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The Animated Scene: Balancing Animation with Other Creative Outlets

Many animators dabble in other art forms like writing or fine art. Joseph Gilland writes about balancing creative outlets in this months The Animated Scene.

Joseph Gilland.

Ever since I can remember, I was powerfully attracted to the art of animation. Since my early days watching Tom and Jerry and Bugs on a black-and-white TV on Saturday morning, even as a young child, I somehow knew that animation eventually had to play a big part of my life in one way or another. Happily, my aspirations have come to fruition, and far beyond my wildest dreams. Animation has been my primary occupation and source of income for over 30 years now.

But at the same time that I was watching cartoons on television back in the sixties, I was also listening to the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix on the radio. When I was about eight years old I got my first Beatles record and wore the grooves out of it, playing it on our old hi-fi turntable. My older sister was listening to James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, and that music seriously got my attention too. So at the same time I was realizing that animation might very well be my lifes calling, I was profoundly attracted to the world of music, and the idea of being a musician as well.

On top of that, I was an absolute art junkie, any kind of art, from comicbooks to fine arts, classical sculpture to modern conceptual installation artwork; it all fascinated and attracted me. I also devoured countless books and magazines, and I aspired to write seriously some day as well. In every sketchbook I filled, there was almost as much writing, pondering and poetry as there were drawings and paintings.

I have always been involved in writing, performing and recording music. This was a cover for an album that never fully materialized, although I wrote more than 20 songs for it. Unless otherwise indicated, all images courtesy of Joseph Gilland.

Through the following years, and throughout my animation career, all of these other artistic outlets have played an enormous role in shaping the artist I am today, and I have come to believe that it is very important, at least for me personally, to balance my animation with these other artistic endeavors. Its no secret that lots and lots of other animation professionals do the exact same thing. Any animation studio I have ever worked in is full of painters, musicians, poets and writers. As a result of my observing this phenomenon throughout my career, during my years teaching animation I began to encourage the students I was mentoring to diversify their creative wanderings as much as humanly possible. To dip into as many aspects of the creative arts as they could squeeze into their creative lives. And for very good reason! Here are just a few of those reasons, as I see it, and as many of my closest animation colleagues see these as well.

For starters, animation is an incredibly tedious, time consuming and demanding creative process that requires a great deal of patience. Even short films can sometimes takes several years to finish, depending on the size of the crew, big feature films can seem to take eons to come to life, and, even though television cartoon schedules are getting ridiculously short, it still takes a great deal of patience to create a show and months and months often go by without seeing the finished product. So, the creative payoff in animation is frequently painfully slow in arriving. So what better thing for an animation artist to do, than engage in another creative outlet which rewards the artist with almost immediate gratification?

Pick up any instrument and play, and voilà! Instant results! Put pen to paper and write a journal, a song, a poem, or a column for AWN, and voilà! Instant gratification. Creative juices can flow more freely, and a sense of accomplishment is the reward, giving an animation artist more energy to get back to the laborious business of making cartoons! It has worked for me for three decades. It is rare when I am working either at home or in an animation studio, that I do not have a guitar, keyboard or some kind of noisemaking percussive instrument nearby that I can turn to, to immediately bang out some sounds and release my frustration with the animation process, and then calmly return to the work at hand. It is a fantastic creative release and, more importantly, it is a complementary creative force, which can enrich you as an artist and make your all of your artistic and animation skills improve greatly.

I will never forget, my first year animation teacher in Montreal telling our class that, Sound is half of what makes animation work! One of our first animation experiments was scribbling colors on clear 35mm film and then splicing every students work together and screening the results while playing various types of music, from Pink Floyd, to Mozart, to Miles Davis. Inevitably, the dancing shapes took on real life when viewed with a soundtrack, no matter what style of music, our abstract colors and shapes seemed to miraculously fall into step with the sound, and actually seemed to be in sync. It was a fantastic lesson on the importance of the animation soundtrack.

Just drawing for fun, a doodle can turn into just about anything. I cant think of anything more relaxing, than just drawing for the sake of drawing! It is a healthy break from the tedium of animation.

