Category Archives: Film/Book Analysis

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.

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.

Shot Analysis: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The French poster for Walt Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of Disney’s most interesting films made in the late 1990’s. Based on Victor Hugo’s Gothic novel about a hunchbacked servant who resides in the Bell Tower of Notre Dame Cathedral, it was both bold and timid. It had a dark foreboding undertone and featured a genuinely realistic villain but it was also conflicted in its choice of supporting characters, most notably the Gargoyles — formula sidekicks who were more suited to a modern Broadway comedy-musical. That said, there is brilliant animation throughout the film and none more prominent than the work of superstar animator James Baxter who headed up the team responsible for Quasimodo, voiced beautifully by Tom Hulce. It was this film in particular, and the visual acting portrayed here by Baxter, that made me such a huge fan of character animation and his work in particular. It signaled to me what was possible when it came to pure and believable acting in animation.

Sequence Analysis: Quasimodo’s entrance

The sequence of two shots introducing Quasimodo, the Hunchback from Walt Disney’s 1996 The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Animation by Supervising Animator, James Baxter.

Today, we’ll look at the two shots at about half speed in slow-motion so that we can see in acute detail what actually happens in the animation.

Part 1:

As the powerful score and ringing bells carry us from the opening sequence to this shot, we see our hero Quasimodo emerging from the darkness, face hidden. He swings athletically downwards (with the camera trailing him) to the wooden floor. His movements are perfectly in unison with the movement of the swinging bells which never obscure our vision of him.

Notice the central placement of the character as he enters the scene. It signifies his importance as he emerges from obscurity into focus coming out from the direction of the viewer, as if we are him. We are meant to relate to him (and like him), even if we don’t know him quite just yet.

The design and choreography give huge hints to the story about a character usually hidden out of sight, now emerging onto the scene out of darkness and into the light, while carrying with it the corresponding undertones of the religious environment. Baxter’s animation here displays great draftsmanship and rhythmical brilliance as Quasimodo travels with speed, power and control. This is an important indicator of the incredible capabilities of this character which will be revealed in the explosive finale in Act Three.

In the final pose of the shot, Baxter chooses to leave Quasimodo hanging momentarily at screen right, on “thirds” where we can see clearly where he’s looking and where’s he’s about to land. In this case, “X” marks the spot, as displayed prominently in the shadows on the floor. The surrounding pigeons and their reaction will help with continuity into the next shot.

Animating to a moving camera is perhaps the hardest thing to do for a character animator. It requires great knowledge and control of the camera, as well as superb abilities on the body mechanics side — all movements must be smooth, display believable weight and be dynamically appealing. In 2D animation, it requires the kind of drawing/animating abilities that very few animators in the world have (James Baxter and Glen Keane are the only two animators I know of who have delivered such shots with unparalleled consistency). Notice that despite the heroics displayed with the physical action, it’s the opening and closing images of the shot that tell the most about the character and his story. How you start and end shots do much more than simply connect them together.

Part 2:

In this second half of the sequence, Quasimodo is centrally placed, seen from behind, heading towards the light. His landing activates the pigeons, whose scattered arrangement and flight help the shot “bloom” as they give way to our hero who travels towards them. After recoiling from his heavy, yet controlled landing, the drag of his arms and “gam” leg signify part of his physical handicap and deformity. This is further caricatured by his hunched movement which is both awkward and one-sided as he hobbles towards the sunlight.

As Quasimodo transitions from his powerful landing, you see that Baxter uses a strong “croissant” like shape for his key pose, a design that would stay consistent throughout the film. A beautiful mix of straights and curves both contrast and complement each other while the counter-balance of movement between those shapes, which are elegantly-timed, help define the character’s difficulty and heft which encompasses him — clearly a symbol of the burden he carries in his heart and mind.

I love the rhythm of this shot. The walk has a pace that is both unusual and dignifying. The huge drag and overlap of the limbs along with the quickness of their recovery make for a very appealing performance. It’s quite hard to explain, but you can feel his pain and physical confidence at the same time. I only wish that thematically the film would have further explored that in his character — physical deformities accompany with them more than just emotional and mental burden, but physical suffering as well.

In the ending key frames of this shot, we again see the dominant croissant shape that defines Quasimodo. His walk ends in transition to the next cut just like how he entered the scene — in movement and dynamically engaged in the moment. The composition re-affirms the central focus as he moves towards the light; a hero about to emerge towards the possibility of hope and change.

The two shots together looks remarkably simple at first glance (which, by the way, is no longer than eight seconds in total). Yet who could believe that a sequence of two shots that don’t even show the face of the character — never mind show him speaking — can reveal so much about a character and his role in a film. With intelligent design and brilliant execution in acting and animation physics, animators like James Baxter prove that it can be done.

Whenever I see this animation, I look back into my past and remember how I was first introduced to this shot by my old mentor and most gracious teacher, Wayne Gilbert (whom I’ll be forever grateful). He told me to study it in detail and find out why it works. To this day, this shot by James Baxter continues to hold its drawing power, carrying with it all the things we need to excel as animators: weight, rhythm, choreography, acting and appeal.

Shot Analysis: Sword In The Stone

The Sword in the Stone (1963) Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman

One of Disney’s all-time classics in terms of pure character animation at its finest, Walt Disney’s Sword In The Stone (1963) is a film I would come back to again and again for inspiration and learning in my entire career as an animator.

