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!