A Dreamer Walking

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.

Time’s Perspective

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on November 29, 2011

Time gives us perspective. I have been going over many of my notes from several years ago and realize I have a much different and more developed perspective on them now then when I first wrote them. Many of the things that didn’t make sense back then are making sense now.  This is one of the reasons I would suggest to take notes on interviews, movies, and behind the scenes features you watch, even if they are not as interesting to you or do not quite make sense at first. Time has a tendency to give us a new perspectives. Notes you might not have thought twice about when you first wrote them can turn out to be great revelations a few years later.

Glen Keane, One of the greatest animators of all time and the lead animator for Disney characters like the Beast and Tarzan, was mentored by one of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men, Ollie Johnston. When Keane came to the Disney studio in the late 1970’s Ollie had already been working at at the studio for forty plus years. Ollie told Keane that Ollie had so much more to show him but he was not ready for it yet. This bugged Keane because he was an ambitious young artist and wanted to learn everything all at once. What Keane did not understand was, Ollie was not saying he wasn’t willing to show Keane all he had to offer. Keane just needed time to understand the bigger picture. Only over a great amount of time did Keane find the perspective that allowed him to learn. Slowly he began to realize that good animation was not about perfecting the technique as much as it was about getting inside the character he was animating and truly making that character come to life.

Steven Spielberg talked about how he needed to wait ten years before he could make Schindler’s List. He said he was just not ready in the early 1980’s when he was first introduced to the project. There was a curtain amount of maturing Spielberg needed to do before he was able to give the project the amount of respect it deserved.

This is a short point but a valuable one. We must be willing as filmmakers to look inside ourselves and understand what we are capable of and what needs more time to mature. I do not think it is smart to embark on our greatest visions right away. Sometimes we need to do a little growing before we are ready for curtain projects. Sometimes we need to perfect the small things before trying to tackle the big things. If you are a filmmaker devoted to pursuing your art form, perspective will come. In time you will be able to bring your great visions to life. However, let time give you the perspective and understanding needed to do your vision justice.

Film Mediums: 2D Animation!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on June 16, 2010
Glen Keane Drawing of the Beast!

Glen Keane Drawing of the Beast!

2D animation is a very magical medium of film. As I said in my last post, there is nothing more magical to me then seeing simple drawings come to life. Another thing that 2D animation can do is show the hand of the artist through the actual drawings on screen. This drawing to the side was done by a masterful animator called Glen Keane. He has a very interesting style to his animation, different from any other artist.

One of the beauties of 2D animation is that there are so many different drawing styles. Each animator has his or her own way of going about a scene. During the rough animation you can definitely see a huge difference in some animators styles. In this Glen Keane drawing you see very dark lines, Glen is known for physically digging into his paper with the pencil trying to feel the emotion of the character he is drawing. However if you look below you can see a drawing by another masterful animator Ollie Johnson. He had a much lighter touch. Johnston was said to have barley kissed the page with his pencil, slowly trying to figure out the right look and movement for his characters.

Ollie Johnson Example

Ollie Johnson Example

In 2D animation you are constantly trying to clean up drawings so you can create a film that looks singular, as though one artist had created it. This is where Clean Up Artists come in. A Clean Up Artist is someone who goes over the animators original drawings and creates a fluid drawings that can match the other animation done for the character. A character like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast would have many different animators working so they could have the Beast’s performance done in reasonable time . It can take weeks for an animator to do only a few seconds worth of motion, thus each character calls for multiple animators.

You can not be a good 2D animator without studying the principles of movement. A animator needs to know how to draw well and have a feel for acting. Some animators plan out every detail of their shot before they go about animating. If you look at an animator like Milt Kahl (some say he is the greatest animator ever to live) you will see a pain staking amount of time that goes into planning out each shot. Milt Kahl tried looking at a scene from every angle.  He would thumbnail different ideas until he found something that would squeeze out the most entertainment possible. Milt knew exactly what he was going to animate before he even put pencil to paper. However, if you look at a animator like Glen Keane, he will be the first to tell you that he does not know what exactly the result of his animation will be. This is not to say he doesn’t put in the preparation, there is a lot of study Glen does into his character and how his character should move. However, Glen likes to animate based on feeling, he tries to get into his character’s skin and feel the movement of the character flow from pencil to paper. All the way through Glen’s animation process he is digging into his character’s head wondering what the next move should be and whether or not he could express that move through his drawing.

With 2D animation you need to simplify everything. A character is simplified to its basic roots. This often makes the artists put a lot of thought into who the character is and what shapes express the character the best. The audience eye is allowed to pay attention to the action instead of getting distracted by unnecessary details.

This field of animation also lets us look at a movie like a painting. It literally takes hundreds of paintings to create all the background for a story of a film. When 2D animation is at its best everything is painted to highlight the characters. The artists have the ability to dramatically change the color scheme in order to push an emotion. There are times where we only are allowed an impression of a location, like the Forest in Bambi for example. If you go back and study the backgrounds in Bambi, you will find that the paintings for the foreground and background are only impressions of what a real forest looks like. However, the feeling the forest in Bambi creates can be more real then a actual forest.

Some of the feelings I have gotten from 2D animation films like Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp, and Bambi have never been matched in any other film medium. In 2D animation I am allowed to see the hand of the artist, the only devices the artists need to make the medium work is a pencil and paper. It is a personal field of study and you are allowed to see the sweat and blood the artist put into making the drawings come to life. The actual power of 2D animation is that you start with a blank piece of paper and are able to create anything you can imagine.

(Here are links to the rest of the posts for this series, Film Mediums, CG Animation, and Live Action)