Today we’ll look at a favorite shot of mine from the marvelous Frank Thomas*. At first glance, this appears to be a simple scene but it’s actually one loaded with ingenuity, strong staging and elegantly-timed action.

The Shot:

Since film passes by so quickly in real time, it’s easy to miss out on the wonderful thought process and all the juicy details that go into a shot such as this.  Notice, for instance, that (if we listen carefully to the dialogue track) there is no basis for the creative and convoluted business that is Merlin’s battle with his wand and beard. Since the sound effects — like in all animated films — are added afterwards, that contrasting element is created entirely by the artist alone to add fun and personality to the scene that might not have been present in the storyboards or script. From Disney’s Sword In The Stone.

The Breakdown:

In this analysis, I’ll be focusing mostly on the fundamental importance of the key posing, placement of action and directional elements that I believe Frank Thomas had intended. Please enjoy!

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In this starting position, Thomas composes Merlin in the midst of thought and action. He’s looking at the younger Arthur (off screen) and is about to turn his attention to the objects lying about the room. The shape (as recomposed in lite blue on the left) is stable yet interesting. The wand, hands and head clearly display his direction of focus.

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Here the artist draws your attention with his rhythmical tapping of his wand against the stool and, like a conductor, he begins his work with his orchestra. A nice touch is displayed here when Merlin moves the beard towards his waistline, clearing space for the action to read.

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As Merlin shifts upwards, you can see the arms and body curve inward, creating a nice inside-outside maneuver of his hands before ending up in the commanding position which follows. A lessor animator would’ve taken a less interesting path.

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Here Merlin stands in command like the wizard he is, holding this position of strength with order and dignity in a perfectly timed pause before the main action. The line of action (in red) is clear and strongly arced as his energy is projected upwards and outwards.

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Merlin “pops” into the next action jumping right into the air — a surprising yet colorful move for an old wizard. The dramatic anticipatory movement gives the action and the character a sense of fun and vitality. Note the strong underlying anatomy as the head overlaps the chest cavity giving the pose depth and volume.

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Here the pose is curled up small, as Thomas directs your attention towards the open bag. The head and face along with the curvature of the hands and arms, triangulate the action.

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As Merlin performs his spell, he unknowingly curls his beard into his wand in a beautiful display of the artist’s control of movement and drawing capability.

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The swirling spell action ends in an abrupt and sharp halt, pulling Merlin’s chin and head forward while sending reverberations throughout his entire body and clothing. The sharpness of the action and clear directional forces give the movement power and thrust.

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A series of actions and poses play out, as the character zigzags in chaotic fashion and frustration to free himself of the entanglement.

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In a final anticipatory pose, Thomas creates a complex yet decidedly clear arrangement, displaying multiple forces at play, each taking turns in different directions of push and pull. He even uses his feet!

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The battle with his beard and wand end in a explosive release — one that splays out in a beautiful star-like formation.

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After that great expenditure of energy, Merlin is decidedly fatigued — the ordeal proving too much for a wizard his age — as he deflates slowly sagging down towards the stool, the weight of everything bearing downwards along with the force of gravity. All of this is completely consistent with the acting choices that define the character.

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After the brief reprieve, the wizard re-composes himself, as he calmly erects his posture back upwards, displaying the fortitude fitting of a commander in charge of his subjects.

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A final rotational move back towards screen left — where the action started — completes the scene perfectly. All in all, a great performance created by well-planned acting, strong staging and perfectly executed timing.

In summary, shots like this are great to study and learn from. It should, at the very least, keep us inspired. The appreciation of the works of other artists, especially great ones like Frank Thomas is critical to the understanding of the craft and retaining the humility necessary to stay grounded. We must be always looking, seeing and learning.

“Observe Everything. Communicate Well. Draw, Draw, Draw.” — Frank Thomas

Check out my analyses of other shots, including work by Frank Thomas colleague, Milt Kahl, from 101 Dalmations, and modern animations by my own colleagues, Mike Thurmeier from Robots, and Aaron Hartline from Horton Hears A Who.

(* Note: This shot was incorrectly credited to Milt Kahl in the original posting.)

Artist Spotlight: The Films of Woody Allen

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A caricature that marvelously captures Woody Allen’s signature look by the one and only, Al Hirschfeld.

“Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” — Woody Allen

Woody Allen is one of the most prolific and unique voices in American cinema. To quote a friend; “When Woody Allen is at his best, he’s one of the best.” I wholeheartedly agree.

In his long cinematic career as writer, actor and director, Woody Allen has created over 53 films in his sixty plus years. He’s as famous as much for his brilliant writing and studious humor as he is for the character he often plays — a slightly neurotic yet likeable Jewish left-wing intellectual living in New York City. In reality, this persona is ironically nothing like him at all — Allen’s known to inner circles to be calmly articulate, organized, athletic and a wicked Jazz musician and enthusiast. He also doesn’t get enough credit for his acting abilities because he plays his character so well. No one ever accused Charlie Chaplin of being a type cast actor for creating the Tramp.

“I’ve never been an intellectual but I have this look.” — Woody Allen

Woody Allen, seen here playing his clarinet with his New Orleans Jazz Band inside the legendary Café Carlyle at the ripe old age of 75.

