Saturday, April 12, 2014

Creating Great Characters by Thinking from the Inside Out

One of the key aspects of being an animator is that you really need to know who a character is and what their personality and character are before you can animate a single frame of film. How does this character think? How does this character move? Do they do things deliberately and methodically...or abruptly and instinctually? Are they a passionate character? Or more reserved? Exuberant? Or more contained? Of course, what they're thinking and feeling in each particular scene has a profound effect on all of that as well.

The consequence of not considering all of this is that you will end up treating your character like a puppet, moving them from place to place within a scene and having them go through meaningless, mechanical motions. This, obviously, defeats the whole purpose of creating animated characters and trying to get the audience to see them as living, breathing creatures that can generate an emotional response in the viewer.

I didn't spend much time as an animator before I got into story, but I feel that the time I did spend in animation helped me very much when I was trying to develop an approach to storyboarding. It made the character's personalities foremost in my mind whenever I think about how to board a sequence. I feel like my best ideas and the genesis of the best "moments" I've created have always come out of figuring out ways to mine and exploit a character's inner personality and quirks to come up with entertaining, original and meaningful moments.

If I was going to humbly offer one piece of general advice to a prospective storyboard artist, I would tell that person to develop their sense of character and how to impart a personality in every aspect of a character's being: the words they choose, how they speak, how they move, how they think...literally, everything about a character should have some basis in their deep personality and character. Otherwise, characters become uninteresting, lifeless robots and you won't be able to create a scene that's funny...or emotional...or dramatic. You won't able to get anyone to care about anything you board.

"Dr. Strangelove" is a movie that I recently re-watched after I noticed it was available to stream on Netflix. I hadn't seen it in a while, but I definitely recommend it to anyone that has never seen it before. It's one of Kubrick's older movies. Personally, I actually prefer Kubrick's older films to the work he did later in his career (the internet will now descend on me with pitchforks and torches, I'm sure).

Anyway, spoilers for "Dr. Strangelove" ahead...

I bring up the film as an example of great characters that are embodied by actors who flesh them out by making great choices. Part of what emphasizes the fact that the characters are played well is the fact that Peter Sellers plays three parts in the movie, and plays them all very distinctly and differently. In the character of Mandrake, he does a great job of portraying an English soldier who tries to maintain his dignity and calm as the world unravels around him and he tries to deal with a couple of madmen (Sterling Hayden and Keenan Wynn, both also great in the film). Also, Sellers plays the President of the U.S., and really does a great job of playing him flat and straight (as you'd expect a President to be) and I like how you sense he's trying to maintain his professional demeanor and be a good leader...but you really sense how out-of-his-depth he is as he tries to deal with the crazy people descending into chaos around him. The most well-known character he plays in the film is Dr. Strangelove, and it's definitely the broadest character, but for me it's not as interesting as the others because it's so broad that it becomes a bit of a cartoon. There's so subtlety to the character. There's no subtext to the Nazi scientist...he's just a crackpot. Sellers does a great job of playing the character though, as he always does. I don't know who's idea it was that his character has no control over what his right hand does, and he's always fighting to keep his hand from giving the Nazi salute. It's a crazy idea, and a memorable one, and leads to some physical comedy.

Some clips of Sellers in his various characters:

As Mandrake, the British RAF officer who has realized that he is dealing with an off-balanced lunatic in Sterling Hayden's character, Sellers tries to keep his calm and deal with a character that is clearly beyond reason (I love how Sellers focuses on the gum wrapper in the scene, and how he folds it and fusses with it to show his inner turmoil in a restrained way):

Later, Madrake tries to desperately reach the President to give the "recall code" that will avoid nuclear war and the end of the world. He's thwarted by a phone operator that doesn't understand the urgency of the situation, and Keenan Wynn, who also doesn't really grasp the importance of what is happening. I love how Wynn's deadpan demeanor plays against Seller's barely contained frustration and panic. This is a great scene for Mandrake, as you see him trying to stay calm, but finally he is pushed too far and allows himself to bark at Wynn's character...but in a very reserved, mannered way. Wynn comes off as a soldier who was given orders, and has already completed those orders (in a previous scene), and really has no idea of what needs to happen next, and no interest in taking any initiative in making anything else happen beyond what he's been told to do. I really love this scene:

In the next clip, Sellers appears as the President, having to call the Russian Prime Minister (who is partying with his mistress, apparently) and break the "bad news" that bombers are headed for Russia with nuclear warheads. This type of "hearing one side of a telephone conversation" comedy seems to have been very popular in the sixties. I love how you can tell exactly what "Dmitri" is saying by Seller's reactions and responses. Sellers does an amazing job of playing a guy who's trying to be friendly and break bad news in the nicest way, and then starts to struggle as the conversation goes off the rails quickly. As a side note, look at the great variations in staging that make a simple, talking scene feel dynamic and interesting. Also, "Strangelove" has great cinematography. It's a great example of how to control values in a black and white medium.

Sellers as Dr. Strangelove (playing against himself as the President), as the Nazi crackpot pitches the idea of going underground to avoid the nuclear devastation and is constantly distracted by his hand, which has a mind of his own, and wants to give the Nazi salute:

I have to say, though, my favorite character in the film is Buck Turgidson, played by George C. Scott. Buck is a great character: he's an American general more interested in "beating the Commies" than avoiding a nuclear holocaust, and the one person that truly seems to be enjoying the descent into chaos that happens during the film. He seems unable to grasp the gravity of the situation (as a side note, oblivious characters are always great for comedy) and his priorities through the film are completely out of whack.

A quick aside about writing: there are a lot of scenes in "Strangelove" that are about what is the most important priorities, and characters who are funny (and create conflict) by placing the wrong things as priorities over more important considerations. As a nuclear apocalypse approaches, Scott's character is more concerned that the Russian ambassador will see the American War Room and "the big board" than saving the world from destruction. The Russian ambassador is more concerned with taking secret photos of the War Room than avoiding nuclear war. Wynn's character is more concerned with how the Coca Cola company will feel about vandalism to it's property than stopping the errant nuclear bombers, etc. As you create characters and stories, one way to give characters a comedic flaw is to give them the wrong priorities and place them in conflict with people who are rational and trying to focus on the right things.

Anyway, as far as Scott's performance, it's a great example of how the character's personality comes through in everything he does. His high energy, great attitudes and expressive poses would put many an animated character to shame! Everything he does in invested with an absolute certainty that everything he does is right. He's cocky and flamboyant. He's a ton of fun to watch.

I wish I could find his character's introduction on youtube, but in lieu of that, here's a great clip showing an amazing piece of performance. Scott lays out his plan for committing to all-out nuclear war and "catching the Russians with their pants down". I love how enthusiastic he is about such a grim subject, and he has so many great little acting beats as he goes from conspiratorial as he lays out his plan, to petulant when the president shoots him down, to indignant at the idea that the Russian ambassador will see "the big board". Scott's character always seems to think he's the smartest guy in the room and can't figure out why nobody is agreeing with him, and he always seems to be place importance on the absolutely wrong things. Playing both of those characteristics make him such a great character:

In the War Room, Scott talks about how good the Air Force pilots are, and as he tells the President that a nuclear accident is unavoidable, he acts with all the exhuberance of a toddler who just got an amazing gift for Christmas:

This clip ends with a very original bit of acting (some stories say it was an accident), but maybe my favorite Scott moment from the film: Scott rolls to the ground and leaps up as he gestures towards the big board. It makes him feel excited and kid-like, and I love it. That final pose is great. It's amazing. Any animator or story artist should be proud to come up with a pose and attitude as good:

Anyway, I only mention "Dr. Strangelove" because I re-watched it recently. Any time you watch a film, be on the lookout for actors who are great at really inhabiting a character and investing that character with attitudes, poses, tics and gestures that communicate who they are and what they're feeling. As an animator or a story artist, this is an invaluable tool to have at your disposal and will make the difference between scenes that come to life and ones that just sit there, flat and lifeless.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

On Reading With a Critical Eye and Becoming an Original

A couple of commenters pointed out that they thought the "How to Draw Comics Comic" post was a bit underwhelming and not the best example to show as advice on how to draw comic books. To be clear: I was not posting the pages as a way of saying that they were the greatest resource ever created on making comic books. I thought that when I discussed the questionable pedigree of the book, that much would be clear. My motivation in posting it was more in the vein of making it available as a rarity for people who've never seen it. Yes, "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" is a better resource (and I've talked about that book before), but it's also still in print and readily available to anyone that's interested. The "How to Draw Comics Comic" is not.

