A Dreamer Walking

Influences

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on February 16, 2015

Far too often I find the reply most students have to the question, “What makes you want to make movies?” less then interesting. One of the main reasons I find them uninteresting is because everyone seems to have the same answer. There are a handful of movies almost every film student sight as the films that made them want to make movies. I want to think of my experience as more unique, but like it or not the first example I have is from that handful of movies.

My dad taught at a local college and brought my brother and me to the theater one night. I was about seven years old and really had no clue what I was going to see. All my dad said was it was a big movie when he was in school, which honestly turned me off because I had yet to find anything my dad did when he was “in school” interesting.

The theater was probably pretty small, though I had not seen anything like it. All we had at home was a black and white TV screen that could fit in the span of my dad’s hand. After a few minutes of watching my dad mingle with his friends lights suddenly went out. Everyone hushed. Words faded onto the screen, “In a galaxy far far away”. I couldn’t even read them all. And then it happened. Sound poured out from all corners of the theater. In a huge font the title, “STAR WARS”, blasted onto screen. I couldn’t read the words that came after that but I do remember the tiny ship flying away from the biggest ship I had ever seen. What can I say?! I was hooked. There was no turning back. I just wanted to have this experience again and again. I wanted to bathe in the glory of the epicness that was, STAR WARS.

Another theater experience I vividly remember was when my Grandfather took me to see The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, staring Jim Carry. Though now I can point to many flaws the movie had, back then I was too caught up in the spectacle to care. What truly blew my socks off was the very beginning where it was snowing and the camera went into a small snowflake to reveal a whole world of imagination. I was in awe. What other possibilities are there in this medium if it could do that? I wondered.

Other movies, full of spectacle, got me excited about the power of cinema. I remember falling in love with Indiana Jones and going to the original Spiderman movie about 20 times in the theater. But spectacle by itself would never have made me interested in making movies. Even then I needed something more. In movies like Indiana Jones and Star Wars I saw a little of that “something more”. I had an emotional connection with those movies. They didn’t just fill me with wonder they also made me care. When Darth Vader revealed to Luke Skywalker, “I am your Father”, I went through a whole range of emotions which literally took me years to figure out. My favorite Indiana Jones movie is The Last Crusade. The power of the movie did not come through the spectacular adventure Indiana went on as much as the simple relationship he had with his father.

Yet the film maker I found the most emotional connection to was with Disney. Walt Disney, the man, might be my greatest inspiration in cinema. I am well aware of the fact he is seen as more of a symbol than an actual person in the world’s eyes. And, I know many consider his films to not be very deep, and have a generic “happily ever after” stamp on the end. However, I would say few people know Walt Disney like I do. This might be a little presumptuous but I have looked into the man Walt Disney quite intensely for more than a decade now. What really got me interested in him was the book, Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas. Here, I realized the “larger than life” figure I had grown up with was an actual human being with many flaws. The flaws were what really interested me. I, along with the majority of the world, knew about his “greatness”. Understanding Walt had flaws made a crucial connection for me; it taught me you don’t need to be perfect in order to do great things.

I still believe some of Walt’s first movies such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi get to the core of what I consider great storytelling. Each movie’s characters affected me in ways that went beyond just the story I watched on screen. I found myself wondering what their lives were like outside the frames of the camera. Characters like Jiminy Cricket and Thumper were close friends who always brightened my day when I watched them. And, the most amazing part was the fact that these characters were not real. In the most basic sense I believe I knew this even in my childhood. They were just a bunch of drawings when put together created the greatest illusion of all, the illusion of life.

In many of Walt’s first features he was not afraid to show hints at the darker sides of life. He knew that great storytelling required not just happiness but loss as well. I cried when Bambi first lost his mother. I feared for the life of Pinocchio when he ventured out to save his father from the great whale Monstro. And I felt Dumbo’s longing when he visited his mother after she was locked up in a cage. All these movies produced very powerful and specific emotions from me even after the second, third, or twentieth time I watched them. I began to understand that cinema could go so much farther then spectacle and become something that touches the heart.

