Sunday, November 08, 2009

Clarity, Logic and Entertainment

Last week, the 4th year students at Sheridan had a screening of their story reels. I mentor 10 of those students, out of 108 this year.

I've been looking at my students' reels as they developed since September, but it's always different seeing work with an audience. It struck me that there are three stages the students have to tackle in order to make a successful film, and various films were already at different stages.

The first is clarity. Can an audience understand what's happening on screen? I've asked students to explain something I don't understand about their films and their explanations make sense, but what's in their heads hasn't been communicated on the screen. Things, often important things, get left out. Clarity is pretty easy to achieve once a storyboard or story reel is shown to a few people, as they inevitably ask questions about things they don't understand.

Logic is a bit tougher. Getting the events of a film and the characters' behavior to be consistent and logical takes some doing. Some films have problems with tone; they signal to the audience that they're one type of film and then become another. That could potentially work in a longer film, but it's tough to get an audience to make a sharp emotional turn in less than two minutes. Other times, a film starts off with a theme and then contradicts itself by the end. Sometimes, there's a lack of consistency in terms of plot or character; events don't make sense based on what an audience would expect.

Logic is harder to fix than clarity. It sometimes means tearing up a story and rebuilding it, which can be a lot of work. It also means sacrificing something that the film maker probably wants to keep and getting a student to give something up is often a difficult task.

The toughest problem is entertainment, and you're never really sure what you've got until you get an audience reaction. I had a couple of students doing films that built up to punchlines. While they were clear and logical, the punchlines didn't get the expected response. Reworking the endings to evoke a laugh is going to be difficult as entertainment isn't as clear cut as clarity or logic.

If I could wish for anything for animation artists, it would be for more audience contact. Stand-up comics get good by constantly honing their material based on audience reaction. Actors or directors who start out in theatre do the same. Even bands that play bars get feedback.

Animators (especially those working in TV or games) exist in a vacuum. Feature animators have it a little better but still have to wait years to learn whether what they've done is successful or not. Animation people as different as Walt Disney and Bob Clampett viewed their films with audiences on a regular basis, measuring their intentions against the results. It took both of them years to solidify their ability to entertain, as it did Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Friz Freleng.

People with the ability to entertain an audience are the ones most in demand. While some people may have a flair for it, I believe it's like any other skill and can be honed through practice. The problem for animation artists is that they have so few opportunities for audience feedback.

The Sheridan students now have their own experience of watching their films with an audience as well as feedback from friends and instructors. The films generally get better between the story reels and the final films as the students continue to polish their work. However, I wonder how much better the films would be if the students had more experience with audience reactions and I wonder the same about the whole animation business.


Corey said...

Another great post. One of my student films I did at VFS 3 years ago has all of these problems. I tried to follow a classic 3 gag-and-then-a-payoff structure in under 20 scenes. The result is a cartoon that flies by so fast that it's hard to even tell what's going on. That and I designed these characters that were way too complicated to animate for my skill level. Here it is:

Again, amazing post, you should be charging money for this blog!

Daniel said...

Hey, thanks for the post.
Its good to watch your film with an audience and gauge your success. These insights make the gauging process a lot easier.

Ke7in said...

As one of those films that was screened, I can definitely say that although it means I'm second guessing myself over everything now, it is such a worthwhile process seeing what the audience sees. I can't believe how many students I heard that said that although they finished a reel, they took it out of the screening. The only opportunity for a big audience to see it before completion (which I also agree is absurd).

I saw that I got all the right laughs in all the right places, but I also saw where the line was in terms of what an audience will go with in terms of wackiness, and now I know where to cut it back. And I could see the audience anticipate the ending, and then when they didn't get a punchline, I could feel the disappointment. I went dramatic, and it appears I should have gone comedic.

But the strangest thing that I noticed was that many of the same people who really loved the idea when I pitched it to them, finally saw those ideas come to life and backed off a little. So that really helped me see where the disconnect occurred.

I'd like to know your thoughts on it, but now more than before I'm very upset that a new version from everyone won't be seen by that audience until the film is actually completed. It seems so odd, because clearly the process calls for revision based on that experience, but now there's no opportunity to see if the problems were fixed.

What shook me the most after the screening is that I was blown away by how many people really understand comedic timing and pacing, while equally as many were so erratic in their storytelling that it was nearly impossible to be entertained.

JPilot said...

A practice that has been shuttered off by animation company is the "gag wall" where studio artist would do a funny drawing about colleagues or office situation (kind of like Mr Fun Floyd Norman's "gag wall" on his blog) that would give us artists an immediate response from our peers, no less. Corporate culture has torn down those walls faster than Gorbatchov did the Berlin wall 20 years ago for the sake of "visiting clients and share holders".
In my experience, nothing beats the feeling of getting a direct reaction from a veteran gag artist, laughing convulsively to tears and having to catch his breath and pick himself off the floor at a gag you would draw, (and not because it was a bad drawing)
pinning it on the wall and get the same reaction from everyone else seeing it.
Now we have the internet and photoshop instead. Yippee!

Floyd Norman said...

Many of us cartoonists honed our skills by having a "Gag Wall" at various studios. We often updated these walls daily. There was nothing like the immediate feedback provided by the laughs from our peers. This is sorely missing today where many story artists work in a vacuum.

In time, you pretty much know what's going to work. I knew what gags would garner the biggest laughs in Pixar's "Toy Story2." However, I was the only member of the story crew that was a 30 year animation veteran.

Plus, Walt taught us to "listen to the audience." Too many of today's executives are simply chasing box office, and that's why they fail.

Ben Thomas said...

Your commentary is right in line with how I feel about my film right now, Mark. I've passed the Logic phase and now face the task of shaping it into a more entertaining piece of film.

I've shown the film to many of my colleagues, but up until recently, neglected to get a response from a more general audience. At this stage of the game, I can see how essential that can be to being better imformed about it's impact.

Weirdo said...

This is a very interesting post. This helps out all of us aspiring animators.

What you said about logic and entertainment being honed and perfected through practice is an excellent point. None of the animation giants started making brilliant films right off the bat. They worked to get to that point. Also, they listened to what others had to say, like colleagues or an audience. Others refuse to do that, saying it's just their "style", when that's the last thing they should worry about. Thank you for your insight.

Paul said...

Great article, Mark! What's interesting to me is how much this applies to drastically different types of stories and films. A lot of filmmakers seem torn between whether they should be creating "art" or "entertainment." (I've never seen why they need to be mutually exclusive). And I think that you've provided an interesting alternative way of looking at it.

Michael Fukushima said...

I'm heartened by the post and delighted that you're bringing these notions of audience engagement to your students. Fundamental stuff here, Mark. Well done.

warren said...

Ah the Gag Wall (Wall of Shame, Wall of Gagging, etc etc). Depends on the studio atmosphere if they're there or not...I have to admit, whenever I DON'T see one in a new studio, I make a snap judgment on the general 'health' of the creative levels in the place - no gag wall? Can't be good - CGI studio or not. Implies to me a lack of creative atmosphere for entertaining shows...

Lately I've been really enjoying people's reactions when I'm talking to a Toronto tv crew about potential work and I ask if I can drop in on jam sessions for episodes I'm not even working on. There's some confusion, like it's something new! How the heck else am I gonna get to know a protagonist unless I can watch him/her/it in a variety of situations? Maybe I'm just naive or out of step, but avoiding 'the vacuum' is my number one priority.

It's certainly the achilles heel for television production on all levels - especially the writing and boarding stages.