All posts by James Chiang

Shot Analysis: Jungle Book Sequence Part 1

The first 3 shots of this 16 scene sequence where Baloo and Mowgli meet for the first time in Walt Disney’s 1967 classic, The Jungle Book.

Let’s begin our 5 Part analysis of Frank Thomas’ and Ollie Johnston’s marvelous work in this portion of The Jungle Book:

Scene 1: A Lesson in broken rhythm and natural action.

I love the unplanned feeling of this shot even though it’s clearly well-designed in terms of layout, camera move and action choreography. Notice how he comes into screen with a beautiful line of action that helps “open up” the layout and action:

Throughout this shot Baloo moves from screen right to left, but does so in an uninhibited fashion — moving forward, then back and changing his gait and gestures as he flows with the musical tempo inside his head. You get a sense of a character totally “gone” in his own mind, living completely present, happy and harmoniously allowing his body to “do its thing.”

Ollie’s work (at least it looks like it’s his) is often very intuitive; his characters behave in a far more sincere and natural manner than other animators. It’s not as aesthetically designed as say Milt Kahl’s work but the sacrifice in the visual dominance of the posing actually lends itself more suitably to this kind of shot. That said, it still carries with it it’s own imaginative appeal as can be seen here (with the main key poses highlighted):

When the shot ends, your attention halts and flows along with Baloo’s. It’s as if your discovery of the man-cub aligns with his. (We don’t really notice Mowgli prior to this moment.)

Shot 2: A lesson in simplicity and clarity

This shot, despite being only 3 seconds long, displays remarkable clarity in terms of acting, movement and appeal. It’s deceptively simple and effective — the kind of result all top artists aim for.

Centrally located in frame we know exactly where to look right from the start. The pose has charm, perfect sense of visual weight and a clear sense of having come from somewhere and about to go somewhere else:

Now let’s look at the rhythm There’s great balance in timing here; poses hold and move for just the right amount of time, syncing perfectly with the dialogue — neither head nor body stay locked nor is there continuous movement “all over the place.” Using the nose as a simple marker, we can see the wonderfully clear variation of movement:

The shot ends with a body movement downwards and towards screen right leading us where Baloo eyes have been directing us all along — right at Mowgli’s position. This transitions to the perfectly executed match cut in scene 3.

Scene 3: A lesson in personality animation and texture

I love this shot. It reveals the directness of the character. He’s curious, unafraid and unpretentious. Interested in what’s in front of him, Baloo dives right in Mowgli’s personal space — analyzing, sniffing and commenting openly about the subject before him. You get a sense of a guy (in this case a bear) that you just like because he’s so honest and friendly. This is revealed by the playfulness on display, both in the character’s attitude and the contrasting actions:

Take the wonderful moment when his eyes look as if he’s totally gone, drunken by the aroma of his discovery. This is a character (and animator) having fun.

A marvelous control of tempo is on display; the euphoric moment Baloo experiences for a brief moment followed by his deeper intrusion into Mowgli’s personal space sets up the contrasting action that follows. The slap across the nose may come across as brash and sudden but it beautifully parallels the sniffy nose action earlier — “nosiness” punished (again we’ll track the nose to follow the beats):

Despite the seemingly violent behavior by Mowgli towards a seemingly innocent soul, it’s clear by Baloo’s reaction that he’s neither hurt physically nor offended. He’s more surprised than anything else. It’s an expression of “oooohh” rather than “ouch!”

The scene ends as Baloo retracts from Mowgli and the boy telling him to buzz off. The little guy has some fight in him and is unafraid of a creature much larger than him (at this point he’s clearly never seen a bear before, so he’s also naive about the whole thing). His forward gesture and Baloo’s retreat directs you perfectly towards the next bit of business; scene direction is carefully adhered to here in creating good consistency and continuity:

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of our analysis!

Film Analysis: A Jungle Book Sequence

Walt Disney’s 1967 film The Jungle Book feature three most unlikely companions in Baloo, Mowgli and Bagheera.

