A Dreamer Walking

Art Babbitt – Animator – Goofy

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on September 1, 2014

Art Babbitt

Goofy happened to be one of my favorite Disney characters growing up. His easy going attitude and way of getting himself in and out of unbelievably dangerous situations always swept me up and entranced me as a kid. You can only imagine my surprise when I learned of Walt Disney’s distaste for the character. Considering him too dumb and unsophisticated Walt would often threaten to get rid of the character all together. And after the mid 1940’s Goofy did pretty much disappear. Sure, he did surface a few times in the 50’s as the middle class worker, George Geef. However, in the 50’s shorts Goofy’s charm seems to be all but gone; his easy hillbilly attitude replaced with a much more somber modern persona.

There is no doubt Goofy’s golden age was the 1930’s and early 40’s. With his endearing laugh and soft spoken speech Pinto Colvig was able to give Goofy a voice. However, the key author to the character of Goofy is animator Art Babbitt. Babbitt is a pioneer in the medium of animation for being one of the first to go into a deep analysis of each one of the characters he was animating. During the 1920’s and early 30’s most characters were created for the main objective of carrying out funny and abstract gags. Artists began to be attracted to Walt’s studio because he was diving into something more sophisticated, character animation; where the humor had just as much to do with the individual character’s personality as it had to do with action.

Art Babbitt quickly became one of Walt’s top animators in the 1930’s. Babbitt would have life drawing classes in his home and hire nude models. It’s safe to say Babbitt didn’t have a hard time filling up his house with young enthusiastic artists ready to learn more about the human anatomy. Soon enough Walt found out about the classes and called Babbitt in his office. Walt knew if it got out a bunch of Mickey Mouse artists were going to an employees home with nude models the press would have a field day. So Walt opened up the sound stage as a place to hold the drawing sessions and offered to pay for the classes. Though in their future Art Babbitt and Walt Disney would become bitter enemies, the two believed in the importance of education and study. From Babbitt’s suggestion Walt hired Don Graham (Check out my post of Walt’s letter to Graham here) to educate his artists so they could elevate the art of animation to levels no one before new were possible.

One of the techniques Babbitt pioneered was the detailed analysis of the character he was to animate. Babbitt analyzed Goofy intellectually. He wrote a whole outline of the character’s personality. A great amount of time was spent in trying to understand how Babbitt’s character’s thought and moved. When talking about Goofy’s posture Art Babbitt had this to say,

His posture is nil. His back arches the wrong way and his little stomach protrudes. His head, stomach and knees lead his body. His neck is quite long and scrawny. His knees sag and his feet are large and flat. He walks on his heels and his toes turn up. His shoulders are narrow and slope rapidly, giving the upper part of his body a thinness and making his arms seem long and heavy, though actually not drawn that way. His hands are very sensitive and expressive and though his gestures are broad, they should still reflect the gentleman. His shoes and feet are not the traditional cartoon dough feet. His arches collapsed long ago and his shoes should have a very definite character.

This is just a sample of a detailed lecture Art Babbitt gave on “The Goof”, as he refereed to him (check out the full lecture here). You can tell he put a huge amount of thought into the little details that would make Goofy act truly unique.

He has music in his heart even though it be the same tune forever

Babbitt’s quote nails the character of Goofy on the head. To an artist like Babbitt “The Goof” was more then just a cartoon character. Animators have often refereed to their animations as children. Animators spend so much time working with a piece of animation. They contemplate every single move their character makes and try to reach deep into their personal life to inform their choices. With this intimacy an artists develops a curtain amount of ownership over their characters. Yet, in the end they need to let them go. They need to stop animating and send them away for the whole world to see. This sense of intimacy is what attracts so many today to the field of animation. And Art Babbitt is one of the people we can thank for seeing this medium as the intimate art form it now is. A character most felt was just a dumb hick, Babbitt considered worthy of study and development. He was able to make The Goof into someone who had a soul, someone who captured the world’s hearts.

Personality Animation

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on June 23, 2014

As early as 1933 Walt Disney was looking into creating a full length animated feature. The story he was most interested in translating to the big screen was Snow White. One of Walt’s first encounters of the story came when he was in Kansas and watched the silent version in the Kansas City Convention Hall in 1917. To be honest the basic outline of Walt’s version of Snow White didn’t change much from this version. What separated his movie was not new plot twists or a heightening of the stakes. The Special ingredient Walt was able to sprinkle through all his movies, from 1937’s Snow White to when he died, was personality animation.

The scene above is a brilliant example of how Walt and his artists harnessed the personalities of their characters to drive the entertainment value of their story. The brilliance of this scene is its simplicity. Considered a throw away scene in most movies (put in only to communicate a narrative point) Walt uses this scene to drive home the dwarf’ personalities and their strong relationship to Snow White. The two narrative points we need to note are Snow White is being left alone and the dwarves are worried about the wicked queen. However, these points are communicated twenty seconds in. Walt makes the sequence memorable by having the essence of this moment be about developing character. Basically we see the same gag happen multiple times. The main entertainment comes from the dwarfs’ reactions after Snow White kisses them. To understand the genius of this scene one needs to understand why the gag doesn’t ever get old. The key is the different way each character reacts.

There were three Legends in the medium of animation assigned to animate the dwarfs. First was Fred Moore who did the animation for Doc, Sneezy, and Dopey. Moore specialized in appeal and you can see a huge amount of polish in the way Doc is animated. Doc communicates mainly through his hands and they are all over the place in this scene. Doc goes through several emotions here. He first shows his concern for Snow White. Staying with his character Doc’s train of thought takes a drastic turn when Snow White kisses him. He finds himself smitten by Snow White and needs to change his attitude once again so he can look like the tough leader of the dwarfs. Humor is sprinkled all the way through his performance and is directly drawn from the specific character of Doc. We find it funny Doc can’t complete a sentence because his mind is occupied by so many things. We also know deep down Doc is a softy even though he tries to act like the tough leader.