Woody Allen created a personal and distinct style of writing, acting and directing that’s unique in an industry that’s sorely lacking in diversity and innovation. And despite making films on very low budgets that appeal primarily to more sophisticated yet limited audiences, he still manages to be continually busy and make so many of the kind of films that no one else gets to make. Famous actors have lined up to be cast in his movies and every one of them takes significant pay cuts to do so. (His actors are paid an identical fixed fee.) This isn’t all so surprising considering his films have garnered over 18 Oscar Nominations for acting alone. As for Allen himself, he’s received 24 nominations and has won 4 (one for Best Picture and three for Best Original Screenplay). That said, he’s true to his principles of avoiding spectacles and excessive accolades. He has never once attended the Academy Award Ceremonies.

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Woody Allen — A Documentary (2012) is a marvelous film about the prolific American filmmaker. Directed by Robert B. Weide.

“I think being funny is not anyone’s first choice.” — Woody Allen

Today we’ll look at four of what I feel are his best films — Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan— my personal favorites. Each one delivers a combination of innovative cinematography, brilliant writing, memorable characters and, of course, his signature humor at its very best. Whether you’re a story artist, camera enthusiast, editor or animator, you will learn much from his films. The writing, cinematography, cutting and acting are all first rate.

If you haven’t seen these films, or have not seen them in some time, I highly recommend grabbing a free night for a viewing. Woody Allen is one of the most creative voices America has ever produced.

Annie Hall (1977)

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In Annie Hall, Woody Allen created a film first with his now trademark humor, deeply introspective characters and playful plot developments that surround themselves around one central theme — the romantic human relationship. The story begins with the childhood upbringing of standup comedian Alvie Singer, played by Woody Allen himself, but dives very quickly into his relationship with Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton (who would go on to win an Academy Award for her performance as Best Actress).

A creative and comical scene set in upstate New York where Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) is introduced to the upper-middle class family of his girlfriend Annie Hall ( Diane Keaton). The innovative split screen interaction with Alvie’s lower Brooklyn family magnifies the wonderful contrast in their status and cultural upbringing.

From the excitement of new found romance to the final break up, all the wonderment and inevitable challenges that relationships go thru are explored here in depth. Allen does this while toying with recurring themes such as creative integrity, psychoanalysis, anti-semetic paranoia and even the merits of adult education. It’s a delicious tale that holds its viewer from beginning to end with originality and humor. The film signaled the arrival of Woody Allen as a premier film-maker, winning him his first Oscars  for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Buoyed by memorable scenes and a sensational Diane Keaton (who delivers a performance that captures the spirit and beautiful nuance of femininity as perfect as any portrayal I’ve ever seen), it’s a film that’s worth multiple viewings. It’s arguably the funniest film he ever made.

Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)

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Hannah and Her Sisters is a story about three sisters whose lives are intricately linked by their famous yet overtly dramatic former movie-star parents and their relationships with men. Hannah, played by Mia Farrow, is the perfect sister — too perfect for anyone’s liking, including her own husband, played marvelously by Sir Michael Caine who also happens to be lustfully obsessed with Hannah’s youngest sister Lee, played by Barbara Hershey. Lee is young, bright and beautiful but completely unsure of herself and the direction of her life. The middle child Holly, played by Diane Wiest, is the offbeat and neurotically-insecure sibling —considered by the family (and herself) as the undesirable and talent-less “loser” of the three sisters.

A surprising yet delicately textured scene that exposes Elliot’s (Michael Caine) longing for Lee (Barbara Hershey) and how far he’s willing to go to pursue her. The setting is the most unlikely of places for Elliot to make an advance towards his target— inside the apartment of Lee’s live-in boyfriend Frederick (Max von Sydow). The scene ends in wonderful two-folded conflict, first between Lee and Elliot, and then almost at the same time, between Frederick and Rusty (Daniel Stern) who are engaged in the negotiation of a possible art purchase arranged by Elliot himself, concluding how ridiculously far and stupid men can get when overcome with lustful obsession.

The intertwined actions and reactions of the three sisters and their counterparts make for fun social experiment. Sometimes poignant, other times laugh-out-loud funny, the movie bounces elegantly yet playfully between moments of beautiful human desire and fear. Hannah and Her Sisters is one of the richest yet most positive stories told by this master story-teller.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

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Crimes and Misdemeanors is Woody Allen’s most daring and challenging film. It’s one that not only ponders the meaning of existence but also how the interpretation of life’s events plays into our own beliefs. Allen beautiful juxtaposes these questions in the telling of two stories, one a drama (the crime of murder) and the other a comedy (the misdemeanor of questionable flirtation).

In the story of Judah Rosenthal, Martin Landau plays an upper class ophthalmologist (the theme of seeing and being seen is a powerful metaphor here) who is challenged with dealing with the obsessive clinging by his mistress played with empathy and consuming intensity by Angelica Houston. In his decision to rid himself of his problems — since she threatens not only his marriage but the revealing of Judah’s financial indiscretions — he’s forced to confront his ethics and religious upbringing. It’s a test of whether he can weather the storm of his own fears knowing that the eyes of God are watching.

In a chilling scene, bathed in shadow and ominous lighting, Judah (Martin Landau) contemplates doing the darkest deed — murder — as he lays out his dilemma before his friend and client Ben (Sam Waterson), a Rabbi sworn to trust and confidentiality.

