Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Three best animated things ever.

Got forced into this today. And I surprised myself with my answers. Also surprised by how old everything on the list is. There was a time when animation was inventive and brave.

Twice Upon A Time (uncensored version only)
Mouse in Manhattan

Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings gets an honorable mention.

No order. Mouse in Manhattan is perfect by the way. A 7 minute version of every MGM musical in the 40s to 60s. Animation is unreal. Brilliant!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Directors You Should Know # 4

Frank Capra

Considered by many the most "American" classic film director, Frank was of course an immigrant. And like any decent artist, Italian. (check out my last name again, pison)

I could go on about how being an immigrant is the classic modern American experience and how that gave him both the distance and passion an artist should bring to his subject. Which in Frank's case was American life itself. Or how his early experiences shaped his strong views on how art should be made. Or a dozen other things about his character and approach to the craft that fascinate me, but I don't need to. Frank said it all better himself. His autobiography Frank Capra: Name Above the Title is my all time favorite film biography and a gripping, funny, insightful, inspirational read. I strongly recommend it.

Check out any of his early films that still survive when you can, but a short list of his best films is:

The Bitter Tea of General Yen
It Happened One Night (first classic "screwball" comedy in my opinion)
Mr Deeds Goes To Town
Lost Horizon (one of my personal favorite films)
You Can't Take It With You
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
Meet John Doe
Arsenic and Old Lace
It's A Wonderful Life
State of the Union
Pocketful Of Miracles

Frank also did my favorite educational series of films. They affected me deeply as a child. I own them all now and watch them with my children over and over. They love them too. Wonderful, optimistic stuff about the only uniquely human creation other than Art; Science. That's right, everything else in your experience is also done by insects, primates, lizards, and bacteria. Only Art and Science mark us as unique creatures.

Our Mr. Sun
Hemo the Magnificent
The Strange Case of Cosmic Rays
The Unchained Goddess

Update and advice

Again I've neglected the animation lessons. I plead overwork. The new film has been an exhausting thrill ride as we are not only designing, modeling, and storyboarding a very fun musical comedy, but actually building one of the smartest pipelines I have ever heard of. This is definitely the right way to make an animated movie. Of course building the road as you are driving 60 miles an hour down it is a big job for all involved, but there is nothing more rewarding than doing something like this right.

I've always wanted to do a musical and I've gotten my wish but as usual in the most out-of-the-box, quirky way possible.

However that is probably the last comment I will make about the film's content until it is finished. Film makers chatting about their projects as they are working on them just strikes me as a bad idea on a lot of levels. Film making is an intense, very expensive, trust based undertaking and the Director (especially but not exclusively) should treat everything he knows, sees, or is said to him as confidential.

Side note: That is true after the film is finished too. Maybe it's my Chicago upbringing, but I strongly feel "family business" should stay in the "family". People make a living doing this and I never want to say anything that could make that harder for someone. This can be difficult when erroneous information/assumptions about who made particular decisions, budgets, script changes, casting, and the like are tossed around publicly after a film comes out. Especially when it's done by people who were involved in the film and clearly know better. But my advice to a young film maker is to shut up and stay shutted up. It's more important that people trust you than the world hears your side of every bit of BS floating around the web.

Look at it this way - I've never been out of work in the last 12 years. I've gotten to write and/or direct the kind of projects I've always wanted to and I make a pretty good living doing something I love. I get to travel all over the world teaching technique and lecturing about the process and craft I am passionate about. If that sounds like a nice life then take my advice and don't try to convince fools and amateurs to agree with you. Smile, wish them well, and get back to doing what the Great Spirit In The Sky put you here to do.

Everyone you're all worked up about will be dead in a hundred years anyway. So will you by the way, so get back to your work!

Anyway I've just been swallowed up by the creative process and it's hard to pull my head out to talk about general theory when I'm so intensely involved in figuring out the precisely correct application of all these theories to specific problems of story telling, design, acting, camera, color, etc. I just don't have enough emotional distance to discuss abstracts right now. When things lighten up, I'll pick it up again.