Moore has the comedy relief in the scene and he is able to highlight Doc, Sneezy, and Dopey’s personalities through their comedic action. Though the character of Dopey arguably has the most humorous reaction to Snow White’s kiss, he jumps through the window in order to come out and get another kiss from Snow White, I believe animators Frank Thomas and Bill Tytla show the most depth in the performances they pull out of their characters. Disney Legend Frank Thomas was considered a rookie in the realm of animation during the production of Snow White. He had just been promoted from being Fred Moore’s assistant to a full fledged animator and was given the task of bringing Bashful to life in this scene. Though it is a small performance it’s filled with what would become one of Frank Thomas’ signature traits, heart felt emotion. Frank was always looking for the extra little things that would elevate his character’s performances. When Bashful takes off his hat for Snow White he gently steps up to her while he says, “Be awful careful”, as if he is approaching his school sweetheart. And look at the way bashful handles his hat; it is as if he is trying to control all those strong emotions that come with someone who has just fallen in love. Then comes the Kiss and Bashful’s emotions seem to overflow and he lets out an endearing giggle.

After Bashful we get our first look at the tour de force performance of the scene, Grumpy. Walt gave one his best animators at the time, Bill Tytla, the job of animating Grumpy. Tytla was known for his ability to crawl inside his characters’s skin and capture the essence of who they were. Grumpy no doubt is the trickiest character to tackle in this scene because he goes through the greatest range of emotions. From the beginning I believe Walt and his team knew Grumpy would be the most difficult dwarf in Snow White to tackle because he could easily come across as just a mean hearted woman hater. However, because of Tytla’s superior supervision we were able to see the soft side of Grumpy show itself just enough to keep us rooting for him. Though Grumpy acts like he doesn’t care much for Snow White spread through out the film are moments where we see Grumpy’s true affection for this original Disney princess. By showing the little clip of Grumpy preparing his bald head for Snow White’s kiss we can tell he actually is looking forward to his short interaction with her before he goes. Grumpy’s walk away after he gets kissed is considered one of the best pieces of animation out there. He goes from a deep stubbornness to complete infatuation for Snow White within the span of a few seconds. Any aspiring animator should go over this scene frame by frame and see how Tytla communicates the inner emotions of Grumpy through the subtle eye movements and slow translation from the strong walking pose he carries at the beginning of the shot to the lovestruck dazed pose he has right before Snow White blows him a kiss. All the principles of animation Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas highlighted in their book The Illusion of Life are shown in this short clip. Tytla pulls off a stream of gags after Snow White blows Grumpy a kiss and all the gags are magnified by our understanding of the character of Grumpy and how undignified he feels after letting his guard down.

This small scene in Snow White is endearing because of the characters who inhabit it. This is one of the first times the Disney artists realized the simple power that could come from one character touching another. Snow White’s kisses communicated an evolution in the way audiences saw animation. No longer were we seeing cartoons inhabit the screen but rather living breathing characters who all acted uniquely and had engaging personalities. We see depth in the character of Grumpy. He is  a man struggling with his built in prejudices and new found affection for someone who isn’t afraid to show him love. Walt never accepted the idea his artists were making a simple cartoon. Gags that would be forgotten as soon as the audience left the theater weren’t interesting to Walt. He wanted the audience to feel for his characters. In order for us to feel for the character we needed to buy into the ultimate illusion. We needed to believe the characters we were seeing on screen had feelings. They pulled the illusion off because the characters were alive to people like Fred Moore, Frank Thomas, and Bill Tytla. When Walt and his artists argued about a character’s action they were fighting for the integrity of  someone they all saw as real and felt they knew personally.

We keep going back to a movie like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because it holds characters we all have affection for. I find it interesting how many people love classics because of the actors who star in them. I hear comments like, “Any movie with John Wayne in it is a good movie” or, “Jimmy Stewart is always so relatable”. For animation few people know the artists behind characters like Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio, Gus Gus from Cinderella, or Grumpy from Snow White. This makes these animators’ performances feel even more unique and special. You will never see a character who looks and acts just like Grumpy in any other movie then Snow White. The same can be said about the hundreds of other Disney animated characters who have inhabited the silver screen and visited our living rooms since 1937’s Snow White. Because of this ability for the animators to truly disappear into their characters the performances they create are timeless and always worth going back to.

 

An Animation Lesson from a Non-Animator

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 10, 2014

I must say I do not like using long titles. But this title I believe is very much needed to let you know what this post is about. The reality is I am not an animator. I really don’t plan on becoming one. Even though I am one of animations greatest fans I just don’t think I have the talent to bring drawings or models in a computer to life. Animating is truly one of the greatest magic tricks out there. To fool someone into thinking several drawings flashed in-front of you can create the illusion of movement, and at times life, leaves me speechless. I truly have no words for the wonder it creates in me. As the great animator Richard Williams once said, “I picked the most expensive medium that takes the longest time that you [could pick]. And the reward is you can play God. You can do anything you like with it. You have total control of all the elements.”. This is what makes animation so intoxicating. The medium’s only limits are of ones imagination.

The lesson I wanted to give is really only a retelling of a lesson I heard from an artist who actually did animation. I was listening to The iAnimate Podcast – A podcast that interviews animation artists who work in the film industry – and they were interviewing the Dreamworks animator Tal Shwarzman (check out his blog here). He brought up a frustration he had with the animation he is seeing from many of the young animators today. He claimed young animators are becoming really good at moving stuff around but are not putting any personality or uniqueness into their work. He said, “Everything kind of looks the same”, which I would say is the ultimate slight an animator could give to his peers. The problem is I agree with Shwarzman. I have not seen anywhere close to as many animation show reels as Shwarzman but in the animation on TV and in many feature films I see less individuality. With the development of technology animation is able to do more then ever before, yet rarely do you see a scene that rivals the works of great animators of the past, like Bill Tyltla or Milt Kahl.