Disney’s 1967 animated classic remains to this day one of the most beloved of the 2D era of animated films. Despite its rather basic plot and unspectacular visuals (I’m talking about the budget-constrained sets and level of polish and not the level of artistry) it continues to charm animators and general audiences alike.

Baloo and King Louie sing “I wanna be like you.” Sparse on story, layouts, design and effects, The Jungle Book still shines with charming characters, great voice acting and wonderful songs.

The reason for its success is clearly the high level of character-based animation that, to this day, still stands without parallel in terms of acting, charm and personality displayed scene in and scene out throughout the film. Despite being a film with a paltry budget of only $4 million — which is well below that of comparable films that came before and after it — it was both successfully received by critics and at the box office grossing over $142 million which is nearly 35 times its cost of production, a nearly unfathomable today. (In contrast, the spectacular success of Disney’s 2013 hit Frozen, costing $150 million, grossed just over $1.2 billion, an 8-fold return.)

Screen grab from BoxOfficeMojo indicating tickets sold and inflation-adjusted box office totals shows Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book sitting at 32nd of all-time,  just below Christopher Nolan’s 2008 live-action thriller, The Dark Knight and just above Sleeping Beauty, another Disney Classic (1959) that has also held its own over the years.

To me, this film is a testament to the work of Disney’s four key animation figures at the time, most notably Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsbery as well as legendary story artists like Ken Anderson and Bill Peet. This was the industry’s best at their best.

Shere Khan and Kaa are two of the many colorful and memorable characters in Disney’s The Jungle Book.

As a tribute to these great artists and the film itself, I’m gonna be doing a 5 part breakdown of an extended sequence of the film and analyze in detail what I think are some of the many wonderful things about it — including but not limited to the screen choreography, body mechanics, posing, timing and acting — all of which make the performances so great.

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s The Illusion of Life features loads of wonderful animation drawings like this series of Baloo and many great lessons on how to animate. I still remember how it was near impossible to get a copy of this book when it was out of circulation. The underground market price hit as high as a half a term of my school tuition when I began my studies at Sheridan College. In my opinion, the book is mandatory education for any animator.

The sequence in discussion is where Baloo the Bear first encounters the man-cub Mowgli after he’s run away. It’s a sequence entirely animated by two animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the two best personality animators at Disney. The sequence contains 16 shots (scenes) in total and reveal everything that’s true and wonderful about the characters. In summary, it’s a sequence animated by two best friends at the studio of two best friends in the story. This kind of circumstance — and the magic that comes from it — is so rare that it’s unlikely to be repeated ever again.

The initial meeting between Baloo and Mowgli is not only a great character introduction but one that gives rise to one of the most charming duos in animated film history. This sequence of 16 shots will be broken up into 5 parts for detailed analysis.

Stay tuned for upcoming Part 1 of my analysis. It should be educational and inspiring for even the most established of animators.

Adversity

Director Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump is a colorful story of a character who, guided by the principles of faith, perseverance and simplicity, keeps moving forward regardless of expectations or circumstances.

“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” — C.S. Lewis

As many of you are no doubt aware, this blog has faced its longest hiatus since its very inception. But it has happened for good reason; a recent personal disaster has literally brought all my routines and activities completely to a halt. Due to a freak incident, I’ve lost most of my home, belongings and, worst of all, my art. Like a stake through the heart, the pain that accompanies the sudden shock lingers, leaving one to question things, almost everything.

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” — Henry David Thoreau

As someone who is no stranger to despair — having endured immeasurable pain with numerous medical procedures and significant loss of family members and the dearest of friends  — one would think that I would be used to it, but it always hurts, no matter what. Such is the definition of pain.