But we can continue the Directors You Should Know discussion. So new "Director Post" in a few minutes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

sorry all

Been neglecting the blog. Just started production on my next film and things are the usual crazy as we get started. More details about the film and the continuation of the 12 principles soon. I can say that I am having a WONDERFUL time.

Why does anybody do anything but make movies?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Definition of 12 Principles

An old student sent me an email asking me to define the 12 Principles the way I used to in class. Okay, but a slight proviso first. These are not dictionary definitions. What follows is an experienced animator describing how he thinks in response to a specific question from a student. Of course it is over-simplified. Of course these concepts are not to be considered rock solid rules in every situation.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was at Disney Feature it was a common (though frowned upon) practice for animators who wanted to earn some extra money or loved working on the classic characters to pick up freelance animation at Disney Toons on the Direct to Video sequels. I did it a lot. It was just plain fun to move those old characters around. A change of pace from the overworked boring feature stuff I was working on across the street.

One particular scene presented to me was a shot from an homage of the classic "dance of the pink elephants" sequence from Dumbo - this time staring a magic dancing Heffalump. I was told this particular shot had been originally given to a very famous supervising animator over at Feature and had come back out of sync with the music and unfinished. Seems the animator considered the beat of the music too fast and the physical changes too extreme to do in the allotted amount of time.

Now here's the point, the famous very successful animator told the people working on the film that the concept of the shot was the problem. That the music/boards had been executed badly and he needed to change the entire concept of the scene in order to execute the animation to his "standards". If he couldn't do what was being asked in the way he usually animated then what he was being asked to do was by definition "bad".

I looked at the boards and listened to the music and couldn't see why it was such a problem. (I should add here that I asked not to see what the previous animator had done so I have no idea what the specific issues were.) I animated the shot in about four days and it turned out very well.

See below for pencil test.

So why I am telling this story? Is it to illustrate that my formulas and concepts are right and this famous animator is secretly a hack? I'm great, love me, love me, love me? Absolutely not. I have people in my life who blow enough smoke up my ass for my ego to thrive. I don't need the internet to love me. (and neither should you, O Artiste Wanna-be)

The famous animator is famous for a reason. He does fantastic work. I love a lot of his stuff and admire much of his technique. He is a great animator. My point is only this, learn how to use LOTS of tools. Otherwise no matter how good you may be at a particular style, you will eventually get in over your head.

You should work not to become locked into a particular way of moving things or drawing. The concepts we are examining are only tools and every job needs the tool best suited for it. Don't memorize a few formulas (even if they make you famous) and stop there. The famous animator's mistake was locking himself into a style as the only "right" way of animating. The animators at MGM, Disney, Warners, UPA, Hanna -Barbara, each mastered and used variations on classic animation formulas that worked for their particular studio's style and goals. And they deliberately studied each other's techniques, because there is always something more to learn.

Styles and formulas are wonderful tools. But instead of memorizing and eventually becoming enslaved to them, understand the principles behind the techniques. Then choose the right tool for the right job. Hell, invent your own! If you understand why something works, you can make it work better.

Crap. Long blog. Sorry. I'll do a couple principles here and pick up the list in a later blog.

Squash = Shows what material an object is made of.

Soap bubbles squash a lot at any speed, human flesh somewhat less, cannonballs do not quash at all (usually). The viewer's eye is looking for clues as to what the object is made of. Squash is the fastest way to tell them. Squashing things too much does not make animation snappy or "classic'. It makes things feel unreal when done too much. Best advice. Keep squash on ones whenever possible and don't transition between shapes. It can get gooey. Remember you can always add an inbetween later if you need it.

You are looking for snap, not mush.

Stretch = Used to continue persistence of vision when an object is spaced so far between frames that the eye will perceive it as a different object.

That effect usually refereed to as "popping" or "strobing". Blur does the same thing visually as stretch, but again can be overused. Remember classic animation used stretching much less than you think and usually pretty subtly (MGM). CG tends to have the motion blur turned up too high because real objects blur when photographed. Okay given, but photography is a much LESS precise art form than animation. Brilliant cartoons were made for years with little or no motion blur. Don't get lazy. Blur is not always necessary and is far overused by visual effect folks to cover the fact that the animators didn't space the moving objects precisely. Computers want to space things evenly so they tend to float and strobe. The math is easier. Too much blur is often used to cover poor placement of objects by the computer's automatic inbetweening. (Quick tip: In Earth normal gravity, practically nothing inbetweens on thirds. We'll get to this later.)

