Smaller, Simpler, Slower

Al Pacino stars in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II. Coppola is one of the few directors in the history of film that has been able to successfully create projects both large in scale and scope. But even for such a great artist such success has been rare. (See my analysis of a shot from the first Godfather movie here.)

“What we need is more a sense of the wonder of life and less of this business of making a picture.” — Robert Henri

As working artists, we are constantly confronted, both externally and internally, with the demand to do things on a grand scale, with  great complexity and accomplish it as quickly as possible. We’re endlessly torn between results and process.

Having been a director, teacher and consultant to many students and professionals in the field of animation over the years, the most common failure I noticed among artists has almost everything to do with the obsession with quick and grand results, rather than say, a lack of natural talent, good fortune or the right environment. With such lofty expectations, it’s nearly impossible to develop the right kind of skills and attitude to properly grow as an artist.

“Reverse” by Jenny Saville. Large scale work (the above piece measures 7 ft x 8 ft) requires the kind of vision and skill few acquire. It’s an ability that’s built upon years of study, contemplation and hard work.

This blog was created in hopes of helping people break free from the mindset of expectations, a thought process driven typically by greed or fear and is often tied to the need for security and social approval. Unfortunately, the mind is a very powerful thing and once habituated to think in such a manner, it is very hard to break free of this sort of self-torture.

“The brain is clever enough to see the vicious circle which it has made for itself. But it seeing that it is unreasonable to worry does not stop worry; rather, you worry the more at being unreasonable.” — Alan Watts

So what is the solution to this daunting dichotomy?

One approach that I’ve been preaching for years is to do things smaller, simpler and slower. If we remember that a work of creation, especially in the field of animation, is much akin to building a skyscraper, we’ll be reminded that there must be at first an idea — a decisive vision — that is then supported by a succession of secondary decisions, both artistic and technical, that ultimately form the entire structure.

My Pyramid of Priorities. The most stable structure, the hierarchy of the pyramid, is an apt reminder of the approach and mindset when creating a significant piece of art. The idea drives the whole project, but it’s built upon the design and stability that lies beneath it. Most of the volume of the pyramid is in the lower two-thirds — where all the planning, skill and hard work lie.

But imagine the shape of our pyramid of priorities flipped upside down, with all the time and energy placed at the very top with the base, the art and mechanics, becoming mere stilts holding up a world of ideas. Then those grand plans and visions in all its complexity and grandeur become too much to handle and, without a sufficient base of skill and preparation to support such goals, we fall and fall hard. Sometimes such grand failure can further inspire us — testing our persistence and passion— but often times it can hinder or even deter us completely from ever trying anything ever again. If we’re a juggler who is barely capable of juggling three balls standing still then adding more balls while balancing ourselves on a tricycle might not be such a wise idea. We must always be careful of biting off more than we can chew, especially at the beginning. We mustn’t let this self-absorbed pattern of thinking be our undoing with goals becoming measuring sticks rather than targets, and actions becoming duties rather than experiences. There’s a reason why the Goldilocks Principle is such a good one to follow most of the time.

“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” — Mother Teresa


We love big things don’t we? We’re all easily impressed by the guy with the biggest muscles, the large mansion or the epic film production. Unfortunately, it’s the absolute worse mindset to have when starting out. My worst and most painful ventures have all been tied to doing something that was far too large for my abilities and experience. Regardless of skill, talent or effort, doing something ridiculously large is a recipe for disaster. In animation this means doing projects or shots that are far too long (for the size of a scene is determined by its length of time). Animators seem to be obsessed with shot length. But I say, quality trumps quantity every time. If we want to do it better, we must do it smaller (at least until we’re ready to go bigger).

Roger and Pongo by Milt Kahl from Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmations. Would you dare to judge this animation by its shot length? People forget this, but the creativity, passion and abilities of an animator can be easily spotted in just a single shot. (See my full, detailed analysis of this shot here.)

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci


The other disastrous mistake beginning animators make is in the area of complexity. Not only are they juggling too many balls in the air, they want to juggle knives and chainsaws too. This art form, or any art for that matter, is hard, terribly hard. Why make things so difficult and messy? The odds of success drop dramatically when the complexity is raised. If, in our work, we’ve added complex themes, multiple characters or fancy camera moves, we better watch ourselves. When possible, always trim down the number elements involved or simplify them, so that there’s only one area that’s more challenging. Besides, great artwork directs the eye and focuses the attention of its audience towards one dominate theme or area. Just because there’s a lot going on doesn’t mean it’s gonna be good. In fact, the contrary holds true; complicated work is often difficult to watch, confusing and often filled with distraction and error.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Watterson’s brilliant strip captures the attitude of many young artists when they begin their first creations.

“The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.” — Molière


The final suggestion is to slow things down. Tame those desires for immediate success. What’s the hurry? We can’t rush our improvements or skill development anyway. Nature takes its time, and straining our brains won’t make any difference. The brain is not a muscle. It works better when relaxed and clairvoyant. Doing art requires preparation, skill and focus and a rushed mindset prevents all of that which is needed for success. Doing things slowly but attentively builds real ability and strength. Patience is a powerful tool. Allow time to help. But what about deadlines? I’m not talking about being unprofessional, but merely suggesting that spending our time focused and undistracted is the fastest route to success. Speed is a mindset and shortcuts are NOT the answer. The fastest people do things slowly (i.e. the long way) because they do it creatively, assuredly and effectively. Doing the right thing is always more important than doing things quickly.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” — Peter F. Drucker

Is this contrary to the sign of our times? Of course it is! But we don’t stand out because of our speed. We make a difference because of who we are and how we do things. We all know that we’re living in THE century where machines will soon replace most of the things that we do, including most manual labor and calculation, blue collar or white collar it won’t matter. The advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence is sure to change the entire socioeconomic make up of our world. This much is certain and inevitable.

As artists, our value is in our ability to bring to light that which has never existed and our individuality will become more and more important. It is our knowledge plus our creative and discerning abilities that will separate us from the merely mechanical. If all we do is do things faster, we’re already obsolete. If we play that game, then our greatest competitor is not our fellow humans but technology. It’s a game we’re sure to lose.

This now famous clip of legendary animator Hiyao Miyazaki attending an Artificial Intelligence video game demonstration shows only the beginning of AI in its application to animation. Although it might be comical (or tragic) to witness Miyazaki berating the creators of this technology, it nonetheless shows that AI is not far from being used to take over much of the less performance-based animation in the near future. The issues of achieving greater weight, appeal and believability isn’t far behind. In fact, the criticisms of it being “not very good” or “not ready” remind me of the scornful echos of classically-trained 2D animators during the advent of 3D technology.

Of course, we might argue that all this may be true but we can’t think that far ahead (although the future is already here) and that our minds just can’t let go of the incessant demand for security and the rules and habits that’s been our indoctrination. There’s no denying that this journey is anything but difficult. But in the end, we can only focus on the moment, tackling one thing at a time with integrity, attention and diligence. Only then do we stand a chance against a rational mind that has become irrational in its self-obsession. We must look at all that’s in front us and decisively take creative action — action that’s smaller and simpler — and to take our time doing it. The only security is knowing that this is the only way of building long-lasting strength in anything.

“It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.” — Alan Watts