Must versus Want

Art by Shozo Shimamoto, made by hurling balls of paint on to a canvas at high speed.

“If the dedication to the thing the individual is dedicated is defuse, the quality is apt to be poor and weak.”  — Howard Thurmon

The path we take to live happily starts with a decision to do what we “must do” and not merely what we “want to do.” We cannot trick ourselves into doing that which we don’t really care about regardless of what others think or even what we think. It’s the paramount reason why people don’t exercise, don’t eat well or behave as they should in general despite knowing better. For the typical person, the day to day actions support neither biological intuition nor scientific rationale. And as such, this conflict leads to a life of constant inconsistency and inconsistencies create unalleviated stress and unhappiness, and ultimately, spiritual death.

“Some people die at twenty-five and aren’t buried until seventy-five.” —  Benjamin Franklin

In Walt Disney’s 1940 animated classic Pinocchio Jiminy Cricket responds to Pinocchio’s inquiry “what’s a conscience?” According to studies, the average four year-old asks over 400 questions a day!

The answers on how to do anything and find success — in pretty much anything — is all out there in books and in writings and videos all over the internet. And it’s all FREE. Despite this modern reality, people everywhere are still obsessed with finding all the tricks and techniques on HOW to do something, thinking that’s the answer to their problems. But the far more important question we should be asking ourselves is WHY. It’s the relentless question children ask the most when they are young. Only after years of being told “it is the way it is” do they give up such inquiry, leading to a life of doing whatever they’re being told to do whether that be from family, friends, the government, the education system or the corporations that we work for and the messages they spread.

“To produce art is to do something beyond your capabilities.” — Shozo Shimamoto

But should we be leaving the reasons to live and the corresponding designs of our lives in the hands of others? Are our capabilities and talents predeterminately limited by society’s current rules and expectations? Are we only to be defined by what we own, measured in material accumulation or social approval? If we’re not careful and don’t stay adeptly aware and curious, we’ll be insidiously trapped into a kind of daily indoctrination that leads to a life on auto-pilot. There is truth in the statement that says that if we don’t design our own lives others will design them for us. Or to put it another way, those who don’t set their own goals end up slavishly working for those who do.

“Your silence will not protect you.” — Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was an influential American poet and activist who fought boldly against racism, sexism, and homophobia during the 1960’s.

There are countless people out there who say they’d die to be doing something else or be someone else but don’t do anything about it. They could hate their jobs, their environment or their relationships but instead of changing things up, opt to hang around and put up with the misery. Allowing fear and expectations to rule, some people become bitter, feeling unappreciated for their sacrifice, their deal with the universe a sham. Unfortunately, the truth is there is no deal — we may have offered it to the world but it was never accepted. The universe owes us nothing. We can only think and do what lies in accordance to our principles, ones we choose to adopt or, if needed, ones we create ourselves. Until we spend the time to ask why and ponder over such matters of empirical importance, there is nothing to live for or any grounding on which to live by. And the quality of our art (i.e. our expression) has no choice but to reflect our state of understanding.

“The art of peace is the art of learning deeply, the art of knowing oneself.” — Morihei Ueshiba

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, seen here throwing an opponent into mid-air. Despite being born “weak and sickly” and under 5′ 2″ in height, the great Sensei managed to become one of the greatest and most influential artists and thinkers of our time.

To be an artist is to face those questions everyday. Why are we here? What are we doing? And does it matter? When faced with such profundity, we are forced to stop and ponder. We slow down so that we can see and hear and truly listen. Then we discover simple things such as the fact that our material and social status are of little importance. We begin to unshackle ourselves from our self-imposed constraints of conformity and begin to see that only how we behave — as defined by our actions and expressions — matters. We become unique individuals again and begin to take responsibility for being so.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensible, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” — Henry David Thoreau

Legendary Disney animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston lived long and happy lives as artists completely devoted to their craft.

Once free from expectations, a life of experimentation begins as we consciously choose what to say yes and no to. For artists, this experimental phase is what drives us as creatives. It’s a phase that I personally hope lasts a lifetime. Doing something new. Living anew each day. What’s to fear if it’s the unknown that intrigues and excites us?  It’s no wonder artists live long lives (provided they can overcome alcohol or drug addiction and depression). Not too many artists suffer heart attacks on Monday morning, which is when most heart attacks occur just as people go to their day jobs. Again the process is what matters. All the studying, practice, learning, failing and growing IS the fulfillment we so desperately strive for.