When should you use blur and stretch at the same time? Practically never!

Stretch is not an indicator of speed. Spacing determines speed, not stretching. Check out some Bugs Bunny cartoons from the forties. When stretch is over-used but the object doesn't move far enough to need it, the character doesn't feel like he's moving quickly, he just feels rubbery. Usually that was not a stylistic choice. It was a mistake made by great artists experimenting.

Yeah, drawing wildly stretched characters is fun. Get over it.

By the way, popping and strobing can be very effective when used correctly. If you slap blur on everything out of habit, you lose a powerful tool.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Directors U Should Know 3

Okay continuing the list of great directors and their work which any serious film student should be familiar. (Yes, that means watching black and white well made movies written for adults where nobody has superpowers and occasionally wears a shirt. Tough it out.)

Today's director, HOWARD HAWKS

Born in Indiana in 1896, Hawks started as a Prop Man in in his early twenties. He worked as an Assistant Director, Casting Director, Script Supervisor (a great job for someone who wants to be a director), Editor (more great training) and Producer, but mostly Hawks worked as a Screenwriter until he directed his first film in 1926, Road to Glory.

So you see, knowing what is actually going on on the set helps to make a solid director. John Ford shared this kind of up-through-the-ranks set experience. In my opinion, film school is a poor substitute for hands-on working knowledge. (So go get some! Every production needs free help.)

Hawks was one of the greatest action directors ever, but also one of the best comedy directors. He pioneered verbal fast-paced "screwball" comedies that relied on sharp pacing and "overlapping" dialog. The amazing thing about Hawks' pacing is one felt like the characters were talking over each other, but could still clearly catch every word and joke. I know from experience how hard that can be. (Mixers hate it!) To get a feel for just how good Hawks was at this, watch "Bringing up Baby" and "His Girl Friday". Hawks pacing is a clear influence on directors like Peter Bogdanovich and Tommy Shlamme. (Both of whom we will see later on this list.)

So please watch and enjoy this abbreviated list of Howard Hawks' best films.

Dawn Patrol
Barbary Coast
Ceiling Zero
Bringing Up Baby
Only Angels Have Wings
His Girl Friday (The Front Page. Kinna.)
Sargent York
To Have and Have Not
The Big Sleep
Red River
I was a Male War Bride
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Rio Bravo
El Dorado
Rio Lobo

Those last three are easily some of the best westerns ever made. (I would include Red River in that comment but like John Ford's otherwise amazing remake of Three Godfathers, I just can't get past the unearned happy ending.)

And my absolute favorite Howard Hawks' directed film....

The Thing from Another World

Yeah I know he's listed as the Producer not Director, but watch this brilliant film. Hawks clearly directed it! It is infused with signature Hawks' pacing, style, dialog, and characters. It also has the best reveal of a spaceship ever done in film. I smile every time I watch it. Brilliant!

But "The Thing" was made in a time when Sci-Fi was synonymous with low rent childish garbage and no director could risk putting his name on one and be taken seriously for other work outside the genre again.

Kinna like animation today.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Classroom part 2

Character Animation is not the mechanical precise duplication of motion as observed in the physical world. That would be called real life. And any filmmaker who strives to capture/recreate real life on film is making documentaries. Or trying to. But if you ever use a cut between shots, you've failed. The film has become what it always is, an abstract (perhaps symbolic is a better term than abstract) form of visual communication.

My point is movies are not "realistic" by their very nature. They never have been. There's music playing and cameras cutting and shifting POVs, and titles, and hundred other incredibly unrealistic things going on to tell the story.

Film is not a realistic art form.

(Neither is acting for that matter. Can you imagine anything as boring as pointing a camera at someone not acting? Go ask an actor. They work very hard to execute their craft so that the audience simply doesn't notice the actor is acting. But they are definitely using technique and experience to do something very artificial. Character animation is very similar.)

