All posts by James Chiang

Putting it Down on Paper

The beautiful notebooks of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo display both her thoughts and visual explorations of shape and color.

“Speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Writer

There’s one thing I know for sure; if I don’t put things down on paper, any idea I have begins its gradual descension towards nothing. In other words, all goals, bright ideas or moments of genius have very little chance of surviving beyond their initial birth.

This may seem obvious, but we’d be surprised at how few people actually put their goals or ideas on paper. Choosing to rely only on their brains to hold onto to their dreams or visions, they’re simply unprepared for the onslaught of everyday demands that rob them of their ability to think and remember. Short-term memory is SHORT TERM. Putting ideas down on paper counters this reality. In fact, it’s the most formative step towards massive purposeful action.

“Very often, gleams of light come in a few minutes’ sleeplessness, in a second perhaps; you must fix them. To entrust them to the relaxed brain is like writing on water; there is every chance that on the morrow there will be no slightest trace left of any happening.” ― Antonin Sertillanges, Philosopher

Great creators always record their ideas and often so immediately after their ideas come to them. Putting our thoughts down on paper is one of the most reliable and useful habits an artist can have. It’s why journals are important. And it’s why smart people have notebooks and writing pads around their bedside tables and all around their living areas. We can never know when or where ideas might come from nor which ones will become something special, so we can’t take the chance of letting them escape. This is the only place where FOMO (fear of missing out) has validity. Moments of inspiration are remarkably fleeting and in today’s environment that’s doubly scary.

Homer Simpson is no longer the symbol for uncommon behavior. Modern man’s attention span is now officially lower than that of a goldfish. According to a recent study by Microsoft Corporation, the average human has an attention span below that of the weak-minded goldfish which typically loses its focus in as little as nine seconds. The digitized brain today loses concentration after a lowly eight seconds.

Throughout history, documents were not only made and preserved so that great knowledge and discovery can be made useful to its creators but so that its wisdom can also be passed on to future generations. Records of thought leave great blue prints of not only wisdom but also marvelous traces of history and important confirmations of process. All inventions, both creative and scientific have been formed in such fashion.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld reveals his box of hand-written notes where he kept every single funny idea or joke that came to him over his entire career. From the documentary, Jerry Before Seinfeld.

Furthermore, the mere act of making an idea which is intangible onto something tactile like paper, is that it brings it into the real world. Like a farmer’s seed that’s been taken out of its bag, it now has the opportunity to breathe and be cultivated. Despite technology’s portability, most of us work in a physically confined space, the digital world being much more cerebral than physical. Thinking or voicing our ideas is often not enough. Only by writing, drawing and recording them onto a solid surface can our ideas take on that plastic quality and become more accessible. Tactile formation of cerebral information brings all the senses into play.

Exploratory watercolor sketches by Dice Tsutsumi examine both color and mood. Created for his and Robert Kondo’s Oscar-nominated short, The Dam Keeper.

So what methods of putting it down on paper apply to the artist or animator? And how do they help? Here is an assortment of techniques that I’ve found helpful:

Mind-mapping:

Mind-mapping — which can use an assortment of imagery or words — is a great way to explore ideas in the funnest and most liberated way. Especially powerful when it comes to personal development and discovering tangible items that we can only intuitively think or dream of, it’s a place for uninhibited exploration of possibilities using free association. If problems allude your “overly-analytical” thinking brain, mind-mapping is a great place just to throw all ideas out there on the table. The visually tangible web-like associations allow one idea to lead to others in the most natural and unexpected way to generate the most original ideas.

Free associative mind-mapping is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used in all aspects of creative thinking.

Character studies:

This is probably the most obvious and most useful form of putting down ideas for animators. Unfortunately avoided by many young artists who lack the confidence in drawing, those same artists don’t realize they’ve just thrown out the most powerful tool an animator can possibly possess. Even just using rudimentary shapes like stick figures and circles, an artist can explore endless possibilities of expression and story while ensuring solid presentability. Strong shapes, clear lines of action (LOA) help simplify and give order to the work. That said, the most important thing is attitude and presenting an idea with utmost clarity. Poses tests can also help predict unusual problems with staging that may require adjustments to cameras, props or even the rigs.