What is the special ingredient so many animators seem to be missing today? Honestly there is no one answer. But the interviewers from iAnimate brought up the story of Ollie Johnston telling his pupil Glen Keane a piece of Rapunzel animation he showed him looked well processed but didn’t really entertain him. Now you should know Ollie Johnston was an animator from the 1930’s and worked characters such as Pinocchio, Thumper, and Baloo. Glen Keane had been the lead animator for characters such as Ariel and The Beast. However, the interviewers sort of left the story there. I don’t know if they knew about what Ollie Johnston really told Glen Kean. However, I know what he said and believe it is one of the greatest pieces of  advice an animator could be given.

During the production of Tangled Ollie Johnston was in his nineties. He was not in good health and his best friend, Frank Thomas, who had worked with him through out his long forty plus year career at Disney had already passed away. Glen Keane was mentored by Ollie Johnston when he first joined the studio in the late 1970’s. Now in the mid 2000’s he had been developing the movie Rapunzel (which would eventually be changed to Tangled). At this time Ollie was in very frail condition. He could no longer walk and had lost his ability to draw. His old apprentice needed to take him in a wheelchair back to the animation studios. Keane showed some of the things they had been developing to his old mentor. He talked about how excited he was with the benefits of working with computer generated animation. He pointed out the way the computer calculated Rapunzel’s freckles so they would stay on her face no matter where she was moved. He showed Ollie how well the animation worked in three dimensions and showed him how the computer could capture the smallest details in movement and texture. He showed Ollie Johnston several well executed pieces of animation and was excited about seeing his old mentor’s reaction. You can only imagine Keane’s surprise when he looked over and Ollie didn’t seem to be entertained by what he was shown. Maybe it was because Ollie was old and senile. Maybe it was because Ollie wasn’t up with the times. Eventually Keane asked what was wrong. The old animator whispered, “What is she thinking?”

Of course with all the excitement for this new form of animation Glen Keane forgot one of his teacher’s greatest lessons. He was so entranced by what was possible on the outside he forgot to care about what was happening on the inside. The illusion of life is only created in a piece of animation if you believe the character can think and feel. The beauty of the movement or the clarity of the world means nothing if the characters don’t have any inner life. Go back and watch the animation of Thumper repeating the lessons he was given from his farther, Pinocchio trying to explain how he got into Stromboli’s cage to the Blue Fairy, or when Baloo realizes he needs to take Mowgli back to the man village. The movements in those scenes are usually subtle yet speak volumes about the characters. When listening to animators like Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston talk about the characters they animated in the past they don’t describe them as drawings. They describe them as children who took on a life of their own when the animator finished animating them.  As important as squash and stretch, timing, staging, anticipation, overlap action, and the other principles of animation are, what is most important in creating the ultimate illusion of life is the belief your character is alive.

Personality Filmmaking

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on December 9, 2012

There was once a time when film was seen as no more then a medium for interesting magic tricks and simple sight gags. In fact some of the founding fathers of film, such as Thomas Edison, saw little future in the medium. They thought it was going to be a passing fad, an attraction that could not hold but a few minutes of an audience’s attention. This makes me question how many great inventions failed due to lack of vision? In the last century film has progressed from a passing attraction to a fully developed entertainment, an entertainment that has both thrilled and inspired billions. Film’s success has not just been achieved through the revolutionary technical developments- developments such as sound, color, and computer generated visual effects- but also an ability to dive deep into human nature and give us thorough and diverse looks at what makes us who we are.

When film went farther then simple magic tricks and sight gags the audience started to really get interested. Filmmakers like Edwin S. Porter and later D.W. Griffith brought to the medium thrilling stories which began to entrance a much broader audience. Slowly in the mid to later years of the silent era of film we began to see characters who had individual personalities. The personalities we saw in some of these characters were so impacting audiences kept coming back to see them in action. The most revered of these personalities in the silent days was Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. The Tramp was a hopeless romantic with a heart of gold. Chaplin was able to capture his audience’s hearts by being vulnerable with them and making his gags and stories speak to the essence of his character. He was one of the first to perfect personality storytelling; where the audience goes to the film just as much for the characters as the story.

Walt Disney was another one of the visionaries to take a hold of personality filmmaking. While all the other cartoons were making shorts revolving around characters with little personality doing funny and abstract gags through the freedom of animation, Walt was hard at work defining his characters and revolving the humor around their individuality. One of the  prime examples of this was the 1933 short The Three Little Pigs. In the short Walt and his artists were able to show district personalities between the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. While the pigs represented the innocents of America, and through the third pig, our nations determination to work its way out of the great depression, the wolf represented the evils of the depression and its determination to sink the American spirit. Immediately audience members were able to connect with both the good pigs and the bad wolf. The characters personalities allowed the audience to get more involved with the story and made the short one of the most acclaimed of all time.

In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Walt took personality animation several steps forward. He created in each one of the dwarfs an individual makup which not only progressed the story but also gave the audience a deeper connection to the whole. Through just the names of the dwarfs a tremendous amount of personality is suggested. All the characters’ actions and gags were processed through their personality. A character like Dopey had an innocent type of humor which came from his oblivious view on the world while a character like Grumpy made the audience laugh through his negative and stubborn opinions. Walt took the basic outline of the Brother Grimm’s Snow White story and got rid of all the excess material in order to concentrate more on his characters’ personalities. A lot of Disney’s Snow White story revolves around simple things we see in every day life; an average day at work, cleaning the house, washing up for supper, and a festive dance.  These events are made entertaining through Disney’s wonderful ability to entrance us with his characters, individuality. Characters like Dopey and Grumpy are engraved in our imaginations because of how they conducted themselves in these seemingly ordinary situations.

