Emptiness

The excellent Michael Fassbender stars in Shame, Steve McQueen’s chilling and deeply affecting portrayal of addiction and loneliness.

If we live in an age of constant stimulation and busyness, then how come there’s such a lack of fulfillment and constant complaint of boredom in our society? Why are we incapable of enjoying the free time that we so desperately clamor for? Why do we feel so easily disconnected?

The feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man in the sciences. We do not come into this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.” — Alan Watts

I personally had to re-engage directly with this dilemma after the fire to my home earlier this year. The sudden and massive disruption to my life was much more than the tally of artistic and financial loss could account for. With routines disrupted and being forced into temporary housing, the uncertainty and sudden insecurity made for tremendous confusion of priorities both long and short term. In a sense I was lost again. And in the midst of such a state of dislocation, I found myself, almost unknowingly, doing two things without even realizing it;  I began to snack more and spend more and more time online.

Beagles are some of the smartest hunting dogs in the world. But they’re also absolutely addicted to food. They love it so much, they’ll crazily eat themselves to death if the opportunity presents itself.

By the time I caught onto my new habits, I had gained back a quarter of the weight I had lost since my dialysis diagnosis (weight that I had proudly lost with a new diet and exercise regimen). My blood sugar went thru the roof and my chronic aches and pains were elevated. Even worse, I found myself more tired, frustrated and despondent than ever. It took a while to realize it but all that web browsing — thinking that I’m doing research and catching up on all the current events and trends that I’ve missed — made my brain all shifty, reactionary and chaotic. Despite being an avid reader (averaging about two to three books a week) I noticed that my new found activities were effecting my attention span, substantially altering my ability to focus. More importantly, I felt very unhappy. Although much could be reasonably assigned to dealing with the trauma and inconvenience the fire had on my life and marriage, it still didn’t add up. I had actually more time, but less space in my mind, if that makes any sense. Even attempts at enjoying the summer — going to the parks on the weekends to hike or run and trying to eat healthy again — didn’t resolve my predicament. No matter what kind of will power I exerted, I kept on snacking and kept on browsing. And of course, the outcome was predictable; increased weight gain and greater unhappiness.

“When our brain is overtaxed, we find “distractions more distracting.” ― Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

The phenomenon of the Ouroborus (snake eating its own tail) is typically associated with the mythological tale of renewal. But in real life, snakes attack themselves when they are confused, such as when they fail to regulate their body temperature and develop a ramped-up metabolism that urges them to eat the first thing that they see devouring themselves in a horrific vicious circle.

Then I realized that perhaps my body was trying to tell me something. Since the universe abhors a vacuum, it was clear now that a sense of emptiness had formed inside causing me to desperately try to fill it with something, anything. And in our very visceral and stimulating world, if you open yourself to receive — being vulnerable and susceptible to change — it’s more than happy to oblige. This means of course that we’re open to both the good and the bad, both love and its opposite — anxiety.

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic. ” — Anais Nin

Suddenly my attempts to inform myself (catch up on the news etc) meant entangling myself with increased noise: inconsequential data, opinionated chatter about finance, politics and entertainment, and of course, that ceaseless bombardment and persuasion towards consumption, advertising. All of it just confirming again the distressful realization that the more the world continues to change the more it remains the same. Is it any surprise then, that when we find out that we’ve missed out on some current events or trends that it made absolutely no difference to our lives whether we knew about them or not?

All the chatter gave me was more disappointment and a greater sense of helplessness. And the more I felt this way the more I snacked and more I continued to search and read online. It was in essence, a self-destructive vicious circle — a strange sense of preoccupation of activity without any real productivity or deep inner development. Then I extrapolated my crisis globally and realized that the larger portion of society probably feels this way quite often; caught in jobs that are soulless, obsessing over nonsense, chasing after objects they don’t need and lacking the time and energy to engage in things that truly matter. Our attention, as a society, is completely misplaced. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is the modern cultural malaise.

Lemmings do without thinking clearly. Just because other people are doing it, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

In the old days, anxious behavior was strictly restricted to those with Type 1 personalities — you know, those hardcore go-getters who typically fly high in the fields of finance, law or medical school. But high ambition and the predominantly materialistic lifestyle that tags along with it, also brings narcissistic, irritable and highly reactionary behavior. The privilege of owning these maladies no longer belongs to the high achiever — today, we all suffer from psychological disarray. (Attention Deficit Disorder anyone?) We’re getting the rich man’s ailments but without the riches! I know of few people who don’t complain that they’re perpetually stressed or, that strange opposite, bored. Our success, social status and even moral worthiness now seems to be defined by a money-focused, constantly busy and fast-consuming lifestyle. That’s the goal. And here’s the crazy part; the suggested reprieve from working so hard towards that goal is more of the same!

This vicious cycle refers to alcohol addiction, but pretty much all addictive behaviors follow the same pattern.

So, the conclusion seems clear; we consume to fill our inner emptiness — whether that be from the lack of love, self-expression, or spiritual connection. We all “hunger” mentally or physically in the wake of feeling less valuable and less worthwhile. But as behavioral scientist William James observed, that at its conclusion, the total value of our lives is the sum of all the things we’ve focused on. So we must be careful with what we put into our minds (and bodies).