Character studies of Dumbo by master storyteller Bill Peet explore all the various attributes and scenarios that help define a character.

Layout tests :

2D composition and choreography is one of the weakest skills of animators working today. Laying out visually the paths of action and composition is essential for seeing what it all might look like BEFORE putting it all into the digital universe. Like a painter, we need to treat the screen like a canvas, only potentially a moving one, whereby the placement and subsequent movement of characters are responsible for leading the eye of the viewer. Poorly planned and poorly placed action, loses or confuses the audience. Furthermore, knowing and even having some say with the layout might help improve staging and improve the dynamics of a scene.

Awesome layout designs by the masterful John Nevarez, done for the movie Brother Bear. Great design and staging can really inspire an animator’s creativity.

Topographical (alternate view) diagrams:

Seeing the world from different perspectives give us a world view of things. Like an architect that would NEVER build a home without one, they serve as plans for everyone to follow. As an animator, one should know where the character is in space relative to its environment — sets, entry and exit points, props, and position of other characters. It’s very hard to acknowledge how large the virtual space is and even mechanically how long it might take a character to travel in such a space. A bird’s eye view helps put things in perspective physically, especially when cutting back and forth or when characters move both towards and away from camera.

It’s crucial to know where your characters are relative to each other and its environments. Top views bring clarity. From Eric Goldberg’s excellent book, Animation Crash Course.

Rhythm charts:

I like to think of animation as a form of visual music. There are repeated patterns and broken ones. The tempo and flow of a piece of moving art requires a deep analysis and prevision of how it all plays out. Here you find and design the highs and lows, as well as how short or long moments of action or pause need to be. What repeats, and what doesn’t and where the contrast is gonna be. Rhythm charts help define the energy of the scene. It unifies the entire scene.

Dialogue/Facial Charts:

Sometimes it might be prudent to make little diagrams of how a piece of dialogue or music might play out visually. To know or test ahead of time where the peaks in sound or emotion are in the track can heavily affect where we might place a particular pose or action. Do we want or need a certain part of the line to read visually? Then we must be careful that the physicality required there doesn’t obscure the reading of the face or mouth shapes. All too often I see animators missing out on great opportunities for nailing the potential of a great line by having crucial words expressed during the midst of a fast head turn or complicated action. Know where to simplify and where to add sophistication.

Look at these marvelous studies exploring the flow and timing of the dialogue to work with the action by master animator Charlie Bonifacio. Notice the little facial poses that accompany held body poses as well as the tiny charts denoting the spacing and kind of rhythm the artist has in mind.

Written notes:

Not all forms of note taking for the artist need to be drawings. It’s important to make annotations of all sorts, including mental notes and ideas that are just as fleeting as visual ones. Simple guidelines and decisions we want to make, such as who the character is and what the intentions/motives are are very important. Putting down that choice can prevent us from constantly changing our minds. My own thumbnails are almost always accompanied by mental notes, such as little head shakes, or emphasis of an idea, anything that’s too difficult to draw or show. They serve as reminders of things I might use during the physical animation process.

Glen Keane is famous for his amazing draftsmanship and animation, but he also makes copious amounts of notes. They indicate the kind of thinking that goes on in his mind as he discovers, develops and forms his characters.

Special Note:

To those of us who feel incredibly uncomfortable drawing and haven’t adapted to making regular notations, realize this: NO ONE has to see our scribbles. They are there to serve the creator and the creator ALONE. They’re not meant to be stand alone pieces of art. We mustn’t be intimidated by those gorgeous Glen Keane sketches we see online and think that we’re not qualified to use this tool. The final presentation of our work as 3D animators is all digital. To me, making thumbnails is only research and development — part of the process of coming up with something great. Often times, after laying out the poses and rhythm charts for my entire scene, I don’t even look at them anymore. During animation I just fly through it. The ideas and feelings I want have already been burned into my brain thru the act of sketching and note making.

Furthermore, for those of us who rely strictly on video reference, know this: Unless we spend an extensive amount of time learning and practicing real acting and we’re very comfortable in front of the camera, we will not get much useful reference material. The diversity of shape and designs of animated characters seldom correspond to the physics and visual weight of any live human form. Not only will appeal be missing, copying live action recordings might even lead to poor presentation of the body mechanics. Know also that video is only one source of material that can be used. We’re here to create, not copy.