Yet, as part of a human species conditioned to deal with adversity, I (we) must carry on, hoping to learn from the past rather than live in it.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” — Joseph Campbell

There is often no specific rhyme or reason for events or predicaments (especially tragic or unjust ones), which is why we’re so often confused about what to do or how to react to unexpected (or even expected) difficulty. But at some point as artists, we begin to realize that this quagmire of drama, distress and seeming unfairness is what gives our work the fertile ground on which to spring forth our ideas, our drive and our talents. It gives us meaning and a story to build on. It’s the reason why mythology is as relevant today as it has been throughout human history — its parables serve to guide us on how to live. In such light, setbacks become springboards to jump towards greater and more meaningful heights. Like the animation principle of anticipation, before we can go up, we must first go down.

Prometheus Bound by Peter-Paul Rubens. The symbolism behind the myth of Prometheus is profound. A Titan God entrusted with the task of forming man out of clay, he defies Zeus by giving mortals the gift of creative fire to help end human misery and suffering. Although he is punished by being tied to a rock and having an eagle eat at his liver, he remains for eternity man’s greatest friend .

When I teach, I often hear from my students about their troubles both creative and personal. I remind them that their unique challenges (which are tied directly to their unfulfilled talents) are what make them who they are and how they handle those challenges will ultimately determine the success of their art and the meaning in their lives. We need to take comfort in the fact that what we think about and how we think about it matters because our lives and our artistry is heavily dependent on the narrative that we choose for ourselves. What the world thinks, matters much less.

“There are only two powers in the world: the sword and the mind. In the end, the sword is always conquered by the mind.” — Napoleon

Whenever we’re faced with serious challenge and pain, we are forced in the loudest and grandest way possible to respond — and that is the key word respond — as opposed to react. Response is conscious choice. Reaction, on the other hand, is thoughtless and absent of the benefit that time, perspective and contemplation brings to the table. It’s why it’s so beneficial to just slow things down and keeping things simple. Our lives today are far too complicated. The benefits of a globally and electronically connected world has brought with it the obsession with time, expectation and material focus. It’s all too easy to lose ourselves into surface living and losing all sense of presence.

Drawing by Maurice Sendak. When was the last time you looked deeply into someone’s eyes? Or listen to every word that is spoken? Have you forgotten what the surface of objects really feel like in your hand? Or the smell of the ocean? The true taste of things unadulterated?

Pain is a reminder to stop. I learned this a while a go when I was left disabled after a multitude of operations in a short period of eight months. It took a long time to get back to being functional and even longer to understand the purpose of the suffering that I had to endure. The mere material loss from recent events is just another reminder to me to remain humble and respectful of the ways of this universe. We actually gain “ourselves” when we lose “things.” We become wiser. But it’s so easy to forget that. Only setbacks have the power to make us look within ourselves, and then, with a greater and stronger heart, to look outside of ourselves to connect with the greater universe. It’s one of the reasons why this blog was formed in the first place.

Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less. — James Baldwin

The story of Rocky, written by and starring Sylvestor Stallone is one of my favorite American stories. It’s a classic tale of redemption, resilience and the power of the will. It reminds us that when we get knocked down, we must always get back up.

I don’t wish for pain or suffering — no one in their right mind would — but I no longer dread it. If my right arm hurts, I’ll use my left. If I lose another loved one, I’ll bring his/her spirit with me to new relationships. Art lost can be created anew. Life is, after all, a continued process of renewal. We cannot let the pettiness of life or, more accurately, our petty view of life get in the way of our art or our becoming.

“We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know we live in a contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it.  Our task as men is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks men take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.”  — Albert Camus

 

Commitment & Consistency

A page from the notebooks of Jean Francois Champollion, the French Scholar who devoted his entire life to deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

“Without commitment, you’ll never start, but more importantly, without consistency, you’ll never finish.” — Denzel Washington

COMMITMENT:

Definition:
1. the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc.
2. an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action.

In other words, commitment is determination and dedication made tangible after hours upon hours of deep thought and emotion. It is all that brewed desire, love and caring for someone, something or some cause  personally shaped into something real thru defined action. Setting a goal is a commitment.

A page out of the notebook of artist Paul Klee exploring color, themes and theory. Klee made over 4000 drawings in over 10 years worth of notebooks.

“You always have two choices: your commitment versus your fear. ” — Sammy Davis, Jr.

