Chapter 3: Animation For Dummies
Whether we call it film, movies, screenplay, cinema, video, documentary, polemic, graphic exhibit, or whatever, it is my feeling that root idea for any dramatic sound and light presentation in a darkened room goes all the way back to our human beginnings; that it actually fulfills humankind's earliest artistic and storytelling cravings. I had a friend, Alexander Marshack, who once was a photographer for LIFE magazine, and then an early TV director, who became a foremost expert on the beginnings of human art and graphic communication... He traces art back at least 35,000 years. His story was told in National Geographic magazine.
What interested me greatly about his work was what he discovered and postulated about the cave paintings of Europe. First of all he reminds us of the weird feeling we have when inside a cave. If you've ever been inside a large cave, you'll know this feeling. And if you've ever been deep inside a cave and turned off your light, you will know what dark is! It is a total blackness and quiet we can experience in no other way, especially with the deathly feeling of being under tons of rock.
Alex Marshack pointed out that all those beautiful paintings we know of have been created maybe a half-mile deep inside the caves. Why did those early artists do that when it must have been enormously difficult for them?
It certainly proves that they were able to produce light. Hollowed stones have been found inside the caves, which were probably oil lamps. They also had to be able to bring in drawing and painting utensils, to make scaffolding, and to mix colors on the spot.
Flattened areas of stone have been found with enough residues to indicate they were used as palettes. It can be assumed that they did not drag all those animals in there to use as models! Yet these paintings are marvelous examples of drawing skill by any standard. These were trained artists! What is especially fascinating to an animator is seeing that many of the drawings were attempts to convey an image of motion!
But this was a time of primitive and exceedingly difficult life, when just staying alive and hunting for food were the predominate needs. But yet they felt it necessary to support "professional" artists! From this we have to assume that these so-called cave men had a more advanced social organization than we might have thought, and that they were able to bring in a surplus of food, and that not every man or woman had to spend full time scrabbling for existence - that societies 35,000 years ago could support and train artists!!! Why??
All of these deductions by Alexander Marshack got me to thinking that these people had a culture and a lore they wished to preserve, to pass on - a need to tell stories! It struck me: Could there be a more imprinting way for those people to inculcate their youth with the legends and lore of the community, than to lead them into the icy vast darkness of a cave, to a deep, forbidding gallery, always the one that was the most sound resonant, (Cave-age Dolby Surround sound!), and in flickering oil lamp light, illuminating wondrous images, tell the tribal tales, in an atmosphere of guaranteed attention? Could it have been the first "cinema" presentation!
We can see that though the technology of animation has changed a bit in the last 35,000 years, the aim is the same: to tell stories in the most dramatic, riveting, and attention-holding way we can. Technical advancements come thick and fast in our times, but we mustn't let them rule our work as a thing unto themselves. Technology is an ever-evolving tool, but our use of it must always be the same: to tell our story!
If you learn anything, learn to keep the clarity of what you are saying, or the gag you are presenting. Don't fall victim to the mannerisms of the moment and let the technique smother your story!
In our art/craft of animation, in order to truly win our audiences hearts, we should aim not just to make our characters move, but to make them live — or certainly seem to live — to project an inner life, that motivates their actions and make those actions plausible. I wish I could say that I ever truly accomplished that!
I was a UPA man at heart. I have always valued strong stories and humanity, but I had other goals as well, guided by graphics, symbols, and stylization. My successes nicely balanced my failures. I have grown in my understanding of what animation is all about. Our audience is made up of humans. We must of course respond to human expectations, but we can also deftly attempt to widen those expectations! That was risky, and that’s my commercial failures were, but also my most satisfying endeavors!
When I became a director, and entered a studio engaged in producing films under my direction, I couldn’t escape a certain moment of panic. "My God! All these people are working on something that is my conception! What if I'm wrong? They were all trusting their livelihood to the notion that I knew what I'm doing!" I always had to believe in what I was doing!
What does a director do? If you've sat through the end-credits of an animated feature film, you know that what we do is a (large) group effort. Sure, you would love to think up, write, design, animate, paint, voice, shoot, composite, and edit your own film... Great! Maybe you will win a prize in a major festival after four to six years of work, possibly being financed by a grant, but more likely from your career as a McDonalds fry cook. But if you actually want to earn a living in animation, you will have to find your place in a studio, and your place in the complex interplay of many talents.
A good animated film is a deft amalgam of many talents and crafts. But a good animated film must look like it’s the work of one hand. That is what a director does! The director is the one with the responsibility for the overall vision, and he or she is the one who must know what goes in, and what is discarded, the one who holds the production to a straight line. Without a director's clear vision and firm hand, the movie will wander all over the lot.
A good animation director should basically know how to do, or at least understand the place, of all the elements of the movie, and strive to keep them all in balance, not letting any one element dominate, and have his or her eye and ear at all times centered on the story being told, the premise being proved, and the point being made.