Blue Sky Studio’s super-talented (and super hardworking) Jeff Gabor uses lots of video reference. But he does it in a way that is appropriate with expertly laid out camera work, rich scene analysis and a deep devotion to acting. This compilation is from Jeff’s work from the movie Epic.

Summary:

Remember that putting things down on paper is primarily a form of preparation. To know where we are and what problems we might have going forward. It defines the path we’re about to take — all towards a particular destination. It’s crucial to know where we’re going.

At the same time, we mustn’t overstay our venture in the preparation phase. Once it’s clear we’ve exhausted the exploration process it’s time to move on. It’s wise to set a budget for how much time we can afford to plan and experiment. Ultimately, we must DO IT. And because things almost never go to plan, we must temper our expectations. Then why go thru all this you might ask? Well, if we don’t we’re even worse off. If you’ve got a fight coming up, and you’re not the least bit prepared, odds are you’re gonna get hurt badly. Those who take a casual approach, become casualties.

“Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.” — Ludwig van Beethoven, Composer

Gratitude

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
― Seneca, Philosopher

As another year comes to a close and another begins, we all must take the time to reflect as well as to prepare.

Time moves so swiftly doesn’t it? Even without counting the minutes of the day or the days of the week, it consistently moves forward, regardless of what you do with your life and what thoughts and feelings occur within you. This is precisely the reason why we must continue to remind and encourage ourselves (and others) to live presently – to create and experience moments that matter.

French artist, Jean Dubuffet seen here at work. Dubuffet is famous for his radical and graphic style of painting that he felt was a more authentic and humanistic approach to creation.

When I look back at the last 18 months or so, I can logically say that’s it’s been at least an eventful if not a trying year; I lost a dear friend, received a health scare, had a fire (which cost me half my home, most of my art, and rattled my marriage), and I had to move not once, but three times. Even my daily routine of visual creation and the writing of the blog lost its consistency. Yet, despite all that, all I can feel is gratitude.

The Firebird by Marc Chagall. Whenever I see a Chagall, it feels like love.

Why? Because at the end of the day I’m still here. And so many of the people I care and think about are also still here. The opportunity to create and learn and share continues to exist each moment, and as an artist — in fact, as a human being — this is all that matters. We must welcome all experience (even those that may seem painful at the time) because we don’t know which one will turn us on.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Philosopher

Without difficulty, we don’t get to experience the events and emotions that challenge us to be better. We don’t get to see things that would’ve never appeared otherwise, nor would we meet those all important people who change our lives. Sometimes disruption, misfortune and unanswered prayers are blessings in disguise.

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
― Marcel Proust, Writer

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh. What we plant, we reap. Good conditions — positive thoughts, good people, and serene environments — make for a good life.

In fact, the disruptions to my life became opportunities to reinvent myself and think outside of the box. It forced me to bear down again, make tough decisions, and take positive action.  The result was that my art took on a new stylistic direction and my perspective of the universe grew both broader and deeper. If I had chosen the alternative — to sit helplessly, whining and complaining — I would’ve gone no where, or even worse, backwards. It’s far to easy to be consumed with past regret or worry for the future. Even the smartest person in the world cannot tell us what will happen next, not even in the short term. History has proven that prediction is as useless as complaint and condemnation. We must stay away from arrogant or negative thinking which can come from any source, both self-serving and benevolent.

“Every day, stand guard at the door of your mind.” — Jim Rohn, Motivational Speaker

As creative people, we can’t afford to waste our time with envy, competition, and non-constructive criticism. Such passive approach to living is antithetical to the art of creating. To be consumed in that world invites the potential for exponential negativity and judgement. Sure, real violence and injustice exists but we must park the bad elements of life into an area that can be managed. Our focus must be on the positive and the actionable. We must be persistent and patient.

Italian composer Ennio Morricone  is always working at his craft and continues to do so right into his eighties. Despite a magnificent career — one which consists of composing over 500 scores including for films such as The Mission, Cinema Paradiso, The Untouchables, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and many others — he only won his first Oscar for Best Original Score (for Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight) last year at the ripe old age of 87. Yet he has always remained productive, humble and grateful.

