomplish it as quickly as possible. We’re endlessly torn between results and process.

Having been a director, teacher and consultant to many students and professionals in the field of animation over the years, the most common failure I noticed among artists has almost everything to do with the obsession with quick and grand results, rather than say, a lack of natural talent, good fortune or the right environment. With such lofty expectations, it’s nearly impossible to develop the right kind of skills and attitude to properly grow as an artist.

“Reverse” by Jenny Saville. Large scale work (the above piece measures 7 ft x 8 ft) requires the kind of vision and skill few acquire. It’s an ability that’s built upon years of study, contemplation and hard work.

This blog was created in hopes of helping people break free from the mindset of expectations, a thought process driven typically by greed or fear and is often tied to the need for security and social approval. Unfortunately, the mind is a very powerful thing and once habituated to think in such a manner, it is very hard to break free of this sort of self-torture.

“The brain is clever enough to see the vicious circle which it has made for itself. But it seeing that it is unreasonable to worry does not stop worry; rather, you worry the more at being unreasonable.” — Alan Watts

So what is the solution to this daunting dichotomy?

One approach that I’ve been preaching for years is to do things smaller, simpler and slower. If we remember that a work of creation, especially in the field of animation, is much akin to building a skyscraper, we’ll be reminded that there must be at first an idea — a decisive vision — that is then supported by a succession of secondary decisions, both artistic and technical, that ultimately form the entire structure.

My Pyramid of Priorities. The most stable structure, the hierarchy of the pyramid, is an apt reminder of the approach and mindset when creating a significant piece of art. The idea drives the whole project, but it’s built upon the design and stability that lies beneath it. Most of the volume of the pyramid is in the lower two-thirds — where all the planning, skill and hard work lie.

But imagine the shape of our pyramid of priorities flipped upside down, with all the time and energy placed at the very top with the base, the art and mechanics, becoming mere stilts holding up a world of ideas. Then those grand plans and visions in all its complexity and grandeur become too much to handle and, without a sufficient base of skill and preparation to support such goals, we fall and fall hard. Sometimes such grand failure can further inspire us — testing our persistence and passion— but often times it can hinder or even deter us completely from ever trying anything ever again. If we’re a juggler who is barely capable of juggling three balls standing still then adding more balls while balancing ourselves on a tricycle might not be such a wise idea. We must always be careful of biting off more than we can chew, especially at the beginning. We mustn’t let this self-absorbed pattern of thinking be our undoing with goals becoming measuring sticks rather than targets, and actions becoming duties rather than experiences. There’s a reason why the Goldilocks Principle is such a good one to follow most of the time.

“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” — Mother Teresa


We love big things don’t we? We’re all easily impressed by the guy with the biggest muscles, the large mansion or the epic film production. Unfortunately, it’s the absolute worse mindset to have when starting out. My worst and most painful ventures have all been tied to doing something that was far too large for my abilities and experience. Regardless of skill, talent or effort, doing something ridiculously large is a recipe for disaster. In animation this means doing projects or shots that are far too long (for the size of a scene is determined by its length of time). Animators seem to be obsessed with shot length. But I say, quality trumps quantity every time. If we want to do it better, we must do it smaller (at least until we’re ready to go bigger).

Roger and Pongo by Milt Kahl from Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmations. Would you dare to judge this animation by its shot length? People forget this, but the creativity, passion and abilities of an animator can be easily spotted in just a single shot. (See my full, detailed analysis of this shot here.)

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci


The other disastrous mistake beginning animators make is in the area of complexity. Not only are they juggling too many balls in the air, they want to juggle knives and chainsaws too. This art form, or any art for that matter, is hard, terribly hard. Why make things so difficult and messy? The odds of success drop dramatically when the complexity is raised. If, in our work, we’ve added complex themes, multiple characters or fancy camera moves, we better watch ourselves. When possible, always trim down the number elements involved or simplify them, so that there’s only one area that’s more challenging. Besides, great artwork directs the eye and focuses the attention of its audience towards one dominate theme or area. Just because there’s a lot going on doesn’t mean it’s gonna be good. In fact, the contrary holds true; complicated work is often difficult to watch, confusing and often filled with distraction and error.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Watterson’s brilliant strip captures the attitude of many young artists when they begin their first creations.

“The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.” — Molière


The final suggestion is to slow things down. Tame those desires for immediate success. What’s the hurry? We can’t rush our improvements or skill development anyway. Nature takes its time, and straining our brains won’t make any difference. The brain is not a muscle. It works better when relaxed and clairvoyant. Doing art requires preparation, skill and focus and a rushed mindset prevents all of that which is needed for success. Doing things slowly but attentively builds real ability and strength. Patience is a powerful tool. Allow time to help. But what about deadlines? I’m not talking about being unprofessional, but merely suggesting that spending our time focused and undistracted is the fastest route to success. Speed is a mindset and shortcuts are NOT the answer. The fastest people do things slowly (i.e. the long way) because they do it creatively, assuredly and effectively. Doing the right thing is always more important than doing things quickly.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” — Peter F. Drucker

Is this contrary to the sign of our times? Of course it is! But we don’t stand out because of our speed. We make a difference because of who we are and how we do things. We all know that we’re living in THE century where machines will soon replace most of the things that we do, including most manual labor and calculation, blue collar or white collar it won’t matter. The advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence is sure to change the entire socioeconomic make up of our world. This much is certain and inevitable.