In the second story, Woody Allen plays Clifford Stern, a financially deficit, but seemingly noble documentary filmmaker who seeks hope and redemption through the possible romance with his producer, Halley Reed, played by Mia Farrow, who also happens to be the targeted love interest of his brother-in-law and super-successful TV mogul Lester (brilliantly played by Alan Alda) whom Clifford vehemently despises. Clifford, who proudly voices his economically self-sacrificing way of life, is conflicted in his choice to pursue Halley given that he is married.

A short but funny moment between Clifford (Woody Allen) and his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) regarding finance and the integrity of film-making.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is brilliant not only in its execution of such complexity in story-telling but also in the way that it tempers the emotional heaviness of the viewer — deftly balancing the scenes of dark and serious drama with moments of witty and delectable humor. There’s a plethora of rich acting performances and purposefully subdued cinematography (by Sven Nykvist who is famous for his gorgeous work with the legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman). The film may be nihilistic —it pulls no punches with its themes — but it’s also daring and gripping story-telling that’s illuminated with creative discourse and compassion. This is Woody Allen’s boldest film.

Manhattan (1979)

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Manhattan is Woody Allens’ most sumptuous film. Shot in glorious black in white by the incomparable Gordan Willis (who also photographed Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather) it’s a film that resonates with anyone who’s ever lived in New York City. A story about unrequited love, social approval and loss, it’s also an essay on maturity, suggesting that it might have little to do with age. This is evidenced by the subtle yet poignant portrayal of the romance between Isaac (Allen) and the teen-aged Tracy (played with beautiful innocence and sincerity by Mariel Hemingway). But convinced by both himself and his friend Yale (Michael Murphy) that a relationship with a girl half his age is not worthy of further development, he focuses his attention on the alluring Marie (Diane Keaton) who shields her own loneliness and insecurity with her high level of intellect and esprit. The problem is that Marie is also Yale’s former mistress and this makes for interesting emotional baggage.

Isaac (Woody Allen) and Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway) bump into Yale (Michale Murphy) and Marie (Diane Keaton) at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and go on to engage in an academic and comical debate about art.

Manhattan is a film that juggles the delicate moments of human life in the midst of big city aspirations in the world’s most interesting place in the 1970’s, New York City . The look, feel and sound (Gershwin!) of Allen’s Manhattan captures a time and place that is forever unique to America and to American cinema. It’s perhaps the most beautiful film in the Woody Allen library.

In Summary, the films briefed here are the meatiest in terms of originality and theme. But Allen’s made many excellent movies: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Husbands and Wives, Zelig, Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, Bullets over Broadway and, more recently, Before Midnight to name but a few more. They are all worth exploring. In fact, even when he’s not in top form, his films are better than most of his peers. That’s the trademark of greatness.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” — Woody Allen

Acting Analysis: Daniel Day-Lewis

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Daniel Day-Lewis plays the heroic Hawkeye from Michael Mann’s inspiring epic, The Last of the Mohicans, one of many character portrayals in his brilliant on-going career.

“I like things that make you grit your teeth. I like tucking my chin in and sort of leading into the storm. I like that feeling. I like it a lot.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

There are actors and then there are ACTORS. Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson — these artists command the screen and have come to forever define the characters they played. Any thought of an alternative encompassing those roles is unfathomable. Today, we look to the acting talents of Daniel Day-Lewis, an artist some would consider to be the greatest actor of all-time. It’s a proclamation that is difficult to argue with.  A winner of the Academy Award an unprecedented three times, he’s widely known as a devout performer completely immersed in the method form of acting, an actor who becomes the personalities he creates. From moving our hearts with his performance as a man suffering from cerebral palsy to playing one of the most important leaders in American history, there aren’t that many actors that have demonstrated such great range and receive such wide critical acclaim.

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Daniel Day-Lewis and Lina Olen star in Unbearable Lightness of Being, directed by Philip Kaufman, a film about a man who battles with his choice of sexual freedom over matters of the heart.

“I suppose I have a highly developed capacity for self-delusion, so it’s no problem for me to believe that I’m somebody else.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

Today, we’ll take a look at a few scenes of his from a small four-film sample. In each one, we’ll see that not only are Day-Lewis’s creations wholly original but that he utterly encapsulates the full range of human expression — mental,  physical, and emotional. Like the aforementioned legends before him, he has formulated characters that have come to define the very films in which they place.

Gangs Of New York (2002):

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In Martin Scorcese’s colorful, if sometimes cartoony portrayal of turn of the century America, Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the charismatic villain, Bill The Butcher, a principled yet violent man, who leads an array of characters fighting for the rights to the underworld in the Five Points district of New York City in the late 19th century.

In this magnetic scene, Day-Lewis delivers a lesson in presence, rhythm and texture. Moments of stillness contrasts assertive action giving the scene weight and magnifying tension. Watch how he balances the use of body language, hesitations in his voice and cold hard stares, all of which culminates into a character who both interests us yet frightens us at the same time. When he reminisces, he lets us inside, and his Bill The Butcher is charming, human and likeable. Then, in the blink of an eye, the tone changes and the directness in which he dictates the terms pushes both us and his adversary (Amsterdam, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) back, as if he owns us, like we’re only here because he lets us be here. Afterwards, he draws us back in again, forcing us to listen attentively, playing us back and forth like the master puppeteer that both he and his character is. The scene wraps up beautifully with a series of telling physical gestures marking the end of a tale well told.

Gangs of New York may not be one of legendary director Martin Scorcese’s best, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill The Butcher shines, stealing scene after scene with his physicality, vocal delivery and command of any scene he’s in.