“There isn’t a great soundtrack without a great movie that inspires it.” — Ennio Morricone, Composer

Artists need to look within themselves, while engaging in the world outside of themselves. We invite, interpret and respond — all of which are beautiful and enriching actions. This is where our self-expression comes from. And upon the execution and delivery of our ideas and feelings, we experience not mere happiness — a short term state of being which can be easily achieved via various artificial means —but real joy and fulfillment.  What could possibly be better than being caught up in the creative process?

The artist that lives fully in the moment, continually observing, both within and outside of himself, who is constantly learning and discovering, and ultimately productive is one that lives with absolute truth, joy and wisdom. Everything else is bonus.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Worry

Muhammad Ali dodges a punch from Sonny Liston in his 1965 match for the heavyweight title of the world. In any fight, the punches are real. Fighters dodge and roll with them but they can’t run away from them because they’ll keep coming. In the same way in life, we can’t run away from our fears.

In all honesty, I don’t feel quite qualified to talk about worry. Because I’ve by no means conquered it. Far from it actually. I’ve been a worrier most of my life. I have to fight it each and everyday, taking all my will and courage just to survive the interrogation of my mind and the assault it takes on my body and my soul. The moment I became conscious as an wholly independent person left all alone in this universe, worry was born. And once born, like Pandora’s box, it can’t be unborn or put back to where it was hiding. And the strength of its power! It can overwhelm us in the most terrible and influential ways, anywhere, anytime.

“The rule for all terrors is to head straight into them.” — Alan Watts

The opposite of worry is optimism. The two are like oil and water. We have to choose between them. Yet most people choose to swim in oil instead of water. Doing art, or anything creative, is an act of faith, like taking a drink from the ocean of fresh opportunity and diving into the vastness of our dreams. That body of water is both inviting, exciting and scary. But it’s far easier and safer to cover ourselves in oil and just sit back on the beach. The thing is, we often forget that over-caution and pessimism are some of the greatest diseases of attitude.*

When Picasso introduced Cubism in the early 1900’s people were aghast by what they saw. They didn’t understand it. It was the first great departure in the history of art from seeing things in natural perspective and light. The only way to make history is to dive in, head first.

We all know that life is hard and being an artist seems that much harder (or at least riskier). To many, choosing art is crazy escapism  — an ode to utopia taken on by idealists, dreamers and lazy drifters unwilling to deal with reality. Shouldn’t we all be lawyers, accountants, and doctors, or something else that’s practical and coherent with the current economic trends? There’s a reason why every parent wishes such careers for their children — safety. Worry and pessimism are often disguised as reality or reason.

“The man who spends his entire life turning the wheels of industry so that he has neither the time nor energy to occupy himself with any other needs of his human organism is by far a greater escapist than the one who has developed his art. For the man who develops his art does make adjustments to his physical needs. He understands that man must have bread to live, while the other cannot understand that you cannot live by bread alone.” — Mark Rothko

As mentioned in previous writings, creativity is in our blood. And for those whose concentration of this potent element is strong, there is no choice but to move forward artistically, security be damned. But that doesn’t stop of us from worrying.

The work of Jean-Michel Basquiat captured an anxiety particular to his person and the times that he lived. Worry and depression took the artist’s life way too early but his art lives on. This 1982 painting recently sold for a crazy figure (exceeding $100 million).

When we worry, we forget about the process. We live outside of the not just the moment but that of the experience. Even though 90% of all fears never become reality, most of us still spend a large portion of our time there, completely preoccupied with the unknown future — the imaginative “what-ifs” of life.

“Don’t major in minor things” — Jim Rohn

Sigourney Weaver stars as Ellen Ripley, in Ridley Scott’s brilliant 1979 sci-fi thriller, Alien, which was shot mostly in the dark. We’re all frightened by what we can’t see.

In truth, most fears are illusions. They’re often dramatized pictures and scenarios our busy little minds come up with when given the opportunity. In a sense the mind is like dog with a lot of energy. If we don’t tell it what to do or play with it, it’ll go nuts. And an unhappy dog makes for a big mess to clean up afterwards. A mind gone wild can cause even bigger trouble because it can habitualize whatever it does — that is, it can become addicted to worrying. If anxiety is love’s greatest enemy, then worry is its number one killer.