Here’s some things to ponder on whether we’re committed or not to our cause:

a) Have we clarified in our minds exactly what it is we’re committing to? Are our goals unmistakably clear? Fuzzy commitments have fuzzy follow thru. We can’t hit a target we can’t see clearly.

b) Have we expressed that commitment OUT LOUD to people close or important to us? Because if we haven’t, we won’t be held accountable. The fear of letting others down is a great driver of forward motion. Signing up for classes or having a workout buddy are examples of getting others involved in our cause. I still remember for years going to the zoo drawing every weekend with my buddy; it was our mutual commitment to each other that ensured that we carried through with our goals.

c) Is the commitment bound to a time and date? Without a deadline, we will put it off. This is GUARANTEED. Our minds and bodies are biologically designed to work around urgency.

d) Are we 100% sure this is what we must do? Again, if we don’t have to do it, we won’t. Expect to be rejected, criticized, put down and ignored. Monetary compensation for our creativity is rarely just or stable. Becoming an artist is HARD. If we don’t want it enough, we’ll give up as soon as it gets painful.

e) Do you have faith in your cause? If we can convince ourselves that why we should do it and believe we can do it, we’ll take the dive. Without faith, it’s near impossible to take that very first step. We must trick ourselves if necessary because our minds can play endless games to talk us out of commitment.

The notebook of Thomas Edison shows the ideas on the famous light bulb, one of his numerous inventions in a six-decade long career dedicated to science.

CONSISTENCY:

Definition:
1. conformity in the application of something, typically that which is necessary for the sake of logic, accuracy, or fairness.
2. the way in which a substance, typically a liquid, holds together; thickness or viscosity.

If commitment represents the drive to take action then consistency is the method for seeing that action thru. It’s what holds the whole thing together.

“The quality of your life is determined by the quality of your rituals.” — Anthony Robbins

Almost daily I ask myself why I do what I do. Why? Because the mind is always searching for an easier way. That’s its job — to conserve energy, to be safe, to protect the total being known as me. Try to lose weight and it’s almost guaranteed someone will offer us our most favorite and fattest treat. Want to save money and there will be an awesome sale on that gadget/car/shoe you’ve always wanted. That’s how the universe works. It wants to test how serious we really are and will do so continuously and relentlessly. Therefore, unless we have a solid routine or set of rituals that ensures that we take action no matter what, we will waver.

The notebook pages of Guillermo Del Toro’s show the originating ideas behind his 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth, which he wrote and directed.

How to better our consistency? Here as some suggestions:

a) Design rituals that trigger immediate action. Alarm bells, booked appointments and schedules are helpful but ultimately we need to create physical and emotional triggers to get us going. Before I paint for example, I put on music and my painting smocks — the next steps are automatic.

b) We can also set up rituals that will help us bypass old habits and prevent self-sabotage. For the longest time, I would struggle with letting go a piece of work, going back to it again and again, and often ruining it altogether. Finally, I decided I’ve had of enough and made it a ritual to put away my art after my sessions ended. Not seeing it all time, it was out of sight, out of mind and ultimately out of reach for me to do any damage.

c) Take action regularly. Remember to sharpen the saw. Studies have shown, in athletic development for example, that both the skills and strength gained from daily training can be lost if more than 2 days have passed between training sessions. It’s no wonder all the great athletes, painters and writers commit to their craft pretty much every single day.

d) Be mindful of your other activities. The time spent on activities outside of your new commitment heavily influence your ability to carry out your goals. Wake at the same time, eat at the same time, work at the same time. It doesn’t matter what time, just pick one for each set of activities. Separately devoting time and energy specifically for your goal (i.e. giving it optimal conditions to make it work) will increase your odds of success.

e) Chart and track performance of those daily goals.  There’s nothing like seeing it on paper right in front of us. With a record of achievements (no matter how small) staring us in the face we will be inspired and gain greater confidence.

The notebooks of artist Frida Kahlo show an illustrated diary filled with poems and conceptual designs for future works of art as well as all her personal musings about pain, loneliness and suffering. (Khalo was seriously incapacitated in the last years of her life.)

