Beauty

Abstract painter Cecily Brown is the current rock star of the modernist, big city painting scene. The intense flowing colors and large scale sensuality of her work both titillate and draw in viewer participation.

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” ― Marcus Aurelius

In a society obsessed and dominated by image, it’s easy to forget what real beauty truly is, and more importantly, our ability to actually see it. As artists, beauty is something we’re always striving after — first, for inspiration and subsequently in the process and outcome of our work. How it’s defined may depend as much on personal taste as the context in which it is found. In order to create it we must know how to recognize it, both in the places around us and within ourselves.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” ― Confucius

This is why it’s so important to focus on the positive, to look deep and wide for anything and everything that has even the remotest possibility of inspiring us and in turn, give meaning to our pursuits. Why does a man travel long and hard up into the Himalayas, into the dark, into the cold, exposed to a very real threat to his existence? The journey is sure to be arduous, with much time in near isolation, facing pain, difficulty and doubt .

Kyle Maynard is the first quadruple amputee to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro without the aid of prosthetics. His story and life is incredibly beautiful and inspiring.

Why be any kind of adventurer or artist when success is dependent on so much that is beyond our control? Because both the experience and the outcome are sure to surprise us. Or to borrow from the words of the Blind Seer, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s  “O’ Brother Where Art Thou“:

“You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the one you seek. But first… first you must travel a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril. Mm-hmm. You shall see thangs, wonderful to tell. You shall see a… a cow… on the roof of a cotton house, ha. And, oh, so many startlements. I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward. Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto your salvation.”

O’ Brother Where Art Thou, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is hugely entertaining comedy loosely based off Homer’s Greek Classic, The Odyssey.

Beauty, and thus art, is needed, for many reasons: to entice, to enrapture, to open up our ability and will to expose ourselves to the novel, the unusual, and the unknown. Only art has to the power to overcome our rational yet often times obstructive minds:

“The use of myth, parable, fable, allegory or metaphor has a long history in wisdom literature… Allegory has a way of bypassing the strictly analytical mind and showing correspondences between universals and particulars in a way that a logical exposition and literal interpretation never could. It uses the constraints of stories in time and space to point to truths which exist outside them; the realm of doing to illuminate the realm of being.” — David A. Beardsley

In many ways,  art has been the very first form of allegory, a way to tell truths. It’s perhaps the oldest form of communication between generations — passing along tools for survival, history, tradition and culture. Through art, we tell stories of our adventures and of who we are. And to this day, it’s still more powerful than science despite the latter’s monumental advancements. The motivational power of numbers is limited, but that of image and emotion is boundless.

Akira Kurasawa knows the power of images. Few directors today have the understanding and control of movement that he had. His films can convey the most dynamic energy or the most sincere and rich complexities of the human heart.

“Art has a limitless power of converting the human soul—a power which the Greeks called psychagogia. For art alone possesses the two essentials of educational influence—universal significance and immediate appeal.” — Werner Jaeger

However, without beauty (and the appreciation of beauty) art loses its true power.  Real art is personal. It can be strange or unexplainable but it doesn’t have to be grand or sophisticated. The nature of all art is that it’s unique, possible only thru the hands of its sole creator executed at a particular place at a precise point in time. This is what makes each work of art stand alone in history — it’s one of a kind. Where as technology (and it’s mass reproductive capability) loses is luster quickly, art’s staying power grows.

“There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.” — Edgar Allan Poe

The color vibrancy and bountiful fleshiness of Chaim Soutine’s work is a  big inspiration to my own. Like all great artists, he was completely unique in his expression and execution. And limited acceptance of his artistry during his life time never stopped him from seeing and creating beauty.

Hence the need for an optimistic mind and a big heart. A strong mind is a productive mind — it focuses on creation rather than criticism, complaint or condemnation. No serious artist can afford to spend time on that which is not useful. We cannot worry about what people think, only what has yet to transpire.