One more element is key to making cinema something I wanted to participate in for the rest of my life. The element is seen a little in movies like Star Wars and Pinocchio. However, it took a more mature kind of storytelling to really drive the element home for me. And now I get to the movie I consider the greatest of all time, Schindler’s List. I was far too young when I first watched this movie; so young in-fact that I didn’t really know all of what was going on. My parents thought I needed to know about a part or our world’s history that the movie covered, the holocaust. I remember being horrified as I saw hundreds of human beings get thrown out of their houses, treated like cattle, and killed for no reason other than they walked the wrong way on the street.

By itself I do not think the horror of the story would have done much for me. However, through the horror I saw a man, Schindler. At first I really didn’t like him. He wasn’t as mean as most of the Germans but I could tell he was taking advantage of the Jews. He was a married man who was selfish with his money and had sex with many women. But then something happened. I was able to see this man change right in front of me. He didn’t become perfect, but he did begin to care. He helped to save hundreds of Jews. What really moved me was a scene at the end of the movie.

Oscar Schindler needed to leave the Jews because the war was over and he now was considered a fugitive. As he was leaving his factory the Jews he helped protect gave him several small gifts. It was here Schindler broke down. He looked at all the people he helped save and all he could think about were the ones he didn’t. “I could have done more”, were the words that have stuck with me ever since. I couldn’t believe it. Here was this imperfect man who had done so much, yet still he wept for what more he could have done. It was then I realized the true power of movies. They could go beyond spectacle. They could take me beyond emotional relevance. Movies had the power to influence the direction of one’s life.

My life was changed after watching Schindler’s List. I thought if such an imperfect man could do so much and yet feel he could have done more, what could I do? I made it a goal to help those who were less fortunate than me. I wanted to make movies that brought up subjects like Schindler’s List and see if I could harness the power of cinema to influence others like the director of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg, had done for me.

The movies I have shared have most likely influenced many people. However, the older I get the more I realize the most important influence in any kind of artistic ambition must be one’s personal life. My personal story is where true inspiration comes from. My goal is not to copy the imagery I watched in movies like Star Wars, Bambi, and Schindler’s List. Rather what is most important is to try to understand the emotions these movies stirred up in me and where the roots of those emotions originate. The movies I have watched will be just what I have described them as being, Influences. My goal is to use those influences to create movies full of spectacle and emotion, and help change other people’s lives for the better like the great films of the past have done for me.

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.

 

Fred Moore – Animator – Snow White

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 17, 2014

Fred Moore 1You can’t get much more appealing then this. In fact, appeal was Fred Moore’s signature trait. Ollie Johnston, one of his pupils, claimed beautiful stuff flowed out of Moore’s pencil like water. Those working under him claimed, “He couldn’t do a drawing without appeal”. He was a young prodigy responsible for Mickey Mouse’s classic design. He went on to define nearly all the characters we think of as Disney classics from the 30’s and early 40’s. He was responsible for the final look of all seven of the dwarfs in Snow White (1937). Both Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas studied under him during the feature’s production.

As talented as Moore was his actual life story had a bit of a tragic ending. Some claim his decline was due to the fact Moore was untrained and bloomed so young. He was in his mid twenties when he was assigned to be the lead for the Seven Dwarfs in Snow White. Disney hired him at age 19 with no formal training. It is said he submitted drawings drawn on paper grocery bags. At the beginning animation just seemed to come naturally to Moore. Every one of his animations had a charm to them. As you can see in this drawing there is nothing unattractive about it. The arcs are perfect and the situation humorous.

Moore needed to be inspired in order to animate and at times he had difficulty finding inspiration. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas talked about him sitting at his office unable to draw for hours. They needed to prompt him and trying to get him excited about a piece of animation before he would start to animate. However, when he began to animate he wouldn’t stop. He could produce several feet of animation in a single day and each drawing flowed together to create beautiful motion.

With every new film Walt Disney demanded his artists to push the medium of animation. Walt began to lean towards more realism and designs that required a greater deal of draftsmanship. Fred Moore wasn’t able to keep up with the new Disney look. Legendary animator Marc Davis said, “In the early days Fred Moore was Disney Drawing”. However, with movies such as Bambi (1942) and much later films such as Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Jungle Book (1967) Fred did not have the ability to keep up with Disney style. Moore also had problems with alcoholism and it was one of the reasons he was laid off in 1946 with a group of other artists.