Now, perhaps you’re getting tired of hearing about all this “hard work” I’ve been spewing about on this blog. All this “just to be an artist” you wonder? Why do so much? Why suffer? Well, let us not be so ungrateful. Creativity is a gift. And although making art requires tons of hard work and ingenuity that’s not always recognized, we must still always do our best. We must completely use up the few gifts blessed upon us. In fact, our jobs as artists — as human beings —  is to maximize our abilities so as to contribute to our communities and to the world at large. Fairness is irrelevant. Most of the greatest contributors to art, science, philosophy and literature were dismissed during their lifetimes. But life would be so much worse without their efforts and sacrifices. I always like to remind myself this: What you give, you leave behind. What you keep for yourself, you take to the grave where it’ll die and disappear forever.

Here is a rather intense yet insightful speech from University of Toronto Professor, Jordan Peterson on challenge and suffering:

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

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

Smaller:

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

Simpler:

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

Slower:

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.

Judgements & Dreams

The original Superman was never viewed as a brilliantly creative or well-drawn superhero. But this didn’t stop the long and immense fan following due to his unique and interesting mythology about why he chooses to be who he is — the protector of humanity.

“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking” ― Albert Einstein

I was watching a film the other night, and it wasn’t great by any standard measures, but by the time the credits rolled at the end of the picture, a couple of thoughts were refreshed in my mind. One, was that a lot of people (hundreds in fact) were required to make a project like this happen. It had the commitment of talented actors, established producers and a whole slew of artistic and technical crew. The second, in spite of its failure to engage on the whole, was that the film still had some very nice moments in it: good camera setups, thoughtful discourse and some excellent performances, all of which helped enliven individual scenes. This reminded me of a most important fact about art; any piece of art, created individually or by a group of individuals, is always worthy of respect. Simply put, making the long and hard effort to get something as difficult as a film (or even a painting or poem) complete is a huge accomplishment. The public always forgets this but shamefully, so do we — even as we battle day in and day out exercising our craft, trying to produce something of value.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 dream-like science-fiction thriller Blade Runner, featuring a riveting performance by Rutger Hauer as the replicant Roy Batty, was very poorly received by critics for its ambiguous characters and seemingly thin human story line. (A voice over narration was even inputted in its theatrical release out of fear that no one would understand it.) Today, those same critics rave about the subtle and imaginative brilliance of the film and respect it for much more than its legendary production design.

Now, that doesn’t mean we should applaud every piece of art out there or pat ourselves on the back for everything that we do, but we shouldn’t be so quick to undervalue creative effort either. I didn’t name the film that I watched because I’ve long believed that our time and energy is better spent in analysis, learning and appreciation of the creations by fellow artists rather than criticizing and judging them — I simply have too much respect for the people involved. We artists are already on a very lonely road and there is enough judgement and cynicism out there and I need not add to that. Constructive criticism — citing inconsistencies or problems based off dutiful analysis — is valuable and necessary, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. There’s a huge difference between cynical criticism and critical thinking.

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” — Abraham Lincoln

As I have matured as both a man and an artist, my own attitude towards the judgement of things and people have changed significantly. I don’t have much interest it in anymore. I’ve begun to realize more and learn less. And while one can age without gaining any real experience (unfortunately), as we travel further in art (and life) we begin to see with greater clarity, which of course means, that we see both the good and the bad with greater obviousness and distinction. But instead of being overwhelmed by its flaws, I’ve found deeper appreciation and greater discovery. The more we see, the more we accept. We begin to see both the minutiae and the big picture, and how it’s all connected and how it all matters. There’s less room or reason for preconceived attachment to ideals or standards. There’s less desire to hold on to any expectations.

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” — Stephen Hawking

Over time, I’ve found that intense emotional and mental focus on mistakes and failure limited in its usefulness — especially when it comes to viewing the works of others. We don’t look for “errors” in the works of Rembrandt or Van Gogh, not because they don’t exist, but rather because it serves no pragmatic purpose. Furthermore, their existence takes nothing away from the excellence of the work itself. Moreover, what we perceive as imperfect may be exactly what makes a piece of art so distinct and brilliant. Contrast is a fundamental component of great artistry.

