Dan Holland gave an excellent lecture on design this past Friday night! It was VERY inspiring and filled my head with all kinds of possibilities when it comes to my film and work in general…so without further ado, here’s some lecture notes(pardon any grammatical errors, change of tenses, etc...):
In the beginning he discussed his background, he graduated from CalArts five years ago, initially as an animator at Pixar, but around a year later was promoted to a character designer (or a sketch artist as he said) and was responsible for a lot of the designs in the upcoming movie, Wall*E. He described character design as a language of symbols how a designer is basically taking things and translating them into a symbolic meaning. In the end, creating an entertaining personality just visually. The best designers design from the inside out meaning looking at the history, personality, experiences, etc. of a character and building a look around that.
He then shared a quote by Art Babbitt (I wrote a short-hand version of it, since I can’t write as fast as he talked.), “One thing you cannot be taught is how to get guts into your animation. It comes from yourself. You cannot stop studying from life. You must always keep your mind and senses open at all times.” He then went on to define these “guts” as, taking your passions and interests and bring them into your work. Passion brings freshness to one’s design and in the end, creates that special spark. Also, don’t be shy, stick up for what you believe in, however don’t limit yourself; continue to explore outside of your main interests. Broaden your inspiration, find new influences and thus you’re brining freshness to your work. He then used his experience on Wall*E as an example, a particular interest of his involves trains and when starting out on Wall*E he brought those trains into his designs. A really good quote came up then, he basically said, “Life is one giant library of inspiration. When drawing you’re looking at life through a microscope—extracting details to enrich your work.” He then discussed how when developing a story a vital key is looking at your interests and finding something you’re passionate about. “Passionate stories create freshness. Don’t look at blogs of UPA styles—go to life….this creates unique results, NOT copies of copies.
The next topic he talked about discussed the experience of school, how as students we need tot take advantage of the opportunity to draw what you want to draw. Let the teachers guide you, but still stay true to your mind. Don’t let others influence or steer your thinking. Don’t try to constantly please a teacher (or anyone for that matter), take feedback from them, but stay true. Once you graduate and have a job, you’re suddenly VERY limited on what you draw. You’re now being paid to draw someone else’s passion. However, to make this job interesting—research—find things. Find something to bring your interests into the project. He brought up another Wall*E example, while working on the film he went on a Disney cruise and also went to a space center—researching heavily and bringing his interests into the project so he could do his best and enjoy the work. “Research is the key to an exciting project.”
Next up, he discussed how there’s a myth about how it’s bad not to look at research, to strictly draw from your head. The example he used was, how if someone looked at your work and asked “Did you use a reference?” and you answer, “Yes” That somehow ruins your work. It’s not bad to use reference, just learn to see. Don’t get caught up with having to draw without research. Just keep in mind to drawn, From life—not from those art of books, etc. You become limited when looking at other’s work. Do your own thing. When you look to others, you get to experience the excitement of seeing a fresh piece of communication. Looking to others can be just as exciting as life sometimes. However this doesn’t mean you’re copying, you’re looking to others for inspiration. It’s also important to be sensitive when looking at a piece, sometimes you may only like one or two elements. As he said, very often he’ll see a piece that he doesn’t like, but within that work , there’s maybe a few things he likes about it and will bring it home with him, or keep in the back of his mind. The quote he used, “Don’t throw a baby out with the bathwater. No design is perfect. Take what’s good and move-on.”
He went on to describe the essential job of a character designer and animator: “Draw the way things FEEL, not look. Use symbols to communicate feeling. Endow the drawing with visual characteristics to compensate for lack of our other senses (taste, smell, etc.). He then broke the lecture up into sections, so I’ll just do the same:
First up, Economy—less is more. Clarity and simplicity is essential to design. Only design essentials to communicate clearly, where everything contributes to clear storytelling. Road signs for instance. He then brought Wall*E into this section, in the beginning of the movie Pixar had roughly five shots to establish the history of the world of Wall*E. With this tight space to convey so much information you MUST be clear. However this doesn’t mean very clean drawings, clarity doesn’t mean the number of lines you use. Just that all elements must contribute to the story—who the character is, the world, etc. Every mark and piece matters. Another example he showed was Mister Rogers—you know exactly who he is, what his personality is like, and what kind of world he lives in. You know and feel him. In the end, you can kind of guess what his next move will be. The elements that contribute to clarity/economy: silhouette, shape, line of action, and detail placement.