“Don’t worry, worry brings fear, and fear is crippling.” — Earl Nightingale

Worry takes its roots from fear. Although we can’t be naive about it, especially being artists, we must always keep in mind to counter it with optimism and faith. If we can keep worry and fear isolated as a relatively small and minor component of our lives, then there is room to be happy, and room to grow. A preoccupation with fear and worry stops all creative and pragmatic action.  We must make better use of our imaginative capacities.

“Art is such an action. It is a kindred form of action to idealism.” — Mark Rothko

A lot of people don’t understand Mark Rothko’s paintings. But seen in person, you’ll realize they aren’t about “something.” Rather they are an experience — deep human emotions conveyed with paint and canvas.

But most people have it backwards. They think they will be happy (optimistic) when worry disappears. What they’re really saying is they’ll choose to take positive action AFTER it’s safe to do so. Most people choose to delay doing what they want till their retirement even though mortality rates accelerate dramatically after retirement. In fact, most people live less than 10 more years after they retire. Not an inspiring reality considering we’ve spent over half of our lives saving up for this “glorious” period — one which is often accompanied by the loss of health, life-partners and friends.

“Carpe diem.” — Horace, Roman Poet

Another common example of such a disturbing philosophy is when people say they’ll give to charity (either time or money) AFTER they’ve struck it rich. It’s a mindset that’s incredibly dis-empowering, and ultimately, completely fruitless. In fact, worries and fears don’t disappear when external circumstances change. Instead, they get replaced by new worries, or come back as old ones in disguise.

So to counter our worries, we often choose to get busy. But we shouldn’t necessarily count all action as good action.

“Don’t confuse movement with progress… what you need is discipline and consistency.”— Denzel Washington

The magnificent Denzel Washington plays the courageous Private Trip, the American slave turned soldier in Glory, Edward Zwick’s powerful film about prejudice and war.

The work and action we take must be that of focused action.  Disciplined action. Constructive action that aligns us with worthy goals. Dreams without specific goals leads to aimlessness. Goals without commitment and consistency leads to delusion. All too often we’re caught up in the busyness of life, not doing anything of consequence. Most jobs are being done in such fashion. Sometimes it’s the fault of the job, but more often than not, it’s the fault of the attitude of the person doing the work. Our attitude — the narrative we give ourselves— is what gives any action meaning. Quality activity begins with a quality mind, one of attention, focus and earnestness. Joy comes from this place in the mind.

Yorkshire, by David Hockney. Hockney’s art is always filled with a sense of security and joy. He chose himself and the results speak loudly of what he wanted to say. He’s often viewed as England’s greatest visual artist.

So we mustn’t  worry too much. No one knows the future. We need to be aware of reality but not let our (or other’s) limited perceptions of the universe contaminate our minds. If we’re focused, prepared and dedicated to our dreams and principles, all else will take care of itself. History has shown time and time again, how wrong most public/popular opinions have been been. Be it art, science or economics most everyone has it wrong almost all of the time. The only way to approach life is optimistically. Otherwise we’ll be paralyzed by fear. Our direction determines our destination.

“I have always believed that art should be a deep pleasure. I think there is a contradiction in an art of total despair, because the very fact that the art is made seems to contradict despair.” — David Hockney

*paraphrased from Jim Rohn’s Seven Diseases of Attitude.

Favorite Films: Part 4

I love small films —films that are more likely to stay true to the original intent of the writer and closer in execution to the director’s wider vision. Lower budget films have smaller box office expectations so they have greater freedom to explore themes, visual accents and unusual character portrayals. There are no fancy special effects or thundering musical scores. Only stories and characters. Much like real life. They are less contrived and less patronizing but not necessarily less creative or fantastical. After all, real life is filled with unbelievable drama. And the lack of formulas and big management involvement make these films tastefully textural and personal — flavorful ingredients much needed in the broadened global conformity that has enveloped Hollywood. Most of these films exist only because of the love an idea or for the pure love of the craft.