“…if  I paint what you know, then I will simply bore you, the repetition from me to you. If I paint what I know, it will be boring to myself. Therefore I paint what I don’t know.” — Franz Kline

To do so, we need to pay attention. There is beauty everywhere but it helps to surround ourselves with what we love: great books, fun films, moving music, gorgeous artworks, wonderful people. Artists should love nature, museums and architecture but also find joy and wonder in the the tiniest of things — things that most people pass by every single day without thought or acknowledgment. We cannot be so aloof.

A wonderful moment from Sam Mendes’ gorgeous film, American Beauty.

Again, it comes down to fulfillment. How do we want to spend our time? In search of beauty, occupied with learning, absorbing, creating and gratefully appreciating this wonderful thing call life? Or in passivity, waiting for things to happen to us, in the accumulation and consumption of things and activities that serve impatience or pride — all of which have limited impact or staying power? I think the answer is obvious whether by logic or emotion. Seeing and creating go hand in hand in the virtuous cycle that comes with being a true craftsman.

“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.” ― Anne Frank

Shot Analysis: Jungle Book Sequence Part 3

We continue our analysis of The Jungle Book meeting between Baloo and Mowgli in scenes 6-9 of the sequence.

Scene 6: A lesson in phrasing of action

When we think of Frank Thomas’ work, we’re always talking about personality. His animations always seem to make the best choices when it comes to characters expressing the truth of who they are. It looks instinctive, but unlike his partner Ollie Johnston, Frank’s work consists of more extensively planned construction. The rough and scratchy nature of his rough animation drawings are a testament to his dutiful exploration for form, feeling and movement:

Having studied Frank’s work for many years, I’ve always noticed how tricky it was to find exactly where all his keys were given that his work progresses so wonderfully — things move sequentially yet overlap beautifully in phrases and layers of action. Take for instance the paths and timing of the limbs here:

Everything is beautifully balanced, the acting is nuanced and everything feels real and convincing. All this, while each body part, such as each limb seen above, moves in perfect time and order. Great work always looks easy and seamless. It takes great care and attention just to appreciate the effort involved, never mind actually doing it. Great artists follow all the phases of creative work with complete professionalism.

Scene 6 -9: A lesson in Choice of Action and Contrast

The following moments are some of the most perfectly executed expressions of the characters. Baloo, in his age-old wisdom and steady demeanor contrast greatly with the youthful and irritated Mowgli.

In this “fight” that Mowgli attempts to start, we see an immobile Baloo, clearly impervious to the wild and frenzied efforts of the man-cub to hurt him. The choice of poses and action deliver that reality with crystal clarity and with comic effect:

The futility of Mowgli’s action is further emphasized by Baloo’s reaction, which is, at first, surprise (at the launched offensive in the first place especially considering it’s by someone so much smaller), followed by bemusement (his little chuckle during the flurry of kicks and punches), then ending with judgement/assessment:

But Mowgli’s sorry state of affairs doesn’t keep Baloo down for long. In fact, it motivates him — which takes some doing considering we’re talking about a very lackadaisical and easy going bear — as he springs into an philanthropic action. The poses Frank uses to express the sudden assertiveness, while still showing Mowgli’s defiance are both powerful and clear. Geometric stability contrasts with circular action, just as the large bear contrasts with the small child:

Notice the wonderful display of control and weight transfer here:

We finish with the perfect expression that’s reflective of the events that have just occurred and yet consistent with the character’s personality (still defiant, but now listening):

Stay tuned for Part 4 of our analysis.

Insecurity

“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention” says Sean Penn’s character in Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — a  beautifully shot character adventure that contains some wonderfully profound moments.

“Free man is by necessity insecure; thinking man by necessity uncertain.” — Erich Fromm

We live in strangely disturbing times. We have so much material comfort yet live with more anxiety and less realized time than ever in human history. We’re working harder and longer hours again. We seek constant attention and stimulus. Even our children run and play on scheduled time.