So why are amateurs (I'm especially taking about those with a visual effects background.) OBSESSED with precisely duplicating real movement in animation? How misguided. Nothing else in the film is even slightly real. The goal should be to have the animation (an all elements of a film actually) be EFFECTIVE, a more complicated and subtle goal.

Okay realistic I get, but effective? How does one determine if something is effective?

Ah, that is solely determined by the artistic intention of the film maker. What story is being told, what techniques are being used to heighten the audiences emotional involvement with the characters, what's the point of the scene or shot, where is the story going, where have we just been; a whole long list of artistic choices on the part of the director. But at the end of the day, animation is effective ONLY if it successfully communicates the film maker's intent to the audience.

(Two notes: Let's just assume that no film maker's intent is to bore or confuse the audience and let's agree to stop using the word "good" when speaking of film. Instead think the word "effective". "Good" leaves a lot of room for self-bullshiting. "Effective", far less so.)

So stop thinking the art of Character Animation is the merely the simple dry process of analysis and duplication. It is not. Observation and analysis of nature and "laws of motion" are critical tasks for the animator, but they are just the beginning.

Character Animation uses subtle artistic techniques based on studies of motion, gravity, force, material structure, the workings of the human eye and film processes, color, tone, symbols and shape, but mostly an understanding of the human mind and heart, to create a heightened impressionistic experience for the audience. A experience intended to make the audience believe (at least while watching the film) that the drawings or digital puppets on the screen can think, feel, and live in a way humans instinctively relate to emotionally.

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson called this "The Illusion of Life."

That is easily the most wonderful description of this insanely complicated, subtle, and joyous art form I have ever read. Not the mere duplication of living things' motion, but creating the sustained illusion that the drawings or puppets we see on the screen live, think, and feel.

Sound complicated? Hard to learn? Well, it is. Damned hard to do well. I would give up now if I were you. Go ahead, take the easy route. Learn some half-assed software package and slide stuff around on the screen. Pretend that garbage is animation. Go join a visual effects department!!! Live a lie! See if I care! I have better things to do with my time, punk!!!


Actually I don't. (God, do I need a hobby.)

Okay, don't panic. Character animation is a very complicated and difficult thing to do effectively, but we stand on the backs of giants. The great animation masters of earlier generations have passed to us a time tested, simple, and organized method to master the basic techniques.

Let's start at the beginning.

The 12 Major Principles of Animation
Line of Action

Note: you may see in other places variations on this list adding terms such as solid drawing or appeal. It is my opinion that such terms describe not essential animation principles, but personal preferences of style. It is my goal to teach not a particular style (like the Disney Method) but the technically essential techniques common to all effective character animation 2d, 3d, "realistic"or cartoony.

So let's start with the first exercise. A short animation that will allow the student to isolate, examine, and play around with 9 of the 12 principles.

Next time: The Bouncing Ball!

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Okay, due to popular demand, notes from my seminar. (This could get pretty dry. If you start to drift, go watch a John Ford film until I get back to talking about the fun stuff. Just saw Long Voyage Home again. Even better than I remember.)

Before we can start making informed evaluations or developing critical opinions about our work or the work of students, we need to get on the same page philosophically. So pull up a chair and let's have my usual "young wanna-be artist emotional encounter session". (Ugh. I hate this part.)

"So you want me to spend the few moments I have left on Earth before God drop kicks me into his eternal people furnace teaching you what I know, huh?"

"Uh Yeah. What people furnace?"

"You'll find out. So you're an artist?"

"Yes absolutely. Ever since I was a kid I've always felt a burning passion to expresses myself."

"That's called Narcissism, everybody has that. You'll get over it or go into show business. How does that make you an artist?"

"Well, uh I just know... I mean all my friends say... look at how cool I dress."

"Calm down, I'll make this part easy. An artist is someone who creates Art every day. Can we agree on this?"


"So if you aren't making Art what are you?"

"Uh, not an Artist?"