As I began to mature as an artist, both as an animator and a musician, I began to learn about the similarities between what makes good music and good animation work well. Tempo, timing, anticipation, composition, dynamics, color, weight, overlapping timing, follow-through, the spaces in between the key moments and the importance of economy as in not playing too many notes and not over-animating. Precisely the same principles apply to both of these art forms, as well as applying to sculpting, painting, print making or any other of the fine arts.

Slowly I began to realize that every time I played music, I was honing the exact same skills that make a good animator. Raising my consciousness to the importance of sound, and in particular, the spaces in between the sounds, helped me to approach each drawing I did with newfound respect and sensitivity. Not to mention, the payoff of hearing ones music immediately, and thus breaking the doldrums of animating day in and day out for over a year before seeing the results in color on the big screen with an accompanying soundtrack.

I have carried this knowledge into every creative endeavor in my life, and it broadens with every new art form that dabble with. Writing, too, involves tempo, theme, careful repetition, building tension up to a climax, and following through with some kind of resolution, as all good stories should, if they are to drive an animated film effectively. Although I am relatively new to the writing profession, and may not always hit the mark I am aiming for, I find myself trying to achieve much the same thing I do when I am writing a song, or animating a scene in a film. Pull the reader/viewer in, using the universal principles of entertainment, and take them on a compelling ride with a satisfying payoff in the end.

I designed an elaborate CD cover with liner notes for an album I produced independently in 1996. This was one of the outtake designs for the inside cover.

Photography also, has become a very important part of my creative life, and nowhere are the principles of artistic entertainment more evident.

Photography involves composition, dynamics, positive and negative space leading the viewers eye to the key point of interest and then pulling it away into the details around it. All of the aspects of a good photograph help me to draw and make music with greater sense of the full creative process. Diving into underwater photography in tropical coral reefs, I found the creative juices to really start flowing, and, when Finding Nemo hit the theaters, I was astounded by the wonderful stylizations of the magic of the coral reef that had so hypnotized me and informed my creative life.

Surely a great deal of underwater photography was referenced to bring those brilliant backgrounds and characters to life, as is clearly illustrated in the fantastic Art of Finding Nemo book. And so scuba diving photographers ultimately played quite an important role in the visualization of that film. Just a couple of years ago, one of my animation students, upon finding my website of underwater photographs, asked for my permission to use then as backgrounds in her final student film project. I was delighted, of course, and the results were greatly satisfying. I sure never gave it a thought when I was taking the photographs, but there you go, all creative processes inevitably tie in together.

Currently, I am writing and illustrating a book about animation, a sneak preview of which appeared here last month. Talk about an exercise in composition, tempo and design! The chapter that was kindly printed here by the folks at AWN, was minus about 60 illustrations, and blending and laying out the text along with the countless illustrations, has been an incredible learning experience for me, with all my creative energies coming together at once. It is like a song, or a film or a stand-alone sculpture. The spaces between the lines, are as important as the content itself, a lesson we must all learn in animation to thoroughly involve the viewer, drawing them in, making them wait, building up the scene or story with tension, and then wrapping it all up with a satisfying resolution and payoff.

For the most part, this is nothing new to the professionals I have worked with in the animation industry. It is generally part and parcel of a truly engaged creative individual, to foray into new ground all the time, and experiment with different modes of expression. During my time working at Don Bluths studio in Ireland, I played in a bizarre experimental band called Toe Jam, with Greg Maguire, currently the supervising technical director at LucasFilm Animation, and Jan Carlee, formerly of Blue Sky and, I am sorry to say, I have no idea where he is working currently. (Where are you Jan?)

With our free-form approach to a kind of eclectic, psychedelic, progressive rock/jazz mish-mash of musical meanderings, we truly freed ourselves of the endless chore of working on mind-numbingly tedious feature films. (Especially working on Dons final succession of seriously mangled stories, and a feature film scored by none other than Barry Manilow, [no disrespect Barry ]) It was an absolute gas!

