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