Invisible Ink

A while ago I wrote about how I think being an animator has more similarities to being a writer than it does to being an actor. Not that we cannot or should not learn from actors and acting technique, but I think we share quite a bit in our process with the work that writers do.  Along those lines, I’ve been spending time recently at The Invisible Ink Blog, which I found among the links at Ted Mathot‘s excellent blog. The Invisible Ink Blog is by Brian McDonald, author of a couple of books on writing, Invisible Ink and The Golden Theme.

Here are a couple of his recent posts I especially like from an animator’s point of view. First, one on the role and nature of conflict in story: Conflict Resolution.

One of the key lessons I try to impart at Animation Mentor is the importance of conflict in animation. Every shot in an animated film should be essential — something vital needs to be happening, and it often involves a character in conflict. Every shot tells it’s own tiny story, and there is no story without conflict.

But, as McDonald notes, when you say the word conflict, people often think you mean arguing. So students starting a dialog shot pick dialog of actors angrily yelling at each other. Or they’re confused when I ask them what internal conflict their character is experiencing at any given moment. The key point is that conflict doesn’t need to be obvious, overt, or loud to be powerful. It doesn’t even need to be between two people. And it can operate on multiple levels, so that two characters can be in conflict with each other, and each of those characters can be experiencing internal conflict.

Effective conflict does require is that your characters be real, and that they have distinct needs and goals. Needs and goals are not the same thing.  Goals tend to be overt, while needs tend to be covert.  Put another way, goals usually relate to plot, while needs relate to subplot.

Your characters also should have a tangible, idiosyncratic psychology and personality, independent of whatever exposition they’re given.  In other words, from the first time the audience sees a character, you the animator must know who they are, why they’re doing what they’re doing, where they’re coming from, and where they’re going.  You may not get the chance to overtly show any of that to the audience, but all of that should be implicit in your character’s behavior and actions.

The film The Remains of the Day is a sterling example of a film full of intense, fascinating conflict without showy fireworks.

This is a powerful film, without an explosion or screaming match in sight. Now, showy conflict, with lots of screaming and arguing can be a ball.  If you’re in doubt, go watch Glengarry Glen Ross again (warning — not for those offended by strong language).

But even in such a showy piece of acting, notice how much of the conflict is covert and submerged. You find more great examples of conflict in the post I linked to above, including some great animation examples that McDonald cites.

Another great McDonald post is his most recent, Uh…Did I mention that this was hard?

Having animated professionally for 14 years, I will say that some of it has gotten easier. But not the important parts. Creating a believable, authentic characters from digital puppets is extraordinarily difficult. Doing it with drawings is tough.  If anything, doing it with computers is even tougher.  And doing it as part of a team, and making those characters consistent and believable and entertaining over the course of 80-90 minute films is even harder. We learn work-flow techniques and go-to ideas that help us, we learn certain mistakes to avoid, but it remains a difficult, elusive process.

I’ve seen very talented, experienced animators work when they were distracted by personal issues, and the results aren’t pretty. I’ve seen good animators work within lousy, unsupportive systems, with terrible results. This is not an easy job, and it’s not easy on a daily basis, and it doesn’t take much for the whole process to go to hell. That’s why veteran animators are usually much less willing to crap on the work of their peers at other studios (unfortunately, animation fans and critics rarely have much hesitation to do just that).

Hopefully, the explicit acknowledgment that this is a difficult process will be reassuring for those just entering the profession.  A lot of us, when we were starting out, assumed that something was wrong when we continued to find animating a struggle.  When you see elegant, natural animation from someone else, you are prone to imagine that they have an elegant, effortless working method. But, like making a good sausage, all the ugly parts are hidden from the viewer.  That’s part of our job — to hide the difficult process, and deliver spontaneous-looking performances.  In trying to fool the audience, we shouldn’t fool ourselves.  Accept that it’s hard work, and enjoy the struggle, and you’ll be a happier animator.

I’ve only read about a dozen of McDonald’s Invisible Ink Blog posts, but so far every one has held useful insights for animators, and he’s very quick to use real examples from both animation and live action. I especially love his ‘Movies I Like’ series, especially since it appears we have similar film tastes. Check his blog out, and see what you discover.

5 Responses to “Invisible Ink”

  1. Bobby P Says:

    Kev !! Great to see you posting again ! I’ve been a fan of Brian’s blog for a whole , and thanks for reminding me , I just ordered both of those books. Hope all is well !

  2. alex vaida Says:

    Hi Kevin !

    You made me smile… I love this comparison. Writers you say? I completely agree with you. When we invent a story we are writers. We then create a set, think of the staging, costumes, colors. Then we produce a char list – write down everything we could possible know about him; age, state of mind, motivation, goal, obstacles that might prevent him to get to his goal. And so on and so forth.
    You certainly stirred my curiosity with the links you provided. I’m heading there right now.

  3. Kevin Says:

    Bob-bee! Great to hear from you. I’m planning on getting the books, too. Things are good here, just super busy. How are things on Ice Age 7? I miss the 5-points’ gang and our old hide out. Anyone reading this should check out Bobby’s amazing artwork here. By the way, your Rio shirt is a hit wherever I wear it.

    Alex, glad you liked the comparison of animators with writers. I’m pretty sure I first heard the idea articulated by James Baxter, and as time goes by I find it an increasingly useful idea, though always with the need to try to make our incredibly labored process appear spontaneous and effortless.

  4. Brian McDonald Says:

    Hello Kevin,

    Thanks so much for talking about my work. You should know that animators are like rock stars to me. I am not even kidding.

    I am honestly proud to count animators among my fans. My first film job was in animation doing motion graphics for a man who went on to head ILM’s animation department.

    And I can say that one of my former students, Kira Lehtomaki, is an animator at Disney.

    You guys are storytellers without a doubt.

    Thanks again.

    – Brian

  5. Kevin Says:

    Hey Brian,

    Thanks for visiting! It’s flattering (and cool!) that you have so much esteem for animators. It really is a special profession (like writing). Keep up the great teaching!

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch