Quick Word: Get out and live!

That’s right! Don’t bottle yourself up inside your office or studio and expect to stay fresh! The brain needs air to breathe, and space for illumination. Artists needs to engage with the world around them.

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A gorgeous plein air painting by  XiangYuan Jie, a master painter in the field of fine art and animation. To view more of Jie’s work visit here.

I’ve seen concept artists spend endless hours on Google images searching for reference of trees and leaves, while not considering for a second to look at, smell or touch the real thing outside the studio’s walls. I’ve witnessed animators, doggedly trying to figure out how the hips should look and feel in a dance move, while never getting up from his desk. It’s truly remarkable how disconnected we’ve become with ourselves and with the world around us!

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This beautiful painting of NYC’s Village district is by the amazing Dice Tsutsumi, Co-founder of Tonko House. To see more of Dice’s work, visit here.

When I went to animation school in Toronto, my old classmate Yeon-Tae and I would regularly take outdoor field trips. Sure, we did our share of after-class life drawing sessions (for countless hours three to four times a week), but we always made the effort to experience drawing in the flesh, out in the fresh air, amongst living people and things that shake, glimmer and decay.

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Draw on anything, anytime, anywhere. This series of charcoal sketches of my neighbor were made outdoors on an inexpensive 5×7″ newsprint notepad. For more of the artist’s work, visit this link.

Almost every weekend, we spent nearly half the day going to cafe’s and bars to sketch or to the zoo (which was more than a 90 minute drive away) to study animals. We did it at first so we could get better, build a portfolio and to get an edge. But soon, we got to doing it, because it was so enjoyable and rewarding. We stretched not only our creative minds, but our legs and lungs. We did it, rain or shine, hell or high water. (Try drawing outside when it’s a cold minus -20 Celsius with wind chill! I’ve spent many hours drawing with nearly frozen fingers).

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A pre-Tonko House Dice Tsutsumi, unknowingly caught on camera by a NY Times photographer in 1996. Dice is always outdoors capturing the real world for as long as I’ve known him.

All the drawing and practice did improve our skills. It also helped our careers – as we were both selected by Walt Disney Feature as part of their Animation Boot Camp training program (where we were joined by many other young talents, including Dice Tsutsumi, featured above). But the greatest part of all of it,  was the companionship. What a stupendous way to spend your time!  Good friends, bonding in time and space, expending energy and effort to grow creatively, celebrating art, sharing insight, and most of all, laughter. (Yeon-Tae was very good at stopping us periodically to check out a cool comic/Gundam store or sometimes just to grab ourselves a drink!) These are moments I never forget.

So stop with the “plans” to go sketching and just do it. The digital world is amazing, but the real one is even better.

I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living. Robert Henri

 

Balance

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The Zen symbol for wholeness, emptiness and balance.

In the words of spiritual sage and author, Thomas Merton:

“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”

These words ring so true don’t they? Balance is the ever elusive goal for many of us. Without balance, things look disjointed, off-kilter, and disharmonious. It’s tough to do or sustain in life, and even trickier to achieve in art, that is, without making things completely symmetrical.

Shape_variationsA comparison of shape geometry, placement and rhythm. Which is more interesting to you?

Balance can be easily achieved with symmetry or evenness, but that is neither effective or desirable in the arts. In animation, we refer to it as twinning but in entertainment circles, we call it boring. Therefore, the creative individual is constantly challenged to find balance in their work without uniformity, which is, unfortunately, inherent in our age of digital technology. It’s the default setting – whether we’re talking about poses, timing, negative shapes, depth or lighting.

MalcolmT_Pose

Most rigs, like this free one from Anim School, usually come in the form of a default T-Pose. Everything you get for free is even-steven.

But there are general artistic guidelines to help achieve this elusive goal. If the work is good, evenness is avoided, while balance is achieved —allowing for contrast, texture, and ultimately, greater interest — like in this example by Milt Kahl:

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Milt Kahl’s beautiful staging, from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, demonstrates great depth (using overlap and foreshortening), asymmetrical balance, point of focus and absolute clarity.

 Almost all films are structured in three acts, rather than an even four.  Syd Field’s three act paradigm chart, is pretty much the standard for not just Hollywood but almost the entire film-making world.

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Syd Field’s Three Act Paradigm chart

 

Great balance is needed not just in cinematic design but in every aspect of all artistic compositions, both visually and rhythmically. Whether you’re breaking down a piece of dialogue/story/layout, components must have ebb and flows between them, changes and surprises that make it interesting. It’s why divisions on thirds, or fifths work so well in screen composition:

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David Lean’s epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, abides perfectly to the concept of dividing the screen into thirds, while giving the image balance, movement and beauty.

In both music and dialogue, there are ebbs and flows throughout. Good audio design gives a scene texture to work with.

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Simple Dialogue breakdown to determine the flow and rhythm of the audio, hi-lighting syllables and rising tone of the recording.

If elements of your work/composition are too evenly spread out, the audience doesn’t know what to do. It doesn’t know where to look, what to focus on. Arrangement of shapes, must be orderly, balanced yet interestingly uneven.

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Stanley Kubrick’s use of fifths in his landmark film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Notice how each division supports the whole.

 You also find balance achieved in good character design, where big shapes are complemented by smaller ones, and they are harmoniously integrated within the whole as often seen on character model sheets such as this:

Aladdin
The simple yet balanced shapes of the characters from Walt Disney’s Aladdin demonstrate weight and elegance.

 

In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, there are wonderful compositions throughout the film. Although he’s famous for his dominant use of one point perspective and framing on fifths, he also did very intriguing things with perspective, sets and character placement, while still achieving balance:

ca. 1964 --- General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and his mistress Miss Foreign Affairs (Tracy Reed) are interrupted by a phone call in the 1964 film . --- Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

 Does this optical illusion, created by the rabbit-ear telescoping of phone cables created by the mirror and placement of the George C. Scott’s character, imply in some way how much this woman owns him? The boxer shorts, pin up pose and high heels, are a further give away of the clear message sent by the director. From Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy, Dr. Stranglove.

What’s your main theme? who’s your central character? Change and contrast create interest. Variation gives the work texture and uniqueness. Allowing one area to dominate will give it focus.

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Note the dominance of the screen right eye (elegantly placed right at the apex of the golden rectangle) in this gorgeous portrait by John Singer Sargeant.

So, be careful of balance. It must be there, but know that it’s unevenness, change and contrast that help create texture and interest. Only then, do you have a chance of holding on to an audience’s attention.

Special Guest Interview: Geoff Hemphill

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Veteran animator, Geoff Hemphill. (Photo by Derrick Hammond)

As our first interview on the Animated Spirit Blog, I’ve asked an old and dear friend of mine, animator Geoff Hemphill – a talented veteran whose experience spans many different arenas of this industry and one of the most sincere and hard-working individuals out there.

Geoff’s CV includes a long list of hit projects; from live action films such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Star Trek, Narnia: Prince Caspian, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, to feature animation productions like Free Birds, Rango, and Robots as well popular games like Star Wars: Bounty Hunter and Jedi Starfighter, and most recently, the next generation multi-player shooter, Evolve.

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Behemoth character, from Evolve, developed by Turtle rock Studios. Animation by Geoff Hemphill.

Today, we’re asking him to share a bit about his background, his life as an artist, and what he’s up to today:

Welcome Geoff. Thanks for agreeing to be our first guest.

“I’m honored! Thanks for having me.”

Geoff, tell us briefly about yourself, like where you’re from and all that stuff before animation?

“I grew up in Louisiana and then the Portland, Oregon area. After high school I started getting interested in animation and eventually graduated from Sheridan College’s Classical Animation program, in Canada.”

Transformers

 Scene from Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Animated by Geoff Hemphill.

You’ve now been an industry veteran for a long time. Tell us, what was the main trigger that got you started in this field?

