Archive for the ‘creativity’ Category

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Theory: Three Steps to Greater Creativity

creativity

Recently on Facebook, I was asked why I thought originality in animation was such a rare thing today. I pointed out that originality and creativity are closely connected, and they aren’t just magical gifts that you are either born with or you aren’t. They come from a body of knowledge and a set of skills that can be learned. Originality and creativity are both fed by the same things… observation of life, the ability to think like an artist, and a wide range of creative influences.

The primary source of inspiration for all artists is the observation of real life.

Too many animated films employ character “archetypes”… generic mom and dad characters, typical wimpy kid, his goofy dog and clever cat, bratty little sister… I don’t know about you but those sorts of characters bore me stiff. The best actors will tell you that they don’t create characters by looking at what other actors do or employing stereotypes. They look at real people and try to capture the gestures, walk and attitudes that express that person’s unique personality. It works exactly the same in animation.

When you’re riding the bus, drinking your coffee at Starbucks or standing in line at the DMV, pay attention to the people around you. Look for unique personalities and try to capture them in your sketchbook. Exaggerate and caricature them to see how you might put those personalities across in an animated character. You’ll find that the characters you see on the street are a lot more interesting than the characters you see in most animated films.

In an earlier post on Facebook, I pointed out one of the primary creative skills, *ideation*. Another skill that is invaluable is *analysis*. Analysis is at the core of what it means to think like an artist.

When the average person sits down to watch an animated film, they are carried away into the fantasy and let the film direct their imagination and entertain them. A film maker thinks differently. Once your mind is trained to understand the process of film making, you will never sit in the theater as just another member of the audience again. You definitely lose that innocence. But it is replaced by something even more important.

When a film maker watches a film, he is looking at the application of technique. How does the film establish its characters and environment? How does it set up the conflict? What rhythms and pacing are being used to carry the film forward… contrasts in moods… staging… color… music… sound effects… acting… dialogue… All these things and more are revealed through analysis. Turn on your brain and your creativity will follow.

Lastly, it’s important to expose yourself to a broad spectrum of artistic creativity… not just the few things you already know about and like.

When I produced the “I Miss You” rock video for Bjork, the director John K was describing for the CGI animator how he wanted the rubber nipples on Bjork’s chest to move. He told him to reference a Harman-Ising cartoon called “The Milky Way”. John described the action of the nipples squirting milk in that cartoon very carefully, and even was able to chart out the timing of the movement to the frame.

Now, anyone who knows John K knows that Harman-Ising cartoons are about as far away from his personal taste as a cartoon can get. Yet he had studied “The Milky Way” carefully and had found a technique in it that he could use. He filed it away in his head and was able to retrieve it when a time came that he could use it. Classic cartoons are a gold mine of information on technique.

When you as a filmmaker are watching movies, TV shows and animation, you shouldn’t just limit yourself to what you personally *like*. Focus instead on what you can learn from. The principle of garbage in- garbage out applies here. If you watch nothing but lousy animation and stupid movies, what sorts of animation do you expect to produce yourself?

In fact, animation should be just a small portion of what you study and expose yourself to. In order to be a creative artist in animation, you need to understand and appreciate ALL of the arts. This means studying the history of all forms of music- from classical music and opera to country music and jazz. It’s the same with the history of painting, and sculpture, and dance, and most of all- film making.

If you want to train yourself to think analytically about film, choose really good examples from the past to study. Classic films are packed with cinematic techniques that animation hasn’t even touched on yet, and they will open your mind to new genres to explore. In the entire history of animation, there have been thousands of cats chasing mice and dogs chasing cats, but how many gothic horror movies have their been? How many noir thrillers? Westerns? War pictures? People love to say, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” but in animation, that isn’t true. There are a LOT more stories to be told.

Another advantage to using older films as reference is that you are more likely to pull out pure technique and less likely to simply imitate. If you are looking at a WWII movie, you can’t just copy situations and dialogue because it is from a different time and place. Instead, you are forced to focus on the acting, the staging or the cutting technique. Stealing technique isn’t stealing. It requires adaptation to your own context. Copying specific gags, situations or dialogue from modern movies similar to the one you are making is definitely stealing.

The keys to creativity in animated film making are to… 1) Open your eyes to the world around you, 2) Think about what you see- analyze how it works, and 3) Expose yourself to a wider range of creative influences.

When your frame of reference is limited to anime, video games and superhero movies, it shouldn’t be surprising that everything you create is derivative. That kind of background may seem to be a good foundation to build a career in animation on first glance, but look at the animators of the past… Milt Kahl had classical art training from Chouinard, Carlo Vinci won a scholarship to the prestigious National Academy of Design, and Grim Natwick studied painting in Vienna under Gustav Klimt. Animators back then were artists first and animators second. If you want to imitate someone’s approach to creativity, imitate the best! Become an artist.

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Theory: Heroes and Imitation

imitation

Today on Facebook, I got into a discussion about “fan videos”. Someone pointed me to this film…

Superman Classic
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2WVlmNqMMs

At first glance, this film appears well animated, professional, polished… everything someone might expect of a good animated film… except one thing. Take a look at this film now and see if you can figure out what that is…

Superman in The Mechanical Monsters
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34e7fL9xgmI

Separated by 70 years, these two films are very similar on the surface. But underneath, they are completely different. The Fleischers were breaking new ground with their film, adapting a comic book that reflected the mood and style of the time. They were experimenting with new techniques and expanding what their medium was capable of doing. Superman Classic imitates without really adding anything new.

WHY IS THAT A BAD THING?

It’s bad because the film maker who made the fan film obviously has considerable skill and talent. He should be making his own films that reflect his own point of view and time and place. Instead, he spent months and months of his life *recreating something that already existed*. We might be impressed with the sheer amount of work involved, but when it comes down to it, it’s as pointless as singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”.

“Hard work and long hours aren’t what make for great cartoons. Ideas are.” -John Kricfalusi

When you imitate, the absolute best that you can achieve is to be “almost as good” as the thing you are imitating. How can a copy ever be better? But if you go back to the fundamentals and create your own thing, you have the chance to perhaps surpass what has been done before. Best of all, instead of rehashing something that was relevant half a century ago, you are creating something relevant to the here and now.

NOSTALGIA IS THE ENEMY OF CREATIVITY

It’s good to have heroes, it’s good to study great drawings by copying them to figure out what makes them tick, and it’s good to admire films from the past. Inspiration is important. But there is a proper application of inspiration.

“It’s only natural to pattern yourself after someone. If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry. But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Some people say they want to be like Bob Dylan. But they shouldn’t do that by copying me. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter like me should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster.” -Bob Dylan

Every day on the internet, I see people drawing endless imitations of Sonic the Hedgehog or anime or Tex Avery cartoons. In fact, there’s a whole website devoted to that called DeviantArt. It upsets me to see otherwise fine artists squander their talent on mindless imitation of a tiny, inbred handful of things. If they focused their energy in gaining a diverse and wide range of influences, and analyzing the thought process behind the creation of their favorite cartoons, they would stand a chance of surpassing their heroes. But instead, they are trapped in an endless loop of copying the thing they admire, wasting their energy tracing the outlines of its shadow.