"Right. And when you are getting drunk, or talking about what a great artist you are, or dressing up like idiot for attention, or trying to bullshit some girl/boy at a party, are you making Art?"


"So can we agree that being an artist is not about you, your feelings, what others think or tell you you are, or whether or not your Mommy loves you today?"

"Do I have to?"

"Nope. There's a world of self deluded schmucks outside thinking themselves Artists because someone told them they were. I think they have your club jacket ready. You'll like it, it's got a corporate logo on it and everything."

"Okay fine. Jeez, you can be a jerk. An artist is only defined as someone actively engaged in the process of making Art."

"Good. So... what is Art then?"

"I walked right into that one. didn't I?"

"Everybody does, kid. Okay, let's skip the next three weeks of reading, research, trick questions, and discussion and I'll just tell you."

Definition of Art
(In the well considered and researched opinion of Mike Disa.)

What is Art?
Art is a stylized form of mass communication intended to communicate specific information to as broad a segment of humanity as possible regardless of culture, place or time.

What is Commercial Art?
A specialized form of Art intended to induce a single emotional state, vicarious desire, or to communicate specific data.

What is Fine Art?
A specialized form of Art produced with skilled draftsmanship that effectively communicates a concept, series of concepts, or emotional state that can be understood and experienced by the viewer divorced from cultural context or extended contemporary social idioms. (If it can be more fully appreciated in cultural context, so much the better.)

What is Pop Art?
A specialized form of Art, produced with or without skilled draftmanship, that is primarily dependent on external cultural context to communicate meaning.

What is Animation?
A form of Art that communicates through the use of sequenced still images designed to be displayed at a fast enough rate to to created the optical illusion of motion.

What is Character Animation?
A form of Animation that specializes in creating the impression of humanized thought process through the use of crafted graphic symbols and varied timings.

What is Experimental Animation?
I have no idea. You want to get experimental? Try to telling a story with no money or time. You get inventive and experimental fast. Style is not Form. Any artist can choose any style they wish, or create a new one. That does not relive the artist of the fundamental mandate to communicate effectively with a broad audience.

So... Animation = Art = Communication.

Therefore the primary task of an artist is to develop a set of skills and tools that allow him/her to effectively communicate their intended message through the medium they have chosen. Those skills will require study, experimentation, and practice to perfect, but those techniques are universal and can be taught and critically evaluated regardless of the specific information the individual artist wishes to communicate.

Therefore though technique is not Art, technique can be critiqued and improved separately from the development of the individual artist's philosophy or evolving intentions.

Which means shut up about yer great ideas and learn to draw. It won't make you an artist but a singer needs to know scales, right. Trust me, this is the fun part. Fill up a sketch book or two this week and we'll start talking about specific techniques next Classroom.

Here's a link to help you. http://vilppustudio.com/

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Guest blog on the Huffinton Post


Not my usual dry film technique stuff. More of an opinion piece.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NIU lectures

Thanks to all the NIU students who turned out for my lecture and seminar on Animation last week. I have received about a dozen very good questions and requests for expansion or clarification of several points. I will be going through these in detail as soon as I find time. Here are a few of the subjects requested.

The evolution of the hero and story from antiquity to today. (Essentially an examination of my proposal that a radical change in the nature of storytelling and heroes since the Enlightenment has been responsible for the recent rapid advancement in social and Western ethics. What's not important about movies?!)

The Seven (and only seven) story types or gags.

A examination of the 12 principles of Animation.

The Major Studios as fast food chains and why that is a good and/or bad thing.

Why cutting isn't funny.

What Pre-production and Productions steps are obsolete and why the Big Studios still use them.

How to storyboard faster and better.

Why in-house animators can be a very bad thing.

How to design a static shot for Stereoscopic 3D.

Animation as fetish instead of film making.

Why California and New York pizza should be outlawed from civilized countries. (Okay, that one is just obvious.)

Great to experience such interest and enthusiasm! I'm grateful I got to spend time with you all.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions #3 cont.

Today's recommendations are some of the many films by John Ford.