“It was a practical decision. I needed to figure out something I can do for a living. As a kid, I had typical influences like Super Mario Bros, Doom, JRR Tolkien, and Star Wars. I started paying attention to the people behind this stuff. I liked ILM’s model shop, Milt Kahl and Glen Keane. I was also influenced by my college professors.”

What drives you now to continue to do this?

“My interests are pretty diverse, so there isn’t one thing in particular but my latest drive comes from my family. I love watching my son react to a character or game I helped make. I get to see him experience it for the first time, and it reminds me of when I was a kid exploring dungeons in Ultima Underworld, or watching The Dark Crystal in the theater.”

One of the funnest shots from ILM’s Oscar-winning animated feature film, Rango. Animated by Geoff Hemphill

Geoff seen here doing the research necessary to create a memorable performance. 

You’ve worked on an impressive number VFX projects, feature animated films and video games, working in many different studios and living in different cities. But you also made a short 2D film. What drove you back to such a classic medium given the industry is now so completely absorbed in digital technology?

“My graduation from Sheridan’s Classical Animation program coincided with the death of 2-D feature animation as a viable day job. I wanted to keep my own modest version of that torch lit. I got an idea of this weird little story while on a road trip. I chose 2-D because the medium is appealing, and because it’s something I can do all on my own. I chipped away at it on nights and weekends.

Drifter, a classically animated short film by Geoff Hemphill.

There were long stretches of crunch at my day job where I didn’t have time to work on it. It took longer than I’d hoped, but I finished it. I felt like Steve McQueen at the end of Papillon, “Hey you bastards! I’m still here!” It seems traditional, but I actually completely re-did it digitally, though it’s still classical animation. I realized I couldn’t get smooth in-betweens at the scale I was drawing on a light table, so I switched over to using a Wacom Cintiq. The experience was like building a life-sized sand castle with tweezers.”

Now you’re onto another new adventure at Oculus VR, a Virtual Reality company that is making headlines around the world. What brought you there, and why?

“There have been some pretty cool things happening in game development that made me want to get back into it. Virtual Reality (VR) is one of them. Some friends I worked with at ILM joined Oculus and recommended me. It was a tough decision because at the time I was at a game dev’ job I enjoyed and my family and I were happy in California. We decided to take the chance and I’m grateful to my wife for her willingness to make the move. She’s been very supportive.

What I like about game development is; you give the player some tools and environments, and they get to be the center of their own story. VR takes it a step further. I’m hoping this feeling of “being there” can help players empathize with each other. When that happens in games it’s a pretty great experience. It brings along a bunch of new challenges for VR dev’s, which is more fun for us because we love tough problems.

I’m also interested in the non-gaming aspects of VR. In ‘06, my brother and I visited the Angkor Wat complex. Unfortunately for people like my grandmother, long distance travel isn’t possible. I’d love for us to be able to put on the Rift and tour Angkor Wat as a family.”

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Trying on ‘Rift’, Oculus’ popular VR headset, during a visit to Oculus VR in Seattle, Washington.

What is the best part of your day there as an animator?

“The best part of my day is getting to see the next steps in the development pipeline after animation. The programmers take the animation assets and give them a brain. VFX and sound bring them to life. It takes so much planning and hard work to pull it off. Without them, the animation would just be a bunch of disjointed clips.

Related to that, I also enjoy showing my animation to the people I rely on for art assets. The concept artists, modelers, and tech artists have put in a lot of work and want to see some great animation. It’s really fun to hear them react positively to some piece of animation. At that point I know there’s a good chance the player will also like what they see.”

And how do you get through the parts of the job, or any job you’ve had for that matter, that are less interesting?

“I’m lucky in that I have diverse interests and don’t get bored easily. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten interested in tools programming and animation tech. It uses the other side of your brain. Switching from animation to Maya Python on the same day can be almost physically painful to an artist. At first, it feels like downshifting from 5th gear to 1st on a freeway. Once you get used to switching back and forth, solving a problem through code is fun.”

Some lovely naturalistic animation of Templeton, the talking rat, from the film adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, released by Paramount Pictures. Animation by Geoff Hemphill.

