A Dreamer Walking

To My Teacher

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 11, 2012

I will be the first to admit I am a Pixar fanatic. I have looked up pretty much every interview, watched or listened to every behind the scenes feature and commentary on Pixar. Few have taught me more about filmmaking and the art of story than Pixar studios. The studio was one of my first and greatest teachers in filmmaking. It is safe to say I have always held them to a higher standard than any other studio in the modern era of film.

I am not the only one who holds Pixar in great regard. There are millions of fans out there who count down the days until the next Pixar premier. Almost anyone who works in animation would consider working at Pixar a dream job. The beauty of creating quality work again and again is: you attract the most ambitious artists. John Lasseter, the president of Pixar Studios, has said several times that he wants people with a passion to tell stories to come to Pixar.

The roots of Pixar are very humble. The majority of its founders were computer programers who the animation industry thought had no business being anywhere close to animation. The rest consisted of artists who were thrown out or rejected from other studios for trying to shake things up or because they were not experts at a particular aspect of animation. When Pixar started making movies they intentionally went against the established mold. They created stories in which the characters didn’t break out in song every ten minutes, nor did they always need a villain. They created original stories that took place in modern day rather then fairytale adaptions that constantly evolved around a princess trying to find prince charming. Their films were conceived and created by the directors. Pixar’s greatest and most unique quality was its stance on being a director driven studio where decisions were made not based on marketing or by a collective but rather because the director of the film had a burning desire to tell the story he or she wanted to tell in his or her unique way.

At the moment Pixar is still extremely successful, at least in the public’s eye. Although Cars 2 came out to mostly critical scrutiny, earning a Rotten Tomatoes score of 38%, it was a hit with the public earning a worldwide gross income of $559, 852, 396. It looks like Pixar’s newest film Brave is going to be a similar success publicly, although like Cars 2 it was not received as well critically. I personally have seen a huge difference in the quality of the last two Pixar films compared to their first eleven. I think anyone who studies story could point out the huge flaws in the last two pictures. The greatest flaw being the two movies seem to have no real soul. Yet, most Pixar fans and most of the people working on the two movies have refused to admit publicly any step down in quality within these projects.

Instead of working on the problems that have surfaced in Pixar’s last few films the studio appears to be choosing to avoid them. They still claim to be more then the typical Hollywood studio. They want to be seen as more. Pixar once showed themselves to be different from typical Hollywood by creating films that were conceived and driven by the director and not settling for mediocrity but rather only letting a film out to the public if it felt like it was living up to its potential. Yet, in the last few years Pixar has come out with Cars 2 a movie that was described by most critics and myself as mediocre. With the movie Brave Pixar had a story that could have completely turned the typical princess tale on it’s head, but half way through production they got cold feet and gave the story to a director who relied on stereotypes rather then personal conviction.

Pixar claims to be the studio that breaks rules and brings us original stories. I saw none of that in Brave or Cars 2. They claim to be a director driven studio that thinks outside the box. Yet,  the first director was taken off of Brave for “story problems” she claims  were actually “creative differences”. Could the problems be she was thinking too far out of the box? One of the things Pixar is most proud of is their Brain Trust. The famous Brain Trust is a group of Pixar directors and producers who watch each Pixar film in production every three to four months. They give the directors of the films notes on what they think is working and what they think needs to change. They are also, from what I can tell, the group who make the decision to change directors if they feel a story isn’t working. In the past I have written about the advantages of the Brain Trust. However, might the Brain Trust be the very thing taking the creative control out of the hands of the directors?