Doctor Bull
The Lost Patrol
Judge Priest
The Informer
Steamboat Round the Bend
Mary of Scotland
Submarine Patrol
Young Mr. Lincoln
Drums Along the Mohawk
The Grapes of Wrath
The Long Voyage Home
How Green Was My Valley
They Were Expendable
My Darling Clementine
The Fugitive
Fort Apache
3 Godfathers
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Rio Grande
What Price Glory
The Horse Soldiers

But most especially

The Quiet Man
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Searchers

For those of you who say things like, "Eh I don't like Westerns." get the Hell out of Show-business! The genre of the Western, like any genre, is merely an excuse to remove characters and social convention from present day reality allowing the film maker to explore the human condition with a cooler eye. It also allows the audience the emotional distance necessary to relate to another point of view.

Take The Searchers. Not only is it possibly the best shot and edited film ever made, but it's a movie made in 1956 America about RACISM. Okay, racism with cool horse chases and great action, but it is essentially a morality play about the personal human cost of racism. And because it is a genre film with Indians Americans taking the place of African Americans, it was a hugely popular film that got it's message all across the country at a time when blind unexamined hatred of race was literally about to tear the country in half. That is the power of film art. And that is the special ability of genre films.

A genre film is about people, not place, time, or special effects. Or at least it should be.

So do not limit yourself to a particular kind of film. Watch them all. The artists who make them will have some wonderful surprises waiting for you.

(By the way, Animation is not a genre! It is a technique. Any animated movie must be judged by whether or not it is an effective film, not given special allowance to be badly written and shot because it's "just a cartoon". Don't think of an animated film as something given a license to be "less than". Too many people making animated films already have that attitude ingrained in their approach to the process. If your going to do this for a living, then treat all film with respect. If an animated film is not worth your effort to do as well as you would a live action film, don't do it at all.)

Also pay special attention to Ford's camera style. Notice how little he cuts and how he uses his impeccable sense of design to recompose action within a single shot to direct the audience's eye and attention. Modern directors/editors cut far too often out of habit.

I was once told by a very good film maker that the most unnatural, disconcerting thing a director can do is cut. There is nothing like it in reality. It like the human eye suddenly transports to a new location. Just because we are used to it (thanks to the devil box television) doesn't mean it should be done haphazardly. A director needs a legitimate reason within the structure of the story to cut. (As opposed to modern film and animation where it seems that a punctuation mark in the script is the main cue to change shots.)

Watch when and how Ford does it. Masterful.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Quick interruption of my list of movies all film students should study.

While I was looking over my John Ford collection, (Yes, his films are next on the list. Who were you expecting, Michael Bay? Wrong Blog kid.) I watched Stagecoach again (making this list is really just an excuse to watch these films. Leave me alone kids, Daddy's working!) and was reminded of an exercise I did in a few of my film classes.

I would ask my students to watch four films off this list that they had not seen before.

Dark Victory
Gone With The Wind
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of Mice and Men
The Wizard of Oz
Wuthering Heights
Dodge City
Another Thin Man
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Babes in Arms
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island
Destry Rides Again
Drums Along the Mohawk
The Four Feathers
The Man in the Iron Mask
Mr. Wong in Chinatown
The Oklahoma Kid
The Roaring Twenties
Son of Frankenstein
The Three Musketeers
The Tower of London
Young Mr. Lincoln
Gunga Din

We would then spend a little time at the end of class discussing the films as they watched them. Sometimes these discussions would lead to a serious analysis of shot progression, composition, story structure, camera/lens choice, lighting, music, whatever. Sometimes we'd still be going over a film at 10 or 11 pm, really digging into not just how much fun and entertaining these films are, but how incredibly well made each of them is. We'd talk about how with the exception of motion control cameras, advancement in film stock, and digital effects there is nothing being done today technically better than it was in these films. As a matter of fact, the composition/photography of most modern movies don't hold up to what is in these films.

(Compare any frame of Adventures of Robin Hood to any frame of any animated film in the last five years. If you tell me they even compare, I'll smack you with a rolled up copy of Composing Pictures. Hell if you converted it, The Adventures of Robin Hood would be a better Stereoscopic film than anything that's come out of the big studios yet. Don't be fooled by hysterically moving camera work and fast cutting. You can swing a camera tied to a rope over your head and get the same effect as the camera work in a lot of recently animated films. Probably a better story too, but that's another topic.)

