A Dreamer Walking

Walt Disney – An Observation – Worthy of Admiration

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on August 8, 2011

I was reading an interview on this man who spent more then thirty years working for Walt Disney. In a interview he said, “When you were having a conflict with Walt, you were having a conflict with someone who probably had more on the ball than you had, and whose judgment was probably better”. This might not be seen as a very huge compliment. It is nothing new, you have probably heard those types of compliments before. This however is not the only thing this guy has said about Walt. In other interviews this man has talked about how Walt was able to push artist to do things they didn’t feel like they were capable of doing. He talked about the phenomenal intuition and story instinct Walt had and how he was willing to put everything, even his life insurance, on the line to keep the studio and his dream alive. He called Walt a “genius” and a “brilliant storyteller”. This man said Walt was the kind of guy “who only comes along once in several generations”. Now we are getting to some generous compliments no matter who might be making them. However, I think the authenticity of these compliments is cemented by knowing who they came from.  The man who said all these things about Walt was none other then legendary animator Milt Kahl.

Milt was one of Walt’s Nine Old Men. Many consider him to be the greatest of the Nine Old Men. Milt was known for his dedication to perfection. It was a daunting and nerve racking task to clean up his drawings or to work on his inbetweens, out of fear that you might mess up his animation. He produced the final character design sheets for almost all the Disney full length features from the 1940’s-70’s. Most of the other big animators at the studio, including majority of the Nine Old Men, went to Milt for advice and help on working out complicated movements or designs. Milt was given the most complicated animation scenes. He needed to bring warmth to the puppet Pinocchio, he needed to give flight to Peter Pan, and give Madusa, from The Rescuers, her evil charm. If Milt thought an artist was being lazy he would let him or her know. He was known for his temper and not holding back a insult. He made it clear he thought most of his fellow Disney employees, especially after Walt died, were a bunch of  “lazy bastards”. I have heard stories of things getting so heated sketchbooks went flying. Milt was even willing to get into arguments with the big boss of the studio, Walt Disney.

See, Milt Kahl is not the kind of guy to compliment someone, let alone say someone is a “genius” or confess someone else might have better judgment then him. I have heard Milt Kahl complain about more then one of the Nine Old Men, and all those artists are considered some of the greatest to ever work in animation. Because I knew this about Milt, what he said about Walt truly impacted me. I heard a man who struggled with complimenting more then anyone I have researched (including Walt) give some of the greatest compliments a man could give. And I finally began to realize why. You see, even though Milt was a perfectionist I think Milt realized Walt was something more. Walt was a dreamer. Walt helped create the medium Milt strived most of his life to perfect.

After Walt died Milt kept on working at the studio. However, the films he worked on were not nearly as good as the films of old, such as Pinocchio, Bambi, and Landy and the Tramp. Milt had a limit. He only could perfect the material he was given. Walt however was the one with the limitless imagination, he was the one who created the material. After Walt died the material became much less precious. For Milt it was like trying to create a sculpture out of a block of mud rather then a fine piece of diamond. Milt had all the tools to create something that was visually stunning, however much of the visuals were lost because of the poor material.

Milt said in 1976, the year he left the studio, “Here I am, a person at the height of my powers, and I feel there’s not a place for me anymore.”.  Walt created stories that entertained and inspired. His philosophy was about creating better material for his artists to work with. After his death Walt’s philosophy was lost. Milt did not admire Walt because he gave out compliments, was a flawless leader, or because of his money and fame. Walt was admired by Milt Kahl because he gave him a place to perfect his art form.

I have been studying Walt Disney for years now. I want to understand what went into the creation of such fine material that resulted in great films like Pinocchio and Mary Poppins. I want to know what drove Walt to create even better material. Before his death Walt was moving from theme parks to cities. He wanted to create an art form that would be completely intertwined with everyday life. His creativity had no limits and that is worthy of anyone’s admiration.

(Here are the links to the material I quoted. First off is Michael Barrier and Milton Gray interview of Milt Kahl. Second is Side 1 and Side 2 of a lecture Milt Kahl gave at Cal Arts in 1976. Also, Pixar animator Carlos Baena has some great resources on Milt Kahl on his website.)

Perfectionist Vs. Naturalist

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 30, 2011

David Fincher and Clint Eastwood are examples of two very successful filmmakers with two extremely different ways of going about directing a film. I have spent several weeks researching both Fincher and Eastwood and I have studied many of their films. It is striking to me how differently these two go about creating a film. It is also exciting. Studying these two has made me realize how truly open the medium of film is. Personally I think it is wise for any up coming filmmaker to do a extensive study on both these filmmakers.

I would describe David Fincher (top of the picture) as a perfectionist who goes into every little detail of the filmmaking process and is absolutely set on bring out the images and ideas he has in his head onto the screen. Fincher is known for doing two to three times the amount of takes for a scene as a normal director does. He also is known for giving extremely specific directions on everything from what is written in the journal of a characters prop that is never opened on screen to the marks he wants not only his main actors to hit but also the dozens of extras that might be inhabiting a small fraction of the background to hit.