As artists, our value is in our ability to bring to light that which has never existed and our individuality will become more and more important. It is our knowledge plus our creative and discerning abilities that will separate us from the merely mechanical. If all we do is do things faster, we’re already obsolete. If we play that game, then our greatest competitor is not our fellow humans but technology. It’s a game we’re sure to lose.

This now famous clip of legendary animator Hiyao Miyazaki attending an Artificial Intelligence video game demonstration shows only the beginning of AI in its application to animation. Although it might be comical (or tragic) to witness Miyazaki berating the creators of this technology, it nonetheless shows that AI is not far from being used to take over much of the less performance-based animation in the near future. The issues of achieving greater weight, appeal and believability isn’t far behind. In fact, the criticisms of it being “not very good” or “not ready” remind me of the scornful echos of classically-trained 2D animators during the advent of 3D technology.

Of course, we might argue that all this may be true but we can’t think that far ahead (although the future is already here) and that our minds just can’t let go of the incessant demand for security and the rules and habits that’s been our indoctrination. There’s no denying that this journey is anything but difficult. But in the end, we can only focus on the moment, tackling one thing at a time with integrity, attention and diligence. Only then do we stand a chance against a rational mind that has become irrational in its self-obsession. We must look at all that’s in front us and decisively take creative action — action that’s smaller and simpler — and to take our time doing it. The only security is knowing that this is the only way of building long-lasting strength in anything.

“It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.” — Alan Watts

Chart & Track

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” — Buckminster Fuller

Much has been said about setting goals if we are to get anywhere in life. But artists in general are not known to be good at setting goals. It’s supposed to be against our nature for the liberal stigma attached us — a persona that implies that our lives be selfishly carefree and aloof — says that our work (when we actually do work) is totally dependent on our gifted talent and spur of the moment inspiration. How else could we be so both lovingly revered and widely shunned by society at the same time?

But we know better. We know that without discipline our wants and visions become nothing but mere hope and memory. Because without a carefully constructed vision and game plan to build ourselves into productive and happy artists, we’ll never develop either the skills or strength necessary to accomplish anything, let alone our dreams.

“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger

There are many rules to success. They include faith in ourselves, hard work, discipline, the ability to ignore naysayers as well as the strength to endure failure. We also need good habits and rituals, so that we do the right things regularly and automatically. But all that is for naught, if we do not chart and track our progress.

Remember these? I wasn’t always goal oriented. I still remember my best friend and I had, by far, like the least gold stars of anyone in my grade 2 class.

Charting and tracking our goals forces us to acknowledge them every single day. So, not only do we have to spend the time thinking about and writing down our goals, we must place them visually in front of us where we can see them regularly. This idea goes beyond just being inspired. It’s about keeping focused and staying on track. We all know how easy it is to fall off the wagon so to speak. Dreams and goals always feel distant — all finish lines do — and as terrible it is to say this, the odds are we will fail.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion of him, Arnold Schwarzeneggar is the definitive example of someone who set his goals high and created an effective game plan to accomplish them. Coming from a small Austrian town with limited access to both opportunity and education, the odds were all stacked against him. From becoming a five-time Mr. Olympia bodybuilder and iconic movie star to sitting on the throne as Governor of California, few people have accomplished as many grand and diverse dreams in a single life time.

But odds are irrelevant when it comes to actual living. We all know that anything can happen. Yes, we can win OR lose aiming for our goals, but by not setting any goals, failure is all but GUARANTEED. Dreams are achieved by first envisioning them, then by inching closer to them day by day. In charting our progress, we are forced to acknowledge whether we are actively doing anything to make them come true.

Personally, I set two types of goals that are charted and tracked: outcome goals and action goals.

Outcome Goals:

Outcome goals are what most people think of when they think of goals. Examples include winning a marathon, becoming a great animator or become as big as Arnold Schwarzeneggar. These types of goals are easy to identify and may be inspiring, but their success is dependent on many factors, some of which are completely outside of our control. Sometimes these goals are vague and even hard to measure — what does becoming a great animator really mean anyway? or happiness for that matter? Outcome goals are also large and distant, in that they can rarely be achieved quickly (if at all). Their grandiosity and the difficulty involved make them very hard to hold onto consistently in your heart and mind. Life gets busy and soon, we forget or give up on them. For far too many people, such goals, no matter how achievable, become like those bygone childhood dreams and the very language that they use — words like “wish” and “hope” — give these people away.

“Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives.” – Viktor E. Frankl

Therefore, when making our outcome goals, we must make them as specific and inspiring as possible. Something that is worthy of our efforts and drive but can also be visualized. If, for example, we want to become a great painter, we can aim to be selected for a solo show at a famous museum. Or if we need to get back into shape, we can say we’d like to be able finish a 20 km marathon by the end of the year. The best goals are not only inspiring and grand, they are completely measurable.

This SMART goal chart should be familiar to all, but again, common sense is not common practice. In fact, most people don’t set any goals at all.

Action Goals:

These are the types of goals that we can quickly and easily see whether we’re accomplishing or not. They are small, immediate and can be easily scheduled. They have fast approaching deadlines and can be checked off on any “to do” list or calendar. The beauty of action goals is that the outcome of whether they are achieved or not have nothing to do with our environment or circumstances — they depend only on our will to do them. And when they need fine-tuning, we can adjust them accordingly but only to get us closer to our vision rather than to take a step back or worse, flake out on our promise to ourselves. If our work day has run long, and we can’t do our usual 30 minute workout, then we do 15 minutes instead. (Anyone who says they can’t spare 15 minutes is lying.)

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” — Confucius

I love action goals. The reason is because they are not only simple and direct, they give an immediate sense of accomplishment. There aren’t too many things in our lives that give us that, not following orders, not doing our errands and certainly not watching TV or playing games all day. We’re talking about actionable activities we designed to better our own lives. Each time we do an action goal, we are one step closer to reaching our outcome goal. That feeling of accomplishment is almost indescribable — a sense of fulfillment that boosts the soul, confirms our intelligence and strengthens our character.

The Gossips by Norman Rockwell. Regarded primarily as “only” an illustrator during his lifetime, Rockwell was generally rejected by the fine art community. But despite this, and the strain of having to constantly produce and work with tough deadlines, it never stopped him from creating formidable art — art which was often loaded with wit, character and beauty.

So what does all this look like, working with a tandem of outcome and action goals? Well, as a personal example, I was recently diagnosed with Type II diabetes.* After going thru a few hours of justifiable despair I decided to take action; I didn’t waste one further minute and immediately set three outcome goals that were to be accomplished within six months:

(1) Drop 20 lbs

(2) Lose 5% body fat

(3) Become 90% vegan.

All three of the  goals were specific, serious and ambitious and the impact and change required in my lifestyle would be huge. Next, I set aside actionable goals, each one with its own chart that I’d place on my walls to see everyday:

(1) Find out as much as I can about the disease by reading a minimum of 3 books/research papers on the subject every week. (Ultimately, I read a total of 12 books and over 30 articles on the subject within the first three months.)

(2) Begin a rigid exercise plan of 45-60 minutes everyday. (Since that day I’ve missed a total of 22 days in 6 months and that included moving to another city and taking a 14 day trip to Japan.)

(3) Gradually transition my kitchen to becoming a vegan one, setting aside 1-2 meals per week where I’d be non-vegan as a cheat day to make the adjustment more palatable and realistic. Every time I failed to comply, I’d trimmed the content and size of my meals in proportion.

And the end result? Well, let’s just say I surprised even myself. By the fourth month, I’d lost 21 lbs and dropped 4% in body fat. I’ve now lost almost all craving for meat or dairy. My blood glucose levels are balanced and I’ve never felt more respectful of other life forms and the environment. Honestly, I didn’t fully expect to reach those goals so quickly, even as I weighed myself daily witnessing the predictable yo-yo effect of my weight and my emotions. But what was most amazing about this process was seeing the chart fill with simple annotations both in success and failure. More often than not, the sight of any unchecked boxes drove me to action almost immediately. And more incredibly, since achieving my milestones, I’ve gotten more confident and inspired to do better not just for my body, but for other areas of my life. Again I’m reminded of the power of following the process. Small success breeds further successes.

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” ― Robert Henri

Lucian Freud, seen here working on his very last painting only two weeks before his death at the age of 88. He was a prolific painter who painted slow but dutifully his entire life. Everyday he worked and everyday he gave his full attention to his craft leading him to become the greatest realist painter of the 20th century.

I illustrated my story not to impress but only to demonstrate that setting goals in this fashion can work for anyone. The most important point is this: big identifiable goals are necessary because they serve as targets so that we can reach the not-so-measurable goals of happiness and meaning in our lives. Without them, we won’t reach beyond the merely comfortable, regular and safe. Entropy is a natural scientific law — if we do nothing, we slide insidiously from higher order to lower order, from growing to dying. Large visions and colorful dreams give us the drive necessary to move forward and, more importantly, to take action. Outcome goals inspire action goals. Action goals lead to a process of living a better, healthier and more meaningful life regardless of any future outcome.

“A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then the painter realizes that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope the picture might spring to life.” — Lucian Freud


*Note: The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 3 people in America will have diabetes by the year 2050.