Friday, August 15, 2008

"The RIGHT Way"

Not long ago I was jawing with a story artist at a great metropolitan animation studio. He talked to me about the frustrations of being a long time on a project:

"We've been kind of meandering through the woods for awhile, trying different things. Management wasn't really paying close attention because we didn't have any looming deadlines.

"But now other projects are out of the way and they're focused on us. And they're asking: 'What are you guys doing? We've got a deadline now. You've got to stop the exploring and do the story the right way.' See, they're kind of nervous. They want a hit, and they think there's one right way to do the story, and we've got to do it the single right way."

As he talked, I thought about what animator Charlie Downs had once told me about Ward Kimball's view of this right way thing. Mr. Kimball didn't think there was a "right way," but rather "ways that worked" ...

"I showed Ward a scene I had animated. He said, "Not the way I'd do it," then he looked at me and said, 'That doesn't mean anything. Five guys will do the scene five different ways, and they'll all work.'"

Which is another way of saying that art is not science, and there is no single, correct approach. Or single solution. You can take five creative roads and all the roads can get you to a good artistic place. Or otherwise.

When a production has a lot of time and there's no deadline looming, creators tend to dawdle. Explore. Travel down side alleys. As C. Northcote Parkinson wrote long ago: "Work expands to fill the alotted time." If you've got five weeks to pull the movie together, you take five weeks. If it's five months, then five months is how long you spend. (Sixteen years ago, Jeffrey Katzenberg gave a Disney story crew three weeks to overhaul the middle of Aladdin. They did.)

And then there's science fiction writer Robert Heinlein's dictum: Write it, and write it right the first time. How often does that happen? Like hardly never..

The above is, I guess, a long-winded way of saying that there's never a single, correct way to go with anything, but only better solutions and worse solutions. The bitch of it is, even worse solutions can, on occasion, lead to big box office results.

How big of a bitch is that?


Unknown said...

And then there's the question of what "the right way" means. When the artist says, "the right way," s/he's really saying, "the way that will have the best emotional and dramatic impact," or, "the way that makes best use of the principles of design and color," or, "the way that best shows what the character is thinking and feeling." When management says, "the right way," s/he's really saying, "whatever looks just like the thing that made us (or Studio X) all those bucks."

Anonymous said...

The trouble is, storyboarding is what makes or breaks a cartoon (everyone in the pipeline is important, but let's give credit where credit is due), it is the most labor-intensive part of the process, it carries the most responsibility, requires the most diversified skill sets (cinematography, acting, composition, etc.) and yet it is the part of the process that most management and/or executives know the LEAST about.
They'll give writers a month to create a 30-page script and then a storyboard artist a week to board it.
99% of animation executives don't know what they're looking at when they see a storyboard, and the 1% that do don't appreciate just how much work goes into it.
I think all animation executives should be required to take a storyboarding class (wouldn't hurt for writers to do it too).
Then they'll know how ask someone to do it 'right.'

Anonymous said...

"storyboarding is what makes or breaks a cartoon"

Well, boarding and editorial!!

This goes for the "look" of the film, too. Everyone and their mother knows jeffery katzemburg and the directors fought tooth and nail AGAINST the look of kung foo panda for a very long time, while they dawdled on attempting a more "realistic" look. Thankfully, the art team prevailed and we have a great looking film, if not one with a particularly great story.

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