Clint Eastwood (bottom of the picture) is what I would call a naturalist. He treats film like his favorite type of music, jazz. He wants to create an environment where the creativity can naturally flow. Jazz is never completely planned out but rather just a reaction of the mood and feelings of the musician at the time. A big motto of Eastwood’s is “go with your gut”. You can see this motto applied to Eastwood’s filmmaking process again and again over the decades. He wants to create an environment that produces very natural reactions from his actors. This means that the set is always quite and the crew is never allowed to bring anything onto the set that would distract from the piece he is working on. Eastwood is known for being a actors director, he wants them to create a performance that comes from the heart.

It is not like Fincher and Eastwood completely counter each other. However, I believe that both would be very uncomfortable with each others film style. A good place to begin would be in regards to the directors way of dealing with the Camera. One is very natural and one is very mechanical. One creates a perfection that is incapable of being achieved by actual human hands and one tends to use imperfections to comfort the audience into falling deeper into the story.

David Fincher is known for his use of motion control in film. Ever since his movie Panic Room David Fincher has been a big fan of using cameras controlled by a computer to create a more sophisticated shot. This technique known as motion control, allows the filmmaker to create complex movements with the camera that would be impossible for a human camera man to achieve. The smoothness and preciseness we see in movies like Panic Room, Zodiac, and The Social Network is usually the result of motion control.

Clint Eastwood is much more simple in the way he goes about shooting a film. His idea is to create something that is done professionally but still has the inherent flaws that come with being human. Clint’s belief is we as humans resonate more with these types of flaws because of our inherent realization that nothing is perfect. Making things too perfect takes us out of the picture because the material stops resonating to us as human beings. This is one of the reasons Eastwood does so few takes. He does not need the movement to be perfect just well thought out and executed.

The amount of takes Fincher and Eastwood do is Another key difference between these filmmakers styles. As I said before, Fincher is known for doing two to three times the amount of takes as regular directors. Eastwood is known for doing very few takes. This is one of the many reasons why Eastwood shoots his films so quickly. He shot the film Million Dollar Baby in less then 40 days. Fincher on the other hand shot the film Panic Room, which basically was all shot in one location, in 100+ days.

Eastwood would probably say Fincher’s extreme amount of takes and excessive amount of coverage he has on his scenes is due to a lack of confidence. Eastwood has explained in interviews on Charlie Rose that he believes a filmmaker and actor can often talk themselves out of something that was good in the first place. Instead of talking himself out of anything, Eastwood has learned to trust his gut and go with what resonates with him at the time. Because of the simplistic way Eastwood shoots a scene he is usually done quickly. His style of filmmaking does not exhaust his actors but rather invigorates them through the realization that they will only have a few takes to perfect their performance.

Fincher seems to want to exhaust his actors in curtain ways while shooting. He wants to get rid of any pre-conceived ideas the actors might have had coming in and he wants them to rediscover the performance at the energy and pace he feels would serve the story best. It does not matter whether the acting has to do with small details like the way an actor looks down the stairs or reaches up his hand, Fincher will question the performance and ask for them to do the action very specifically to the vision he has in his head. The actors in Fincher’s movies are able to try a scene many more times then they would with Eastwood however the freedom is often taken away to a point because of the control Fincher demands as director.

From studying both Eastwood and Fincher it seems that the two concentrate on two very different things. Eastwood is all about creating a mood on set that helps everyone function to their highest potential. Fincher wants his crew to function to the highest potential as well, but he usually does this through questioning them and pushing them to be better then they originally thought they were capable of. He demands perfection and he will tell you exactly what he thinks no matter how it might feel. It does not matter if a Cinematographer has spent hours setting up a curtain lighting for a scene, it does not matter if a set decorator has spent days working on a curtain prop, and it does not matter if an actor feels like he came in with a well planned performance, if Fincher does not agree with it he will have you change it.

Both these filmmakers are masters at their art. Both have had a tremendous amount of success through the way they go about making films. However we need to pause to understand why they are so good at their techniques. Clint Eastwood would not be good at following his gut if he hadn’t spent several decades learning to develop a natural feel for directing. David Fincher would not be much of a perfectionist is he had not spent literally hundreds of hours figuring out exactly why he wanted the specific shots, acting, and environments for his films. Eastwood can not go with his gut with no clue to where it will take him. Fincher can not insist on a detail without understanding how the details fit into the whole of the film.

These artists have mastered their art by being completely dedicated to one mutual goal, story. It all comes down to story and how you as a filmmaker can serve that story best. Some try to bring it out very naturally through years of experience and learning to trust their fellow filmmakers. Some do it through developing an idea that absolutely must come out and demanding the perfection needed from the fellow filmmakers to make that idea a reality. To be honest I think most of us need a little bit of both. Clint Eastwood and David Fincher represent two extremes. However, it is not like Eastwood does not have details that he wants see expressed on screen and it is not like Fincher takes complete control away from his crew. It all comes down to what works for you and finding that happy medium. The film medium is open to a vast range of talent, it does not demand for you go one rout more then another. The key is finding how you can best serve the story.