Silhouette: meaning negative shapes. A good practice is to fill in the character to see the clarity. Sometimes most 3D filmmakers don’t think about that final 2D product. How that 3D image is technically projected onto a 2D surface and in most instances the pose is hard to read. He used a couple examples from Bill Peet and how he’s able to convey a lot of information, but still able to retain a strong silhouette.
Shape: Shape reflects characters. A very easy example can be seen in characters like Sesame Street. How they have strong shapes are appealing and easy to read. Another example he used was Chuck Jones how he’s able to pick and choose the right amount of detail to lead your eye within an image with leads to…
Detail Placement: Don’t shove a bunch of unnecessary information on the page. You need to guide the viewer’s eye. Need clear communication since in the movie industry an image is only up for a very brief amount of time and an entire audience needs to absorb that information quickly before the shot moves on.
He moved onto how, when taking all of these elements into consideration, these can all lead to limitations within your work, however one must seek to embrace these limitations and how solving these problems really benefits you in the end. You’re forced to make creative choices. You learn how to make an appealing decision. A great example he used involved Legos—you’re limited to just blocks and also how the size of the blocks can create certain creative problems, yet the end results can be astounding.
Around this time he took a moment to discuss CalArts, he described CalArts as the MIT equivalent to the animation art form. As a student of CalArts we need to take advantage of the opportunities here. As he put it, “You don’t want to end up graduating and your sole job is cleaning up storyboards on things like, Pokemon….unless that really is your goal.” As students we want to drive the industry. It’s all about how much guts we have, to go to life directly and bring those experience back to into movies. The industry is very stale right now and hopefully when we graduate we’ll go out and push this industry in different directions. Otherwise, one would just end up cleaning up those storyboards and living in an industry that’s stuck on repeat. He also talked about how when he was a student, and even today this can applied, how sometimes we can learn more from each other as a group than from the teachers. How when living and working so closely with each other, we end up working off of each other and how important it is to run with this constant artistic inspiration.
He moved onto the topic of Focus and used a quote from Ralph Eggleston to describe the short film process, “Get in, say what you want to say, and then get out.” Which in many ways, can be applied to feature length movies as well. Start out on a project with a huge field of various interests and then narrow it down. Do a simple film and in the end it becomes awesome. Focus your efforts on simple things. I really enjoyed this bit because it helped set my mind at ease about my film. How these really are my major goals, “keeping it simple and focusing on making it awesome.” I only have 90 seconds, which isn’t much time…but the opportunities to create something unique and awesome are there.
He then went into defining the term, “PUSH IT!” when it comes to your first effort. Never be satisfied by it, Don’t stop until it works. No one cares how long it takes you, the audience only cares about that final result. However, at some point you do have to stop. What starting out, push your work really far. In the industry, you need to start out FAR because the “system” pulls you back. If you don’t give your work those extreme starting points, the corporations pull you back, hurting your work and as he bluntly put it, “you end up with something like Shrek.” Another point he mentioned is to sometimes push your work until it breaks.
Here he moved into the Method of Character Design. Simply put he summarized it as R.E.D. Or—“Research, Experimentation, and Decision.” However it doesn’t always have to be in that order. And how important it is to constantly keep pushing yourself, always working harder to keep drawing and honestly, as he put it, “You’ll lose it if you don’t use it.” Again, I’ll break this section up into pieces:
Research: This is the fun part, Doing this “homework” creates many possibilities. You need to gain insight into the subject and design. You need to do this even when two or more things are just remotely related. He used Wall*E again, how in the beginning he toured things like a robotics lab to even elephant seals!(he said to look for this in the movie, it’s an example of how even the remotest of things can be related.) Doing research in this manner avoids the issue of copying others. An example—Donald Duck. How a lot of people use that same drawing of a duck-bill without looking at an actual duck and developing their own style of constructing a duck-bill. Through research you develop your own method.