Dead Man (directed by Jim Jarmusch)

Directed by auteur filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man is a bizarre yet encapsulating story of a regular man, caught in irregular times — a time of violence, lack of honor, and cold, hard industry. Thinly disguised as a western black comedy, this tale of a city accountant turned gunfighter is really a story about personal discovery and destiny. Life is simply what it is and it’s up to us personally to find out why we’re here on this earth. Starring Johnny Depp — one of the best silent actors of our generation — as the “every man” with no name, his character takes on the identity of poet William Blake, the visionary artist who’s famous for his literary devotion to beauty, innocence and integrity — things obliterated by the Westerner’s capitalistic invasion of native America. In his spiritual journey, Blake makes a new friend, an half-blood native called Nobody (Gary Farmer) who aids him in becoming the hero against all evil and, in so doing, finds his identity and frees his soul. Dead Man is an unusual physical and spiritual adventure, but one that is artistic and strangely entertaining. This little film is sure to stir the emotions of any viewer;  garnering deep admiration or alarming confusion (some of the scenes are quite shocking). Shot in gorgeous black and white, the cinematography is stunning, and to me, the film as a whole is a cold yet gorgeous presentation of the deeper themes at play; it’s poetry unlikely to be seen in front of audiences today.

The Wrestler (directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s beautiful yet tragic film, is a marvelous viewing experience. Watching it, I find myself gaining much respect for so called “professional wrestlers.” Used in an industry to profit from nationalistic pride and as an outlet for people’s inhibited individual expression, pro wrestlers share a strange seat in American culture and history. Like the gladiators of ancient Rome, these “live” performers of good versus evil, act more as a distraction from the bigger issues of life than as a cure for suppressed freedom or symbol of unified identity. But in Aronfsky’s film, we see the other side, the inside — where the actors in the show reveal their true personal selves; these are real men behind all the lights and cameras. In fact, they’re painfully real — they wear glasses, take drugs for their aches and pains, and get old, fat, and wrinkly. More importantly, each of them struggle, as we do, to survive and to find happiness in this game called life. In Aronofsky’s sincere exposé, we witness the hardships and sacrifices each man has made and how wrestling has damaged those who make this “sport” their vocation. Mickey Rourke — an actor no producer wanted save for director Aronofsky, who persistently fought for his inclusion — delivers the performance of his career; he’s soulful, physically believable and fully engaged. Rourke’s vulnerability enlists the audience’s empathy, as he struggles to find love —with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) a stripper by night and mother by day — and redemption, as he reaches out in hopes of repairing the damaged relationship with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Ward). But at this stage of his life, living off his past glory as the once famous Randy “The Ram” Robinson, our protagonist is doomed to fail. He’s simply unprepared for reality — a place more challenging and much crueler than the physical violence he’s subjected to inside of the ring.

Dead Poet’s Society (directed by Peter Weir)

In Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society we enter the world of elite education, where the future leaders of society are formed and made. Here, John Keating (Robin Williams) returns to his old-school stomping grounds as a literature teacher of young boys, each of whom are as confused as they are excited about becoming men. Under the subtle guidance and provocation by Keating, the boys  form their own mysterious  club — the “Dead Poets Society” — a secret place for personal exploration, comraderie and of course, poetry. Here, the boys discover freedom, individuality, and even love. But in their excitement, they battle against conformity and rigid doctrine that makes the very elite institution they reside in famous. Discipline is the order of the day, and the preaching and teaching style of Keating, who favors poets like William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, are viewed as anarchist. Dangerous drama unfolds, but not without Keating’s impact as a teacher changing each and every one of these young men. Williams is incredible here; he invites, intrigues and inspires. In fact, his Keating is a huge personal inspiration for myself as a teacher. If we are each to live as real men, we must reach for things far greater than what has been given. We must live with courage. Dead Poet’s Society is a film that dares to exhibit its values to its audience, and that makes it a bold and powerful statement of art.