Fred Moore going over Ollie Johnston's drawing.

Fred Moore going over his then Pupil Ollie Johnston’s drawing.

Ollie Johnston and a few other animators were able to hire Fred Moore again in 1948 with Walt’s blessing. Moore brought appeal to some animation in the 1950’s, most notably the mermaids in Peter Pan (1953). However, he went from Walt’s top animator to working under his one time pupil, Ollie Johnston. In 1952 Moore was involved in a tragic freak accident when his wife, who was driving, ran into another car while trying to make a U turn. Moore died the next day in the very hospital Walt would pass away in a decade and a half later.

Ollie Johnston kept a pencil of Fred’s taped to his window. In his 1995 documentary Ollie said he kept it there to, “remind me of how great the guy was and how much he meant to me”. He found there was a little lead left in the pencil and Ollie said he was going to save it for something special.

Ub Iwerks – Animator – Steamboat Willie

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 18, 2014

Ub IwerksThis is from one of the very first Mickey mouse cartoons and it comes from the original drawer of Mickey Mouse, Ub Iwerks. Contrary to common belief it was not Walt Disney who originally created the design of Mickey. In fact Walt wasn’t really ever good at drawing Mickey. Frankly he wasn’t a good draftsmen in general. Ub wasn’t the greatest artist either, but he was a magnificent animator for his time. During the making of this movie (1928) a sign of a great animator was not about draftsmanship, squash and stretch, timing, or character development, it was about speed and gags. In animation’s history there might not have been a faster animator then Ub Iwerks. He literally animated the first two Mickey Mouse shorts (Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie) by himself, during his off time. This was unheard of for the time and is considered almost impossible to do today. However, because he created a simple enough design Iwerks was able to work with Walt and their wives on finishing the first Mickey mouse short “Plane Crazy” right after Walt was released from obligations from Universal Pictures for the cartoons of “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”.

“Plane Crazy” was not a success but the next short “Steamboat Willie” completely revolutionized the animation industry. The key ingredient, you ask? SOUND! Walt Disney and his now small creative team dubbed the Mickey short with all kinds of fun sound effects which brought life to both Mickey and the many gags in the short.

This drawing might not seem very special to you. However, I think you can find substance in the simplicity of the design. When you break down animation to simple designs like this, it feels like anyone is capable of doing it. The action is very well placed. We know exactly what is going on; the protagonist and antagonist are clearly understood and gag is clearly staged. This is one of the drawings that started it all and for that I can’t help but admire it.

(Copyright Disney)

Invisable Ink- Is Something There?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 26, 2011

“Why do people tell stories? The stories that tend to stick to our bones are those that teach us something. This, I believe, is the primary reason we tell stories–to teach.”

This is how Brian McDonald started the third chapter of his book Invisible Ink. I don’t think I can open up on this subject much better then the way he did… so I have chosen not to.

Why do we write stories? It seems one big “no no” is to create stories that have a message. I can not tell you how many commentaries and film documentaries I have watched or listened to in which the director and other filmmakers try desperately to avoid saying they are giving us a message through their movie. For some reason they feel if a film is admitted to having a “message” it begins to be more like an after school PBS TV special then an actual piece of entertainment. Why this concept has spread I do not know.

We must not be afraid of embracing the kind of storytelling that will impact our audience in more profound ways then making them say “ooh” and “aw” whenever they see a cool camera move or special effect. Storytelling that lasts is storytelling that impacts. You can not impact someone with your story if you do not have anything to really say. As McDonald says, you need to develop an armature. McDonald explains an armature like this, “For us story-crafters, the armature is the idea upon which we hang our story”.

What is the fundamental idea you are wanting to hit on with your story? What makes the story worth telling? Simply put, what is the storie’s heart? Usually you can explain the heart in a sentence or two. A good example would be Pixar’s The Incredibles. The armature for The Incredibles could easily be, “Family is more important then any possession or title“. At the beginning and through the middle of the film we see Mr. Incredible desperately trying to regain the affections and luxuries of being a Superhero. The heart of the story is about Mr. Incredible realizing his most valuable possession is his family. Everything done in the movie is in support of the overall message of family. We learn from Mr. Incredible’s experiences. Throughout the movie the story teaches us fundamental values in extremely entertaining ways. The values are the things that are going to last long after we leave the movie theater, not the sweet special effects and camera movements (and let me tell you The Incredibles had a lot).

In essence McDonald explains the armature as the theme of our story. One crucial detail to understand is a theme is not a word, it is a sentence. Our theme can not be something like “Anger”. Theme is not a subject like “Baseball” or “Hacking”. The theme is the moral or point of our story. It must be explained. An example would be, “Anger will lead to destruction” or, “Baseball is a game of discipline”.  Everything else in the story we are telling must be built to support our theme. If a character or a scenario is not contributing to our overall theme, there is no reason to have it be in the story.

A good way to study theme is to study Pixar and Disney animated films. Animation usually tries to simplify everything. In animation usually there is a clear antagonist and clear protagonist and the story has a clear and usually simple message. All the extra weight is cut off to create a simple 90 minute film that will entertain all age groups. In no way am I trying to demean the significance of family films. I find the simplest of messages are often the most profound. Finding Nemo, Up, Beauty and the Beast, and Pinocchio, are some of the most influential movies I have ever watched. They are also movies that have a message the rest of the elements of the story are supporting to the highest extant possible. As I started to explain in my last post, the hard part of movie making is not making the story more sophisticated but rather making the movie have meaning that is supported by all the elements of cinema. This is what takes a overwhelming amount of effort, dedication, and time. But I guarantee you it is worth it!

Walt Disney: The Inspiration for Great Animation

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on November 23, 2010

Here is a LINK to a letter that Walt Disney wrote to Don Graham, a art teacher from Chounaird Art Institute. Don was given the daunting task of leading art classes for Disney Animators. Walt was dedicated to perfecting the art of animation. He knew the better artists he had the better films he would produce. This letter shows you some of the things he wanted Don to teach his artists. Walt and his wife would often personally give artists rides to these classes since it was in the middle of the depression and few people had transportation of their own back then.

Many people have a hard time with Walt because they say he was not really a good artist. Walt was not very talented at painting or drawing. He stopped animating entirely in the late 1920’s. Walt did not create any of the beautiful drawings you see in so many of the “art of Disney” books. He didn’t even bring a pencil to his storyboard meetings.

However, this letter makes you realize that Walt knew his art form. Walt basically lays out the foundations of animation in this letter. He was not good at drawing, but he did know the animation medium. Walt knew how to direct his animators. He knew how to inspire them. With Walt you got more then the basic drawing that might inspire a way to animate a character or go about creating a scene. With Walt you had someone who could inspire whole films. His imagination produced literally millions of drawings and tons of classical films. Yes, his artists were the ones who did the drawings and without them the movies couldn’t be made. However, Walt was the person who drove everyone forward. He literally had hundreds of artists who woke up wanting to go to work each day because of his imagination and love for their medium.

Some of the greatest animated movies ever made were inspired by Walt Disney. Walt is a perfect example of not needing to be able to draw or paint in order to be a great artist. I think you will find his letter very insightful and inspiring. It was written in 1935. It is pretty cool when you realize Walt is laying out what became the philosophy behind the great animation you see in Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, and all the other Disney films that have come out since.

Joe Ranft:Part 1: A Man with Many Struggles

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on October 11, 2010

Joe Ranft was a Pixar storyboard artist who struggled at drawing. He didn’t look like anything special. In high School Joe kept his head down and struggled to pass his classes. He was tall, over weight for his age, and quite shy. Through most of his life Joe was swimming against the tide and he never got along with authority. In fact, he was kicked out of his conservative Catholic school because he would do things like throw cat’s on the roof, never stay quite in class, and spit at the nuns who were trying to control him.

