Monday, October 20, 2014

Vanderpoel Cross Sections

One of my favorite life drawing books is "The Human Figure" by John H. Vanderpoel. Originally published in 1907, it is a very short and concise primer on anatomy. Vanderpoel has a unique way of looking at the human body and many of his thoughts on construction are exceptionally original and unique to his teachings.

For example, one of his illustrations shows the male and female forms from above in cross-sections. I really like this drawing because it's very helpful for picturing the human body in three dimensions and from an angle that we don't always consider. Here are scans from the book, with male figure on top and female figure beneath:

For clarity, Vanderpoel splits the figure into two sections at the waist.

I've always loved this way of dissecting the form, as I said, but it's a little bit graphically confusing. In an attempt to make it a little easier to grasp, I added color, starting with the warmest hue at the top, and descending to the coolest color.

I hope you find this useful.

If you're interested, the entire book is scanned very nicely at open Here's a direct link.

Although I really like Vanderpoel's book, it is a little hard to grasp. His way of writing is very formal and it's not always obvious exactly what he's trying to say. Because of printing limitations from when the book was made, his illustrations don't always appear next to the text that references them, which can add to the confusion.

Another aspect of the book that's worth mentioning is that Vanderpoel does a very good job of describing how the body is put together, but he always talks about the body in an erect standing form. There's very little discussion of how the body appears as it twists, bends and turns, which are (obviously) the ways in which we normally see the body (and what make it both interesting and challenging to draw).

So as I said, the book can be a bit of work to read, but I think it's worth the extra effort. At any rate, it's readily available online (and the paperback Dover edition is cheap), so give it a look.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Black Swans

Author Nassim Taleb wrote a book called Fooled By Randomness (which I haven't actually read) where he coined the idea of "Black Swan Events". He was talking about financial occurrences, but I think they can happen in the entertainment field too.

The term comes from the idea that in England in the Middle Ages people would use the term "Black Swan" to describe something that couldn't possibly exist, because people had only seen swans that were white in color. Later, when black swans were discovered to exist, people were amazed, but then realized that it only made sense that if white swans could exist, then surely black swans could exist as well.

Black Swan events follow these three criteria (according to wikipedia):

  1. The event is a surprise (to the observer).
  2. The event has a major effect.
  3. After the first recorded instance of the event, it is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been expected; that is, the relevant data were available but unaccounted for in risk mitigation programs. The same is true for the personal perception by individuals.

Examples of this are cited on wikipedia as the invention of the internet, the personal computer, World War I, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the attacks of September 11th.

There are films that fall into this category as well. It is true that--in order for a film to get made--someone has to sponsor it and believe in it at the outset, so obviously someone has to think it has a chance of success at some point…but there are many examples of studios believing that certain things won't ever work, only to be proven that these things will, in fact, work and can become much more successful than anyone could have anticipated. Everyone knows the famous story that while "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" was being made, every studio in Hollywood thought that it would be a colossal failure because--up to that point--nobody had ever sat through more than seven minutes or so of animation in one sitting. It was called "Disney's Folly" by everyone who thought it would fail, and yet it was a smash success which, in hindsight, seemed to make a lot of sense. 

I worked for many years on the film "Rapunzel" which eventually became "Tanged", and during all that time I had many discussions with people that thought Disney was crazy to make another fairy tale. Many people thought that the success of "Shrek" had proven that audiences were too sophisticated and too steeped in irony to really appreciate a sincere fairy tale anymore. People thought that in the post-Shrek world, there was no room for an old-school Disney fairy tale with princes and princesses that sing.

These days, it may be hard to remember that people once felt that way, after the success of "Tangled" and the monster runaway success of "Frozen". But I had many conversations with people who would ask why were doing such and obviously dumb thing in making an animated fairy tale. A Disney princess musical hadn't been successful in years, and some people at Disney thought we were going to be embarrassed when it came out because we would look stale and uninspired compared to the offerings of Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky, who were--at that time--dominating the animated market with everything other than princess fairy tale musicals.