“In this form of study there will no less familiarization with what is generally found in all technical study. You will acquire a habit and ability to select and correlate. You will become a master and organizer of means, and you will understand the value of means as no mere collector of means ever can.” — Robert Henri

The Dragon Flag exercise (named after Bruce Lee himself) tests the ultimate core of the body, the abdominal muscles. After years of rehab from spinal surgery, I’m now again able to do several sets of these everyday (as part of a plan to get back into top shape). I do this not because I wanted to but because I felt I had to as a symbol to myself that I, and I alone, control my life.

Once we discover that we must devote our lives as creatives, we begin to move forward. So we set goals, even as they serve only as targets. Targets in which to practice how to focus and apply our physical, mental and emotional energy. This day-in and day-out intense exertion is what makes the life of a craftsman. And, even though the results themselves don’t ultimately matter, by the laws of nature they tend to favor the well-practiced.

Living free is hard and serious work. No one said it was easy. But it is simple.

“Do not let the fact that things are not made for you, that conditions are not as they should be, stop you. Go on anyway. Everything depends on those who go on anyway.” — Robert Henry

Favorite “F” Words

“The mind is everything. What you think you become.” — Buddha

In art, there are far more important “F” words than the one we commonly use. These are my favorite:

Form:

“One must not always think that feeling is everything. Art is nothing without form.” — Gustave Flaubert

Whether we’re animating, painting or sculpting we’re always finding ways of using our tools to express form. We work to describe the objects of our interest, the characters we move, the models we reference.

It’s trickier than it seems because when we animate or paint a hand so to speak, we forget to see it for what it is, choosing instead to label it rationally as a “hand” rather than say an amalgamation of muscle, bone and skin that makes up the whole. If we only focus on the surface of a thing, we’ll never capture the fullness of it or its essence.

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin. No art I’ve ever seen has given me the sense of immediacy and substance than that of the work of Rodin. His sculptures have the kind of bulk and mass to them the make them feel heftier than the bronze they are cast.

Force:

“What we see is only appearance. Exercises in balance and movement teach us how to tend toward the essentials, to the functional as opposed to the external impression. We learn to recognize the underlying forces, the pre-history to the visible.” — Paul Klee

In expressing our art, there are always two forces at work: external force and internal force. External force is direct and obvious. It’s the answer to any issues of weight which is the outcome of a body of motion working against the gravitational pull from the earth’s core. It may also come in the form of an external object, be it a flying baseball or fist to the head. External forces must be respected and handled with astute attention for any sort of physical believability.

Internal force is the inner directive — driven by what it thinks and wants, a character is motivated towards an external expression, as seen in the shuffling of the feet in nervousness or the frown in the brow muscles indicating mental strain. A constant effort must be made and shown by the artist via lines of action, change of shapes (squash and stretch) and acceleration or deceleration of timing to indicate that a character drawn or posed is truly alive, thinking and feeling. The lack of understanding and application of force is the number one reason why student or amateur animation looks weak and weightless. The control and implication of motion (and emotion) must be clearly expressed at all times.

The Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Glen Keane’s work is defined by his understanding and application of force. Loaded with powerful emotion and physicality expressed in every aspect of his animation, it’s easy to see why he’s often regarded as the Michelangelo of 2D animation.

Focus:

“That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” — Steve Jobs

Art without focus confuses. Focus is one of the hardest things to achieve both in art and life. To stay attuned to a vision and to express that same vision in a way that is clear, concise and direct is deceptively difficult. There are no formulas, although there are guidelines. Simplicity helps. So does making it (the experience) real and personal.

As artists we must constantly strive to present our work as clearly and honestly as possible. If our work doesn’t direct the attention of its audience in the right way or at the right time — causing either confusion or boredom — then we have failed at our task. Because art that doesn’t engage or create any sort of interest stops being art. Work that is without focus and purpose is at best a display of technical proficiency and at worse indecipherable noise regardless of the effort required to produce it.

2001: A Space Odyssey. There have been countless science fiction movies made since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Far too many are filled with almost nothing but noise — senseless action and dialogue that neither move the story nor the audience — and none to date have either the focus or power of Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking masterpiece.