Alberto Giacometti’s sculptural work is a brilliant display of contrast in shape and proportion. His “imperfect” representation of the real world is a “perfect” display of his creativity.

Again, it’s popular and even fun (in a childish way), to judge and criticize. It seems rational, harmless and natural to do so. And in this day and age where it’s so much simpler to blame others for our own insecurities and failures, being an armchair critic can be a veiled form of protection from ourselves; for the responsibility of not taking action, for not taking the risks associated with following our dreams. Having a cynical and disparaging attitude is also a very easy (and weak) way of demonstrating our so called superiority and knowledge. Unfortunately (or fortunately), what counts is action. We are defined by what we do and how we do it. Even making the most simple piece of art, whether that be a brief piece of music, a drawing or a short performance on stage or in the field, is much more valuable than the criticism lay upon it. It takes the powerful combination of verve and bravery to take this road less traveled.

“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

Each day as a creative, I try to do my best just like all the rest of us. We work hard to create something new, we put our backs and hearts into it. No one deliberately makes “bad” art. No performer aims to fail or displease. It takes a kind of courage and nobility to do art because art appears to offer no pragmatic purpose; in the public’s eye, art serves only the artist’s ego. How many times have we heard that the artist is a “selfish” being? Society forgets that it’s the artist’s spirit that brings joy, beauty and realization to this world. Without visual art, music, theatre, writing or even sports —all of which are categorized as mere “entertainment” — the world would be bland beyond belief, with neither an appreciation of the present nor a sense for the future. It’s not surprising that the paying public is primarily obsessed with the established art of the past — it fails to accept and see what’s directly in front of them. It needs to be told what’s good and what’s not. But it is art, in fact, that teaches. It instructs us on how the world works and how to live by showing us how to see. Creativity is the ultimate act of living. Nature demonstrates its creativity each and every second with its continual birth of living things. Us artists are merely trying to do the same.

The late and brilliant Robin Williams stars as the inspiring English teacher John Keating in Peter Weir’s marvelous film, Dead Poets Society.

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ― Sylvia Plath

More often than not, we are our own worst critic, the primogenitor of judgement. Art is so responsive, so reflective, it’s hard to not see every flaw in our work and, more alarmingly, within ourselves. That is its power — we can learn more about who we are from our own work than from most anything else. At the same time however, we must be careful in the presence of such magic and veracity. A young or growing artist is not always ready to maturely handle such powerful truths which can be easily misinterpreted as damning indictments; it is all to easy to get too down on ourselves when witnessing our own inadequacies. To properly deal with our inability to perform requires time and reflection — to stand back and respond with calm and insight. Hence the importance of teachers and mentors who can keep us on that straight and narrow path (of not losing our mind or spirit). And sometimes, artists have to be their own greatest cheerleaders because, since the day we were born, we’re always dealing with loneliness.

“Dreams have only one owner at a time. That’s why dreamers are lonely.” — Erma Bombeck

As creatives, we have to battle each day with our mental, emotional and financial insecurity in order to proceed. This is just to get by, to survive. Throughout history, the world has been unkind to artists, lauding them only after official critical and financial success. It’s all much simpler to jump on the bandwagon of a “winner.” But should art be viewed in terms of winning or losing? Is that how we should define the value of our efforts? I think not. Because each creative act is built upon the foundation of many smaller creative acts such as planning, experimentation, practice and physical dedication — and it is physical because making and doing are not mere mental activities. Conception and inspiration may come first, but dreams stay dreams when they are not acted upon in the physical universe. Artists bring things into existence where there once was none.

“Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.” ― Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Marc Chagall’s paintings have a dreamy magic to them. They are filled with love, playfulness and joy. This painting is now perceived to be the inspiration that gave birth to the theme of “The Fiddler On The Roof” which is now one of most famous and beloved musicals of our time.