It may not be a perfect resource, but I still think it's worthwhile. I think that--even though the text may not be written in the best way, and some of the illustrations are a bit crude--there are some kernels of good, solid, basic information within the book.

I say it often, but maybe it bears repeating: I would hope that with every instructional book you read--no matter who wrote it or who endorses it--you read it with a critical eye and question every line that the author writes (and that advice goes is doubly true when it comes to blogs). There's no one right way to draw a comic, or paint a painting, or do a drawing. If there was one book that was full of dead-on accurate advice that worked for everybody, then everyone would be a great artist and we would all only need to own that one book. In reality, every art book is full of some advice that makes sense to some people, and just doesn't work for others. That's how art works. There's no absolutes, no "right" or "wrong" way to do anything, and if you tell yourself otherwise, you're limiting yourself in a really prohibitive way.

Personally, I don't read art books thinking, "let me download this info into my brain and then I'll know exactly how to do exactly what this artist does". The reason I like reading art books is because, as I read them, there's a debate going on in my head: does what this artist says make sense to me? Or would I approach this problem differently? Do I have a way of working that could be improved by adapting some of the techniques the author suggests? Or does my approach work better for me as it is? By reading about their technique and comparing it against my own, I'm able to sharpen my own understanding of why I do what I do and test my methods to see if there's a better way I could be doing things. One of the worst habits an artist can get into is doing things the same way over and over the same way without questioning why they're doing things the way they are. And even if you don't end up changing your work habits after reading the book, you'll still have a better understanding of why you do things the way you do and why they're the best approach for you.

The idea of exposing yourself to many different viewpoints is the same philosophy that explains why I watch a lot of movies. Some people feel you should only see the best movies, and that seeing any movie that might be sub-par is a waste of time. I would say that I get a lot out of seeing movies that aren't "perfect" (as if there was such a thing as a "perfect" movie), because no matter how imperfect the film may be, I like to see what the film makers tried to do, and it gives me an opportunity to ask myself: would I have approached the subject matter that way? Is there another way to do it that I think would work better? And by having this debate in my head, I learn a lot about what different possibilities there are for tackling problems and I find it sparks my imagination to think of new ways to tell stories.

Another way I like to test my perceptions is by reading film reviews. If I like a movie, I'll read negative reviews of the film. If I dislike a movie, I like to read positive reviews. That can help me get insight into questions like: did I miss something about the film that connected with other people? Did I have a different interpretation of the movie than that reviewer? Was there something in the film that didn't work for the reviewer that worked for me? Or did we have the same impressions of the film, but the deficiencies weren't enough for me to dislike the film? And so on.

Turning this philosophy to art books, let's talk about "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way", since it was brought up by commenters, and it is definitely a book worth reading if you're interested in drawing (and especially if you're interested in drawing comic books). The goal of the authors is to tell you how they approach that subject at Marvel. And the book does a great job of that. But is the advice given in the book the only way to make a comic book? If you deviate from the advice given in the book, are you doing it "wrong"? Are there "right" and "wrong" ways to create a comic book, and if your approach isn't one described in a manual about making comics, how can you tell if your choice is valid?

As an example, let's limit our discussion to two of the iconic art elements that give classic comic books their comic feel: the use of primary colors and the use of black areas.