A hypothetical – apprenticeships are rare in this day and age, but if you were to choose anyone that you could apprentice under, anyone throughout history, who would it be and why?

“I have my list of ‘The Greats’ but there’s this picture by French Pre-Impressionist, Toulouse Lautrec that just gives me a ‘case of the sighs.’

Toulouse_Lautrec

 A sketch of Henri Ibels by Toulouse-Lautrec that sits at the NY Metropolitan Museum.

But in general, I try not to think too much about idols because it kind of diminishes our appreciation of the mentors we have right now. I’m already lucky to have been mentored by some of the best people in their field. Pretty much every place I worked at had someone who’s work I admired who took time to mentor me. I’m surrounded by these people and I’m constantly leaning over and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a question…’ Outside of work, I’ve got my parents, in-laws, and friends to mentor me in the stuff that really matters!”

That’s very well said Geoff. Thanks again for your time and generosity.  We look forward to seeing more of your work in the future!

To learn more about Geoff and his work, you can visit his Facebook page here.

 

 

Shot Analysis: 101 Dalmations

101DalmationsPoster

There are certain films I watch periodically for knowledge, growth and inspiration. In live action, they include films like The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Akira Kurasawa’s Ran. I never seem to get enough of those films because they are so epically crafted, rich in human emotion, and nearly flawless. I learn something new each time, and find myself in awe of the artistic mastery on display. It’s like experiencing a dream.

“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” – Vincent Van Gogh

Animated films don’t carry nearly that kind of complexity, grandeur or critical acclaim. But I do have a special list of animated films that rank amongst the most magical. One of them is Walt Disney’s 1961 classic, 101 Dalmations. Both the story and animation are a charm. The designs are unique and timeless, and within its 103 minutes of run time lie some of the most original and appealing scenes in animation history. It’s a landmark film amongst Walt Disney’s bounty of animated productions.

But today, we’ll focus specifically on one scene from the movie animated by the magnificent Milt Kahl. It’s a clip that describes Roger and his dog Pongo anxiously awaiting the birth of puppies, like expectant fathers. The scene is short (more than half the shot is a series of small movements and holds) but loaded with personality, contrast and beauty.

Let’s break down some of the key areas of the animation choreography:

RogerPongo_Setup

Set up

The initial setup is simple, clear and nicely balanced. A geometrically perfect triangle tells you exactly where to look. The line along Roger’s legs, back and arm, along with Pongo’s elongated neck, create a continuous line of travel for the viewer’s eyes. There is physical contact in the hands which pat Pongo’s head, as well as social-emotional contact created by the direct eye-to-eye connection.

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Anticipation

In the first bit of significant action (anticipation), you see a strong coil-like build up of the bodies in nearly simultaneous action. The lines of action (depicted in blue) reverse. Compression occurs between the heads and shoulders, while areas like the hands, sweater, hair (red) and Pongo’s ears reveal shapes that contrast from their previous positions, either dragging, or expanding.

RogerPongo_Stretch

Action/Expression

In the action/expression phase, you can see that Kahl has taken advantage of the elasticity of animal anatomy to demonstrate extreme force and expression. The lines of action of the bodies now spring almost straight and upwards towards the screen, while elements of the arms, hands and jaws reflect drag (yellow), giving them weight and interest.

RogerPongo_Hangtime

Hang Time

The most visually impressive and kinetic action occurs in the hang time, where Pongo frantically pedals his paws and Roger’s arms open upwards and outwards. Again, there is beautiful line of action in the main body masses, excellent display of overlapping action and shapes that give the shot depth, and a wonderful, almost floral texture and sense of excitement in the movement.

RogerPongo_Arc

Follow thru

As the characters collide into each other, Kahl achieves another marvelous contrast from the previous phase of action. Here, you can see and feel the force of the bodies compress into each other, as the follow thru of elements like the ears, hair, tail, sleeves and paws give the action real heft and believability. The arcs are beautifully conceived, as each body part flows naturally from one position to the other. It’s most intelligently displayed in the action of Roger’s arms as they envelop his dog in circular motion.

RogerPongo_End

Final Pose

In the final part of the scene, you see that Roger and Pongo, who were originally united by muted concern and only the slightest of contact, are now in full embrace at the end. Their arms and legs intertwine and overlap, their bodies glue together as one, while their attention jointly focuses towards the sudden alarm off screen. The conclusion of the action culminates perfectly.

People often attribute Milt Kahl’s notoriety due to his marvelous skill as a draftsman but when you look at a shot like this, you witness more than just beautiful draftsmanship or even perfect execution of technical elements. You realize that it’s all elegantly preconceived with much deliberation, effort and sincerity that shows how true the animator is to the characters and their situation.

“… it’s not the draftsmanship. It’s the conception.” – Milt Kahl

This sensational clip of animation is less than five seconds long, yet its quality and appeal is timeless. It’s a stark wake up call to all those animators who complain of doing “short shots.” It’s not the size or complexity that matters, it’s what you do with it.

Fear

Indianajones_LeapofFaith

Harrison Ford takes a leap of faith, in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Fear of the unknown is scary, but it can also be a good thing. It’s a natural reaction. It warns you of danger but it can also prompt you into decisive action.

Industrial pioneer, Henry Ford stated:

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”

In art, fear of the unknown is a necessity. It can paralyze you like any other kind of fear can but it can also be the perfect confirmation that you’re onto something curious — something new and exciting. If it ain’t there, you face the most serious dangers an artist can face — sloppiness, stagnancy and banality.

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Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean was a curious cat.

When I animated I was always unsure. Do I know enough about the character? Do I understand the sequence? How will this connect with the shots around me? Can I make this work and do it on budget?  If I wasn’t sure of a detail I’d go find out. Confirm the pitch. Do the research. Shoot the video reference. Act it out. Prepare, plan, and test. I had the same concerns and took similar action as a director. Even after all the preliminary work, that uncertainty would always persist. It’s there to remind you that you’re actually doing something new — an experience you can learn from, something that might matter. When that’s missing you won’t have fear. You also won’t make any big mistakes. Nor will you impress anyone let alone yourself.

The lesson is this: If you haven’t suffered any fear or uncertainty in your work process, then you know you’ve missed the target or worse, you weren’t even aiming for the right one. If you’re near what you think is completion yet you hadn’t faced any real difficulties then you’ve likely not challenged yourself (or your team). You’ve chosen the safe, easy path — the formulaic — the one you’ve chosen many times before or at least one that others have. Now, there are moments where it might be wise to pull out the old tricks, to cash in some hard earned chips over a long career, but be careful — this is how artists get careless or lazy and seasoned pros are especially susceptible.

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Tortoise beats Hare by master director, Tex Avery.

It can be as simple as letting that first part of the sequence slide. You know, the part that no one commented on,  or a semi-standard color key that slipped by with a relatively unconvincing “approval” during dailies. You’ve let it slide, setting aside any issues you saw earlier. But later on, you’ll notice that the other areas, those that displayed obvious problems and you’ve worked hard at, are now far better than those early, easy successes. You’re like the runner who’s coasting at the end of the race because of a  good start or lucky break, and later finds himself shocked to see other runners surpass him at the finish line. We see this movie replayed all the time. Be wary of it in your work process. I look back at my career, and the work I’m most proud of, that is, work that has some hope of surviving the test of time, is work where I battled my ass off. The other stuff? eh.

JobsWozniak

The young visionaries Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, co-founders of Apple computers, 1976.

Throughout one’s career, you’ll notice that some people have formulas or routines that give them comfort, that get them thru it all. They have skill and confidence. They also know they’re not doing anything surprising or special as they repeat what’s been the tried and true. Formulas tend to do that in art. They fail to connect. The truly brave and tireless take on their challenges with zest despite fear or fatigue. They know they might not succeed but feel the calling that is theirs in each task they take on. These are your warriors, your innovators.

“Innovation distinguishes between leader and follower.” — Steve Jobs

So take chances. Embrace the fear and move forward. You’ll thank yourself later.