Thursday, February 24, 2011

5 Filmmaking Lessons From "The Pixar Story"

I just recently discovered the 2007 documentary "The Pixar Story," a behind-the-scenes look at the creation, struggles and accomplishments of probably the most successful film studio in history. In addition to the usual rise-to-greatness story, the film also contains of insights into the mindsets of filmmakers. I took 11 pages of notes as I watched it! Don't worry, I won't force all of that information onto you. Instead, I'll share what I think are the five most helpful lessons one can learn from watching this documentary.

1. Filmmaking is collaborative but the end product is the director's vision.
As Pixar began production on its first film with Disney Studios—"Toy Story"—they were bombarded with Disney input. Disney's then chairman of the studio, Jeffrey Katzenberg, wanted all Disney films, including Toy Story, to be "edgy." Pixar obliged this request, addressing every note and jumping through every Disney hoop. 

The result?

A disastrous animatic that was described as: not funny, not moving, not emotional and with characters that didn't quite work, especially Woody, who was mean-spirited. It was clear that this wasn't the film Lasseter had intended to make.

The response to the animatic was so dismal that Disney shut down production and told Pixar to lay off staff. Pixar did neither. Collectively they said, "screw it," trashed the storyboard and jumped back in with a fresh mindset of, "What do we want? What would be the funniest thing?"

They listened to their guts 100%, were brutally honest and worked non-stop. They were empowered and excited because they were finally making the movie they wanted to make. Lasseter knew that the story drove every choice and he confidently had every frame in his head. Their energy produced a new animatic in an unheard of 2-3 weeks which, when presented to Disney, showed the film's potential.

Production was resumed and the rest is history!

2. A support system is necessary.
When Lasseter returned home exhausted from the international press tour for "A Bug's Life," he intended to take time off, recharge and remind his family that he existed. Before he could do this, he learned that "Toy Story 2's" status had been upgraded from direct-to-video to theatrical release and that it was currently a mess. Lasseter's wife understood why he had to swoop in and rescue the production but she made it clear that he'd have to keep more regular hours.

Kate Capshaw reportedly made the same request of husband Steven Spielberg when he was in the process of creating Dreamworks studio; go ahead and have your studio but make sure you're home for dinner every night.

In other words, love and understanding from one's family are essential not only to a creative person's success, but also to maintaining the life balance that feeds the creativity.

3. Be fearless. Be different.
Steve Jobs saw what others overlooked: Pixar's potential. He jumped in and supported the company even at its most desperate moments. Although he lost over $1 million per year during Pixar's first five years, he bravely took the long view because he saw what the company was trying to accomplish even before they accomplished it. Jobs knew that Pixar was way beyond what everyone else was doing. His attitude made it easier for Lasseter to decide to go in a different direction from the usual Disney films—no musicals, no fairy tales. No other studio understands nor embraces fearlessness and originality as completely as Pixar does.

4. Overnight success takes years.
Pixar's original form was created in 1979. John Lasseter joined in 1984. Pixar released it's first feature in 1995. During those years, there was experimentation, commercials, live-action effects and animated shorts. That's a lot of years of a lot of work before the triumph of "Toy Story." It was during those lean years that—while working on the short "Red's Dream"—Lasseter had to share one computer with three other guys! He took the late shift, doing most of his animation between 10:30pm and 5am. He kept a futon under his desk; his assistant would wake him in the morning and he'd get right back to animating. He did this routine for weeks. THAT'S dedication. As Brad Bird aptly noted at the end of the film, "Film is forever; pain is temporary."

5. Enthusiasm can change minds and open doors.
I'd read this before in Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich but didn't fully believe it until this film showed me some real-world examples. 

Lasseter showed Tim Allen sketches of Buzz Lightyear hoping to convince Allen to do the film. But it wasn't those sketches that won Allen over; it was Lasseter's enthusiasm. It was this same enthusiasm that fired up a most likely demoralized "Toy Story 2" crew to get the film ready for release in a mere nine months.

Enthusiasm can make the sale when other methods fail.

I highly recommend watching the documentary but if you don't, hopefully you'll find these summarized lessons useful.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

COMING SOON: 5 Lessons From "The Pixar Story"

Pixar's heart and soul: Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Four Steps to Create an Illustration

Step 1: Thumbnails

Step 2: Roughs

Step 3: Cleanup

Step 4: Final rendering with color

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Lacking Story Ideas? Two Ways to Get You Started

John K. described on his blog a pitch meeting he had at Dreamworks Animation. To summarize: before he could even show his work, he was told that before considering characters, they first determine an arena. Arenas—according to their definition—are environments (desert, sea, forest, etc.) that contain potentially funny animals that would make good characters for a movie.

Upon first reading about this, I admit I thought it was absurd, as did many other animators and cartoon aficionados. But upon second thought, this idea of "arenas" is an excellent starting point for story ideas. And getting started with generating ideas is half of the challenge.