First, let's talk about how those elements of comic book style came into being. Both of these things, as I understand it, came out of necessity. They were limitations forced onto artists by circumstance. They weren't choices that artists would have made if they had the choices available to them that we do today. So it doesn't make sense to adapt them without questioning whether they're the right choices for you. Let me explain…

I'm not a comic book expert, but as far as I know, the idea of inking thick black lines and adding black areas started out as a way to make comic art easier to reproduce. Obviously, when comics were in their infancy, the printing technology that existed had certain limitations. To overcome these deficiencies, comic artists had to make their artwork as easy to reproduce as possible. So adding thick black lines ensured that the artwork would reach the reader in a way that looked as much as possible as the artist intended, regardless of how poor the printing equipment was that was being used. And with a limited palette of colors that could be printed, black areas (as well as "white" areas--or, at least, parts that had neither black nor colored ink on them) became important tools at an artist's disposal. The best artists did a great job of maximizing these limited tools and started using areas of black ink (plus the white of the paper) to create clarity, dimension and mood to the best of their ability, in a way that would make them work even if the color was never added or was added in a thoughtless way. Some examples from around the web (by Milt Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Joe Kubert, and Noel Sickles):

Of course, most comic pages were meant to be colored, and again, the limitations of early printing dictated how color choices were made. I'm no expert on the history of printing, but choices were limited and printing pages with a wide range of subtle colors was not an option back then. Early newspaper comics (and comic books) had to be colored in a limited way, which lent itself to bright primary colors, and the limited options forced colorists to be inventive with color choices and prevented them from being literal when it comes to coloring characters and objects.

I like the way color is used, in these examples, more for clarity and expression than in a literal way. The same wall in a room may be colored green in one panel and yellow in the next. It's all about readability and contrast. Even the shock lines radiating from a punch are a separate color from the rest of the panel. The bold line drawings carry the story and express so much of the story that color is just there to help fill in forms and give the story a dramatic punch.

So the limitations of early printing contributed to the choices made by early comic book artists and contributed to the development of the "Marvel" style that continues to this day. Even though the style came partly out of limitations, the style is a good match for the subject matter. There's something about clean black and white lines with areas of black that is impactful and dynamic. It lends itself well to the subject matter favored by traditional Marvel comics, where good and evil are cleanly delineated and the emphasis is on dynamic, straightforward action. Even the use of primary colors is well-suited to Marvel superheroes and villains, who are clearly either good or evil. Older Marvel comics don't tell stories that have a ton of ambiguity or nuance. There aren't a lot of "grey areas" in the storytelling, and the bright primary colors reflect that. The choices of how the art is handled reflects perfectly the choice of subject matter.

And if you read "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way," it would tell you to make those exact choices.

The question becomes: what if you want to do something that isn't exactly a Marvel style comic? I would think that you'd still want to read the book, to hear their advice about what makes a comic book succeed or fail. You'd still want to know whatever advice you could glean about comic books, drawing and storytelling.

But of course you'd want to read the book with a critical eye, and ask yourself as you read: what aspects of this book apply to my work and will make my work better? And what aspects of this book won't fit with my style, aren't appropriate for my story and might undermine my subject matter? How can I deviate from the advice given in the book to find the best way to tell my particular story?

Modern comic book storytelling encompasses a wider range of subtlety and nuance than it used to, obviously. And a big part (I would think) of what makes that possible is the more varied options at the disposal of artists these days due to advances in the printing process.

Here are some examples of comic books that have styles that differ from the Marvel "house style" and show a concerted effort on the part of the artist to find a fresh style that accentuates their storytelling in the best way possible. The list could go on and on, but here are the first examples that popped into my mind...

I haven't read "Jupiter's Legacy", but I've flipped through the comic, and right away you get a totally different feel than you do from the Marvel examples above. The lack of thick black lines, big black spaces and the more subtle, monochromatic color choices give the comic a much more nuanced feel than, say, the Captain America pages above. The tiny touches of detail and subtle gradations of color shift tell you that this is a comic that is about more nuanced topics than the type of broad, straight forward subject matter that your typical Marvel Golden Age comic is attempting to tackle.

Which isn't to say that it's in any way superior--or inferior to--Captain America, Thor or Hulk comics. It's just different. It tackles a different type of subject matter. And the artwork and color palette are a reflection of that. The choices made by the artist are the best ones to match the subject matter the writer has chosen for the story.

