Tuesday, May 13, 2008

12th Marc Davis Celebration of Animation

We're a trifle late posting this, but Kevin writes:

My friend Charles Solomon hosted four panelists: Andreas Deja, Pete Docter, James Baxter, and Eric Goldberg. Each panelist talked a bit about ways they were mentored, especially by some of the Disney greats, and showed a clip from a classic Disney film followed by a clip of some of their own work.

Here are a few scattered thoughts and insights I jotted down from the evening. Andreas went first. He spoke about how, when he was animating Jafar, he drew on Marc Davis’ work on Maleficent. After Andreas saw the work going into the Genie and some of the other characters in Aladdin, he realized he couldn’t compete with that kind of broadness, so he decided to underplay Jafar. Jafar would become the dark cloud that hovered over the bright, energetic proceedings of the film.

He recalled Marc saying a tough thing about animating Maleficent was that “she’s a character who stands there giving speeches.” Anyone who has animated acting and dialog scenes knows how difficult, and boring, that can be. Andreas played a clip from Sleeping Beauty that beautifully illustrated how Marc overcame that difficulty. I don’t have time to find and upload the clip right now, but it’s one that I’ll try to upload soon for a little analysis ...

Pete Docter spoke of being mentored by Joe Grant. Joe liked to ask the question: “What are you giving to the audience to take home?” What he meant was what part of the animation or story will stick with the audience beyond that momentary viewing. Pete recalled being in school and the urge some students had to do such intensely personal films (”like therapy”!) that they were inaccessible to the audience. He always keeps in mind that, no matter how much we put our own tastes into our work, what gets on the screen must be something the audience will connect with and respond to.

He also spoke of Ollie Johnston talking about the surprising power of physical touch, and how moving it is when one character convincingly touches another. Yes, that can be tricky in CG, where characters simply intersect each other, and lots of digital wizardry goes into any physical contact between characters, but the payoff can be huge. Those physical gestures and touches draw on the power of real relationships, and in animating them we need to draw upon our own experiences and relationships.

He showed a clip from The Jungle Book of Mowgli meeting Baloo (another clip worthy of detailed study), and followed it with a clip of Sully and Boo playing and hugging in Monsters, Inc. Between those clips and Pete talking of his feelings towards his own children, there was a lot of misty eyes in the theater!

James Baxter spoke of learning from Milt Kahl by analyzing his work and deeply studying his original scenes in the Disney morgue. Like many animators, James initially used to use a ton of charts in his work, but he kept noticing that Milt virtually always had a single chart. He wasn’t animating with a checklist of the 12 principles, he wasn’t thinking of individual parts — he had it all flowing together. “It was all there.” A key to Milt’s technique was to do lots of partial drawings of hands, etc. on the inbetweens, rather than devising complex charts for his assistant to follow (as I’ve mentioned before, that exactly the way James works, too). Milt couldn’t explain what he did or how he did it (this from Andreas Deja, who had many conversations with Milt), but James was able to draw important lessons by carefully studying the actual work.

James also mentioned the importance of drawing on the story-artist’s work, and how much Milt and the other Disney animators got from Bill Pete and other great story artists, just as James drew on Lorna Cook’s great boards in his work on Rafiki (Lorna boarded virtually all of the Rafiki sequences, just as James animated virtually all of those scenes). James then showed a clip of King Louie (by Milt) from The Jungle Book, followed by Rafiki from The Lion King.

Eric Goldberg talked about Ward Kimball and Freddie Moore in particular. I became so caught up in the clips that I stopped taking notes, so I apologize. Eric showed a great excerpt from The Three Caballeros, followed by the A Friend Like Me song from Aladdin. When Chuck Jones took a tour of Disney during the making of Aladdin and saw that animation by the Goldberg unit, he immediately connected it with the song in Three Caballeros. Later, when Ward Kimball saw it, he commented, “Yeah, like MTV!”

One of the things that this program highlighted, and that I’ve been concerned with for awhile, is the huge difference in mentoring between hand-drawn animation and CG animation. It used to be that animators began as assistants and ruff inbetweeners, and worked their way up the ranks. For a long time the accepted wisdom was that it took about six years of concerted effort to become an animator. There were exceptions, but long periods of training and mentoring were generally part of the process to becoming a competent animator.

In CG, there aren’t any assistant positions. Pete Docter even mentioned that they’d tried to have an assistant for Doug Sweetland (and I assume for other key animators), but that it hadn’t worked. During Shark Tale production DreamWorks also experimented with animation assistants, but gave up on it after that film. In the CG animation world you basically get the best training you can, and hope to get hired right onto a production. Yes, most studios have “mentors” who are assigned to new hires, and there’s usually a ramp-up or training process, but it’s nothing compared to how it used to be.