Method 1 for generating story ideas: make a list of all of the places where a story can occur. He's a partial list I made two years ago:

This list ended up being about 3 pages. I actually got the idea for my current project from this list! So although this method may seem silly, its success is measured by how effective it is in getting you closer to your goal.

Method 2 for generating story ideas is described here—in comic book-like fashion—by Frank Chimero, graphic designer and illustrator. Here's a sample:

Basically, he encourages alogical yet meaningful connections. Ya gotta read it to get it and once you get it, you'll never find yourself wanting for an idea again!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I'm Goin' to the Land of Crockett & Tubbs!

There'll be a brief hiatus with the blog since I'm headed to Miami for a long, Valentine's Day weekend. I'll be tweeting about Miami while I'm away so you can keep up with that here.

Enjoy your weekend and Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Want to be More Creative & Productive? Sleep Better With These 10 Methods

Indie animator M dot StrangE learned after completing his first feature film, "We Are The Strange," that eating properly and getting enough rest are essential to productivity and creativity.

From the Dumb Little Man site, here's a summary of the 10 ways to improve your sleep:

1. Increase vitamin D

2. Decrease stimulants

3.  Have some tryptophan for dinner

4. Avoid eating or drinking alcohol closer to 2 hours before bedtime

5. Relax the senses

6. Set the bedroom mood

7. Still your mind

8. Drown out your thoughts

9. Have a morning workout

10. If all else fails, seek professional help

Complete explanations are here.

Which will improve your health!

Which will improve your ART!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

5 Steps to Create a Gag Cartoon

Step 1: Initial idea

This cartoon started out innocently enough. The idea was to have a law firm run by dogs. This dated note below shows the idea for the scene (a partners's meeting), the punchline (in quotes) and the name of the firm (the list of dog breeds).

Step 2: Thumbnail

This is an important step. This is when you determine if your original written idea will "read" properly once drawn. 

In this case, there were five elements that needed to be made clear to the viewer: the speaking dog, the listening dog, the human, the sign of the name of the firm and the location (an office). I had to figure out the best way to arrange these five elements in the space so that the viewer would immediately understand at what they were looking.

Generating numerous thumbnails is a helpful method for arriving at the best solution. You're not striving for a perfect drawing when creating thumbnails; instead, you're exploring all of the options to discover which works best. I also started creating various versions of the punchline, searching for the most succinct (and funny!) wording.

I used different colors (blue, green, burgundy and graphite) to differentiate among the elements as I arranged them, keeping them apart to avoid confusion as I worked out the idea.

Step 3: Rough drawing
Now it's time to take the thumbnail and make it into a larger, more detailed drawing. In my case, after thinking about and drawing the layout several times, I realized that my original staging of the cartoon was not working well. I created a new thumbnail with which I was satisfied and made that thumbnail into my rough drawing.

Step 4: Cleanup drawing

Now you take the rough drawing and do a clean, more revised and detailed drawing.

When I first did this drawing, I was happy with it. I put it aside and returned to it several days later.

Upon second review, I saw a few things wrong with it! First, I didn't like the listening dog's face. I had reverted to my usual way of drawing…flat. So I applied what I've been learning lately and redrew the dog using three-dimensional shapes, not just outlines. Second, although I liked the cartoony forward leg of the human, I realized that his perspective was off in relation to the floor and ceiling lines. That definitely needed to be fixed otherwise it would look super amateurish which is the exact opposite effect I'm attempting. Those errors I fixed in the final drawing.

Step 5: Final drawing

This step involves copying the rough drawing, "perfecting" your lines and adding tone/color. Some artists make a tight rough drawing and simply ink over the rough to get clean lines for the final. Other artists feel that some life is lost by doing a direct copy so they use the rough merely as a guide for the final. How you create your final drawing is up to your own preferences and style. 

In my case, I adjusted some elements and added some tone. Voila, a cartoon is created!

Monday, February 7, 2011

7 Ways to Unblock Your Imagination

 James Gurney's wonderful website shares 7 ways to activate your imagination. The list provides explanations of the methods. Here's a summary:

1. Imagine a story behind the model's pose.

2. Keep a sketchbook dedicated solely to image generation rather than observation.

3. Refrain from using photo reference initially.

4. Learn to draw from a mannequin figure from memory.

5. Do memory drawings.

6. Do multi-figure compositions.

7. Learn to draw independently from the model.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The First Step to Creating a Masterpiece

From The 99%.

When you plan your goal and break it down into smaller steps, all things are possible.

It worked for Michaelangelo and the Beatles so it must be good!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Francis Ford Coppola's Thoughts on Filmmaking

Photo via Grazia Magazine.

I just read an incredibly informative interview with Francis Ford Coppola here. He reveals his three rules for filmmaking, adapting books to movies, risk, screenwriting and directing. I found it to be a treasure of information.

But I nearly gasped when I saw this quote, "Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I'm going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?"

