A Dreamer Walking

Brad Bird – An Observation – Character Animation

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on September 1, 2011

Brad BirdAll the Pixar films have moments of brilliant animation. However, I am always blown away by the animation I see in Brad Bird’s films. Bird’s films have an appeal and timing that gives the old silent greats, such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, a run for their money. Because of his animation background Brad tries to create scenes for his films he would like to animate himself. The legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl mentored Brad Bird. Bird was also lucky enough to work at Disney when Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas were there. These great animators helped develop Bird’s eye for quality animation. I believe Bird is the best animator out of all the Pixar directors, and because of this most animators love to work for him. Bird pushes his animators to think outside the box and he knows the techniques of animation so well he is able to give his animators the kind of criticism that allows for them to create their best possible work.

Bird’s first project for Pixar was his original story The Incredibles. The Incredibles was a risky story to tell for multiple reasons. The movie required the Pixar artists to dive into an extremely challenging type of animation, human animation. Humans have always been some of the hardest things to animate. We observe how humans move constantly in everyday life so if the animator makes a mistake with animating a human character the audience will know. Yet, Bird felt the Pixar artists were up to the task and he gave them colorful characters to enhance their animation.

The Incredibles is about an over the hill superhero in Mr. Incredible who wants to relive the glory days. There are five Incredibles total and the whole family has superpowers. Bird’s genius was making the superpower for each Incredible directly reflect who the characters were on the inside. Mr. Incredible is the man of the and feels he has the responsibility to provide for the family, so Bird gave him super strength. Mrs. Incredible main purpose is to keep the peace and she feels stretched through trying to satisfy all the members of the family, so she is given the ability to be super flexible. The Incredibles oldest child Violet represents the “unconfident teen” who does not want to be noticed and creates barriers so she won’t get hurt by what someone says or does, so she has the ability to disappear and create force fields. Dash, the Incredibles middle child, is a ball of energy who is set on being the best in whatever he competes in, so what better superpower to represent him then super speed. And finally we have the baby Jack. Jack is a big “?”, he is too young for us to know what he will end up being. His powers reflect who he is by being miscellaneous. He can turn into metal, burst into fire, or transform into a demon, all depending on his mood at the time.

The next film Brad Bird directed and wrote for Pixar happens to be one of my favorite animated films of all time, Ratatouille. The animation in Ratatouille is phenomenal. The whole premise of the movie relied on getting the audience to believe a rat could cook. This was no easy task yet Bird executed the idea perfectly. Here is a great example of Bird’s brilliant direction in the movie:

Understand first the animation is all being driven by the personalities of the characters. This is actually the main reason the scene is so wonderful to watch. We have the human character Linquini who does not have a clue what is going on. You can see it through his facial expressions when Colette is reading off the ingredients and even more so when she leaves frame to set the dish up. We are also given a shot of Remy thinking about the ingredients Colette is reading off. These are very subtle pieces of animation but they are setting up the cooking scene. When the cooking starts Remy takes charge and the music begins. Notice how well the music blends with the animation. Each movement seems to hit curtain beats – Linquini reaching for the first spices, Remy bending Linquini to smell the sauce, Linquini going to get more ingredients. The more involved Linquini and Remy get with cooking the more expressive the music gets. There is a delicate balance between us realizing Remy is the one making Linquini cook and Linquini trying to maintain some kind of control. The humor actually comes from the battle for this balance. All the efforts Linquini makes – saying “thank you” to the cooks, telling them he needs some of their material, and trying to explain himself to Colette – make the scene all the more entertaining. Follow Linquini’s facial expressions while he is controlled by Remy. The animation is all about action and reaction on Linquini’s end. Also, notice how Bird and his animators do not hesitate in getting Linquini physically involved with the things around him. One of the hardest things to do in computer animation is have characters interact with other objects or people. Yet, Linquini is grabbing and moving objects around and he is reaching through a cooks arm to grab some things behind him. Linquini also hits some brilliant extreme poses in the scene. Animation is all about extreme poses and exaggerating movements not possible to do with live action acting. The animators need to make sure Linquini moves like a human, but they also have the responsibility to exaggerate his poses so they are easy for us to read. Linquini reaching for the spices, lifting his leg to start his walk around the kitchen, and reaching his arm out to stop Collete, are all examples of great poses where the animators are pushing their animation to the limit in order to communicate to the highest potential the action and essence of the character.

Brad Bird has never shied away from risky storytelling. He believes in the characters he creates and the animators who bring them to life enough to push the storytelling to the limit. It was no easy task to make a film about rats cooking. Before Bird came onto the project the artists shortened the rats’ tails and made them walk and act far more like humans. The Pixar artists did this because they were afraid an audience would be too appalled with more realistic rats. However Bird believed the idea of rats cooking would only be believable if the rats looked realistic. So he made the artist lengthen the tails, study the anatomy and the rats’ movements so they looked and acted in a more realistic way. Realize Bird did not make them look completely realistic, they do have a much softer design and more colorful look then real rats, but they were changed enough for the audience to buy into the illusion. The result was a movie that on paper looked like it could never work (I mean who in their right mind would like to see a rat in the kitchen, let alone cooking?) yet through brilliant character animation and subtle design changes we not only become okay with Remy the rat cooking, we ended up rooting for him to succeed.