When I asked about this during the Q&A, it was encouraging to hear from James Baxter that a few studios were seriously looking at that issue, and my guess is that that’s part of the reason he’s gone back to DreamWorks. This very issue is part of the reason I started doing these posts. There’s so much generous teaching and mentoring I’ve gotten that it feels good to pass some of it on. Of course, I still have as much to learn as I have to teach, but that’s the beauty of animation.


Larry Levine said...

I hope the studios reinstate the training programs.

The downside to my being self-taught was loosing out on hands-on guidance of those who came before me, aside from occasional honors of animation masters like Bill Melendez & Eric Goldberg personally critiquing my work.

A mentor can be a very handy thing for a budding animator to have.

Anonymous said...

Dreamworks, Pixar & Disney all have active and ongoing trainee programs.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to agree with the above Anonymous--I know that Disney and Pixar have Apprentice/Trainee programs that last anywhere from 9 months to over a year.

Anonymous said...

To the above Anons;

How do the the participants qualify for these training programs? Where do the come from? Are they young people out of school, experienced CG artists, retraining veterans of 2D, all, some or none of the above?

Anonymous said...

Jafar moves too much. He s hould have been underplayed MORE, and the acting would have come across stronger.

As it stands, Jafar moves like a bad drag queen.

Anonymous said...

Dejas can draw, but his animation is average and his acting is derivative and weak. He's a much better designer than an animator.

And I loved Aladdin. But because of the direction, not the animation. Golberg's Genie was terrific, as was Will Finn's Iago, and ESPECIALLY Mark Henn's Jasmine--some of the best acting at Disney is done by Henn. His animation rules.

Anonymous said...

Jafar was a masterpiece. Good grief, he's as good as Cruella DeVil, and that's a pretty high standard.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, if the general public paid that kind of attention to the subtle distinctions between the styles and skills of individual animators, we would all be so busy we wouldn't have time to sleep. Why don't you write a book about it? I would read it. I'm sure I don't have to remind you that, given the state the business is in right now, we are lucky that they are even doing a hand drawn feature- and heaven help us if it isn't a blockbuster!

Anonymous said...

So, should these brilliant animators not have gotten the chance comming to America in the first place, because some of them are foreigners. Or are we glad Disney, DreamWorks etc., brought them over to inspire us…

Anonymous said...

As good as Cruella DeVil??!??

Are you raving mad?!?

Pffft! Yeah right!


Anonymous said...

To the two anonymous posters at the top, having worked at two of the three studios mentioned, I can tell you the "mentoring" that happens in these "trainee" programs leaves a lot to be desired. It's all about how quickly people can be ramped up onto full production.

Calling something a training program isn't the same as having a real training program. There's also very little ongoing training and artistic enhancement for veteran animators at most studios, which is another crucial part of the puzzle that's been lost in the modern era.

Anonymous said...

Dreamworks and Disney both have REAL training programs. Ones that involve classes, enrichment and some just plain fun stuff in addition to actually being supervised by senior pros.

They are training programs as I would define them and I think I have pretty high standards.

Believe it or not the POINT of training IS to get artists "ramped up" into production. And-brace yourself-believe it or not, that's what most aspiring artists want to do, too. Jeez.

The animation business isn't a spa or summer camp. In terms of creative filmmaking industries I'd guess that we 839 people have it more interesting and better while getting paid than any other production people in the IATSEs.

PS: I'm at one of the three studios listed now, and I can also tell you that there are so many ongoing artistic enrichment/class opportunities for the "veteran" artists no one person could possibly avail themselves of all of them.

Kevin Koch said...

Wow, didn't realize the post had stirred up so much action. I haven't worked at Pixar or Disney, but when I left DW a few years ago, artistic development and training, at least for character animators, had pretty much ceased. I'm glad to hear it's started up again.

I'm still not sure there's the level of mentorship going on that there was in the hand-drawn era, but here's hoping that's changing for the better.

Anonymous said...

First, the Mentoring presentation at the Academy was terrific. It could have gone on all night as far as I was concerned. However, as mentioned earlier and in in this posting and the presentation as well, there is nothing in CG resembling 2D apprentice positions. That's why I asked earlier about who qualifies for these in-house training programs and where do they come from?

I see a huge dichotomy between a booming CG feature business and hundreds and hundreds of unemployed artists, some of whom have taken multiple training courses but still can't break through. It seems that the CG industry is always more willing to import experienced artists from overseas than to find a way to integrate Americans. As a group, we should address the problem.

Anonymous said...

To comment right before.