For whatever reason, after "Princess and the Frog" came out, people seemed to take an even dimmer view of what we were doing. It sometimes felt like the studio would have cancelled "Tangled" if they could. Luckily for us, it was too late at that point, and it seemed like the studio was resigned to release it and get on with making other kinds of movies. On the web and in print media, all I ever read about "Tangled" is that it was an ill-conceived idea and was destined to be an embarrassing flop.

Then we had our first preview screenings, and the audiences really liked it. Things started changing after that, and the film starting building good momentum and good buzz. After it came out and did well, it seemed like nobody in the press or on the internet was that surprised…that it made sense, somehow, that Disney would make a CG fairy tale musical and of course make it feel both modern and traditional.

So to me, "Tangled" felt like a bit of a black swan. Yes, Disney is known for making animated fairy tales, so it wasn't a huge new risk in that way…but it was risky because accepted wisdom at that point was that audiences wanted something different and fresh. That the days of animated musical fairy tales was over.

Until it wasn't.

You see this in the movie business all the time, actually. Decades ago, pirate movies (like "Captain Blood" and "The Sea Hawk") were a successful genre…until they weren't. After a few attempts to revitalize the genre flopped (especially the notorious failure "Cutthroat Island"), there was no way anybody could get a pirate film made in Hollywood…until "Pirates of the Caribbean" became a success and spawned a bunch of sequels. The film makers were smart and added a new wrinkle by introducing a supernatural element which gave the film a fresh and unique feeling. Now, the idea of a pirate movie doesn't seem like a crazy impossible concept. But at one time, it seemed there would never be another one again.

Westerns are the same way. They were immensely popular for years, and then dropped off in popularity for a long time. Then "Unforgiven" came along and brought audiences a new angle on westerns that made the film seem fresh and modern and unlike the kind of westerns that had been seen before. And since then, the western remakes "3:10 to Yuma" and "True Grit" and original films like "The Proposition" have proven that audiences are more than willing to make westerns a hit, as long as they feel current and inventive.

"Star Wars" is yet another example. Science Fiction serials were popular in the 30s, 40s and 50s but had ceased to exist by the 1970s. They seemed passé and cheesy to studios at that point, and lots of people expressed surprise that a talented filmmaker like George Lucas wanted to squander his talents on a science fiction film that was inspired by the old serials at a time when there hadn't been a popular one for years and it seemed as though audiences had no interest in them. But Lucas had a vision for the films that nobody else could understand, and by making a smarter, fresher and more current science fiction movie, he connected with audiences and revitalized science fiction movies in a way that continues to make them popular today.

The common denominator in all of these instances is that filmmakers worked in a genre that had been done before but brought something new and fresh to the medium that revitalized the genre and made it popular again. They were all revolutionary in their own ways, and all of them became big hits.

So what's my point in all this? I think there are a few lessons to be learned from the Black Swans of the film world…I think, number one, that you'll always have limited (or no) success if you keep copying what you've seen before. Studios often like to play it safe by copying things that were successful before, but that's a recipe for driving something into the ground and for getting diminishing returns, and also, nobody has ever revolutionized the world by repeating something that's been seen already. Hopefully your goal is the revolutionize the world in some way, and the only way to do that is to take chances, be original and try something new. And don't get discouraged when people tell you that what you're doing won't work. Chances are, they're basing their judgement on something that's come before and didn't work. But in all the cases I mentioned above, conventional wisdom was that they would fail. In the end they didn't, because the creators had a vision that their critics weren't aware of or couldn't comprehend.

No matter what type of project you're pursuing, don't get pressured into playing it safe. Projects that fit the criteria of Black Swans have the biggest impact and the most long lasting effect on the audience. They're also the scariest type of undertaking because there's no proven model of success that you can look at as reassurance that you're on the right track. But if you really believe in what you're creating, chances are that you'll find an audience that will too.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Positive Side of Insecurity

U2 lead singer Bono gave an interview on LA's KROQ last week (here's a link to the audio). In the beginning of the interview, Bono expresses what a thrill it is to hear a song from his band's new album played on KROQ. The interviewers respond by asking how he can still feel such excitement at hearing U2 played when the band has been around for 35 years and are arguably the most successful band in the world. I love Bono's response. He replies by saying, "Insecurity is your best security."