Near the end of the year I'd tell the students that the films on that list, all those brilliant, powerful, entertaining, mesmerizing, elegantly crafted films were released in the same year. 1939. One year. Americans in 1939 had art of that quality, passion, and fun handed to them by a relatively small group of artists, technicians and craftsmen. That much beauty, that much power, that much truth, - one year.

What did we give America last year?

And 1939 was 73 years ago. Long before the technical advances that make our jobs now a fraction as difficult as what those film makers had to go through. And most of those film makers went on to make dozens of other films, some even better than those listed.

Then I'd ask my film students (many of whom seemed to have put more time into their wardrobe and hair than their films that semester) to look back at the year they had just finished. To look hard at the work they had done. I'd ask them how they felt about the way they spent their time. I'd ask them if they felt worthy to stand next to films like those and call themselves filmmakers or artists.

Anyone who did, I failed.

Anyway, just a quick aside to share those films and that thought with you. Back to the list next time.

Oh, and do yourself a favor if you haven't seen Tower of London, Another Thin Man, or Gunga Din, go watch them.

Trust me. I have a blog.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions #3

Who's your favorite Director?

Dumb question.

Seriously, that's up there with "Who's your favorite artist?" or "Who's your favorite animator?" or "What's your favorite color?". What are we on a first date?

An artist should be intimately familiar with thousands of examples of other artists' work and should be able to examine each piece maturely enough to move beyond adolescent "I like that" or "Don't like that" reactions. The thought process should be "Why did he/she make that decision?" and "Was that effective in communicating to the audience?" and "Would that same choice STILL be effective in communicating to an audience?"

So instead of answering the question directly, I am going to spend a few blogs listing the work of some of the Directors whose work I find the most effective, one Director at a time. At the very least, any serious film student should be familiar with these films.

So get to Amazon, get these films, and remember to take notes. Your entire life's work will be a test later.

Michael Curtiz

Doctor X,
Mystery of the Wax Muse
The Kennel Murder Case,
Front Page Woman (if you can find it)
Captain Blood,
The Adventures of Robin Hood,
Angels with Dirty Faces,
Dodge City,
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,
Santa Fe Trail,
Virginia City,
The Sea Hawk,
The Sea Wolf,
Yankee Doodle Dandy,
Mildred Pierce,
Night and Day,
White Christmas,
We're No Angels,
King Creole,
The Comancheros

How's that for a career with variety?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions #2

What books about film/animation can you recommend?

This is a lie of course.

No one in the animation business has ever asked me to recommend a book. No animation student I have ever met has ever even given me the slightest indication that he could actually read. I have had a couple of exceptionally promising ones bang rocks together in a way that made me think they might like me to recommend a book about the art form. Or maybe just get them bigger rocks.

What the heck, here’s a fast list anyway.

My favorite book about film is, Frank Capra: Name Above the Title

After that in no particular order (cause you should read/memorize all these at the very least)

Donald Graham’s Composing Pictures

John Ford: the man and his films

The Illusion of life: Disney Animation

Anthony Mann (Weseleyan film)

MGM: When the Lion Roared

Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise

The Animator’s Survival Kit.

Hitchcock's Notebooks: An Authorized And Illustrated Look Inside The Creative Mind Of Alfred Hitchcook

Hitchcock's Secret Notebooks

John Huston, Interviews

The Vilppu Drawing Manual

Hawks on Hawks and Howard Hawks, Interviews

The Cinema of Michael Curtiz

Drawn to Life: 20 golden years of Disney master classes

Conversations with Wilder

50 years and Only One Grey Hare.

Dream Worlds

The Five Cs of Cinematography

Film Art: An Introduction

ART by Gardner (all of em. Don't be afraid. You'll like knowing what your talking about for a change.)

Film History; An Introduction
Any Autobiography of any Director whose work you like.

At least a book or two about the work of each of the artists listed below.

