Thursday, July 05, 2007

Which Way Do We Go, George? Which Way Do We Go?

Keith Lango comments on the conclusion to my MRP and Peter Hon adds some very good thoughts about the time and effort it takes to do an independent film.

I know exactly what he's talking about. I've been debating whether to start a graphic novel, where I could tell a lengthy story, or do a short animated film. I'm guessing that they'd take me the same amount of time, but one would allow for a more complex story. However, I wonder if I'm not thinking boldly enough.

I think that trying to make a short film that's as polished as professional work is a mistake. Adding up the man hours (more like man years) that are spent on any studio production (TV or film), it's almost impossible for an individual to invest the same amount of time. To make a Pixar quality short as an individual, you might have to start immediately after the doctor slaps your behind in the delivery room and you might not finish before landing in your death bed.

So the thing to do is focus on content. That's where so much of studio animation falls short anyway. Studio content is aimed at the widest possible audience and the audience goes for it because it's similar to what's been done before.

Say something new (or say something familiar in a new way) and forget about slickness. If what you're saying isn't worth paying attention to, slickness won't change that. Furthermore, how many ideas are worth spending years of your life on? If you've got one, I sincerely congratulate you. However, an awful lot of animated films aren't worth the time spent to watch them, let alone to make them. Rather than worrying about refining our work, maybe we should worry about saying something interesting.

I'm not attacking the idea of craft, but I've never felt that craft was enough. Just as many animation artists publish sketchbooks, maybe we need an animated equivalent. Whether drawn, stop motion or cgi, maybe we need to work for more spontaneity and less for refinement. Elevate content over form. Forget about sanding off the rough edges. Make your statement quickly and move on.

13 comments:

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Of which the feature Mind Game is a perfect example. That film really changed the way I thought about animation. I just received the DVD box of it today, after ordering it from Japan, and it's incredible how loose and spontaneous the boards are (which was the effect the director was striving for, as the manga it was based on was very stream-of-consciousness like).

As a student, I started out studying animation simply because I loved it, but as I was learning, I felt more and more confined by how little range there is in today's western animation industry. That's why I picked up writing as well. I've written a few shorts, and so far boarded one (my thesis project), and am also writing two features. One is very close to my heart, and when I felt I didn't have enough skill/practice to be sure I can make it truly work and be honest, I decided to start a second one, a bit less personal, but great for practice. I love it because it's great exercise in writing, filmmaking, drawing, acting and so on. Now, of course I realize that the chances these films will ever get made (let alone me getting the chance to direct a feature) are minimal, so recently I got thinking in the comics direction too. There's no reason you can't take your screenplay or boards of your own short or feature, and turn it into a comic book. Of course, composition will change, and you'll want to make timing changes to work for the comic book medium, but the story, sets, designs are there. So what if more artists started doing this? I don't think it's unlikely that at one point, one of those comics will be a hit or critically acclaimed, and then optioned for a film. In Japan, the manga artist/anime director is a perfectly natural crossover. Just look at Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon or Katsuhiro Otomo. They were all 3 manga artists, and are now 3 of the most acclaimed animation directors. The only example of this in the west I can think of is Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis. Maybe this could be a valuable path in the future?

Bill said...

You hit the nail on the head, Mark! I completely agree with you. I have spent enormous amounts of time on short films that when I look back on them...I'm not so sure it was worth it. Actually one of my favorite films was made on a whim for an Intro to Animation class with cut paper under an Oxberry camera...it's all about what you're saying, not how you do it.

Jonathan Lyons said...

Yes, it takes years to finish an independent film. I'm well aware of it.

But what I realized is this: the years are going to go by anyway.

If you are an artist, there is no choice.

Pete Emslie said...

I'd love to see more independent films along the lines of Borge Ring's films, "Oh, My Darling" and "Anna & Bella". Both were animated fairly loosely but with so much appeal and energy. Simple characters, solid colours and minimalist backgrounds. Also, both films are interesting ideas that stray far from the beaten path.

Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
I'd started work on a short film, realized there was virtually no return on my investment of time and money - and switched to my feature film project. At least this way, there's the possibility of seeing some kind of return.

David Nethery said...

Individuals or small groups who make a independent animated short film deserve so much more credit than they usually get . It's so much work ! (and without the support of a big studio machine behind you it's even more of a grind to get it finished.) Shorts are not usually accorded the same respect given to feature length projects but I'd rather watch a well-executed animated short than most animated features.

I like your thought about having shorts that function on the same level as a sketchbook. Not necessarily really slick and polished, but with a lot of heart and creativity displayed . Quirky ideas that might not be worth spending more than 3 to 5 minutes exploring . There's hardly a point these days in hand-drawn animation trying to compete with CG in terms of slick eye candy and special efx . Our natural strength is that there's still something charming and magical about drawings that live .

Keith Lango said...

Absolutely. Craftmanship makes a fine servant but is a dreadfully hard master. From 2004 to 2006 I made the mistake of trying to get a short done that was somewhere on par with what one would expect from a feature level of quality. Looking back on it I must have been insane. Pure folly. That was a rough 2 year path that I'm not interested in going down again. (I never did complete it. But I did learn a lot, for which I am thankful, so it wasn't a total waste.)

These days I'm focusing on working in a quick, loose and interesting style- especially for sets/ backgrounds/ props and final look. In that sense the faster and looser the better. I want to focus on the character interactions and dynamics, so I'm working to master a motion style that still has quality craftmanship, but is fast and easy for me to do. When it comes to shorts it's kinda counterproductive to use a 'classic' CG film style of motion with it's emphasis on fine detail. I'll save that style for when I'm working on big budget projects for hire. For my own stuff I need to get it done fast, but still fun and with life, energy and pizazz. I don't want to totally throw out craftmanship, but I want it to be my servant -- not the other way around.

Ken A. Priebe said...

This is a very interesting post! I've recently started a new production blog for my 5-years-plus short film in progress: storytimewithnigel.blogspot.com

My emotions have gone up and down through the whole process, going from finding elation in creating it to getting down over the fact that it takes forever, wondering if it's saying anything worthwhile, worrying over every little thing. I've made many steps to continue to commit myself to it over the years. Overall the process of making it has been enjoyable, which is half the battle right there.

Will Finn said...

Mark i read your blog a lot but one of the reasons i don't comment often is because the topics you raise get me thinking so deeply and concentrically that i can't find a 'sound bite' sized quote. that's not criticism, its meant as a compliment...

this is one of those posts and it goes to the heart of matters close to all us studio employees, newbies and vets alike. i think your conclusion is very valid and it is inspiring to read, as are the comments here. this will have me mulling for another spell...thanks for the food for thought!

John Celestri said...

Hi Mark,

Like Will (Hi, there! Long time no speak to thee!) I also read your blog a lot, but stay silent. However, this topic focuses on the basic problem our animation industry has --- all style and absolutely no substance storywise.

But this is a motion picture industry-wide problem---no maturity in the producer/distributor thought process as to what kind of movie will make money. Everything has to be aimed at the type of person who does not want to reflect on anything---so God forbid a movie of any genre introduce a thought-provoking topic.

Bah! I'm just an angry old 2D animator!

billburg said...

Another fascinating post I'll be thinking about for a long, long time to come. Thank you, Mark.

davidmaas said...

One of the things lacking in the independent film-making process are the tools for production management. Its not only the man-hours in terms of modelers and shaders, but that less obvious backbone of communication, tracking and planning staff that keeps a film project on its legs.

Another is the price/performance ratio of most 3D rigging effects... those things you can do easily (or at least naturally) in hand-drawn animation. Adapting the lines on a pose, squishing upon contact. If you're a small team, chances are you don't have that kick-ass TD committed to getting such possibilities into your rig.

I try - like Keith - the decision to 'downscale' aesthetic ambition, though once you begin that you find that the word 'downscale' is wrong. Its a liberating decision and can influence the film's story-telling in exciting ways.
I also hope to contribute to tools that alleviate these issues...

MrShane said...
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