April 14th, 2015

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Theory: Originality vs Ripoff- Chaplin’s Shadow

Charlie Chaplin Lighting Up

The Legendary Charlie Chaplin

Recently, controversy has erupted in the blogosphere over artists who directly copy other artists’ work (See the articles on Cartoonist Todd Goldman and The Great Ripping Friends Rip-Off View the Ripping Friends Ripoff Cartoon.) The issue of exactly where the dividing line lies between "homage" and "ripoff" is open for debate among fans, but today I want to speak to the artists out there… and in particular, aspiring animators. For you, this subject is more than just idle chatter.

Every day, an artist makes thousands of decisions. These decisions affect not just the piece he is working on at the time, but his entire creative output. It’s important to understand why you’re making the decisions you make, and to strive to work your problems out for yourself; not just apply someone else’s decisions as a substitute for your own. Truly great artists refuse to even copy themselves… Take Terry-Toons animator Jim Tyer for instance. He never approached the same situation with the same animation twice in his entire career.

There are consequences to the decisions we make as artists. Sometimes in the heat of creativity, right and wrong can become blurred by practicality and commercial demands. It’s up to you to balance those competing pressures, but as the old saying goes, "Virtue is its own reward."

It’s hard to not react with bias to current examples of imitation, but time can lend clarity. I’m going to tell you about two performers who were popular nearly a century ago. One of them you know. The other you don’t. The reason for that is in the decisions those two artists made. -Stephen Worth

Edgar Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin

Edgar Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin

CHAPLIN’S SHADOW

In 1916, Charlie Chaplin signed a contract with Mutual to produce 12 comedy shorts over a year and half’s time. He was paid the unheard of amount of $670,000 for the shorts, and was given unprecidented creative freedom. We now know that the end result of this deal was a package of slapstick shorts that represent the most influential comedy films in the entire history of cinema. But back in 1916, it was just a LOT of money being paid to a relatively untested artist.

Here is an anthology that pulled together articles from Judge magazine during this seminal period in movie history…

Film Flashes

In the pages of this anthology is this article on Chaplin’s deal with Mutual. Although the form of the prose is quite different from what we read today in entertainment magazines and blogs, the apologies for appealing to the unrefined masses, complaints about big budgets, and stories about movie-star ego trips are the same sorts of sniping we read in reviews today. What this writer didn’t know was that Chaplin was on the cusp of breaking through as the single most important filmmaker of his time.

Film Fan

Now that the stage is set, I want to introduce you to "The Shadow"…

Billy RitchieBilly RitchieBilly Ritchie worked alongside Chaplin on the English Music Hall stage, performing as the drunk in the classic sketch, "Mumming Birds", just as Chaplin did in his vaudeville days. Chaplin’s biographer, David Robinson described this sketch like this…

The setting for "Mumming Birds" represents the stage of a small music hall, with two boxes at either side. The sketch opens with fortissimo music as a girl shows an elderly gentleman and his nephew- an objectionable boy, armed with peashooter, tin trumpet, and picnic hamper- into the lower O.P. box.

The Inebriated Swell is settled into the prompt side box, and instantly embarks upon some business of a very Chaplinesque character. He peels the glove from his right hand, tips the waiting attendant, and then, forgetting that he has already removed his glove, absently attempts to peel it off again. He tries to light his cigar from the electric light beside the box. The boy holds out a match for him, and in gracefully inclining to reach it, the Swell falls out of the box.

English Music HallEnglish Music HallThe show within the show consisted of a series of abysmal acts… The acts changed over the years, but some remained invariable: a ballad singer, a male voice quartet, and the Saucy Soubrette, delighting the Swell with her rendering of "You Naughty, Naughty Man!"

The finale was always "Marconi Ali, the Terrible Turk- the Greatest Wrestler Ever to Appear Before the British Public". The Terrible Turk was a poor, puny little man weighed down by an enormous mustache, who would leap so voraciously upon a bun thrown at him by the Boy that the Stage Manager had to cry out, "Back, Ali! Back!" The Turk’s offer to fight any challenger for a purse of £100 provided the excuse for a general scrimmage to climax the act.

Ritchie came from the same basic background as Chaplin, so when Chaplin began to rise to fame, he was a natural choice to put out film comedy shorts to compete. Henry Lehrman, who was previously a director at Mack Sennett, hired Ritchie to star in a series under his "Lehrman Knock-Outs" banner. The comparisons with Chaplin were inevitable. Ritchie used the same costume that Chaplin wore… the bowler hat, bamboo cane and tattered suit that became famous as the Little Tramp costume.

Here is an interview with Ritchie made around 1916…

Billy Ritchie: Who Wore Them First?
Billy Ritchie: Who Wore Them First?

The author of this article makes it clear that Ritchie’s career has one foot planted in his own shoes, and the other in Chaplin’s. But it didn’t last… When Chaplin’s Mutual Shorts were released, they were a sensation. They blew Ritchie out of the water. Lehrman was forced to change distributors to Universal in 1917, and the quality of the films took a nose dive. Two years later, Ritchie was attacked on the set by an ostrich, and never recovered. He died from the injuries he sustained in 1921, leaving his wife without financial support.

Chaplin imitator, Billy West
Chaplin imitator, Billy West

Billy Ritchie wasn’t the only Chaplin imitator… Billy West and Charles Amador also traded on the image of the Little Tramp; and a cartoon series produced by Gaumont in Europe exploited the character as well. Chaplin sued to protect his creation, but ultimately his own success and brilliant creativity plowed his imitators under better than any legal writ.

Ironically, Chaplin never sued his old comrade, Billy Ritchie. And after Ritchie’s death, he took pity on his widow and gave her a job as his costumer. She prepared the Little Tramp costume for Chaplin’s performances, just as she had for her late husband.

The history of film is full of stories like this. Here are Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo…

Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo

…remember them? No? Well, that’s because they didn’t last either. Petrillo was quoted as saying, "I hold the record for being the world’s youngest has-been."

In time, surface similarities like the hat and cane ceased to matter. Audiences didn’t love Chaplin for his costume. It was the spark of genius in the creator that made the Little Tramp immortal. You can’t steal genius. You may gain a short term benefit from ripping off another artist to further your own career, but you’ll pay for it in the end.

The Tramp

The moral of this cautionary tale is to be true to yourself. The business has no shame. The audience won’t sue you for ripping off someone else’s idea. You need to develop a conscience for yourself. No one is going to do it for you. You owe it to your muse.

Here’s an interesting post on a similar subject at John K’s blog.

If you want an incredible insight into the mind of a brilliant filmmaker, you will want to get the DVD of Unknown Chaplin. Using never before seen outtakes, these three programs reconstruct Chaplin’s creative process from the ground up. This is one of the greatest documentaries ever made. Check it out!

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.

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Posted by Stephen Worth @ 3:25 pm

April 13th, 2015

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Instruction: Wash Painting- In Praise Of Happy Accidents

Wash Painting

Animation Resources supporter, Mike Fontanelli brought by a stack of mid-1930s Colliers magazines for us to digitize. Colliers was the "Rolls Royce" of weekly magazines for many years, employing some of the greatest illustrators in the business. In browsing through page after page of beautiful wash paintings, I was struck by how rare it is to see illustrations like this any more. That’s just plain wrong.

Wash Painting

In our digital age, programs like Photoshop have replaced brush and pen. But Photoshop doesn’t come close to the flexibility and variety of natural textures that water painting can provide. And in the hands of an experienced artist, a brush can knock out a finished painting much faster than with a computer. It just takes advance planning, concentration and an experienced hand.

Wash Painting

Look at the beautiful compositions in these examples. The artists were working from a carefully constructed drawing, and they worked out every detail before paint touched paper. The light source and the value scale are precisely controlled to make the image "mesh" in your eye. There’s no wasted effort or extraneous detail. The paintings themselves were executed very quickly.

Wash Painting

That’s the exact opposite of the way that a digital image is created. Instead of making all the creative decisions up front, the digital artist makes those decisions as he paints. In Photoshop, it’s typical to build up the illustration in layers, stacking up planes that can be shifted around as needed. The composition evolves, created in sections and joined with blurred seams to connect them. This evolutionary process may result in an image that is acceptably complex, but it doesn’t lend itself to creating a strong or unified statement.

Wash PaintingWash PaintingRecently, I saw a cityscape background from an animated feature that had been created by cutting and pasting pieces of images together. The light came from six different directions. The perspective changed from one part of the image to another. If you looked at any one small section, it looked OK, but the whole didn’t work together. The overall impression was cacophony. Worse yet, the image looked terrible if it was reduced in size or resolution. The scale of the overall composition and the degree of detail was uniform across the entire image. When you resized or reduced the resolution, it all turned to mush.