“My experience is what I agree to pay attention to.” — William James

Now, we might wonder on the other hand, why we can’t just do more? Isn’t our human capacity to grow and advance unlimited? Throughout our history, we’ve advanced language, productive capacity, scientific discovery and now, more recently, instant and global communication. Why can’t we just juggle more balls in the air so to speak? Isn’t that progress and natural adaptation?

“Attention, after all, is ultimately a zero-sum game.” — Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants

Biologically, we know our limitations. Human’s can’t fly (without stuff) for instance. If you consume more calories than you used up, you gain weight. Understanding that is easy, doing something about it is another issue. Still, we KNOW what’s bad for us in terms of physical consumption. Being a diabetic, I know I can’t eat so much fruits or high carbohydrate snacks. My body just turns it all to fat while shooting my blood sugar to the roof. In didn’t matter that my doctor said I had reversed my condition under my pre-fire routine. If you’re glucose intolerant, you’re glucose intolerant. If there’s twenty-four hours in a day, then that’s all you got to do anything with for that day. We have to make our selections wisely.

Although this study from The Wall Street Journal presents non-mutually exclusive data (i.e. people may be browsing the internet and watching TV at the same time), the numbers are still frightening. If you’re using a digital interface at work you’re probably spending much more time with media than is healthy.

Feeding the mind with junk isn’t always so easily discernible. The internet is a fantastic piece of technology, allowing connection, sharing of ideas and access to a vast source of information. It’s impossible to be ignorant of it in today’s global economy. But it’s this unquestioning acceptance of its benefits that cause us to overlook its power to overtake us. In Nicolas Carr’s marvelous book “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains” it’s been revealed thru history, deep insight and new found science that there’s been a serious transformation in our abilities to think, focus, and transfer short-term information into long term memory when technology offers us a new interface by which to operate. In short, our abilities to find deeper, more fulfilling experiences associated with any newfound information may be compromised by our usage of the technology. Although we often think of the internet as a tool we can control, that control is illusory. The tools we use change us.

“[Patricia Greenfield] concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” We can, for example, rotate objects in our minds better than we used to be able to. But our “new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence” go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”
― Nicholas Carr

What’s even more frightening about consumptive behavior as a reaction to emptiness, is that both junk food and media — especially the internet — are designed to be addictive.  Thousands of the brightest and most talented minds in the fields of business, behavioral science, and commercial art (yes, us!) are working harder and harder to ensure that our minds and hearts are aligned with what corporations want us to consume. It won’t be long before the goals of the internet achieving total immersion and omnipresence becomes an unavoidable, everyday reality. How many of us can ever just check one email or look online for a mere minute or two? As Tim Wu states so brilliantly in his book, The Attention Merchants, “advertising implants thoughts not by force but by infiltration.”

“Through its variously “scientific” techniques like demand engineering, branding, or targeting, the advertising industry had become an increasingly efficient engine for converting attention into revenue.” — Tim Wu

Frito-Lay’s famous tag line ” I betcha can’t eat just one” aptly applies to our behavior with the internet.

After this realization and associating my deeper malaise with this excess and suddenly addictive behavior, I decided to put a halt to the entire routine. As cool and informative as the internet is, I said to myself “I have to limit my usage”. Just like I had to limit my intake of that perfect food called fruit, I had to refuse the many potentially “good things” that are part of the internet. In short, learning to say NO to some things allows us to say YES to more meaningful things.

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” — William James

These marvelous drawings are by the one and only Walt Stanchfield, a legendary animator and teacher I was fortunate enough to have as a life drawing instructor. Walt would draw anywhere and everywhere, and if he was ever caught without his sketchbook, he’d make do with just a stick for a pen, coffee for ink, and a napkin for paper.

It didn’t take long to realize that the solution was to go back to regular creative and physical activity. Despite losing my art supplies and studio, I found a way to work again. Because in our greatest need, we come up with our greatest effort and resourcefulness. Drawing only on yellow-lined office paper with black sharpies, then painting at night on a newly invested ipad, I got myself (and my imagination) going again. I followed that up by setting up a small 6ft by 6ft space to do calisthenics and isometric exercise, ramping up the old school routine of basic push ups, squats and sit ups. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t be in my home for another three months. I didn’t care. Limitations are always just in the mind. Once we take action again, it gets easier. We are, after all, defined by the routines we choose. If we clear up our mental and emotional space, we can find balance and meaning again. Or, as Marie Kondo notes in her marvelous little book on tidying:

“Human beings can only cherish a limited number of things at a time.” — Marie Kondo, The life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

In the face of emptiness or even adversity we always have a choice. It’s best we turn away from the quicker and easier route. Unrestrained consumption, whether that be media, shopping, or toxic food/drugs that lead to addiction are not our only options. Instead, we can turn our attention to two simple things that are a guaranteed cure for emptiness: physical and creative activity. We might even have a bit of fun while we’re at it.

