A Dreamer Walking

Joe Ranft: Part 3: A Friend and Mentor

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on November 10, 2010

This third and final part of my Joe Ranft series is to explain why Joe is one of the greatest influences in the history of animation. As I have explained in my last two blogs about Joe (here is Part 1 and Part 2), he went through many struggles and was able to push through them to become a very good artist. His special touch is seen through all the films he has worked on. However, what inspires me the most about Joe is not all the struggles he was able to overcome. Nor was it the magnificent art he was able to produce. Joe’s true gift was in his ability to affect those around him. His influence on film was limited to his own skill with a pencil or even the time he had on this earth. Joe had a quality that lasts even through death. Joe Ranft was a friend and a mentor to all those he worked with and because of this he will never be forgotten and he will never stop influencing the world through the people who were influenced by him.

Joe was moved by the teachers he had in CalArts. He was not only influenced to create great art from them, but also to spread the ability to do art to others. The goel was always to find the best idea possible and to do that Joe would involve everyone around him. He was far from being a solo man like his idol Bill Pete. He liked working as a team and was always open to new ideas no matter who the idea came from. Joe thought if diverse artists could work together without killing each other they could accomplish great things.

In 1987 Joe returned to CalArts to teach storyboarding. Two students Joe influenced the most was Brenda Chapman and Pete Docter. Pete Docter is now a director at Pixar and was the visionary behind both Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and Up. Brenda is now known as one of the great storyboard artists of her generation and she helped co-direct Dreamworks The Prince of Egypt. In John Canemaker’s book Two Guys Named Joe, Brenda said, “I would not be who I am, what I am, if it were not for Joe,” (page. 50).

Joe seemed to be a natural teacher. He made his students study Chaplin and Keaton films, and really concentrated on how to communicate ideas and story points through body language and the physical expression of emotions. The “meaning of the pose” was always important to Joe so he taught his students how to stage their drawings and think deeply about the pose being created so they could communicate as much as they could with their drawings. Here are a few of Joe’s rules on storyboarding from the book Two Guys Named Joe (Page 50):

  • Show rather then tell.
  • Communicate one idea at a time.
  • Stage it so the audience can see it clearly.
  • Clarity In the shot composition.
  • Clarity in staging the acting or pantomime
  • The Story drawing’s idea is to communicate: an idea feeling/emotion, mood, an action
  • Imply animation in your drawings (through caricature, use of animation principles, I.e., stretch and squash exaggeration, etc.)
  • Imagine ourselves in our character’s shoes/place.
  • Leave an impression, an impact (Visual and emotional) That effects the viewer.

These were all rules Joe pounded into his students. He wanted each one of his students to be the best storyboard artist they could be. The students always had someone to talk to in Joe. He was always there to talk about an idea or way to go about telling their story. He was known for being able to deal with anyone. Unlike so many teachers today, Joe did not force his way of thinking onto his students. Rather, he helped them develop their own way of telling a story.

When Joe went to Pixar and became head of story for Toy Story and A Bugs Life he became a leader everyone looked up to, including the directors of the films he was working on. He was the first man to show up and the last person to leave. After A Bugs Life Joe took a step down from the leadership position to become more of a mentor to the Pixar studio. In their most desperate hours Joe was able to help guide first time directors like Pete Docter on Monster’s Inc and Andrew Stanton for Finding Nemo. Joe was able to crack the sequence at the end of Monsters Inc. where the main protagonist Sully is leaving his dear friend Boo for what he thinks will be the last time. Andrew Stanton, the director and screenwriter for both Finding Nemo and Wall-E said, “Everything I learned about storyboarding a film and rewriting scripts was with Joe Ranft on Toy Story” (Two Guys Named Joe, page 73).

The artist’s Joe took under his wing and helped mentor are now some of the most sought after people in the animation industry. Joe had a gift, a powerful gift. He was able to make others believe in themselves. Joe had a joy for life and his art form that could not help but rub off on others. However, this heart for helping others did not just stop in the field of animation.

Being successful while others suffered in the world was not comforting to Joe. He joined community outreach programs helping at prisons and in tough neighborhoods. He even helped convince Steve Jobs to donate computers to the Watts organization. Staying involved in the community was important to Joe and he stayed involved up to the day he died. He was killed in a traffic accident on his way to a retreat in Mendocino, California.

Andrew Stanton said this about Joe;

He was just a great listener. Probably the best. And he had a real sixth sense for when people needed it, even if you weren’t looking for it. And that I’ll miss more then anything else, is the random knock at the doorway and just going, ‘Ah. It’s Joe.’

Joe Ranft was a friend and mentor. He was there for others when they most needed him. Through the talent and the fame, it was Joe’s friendship everyone valued. And this is why Joe Ranft will never be forgotten. Friendship is his contribution that will never die.

