Two of the greatest animators of all time, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, peruse through their infamous animation book, The Illusion of Life. Few people ever seemed to enjoy their daily jobs and their careers as much as Frank and Ollie did.
“True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest of creating things new.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery
If the philosophers are right, happiness is a state of mind. You can’t plan for it and you can’t fully bring it back, even in positive memory. It has to be savored during its occurrence, during its moment in the sun. And there’s few joys as momentous and enjoyable as the act of creating something. Getting lost in the making of art is bliss.
The character team of Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas and John Lounsbery created real magic with King Louie, the self-proclaimed king of the jungle. Great art like this only happens when its creators are lost in the magic. From Walt Disney’s Jungle Book.
It’s far too easy to be pulled into the lure of fame or fortune, into that dreaded desire of feeling to be needed and respected – what philosopher Alan Watts calls “unsubstantial promises.” It’s dangerous to be caught up in a world of external rewards.
“The real secret to life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” — Alan Watts
One must move beyond the external circumstances that are beyond one’s control. Happiness, ultimately has to come from within and from the process of doing the work. Nothing’s as secure as that. Nothing’s as comforting.
Marcel Proust, writer of one of the most revered books of our time, In Search for Lost Time, discovered that art may be the single greatest thing that gives meaning to our lives. (Video courtesy of The school of Life)
I remember reading somewhere that the biggest separator from the immensely successful versus the not so successful, is the consistency of putting in the work and time to those parts of the craft or job that are typically the most “boring” — the stuff that nobody wants to do. This is so completely true, both in animation and nearly every other vocation.
It’s what’s often referred to as ‘the grind‘ — that which you have to do, not which you want to do. There aren’t many animators who look forward to spending days and nights re-doing work, cleaning curves, or fixing penetrations. Neither are there many chefs that enjoy meticulously prepping 50lbs of vegetables or athletes that dig riding miles on the stationary bike after the game. But it’s this part of the process — this seemingly endless labor that’s often viewed as both joyless and unproductive — that make a professional a professional. Pros do what needs to be done. It’s the kind of consistency of action that builds knowledge AND fortitude. It’s the ability to bear thru the uncomfortable that sets the top people apart from the rest.
Bruce Lee doing his infamous ‘dragon flag’ sit ups. Lee was only 5′ 8″ and 140 lbs, but could hit like a 200lb heavyweight and throw punches as fast as 2/100th’s of a second (standard film shot at 24fps would fail to capture his movement). He trained harder and more consistently than any martial artist in his time, throwing an average of 4000 punches and 1000 kicks each and every day. Not bad for a guy considered too small, too skinny and the wrong color.
Because this really hard and boring stuff, this thing that seems to bear no immediate fruit, and is so tedious and not so sexy, is what makes the work good, and in turn, makes you good. Making art is never boring because it’s never easy. Work that’s easy and without challenge isn’t worth doing.
It’s true – it IS the hard that makes it great. Tom Hanks and Geena Davis star in A League of Their Own, Penny Marshall’s 1992 film about life in America’s first All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
And sometimes in order to have happiness, one must have unhappiness. People get the wrong idea that the “answer” is constant bliss or, at least, constant positivity. But that’s not sustainable nor ideal. Struggle is required for growth, as much as perseverance, as much as getting sufficient rest.
I’ve always been blown away by the vast amount of work it takes to produce murals and the power that one feels looking at them. This huge mural, by Diego Rivera, depicts the history of his home country and sits at the Palacio Nacional de Mexico. Making significant art requires significant work.
This explains why so many of the most naturally talented individuals at the start, whether from the arts, music or sports, tend to create nothing and become much less than they could’ve. Most talent is unfortunately wasted. Giving up is always easiest thing to do. If you’re too used to early approval and easy success, subsequent set backs become too unbearable. The real challenge is always from within oneself. And, in the words of martial arts legend and Aikido founder, Morihei Ueshiba, we need to be reminded of that:
“Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something.”
External failure forces one to reflect, inspect, inquire and ultimately, start over again. Settling into continued comfort is a dangerous thing. This is the most difficult challenge for the artist. It’s not the external stuff, not even your self-perceived notion that you might not have enough talent. I’ve seen professionals with both limited natural ability and education reach great heights. They made it by overcoming their fears and doubts, and just kept soldiering on. We have to keep challenging ourselves, and as artists, we must keep creating.
Steve Buscemi plays Norther Winslow, a poet who lost both his drive and ability to write because life was just too darn comfortable in the town of Spectre. From Tim Burton’s 2003 magical fairy tale, Big Fish.
Of course, having balance is best. It’s required in our art and in our lives. Formulating a great mixture of trying new things — testing different styles, visiting strange places, and meeting new people — with the well-earned joys of leisure, full play and rest, is what makes an artist’s life spectacular. It’s why the creative and productive artist is disciplined, so as to ensure that balance exits. Although, it’s much easier to say than do, professionals don’t get too high with success or too low with failure. They just show up, and show up regularly.
“Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.” — Woody Allen
In other words, it’s okay not to enjoy the process all the time because you are, after all, human — our strengths and flaws make us who we are and allow us to grow. Sometimes those challenges (and how we respond to them) define us. Artists, like Chuck Close for instance, keep working no matter what.
American artist Chuck Close seen here painting in his wheelchair with paint brush taped to his hands. Despite becoming a quadriplegic as a result of sudden catastrophic spinal artery collapse in 1988, Close fought back to regain partial usage of his limbs and continues to be one of the most productive and successful artists living today.
So what keeps you creating? What stops you? Whatever you choose to do with your time, know that it all matters. You are the aggregate of all your choices. Personally, I don’t know what boring is because I always have the option to create something. And knowing that, makes me happy.
“I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettinesses” — Søren Kierkegaard