Contrast that with these beautiful wash paintings… The overall composition reads no matter how small you make it, and there’s a lot of variety between sharp details (in the faces and hands) and loose brushwork (in the fabric and backgrounds). This keeps your eye focused on the important part of the composition. But there’s an even bigger difference… Even when enlarged many times, these paintings still look good because of what watercolor painters refer to as the "happy accidents". Any digital anomaly or seam between layers in a Photoshop image will stand out like a sore thumb, but a loose brush stroke, a bit of paper peeking through the dry brush, or a bleeding bit of pigment can look beautiful. The accidents are natural looking.

Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting

All of the images you see here come from two issues of Colliers from 1934. Every week, the staff artists had to quickly produce striking images to accompany the articles. Speed was of the essence. Wash painting was a quick and beautiful solution.

Wash Painting

One week, an artist might be illustrating a romance…

Wash Painting

The next week a Western adventure…

Wash Painting

The technique lent itself to both realistic depiction and cartoony stylization.

Wash Painting

If you haven’t checked them out yet, make sure to take a look at our previous posts on 30s & 40s Colliers illustrations and Wartime Colliers. There’s a wealth of great images in old magazines like this.

Wash Painting

Many thanks to Mike Fontanelli for sharing these with us. He has a stack of Colliers with Earl Oliver Hurst covers that he will be bringing by soon. I can’t wait to see those.

Wash Painting
Wash Painting

If these amazing images have inspired you, and you’d like a project to sharpen your art skills, here’s a lesson from the fabulous Famous Artists Course. Pull out your brushes and some lamp black and give it a try. Have fun!

FAMOUS ARTISTS ON WASH PAINTING PART ONE: The Fundamentals Of Wash Painting

Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting

FAMOUS ARTISTS ON WASH PAINTING PART TWO: Step By Step Through Paintings By Dohanos and Whitcomb

Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting

Let me see what you come up with.

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

This posting is part of an online series of articles dealing with Instruction.

IllustrationIllustration

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit spotlighting Illustration.

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Posted by Stephen Worth @ 2:50 pm

April 13th, 2015

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Art Education: Your Practice Habit

While practicing your craft you may find yourself wanting to devote time to practice, but finding either little available time, or a lack of motivation to begin work. Commonly, many artists will wait for inspiration to strike before they begin working, and then will feverishly work for hours on end while the inspiration lasts. Later these same artists many times leave their work unfinished, forever waiting for their fickle inspiration to return. Others are frequently paralyzed by indecision as they wrestle to find the right idea to work on in the right way. Even productive artists can suffer from their habits, working themselves sick by missing out on sleep and meals.

If these scenarios describe the way you work, then what you need is to form your own Practice Habit. Consider the many daily activities you do without any prompting: eating meals, brushing your teeth, watching a show, etc. For almost all of us, our daily lives are filled with activities which we perform at the same time in the same way every day, which we no longer even think about. We want your artistic practice to be one of these automatic activities (or at least we want starting practice to be automatic, not the work itself).

The Habit Loop

The_Habit_Loop

The core loop of habits

We can use certain psychological tricks to establish and reinforce behaviors until the become second nature. Doing this takes time and discipline, but once established, makes work pleasant and regular. I have experimented on both myself and on students in using this method and have had much success altering our habits for the better over a period of about a month before the habit was solidified.

It’s important to note that replacing an established habit with a new one is much harder to do than institute a fresh habit without competing. Therefore starting this process immediately following a vacation or the end of a school quarter is particularly effective. Additionally, any disruption of your routine which lasts more than a week may destroy your current habits and force you to establish new ones.

Cue

Firstly, you need a signal to activate your habit. This can be as simple as an alarm on your phone or computer, or you can piggy-back on an existing cue such as the end of work, class or a meal. Make sure that the cue is unavoidable and clear so that you don’t accidentally miss it.

Routine

This is your actual practice. You should set up your work space and materials in the same way, preferably in the same place every time you begin work. As we’ll see, the work itself shouldn’t be exactly the same day to do lest you risk artistic stagnation, but the circumstances under which you work should be as consistent as possible to reinforce  your habit and reduce distraction.