My Left Foot (1989):

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In Director Jim Sheridan’s moving biography My Left Foot, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the real life story of Cerebral Palsy victim, Christy Brown — a spastic quadriplegic who later becomes a successful writer, poet and artist using only his left foot. The character is both inspirational yet unsentimental which is an unusual take on disadvantaged film characters who are typically portrayed with excessive melodrama and likeability. Day-Lewis creates a completely convincing character who challenges his environment and our view of someone living under the kind of circumstances which are beyond our comprehension.

In this five minute scene, Day-Lewis transforms his character midway by breaking out into a physical performance that grips the audience, first with stillness and then with action. Here, the physical challenges are magnified by the expression of the character’s deep emotional loneliness, creating both discomfort and empathy. Watch carefully how the tension builds and is ultimately expressed in violence. What results is tremendous sorrow and relatability. Director Jim Sheridan’s nice touch with the camera — panning around to other characters during Christy’s change in state — results in a larger perspective of the darkness and tragedy of human behavior. We feel like them — awkward, frightful and helpless — much like Christy has felt his whole life never knowing what might happen next.

The film is inspirational (and marks the first of Daniel Day-Lewis’ three Oscars). The performance is unforgettable.

There Will Be Blood (2007):

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Day-Lewis plays oil prospector Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, P.T. Anderson’s turn of century film about a man whose family, faith and fortune culminates into madness. A thoroughly enrapturing character study, it’s a film that haunts us long after the film credits roll.

In these two scenes from the film (they need to be seen together to understand them), we have Daniel first having a meeting with some company men who aim to purchase his land. At the end of this clip, Plainview storms after being offended by the man’s remarks. But before doing so, he verbally threatens him as he makes clear his position when he’s pushed by either aggression or patronization. In the second scene, he’s with his young son at a restaurant before being irked by the arrival and presence of those same adversaries. It is in this scene, where the acting really shines, as we begin to witness his pride and view of injustice (according Daniel’s own principles anyway) boil in his eyes. You witness his outlandish mockery with his little playful act with the napkin, and then, when it becomes too unbearable to stay put, he makes his displeasure known directly.  The final act of drinking the other man’s whisky is the perfect exclamation mark of a proud and imposing man, who despite his flaws, earned his keep. (Note: This action affirms his character. There is a brilliant earlier scene in the movie where his character crawls his way back to town after having broken his leg from falling down a mine shaft. It’s a scene that showcases his character’s most admirable trait – his grit and determination – one that allows the audience to respect and follow him even if doesn’t morally justify his more abhorrent actions later on.

Lincoln (2012):

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In this most subdued direction by Steven Spielberg, we get to witness one of Daniel Day-Lewis’ latest and most perhaps most brilliant creation — America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. It’s been rumored that the actor spent eight months in seclusion to develop the character, from his voice all the way down to how the president would walk, sit and gesture. The portrayal is so convincing, that it’s impossible to think Lincoln walked or talked any other way. It reminds me of the story of Gilbert Stuart‘s painting of America’s first president George Washington, known as the Lansdowne Portrait. It conveyed such a regal and dignified portrayal of the president that despite it not being the most accurate likeness of him, it came to define how he would look forever in history. Every minted coin and paper currency uses that particular portrait of Washington.

“A voice is such a deep, personal reflection of character.” – Daniel Day-Lewis

In this crucial moment in the film, Day-Lewis’s character expresses not only his angst but his absolute determination and resolve when it comes to abolishing slavery in America. Here, you witness not only dignified physical expression but absolute control through his voice, which reveals deeply his frustration with the political process and the pain it has caused him. The verbal here leads and implies the physical. And as the scene plays, he becomes more animated and his drive extends more and more into his physical being, his strength building with his anger and resolve. It’s a great escalation of total human expression.

“Leaving a role is a terrible sadness. The last day of the shooting is surreal. Your soul, your body and your mind are not ready at all to see the end of this experience. In the following months after a film shoot, one feels a deep sense of void.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

There has already been so many accolades and so much said about Daniel Day-Lewis that one can easily disregard all this as another glorification of actors and their celebratory status. But if we do that, we forget to actually look at the work and study it.  We must always search for and analyze the technique, form and intent of great artistry to understand it and be touched by it and to come closer to it in our own work. And ultimately, we need to look and listen to it to be inspired because we always need inspiration. Day-Lewis’ devotion as an actor displays such tremendous comprehensiveness — taking in everything and then giving everything and more — that it reminds us that when our craft begins to defines us and us the craft, a great symbiotic relationship has been founded. This is a great personal joy to us as artists.

“At a certain age it just became apparent to me that this was probably the work that I would have to do.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

In Search of Imperfection

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Al Pacino plays Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece series, The Godfather. The destruction of Michael’s original dreams, honesty and faith, makes him a sympathetic character — one that is flawed and relatable. The dark path he takes creates tremendous interest in its tale of lies, circumstance and inevitability. To see a dissection of a moiety of The Godfather, go here.

“The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.” — Ben Okri, Poet

We strive so hard as humans to be perfect, and by default we set ourselves up for failure. Now, failure itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, failure is required for growth and happens every time we do something new. But if we become dominated by failure by being obsessed with perfection, we kill the very thing that makes our art worth doing. Nature is perfect in its imperfection, as is humankind. Each journey is a deeply personal challenge to ourselves, and thru that journey we learn about our world and discover what makes each of us and our creations unique. It’s the imperfection in things that make everything interesting.