James Borgman’s wonderfully satirical editorial cartoon sums up how society is robbing even that very precious time we have as children.

How is this possible in a post-feudal world where we’re no longer subject to a caste system or burdened by obvious racial and gender inequality*? Where technology supplies us with a wealth of free information and much improved standards of living? Where we have political freedom and equal opportunity in a supposedly economic meritocracy? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that this “earned” system also naturally implies that in failing to have success (at least on society’s terms) we’re weak, lazy or incompetent and fully deserve our failure and misfortune. Even under the gross assumption that the system is free from fraud and corruption, it leaves out people less fortunate or have skills that aren’t “marketable” — that is, those whose abilities have no obvious economic viability. How can individuals left out of the game possibly feel secure? How can they possibly attain happiness?

Status anxiety. This documentary by School of Life creator Alain de Botton aptly describes the state of our consciousness in modern times.

But even those of us who can apparently “survive” in this system can’t seem to attain any sort of sustained happiness because this monetarily-driven and machine-like system has, in less than a full century, completely penetrated and altered our way of thinking and living as sentient beings. For example, we’re all now defined by not who we are, but what we do for work and what we have. The very first words after the introduction of names often comes our occupation; “I’m a doctor” or “I’m an animator.” We don’t say that we’re Irish or come from Africa or that we’re a “father” or a “sister,” or that we like to cook or do pottery. We describe ourselves as we would describe machines — this is an oven or that is a stereo — that is, by their productive purpose. We take every element of our humanity out of how we identify ourselves. We are so rushed that everything including our interactions with ourselves and others is based on economy rather than significance.

“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” —Stephen Covey

Now work is clearly important. We need work to survive and allow us to create, contribute and connect to the world around us. But when it becomes merely a means of production, it loses its greater value. We forget that work is only a means of expressing our individuality and our societal contribution. Goals of economic production on the other hand, are mostly about efficiency, effectiveness and maximizing profit margins. That is fine for the owners of capital (investors) or incentive-linked managers who often have no intimate knowledge or connection to either the end product (widgets) or the people involved (widget makers) but it does alter the state of the worker. When valued only for productive capacity, it’s not difficult for an employee to feel exploited, disconnected and disoriented from the entire purpose of work. If not careful, workers will also begin to alienate themselves from the process and view themselves as mere widget makers evaluated with the same measuring stick —namely by the consistency, quantity and turnover time of their work.

Are humans merely just stand-ins until machines can completely do all the work that we need? In Hefei China, robots both cook and deliver food, replacing both line cooks and wait staff. Image from Business Insider.

Is it no wonder image and material possession have so much pull on our psyche? In a fully-accepted capitalistic universe, our productive capacity (work/career status) becomes tied to our sense of security and general worth as human beings. If we’re not productive or marketable, we’re not considered successful or even worthy. It’s tough to be different or left out.

“Any deviation from the pattern, any criticism, arouses fear and insecurity; one is always dependent on the approval of others…The sense of guilt, which some generations ago pervaded the life of man with reference to sin, has been replaced by a sense of uneasiness and inadequacy with regard to being different.” — Erich Fromm

It is Friedrich Nietzsche who famously said that God is dead and perhaps he is right. But in the absence of God (or spirituality) we created a new god. And today, that god is technology — technology that runs hand and hand with the corporate machine. We not only wonder at its brilliance but depend on its growth and mindlessly accept its dominance. We don’t dare doubt its cold, scientific rationale.