Glengarry Glen Ross (directed by James Foley)

James Foley’s film adaption of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is absolutely fabulous entertainment. Seldom does dialogue have such bite to it. Boasting a cast of superior talents (including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon,  Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Pryce) the characters explode on screen.  Despite grossing a measly $10 million dollars at the domestic box office, the film will sit in history as perhaps the best and harshest presentation of the life of a salesman. Playing the lead character Shelley Levene, Jack Lemmon is old, vulnerable and behind in his sales numbers. With the pressure to keep his job and support his chronically-ill daughter, he’s forced to lower his principles as a man, making attempts to charm the new manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey) and even consider bribery, for he is THAT desperate. As the story unfolds, the audience gets a true sense of the dissasociation that capitalism brings to daily existence. Revered or discarded based only on a “what have you done for us lately” attitude, it symbolizes the Darwin-esque society that we’ve come to accept. There’s no sympathy for any “loser” — circumstances be damned. “Good father? Fuck you, go home and play with your kids” says Blake (Alec Baldwin), the superstar salesman sent from “downtown” to add pressure to all the men in the suburban sales office, by noting emphatically that only the two strongest performers of the month will keep their jobs. The contrast created by the events surrounding the current top sales dog, Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) and the antics of Blake, as well as the dubious tactics exercised by all the other salesmen in the office, make Levine, who was once a very successful salesman himself, a sympathetic character. We forget that he too, was once a lying and deceitful trickster. The film is worth watching for the acting alone. Alec Baldwin’s cameo is legendary. Taking place mostly within the confines of a small, unspectacular office space, Glengarry Glen Ross, despite being a profanity-laced film, is one that delights the ears.

History of Violence (directed by David Cronenberg)

History of Violence is a tiny film taking place in a tiny town. But what figures in it are the deepest and most profound of questions; are we defined by our pre-determined makeup (our genes and upbringing)? Or are we able to re-define our lives by our conscious choices? If we come from a family of monsters are we not monsters? Or are we only monsters if we behave like one? In Cronenberg’s film, the central character Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson), is a shy man with a unique secret, a hidden history of violence. Until a unique set of events occur in his home town, he’s living life happily, honorably and peacefully. The arrival of some colorful characters from his past changes everything. Sought out by the Eastern mob from Philadelphia, Tom’s hidden identity is ultimately revealed, turning his and his family’s life completely upside down. In a soulful yet fierce performance by Viggo Mortenson, Tom’s character is both sympathetic and frightening — he’s both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We’re not sure what to make of him or how he’ll respond to each challenge that surfaces. Surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, Cronenberg’s History of Violence sucks you into a world of scary men, and in this case, the scariest of them all turns out to be the one we’ve been living with all along. Do we root for him because he’s the protagonist? Does he not deserve the chance to prove himself, just as we hope to be given the opportunity to prove ourselves? The final scenes of the film reveal the piercing impact the events have on its characters. The look on the eyes of Tom Stall, the eyes of his adversary Ritchie (William Hurt) and that of his wife (Mario Bello) speak louder than any words can possibly say. This is the power of film regardless of its size.

Courage

The reverential Walt Whitman was a poet who lived the way he wrote — richly, personally and courageously.

What does it mean to be brave? Is courage action in the absence of fear or is it action in spite of it? And what does it have to do with being an artist?

“All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.” — Henry Miller, Writer

Humbly put, courage has EVERYTHING to do with being an artist because making art — making a statement as a free individual human being— is the most outlandish thing one can do in the face of fear, conformity, pain or oppression.

As creatives, we live with fear daily, sometimes even in the smallest  of moments. Why? Because we’re always trying to do something new. We’re trying to break new ground and discover things. We want things to change. All of that entails risks. Risks imply the reality that we’re most likely to fail. And with failure, we know for sure that we’ll experience pain and suffering of all kinds including, but not exclusively, that of embarrassment, personal disappointment and loss (of energy, capital or respect).

Daffy Duck is accosted by The Abominable Snowman, in Chuck Jones’ 1961 short “The Abominable Snow Rabbit.”

“It’s a simple matter of logic. I’m not like other people, I can’t stand pain, it hurts me.” — Daffy Duck

If being an artist is so wrought with stories of failure and accompanied by statistics that “prove” that being an artist is foolish, then why do art? Why behave so irrationally? Because the alternative is unimaginable. Artists MUST create art. And, just because you might take the safe route and fail anyways.

This small excerpt from Jim Carrey’s commencement speech at Maharishi Unversity is an inspiring message about taking risks.