Michelangelo, Pontormo, Rubens, Titian, Da Vinci, Delecroix, Giotto, Vermeer, Manet, Poussin, Degas, Rembrandt, Caravaggio (a personal favorite for MANY reasons), Goya, Botticelli, Monet, Raphael, Friedrich, Giovanni Bellini, Munch, Picasso, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Durer.

Stay away from “how to” books by folks that don’t “how to” themselves. Remember, most “animation historians” have an ax to grind when they start to write the book. They make a living by getting access to a studio’s material and often (perhaps unknowingly) turn into little more than PR men for a studio’s library. How the material is presented can have a huge influence on a fresh artist. And not a good one.

Let the materials speak to you for themselves without someone telling you if it’s “great”, “classic” (what does that even mean?), or “the right way”. You’ll know which materials feel effective to you. Trust that feeling and press your studies in that direction.

That is a list off the top of my head of books and artists I constantly refer to. I’m sure I left off twenty that will wake me up tonight. I’ll add to the list now and then.

Now get off the internet and read a book.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions #1

“How do I get a job at an Animation Studio?”

Be persistent and keep a good attitude.

I promise you will not be the least talented person at any studio you are applying at. Whether or not there is a job available has very very little to do with you personally and everything to do with a studio’s production needs. Getting hired is not about the being the best or the most talented, it’s really just a matter of timing and persistence.

I have best heard Animation Studios’ actual hiring practices described like this.

Imagine a big castle with a moat and one drawbridge. Outside the drawbridge are hundreds of young artists with portfolios mulling in a great circle from front to back and then forward again. (Note that there is no way for a portfolio to actually get you across the moat. For that you need a bridge. Got it?)

Okay, now most of the time the drawbridge is up. The studio is full.

Most studios, even at their smallest, have far more people than they actually need between "crunch" times. So to hold down costs while making a movie, every studio no matter how big or small, will wait until the last possible second to staff up. They drop the drawbridge only when they need bodies in chairs to get the film finished, not before. And when they do, they are not so picky. If you meet the minimum required skill set, get yer butt in here and get to work.

Without warning the bridge comes down and everybody standing in front of the door runs in and then when all the chairs are full, the bridge goes back up.

So if you happen to be standing close enough when the bridge comes down, you’re in. It’s numbers, not talent, that usually gets a new artist his/her first couple of breaks. (It's talent and hard work that make a career, of course. But right now we're just taking about getting that first studio job.)

Therefore, your best bet is to keep your portfolio in circulation at as many studios and production companies as possible to maximize your chances of being first in line when the bridge comes down.

Now if you are going to be submitting your portfolio again and again to the same review boards, basic pride means you want to keep the portfolio fresh and constantly improving. Therefore, while you are waiting to get into a studio you should…

Take any and all freelance film work, even if it is on spec. The idea is to improve your skills and gain experience, so when you get a break you can do something with it. TV work frankly doesn’t help get film work and may hurt you at some studios. So make a choice. Are you going to do film or TV? That is the kind of work you should pursue.

And take classes. Best way in the world to improve your skills and get samples of things you couldn’t ordinarily get a shot at. The Animation Guild is a great resource with many practical classes taught by seasoned and sometimes very generous industry professionals. Here's a link. http://animationguild.org/education

But the most important classes you’ll ever take should be from Glenn Vilpuu. He is truly a direct connection to the great Old Masters of drawing and should be considered a national treasure in the art community. I recommend any of his classes, all his books, and promise that if you get to travel with him on one of his classes to Italy it will change everything about the way you approach your work. Here's a link. http://vilppustudio.com

Okay that’s it. Keep your portfolio in circulation, keep applying at as many studios at once as you can, keep going to classes to improve your portfolio, and stick with it. Don’t get discouraged. Eventually you’ll be in the right place at the right time.

One last thought. I have sincerely never known anyone not to get into a studio if they really wanted to. I have only known those who succeeded or gave up trying.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

New film-new Web page

My new film, Hoodwinked Too: Hood vs. Evil, is coming out April 29th. You can catch a link to the trailer at my new web page www.mikedisa.com