Hence, we cannot judge the success of our work or our lives by anyone’s opinion — and especially so if it’s particularly denigrating. An artist’s work is continual. We have to trust that this endless imaginative process has no choice but to reveal itself in the most honest and beautiful fashion. Because it’s all process. And in such a process, there is no room for invasive criticism or judgement. So why spend any of our time engaging in it? Our energy is best saved for making dreams come true.

“(There is) No end, no conclusion, no completion. (Only) Perpetual becoming.” — Henry Miller

Shot Analysis: True Romance

Directed by Tony Scott, True Romance (1993) features a playful script, fun characters and a multitude of excellent scenes and acting performances.

Much has been said about True Romance already, this being Quentin Tarantino’s first ever full Hollywood script and how it made the world aware of his exciting new talent at the time of its debut. As a film, it pays tribute to my favorite genre, the gangster flick, which has always held a place in my heart as perhaps the funnest, most daring and dramatic playground for exploring humanity. History, culture, politics and the dominion of family are all deeply embedded in the classic gangster movie. I could watch great gangster films all day (and have).

Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater play lovers Alabama and Clarence, the main stars (and heroes) of Tony Scott’s True Romance.

The scene we’re about to look at is the most famous scene in the movie, one featuring the incredible talents of two real heavyweights in the acting world, Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. In fact, the scene is so good, it almost overpowers the movie itself; the directing, writing, acting and music here all work in picture-perfect unison. It’s almost ironic — and not one talks about this — but here we have one of the greatest scenes in film history and it doesn’t feature any of the main actors, as both Walken and Hopper only play very short supporting roles in the story (I believe each of the two actors have only one other scene that precedes this one). I don’t believe that has ever happened before. The only comparable actor making such an impact in such limited screen time would have to be Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s The Third Man; although in that film, Welle’s character, Harry Lime, is the title character talked about by the main characters throughout the film.

Orson Welles plays Harry Lime in the 1949 noir classic, The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed. Welles delivered one of the most magnetic screen performances in film history despite being in the film for only 15 minutes.

Although, the popularity of this scene is magnified due to the nature of the “content” discussed, this should not be a reason for it to be dismissed by anyone, especially not by any artist trying to learn more about the craft of acting or film-making in general.

The following breakdown of the scene are simply moments and characterizations I personally found intriguing in terms of story and acting performance.

The Scene: (please be warned that the scene contains coarse language, racial slurs and graphic violence)

Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance script really shines here in this magnificent scene starring Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. That said, I doubt even Tarantino himself could have envisioned such a powerful result.

The Breakdown:

In this opening shot, Worley (Dennis Hopper) is struck immediately upon entering the doorway. He will be struck again both midway during the scene and at the very end. The idea that violence is inevitable here is being sent loud and clear to both Worley and the audience, and because of his situation we empathize with this character almost immediately. His time on screen may be short but Worley will play the tragic character here in this story.

Next, we cut to the physical set up of this little cat and mouse game we are about to witness. In this section, the frankness of Walken’s character, Vincenzo Coccotti, is contrasted by Worley’s act of stupidity — a natural defense mechanism to parry way responsibility by pretending like he knows nothing — one that is seen right thru by Coccotti. The pronounced activity with the cigarette first, followed by his calm and direct expression of his intentions makes this character extremely frightening and real. He’s here for business. It’s an excellent use of the environment and props by Walken.

After hearing Coccotti confirm his greatest fears, Worley sits in a brief moment of realization. Look carefully and you’ll notice this beautiful moment of acting by Hopper, his eyes glancing to screen right momentarily, reflecting his awareness of the situation (i.e. he knows that he’s screwed). He sinks his head downwards. A deep breath and a series of fast blinks reveals the difficulty in accepting his current predicament and his concealed efforts to compose himself. The most telling acting is often between the lines of dialogue where nothing is spoken.