There is only one direction in life and that is forward. We can’t be held back by fear. We must never think that we’re ever too young or too old, too weak or too poor. I’ve personally struggled with this for much of my life, despite the illusion of bravery that my friends see. Every time I jumped into an operating room, each time I took a new direction in my career, whenever I moved to a new city or simply strayed from the popular path, I was scared. My logically-oriented brain would always fight me and come up with reasons to justifying remaining with the status quo. That’s what the brain does. It thinks, calculates, and reasons. It does this to protect us from using up our energy, our resources and risks to our physical well-being. It desires guaranteed safety. But there are no guarantees in life except for the fact that if we don’t ever take any steps toward our dreams, we’ve 100% guaranteed that we’ll never ever achieve any one of them.

“Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.” — Henry James, Writer

The thing is we’re no long homo-sapiens hiding in a cave with big-toothed cats dying to eat us. We’re also more than are our brains. We’re creatures a hundred-thousand years in the making that have also developed instincts, creativity and courage — things that live deep within every cell of our bodies. There is a great and broad intelligence there, a subconscious even unconscious brilliance that we call intuition. When we follow our intuition we say we’re “following our heart” — shoving aside logic in favor of a deeper drive or calling. It’s a true act of bravery. Is it any wonder why it’s the heart —the mighty muscle that pumps life giving blood into our veins — that is used as a symbol for strength and courage?

Even as cavemen, we were driven to capture the world around us and tell our stories. This beautiful cave art took memory, intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness. All acts of bravery live beyond the time required to execute them.

Every so often I have to remind myself to “lead with the heart, create with the mind, and act with the body.” In other words; let the heart decide on which choices to make, allow the mind to find the solutions and make the body do the work.

“Separate thinking from doing. Man is a thinking reed but his greatest works are done when he is not calculating and thinking.” — Suzuki Daisetsu, Zen Master

Now, even as the heart is the driving force behind any meaning to our existence —because without purpose both mental or physical activity would feel empty — we must also remember that without mental and physical support, the dreams we have will not become realities. We need to take a comprehensive approach to living. We must invest wholeheartedly with mind, body, and spirit.

“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” —Robert Henri

We must also remember that there are only two natural fears that we are born with: the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds. All other fears are learned.

Tom Cruise stars as Ethan Hunt in John Woo’s  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. We’re all born with the physical fear of falling which makes death-defying stunts so fun to watch. Unfortunately, a lot of us extend this fear of falling to other things, and stop our dreams from ever taking flight.

So how do we overcome our fears? Unlearning our fears, like our learning of them, takes both time and effort.  We cannot expect to discard indoctrination or influence that have taken so many years to accumulate with a small commitment to change. Both practice and patience are requirements. This is when we must apply our intelligence. The brain is the “how-to” center of our being. If it doesn’t know the answer, it’ll guide you to where you can find the answer, be it in the form of books, formal education, or genuine mentorship/guidance.

It won’t be easy. Nothing good ever is. There’s no shortcuts to achieving real knowledge/mastery just as there aren’t any for love. We have to earn it and we have to fight for it. Because when we don’t fight for ourselves, we’ll succumb to chance and we’ll give in to entropy (laziness) and emptiness. Sustained emptiness leads to apathy and anger. Complaint, criticism and condemnation soon follows that. Those who stay “there” too long, stop fighting their fears and begin to fight with others. That frustrated energy has to go somewhere.

Nina Paley’s marvelous little short “This Land is Mine” is a perfect summary of the violent stupidity of men. When we don’t kill the demons from within, we mistake others for our demons.

Now, all this leading with the heart and suspension of rationality may seem silly, irrational and utopian to some, but life’s a personal decision that’s ours and ours alone to make. Fact is, all great leaps in history, whether it be in the arts, sciences or social justice were met with ridicule and opposition. It takes great courage to fight the impediments to growth, both internally and externally. Man cannot survive without the opportunity to explore and act out his individual personal expression. Neither can he live without a connection with life outside of himself (the very definition of spirituality and love). It’s the absence of these “ingredients to conscious living” that lead to neurosis, and subsequently, unfortunate behavior.

Doing art — creating and sharing — is the only way to provide the psychological sustenance required for complete human living.

Besides, at the end of the day, our lives are short:

A scene featuring one of my favorite characters of all time, Robin William’s John Keating in Peter Wier’s marvelous film Dead Poet’s Society.

“Still we live meanly, like ants: though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and inevitable wretchedness. Our life frittered away by detail… Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! … let your affairs be two or three, not a hundred or a thousand.” — Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher