Animation Tip: Rubber Bands

WaltStanchfield

The concept of rubber bands in posing (and anatomy) eluded me until I had my first drawing lessons from the late Walt Stanchfield, a renown animator and drawing teacher at Walt Disney Feature Animation. Now, I can’t think of making a drawing (or 3D pose) without instinctively viewing all the parts together as a whole, each one attached, relating, and influencing the other.

stanchfieldbooks

These recently published books, collecting all of Walt’s notes on drawing based on his Disney master classes, should be on every animator’s shelf.

Like so many before and after, I was very fortunate to be in his drawing class (which, at the time required a rumored two year waiting period just to get in!) He was talented, charming and filled with knowledge. Most of all, he was generous and inspiring. His wisdom was plainly clear in both his words and his art. The message he preached was deceptively simple;  draw the “verbs.” He’d say for instance:

“Instead of naming the parts of the body (nouns) tell what those parts are doing (verbs).”

GlenKeane_Tangled

Glen Keane’s gorgeous studies for Rapunzel from Walt Disney’s Tangled. Notice how this great master always drew ‘the action’.

He continues:

“When you stretch or twist, the rubber bands in that area stretch and become taut. We call that “tension.” So when a pose is assumed, it is not chiseled in marble, but is still alive and an effort must be made to continually stretch the rubber bands in order to retain the gesture.”

Devil_BillTytla

Bill Tytla’s rough animation drawings from the Night On Bald Mountain sequence from Walt Disney’s 1940 masterpiece, Fantasia.

Devil_BillTytla_diagram

Great cohesiveness and design is achieved by invisible rubber bands connecting the solid joints, such as the wing tips, hands, elbows and hips. The physical tension adds to the immense drama of the scene.

In 3D animation, we are easily tempted to forget about the push and pull that occurs in the body because we think we’re dealing with a puppet – a virtual one with a multitude of parts and controllers. It’s easy to get lost trying to “manage” all the the various controllers and attributes (such as rotations, translations, and distortions like squash and stretch), never mind the associated graph editor.

Mr.Turtle_Sweetland

 This memorable scene, from Pixar’s Finding Nemo, animated by Doug Sweetland, displays perfect application of rubber bands to unify the poses as well as excellent choreography of movement.

The key is to forgot all the details of the “nouns” as Walt would say, and pose the “verbs.”

He notes:

“All drawings should communicate the feeling of tension to the viewer… not appear to be frozen in space, but seem as it if were alive and capable of moving farther or releasing the tension and easing off.”

Structure alone isn’t enough. You’ve got to  find a way to make it feel like all those solid parts are relating to each other in time, space and energy.

ChuckJones_CoyoteRoadRunner

Chuck Jones’ drawings of Wile E. Coyote are some of my favorite drawings of all time. He was a master of the rubber band concept — every “thing” belonged with every other “thing.”

You have to, as Walt says:

“… imagine that you are drawing it. With your imaginary pen, within the body but also in the space between the outstretched parts.

He continues:

Your attention should be, not on the lines or details, but on the feeling of movement and tension.”

MarcDavis_Malificent

Here, another master animator, Marc Davis, shows in his drawing of Malificent that great design, line of action and rubber bands all work together to create beautiful compositions.

Pick up Walt Stanchfield’s book (if you haven’t already). It’s a gem on the concept of rubber bands and a whole lot of other things. But most importantly, incorporate this technique into your work to bring strength, force, appeal and cohesiveness to your poses.

Change and Contrast

spiff_strp

In Bill Watterson’s inventive world of Calvin and Hobbes, sudden change and contrast of situations in such states of mind, are the basis for fantasy and brilliant comedy.

“If there is a single key ingredient in good design it would have to do with variety.” — Fritz Henning, Illustrator.

Without variation  (i.e. change/contrast), no idea can be presented, for everything you see or feel is relative to what’s around it, both in time and space.

maxresdefault

This common optical illusion shows what happens to your eyes when variation of tones occur. Here the simple grid pattern of surrounding grey and black lead you to see black dots in the white circles, where there are none. (squint your eyes for objectivity)

Something small is only so next to something bigger, nothing looks fast unless it’s compared to something slower or stationary. The most subtle smile looks vibrant next to a sad face, a mid-tone grey looks very dark next to white, and vice versa.

The basics of variation and change come from life — things either grow or deteriorate (or die!) Everything is transient; the future is soon the present, and the present very quickly becomes the past. In life, that concept can be immeasurably challenging, but in art, it grounds the work.

SylvestorTweety1

monsterTweety

Every cat looks big next to a normal Tweety Bird, not such much next to a potion-induced one. Directed by of Fritz Freleng, these Dr. Jekyll-Mr.Hyde episodes of Sylvester and Tweety are especially memorable due its brilliant use of change and contrast.

Therefore, as artists, you must watch how you present your ideas as things read very differently depending on surrounding shapes, movements, colors and moods. If you change/introduce something, know that the previous expression will take on an entirely different meaning or impression.

DroopyWolf

Contrast is everything here in MGM’s cartoon “I Got Stripes.” Director Tex Avery was a master at generating marvelous energy and humor by creating contrast through design, timing, and characterization.  No two characters could be more different from each other than the Wolf and Droopy.

On a conceptual level, presenting images/ideas to an audience with the background of a preconceived education or exposure can greatly alter any desired effect. History or culture has a huge impress on the perception of ideas, images or objects.

111ww2gsd

German Shepherd dogs, for instance, continue to be associated with imperialist regimes throughout the 20th and 21st centuries in places like Africa and the Middle East. Political correctness aside, memories die hard.

LittlestHobo1963

The Littlest Hobo, a low budget tv show about a gentle yet heroic stray German Sheppard, was very popular in my home country, gracing the family rooms of many Canadian families throughout the 1970’s — 1980’s.

Sometimes, even common primary colors like red and white can have opposite meanings depending on when and where it’s used. In the west, red is associated with blood and danger, where as white is considered pure and virginal. In Asia, the color red is celebratory, displayed abundantly at anniversaries or weddings, while white is used at funerals, or to depict ghosts and demons on stage and in film.

kwaidan

A gorgeous, yet frightening “white” image of the ghost, in Masaki Kobayashi’s beautifully directed 1964 supernatural anthology, Kwaidon. The film represents the director’s nod to Japanese Noh theater, where drama is presented in ominous silence allowing imagery and subtle movement to denote powerful ideas and emotion.

TimblakeNelson

“All my sins have been washed away!” says Delmar after he’s baptized in O’ Brother Where Art Thou, the comedic retelling of Homer’s Odyssey by Joel and Ethan Coen. Here, white symbolizes the purity of heaven and ever-lasting life.

This of course, makes planning and research absolutely necessary. So select your choices carefully, explore and test things out and then show your work. Feedback is paramount to whether things read or not.

SleepingBeauty_Earle

SleepingBeauty_Sillouette1

Elegantly simple and almost geometrically flat shapes play beautifully against the richly decorative organic backgrounds giving the surrounding world depth and richness, while presenting the characters with purity and distinction. This prominent production design, by Eyvind Earle, makes Walt Disney’s Sleepy Beauty one of the most graphically distinct films in animation history.

Things to consider:

shapes (organic vs geometric)

size (big vs small)

Rhythm (even vs irregular)

color (cool vs warms, vibrant vs muted)

weight (heavy vs lite)

timing (fast vs slow)

depth (graphic vs dimensional)

texture (busy vs quiet)

mood (positive vs negative)

The clear domination of one particular direction over the other, will help dictate the impression you wish to give. Evenly placed elements can offset each other and create confusion or boredom (as discussed here). The audience always prefers a distinct idea, and in film/animation, where time progresses, there’s only a limited opportunity to impress. One can ill afford to let the dog wander off the leash so to speak. You’ve got to take it on a fun, varied ride.

Excellent choreography and sharp execution of shapes and timing, make this moment the scene stealer in Pixar’s  Finding Nemo. Animator Doug Sweetland takes you on a marvelous ride, carrying you from one moment of visual joy to another, expressing one distinctive change after another.

Therefore, use change and contrast to set up or deliver the idea. Then present it with absolute clarity,  without excessive complexity or diversion. Your audience will love you for it.

In the words of world-renown painter, Francis Bacon;

Nothing is pleasant that is not spiced with variety.

Talent or Effort?

The great Rembrandt Van Rijn was regarded as a genius early in his career. This “Master of Light,” despite working harder than ever and getting better than ever in old age, was disregarded without much fanfare late in his career. At the end, what the critics say matter little. Only the work does.

In the creative fields, the question of talent is always there. Some view it as a predetermined thing, ordained by heaven. Others prefer to think of it as something that can be acquired, or at least, with enough persistence and sacrifice, earned. Every young artist I’ve ever worked with has had that fear in them, and sometimes I can even see it in their eyes. It’s as if they’re asking me (and themselves at the same time) “do I have what it takes?”

When we think of talent, we all think of the naturally-gifted Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, or more commonly, the musical prodigy, Mozart — whose name is synonymous with the word genius. The movie Amadeus certainly didn’t help break that perception, watching the brilliantly acted performance by Tom Hulce (who also voiced Quasimodo in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame) dancing around playfully in life, as he did on the piano, with ease and bravado.

AmadeusTom Hulce, portraying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus

But in Mozart’s own words, we might have to acknowledge another, perhaps greater truth:

“People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I”.

In fact, Mozart’s hands were deformed by the time he reached the age of twenty-eight due to all the endless hours of practice and writing. Then we find out that the wily painting maestro, Pablo Picasso, had been hiding his sketchbooks and preliminary studies for decades. This slight of hand definitely aided in the perception of his god-like genius and most certainly didn’t stop him from becoming the wealthiest living artist of his time.

Picasso2

Picasso seen here displaying his “spontaneous” genius.

Still not convinced? Well, lets look at who has been called the greatest animator in the world, the marvelous Milt Kahl. In John Canemaker’s wonderful book, the Nine Old Men,  Milt’s counterpart, Frank Thomas revealed how Milt would torment himself in his room during the creative process, where he was often heard muttering to himself, yanking drawings violently off peg bars, and tossing them into the trash, which were also ‘kicked’ for good measure:

“When he blew up and trampled his drawings in the wastebasket, it was real frustration … self-criticism, feeling of being inadequate, pure concentrated torture.”

Milt Kahl at work - filled with intensityMilt Kahl at work on his desk, filled with intensity.

Milt was very proud of his tenacious approach to animation. He often lamented how other animators expected good results without putting in the effort or time to do it right. He states, quite blatantly:

“I think a lot of people are a lot lazier than I am”

Milt Kahl -SwordandTheStoneMilt Kahl’s drawings clearly show an abundance of talent but also serious analysis and hard work. Every single frame of his work was beautifully and painstakingly developed.

Finally,  we come to these words from acclaimed writer, Stephen King:

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful is a lot of hard work.”

stephen-king-books-collectionA small sample of Stephen King’s novels.

I agree — big talent accompanied by tiny effort goes no where.  But a drop of genius attached to a large dose of dedication can lead to amazing results. The most commonly heard lament in the arts is the phrase “what a waste of talent!” Effort, confidence and talent build on top of each other, each one pulling the other higher in a continuous cycle of greater growth.

Animation Tip: Animate with your Ears

BhuddaEar

The giant Ear from China’s 8th century stone statue of the Buddha, the largest stone Buddha in the world.

“Hear with your eyes, see with your ears” – William Shakespeare

Baryshnikov

The legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov, here dancing at the American Ballet Theatre.

As a society we’ve become more and more reliant on sight than almost anything else. But to be a good visual artist, one should use more than his eyes – in fact he should use all his senses to capture things his eyes might never be able to perceive. Sound for instance is incredibly powerful – not only can it overwhelm you with feeling in an unsurpassed manner – it also happens to be the last sense to leave us before our final moments on this planet.

So when I get the chance, I try to immerse myself in environments where the other senses shine, senses like hearing. When paired with visuals, it can be an experience to behold. That particular marriage of sensations is why I love to watch dancers – like in musicals, operas and ballets – whenever possible.  The way their carefully practiced movements work in sync with the music can make your heart soar. You’re reminded of how beautiful movement is, how you can hear it in the footsteps and in the brush of movement in their costumes. It’s like a visual symphony – a concoction that moves the heart while your mind fills in the rest.

MuybridgeCats

Cats move silently – but there is elegance in timing and rhythm in how all animals move. Using your inner sense of sound and feel, you must be able to discern the tempo and force of the movement.

So when you animate, feel the rhythm, search for and feel the beat. If there’s a dialogue track or music, the animation part is easier – the pacing and subtext are provided there for you. Present the visuals in a way that does that sensation justice.

This marvelous scene from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, animated by Art Babbit, demonstrate strength, creativity and beauty in the handling of weight and rhythm.

But what happens when there is no sound?

In live action, they say that “real” acting is between the lines. So in those moments where there’s no music or dialogue, you have to find that sound inside you, that unique resonance within the silence. This is especially true in pantomime, where the visuals speak volumes.

In Mike Newell’s 1997 Donnie Brasco, we see Al Pacino, known for portraying loud and dominant characters, deliver some of his most subtle and poignant acting. In this scene, he silently settles some personal business before accepting his fate. The moment sums up the sense of dignity, devotion and honor that exemplifies his character in the movie.

Lefty, as portrayed by Al Pacino, in Mike Newell’s highly underrated cops & robbers classic, Donnie Brasco.

 

Sometimes if there’s no sound, it helps to supply it yourself. An old colleague of mine could be heard growling and barking, when he was doing one of his amazing creature shots. Even in “acting” shots, I like to hear my character move, speak and express his/her feelings, even if they don’t officially speak a word. So I’ll often provide my own sound effects doing a walk or acting out a speechless emotion.  I think this is why, I’ve never been comfortable listening to music/talk radio while animating a scene (unless it really fit the mood of the shot). I need the quiet so I can feel/hear my character speak to me. According to Richard Williams, Milt Kahl had similar sentiments.

MiltKahl-williams1

MiltKahl_williams3

The replaying of events courtesy of Richard Williams, from his landmark book, The Animator’s Survival Kit.

Williams added:

“Since it came from a genius, this made quite an impression on me. After this, I learned to face the silence and think before swirling my pencil around. My animation improved right away.”

BirdTakeoff

Can you “hear” the movement of this Arctic bird as it takes flight from the waters?

We visual artists look often, but seldom listen. To see better, we must listen. Try to feel the resonance of things. You’ll be forced to be really present. It’ll improve your work, and your appreciation of what’s around you as well.

Shot Analysis: The Godfather

godfatherThe greatest film ever? To many people’s eyes, it is.

Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Godfather, is truly a tour de force. They say great movies should have a minimum of three great scenes and zero flaws – well, if that’s the criteria, The Godfather has surpassed it in spades. Not only is the film untainted by any poor scenes, the number of sensational ones are nearly countless. From the marvelous opening of the film, where we meet Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone, to the final scene of his son Michael’s ascension to the throne as America’s most powerful gangster, The Godfather is nearly peerless film-making.

Let’s take a look at this beautifully subtle and sensational opening of this legendary 1972 classic:

The Godfather, starring Marlan Brando, reveals itself to the audience not with loud, crash-banging action, but rather with rich character portrayal and quiet brooding atmosphere.

Notice that the camera opens, in the dark, under the foreboding tune of Nino Rota’s timeless score, to reveal a pair of sinister pupils set inside the deeply recessed eye sockets of a frightening, skeleton-like face.

SalvatoreCorsitto

The opening shot reveal of the undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera, played by Salvatore Corsitto, in Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

The image hints at great evil, but as we zoom out, we see that those piercing eyes belong to a rather meek and balding, middle-aged man, who’s describing his belief and love for American values, but has now come to seek favor from Marlon Brando’s character, Vito Corleone, the highly respected and powerful mafia boss of New York City. You are surprised, and almost confused by the sudden disharmony. But as the scene plays onwards, it’s clear there’s malice in his heart, as he seeks revenge for a crime committed by some ruthless young men against his daughter.

Godfather_Brando_2

“That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive”  says Vito Corleone, as he denies the undertaker’s request for vengeance in the form of murder.

As it’s revealed that Bonasera’s been reluctant to be indebted to the mafia, the situation (and his anger), force him to reconsider his morals. And at the end, a compromise is made and a futures contract is agreed upon. At first, this seems only a simple episode, with the logical outcome of two characters agreeing to an exchange, a wrong to be righted, and a duty to be carried out by a seemingly reserved and honorable man despite his position in the underworld. However, what’s actually occurred is the telling of a short parable, one that foretells the larger theme of the film: the battle against one’s beliefs when circumstances challenge your principles.

Undertaker_compromise

 “Be my friend, Godfather” says Bonasera, as he undertakes the sworn oath of indebtitude to the Godfather, Vito Corleone.

Although the scene connects structurally to another (when Sonny, Vito’s eldest son and heir, is killed, and the undertaker is finally set to perform his end of the bargain), the scene is really about the foreshadowing of what will happen to the Don’s youngest, and still noble son, Michael Corleone. As the story slowly unfolds, it reveals its inevitable tragic outcome of the failing of the American dream to circumstance.

Godfather_lastscene

Last scene from The Godfather, where Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, officially takes over the throne as the new head of America’s most powerful crime syndicate.

So ask yourself, whether you’re writing the beginnings of your tale or planning the very foundation to your animations, have you put in the thought and work? Do your opening moves, which are the very first things an audience will see or hear, say exactly the right things? Are your words, colors, or designs clear and direct, both in choice and presentation? And ultimately, do those decisions serve the greater purpose of the overall artistic vision?

As Robert Henri most profoundly stated:

“There is no art without contemplation.”

Masterful scenes, like this opening from The Godfather, make a good case for planning and contemplation before taking action. So whether you’re just blocking your animation or painting your first brush strokes, have a vision in mind and make good first steps.

(Note: this won’t be the only time we’ll talk about this marvelous movie!)