Wow, I couldn't disagree more. Coppola's basically devaluing his own work! How and when was it decided that the creation of "art" has no value? Is every job worthy of payment except for the creation of movies and music? The reason "art" should cost money to consume it is because it cost money to CREATE it! Usually numerous people are involved in the creation of movies and music. How do we justify not paying them for their time and work?

I see young people constantly consuming movies and music. But despite the importance it apparently has in their lives, they don't want to pay for it?! Don't they pay for everything else in their lives—their clothes, their MP3 players, their tv's, their video games and consoles, etc. What's the justification for paying for those things—things CREATED by other people—and not paying for music and movies? Maybe their XBox's and Urban Outfitters clothes should be free, too!

Art gives something to the viewer—an experience that they otherwise would not have had if not for the particular vision of the artist. Therefore, the viewer should give back to the artist in the form of payment. Think about what "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" have done for the imaginations of millions of people. I think George Lucas and J. K. Rowling deserve every penny they've charged for the pleasure of experiencing their creations.

I think I'm particularly sensitive about this issue of "free" since I work in graphic design, an industry that has seen a tremendous devaluing in the last 10 years. People think that since layouts, typefaces and photos are readily available online that combining these elements together into a piece that communicates effectively is easy and requires no craft. I had a former colleague ask me to do some design for free. I politely declined for this very reason; I didn't want to contribute to the devaluing of my work.

Having said all of that, I DO believe there's a difference between making a living and making a killing. I don't think any of us artists should expect to make a killing. I discussed before the idea of redefining success in a culture that values only youth and extreme wealth. We can live fulfilling lives by making a good living; we don't all need Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey dollars.

Remember: ALL work—all human endeavor—has value. When we start devaluing music and movies, we undermine their importance in society and sow the seeds of their destruction.

Friday, February 4, 2011

How Not to Draw Generic Cartoon Expressions

Tracy J. Butler's "Lackadaisy" comic site is a treasure of wonderful drawings and helpful tips on digital drawing, painting and comics-making. Butler put a lot of effort into this expressions tutorial and it shows. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Creative Work vs. Reactive Work

Carrie Underwood, genuine talent.

Kardashian sisters, nothing to offer except sex tapes and big asses. Not exactly the qualities that bring you a long career.

Another article about productivity from The 99%. It was the title that caught my eye, "The Key to Creating Remarkable Things."



We're in a culture and an era of disposable. Kardashians, anyone? But I don't want to be a part of that, I want to be one of the exceptional, one who's remembered for doing something exceptional.

One of my favorite quotes from this article: "We don't find it remarkable when our expectations are met – only when they are exceeded, or when we are surprised by something completely unexpected."

That sentence sums up exactly what's absent from American entertainment today—too many marginally talented people and projects being presented as exceptional. 

And my second favorite quote: "The thing is, if you want to create something truly remarkable, it won't be built in a day. A great novel, a stunning design, a game-changing software application, a revolutionary company – this kind of thing takes time, thought, craft, and persistence."


That quote sums up what I think is wrong with Tyler Perry's work—no time, thought or craftsmanship. His films always feel like a first draft. I read that Perry writes his scripts in two weeks; no comment about rewrites. NO film should be shot with a script that took only two weeks!

I'm going to apply the tips listed in this article and see what happens.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Drawing the Planes of the Head

An important area of study which with I've always struggled is memorizing and understanding the planes of the head. When I was first approached this subject in the summer of 2010, none of it made sense. I was trying to understand this page from the Andrew Loomis planes from his book "Drawing the Head and Hands":

For some reason, I couldn't "get" it. I couldn't remember the location of the planes, I kept forgetting them and eventually abandoned learning them. But I knew I had to go back to it eventually because it's vital to drawing; the head CANNOT be properly depicted without understanding how light falls on it which means knowing the planes.

I don't know what happened between now and then but I suddenly understand the planes. I think it's because I'm now relating the planes of the head to what causes the planes which is, of course, the skull! The planes are directly related to the shape of the skull and, to a lesser extent, the facial muscles. NOW it makes sense!

It also helped to use other diagrams in addition to Loomis's. There are various ways to depict some of the planes, some ways more complicated then others. Here's some of the photo reference I've been using to study the planes:

This is from James Gurney's website. I based my studies of the front of the head primarily on this drawing.

These Asaro heads are really helpful for understanding the planes in profile.

The Fred Fixler planes, particularly helpful in showing the 3/4 view.

Another 3/4 view for studying via the Asaro head.

As you can see, each of these examples varies slightly. I was originally overwhelmed by the differences. But once I realized that the differences are minor, I set about just absorbing the approaches that made the most sense to me. What makes sense to me is more likely to be retained than pure memorization.

Happy studying!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Prolong Your Creative Productivity

I came across this article at The 99% website.

Since productivity and maximizing time are important to me, I found these suggestions to be helpful. I easily begin to feel burned out so I discovered awhile ago that switching from drawing to the computer and vice versa helps keeps me going.

Basically, whatever works for you is RIGHT and don't let anyone tell you different!