It is interesting that the only directors so far to carry their projects all the way through production are a group of five who have known each other since the beginning of Pixar feature film. Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Ulrich, and John Lasseter were all key players in the making of Toy Story, Pixar’s first feature film. Brad Bird, the only other Pixar director to carry his film all the way through production, has known John Lasseter, President and co-founder of Pixar, since the 70’s when they went to school together. The rest of the people so far to begin creating a Pixar feature film, Brenda Chapman, Jan Pinkava, Brad Lewis, and Gary Rydstrom, have either been replaced or had their project completely abolished. What this shows me is a lack of trust in anyone new. Yes, it is nice to hear Lasseter talk about how he wants stories that originate from the heart of the director, but he seems very hesitant to give those visions a chance to come to fruition. Lasseter and the rest of the Brain Trust trusted these people to put their heart and soul into creating a story for the studio, yet gave up on them before they could finish their film. With a movie like Ratatouille we still received a very powerful story, yet in the case of Cars 2 and Brave the stories seem full of compromises and half baked ideas.

I have heard many directors at Pixar rave about visionaries like Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki. However these two artist did not have a “Brain Trust” who approved their every step. They made their movies the way they wanted to make them and risked the chance of failure with the public. Some of Walt Disney’s greatest masterpieces were not accepted by the public until years after their release. If John Lasseter and the rest of the Brain Trust want to have visionaries like Disney and Miyazaki, they need to risk giving their directors true creative control. To prove they trust other directors they need to not only allow them to come up with and develop new stories they need to continue to  trust them to bring their stories to fruition. Lasseter has said in the past he would not allow a mediocre film out of his studio. Well, it is hard to describe movies like Cars 2 and Brave as anything other than mediocre. Pixar must not be like every other studio and run away from this fact. There will be mediocre stories that come out of every studio. The question is whether or not those in control at Pixar will still hold the trust of their visionaries as sacred or throw them under the bus?

Here is where I come in. I am an ambitious artist who has a burning desire to tell the stories I want to tell. John Lasseter himself said that is what he most wants in the people directing films at Pixar. I am not the greatest artist but I am a great storyteller. I can thank Pixar for helping me become a great storyteller. The problem is at the moment I would be afraid to share my stories with the studio. You don’t know how hard and deeply upsetting it is for me to say this. Pixar was my teacher, inspiration, and dream. However, my stories are greater then any amount of gold, fame, or success. They all represent part of who I am and my unique journey. I will only share these stories with people I trust. Right now I can not trust Pixar with my burning desire to tell stories.

Pixar, you might be getting money, fame, and public success, but I fear you are losing out on something far more valuable.

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…)

Floyd Norman

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on April 12, 2010

Floyd Norman started working at Disney in 1956 and has been around ever since. I just saw a video of him speak at The Art Institute of California (you can see the video Here).

Floyd is a legend story artist, and he has a very rich knowledge of the Disney Companies history. He was able to work with the legendary Nine Old Men (Nine Disney Animators) and he even was able to work with Walt Disney on the Jungle book. Floyd was at the Disney Studio during what many would call the Golden age, where Walt was alive and the company was making masterpieces like Marry Poppins and The Jungle Book. Floyd was there for some of the darkest of days where animation was on the brink of shutting down, Walt Disney had died and there was no direction the Disney Company seemed to be going except for down.

It seems that Floyd got infected with Walt’s philosophy of putting story first and through the good times and bad Floyd always tried to put story ahead of everything else in his projects. I was impressed with some of the films he worked on, such as The Jungle Book, Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He even went to Pixar to help with projects, such as Toy Story 2 and Monsters Ink.

Where most filmmakers jobs would be to write a story, Floyd is assigned to draw one. His illustrations are often just a few lines on small sheets of paper, in order to express a character or a surrounding. But, those lines have a great power. They are the keys to unlocking a story. A good story is the key to making a good movie. So you can easily say that Floyd and his story artist teams have the most important job in film business.

One thing that really caught me while watching the video of Floyd is when he said, “I am totally addicted to Storytelling”. I think this is key for any good storyteller, they truly need to get addicted to storytelling. Whenever Floyd reads a script he sees a story. Floyd has become an expert expressing story visually through his drawings. This is a magnificent gift.

What I admire most of Floyd is his ability to stay passionate about storytelling. A 50+ career in animation is hard, especially when you need to go through some of the things Floyd did. But it seems that Floyd has stayed true to what matter the most. “Story” is still King in his book.