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Modigliani’s off-kilter portraits of his most common subject, Jeanne Hebuterne, remain continuously interesting because of its strange and beautiful perspective of the human form. He took the simple, common-place portrait and gave it strangeness and uniqueness, influencing numerous artists and illustrators ever since.

In art, we don’t want just balance, but ‘imperfect’ balance. In film and animation, this applies not only to character development, but design, composition, color, timing and mood. Each is impacted by this principle that’s most difficult to master, not only in concept, but in practice. In our industry, thoughtless symmetry, tired visual gags, mindless action, cliche dialogue, and formulaic characters and stories have become an accepted norm. As artists we must fight this trend that could ultimately kill our craft.

“As a real person, he wouldn’t last a minute, would he? But drama is about imperfection. And we’ve moved away from the aspirational hero. We got tired of it, it was dull. If I was House’s friend, I would hate it. How he so resolutely refuses to be happy or take the kind-hearted road. But we don’t always like morally good people, do we?” — Hugh Laurie, on his character House

For education and inspiration, let’s look at some definitive examples where gorgeous imperfection does reign, where contrast, texture and appeal is maximized for the greatest possible enrichment of the cinematic experience:

Story: 

(From left to right) Anthony Quinn, Peter O’Toole and Omar Shariff star in Lawrence of Arabia, originally released in 1962.

David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is a sprawling tale of desert warfare that apprises themes of tremendous aspiration, loss, tragedy and triumph. It’s a bold classic that explores every aspect of the human spirit through the life story of T.E. Lawrence who goes from being naive and likeable, to violent and vengeful in a marvelously soulful performance by Peter O’Toole. Along with stunning, unforgettable cinematography and a sweeping score, it’s compelling film-making that contrasts greatly from what’s being screened today.

A similar but more controversial example is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, from Martin Scorcese’s brilliantly directed Wolf of Wall Street. Lead characters don’t have to be likeable, they just have to be interesting. Check out this marvelous video by Film/Screenplay Instructor, Jennine Lanouette, for more on this subject.

Characters: 

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The Toy Story Series from Pixar Animation Studio is arguably the best trilogy of all time.

John Lasseter’s Toy Story is a magical and landmark creation for many reasons. One of the keys to its success however, is its characters — each one unique, each one taking turns serving as either contrasting or complementary elements to each other, all the while ramping up the stakes for the audiences that feel so attached to them. The imperfection, both in the physical make up and personalities of the characters, make them fun and worth following through all their adventures. The entire series is a wonderful collated gem that will forever define Pixar.

For another great example of multi-dimensional casting, check out the wonderful ensemble of memorable characters in Akira Kurasawa’s 1956 classic, Seven Samurai. It may be the film that set the standard in multi-character development and thematic arrangement for modern films.

Composition:

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A powerful climatic image from the third sequence of Stanley Kubricks’ 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Stanley Kubrick’s immeasurable science fiction epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey (released in 1968) couldn’t be more relevant at this time in human history. Ahead of his time in dealing with themes about space travel, robotics and artificial intelligence, Kubrick laid out the atmosphere of his films using grandly open space. This space, often aligned with single point perspective, may give the illusion of simple symmetry and layout, but in fact allows for the contrast of mood and movement, which was often centrally located. The backgrounds serve as an encasement, as voids and tunnels that focus our attention to action where it matters most — in our hearts and minds.

Another film-maker who bucks the trend with standard composition rules is Wes Anderson, whose films’ stylistic choices (like in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic) play a huge role in both the atmosphere of the story and its impact on its characters.

Design: 

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The three good fairies from Walt Disney’s 1951 classic, Sleeping Beauty.

In Sleeping Beauty, the three little old fairies are the stars of the show. The leads, Prince Philip and Princess Aurora, are mere place holders that represent the standard heroes and damsels in distress from a bygone era of storytelling. All the color (both literally and thematically) lies with the fairies — Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather —  who feature the most important ideals, emotional interest and conflict. Their physical design reflects all their different strengths, personalities and flaws. They make for beautifully perfect ‘imperfections’ that drive the humor and heart of the story.

Mood/Energy: 

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Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman star in The Shawshank Redemption, a film about injustice, self-evaluation and absolution.

Frank Dabaront’s 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, is the kinda of drama that seems to flow so beautifully due to its largely unseen yet carefully constructed action. In this film, two clearly but subtly flawed individuals, Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) and Ellis Redding (played Morgan Freeman) take turns finding humor, sadness, victory and defeat. Nothing looks or feels perfect here, not the characters, nor the surroundings which make up their environment and their predicament. Excellent writing, direction and editing move this film along in a way that results in a experience that moves swiftly and surprisingly, rewarding us each step of the way.

Color:

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The Incredibles color script by Pixar Art Director Lou Romano.

These beautiful color keys by Lou Romano show the carefully assembled alignment of chromatic magnitude and arrangement. Color is often the biggest factor in relaying mood, tension and atmosphere, and in feature films, art directors like Lou carefully assess the storyboards and script to formulate the most appropriate designs for each individual sequence. Changes in color intensity, hue and value can alter the energy of a scene or sequence dramatically. These changes can be monumental, miniscule or unexpected. They are never perfectly the same.