Chris Ware is another artist that draws comics, but his work is very far from the advice given in the Marvel book. I am not that familiar with his work, but clearly, one look at his precise lines and lack of black areas and you can tell his work has a very different feel from Thor and Captain America, and from Jupiter's Legacy as well.

One of the central themes of "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" is to make every choice--whether it's staging, posing, or storytelling--as dynamic as possible. This is good advice for any artist, and it's a good skill to know how to make a drawing more dynamic, when the situation demands it.

That works well for Marvel subject matter. On the other hand, when you look at Ware's pages, the people aren't posed dynamically, and the camera is not placed in the most dynamic manner. This is, obviously, intentional, and is an integral part of what gives Ware's work the unique mood and tone that it has. Would his work be improved by being made more dynamic? Would that help him tell his story better? No, it would undermine the type of story he's trying to tell. And again, neither choice is "better" or "worse". They're just choices, and it's up to the artist to decide what choices fit his story and which would fight the type of story he or she is trying to tell.

Jeff Smith's "Bone" is another example of style and how it affects storytelling. "Bone" has been colored at some points, but originally it was all printed in black and white.

To accentuate the lightness of the storytelling and help carry the humor of the writing, Smith doesn't tend to use a lot of black areas…just simple, crisp black lines and lots of open space. Usually there's not too much detail. It gives his work a light feeling that fits the humorous tone.

When the situation calls for it (like in a dramatic moment, or when a pretty landscape drawing is called for), Smith will add more black areas to help accentuate the mood, add a more dramatic tone or bring depth to the landscape. But the artwork always retains its simple, clean style.

Another comic book that was originally reproduced in black and white is Will Eisner's "The Spirit". But Eisner's treatment of black and white is very different from Smith's…in order to create a darker, more mysterious feeling, Eisner uses black areas liberally and frequently has his characters and environments shrouded in shadow to create a feeling of mystery and unease. You feel like anything could pop out of the dark and scare you at any moment.

The large amount of space devoted to black (and dark grey) gives the pages a more weighty and dramatic feeling and a darker mood than pages with more space devoted to white (like "Bone"). Whereas Smith doesn't use a lot of detail to keep his pages light and easygoing, Eisner uses detail to make scenes feel more atmospheric and to give objects in the scene more weight and gravity.

Jordi Bernet's "Torpedo" is another example of using black areas to create a darker mood, while also using black to create shadows that obscure characters and throw menacing shadows over their faces. Again, a great choice of style to reflect the tone and mood of the storytelling. When you see colored versions of "Torpedo", they don't have the same "film noir" feel and there's less contrast in the images. I think the black and white versions are superior to the colored versions.

Anyway, I could go on, but I hope I've made my point! All of these artists deviate from the ideals set forth in the Marvel book to various degrees. Does that make them wrong? No. Does it make the Marvel book wrong? No.

That there's no one "rule book" for doing any kind of art, even comic books, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The storytelling and subject matter should dictate the choices, not how some book tells you how it should be done. Following a rule book is not how great art is created. The first comic book artists are legends because they created the style from scratch. They weren't following a book. They were experimenting, trying, failing, and learning what works and what doesn't. That's what an artist does! An art book can only shed a tiny bit of light--like a single candle--onto the dark, foreboding path of becoming an artist. The only way to cast a wide, bright light onto the path is to gather a giant fistful of candles, each candle representing the things you've learned from your own experience, the things you've read and been told by teachers, and your own taste and internal compass of what's right (now that's a twisted metaphor)! Don't look to any book (or dumb blog) as the ultimate bible on art or absolute rule book on how to succeed. Only you can find your own way through experience and experimentation. That's the only way to find your voice and become an original instead of a pale imitation. The only artists that get remembered are those that find a new path that's never been traveled before.

"If you can see your own path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path." - Joseph Campbell

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

"How to Draw Comics Comic" issue #1, part three

Here is the final part of "How to Draw Comics Comic issue #1". Take a look at the final page, which teases what will come in issue #2…sadly, it was not to be.