I find it amazing Joe ever became an artist at such a prestigious studio like Pixar, let alone known by one of the studios founders, John Lasseter, as being “the heart and soul of Pixar“. Most of his colegues claim Joe represented the foundations of what the studio stands for. Joe was more then a story board artist to the Pixar family; he was considered a mentor, a guide, and a prime example of what the studio embraced when it came to art and story. Before I go into the success Joe had as an artist – and more importantly as a friend and mentor – I want to look at some of the struggles in Joe’s life and what I have learned from those struggles.

After getting thrown out of his conservative Catholic school Joe struggled in public school. Today Joe may have been diagnosed with ADD (attention deficit disorder). However back when Joe was a kid they did not have categories for kids like Joe other to say they were “trouble makers” and should be “disciplined”. In sixth grade Joe entered a piece of art in a calendar contest and won. After this Joe made up his mind he wanted to become an artist. Joe applied to CalArt’s and got into their animation program.

CalArt’s was a school devoted to all aspects of art. The collage was founded by Walt Disney and many old Disney artist came out of retirement to help teach the students in the techniques of painting, drawing, story boarding, and animating. Joe Ranft became close friends with many of his professors. One particular professor, T. Hee, was of great influence to Joe..T. Hee was an old Disney story man and director. He taught caricature and storyboarding. T. Hee always pushed Joe to do things in his own unique way. When ever Joe was trying to copy another student’s art T. Hee would stop him and tell this insecure student he was interested in what Joe had to say as an individual. T. Hee was one of the first to give Joe a voice as an artist.

Unfortunately, when Joe went to Disney it seemed the studio tried to do everything in their power to muffle Joe’s voice. Joe was considered a very talented storyboard artist when he came out of CalArts, however he was put onto very mediocre projects. The CalArts students wanted to create new and unique films at Disney, the management however wanted to play it safe. This meant more of the same. After being completely denied when showing management several months of work he had done for The Great Mouse Detective and being put on the sequel to The Rescuers (a movie Joe felt was geared toward money rather then the people) Joe began to feel burnt out. He ended up leaving Disney to find a more potent means of expressing himself.

Joe had a dark side he expressed most vividly as an adult in his art work. Many of Joe’s personal pieces of art are filled with characters and descriptions I personally find unpleasant and belittling. He produced drawings of scary monsters and people with forks and knifes stuck in their heads (or sometimes through their heads). Joe used rusty red blood looking colors and smeared them on all of the character’s faces and clothes to make them look even more gruesome. He made drawings of figures with their heads cut off, distorted faces showing just as much skull as flesh, and drawings of monsters eating little innocent kids. Although with many of these drawings people could see humor I feel they revealed a great amount of insecurity in Joe and a sadness in his life he had a hard time expressing even to his closest friends.

I wasn’t surprised when I found out Joe was said to have suffered from depression through most of his life. His depression might even have thickened due to his dedication to his art form. When Joe came back to animation and began working for Pixar, he wanted to be the best leader he could possibly be for those to whom were under him. However, this meant many long hours at work. He was unwilling to leave his colleagues behind; he was the first to show up in the morning and last to leave. When Joe was head of story for Toy Story and A Bugs Life he got very little sleep and his family hardly saw him.

Thankfully Joe eventually received treatment for his depression and began to take time off to spend with his family. He stepped down from the head of story role for a while and became a mentor to his fellow artists (something I will be talking about in my next few blogs).

While on a spiritual retreat, Joe got in a freak car accident and died. He was only 45. The death was no doubt devastating to both his immediate family and his Pixar family. The good news is Joe’s struggles had a silver lining. His struggles did not consume him. Rather, he pushed through and was overcoming them all the way up to his death.

The reason why I concentrate on Joe’s struggles in this blog is because it is something we all go through as artist and as human beings. Joe somehow managed to push through the hardships and experience life. He did not only experience life, he also gave it. Joe was a man with many struggles, but he did not struggle in vain. He was able to use those struggles to create in himself an artist and a mentor who will never be forgotten in the medium of animation.