Most people aren’t aware that many hedge funds (which manage private money and that of pensions funds) are heavily run by machines. Almost 30% of stock trading within such portfolios are done at incalculable speeds by Quants (mathematical experts) using algorithmic super computers (i.e. trades made without human intervention). Image from the Wall Street Journal

While we humans are not machines and think that we’re masters of our own invention, we’re now entering an era where it’s possible that we won’t have full control of where technology might head. More and more we work with machines rather than tell machines what to do. We don’t doubt or blame a system not well designed for humanity but blame human beings for being inadequately trained to adapt to its systems or its ever-changing demands. When we blindly or passively accept a system that places financial profit over social development and environmental preservation we become alienated from the entire process of work. Things become abstractions —  interpreted in terms of numbers, rather than as concrete items or people. What happens to respect, trust or empathy? Is that new guy a potential tennis partner or another hire that is here to take our job? Is that an old woman with bad hands in front us in the grocery checkout or another thing in the way of our getting on with our much hurried day?

We must be willing to ask the ultimate question: are we here to make a world that’s a better place to live (i.e. to attain greater happiness) or one that simply produces more things faster? (i.e. to attain greater profit).

“No work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” — Alan Watts

We are endlessly told by the business community and their like-minded pundits that any intervention or regulation of the capitalistic machine  — like supporting reasonable biological needs such as food, shelter and healthcare — is a danger to our society, that it will lead to economic ruin. We are told that we (society) can’t afford to lose time, that slowing down means having no ambition and that material progress must continue. We assume that heightened output equates to ultimate advancement of civilization.

Faster doesn’t guarantee success. From the Warner Bros’ cartoon Tortoise wins by a Hare by Tex Avery.

But of course, this struggle between economic growth and personal growth ultimately ends up hurting creative advancement and humanity as a whole. The strive for security prevents creatives from exploring outside of the box, where the greatest discoveries are made.  Financial gain has rarely been the true driving force of innovation. It has always been about need and passion.  A streamline corporate system on the other hand, demands consistency and conformity. It requires us to continually adapt to a technologically-advanced and robotic world, one that requires all of us to diligently go to our jobs on time, adapt to the tools in the system, obediently perform at an accelerated pace of effectiveness and produce consistently uniform products —products which we are to mindlessly and endlessly acquire, consume and replace (especially during “after-work” hours). It is most astounding that any creature, never mind supposedly intelligent beings, would stand even a week of living in such an abstract state of pointlessness. I am ceaselessly amazed at our species’ capacity to accept contradictory and irrational ways of thinking. That said, all of us (myself included) are susceptible and have been guilty as charged.

Control. Polish illustrator Pawel Kuczynski’s uses art to make a satirical statement of our times.

But for artists, this is unacceptable even at the slightest levels. A socio-economic system that requires continuous production and consumption depends on humanity to turn away from free-thinking independence, the very ingredients to creative output. Mass manufacturing means mass conformity not only in production but also in consumption because deviance in taste isn’t conducive to maximum profits. Is it any wonder everyone watches the same movies, eats the same food and wear the same clothes everywhere? Everyone and every company is looking for shortcuts. When we work for the sole reason of acquiring money, work loses itself as meaningful activity and no amount of coercion or managerial “pep” talk will cure the employed artist of his disinterest caused by immense time and quota pressures. I still remember once hearing a prominent CEO complain about animation “lacking soul” while his company ran one of the highest of production quotas in the industry. The level of ignorance can be astounding.

But when we do truly creative work we are deeply fulfilled and contribute to greater impact. And there are ways of doing things differently. I remember talking to a friend of mine whose business in Amsterdam employed all his staff, including the cashiers, with legally-binding two-year contracts. He noted it provided him with more freedom (since he didn’t have to be always present to manage them) while giving his own employees autonomy and a sense of importance. He also noted it limited the need for expensive continual training and allowed him to retain a knowledgeable and committed work force all the while delivering greater customer service for his clientele. Business need not be incoherent with human dignity and individual expression. This is important because how we work often permeates our entire being and way of living and not just during work hours.