It's all too rare that anyone admits that they are plagued by insecurity and fear that they're not good at what they do, but as Bono references a few seconds later in the interview, that seems to be the force that drives most people to become artists. I never get tired of hearing successful artists admit that they are still driven by the feeling that they're not good enough and that they are afraid of failure, even after years of success. I can definitely relate (to the fear of failure part, obviously, not the years-of-success part). And, ironically, I've always felt like the great artists are the ones that continue to feel that sense of insecurity and anxiety throughout their careers. Once you become complacent and feel secure, I think you lose a big part of your drive to create, and I have definitely known people who start to feel comfortable and satisfied with themselves as artists and I've seen their output diminish both in quantity and quality. So just as insecurity can have a positive benefit, sometimes success and acclaim can have a negative effect on our abilities as artists and our drive to create.

So next time you're feeling insecure and afraid to fail, remember that there's a positive side to those feelings. They can help drive you to get better as an artist and push you to take chances that you wouldn't have taken otherwise. I guess the price we have to pay to be artists is that nagging feeling of insecurity that comes with the territory. As unpleasant as that feeling can be, remember that there's a benefit to it, and that every artist--no matter how successful or beloved they become--never escapes that sense of not being good enough and the fear that comes with being an artist and baring your artistic soul to the world. Next time you're feeling insecure and fearful, remember that you are in some very good company.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Power of Two

Sorry it's been so long!

The Atlantic Monthly published an interesting article about the creative partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, focusing on how the two of them accomplished great things by both complementing and challenging each other.

Part of what I really like about the article is that it challenges the common assumption that art is best created by a single person with a single voice expressing their vision without interference or compromise. From the article:

For centuries, the myth of the lone genius has towered over us, its shadow obscuring the way creative work really gets done. The attempts to pick apart the Lennon-McCartney partnership reveal just how misleading that myth can be, because John and Paul were so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals, even if at times they appeared to work in opposition to each other. The lone-genius myth prevents us from grappling with a series of paradoxes about creative pairs: that distance doesn’t impede intimacy, and is often a crucial ingredient of it; that competition and collaboration are often entwined. Only when we explore this terrain can we grasp how such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy all managed to do such creative work. The essence of their achievements, it turns out, was relational. If that seems far-fetched, it’s because our cultural obsession with the individual has obscured the power of the creative pair.

You can read the whole article here.

I've worked on a lot of movies in my time. Some are good and some are, frankly, bad. The best ones I worked on all have one thing in common: there was healthy collaboration among the people that made the movie. When several smart people get together and trust each other and challenge each other and listen to what each other has to say, there is no limit to what can happen. On the other hand, when ego intrudes and people stop letting themselves be questioned or challenged, there is virtually no way that the project will end in a successful way.

Because of the way that the media writes about films, only a very small number of people ever get any credit or acknowledgement of their role in the making of the film. That's totally understandable…the public has little interest in reading too much about any one movie, usually, and we just want one or two faces so that we can say, "oh, that's the author of the movie", and then we move on to the next thing. But don't let that fool you into thinking that one or two people are responsible for making a movie great. In my experience, it takes a great creative team to generate a successful movie, and an atmosphere where everyone can challenge each other is a safe supportive way. It's easy to say and hard to do, but when you can get that kind of environment to work, it seems like you can accomplish anything.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Benefits of Visual Variety

One of the things I like about "Game of Thrones" is how the art direction is employed in telling the story. The nature of the show is to cut continuously from location to location as several different stories unfold simultaneously. This could easily lead to confusion in the viewer's mind because there are so many locations that there's a danger of being disoriented as you go from place to place over the course of an episode. But the creators of the show have carefully crafted each location to have it's own color scheme (as well as architecture and costume design) so that you always know where you are when locations shift.

Some examples (no spoilers):


King's Landing

The Dothraki Sea


The Wall

Castle Black



The Aerie

Not only does this technique keep you oriented, but it keeps your excitement level high. Each story is so interesting that you always want to stay with it. If you are at a bit of a "cliffhanger" moment when you cut away from one story (as you usually are), then later when the story goes back to that location, you get a rush of excitement to see how the story will continue to unfold. So the instant you cut back to a place and you recognize the color palette of that location, you get a burst of excitement that now you will get to see what happens next in that story thread.

Also, changing locations and color schemes help to give a sense of "gear shift"; or that the story is changing from one speed to another. The first three Star Wars movies were great about that. They moved through different environments as the story progressed and each one was distinctly different. It felt like the story was building and moving.

For example, in the very first film, you start in a clean, white spaceship. Then you go to a desert plant that is all warm reds, yellows and browns. The next part of the story takes place on a run-down spaceship (which has a totally different feel from the one at the beginning of the movie), and then you end up on a cold, severe, clean mostly black space station. Then, of course, there's the space battle at the end. That's a totally new kind of environment then you've seen in the film before that. Even the final scene--the ceremony where the heroes get their medals--takes place in a high stone room that looks like a cathedral…a place unlike any you've seen before in the film.

And all the other little locations you visit in-between all feel unique and different from each other as well.

The succeeding Star Wars installments, of course, take you to an ice planet and a forest planet…new locations that make it feel like the films are progressing, moving and building and not staying static and repeating the same places and events over and over.

The climactic battle of "Return of the Jedi" is another great use of art direction to keep the audience oriented. There are three epic battles going on in the final act of the movie--the fight in the forest on Endor, the fight above Endor in space, and the battle in the Emperor's throne room--and the film gives each a distinctive look so that you always know where you are as you cut between the three. Also, the constantly shifting visuals of the three locations make the battles even more intense and exciting.

The reason this has been on my mind lately is that I saw a couple of films recently that I thought were rather visually monotonous and I found myself craving a bit of visual variety while watching them (no spoilers ahead).

I enjoyed "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", but there were basically two locations in the movie: the forest where the apes live and the city where the humans are gathered. Both are basically green, grey and brown. I know this makes logical sense--it's the natural color of those two locations--but I didn't get the feeling that the film was progressing and building the way I do when a film has the kind of visual "gear shift" that I'm talking about. I don't have a good solution to this dilemma offhand...I guess I would have made the city (San Francisco) where the people live less overgrown and grey and possibly found a way to make it cleaner and slightly more colorful. I think a more clean architectural feel to the city would have contrasted well with the organic nature of the forest where the apes live and supported to story point that humans need civilization and infrastructure to survive whereas apes are more comfortable in the natural world. But that's just me.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" was another film that I felt had a few environments that were more similar than they needed to be: a few of the locations (like the prison, the mining camp, and a few of the spaceship interiors) were a similar blue-grey kind of color and seemed to all have the same kind of dark, worn, junky spaceship feeling to them. There was one distinctly different location: a pastel colored planet (and the color scheme for it well--it's a very peaceful, civilized place), but several of the other locations seemed very visually similar. So watching that film made me think about the importance of having visual variety in your film as well.

It's not just true for film, of course. Whether you're working on a movie, TV show, graphic novel, or whatever it may be….think of how changing and evolving the color palette and art direction can amplify the feeling of progression and building to make your story feel more compelling (and also more interesting to watch).

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Costume Design, Character and Story

One of the differences between 2D and 3D animation that people don't talk about much is how differently you have to approach costume in each medium.

In 2D animation, the characters are all individual drawings, so giving your character a new costume is simply a matter of designing the new costume and then drawing it on the character. 3D is different because it's much more difficult and expensive to design multiple costume changes for the characters.

But even so, costume changes for animated Disney characters is rare, and always have been, even in the 2D films. This is because we want the characters to have one iconic look that represents the way you think of the character. When I say "Snow White", you think of the character with her distinctive blue, red and yellow dress. The dress is a big part of her distinctive appearance. If she changed dresses three times during the movie, her appearance gets diluted and she loses her iconic appearance. If that were the case, you might see a sketch of her and have to look twice to figure out if it's her, based on her it is now, you see the dress, and instantly your brain knows it's Snow White. End of story.

So, other than Disney princesses and princes wearing wedding clothes at the end of the movie, most of them wear the same iconic outfit all through a movie (no matter how many days the film covers....yeech).