One of the most influential series in this last decade has been the Bourne Trilogy. Literally hundreds of action films began to adapt the Bourne film’s hand-held, tightly cut, film style because of the movie’s success. However, the film’s success did not come from the specific way it was shot. The power of the series came from the filmmaker’s devotion towards the title character, Jason Bourne. Although the movies had tons of high quality action, it was the character behind the action that drew us in. In the first film Jason Bourne learns to see himself as more then just a military project. In the second film Bourne is forced to come face to face with the sins of his past. In the third film Bourne sets out on a journey to understand what made him choose to become who he was. All these stories revolve around Bourne’s search for humanity. The action in the films gets its strength through the audience’s invested interest in Bourne’s personal story. We know the struggle Bourne goes through when he is forced to kill, when he loses those who are close to him, and when his past won’t leave him alone.

The moments I remember in film are when William Wallace yells “Freedom!” at the end of Braveheart, when Jefferson Smith says “I guess this is just another ‘lost cause’ Mr. Paine” in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and when Raymond Babbitt touches his forehead to his brother Charlie in Rain Man. These moments touch my heart because of what they say about their characters. The filmmakers spend the whole movie connecting us to their characters so these moments at the end of the film are able to truly impact us. Stories must be about the character. Don’t make your stories so big you lose their humanity. During it’s production Walt Disney’s first feature film, Snow White, was called by many “Disney’s Folly”. People thought it wasn’t possible to entertain an audience for more then an hour with a cartoon. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs succeeded because Walt did not consider Snow White a “cartoon”. To Walt the characters in his movie were real. They had interests and feelings Walt and his artists spent countless hours trying to understand and defend. Because these characters were real to Walt they became real to us.

Create stories that go beyond the imaginary and become real. The characters in your stories can not be in place just to move the plot along.  They must go beyond cliche’s and speak to the individual. The protagonist, villain, and secondary character, who only is seen for a few minutes in the film, can become unforgettable if you spend enough time figuring out who they are. Give us a reason to come back. No matter if they are made by drawings, in the computer, or through an actor’s performance, you need to create characters with personalities and passions so real they can live in the imaginations of millions.

Suspense 101: Creating Meaning

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 4, 2012

Great suspense does not come through mastering its technique. Of course without good technique you can’t create good suspense. But, as I said in past posts Hitchcock is considered by many, including myself, to be the master of the technique of suspense yet for me his films rarely exceed the level of mediocrity. I have yet to find a non film student who thinks any more then I do about Hitchcock’s movies. His characters are too one dimensional and dry. We never are able to really connect with them. When the audience can’t connect with the characters of a film the film’s suspense loses it’s power.

What matters more then perfecting the technique of suspense is creating a story where the suspense has true meaning. You must establish the characters before you put them in danger. You must give them a voice that is unique and approachable. In a world full of violence where we imitate killing people for kicks and giggles, in games like Call of Duty and Halo, we require more connection then ever before if we are to care about a characters wellbeing. The reason why the most action and suspense is held until the end of a film is because the climax is the time the audience is most involved with the story they are watching. One of the greatest mistakes a filmmaker can make is trying to put too much suspense and action into a movie. Most young filmmakers today feel they will bore their audience if they don’t have a big chase, sex scene, or gun fight every ten minutes. A monster does not need to be around every corner.

What you need to make sure you have is interesting characters and a good story. To create good suspense you need to understand its place in storytelling. Suspense can not carry a film, it is only the icing on top. The combination of great story and just the right amount of icing is what makes film so worth watching.

Suspense is created through uncertainty. As I have said before, the uncertainty in a story does not need to come from a character being in physical danger. The uncertainty in film revolves around the arc of the story. The arc of a story usually has to do with the inner and outer conflict of the main protagonist. For example, the outer conflict might be the young man trying to win over the woman of his dreams. However the inner conflict would be something like the young man fighting to believe in himself enough to pursue the girl. The more invested we are with the inner conflict the more interested we will be in finding out if he will get the girl or not. My problem with Hitchcock is he is usually just concentrated on the outer conflict, which creates a much weaker suspense. The suspense generated from inner conflict is like adding several more strings in order to create a much stronger rope. You are taking a risk when you dive into inner conflict, because you force your audience to get emotionally involved. Like any kind of deep relationship, you have the potential to break one’s heart.

Hitchcock said the reason suspense is so much better then shock, is because suspense lasts and entertains for much longer. The reason I believe emotional suspense is better then just physical suspense is because I believe emotional suspense lasts much longer. When you connect a character with your audience you create a bond that lasts much longer then any movie. You bring the uncertainty the audience member observed in the theater and make them reflect upon it in their own lives. We begin to wonder if we can do the things we saw those characters do on screen. We begin to start our own journey and create our own arc.

Suspense has the power to entertain. It does not have the power to satisfy. In order to satisfy we need to go beyond suspense and into substance. We need to make our stories worth telling and give our audience something to take away and come back to.

Here are links to the rest of my Suspense Series:

1. Suspense 101

2. Suspense 101: The Unexpected

3. Suspense 101: Technique

4. Suspense 101: Creating Meaning

Brave- Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 1, 2012

Pixar’s Brave is the first movie the studio has produced with a main protagonist being a woman and it was going to be Pixar’s first film directed by a woman. The story was actually inspired by the director Brenda Chapman’s relationship with her own daughter. However about eighteen months ago Chapman was taken off the project. In her place came Mark Andrews. Andrews brought to the project a deep understanding and love for Scotland and an ability to make big and decisive changes in story. What I believe was lost when Andrews came on board was the intimate understanding of the bond between a mother and a daughter.