” (For the craftsman) There is no ulterior motive in work other than the product being made and the processes of its creation. The details of daily work are meaningful because they are not detached in the worker’s mind from the product of the work. The worker is free to control his own working actions. The craftsman is thus able to learn from his work; and to use and develop his capacities and skills in its prosecution. There is no split of the work and play, or work and culture. The craftsmans’ way of livelihood determines and infuses his entire mode of living.” — C.W. Mills

One thing I’ve always loved about Glen Keane’s work was his dedication to the process. How and why he did things mattered as much as what he was doing. Image from Glen’s last short film Duet.

Now clearly, we  cannot change a global system of mindless work and consumption overnight but we can learn to accept a higher purpose to our existence; to advance our humanity by first restoring it, then continuing to create an environment in which it can flourish.  And we do that by learning to live with insecurity both in our work and in everything else in our lives. We can accept struggle and carry on with optimism and faith. We can take it one step at a time while giving full attention to how we do things.

“…we cannot feel secure about anything. Our thoughts and insights are at best partial truths, mixed with a  great deal of error, not to speak of the unnecessary misinformation about life and society to which we are exposed almost from the day of birth. Our life and health are subject to accidents beyond our control. If we make a decision, we can never be certain of the outcome; any decision implies a risk in the true sense of the word.  We can never be certain of the outcome of our best efforts. The result always depends on many factors which transcend our capacity of control. Just as a sensitive and alive person cannot avoid being sad, he cannot avoid feeling insecure. The psychic task which a person can and must set for himself, is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity, without panic and fear.” — Erich Fromm

*I’m referring to those of us not residing in third-world countries.

Shot Analysis: Jungle Book Sequence Part 2

As a continuation of our analysis of The Jungle Book, we now look at scenes 4 and 5 from the first meeting of Mowgli and Baloo.

Scene #4:  A lesson in creativity and contrast

Seen at 50% speed we can see both the poses and movement with greater clarity. Here, the consistency of his physical mannerisms aligns with that seen in the earlier shots of Baloo, allowing Ollie to emphasize the easy going charm of his character. The familiar yet creative use of squash and stretch of the nose gives him the pliability that is visually enjoyable to witness.

Notice the wonderful change of shapes and gestures here, as he first moves up to “absorb” the irritation caused by Mowgli’s swipe, followed by a wonderful pattern of distortion and wiggling of the nose as he moves into position:

After he says “boy”, he goes into a playful antic before expanding outwards with a two-handed clap which he coils back into a position of control that emphasizes his comical bewilderment of the entire situation. Here, with his hands clasped together and head leaned back, the unified pose is reminiscent of an elder or professor in the joyful discovery of an opportunity to pontificate and share with his younger audience. The execution is both imaginative and empathetic .

At the end of this shot, Ollie’s choice to “shake him up” gives the overall scene a contrasting end, as Baloo tries to switch out of his bewildered state, yet is still caught in amazement as noted by the zombie-like expression as he mechanically transitions his attention back to Mowgli and back to reality. The choice of action is marvelously creative and unique:

Scene #5: A lesson in acting and overlap

Now, we begin our transition to the work of the marvelous Frank Thomas. In this shot, Thomas’ turns our attention towards Mowgli who in turn sways his attention away from Baloo and towards himself. The “child-likeness” captured here is spot-on — the feeling of being observed and judged and subsequently expressing displeasure from the experience is something we’ve all been through.

We start off with a brilliant pose typical of a child’s bored look after hearing an “authority” figure lecture.

Notice the wonderful path of action of the head as it leads the action, reflecting his bored attitude as he physically turns away. The clear Lead and Follow action and subsequent overlapping action give the movement depth, clarity and weight.

After a quick dart of the eyes, we see the snapping action of his head in an assured display of repudiation.

The ending pose is one that is closed off and reserved — a man-cub determined to be left alone to his own isolated misery. The combined body language and facial expression confirms the sadness Mowgli feels and lends sympathy to his character (which prompts the enthusiastic action from the big bear in the following shot).

Stay tuned for Part 3!