The grossness factor is not why I'm bringing it up, though. The reason I sometimes wish we could play around with this rule is that costume design--and how it changes and evolves over a movie--can play a really important role in giving the audience an insight into what the character's mental state is and how it's shifting over the course of a movie. And that can be a powerful tool for giving the audience a glimpse into the thinking and emotions of the characters.

Live action movies, of course, do this all the time. Usually, it's done in a way that isn't obvious to the viewer and works on a subconscious level. The Star Wars films [SPOILERS AHEAD] are a good example. In the first film, Luke wears all white, which represents his simple, naive nature and his lack of experience and uncluttered moral nature. He's pure good and believes in a simple, clear version of what's right and wrong.

In "Empire", Luke wears grey clothes, which represent the moral confusion he's starting to face. He is being confronted with much more complex truths than he had to face in the first film.

In the final film, Luke wears black. A big point of tension in the film is whether Luke will become evil like his Father, or remain true to his better instincts and resist the lure of the Dark Side. So it makes sense to dress him in black, both to illustrate how far he's come since his youthful days, and create tension in the audience's mind that he might follow his Father's footsteps....after all, they already dress alike!

"The Godfather" [SPOILERS ahead] is another film that I remember as having very smart costume design. I haven't seen it in years (so someone correct me if I'm wrong), but when we first see Michael, he's wearing his marine uniform. He's a returning WW2 hero, and in the huge party of people seen in the beginning, he's the only one we see wearing a uniform. He's heroic looking and stands out. He tells Kay (his girlfriend) that his family is connected with the Mafia and that he wants nothing to do with them. He's very different from them, and he doesn't like the moral compromises they've made. He's similar to Luke, in that he sees things in black and white and believes very strongly in right and wrong.

In the middle of the film, I remember him wearing a lot of black as he's forced to accept more responsibility in the business his family has created. Black is a strong, forceful color, and I don;t think it's meant to represent evil here. I think it represents Michael's belief in his own strength and how he sees himself as a force for good. He's only done what he had to do to protect his family from people who are worse than they are, and he fully intends to get his family into legitimate business and get them out of organized crime.

By the end of the film, Michael wears a grey suit and hat to represent how far he's slipped in terms of moral certainty. He's lost sight of what's right and wrong and he's become completely corrupted.

Anyway, you get the idea. I'm no expert in costume design, and I don't know of a great book or website on the topic of using costume to tell story. I wish I did; if someone knows a great resource on this subject, drop me a line. In any case, it's not hard to learn about costume design. Great film makers use it to their advantage constantly, so just look at how it's used in films that are well put together. Ask yourself why certain choices were made, and you'll see that it's not that much of a mystery how costume can help tell a story.

I've been working on my own graphic novel for several years now, and I enjoy working on it because I get to do many things that I never get to do as a storyboard artist. Costume design is one of the things that I never got much chance to do before, and I really like the challenge of coming up with clothes that help illustrate the changing mental state of each character.

Of course, there are two types of film characters: those that undergo a transformation (like Luke and Michael Corleone) and those that remain the same throughout a film and change the world around them. When I think of the latter type (the type that don't undergo a transformation), it's no surprise that those types wear the same costume throughout a film. Their mental state doesn't change, so they don't need evolving costumes to reflect that change. Characters like Mary Poppins and Indiana Jones are the first kind to come to mind when I think of that type of character, and it's probably no coincidence that they both have very iconic costumes.

Actually, if you wanted to nitpick, I guess you could say that Indiana Jones changes a little during the first film, but not in the major way that Luke and Michael Corleone do, so he doesn't require drastic costume changes. Also, Mary Poppins does change outfits in the fantasy sequences...but hopefully you get my drift.

Anyway, I'm a big believer in using every resource available to help tell stories, and I think that costume design is one area that animation has yet to fully exploit for emotional impact.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Composition Tips from "Rendering In Pen and Ink"

Many years ago I bought the classic book "Rendering In Pen and Ink" by Arthur Guptill. Like most of the art books I buy, it seemed important to own when I bought it, and ever since then it has sat on a shelf, neglected and unread.