The bond between Merida and her mother Queen Elinor is the key to the whole story.  But what Pixar creates is caricatures of the mother and daughter, rather then well rounded characters. Brave is the fairytale version of Freaky Friday. The only real difference is a change in location and time period. The film does not really try to have us understand why the characters are the way they are. It is as if Andrews thinks the flat stereotype of a self consumed teen and an all knowing mother is enough to impact and inspire his audience. In one scene Elinor talks to her husband and Merida talks to her horse while we cut between the two explaining their positions. The problem is they really don’t say anything we haven’t heard a hundred times before in other films. Merida is doing what she is doing because she wants her freedom. Elinor is doing what she is doing because she loves Merida. We never see how Elinor making Merida be proper and get married is loving. We never see Merida understand the value of freedom. Because the characters are not explored thoroughly as individuals, the eventual bond between the two feels artificial. We see the same themes of Brave in movies like Finding Nemo and How to Train Your Dragon. However the individual exploration of the characters in Finding Nemo and How to Train Your Dragon is what makes those movies worth going back to again and again. In Finding Nemo the father Marlin needs to face his own insecurities in order to let his son Nemo take risks and explore the world. In How to Train Your Dragon young Hiccup needs to dessert his need to live up to his Viking roots before he can find his own voice and really appreciate the leadership and sacrifice of his father.

The change Mark Andrews said he made was with the stuff holding the story back. With Brave we get a very fast paced story which lasts just slightly over ninety minutes. I have heard more then one Pixar director explain their love for director Hayoa Miyazaki and his brilliant ability to celebrate the quite moments in film. Well, there were really no quite moments in Brave. The score was over used. The key development scenes in the movie were accompanied with songs. Although the songs were well written and well performed, they felt like cop outs, easier than making the director and artists take their time and find visual ways to express their points and explore the characters development. With Andrews came action. He said in a recent interview he was the one who really made the evil bear Mor’du a key character in the film. Yet, Mor’du seems to be little more then a device to scare the audience. Whenever the movie seems to be slowing down Andrews throws in some kind of energizer, whether it is a song, an action sequence, or just a sight gag. He seems scared to death to just let the audience come to their own conclusion without any kind of music or piece of drastic action forcing them into it, and thus he does a huge disservice to the story. He has mentioned many times in interviews about how proud he was that Pixar and Disney let him go darker with this movie. However, Andrews idea of “darker” is little sequences designed to raise the audience’s heart-rate. My idea of “darker” would be a story where there is  consequences of feeling real loss. There is not even a scare at the end end of the movie to remind us what the characters needed to go through in order to learn their lessons. At the beginning of the story Merida’s father King Fergus fights a bear and we learn that the bear took one of his legs off. Yet, through out the rest of the movie Fergus with a peg leg can move just as easily as the rest of his men. There is no mention of it hurting, no real body language to tell us he had this devastating thing happen to him, it is more played for comic relief.

The humor in Brave is a bit choppy and many times quite shallow. I was fine with Merida’s triplet brothers adding some humor with their adventures through the castle, giving the maid trouble and always trying to get their hands on any kind of goodies from the bakery. We also see some brilliantly animated sequences and some clever wordplay that will get the audience bursting out laughing more then once. Some of the comic relief we get from King Fergus and the three other tribe leaders, along with their children who are shooting for Merida’s hand, is quite funny. Yet, the humor seems to come at a great cost. Each one of the young men shooting for Merida’s hand are played for comic relief. By doing this, these men are romantically appealing to no one. Rather then create one or two men who actually look interesting and are legitimate suitors for Merida, Pixar takes the easy way out through making all of them seem completely unreasonable. By doing this Pixar belittles the stance Merida makes when she refuses to be betrothed to any of them.  There are no men in this movie that even try to represent serious adulthood. They are all played for comic relief, and after a while it gets old. It seems like Pixar was trying to impress us with the women of the movie through dumbing down the men. Well Pixar, I am not impressed.

Brave has awe inspiring visuals. It is filled with marvelous animation. There are times where Andrews’ fast paced and to the point directing style is completely necessary. The animation and pacing for the sequence where Merida shoots for her own hand at the end of the first act is worthy of appreciation and study. We meet some fun characters and Pixar brings into the story a lot of charm. Yet, in the end Brave seems like a powerful idea that was hollowly realized. Pixar’s “clever” take on the traditional fairytale is to have no prince charming. But what they do is trade out one cliche for another and end up saying nothing new. For children the movie will be a lot of fun and adults can defiantly be entertained by it. This might be quite enough for most people, just not me. Judging from Pixar’s last two movies it seems like the studio that once showed themselves to be out of the box and director driven are sloping down to becoming the typical Hollywood studio– who likes to imagine themselves as much more then they really are.

No Arc?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 14, 2011

Is it okay for the main character in your story to have no arc? An “arc” in storytelling is the change you as the audience member see the characters go through.  Whether it is learning to share, getting a lesson in responsibility, or understanding what it means to truly love, there needs to be some kind of journey or arc in your film that makes the movie experience worth while. The arc does not always need to be oriented toward a good result. An arc could be represented through showing the corruption of innocents in someone. It is sometimes even more thought provoking when you make the arc of a character point to evil. Usually the character that changes the most and goes on the greatest inner journey in any given story is the protagonist. He or she is usually the character the audience gets most attached to. However, not always is it the case that the protagonist of the story changes the most. There have been some great movies where the protagonist has had no real arc.

You do not need to have every character in your story change. Usually you need to have one or two characters that represent a solid foundation. In most stories there usually are characters who are already developed. These characters represent a solid belief in order to change the characters around them. Most villains in the movies don’t go through much development, their job is to test the protagonist of the story. A good example of this is the Joker in Batman Dark Knight. The Joker represents chaos. He has this foundational belief, if pushed enough everyone will drop all morals in order to survive. The Joker tests the protagonist Batman to the limit. Batman is forced to go through a change and understand who he is because of the solid belief the Joker holds.