Check out the color scripts of other films and artists that inspire you for it’s important to be periodically touched by outside inspiration. There are many, seemingly ‘unsung’ talents, that help make these films so effective.

Timing:

A scene during Woody’s escape from SunnySide from Pixar’s Toy Story 3, animated by Doug Sweetland.

This marvelous Toy Story 3 shot by then Supervising Animator, Doug Sweetland, showcases brilliant contrast in design and timing. The poses, movements and phrases of action are dispersed in a framework that is rhythmically colorful and textured. The irregular and unexpected actions displayed offers a great variety of patterns of movements from the beautifully awkward jump to the frantic circular actions that suddenly follow Woody’s brief moment of accomplishment. Furthermore, the purposely ‘unrefined’ designs of Woody’s postures fit his character and toy design to a ‘T’ — making for a wonderful display of character and action formulation by the artist.

In Summary, it’s good to remember that our obsession for perfection can cloud us and deliver us away from our ultimate goals. For maximum results or more importantly, maximal experience, we must seek change, contrast, balanced asymmetry and imperfection in our artistry. If we must step back or away in order to do so, then that is what we must do.

“The detail adds an element of unexpected something. All fiction is false; what makes it convincing is that it runs alongside the truth. The real world has lots of incidental details, so a painting also has to have that element of imperfection and irregularity, those incidental details.” — Shaun Tan, author/artist of The Arrival

Shot Analysis: Horton Hears A Who

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Vlad Vladikoff is one of the funnest characters from Blue Sky’s Horton Hears A Who.

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” — Dr. Seuss

Blue Sky Studio’s 2008 film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who is a visually underrated, animated treat. Loaded with beautiful color, sets, characters and delightfully inventive animation, it’s a film that showcases loads of creative fun while remaining faithful to the essence of Dr. Seuss, both thematically and graphically.

Today, we’ll dissect a sequence of shots from Horton Hears A Who performed by then Supervisor Animator, Aaron Hartline (who currently resides at Pixar Animation Studios). Aaron is a tremendously talented and devoted animator whom I had the privilege to sit next to during my time at Blue Sky Studios many years ago. It was one of the most enjoyable working arrangements I’ve ever experienced.

Now, let’s breakdown this beautiful shot and decipher the amount thought, deliberation and creativity that flows from one set of actions to another:

The shot sequence in its entirety. Aaron Hartline’s shot is a marvelous demonstration of careful planning, dynamic staging and sharp timing applied to character animation.

(Note: The following divisions made here are arbitrary and don’t necessarily represent how the artist constructed or executed his shot)

Section 1:

Here you can see how the character sharply pops into position (perfectly staged on thirds) right in front of Sour Kangaroo’s moving position, ending with his swooping wings and cowered vampire-like position before slowly revealing the prop in his hand. The snappy entrance, held pose, and slow reveal give the entrance punch, clarity and texture.

Section 2:

This second section is both more elegant in movement and sophisticated in execution. Here, the artist chooses to showcase some playful action with a prop (a bone). He does so first, with an assertive grip which is confirmed by the attitude of the body language and stern facial expression. Then secondly, he tosses the prop up and catches it before lowering the overall body position in a lovely display of weight transfer. This sets up the big dramatic duo-wing pose and forward head motion as he delivers the words “DEVOUR IT,” which is followed by the final flourish of some chomping jaw action. The balanced yet textured rhythm closes out the sentence that precedes the wild events that are to follow.

Section 3:

This is where the big change of mood and energy occurs in the sequence. The visual comedy begins with a sudden unexpected cackle, which Vlad first contains. He subsequently loses control/comfort — which is depicted by the awful face in the second choking — before a third, monstrous cough forces him to completely abandon his wide-winged stance to one of a more humble position. A series of head/neck gestures and a quick glance of embarrassment then forces him to retreat to far screen left, where he hides behind his cloaked wing. The final choke and smile he delivers as he looks back to Kangaroo re-affirms his embarrassment before we cut to her tepid response.

Section 4:

I love how this new cut starts with him central in the composition, with his back facing the camera. The head peaking out to screen left directs your attention of where to expect subsequent action. The dialogue “HOLY MOLY” reads beautifully in profile after the wonderful shrug of the shoulders. Then comes another cough which is more severe, built up nicely with the exaggerated action of the body first, then anticipating the next major action with the claws flexing in open isolation before a ‘grab the chest’ move leads us to a discharging action reminiscent of a horrible sneeze. The final extra ‘flop’ of the head/jaw gives the scene a wonderful flair before showcasing the stuck bone in his throat which he pulls out in a textured sequence of pause, snap and crackle.

Section 5:

In the concluding action, Vlad regains his composure and gets back into his fiendish pose. He thrusts forward with speed and confidence but then hesitates — his eyes and head shift in search for answers before the light bulbs flash inside and he thrusts upwards in sudden discovery saying proudly “I WILL DEVOUR IT.” The following move forward is another nice touch by the artist. As he says “SECOND TIME” he does so in an expression of self-assertion and persuasion — like when one tries so desperately to convince someone of something that’s in doubt. The final expression — which is preceded by a stupid yet genuine face that all dumb henchmen do when they suddenly figure out the math — is triply stated with a goofy face, forward nodding head and fork-like display of his two claws. It’s a great finish.

The Reference:

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Character sketches of Vlad by Sang Jun Lee. Property of Blue Sky Studios.

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Photo reference of the iconic Bela Lugosi in his 1930’s role as the immortal Count Dracula. Property of MGM.