Hypocrite! - It’s called GLOBALISATION!!!

It goes both ways for all countries!

Anonymous said...

That was me.

Explain the "Hypocrite" part, please.
Are Americans running around the world taking jobs from foreign artists? I don't think so. Unfortunately, it does NOT go "both ways." "Globalization" is bullshit. It's Orwellian New-Speak. It's "We'll pay Vietnamese CG artists $20 a week to finish our film and give the CEO a multi-billion dollar raise for being so clever."

From the way you spelled "globalization," I can see you come from across "the pond," yourself. You seem to have taken my comments a little too personally. As much as I am enjoying your guilt reaction, I'll clarify what I meant:

I didn't say it was wrong to hire artists with valuable experience from overseas, I just meant that it is facile and short-sighted. Employed Americans contribute to the economy- they pay taxes, buy houses and other products, pay for their own health care and relieve they drain on entitlement budgets. Unemployment creates economic stagnation and drains public funds. The goals of individual players in a "free market" are too immediate and survival oriented to take these things into consideration. It's not magic. They need a powerful carrot, and so far none of our wise leaders have been able to figure that one out.

Steve Hulett said...

Are Americans running around the world taking jobs from foreign artists? I don't think so.

Actually, any number of American artists work overseas, in various foreign studios.

I'm sure that there are locals who would tell you: "These Americans are taking our jobs!"

Anonymous said...

Steve, you are just proving my point:
Americans having to expatriate themselves just to keep working when there are, (or should be), jobs here. You paint a picture of some balanced happy inter-cultural exchange program. While I understand why people want to come here and work in the "Hollywood" world. I can't imagine an American saying,"Gee, I can't wait to have an opportunity to go halfway around the world to some impoverished third world country and work a 70 hour week for peanuts." Every foreign studio is not in Paris.

Anonymous said...

To comment #19.

America is a large country population wise – many foreign countries have a really hard time finding sponsor money to produce animated films; part simply because they cant pull the same amount of ticket numbers as American movies. It has for decades been a bad circle. Its not about the art-form, but the money. However, Europe for instance is more open to showing foreign movies than The States. There is some hidden agenda not to show foreign animated movies in the theatres in America (besides a small amount of selected theatres), partly because to politics with sponsoring own produced movies. Therefore is it harder to gain financial backup for movie making in Europe for instance, and it is of cause ‘easier’ for the skilled people there to seek American waters for more steady work. Everyone is just trying to make ends met in the end of the day. And of cause as a foreigner in America you pay taxes, housing, healthcare etc., etc., just like anyone else. A matter of fact actually, - foreigners pay a much higher car-insurance in the beginning, than an American. Also invest in maybe houses and bye maybe an American car.

I believe the whole Globalization matter is more complicated than simple. I do see some concern with productions going to maybe China etc. However, if you feel troubled by the situation a ‘revolution’ would have to start with you! Stop working for the studios that produce shows etc. across the water. Making a strike has to be very serious and start as a united group. And a strike/revolution does cost on many different levels. Maybe even costing you the job you may dream of. It all has consequences. But do not misunderstand. Many foreign countries are having serious issues because to American movie making or other businesses in general invading their borders. Globalization is a very complicated thing. Having lived and worked in several different countries it becomes more apparent.
Therefore I do believe that if a skilled worker is offered a job in America, well that person should be okayed by immigration if the person fulfil all the requirements; no matter what skin color, hair dye or passport that person may have. It is only fair both for the worker but also for the studio. And not to forget… With a ‘Union’ studio; they would have to pay that specific worker the same amount of $ as the Union requires. Meaning it looks like the companies do not hire foreign workers on because they would be cheap. – I am looking at the situation from both sides here, there and everywhere…
That dosent mean it is a 'happy-inter-cultrual exchange program' as you wrote. I did not see anyone write that. But things are more complicated than simple.

Anonymous said...

You misunderstand. I am not saying that foreign artists should not be allowed to work here. I was one myself once in another country. I was looking at the problem from a completely different angle. At the mentoring presentation the point came up that the process of CG animation does not easily allow for on-the-job training or mentoring. There are no in-betweeners or assistant animators. Basically, either you can do it or you can't. That is the actual reason for all the artists being farmed in. The production companies find it more efficient and cost-worthy than developing relatively inexperienced artists. That is the problem I am addressing; unemployed American artists trying to re-train and upgrade their skills to fit the needs of the current labor market. Striking won't do it. The production companies need some kind of tax or other kind of financial incentive to cooperate. That takes mustering up the political will that will get it done. How to do that is what we all need to talk about.

film animation said...

I almost agree with upper Anonymous Dreamworks and Disney both have REAL training programs.

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