There is usually a good character with no arc in stories. Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid is a good example. Other examples are Sam from Lord of the Rings, Izhak Stern from Schindler’s List, John Keating from Dead Poets Society, and almost every secondary character in the Disney Animation movies. I am not saying these are character who don’t feel emotion or go through trauma, but they all have foundational beliefs that usually end up changing the protagonist of the story. Usually the characters with no real arc are the characters we enjoy the most. It is comforting to know exactly who a character is from beginning to end without needing to worry about his or her arc. This is one of the reasons so many secondary characters in Disney movies are so endearing. They are confident in who they are and they only have two jobs, guide the protagonist in their journey and entertain the audience. It is always risky for a storyteller to have a quality that the audience likes in a character be taken away from the character in order to create an arc. Many people would say for example they liked Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story franchise more when he was under the delusion of being space ranger then when he actually realized he was a toy. This is one of the reasons why the toys in Toy Story 2 run into another delusional buzz, and why Buzz is changed back into a delusional Buzz in Toy Story 3.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post not all stories have the protagonist change. There are some movies where we see no real arc in the main character. It is alright to have these types of protagonists as long as they are able to create an arc for the characters around them. Two great movies that represent main characters with very little inner arc are Forrest Gump and Wall-E. I find it interesting that these two films both have the main character represented through the title. It might be because the characters are so well liked. Both Forrest Gump and Wall-E are characters audiences through out the world have come to love. Both represent a very innocent point of view on life and both characters connect immediately with the audience. They represent perspectives and hold beliefs that are already developed and can’t help but change the characters around them. Forrest for example brings about a change in almost all the characters he interacts with. His story concentrates on two character changes in particular; One with Forrest’s love interest, Jenny, and and the second with his lieutenant, Dan. Dan is saved from dying in battle by Forrest, the only problem is Dan loses his legs and is angry at Forrest because he wanted to die. Dan is ashamed of how people look at him but eventually finds strength in Forrest’s consistent love for life. Jenny is an emotional train wreck and feels she is unworthy of love, yet Forrest’s love for Jenny is strong and consistent all the way through the film, and at the end his love wins Jenny over and brings her clarity.

Characters should be created to tell a good story. They shouldn’t be created to flesh out your world or because you just find them interesting. They need to drive the arc of your story. You shouldn’t worry about making all the characters change. It is usually good to concentrate on the arc of just a few characters. Better to have the audience really buy into one character arc then be half sold on several. A story like A Christmas Carol is just about one man changing, all the other characters have no arc. Yet, this does not make the other characters the main character Scrooge encounters less enduring. We like the secondary characters, like the ghosts Scrooge runs into, because we can see the change they are making in Scrooge. Wall-E is one of those characters we ended up liking all the more because he had this solid belief in love and life all the way through the movie. I personally liked him because he helped give me joy and change my perspective. All the way through the story Wall-E’s only goal is to find love. Because of his unwavering dedication he finds love at the end and brings joy to all of us.

Action, Reaction, and the Secret Ingredient

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 3, 2011

There are times where storytelling gets way too complex. Sometimes creating a world, making a compelling plot, and developing characters gets way too overwhelming. I am sure there are times with every writer where they ask themselves, “Why did I ever think I could do this”.  When you are in the process of writing a story and find your head is about to explode because your story is getting too complex, my suggestion is to step back and realize the simplicity of what storytelling is all about. All storytelling is about is action and reaction. Something happens to the protagonist of the story and he is forced to make a decision based that event. After he acts out his decision his world produces a reaction which keeps moving the story along. However, there is one more thing the storyteller should have to make his or her story worth watching. See, life is all about action and reaction yet some lives can be extremely boring with just those two things.

The protagonist of your story drops some coffee on his good shirt, so he gets a new shirt. Your main character is feeling claustrophobic inside a small room, so he goes outside. The protagonist is deeply in love with the girl next door, so he asks her out. All these examples are of action and reaction, yet they would be very boring to watch if left alone. Storytelling should never be boring. Storytellers need to throw in a extra ingredient that makes writing worth all the hardship and struggles. The extra ingredient is Conflict. Conflict is the key ingredient to good storytelling. There should be no easy path to take for your main character. Your main protagonist needs to take a journey before he can learn his lesson. A journey is not a journey without conflict. Without conflict you have no entertainment and you give the audience little reason to stay in their seats.

The protagonist of your story drops some coffee on his last good shirt. He needs to be at his internship in ten minutes and he can’t be late. Your main character is feeling claustrophobic so he goes to open the door to get outside only to find out it’s locked. The protagonist is deeply in love with the girl next door but she is already going out with Billy, the childhood bully. All these are examples of throwing in a little conflict to heighten the entertainment of your story.

In storytelling conflict represents the war that you need to fight to earn your freedom, the strait “A” rich kid you need to rise above to win the girl, and the haunting past you need to overcome in order to accomplish your dreams. Through conflict comes the arc of the character and the arc is the reason the audience stays in their seats. You need to give your story actions that have the potential to produce several reactions. We can’t know exactly what the protagonist will do. In the movie Up the main protagonist Carl is conflicted between staying with his house and going to save his friend Russell. When he finally abandons the house to save Russell the audience is even more connected with Carl because they understand how hard the decision was.

The conflict in your story does not need to be huge. It does not need to involve aliens from another planet trying to destroy the earth. It does not need to be about one man taking on an army. No, the conflict just needs to be genuine and needs to help develop your main character. When having trouble with a story think of an action or reaction that will help strengthen the plot and give the audience a deeper understanding of where your characters are at. Sometimes the answer is to simplify the plot. You might find you have some actions and reactions that are not needed. It is important to always have an idea of the overall arc of your characters so when your are deep into the story you have the ability to step back and know the type of conflict that is needed to create an action and reaction that will drive your characters and story forward.