 

(Here is a tribute to Joe Ranft, made by one of Joe’s good friends John Musker)

Joe Ranft: Part 2: A Dedicated Artist

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on October 19, 2010

In part 1 of my Joe Ranft series I talked about Joe Ranft’s struggles, both in his personal life and as an artist; one of Joe’s greatest struggles being his hardships at drawing. This is not to say Joe was bad at drawing. No, he actually became a very good storyboard artist. He was able to communicate an idea in the simplest way possible. Many artists claimed Joe’s drawings were deceivingly simple; he created the impression that anyone could do it. However this was not the case. Joe was good because of his constant devotion as an artist. He made up for his inability to draw complex figures through his ability to express a clear image. Like most good storyboard artists Joe was able to simplify a drawing, only leaving the bare minimum needed to get the point across to the audience. Joe’s greatest strength was what most of his drawings represented so clearly. Joe was known for putting heart into his art, a talent that is rare even among the best of artists.

During his first years at CalArts Joe tried to make up for his weaknesses in draftsmanship by attempting to copy other students styles. T. Hee (a professor and mentor to Joe) kept pushing Joe to express himself through his drawings. T. Hee encouraged Joe along with the rest of his students to figure out their own unique ways of expressing themselves and their ideas. Joe began to run with T. Hee’s philosophy and created some very unique pieces of work as an animation student. He created a short called Good Humor, where a blob of ice cream comes to life and tries to persuade a human not to eat him. Joe tried very hard to think outside the box. He often hung out with the experimental animation students trying to use them and their unique ways of thinking to push him to think of story ideas so he could push the medium of animation and storytelling to whole new level.

Joe began to find inspiration, both in the art profession and in the world he lived in. The professors at CalArts claimed the greatest tool any artist could have is their own unique experiences in life. The professors tried to push their students to experience life outside their art form. Joe was encouraged by T. Hee to take different routes to work every day and to never get caught up in a formula either inside his personal life or animation. Joe also found inspiration from the storyboard artist Bill Peet. Peet was one of Disney’s greatest storyboard artist, working for Disney from the late 1930’s through the 1960’s. He had a magnificent energy in his drawings. They expressed the action perfectly and inspired great pieces of animation. Joe knew what kind of storyboard artist he wanted to be after seeing some of Bill’s storyboard work for the movie Song of the South ( 1946). Joe could see how the drawings created the world of the movie and were full of character personality. Animators often said about both Joe and Peet’s work that the illustrations lead themselves to animation. The staging and action were so clearly expressed the drawings made the animators job simpler in a way.

Unlike Bill Peet, who was known to be a solo storyboard artist, Joe was huge on teamwork. Joe loved bouncing ideas off others and strengthening story through the combined efforts of artists working together to chisel away the unneeded parts of a story until they created a perfect piece of art. The friendships Joe created in CalArts, with artists such as John Lasseter, Tim Burton, John Musker, and Ron Clemens benefited Joe tremendously later in his career. Joe helped storyboard films such as The Great Mouse Detective and The Little Mermaid, for John and Ron. He helped create and storyboard the masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas with Tim Burton. And Joe created a powerful friendship with John Lasseter and was asked by John to be head of story on his directorial debut Toy Story, for the up and coming animation studio Pixar. Because of the huge success of Toy Story and his great relationship with John Lasseter Joe never left Pixar. He became head of story for Pixar’s next movie A Bug’s Life and was a major contributor to every film Pixar created from that point until his death in 2005.

Many of Joe’s storyboards had a tendency of being so strong they stayed the same all the way through a films production. For Toy Story, a movie that went through several revisions, Joe boarded a sequence where a bunch of green toy army men go out to spy on a birthday party going on downstairs. This sequence is magical and was hardly changed through out the entire production. The army men sequence also established the whole idea to what everyone wanted the film to be about – where toys come to life and think their job is to observe human life without ever being caught moving.

Joe had a mind of a student through out his life. He was constantly working on his drawing and communication skills. Joe pushed himself to become a better storyboard artist in every way possible. He believed a storyboard artist needed to have a whole slew of abilities to do their job well. They needed to be good draftsmen. They needed to know how to use and move a camera and how to compose a shot. They needed to know the basics to animations, meaning the ability to do squash and stretch, how to stage action, an understanding of timing, etc. Joe was a student of the performance and he took several classes on acting. Joe wanted to create feeling in his drawings. He wanted to provoke emotions that made the audience feel affection for his characters and the animator want to animate his drawings. Joe talked about being most at home when he was trying figure out a character. This seemed to be the reason why he was a storyboard artist; to figure out these characters who are not real in reality but real in the artist’s and audiences’ minds.

I have learned a lot from Joe Ranft’s devotion toward his art form. His example brought out the best from those around him. Joe was a very humble man, he just wanted to create the best film possible. He had a servant’s heart. He helped many first time directors, including Pete Doctor (Director of Monsters Inc. and UP) and Andrew Stanton (Director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E), become the great artists they are today. It was not a vast amount of talent that made Joe a great artist it was his passion. A passion that only got stronger through struggle and hardships. And it was this passion for the great medium of animation he was able to spread to those around him.

(To Be Concluded…)

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.