Experimentation: otherwise known as exploration. The next step is to take that research and experiment with it. Create various images based on this research. ANY medium too. Do everything and anything to communicate clearly. Keep anything open. Create fun and zany stuff. Make engaging images. Don’t rule-out certain mediums, use paper-cutouts, try pastels, Don’t just focus on the medium you’re making your film in. Staying open-minded is the best way to develop an idea. It’s the next step that you begin filtering…
Decision: He used Pixar’s method a lot in this part, how in this step you now make an image work in the 3D world. You now learn how to change your experimentations into film. This is the time to worry as you try to keep the integrity of your initial drawings. The overall goal at Pixar is to keep the work as cool as the initial experimentation, but make it work in 3D space. You can’t cheat with 3D as much as you can in 2D. During the Decision process you begin to bring order to your universe. He used a drawing of Glen Keane as an example how when it comes to rough animation, it’s at this step that you decide which line you’ll go with. He also quoted Ralph Eggleston again, “A lot of people can draw cool things, but only a few can translate it to the screen.” He said how it’s always a fight and how overall, you really learn how to make a creative decision. This then brought up a key topic:
Form vs. Function: Again, a cool looking drawing that still works in 3D space. Having this skill makes you a very valuable asset to any company. He used a couple examples to describe this topic, first up, Wall*E: There’s a character that is designed to use a floating chair. He discussed some problems they had and how in-depth certain meetings would go and how they needed to come up with creative ways of solving these problems. He also discussed animation problems during The Incredibles, “How in 3D space it’s hard to get a convincing straight line. So if a character is pressing their arm against a table, moving their weight to one side, etc. This would create a visual problem. During production they were able to figure out ways to cheat in 3D and create “lines” that only worked for that certain camera shot. He called this a “benbow”.
Next topic, “Model Packets”. This was specifically geared towards Pixar methods. How you need to draw through the character. NEVER include any 2D cheats in these model packets. All elements must translate to 3D; essentially you’re drawing a “2D puppet.” When starting out, it’s best to draw a ¾ down shot of the character. Begin with that ¾ view and then move onto a turnaround. The ¾ view is a good way to think about dimension and eliminate any potential 2D cheats.
Next up he described what it necessary to include in a portfolio for Pixar. Specifically, the character design department. I’ll just list what I wrote, Show process. Yes it’s great to show a final piece, but show steps. This tells volumes about an artist. It’s shows one’s abilities to solve creative problems. Also shows the ability to fluently communicate within the visual language. However, all drawings need to relate—need to feel as one style. NOT a “Jack-Of-All-Trades.”—“Look I can draw like Tex Avery, Look I can draw like Bill Peet, Look I can draw like…etc.” Need to show a common thread throughout work. In the end, show that your stuff has guts.
He then ended by showing us his portfolio—Moving from what he submitted TO Pixar to be initially hired and then showed us his current work. After that he went into a Q&A session which I’ll just write up some key points that interested me the most:
Someone asked if Pixar used one giant program to create all of their movies.
Answer: While Pixar does use some of their own software, for instance—rendering and animation. They use Maya for modeling and also programs like Photoshop, etc.
At some point this little bit came out and I found this VERY cool:
Anyone who works at Pixar can pitch at Pixar. Anyone can schedule that special 15 minutes to pitch an idea to the big guys(John Lassester, etc.) However, he basically said, “it’s very intimating because if they green-light it, you have 6 months for instance to produce a short-film! So if you ever do that, be VERY prepared. Only do something you’re passionate about.”
Other points included, “Everybody in the industry should have the ability to draw. Even when it comes down to 3D animation. With Pixar, we’ll teach you how to use 3D. Just first and foremost—know how to draw.”
And that’s pretty much it, REALLY inspiring lecture and I’m thrilled that not only was I able to be there, my Mom and Step-Dad were able to sit in and listen to him! It made for a great night and really an awesome weekend! Well this is long enough, so night ya’ll!