By chance, I picked it up a while ago and flipped through it. There are a couple of chapters on composition and directing the eye, filled with little thumbnail examples. I thought they were interesting and, although they're simple, I always feel that the key to drawing is learning the simple principles and then applying them in more and more complex ways as you tackle more complex types of drawing. So I think they're worth sharing and discussing.

Anyway, here are the composition examples:

Yes, these are all still life examples, but they are good principles that apply to any drawing. Example 99, which points out that having all of one type of shape (in this case, rounded) in a drawing gets monotonous. Always look for ways to include variety in the type of shape and line in each drawing.

Here, Guptill suggests the three type of possible composition: triangular, square and round. Also, in panel 5 and 6, he suggests that you can create contrast in your composition for interest by grouping objects that contrast in form or contrast in size (basically, look for ways to get variety in each composition). Again, this doesn't just apply to still life studies. It applies to any type of drawing or composition. And he makes another interesting suggestion in panel 7: whatever objects are in your composition, you don't have to fit them all within the confines of the drawing (as is usually our first instinct). You can include just part of an object (or figure, or whatever), provided we can tell what the object is without seeing the part that's been left outside the border.

Some interesting advice about composition on this one, and more suggestions that the artist find a variety of forms (such as straights and curves) to include in any composition to create variety and interest.

This one just has some simple thoughts on composition.

These next examples are all about a few different ways to draw the eye to where you want it to go (something I talked about a couple of posts ago). In all of these, Guptill is using either contrast or detail to attract the viewer's eye. The eye will always be drawn to the area of the most contrast in a drawing or, if the contrast is pretty evenly placed, to the area with the most detail. So Guptill has a few examples of the same drawing with different treatments so you can see how he places the focus in a different place each time. Sorry about the bad scans….it's a thick book and it was hard to mash it onto my scanner.

These are all helpful for pen and ink drawing, and the same concepts can be helpful to the board artist that faces the challenge of how to get the viewer to look where he's or she's supposed to. As I cautioned before, be mindful (if you're a board artist) of giving the layout department and the animators something that they can replicate and not something that only works in a pen and ink drawing. However, contrast and detail are also tools that the layout artist can use, so usually they can utilize those tools to get the same effect that the board artist achieved.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Vance Gerry's "Notes On Story Sketching"

Another page out of Vance's internal Disney Story Manual. This time, it's a list of 6 principles about storyboarding, simplicity and clarity.

All great straightforward advice that sounds absolutely simple but is hard to master in execution.

For point number 4, where Vance says "Originality often leads to obscurity", I want to add a bit for clarification because I think that might be confusing to some. What I interpret that to mean is "don't re-invent the wheel just to be different" when it comes to drawing story sketches. For example, if you have a character picking up a heavy box, you might draw it and say, "that looks like the cliched pose of a guy picking up a heavy box. Let me come up with a new pose for that action that nobody has ever seen before."

Although I always encourage people not to rely on clichéd poses and to come up with poses that fit the personality of the character and aren't stock re-hashes of what we've seen before, there are times when you just need to go for readability and re-inventing the wheel just leads to confusion.

To give another example, you might have a scene that takes place in a library. You don't want to draw a background of bookshelves because that's the boring, obvious cliché of a library. So you research libraries and find an amazing one in Sweden where the shelves are all glass and the books are all kept sideways. Great! That's so much more interesting than the typical dull library background! So you draw all your layouts that way.

Then, when people are watching the scene, they can't focus on the conversation of the main characters because the background is so interesting that it overwhelms the scene. Or they can't tell what they're looking at because it's so foreign looking and doesn't relate to any type of building they've ever seen before. So they're so busy trying to figure out where the characters are that they miss the important and emotional scene that's happening between the characters.

Anyway, hope that clarifies. Let me know if you found any of the rest of it confusing.

Also, as a bonus, here's the handout Vance is talking about at the end, if you haven't seen it. I've posted it from time to time, but a refresher is always good.

This was drawn by Carson Van Osten when he worked on Disney Comics, and it's a great primer on avoiding common staging and compositional problems.