This a nice moment by Walken, again using movement and props to give texture and rhythm to his acting.  After kindly offering Worley a cigarette, he gets up and takes off his coat signifying a character about to get down to work. His position is now physically higher and even more dominant over his adversary. The polite gesturing in his request for truth is balanced by his prepared position to act as needed. When Worley fails in his feeble attempt to lie to someone higher up in the food chain, it is met with swift confirmation about who’s the boss here.

Here Walken’s character does a little exposition, reviewing the events of the story both for Worely and the audience, to make sure everything is absolutely crystal clear. He even has a little laugh at the expense of Worley’s son Clarence, for leaving his driver’s license at the scene of the crime (an important story point indicating the kind of stupidity and carelessness in the family genes which is later confirmed when we discover that his son also left his LA address on the fridge door). Writer Quentin Tarantino has sneakily introduced the element of humor here which will pair itself beautifully when Worley exacts the last laugh and punishing blow against Coccotti.

After another brave effort to stand up to his adversary and then having his palm sliced, Worley is left hopelessly digesting more of Coccotti’s demands and lecturing, this time with the counselor proudly informing him of his superiority and that it’s genetic. The small section showing Hopper tilting his head indicates he’s now tired of hearing more from Coccotti. It appears this is where Worely has decided what he’s gonna do despite the final threat of death, should he continue to be so uncooperative.

It’s obvious at this point that Worley knows for sure there is no hope, nor is there any point in delaying this any further. He agrees to be forthcoming by asking for that cigarette initially offered, a gesture that should confirm to Coccotti that this guy finally gets it and he’s gonna tell him everything. But Worley’s eyes reveal that he has not thrown in the towel — they are focused. Cocotti’s paused reaction before agreeing to give him that cigarette shows he’s not 100% convinced either, but he’s willing to let this play out. I really love the way Worley first asks for a match and then proceeds to pull out a lighter. It makes the scene feel so real and genuine — because that’s what real people do — acting instinctively and behaving according to habit. As the music slowly creeps into this transitional moment, we know we’re about to witness a change in the mood. We do, but it’s not what we nor Coccotti expects.

Trapped in a chair and surrounded by a handful of gangsters, the only weapon Worley’s got is his mind. You can see Coccotti lean back initially as Worley begins his tale and he’s uncertain where Worley’s is going with this. Then of course, comes the surprising first blow, one that not even someone as powerful as  Vincenzo Coccotti can deflect.

What follows — the famous Moor/Silician fable portion of the scene — is really dynamite here. The dialogue is so fun and the actor’s expressions only magnify the playfulness of the scene. Thematically, here is where the tables are turned, Worley is now the storyteller, physical and animated as he gestures with his arms, cigarette in hand. Coccotti is now the passive listener, being toyed with by Worley, who goes on and on with one insulting jab after another. Coccotti continues to sit mostly motionless except for the odd smiles and glances backwards towards his posse as he expresses his utter disbelief of the gall of this measly little security officer. Worley has caught Coccotti in unfamiliar territory and he’s got no prepared response to this except to laugh and reluctantly join in on the joke, even if it’s at his expense.

After begrudgingly laughing along with his adversary, Coccotti finally and swiftly acts out his anger in the most demonstrative fashion — issuing six bullets directly to the head of his victim. The inevitable ending doesn’t deny who the real victor is in this little game. The mouse may have been killed here — that was never in doubt — but the cat has been wounded in a battle that shouldn’t have been any contest. Coccotti’s very last words state as much as he wipes his hands and spits out his gum in frustration, emphatically closing out the scene.

Final Word:

Great lines and story are what give real meat for actors to hold on to and build from. Writing and story is first and foremost. Ideas matter. That said, its proven time and time again, that even though dialogued moments may be the most memorable ones of any movie, it’s the acting — the combination of verbal expression and the acting between the lines — that make them so convincing and powerful. Great actors, such as Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, clearly build their characters internally. But ultimately, that internal creation can only be communicated to the audience externally. How a character speaks and moves is everything; we can only comprehend what we see and hear. This is a lesson we, who are trying to deliver the best possible performances in film or animation, must continually be aware of.