(To Be Continued…)

The Disney Problem!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on September 11, 2010

There has been a lot of controversy around Disney animation lately. The next Disney Animation movie Tangled seems to be looking shallower and shallower every day. The reason is “safety”. The executives at Disney, have changed the title of the upcoming animation movie from, “Rapunzel Unbraided” to the much safer “Tangled”. Also, after watching the last few trailers for Tangled, it seems that Glen’s Kean’s (The original Director who recently needed to stepped down) original vision of a artistically unique film has turn into a more dazed “Traditional Disney” style of a film, where the color schemes and character designs are similar to many animated movies we have seen in the past, such as Dreamworks Sinbad and Disney’s Treasure Planet and Bolt. Also the only advertising I have seen for the movie seems to be built entirely on gags, where the characters do not seem to have any depth and the “entertainment” comes from characters getting beat up or from pop references that will be forgotten in five to ten years.

The problem is Disney is playing it SAFE. There are still many good artists at Disney, however the artists are not the ones calling the shots the executives are the ones calling the shots and they are all business majors with hardly any artistic background. Money is the top concern for the decision makers at Disney. To be guaranteed good money you need to have a reliable formula, the only problem is there is no formula to good film making. So instead of good films we get mediocre films, where metaphorically, some of the top chiefs in the world are reduced to cooking hot dogs. The artists at Disney are capable of so much more then what they are doing now.

A similar kind of thing happened in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. There was a whole slew of talented artist that had just began to graduate from the school CalArts. CalArts was founded by Walt Disney (the actual man) and taught by mostly old Disney artist who worked during the Golden Age of animation in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Students who are now looked up to as masters at animation such as John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, and Brad Bird, were taught in CalArts to keep on pushing the limits of animation, to always strive to be unique and look at storytelling in different ways, so they could push the animation medium forward. These CalArts students had some big visions and wanted to apply their visions to the Disney Studio.

The Disney studio did not want to push the medium of animation forward in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The graduates from CalArts were extremely disappointed. Brad Bird, Tim Burton, Joe Ranft left the Disney Studio. John Lasseter was fired because he had too high of ambitions.

The Disney heads denied people like John Lasseter and Brad Bird, because John’s and Brad’s ideas were not “traditional Disney”. The heads of Disney wanted to have a reliable formula they wanted their workers to create reliable movies like the ones done in the late 1930’s through the mid 1960’s. However, the reason why the movies from the 1930’s through the 1960’s, were successful, was because the artist were always striving to do something new. It was the people who taught John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Tim Burton and Brad Bird, that created the masterpieces in the 1940’s, such as Pinocchio and Bambi. The way the artists created those masterpieces was through NOT following a formula but instead taking risks and driving the technique of storytelling forward.

How ironic it is that the executive heads of Disney are using “traditional Disney” as a excuse to stay the same. Walt Disney was one of the first people to try new things and push his medium forward. The Disney problem is that those in charge, are no longer interested in traditional Disney. The heads of Disney need to play it SAFE and by doing that they are slowly dying away. Their movies don’t last as long anymore, there has not been a huge hit at Disney animations sense the Lion King and the great artists at Disney are given less and less freedom. Creativity requires risk. A risk seems to be exactly what Disney is not willing to take.

Detail

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 29, 2010

I am sorry for not getting a post up in the last few days. I am in the middle of a project that I am doing for a few friends of mine who are graduating from high school.

Working on these projects reminds me about how important it is to commit to detail in your work. I am referring to the extra work it takes to make a project go from mediocre to great. I admire many people from the past who have committed to detail in their work. Walt Disney and his artist were huge on detail back when they got into film. During the making of Snow White Walt Disney looked over every frame of animation not once but more like fifty times. There was a room called the “Sweat Box”, where each animator would bring Walt his work and Walt would critique the hell out of it. At times, Walt would tell his animators to do the animation all over again. That means several months of work was thrown away at times, in order to make better animation that told the story more clearly.

Detail is often forgotten now a days. The thought process is, “How can we get the quick buck?”. The only problem is that detail is what makes a work unique. I realize that I might be taking twice as much time as a normal person in order to get this project done, but I have also come to realize that it is the paying attention to details that make a project last. I am not as concerned about how much time it takes, as long as I am making my project be the best it could be.

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