Feeling:

“You’re not supposed to animate drawings. You’re supposed to animate feelings.” — Ollie Johnston

How can one do art without feeling? Too commonly witnessed in this industry or in any commercial art (but what isn’t commercial these days?) is work done without much feeling or thought. As if embittered by the industrial nature of our work, burnt out and disinterested in the same kinds of visuals, stories and animations demanded of us as creatives, artists world wide are beginning to duplicate not only the works of others but of their own. No wonder we’re seeing the same formulas applied everywhere. “Formulas for success” they call it. But for artists this is death.

Despite the conditions of our work and a world moving too quickly, it’s our duty as artists — who are always society’s saving hope to see the world with more open eyes and deeper hearts — to strive for something more, something better. Without feeling, without caring about what we do and how we do it, our actions become futile and our talents wasted. As noted above, feeling without form, doesn’t make art, but neither does form without feeling. Our work is about the relationships between shapes and time but also between us and the audience. How can they relate if we give them nothing to relate to?

Pussyfoot and Marc Antony. Chuck Jones’ work always seems to have a heck of a lot to say. His cute little kittens and big bulldogs reveal more humanity than many live action performances. Whether expressing his own weaknesses/feelings of insecurity thru Daffy Duck or his own hair-brained optimism/obsession thru Wile E. Coyote, Chuck Jones always got us to relate to the situation.

Faith:

Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof.” — Khalil Gibran

The first thing I tell my students is this: if you don’t believe in yourself, I can’t help you.

One can argue that having faith is the most important thing in life. Now, even though I’m not talking faith in the religious sense (although you can choose to use that word however you see fit) for artists, that inner belief in oneself is the essential seed to creativity. Without it, there is no initial action nor sufficient follow up action to see our visions through to the end. Hence it’s important to keep our minds clear and, when necessary, to accept being lost once in a while so that we can find ourselves again. After all, art, like life, is a lot like a game of hide and seek, searching and finding continuously.

Faith isn’t unintelligible. It’s not some sort of irrational, blind devotion to a cause or set of rules and regulations. So don’t be so easily fooled by the fanatical or metaphysical noise often attached to it. Rather, faith is actionable attention — a springboard. It’s the straightening of one’s course in the face of all the challenges that are in front of us. Only with faith can anything of consequence ever be achieved.

The Apple I Computer circa 1976. The creation of the personal computer is still a marvel to me. How different the world is because a couple of creatives — Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak — said “yes we can” when everyone else told them they couldn’t.

Fun:

“Pretend that you are dancing or singing a picture… All real works of art look as though they were done in joy.” — Robert Henri

After all, isn’t this what it’s all about? Having fun? Life is short. We must spend our time doing what matters. That’s my number one commandment to myself.

If our work is done with drudgery, there is no hope but for it to become drudgery for those who view it. There’s truly nothing sadder than to see someone doing a creative job for a living and whine and complain about it the whole time. (And yes, I too, have been guilty in the past.) There may be many justifiable reasons to be unhappy but doing art shouldn’t be one of them.

When I turn to my own craft, it’s all about attention. When I’m purely convinced to dive right in (and do) I get my best results. When I’m judgemental or doubtful I fail (every time). It is as simple as it is hard. As artists, we must be fully engaged— to be utterly and completely lost in the creative process. We need to forget about expectations or the final outcome. They are a burden too heavy to carry during the operation. When we create, it’s like jumping fifty feet into a barely visible safety net unsure if it’s there to catch us or if it’s just our imagination that we see it there in the first place. It is the unknown that makes it exciting and fun. And more often than not our faith is rewarded despite the odds. The moment we lose faith however, both in the craft or in ourselves, we crash. (Then of course, we get back up and try again.) But it’s easy to forget that faith and fun are tied closely together. If we’re not excited we can’t create. Art doesn’t lie. It can’t.

A Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. Despite a life of longing and rejection by society, Van Gogh’s art tells us so much more about him than any biography ever could. Looking at his painting we can feel the movement and magnanimity of the stars as if we were standing right there with him that very night. What a marvelous night it must’ve been and what a marvelous time he must’ve had.

So, in summary, try not to get so strained when things get tough. Instead of saying the “F” word, put your thoughts on these “F” words — form, force, focus, feeling, faith and fun. You’ll shift your attention from problems to solutions.

“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced” – Vincent Van Gogh