Shot Analysis: A Jungle Book Sequence Part 5

We continue our analysis of scenes 13 to 16 in the fifth and final installment of our look at Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Scene 13, 14 & 15: A Lesson in Simplicity

At first glace these shots seem rather ordinary but I think that’s the entire point; they are meant to be easily understood. Baloo is making a rather basic request of Mowgli and is talking to him in as simple a manner as possible. There is quite a bit of twinned posing and action here but it’s beautifully disguised when possible. Notice how Baloo’s overacted “scare me” pose is almost childish, but that’s very likely the feeling Frank wanted. Often times as animators we get caught up trying to be original or even wanting to show off our creativity or skill, but at the end of the day, the performance to be delivered must be one of appropriateness — true to the moment and to the characters.

In the following scene, I like the choices Frank makes here with Mowgli. First, his eyes open and connect with Baloo, then he grinds out an intense emotional effort with weak bodily power and meek vocals:

In this next shot, simplicity is at play again. Held moments are crucial here; it lets you absorb the moment that Baloo has just experienced and relays his feelings about it. Notice how apathetic his expressions are. He barely budges upon hearing Mowgli’s modest squeek. In exact and uncomplicated order, he blinks, shakes his head, moves up, and then, in an almost frozen state of disbelief, let’s out the words that confirm everything that he feels about the display just witnessed. No overacting here.

After that held moment, which helps set up the contrast, he bolts directly into action. Notice there’s no pre-anticipation necessary since he’s already in a high position. From a straight and stable position, he bounces immediately into dynamic and emotional form as we return to asymmetry before match-cutting into the wide shot:

Scene 16: A lesson in Posing with Attitude

When it comes to posing, we often think of amazing draftsmen like Bill Tytla or Glen Keane — powerhouse animators that create domineering characters — but sometimes great attitudes can come from posing that just fits the character and isn’t overdone. Here, we see Frank Thomas display some actively interesting poses of Baloo that still match his profile. Remember he’s a chill, lovable guy, whose gonna temporarily go into “real bear” mode for the sake of “demonstration.” He sounds scary and the growl is very real, but the poses that lead up to the final expression are anything but dynamic or frightening — they simply fit.

In conclusion of this lengthy five part analysis, the big point I want to make here is this: don’t be so quick to pretend to know or judge a shot or any piece of art. Take the time to see what’s going on, both on the surface and between the frames. Only in this way, do we get the chance to get inside the mind of the creator. Masterworks such as these from Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston are gold and studying them, or the works of any master, gives us a glimmer of hope that maybe some of that shine will make its way onto our own work.

Shot Analysis: A Jungle Book Sequence Part 4

We continue our Jungle Book analysis of Baloo’s meeting with Mowlgi. To see the previous scene breakdowns, go to Parts 1, 2 and 3.

Scene 10: A lesson in Rhythm and Weight Transfer

I love this scene by Frank Thomas. It’s got everything that makes animation so unique and appealing. Frank begins the shot with a wonderful moment of anticipation; Baloo’s body is curved and bent over as he build’s himself up before the action. Despite the twinned action, it feels natural and appropriate as his body does as much of the talking as his words do:

As he pops into action, you can feel both the weight and energy transfer elegantly from one hip to the other as the head weaves and guides the action, all in perfect application of the lead and follow principle. Watch the flow of change in the overall shapes as we view this in slow-motion:

I especially love the play with the hands where Baloo circulates them in tight loops, winding himself up and building energy as he hops up and down boxer-like before opening up and outwards into broader action. Notice the extension of the arm in between the circular movements and that wide opening gesture which lends great texture and variety to the overall scene, as can be seen here as we focus specifically on his paws:

scene 11: A lesson in story-telling poses

This section with Mowgli is perhaps the most entertaining bit of this sequence because it’s got so much character. And it’s told primarily with a fantastic selection poses — poses that tell you everything about the state of the man-cub. Enthusiastic and not to be outdone, he’s jumping up and down like popcorn in a kettle, all the while holding on to that serious face and displaying overdone athleticism. It’s so perfectly like a little boy wanting to be a man (or a big bear in this case) before he’s ready. The poses are playful, dynamic and show great compression and expansion (hint: look carefully at the relationships between the solids and flexibles in the body) — all the while maintaining a consistent character attitude as evidenced by the hunched shoulders and determined expression:

Scene 12: A lesson in Framing and Choreography

In this scene, we pull back out to a long shot to get a full sense of the relative position of the two characters. The size differential is important here, as you can see Mowgli “framed” under the arm of Baloo.

As the big bear circles around, you get a great sense of grounding the scene to its environment. The characters shift back and forth, side to side and across the frame. Watch how Baloo dictates the direction of movement as he pushes into the boy before circling around him. This gives dimension to the shot as Mowgli is forced to back up and adjust his footing away from the bear and the two end up overlapping each other in 2D space. At the end you’ll notice that the characters have switched sides in the frame, setting things up perfectly for the shot to come.

Stay tuned for Part 5, as we conclude our analysis of this excellent animated sequence by Frank and Ollie.

Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shot Analysis: Jungle Book Sequence Part 3

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

Scene 6: A lesson in phrasing of action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice the wonderful display of control and weight transfer here:

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

Stay tuned for Part 4 of our analysis.