Reward

This is the positive feeling or result of having worked. You can also use a material reward on yourself if you find it necessary such as a snack or a game. With artistic work, this is usually not needed because the work process itself is quite rewarding on its own.

Be Consistent

We want to create a daily artistic practice, meaning that if at all possible, you should pick a time to work which is available seven days a week, every day of the month. Because of work and family obligations, working on your art everyday may not be possible. Obviously we want to skip as few days at possible, but if you must skip a day, try to make it the same day every week or try to pattern the days to skip the fewest number of consecutive days. The worst case scenario which will still work for establishing an art habit, is to work on your art every other day.

Weekly_Planning

Take the time of day into consideration as well. Most people have a particular time of day which is best for working, so try to think hard before choosing your’s. In the past when you’ve worked on your art and felt good about it, was it early in the day? Was it immediately after lunch? Late at night? Whenever it is for you, try to make that time your work time.

Similarly, you should pick a work space which is consistent as well. Being in the same place will help to reinforce your habit by making the physical location a part of the routine. Try to pick a place which is always available to you and free from distraction.

Plan to Begin

The goal for habit forming is to start working. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you then proceed to work for an hour or for 10 minutes, the important thing is to establish a time to begin working and allow for time to continue if you feel like it (in my experience, most artists will happily continue working, but starting work is the hard part).

Now you may be saying to yourself, “Why shouldn’t I plan to work for a few hours?” Forcing yourself to work, although necessary in a professional environment, is not what we should do for our personal practice, and the reason why has to do with the Reward step in the Habit Loop.

Imagine that you begin work and can’t do anything right that day. You try and fail, and force yourself to keep going for the whole duration of your planned time. You feel awful right up to the end of the session and exasperated, quit when the allotted time is up, happy to be done with it. How will you feel the next day when you have to sit down to start work again? Do you think those negative feelings might influence your attitude when you start working the next day? For me, and for many of my students, it does, which is why I never recommend forcing a set duration of work.

Instead, I recommend planning a start time only, providing available time to work in if it happens that day. The benefit of this is a lower amount of pressure daily and permission to fail to work on a given day without heaping guilt on yourself. So you didn’t get anything worth while done today? So what? You worked yesterday and you’ll work again tomorrow due to the daily component of your practice habit. Consistency is very freeing, as it ensures that regular progress takes place, while providing forgiveness for work lulls.

Don’t Distract Yourself!

Remember that the purpose of this time is for personal work only. This means don’t turn on the TV or Netflix, don’t listen to podcasts, don’t start an hour-long phone call while working. Concentrate on only your art. As stated in Richard Williams’ “The Animator’s Survival Kit” this advice alone has the power to radically increase your productivity.

milt_kahl_richard_williams

Milt Kahl on working while listening to music.

The compound problem with working while distracted is that we’re trying to establish a practice habit. This means that if you establish a habit of working while watching Netflix, you will always need to work while watching Netflix! Don’t make a distraction a part of your habit.

If you’re working at home or in a school lab, set yourself up for success by letting people around you know to leave you alone at this time. Turn off your phone if you have to. Sequester yourself in your locked room if you must. Do whatever it takes to get time with just you and your art, you wont regret it.

Use Motivation Tricks

Get others to monitor your progress. If you promise your friends and family to show them your work daily, then you must have work to show daily. This little trap can make it a lot more important to you to work consistently than working alone.

Work near other artists (or at least in parallel). If you can arrange it, have someone else establish a practice habit at the same time you do. You don’t have to work in the same room, but you should frequently check in on the other’s progress. There’s nothing wrong with a little competition.

Keep track of the amount of work you’ve produced. This is very simple, whenever you finish an animation, or painting, or page of drawings, add 1 to the total you’ve completed and keep the total number visible. Human beings love watching numbers tick upward, and this tiny effort can have a noticeable impact on your throughput (especially when combined with the previous method).

Set a numeric goal for your work. Anything will do, such as 100 drawings, or 50 seconds of animation, etc. A medium to short term goal is a great way to push your work forward and keep the wheels of progress turning.

Finally, remember to set small goals which you can maintain. When you realize that your previous goal has become second nature, set another small goal which builds on your first. If you are able to incrementally ratchet your work upward by small degrees, you’ll find that before too long, you’re much more productive than you were before.

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Posted by Taber Dunipace @ 12:23 pm