Brad Bird – An Observation – Character Animation

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on September 1, 2011

Brad BirdAll the Pixar films have moments of brilliant animation. However, I am always blown away by the animation I see in Brad Bird’s films. Bird’s films have an appeal and timing that gives the old silent greats, such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, a run for their money. Because of his animation background Brad tries to create scenes for his films he would like to animate himself. The legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl mentored Brad Bird. Bird was also lucky enough to work at Disney when Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas were there. These great animators helped develop Bird’s eye for quality animation. I believe Bird is the best animator out of all the Pixar directors, and because of this most animators love to work for him. Bird pushes his animators to think outside the box and he knows the techniques of animation so well he is able to give his animators the kind of criticism that allows for them to create their best possible work.

Bird’s first project for Pixar was his original story The Incredibles. The Incredibles was a risky story to tell for multiple reasons. The movie required the Pixar artists to dive into an extremely challenging type of animation, human animation. Humans have always been some of the hardest things to animate. We observe how humans move constantly in everyday life so if the animator makes a mistake with animating a human character the audience will know. Yet, Bird felt the Pixar artists were up to the task and he gave them colorful characters to enhance their animation.

The Incredibles is about an over the hill superhero in Mr. Incredible who wants to relive the glory days. There are five Incredibles total and the whole family has superpowers. Bird’s genius was making the superpower for each Incredible directly reflect who the characters were on the inside. Mr. Incredible is the man of the and feels he has the responsibility to provide for the family, so Bird gave him super strength. Mrs. Incredible main purpose is to keep the peace and she feels stretched through trying to satisfy all the members of the family, so she is given the ability to be super flexible. The Incredibles oldest child Violet represents the “unconfident teen” who does not want to be noticed and creates barriers so she won’t get hurt by what someone says or does, so she has the ability to disappear and create force fields. Dash, the Incredibles middle child, is a ball of energy who is set on being the best in whatever he competes in, so what better superpower to represent him then super speed. And finally we have the baby Jack. Jack is a big “?”, he is too young for us to know what he will end up being. His powers reflect who he is by being miscellaneous. He can turn into metal, burst into fire, or transform into a demon, all depending on his mood at the time.

The next film Brad Bird directed and wrote for Pixar happens to be one of my favorite animated films of all time, Ratatouille. The animation in Ratatouille is phenomenal. The whole premise of the movie relied on getting the audience to believe a rat could cook. This was no easy task yet Bird executed the idea perfectly. Here is a great example of Bird’s brilliant direction in the movie:

Understand first the animation is all being driven by the personalities of the characters. This is actually the main reason the scene is so wonderful to watch. We have the human character Linquini who does not have a clue what is going on. You can see it through his facial expressions when Colette is reading off the ingredients and even more so when she leaves frame to set the dish up. We are also given a shot of Remy thinking about the ingredients Colette is reading off. These are very subtle pieces of animation but they are setting up the cooking scene. When the cooking starts Remy takes charge and the music begins. Notice how well the music blends with the animation. Each movement seems to hit curtain beats – Linquini reaching for the first spices, Remy bending Linquini to smell the sauce, Linquini going to get more ingredients. The more involved Linquini and Remy get with cooking the more expressive the music gets. There is a delicate balance between us realizing Remy is the one making Linquini cook and Linquini trying to maintain some kind of control. The humor actually comes from the battle for this balance. All the efforts Linquini makes – saying “thank you” to the cooks, telling them he needs some of their material, and trying to explain himself to Colette – make the scene all the more entertaining. Follow Linquini’s facial expressions while he is controlled by Remy. The animation is all about action and reaction on Linquini’s end. Also, notice how Bird and his animators do not hesitate in getting Linquini physically involved with the things around him. One of the hardest things to do in computer animation is have characters interact with other objects or people. Yet, Linquini is grabbing and moving objects around and he is reaching through a cooks arm to grab some things behind him. Linquini also hits some brilliant extreme poses in the scene. Animation is all about extreme poses and exaggerating movements not possible to do with live action acting. The animators need to make sure Linquini moves like a human, but they also have the responsibility to exaggerate his poses so they are easy for us to read. Linquini reaching for the spices, lifting his leg to start his walk around the kitchen, and reaching his arm out to stop Collete, are all examples of great poses where the animators are pushing their animation to the limit in order to communicate to the highest potential the action and essence of the character.

Brad Bird has never shied away from risky storytelling. He believes in the characters he creates and the animators who bring them to life enough to push the storytelling to the limit. It was no easy task to make a film about rats cooking. Before Bird came onto the project the artists shortened the rats’ tails and made them walk and act far more like humans. The Pixar artists did this because they were afraid an audience would be too appalled with more realistic rats. However Bird believed the idea of rats cooking would only be believable if the rats looked realistic. So he made the artist lengthen the tails, study the anatomy and the rats’ movements so they looked and acted in a more realistic way. Realize Bird did not make them look completely realistic, they do have a much softer design and more colorful look then real rats, but they were changed enough for the audience to buy into the illusion. The result was a movie that on paper looked like it could never work (I mean who in their right mind would like to see a rat in the kitchen, let alone cooking?) yet through brilliant character animation and subtle design changes we not only become okay with Remy the rat cooking, we ended up rooting for him to succeed.

Bird’s films make me realize how phenomenal the medium of animation really is. The characters Bird creates could not possibly be expressed in as complete a way in any other medium. How the animation reflects the character within is what is most important. Bird’s animation sticks out because the animators are on top of their game when working with him. Bird is a very enthusiastic and dedicated man. One of his sayings is, “Film is forever; Pain is temporary”. Bird is not the easiest director to work with. He will ask for a lot. But I believe most of his artists see the results are well worth it. I believe the artists working with Bird know he has conviction in the characters he creates. They are real to him and he will not stop pushing his artists until he sees the heart and souls of his characters come alive on screen.

 

Invisible Ink- Finding the Reflections

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 8, 2011

The book Invisible Ink, by Brian McDonald, calls this section The Use of Clones. “Clones”, as Brain McDonald explains, are “characters in your story that represent what could, should, or might happen to the protagonist if he or she takes a particular path”. In essence clones are characters that represent a truth or a possible truth about your protagonist. I rather use the word reflection then clone. A clone means a genetically identical organism. However, the way McDonald uses the word he does not mean identical as much as he means “similar” or “reflecting of”.  One of the examples McDonald uses in his book is Gollum, in Lord of the Rings, being a clone of the main character Frodo. Gollum is not identical to Frodo but he represents what might happen to him if he chooses a curtain path. In the end, as McDonald points out in his book, we measure the success of Frodo by the failure of Gollum.

I am going to use this section in Brian’s book as a jumping off point, like I usually do with his topics. However, even though Brian is writing mainly for writers, I am writing for both writers and directors of film. Because of this I will try to take his points about clones and apply them to filmmaking in general.

In any given story it is our job as storytellers to make sure everything is there to inhance the point we are trying to make. We need to concentrate on what the foundation or theme of the story is and build everything around the foundation. If something in our story does not contribute to our theme, it has no use being in our story. We do not create characters, environments, or events just to “flesh out our world”. We create for a purpose. As I stated earlier a reflection’s purpose is to express a truth or possible truth about our main character(‘s). Reflections are all around in filmmaking. They might present themselves in other characters, through situations, or even through the world the characters inhabit.

Imagine yourself going through a house of mirrors where you see yourself reflected in all kinds of ways. Some reflections are not realistic, they distort you to make you look stronger, fatter, or smaller then you really are. In film reflections are not replicas of your main character, they are supposed to show a truth about your character through a curtain lens. In the end, this lens can be extremely miss leading or extremely helpful to the change your main character goes through. It all depends on how you choose to use the reflection tool in your storytelling process.

Reflections are sometimes used to help the main character of the story understand something. They are sometimes just used to help the audience understand something.  A simple example would be Luke Skywalker and Darth Vador. Not only does the audience relize what Luke can become through the reflection we see in Vador, so does Luke. It is made clear to Luke he can fall into the darkside just like his father and in the end this revelation guides the path Luke chooses to take. In The Lion King there is a scene towards the end of the film where the main characters Simba looks into a pond and sees his father in his reflection. It is explained that Simba’s father lives inside of him. This helps give Simba confidence to step up and become king.

A movie I believe does a remarkable job expressing reflections is Peter Pan (2003). Most of the reflections in this movie are purely for the audiences sake. Peter Pan is a fairytale and like most good fairytales it does not make any efforts to stick to the realities of this world. Instead we are introduced to an environment that completely reflects who the main character is. Even the villain of the piece we find out is a reflection of Peter Pan. To help establish my point I would like you to watch this scene from the Peter Pan (2003) movie (you can start at 1:30 and only need to go up to 8:00).

Notice how abstract the environment and lighting is. As soon as Hook says, “She was leaving you Pan”, the environment begins to change. There is even a time when Peter is lit by a cold blue light while Hook is lit through a warm red light, even though they are outside in the same environment only feet away from each other. There was no effort by director Paul Hogan to create a realistic scene. Paul wanted to show us what Pan was feeling. The more Hook upsets Pan the more gloomy the environment gets. Neverland is a direct reflection of who Peter Pan is. When the kiss comes everything changes again, the stars are even changing to reflect the emotions he is going through. He shoots out a burst of energy blowing away the pirates and he flies up basking in the moonlight.

Notice through out the scene how eerily similar Hook is to Peter, to the point he begins to fly just like Pan. At the beginning of the scene Hook is a very accurate reflection of who Peter is. This is what McDonald’s main point was in his The Use of Clones section. You often see the villain of a movie reflect a dark side of the main protagonist. The reflection is clear between characters like Batman and the Joker, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and here between Hook and Peter Pan. Hook even says, “You’ll die alone and unloved… just like me“. The point is to express the danger the protagonist faces. We begin to understand the small things which differentiate good from evil. When we see how easy it is to choose the dark side, we begin to appreciate the hero’s choice to rise above.

I could literally talk hours about how reflections are used in film. The point comes back to what I talked about in my previous post, show don’t tell. We as filmmakers must find ways to express the inner battle going on in our characters soul, visually. We do not need to be as blunt as Peter Pan, but we must find a way. There may also be times in your stories where the main characters needs to face a reflection in order further his journey, such as Simba seeing his father in his reflection, Woody, from Toy Story 2, seeing what his future might be through the toy Jesse,  and Edward Norton’s character seeing who he he could be (or is) through Tyler Burdon in the movie Fight Club.  You can even create a change in your character through showing a reflection of the world without him or her in it, as we see in the classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

Reflections are a wonderful tool used throughout filmmaking. You do not necessarily need to have a reflection shown through every character you create. There are times where reflections never go farther then expressing a truth about the protagonist to the audience. The reason why reflections (or clones) are refereed to as Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald, is because they are not supposed to be obvious. They are around to bring us farther into the story, not take us out of it. We must use reflections wisely and with care so they are never too obvious to the audience. However, reflections are everywhere in film. Whether it is through the way a scene is lit, sound is expressed, set is dressed, or camera is handled, our job as filmmakers is to reflect something about the world and characters we are portraying, to our audience and maybe even to the characters in our film.