Video reference performed by Supervising Animator Aaron Hartline. Notice that his video serves primarily as a base for the acting, as his timing, graphic choices and details all surface later in the process. Creation is often a multi-tiered process. (Thank you Aaron for kindly providing the extra references to this shot. What a most welcome update!)

In conclusion, it’s good to note that complicated shots and sequences like this require a serious knowledge and search for what ‘makes’ the character. Only a detailed exploration via video reference and intensive visual foraging for the best possible layout of the various phrases of action on paper can yield shots like this.  Aaron Hartline’s animation, like those of other top flight animators out there, are well worth the time studying in detail. You learn both craft and appreciation. It’s also a reminder of the kind of fun we can have with the job that we do.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” — Dr. Seuss

Film Anaylsis: The Jungle Book

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Based off Rudyard Kipling’s  famous collection of stories, The Jungle Book movie is one of Disney’s most beloved classics, with characters that have charmed audiences since the day it was released.

Walt Disney’s 1967 hand-drawn animated classic is, in my humble opinion, one of the landmarks of Disney character animation. Despite a limited budget and story, The Jungle Book was a huge success, accumulating over $205 million in worldwide box office for the studio while delighting families all over the world. To put that into perspective — accounting for inflation using today’s dollars — the film has made an astounding $632 million according to boxofficemojo.com. And almost all of that success lies in the hands of the performers — the voice actors (such as the musical Phil Harris, who plays Baloo) and more significantly, the visual actors, the animators.

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Baloo and Mowgli singing “The Bare Necessities” — one of the many delicious scenes animated by the marvelous Ollie Johnston for Disney’s The Jungle Book.

“Gee,  this will make me immortal. The way you guys animate me I can do no wrong.” — Phil Harris, voice of Baloo the bear

At the time The Jungle Book was being produced, Walt Disney was busy in the design and formation of his landmark theme park, Disneyland. The film didn’t have guidance or the focus of its leader, nor the money to back its production. (In fact, Walt passed away before its theatrical release.) However, this was also a time, when its animators, and the famous Nine Old Men in particular, were at the peak of their creative powers.

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Animated magic by the talented Milt Kahl make the interaction of characters like Shere Khan and Kaa an absolute delight to watch. From Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Some the best scenes ever animated by the very best of this craft are in this one humble movie. Anytime I want to be inspired by pure, unadulterated beautiful and entertaining character animation I look to this film. When I get tired of this craft imitating live action with little to no deviation, I pick up this old classic. If I feel exhausted or even jaded about the industry, a sneak peak at any one of the numerous scenes of magic on display, and I’m quickly cheered up and inspired again.

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The lackadaisical buzzards from The Jungle Book may only have a small role to play, but they too, are conceived and animated with charm and elegance. One would be hard-pressed to find weak or thoughtless animation in this little gem of a movie.

When I teach new and veteran animators alike, scenes from The Jungle Book show up for discussion and demonstration more often than any other film.

“None of it is possible, however, if the crew has failed to develop the characters to the point where their thoughts and their actions seem natural and believable. It cannot be achieved mechanically, or by copying, or by wishful thinking, but only the careful build-up, understanding, and a love for the characters.” — Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, from The Illusion of Life.

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The magical leaders (Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsbery) of The Jungle Book‘s character animation brought great rhythm and joy to everyone, and especially so, in the song and dance sequence “I Wanna Be Like You.”

The Jungle Book is a film archive that serves as an encyclopedia of animation knowledge, technique and execution. All the principles that make the craft great are on display, with the primary focus on what’s most important in character animation, performance. There are scenes that are so natural, they wouldn’t feel out of place in a live action movie. Yet there are others, that do things only this art form can do — display and communicate a visual language that delights not just the eyes but the soul.

To finish this tribute to this favorite character film of mine, let’s take a look at these two scenes, one by Milt Kahl and the second by John Lounsbery. Both scenes display elegant phrasing, are immeasurably creative and are executed to perfection. If you can, re-watch them in slow-motion, and you’ll be blown away.

This marvelous scene is a tour de force of animated magic that can be delivered only by the hands of a master (Milt Kahl). The walk is convincing in weight and timing, and the energy and spirit is perfect. Just look at how the foot placement, staging and rhythm of the shot progresses throughout the scene. From Disney’s The Jungle Book.

This short scene, by John Lounsbery, is a perfect example of the type of animation that is almost never seen today. It’s just a small scene – depicting a tiny moment of silliness and visual playfulness – but it’s a perfect display of the merger of fantastic drawing (posing) and musical rhythm that help make this movie so vibrant. The creativity on display here never ceases to amaze me.

“The audience understood the characters and identified with what each was trying to do. Every sequence gave new opportunities to see other facets of the personalities. And even though there was very little story as such, these character relationships and interesting personalities made this the most successful cartoon up to that time in our history.” — Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

Baloo_modelsheet

This Baloo model sheet shows the kind of research and exploration that was put into the development of the characters. Property of Walt Disney.

I wish today’s executives, producers and directors would remember that statement by Frank and Ollie. If we make room for truly organic character development and interaction — scenes for animators (the actors) to visually and emotionally explore the characters on screen — we can begin again to create something memorable. As a test, try to name how many characters you see in today’s animated features where you remember more than one or two of them after you’ve seen it. In a film like The Jungle Book, you can remember and name them all.