Years later, at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Florida, I teamed up with an enormous group of musicians and semi-musicians, we all rehearsed for months, and then we all played a memorable gig at the annual feature animation Christmas party, being introduced as (believe it or not) Mucus and the Membranes. I would love to list off the names of all the musicians and singers involved in that experience, but there are too many and I am afraid I will leave a key individual out. We had several lead, rhythm and bass guitar players, two keyboard players, three lovely ladies singing backup vocals, a horn section, a drummer or two (including the greatest female drummer Ive ever heard!), tons of alternative percussion players and countless other guest performers and singers.

We renamed my group Darkhorse, The Heavy Metal Band, and played at the wrap party for the original Heavy Metal movie. Now that was an unforgettable experience.

In the middle of working on the original film, Mulan, which dragged on for years, it was a fantastic creative experience that pumped us all up and helped to keep us all going. Years later again, during the production of the original Lilo & Stitch, I teamed up with Aaron Blaise, (the co-director of Brother Bear) and a key animation assistant, Steve Austin, to create a trio that performed groovy acoustic/electric music with highly intermittent regularity around the Orlando area. It was another fantastic creative experience that I feel it made us all happier and better artists, every time we got together and played.

I can rewind the story even all the way back to 1980, and remember my earliest rock & roll band Darkhorse. We renamed ourselves The Heavy Metal Blues Band to perform for our last gig ever, at the wrap party in Montreal, for that infamous cult classic, the original Heavy Metal movie. Wow! Now that was a little bit of fun, I can tell you! An experience to relish for a lifetime.

All this reflection and storytelling is really just to emphasize the importance of branching out and dabbling in as many creative areas as possible, to help us stay engaged with our animation, as well as ultimately enhancing our creative bag of tricks. Its also worth noting that in the inevitable dry spells that pop up in many animation artists lives, when work is really scarce, having other creative outlets can also lead to working professionally in other disciplines, so diversifying your creative toolbox can also save your fanny in that respect. I have worked professionally as a musician, an illustrator, and a photographer from time to time, and it has indeed, gotten me through some of my toughest periods in this sometimes fickle industry!

Most of us as artists, know all this stuff, and couldnt live our lives any other way. As creative individuals, the vast majority of us have our fingers in all sorts of creative pies!

What I was surprised to find, particularly with the newer students of animation pursuing a career in the digital realm of animation, is that many students have not really considered the idea of diversifying creatively, and so I continually emphasize its importance when teaching or lecturing to the next generation of animation artists. Many youthful 3D artists dont even seem to understand the importance of drawing to the degree that they should, in order to greatly enhance their creative communication skills, never mind branching off into countless other areas of creative magic. So I call on all educators of animation to keep this in mind, and make sure that we plant the seeds of true creative experimentation and exploration in every student we teach!

Once upon a time, long, long ago, a true artist was expected to be well versed in physics, engineering, architecture, science, biology, writing and music. The Renaissance Man as he/she was referred to, (although very few females were permitted to be a part of that sadly male-dominated era) stands as an excellent example of what I am emphasizing in this column. All areas of creative thought and practice, complement one another with underlying principles and practices. To rise above the average, to capture life fully with energy and creative originality, we, as artists, are responsible to be the antennae of our society, and explore every creative outlet available to us, in order to best be the entertainers and educators of the masses that flock to the theaters like sheep, the average Janes and Joes who are so (hopefully) attracted to our creative magic.

The more we can all diversify and experiment creatively, the better our creative product will ultimately be, and the public at large will get more bang for their box-office buck. Its all about creative energy, imagination and knowledge folks, so lets broaden our creative horizons every chance we get, and, as a result, give the countless fans of our magical art form the best creative edu-tainment that we possibly can!

In his 30-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with studios as diverse as Walt Disney Feature Animation and the National Film Board of Canada. He has worked on all styles of animation, experimental films, television series, commercials, theatrical feature films, stop motion, title sequences, live-action films and documentaries. He is writing a passionate book about the art of animation.