Bird’s films make me realize how phenomenal the medium of animation really is. The characters Bird creates could not possibly be expressed in as complete a way in any other medium. How the animation reflects the character within is what is most important. Bird’s animation sticks out because the animators are on top of their game when working with him. Bird is a very enthusiastic and dedicated man. One of his sayings is, “Film is forever; Pain is temporary”. Bird is not the easiest director to work with. He will ask for a lot. But I believe most of his artists see the results are well worth it. I believe the artists working with Bird know he has conviction in the characters he creates. They are real to him and he will not stop pushing his artists until he sees the heart and souls of his characters come alive on screen.

 

Invisible Ink- Don’t tell me, SHOW ME!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 3, 2011

Seeing is different from being told
— African Proverb

This is how Brian McDonald opened up the topic of “What It Means to Dramatize an Idea”. This post is actually concentrating on the second part of Chapter 3 in his book Invisible Ink. I think in chapter three Brian hits on several different storytelling points, so I have decided to write four posts on the chapter (HERE is the link to the first post).

In storytelling our job is not to bluntly give our audience all the answers. Creating a story where you tell the audience exactly how and what to think is a quick way to get them to walk out on you. If the audience has been given all the answers there will be no drama. Drama comes from the uncertainty and questions the audience has. The drama comes from the audience figuring out the answers for themselves. Our job as filmmakers is to give the audience the equation and let them come up with the answer.

Let me go back to the example of The Incredibles to explain myself. The main theme in The Incredibles is “family is most important”. The reason why The Incredibles works so well is we are never told family is most important but rather we are shown. There are several scenes in which it is visually expressed how important family is to Mr. Incredible. One of the greatest examples would be the scene where his wife and children are flying to the island where he is being held capture. Syndrome, the villain of the movie, shoots missiles at the plane. We see Mr. Incredible at his most vulnerable. He begs Syndrome to call off the missiles, but sadly with no avail. He is forced to watch helplessly while the rockets hit and destroys the plane. He thinks right then his family is dead. We don’t need him to say, “my family is important to me”, we literally feel their importance through his emotions.

Words can easily be deceptive. David Fincher said, in his commentary on the movie Se7en, he believed the verbal language was invented so people could lie. Granted, David Fincher is one of the most cynical people I have ever come across, but what he said has some truth. We have the ability to deceive people through our words, but our our actions and emotions give us away.  We as filmmakers are measured based on how much we can get the audience to buy into the story we are telling. If we are told someone is in danger but don’t have it expressed well through the powers of cinema– through sound effects, music, cutting, lighting, and good acting– the audience won’t care. If an actor does not believe in what he is saying the audience won’t believe it. When I watch a movie I do not care whether I have seen the same type of story before. What I care about is whether or not the visuals and characters are believable. Do the performances feel authentic? Do the visuals demand my attention?

The message of “family being most important” has been told before. What makes The Incredibles work is the way the creators are able to get us to buy into the message. At the end of the movie Mr. Incredible wants to fight Syndrome and his evil robot alone. Mrs. Incredible is angry Mr. Incredible doesn’t want her help and demands to know why. Mr. Incredible breaks down and says, “I can’t lose you again”. Right there we are shown how important family has become to Mr. Incredible. His words are validated through the scene before where we saw the emotions he went through when he thought he lost them. His words are also backed up by a great performance. Mr. Incredible can barely look at his wife while he expresses his fear.

Cinema is all about dramatization. Brian McDonald puts it this way in his book, “Dramatization is a way to get your intellectual ideas across to your audience emotionally”. Drama is built entirely on emotions. When we connect an idea emotionally to our audience we have effected them in a way that will last much longer then a two hour theater experience. Facts are meaningless unless they have an emotion behind them. Being told guns are dangerous does not impact us nearly as much as seeing exactly how guns are dangerous. One of my mentors used to take his children to the garage after he killed a deer hunting and show them exactly how the bullet killed the animal. He would show them the insert wound, the blood, and how the bullet effected the deers insides. It is a fact guns are dangerous. However, the fact meant very little to the children until their dad expressed the fact through a dramatic example.

When we as filmmakers don’t give the audience all the answers but rather let them come to their own conclusions a satisfaction is created which could never have been achieved if we just came out and told them what to think. There are movies such as The Social Network that intentionally try to not take sides. In the movie The Social Network there is no obvious villain or obvious hero. This is actually one of the film’s strengths. We are shown plenty of details and have plenty of emotions about each one of the characters. The fun part is how we end up dealing with the emotions we experience. In The Social Network for example, depending on who you ask, the good guy may be different because we each interpret the situations differently. We end up leaving the movie thinking, debating with one another. We do not have a clear opinion but rather a curiosity and interest in hearing what others think. We may even want to see the movie again.

Whether it is to make a point or just get someone to think, you will get much farther through showing rather then telling. The goal should never be to come up with a clear cut answer. Rather, it should be to express something from your own unique point of view. You must have an idea behind what you are showing. You must give me a reason to keep watching and even come back again. But, you need to realize the power is in the image not the word. The goal is to show me something that doesn’t just give me information but rather stimulates the imagination.


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!