The Animation Stand: BRAIN STORMING
BY MAURICE MOLYNEAUX
For those of you who missed last month's installment, this is a new series of articles on using an ST to produce animation. Last month we discussed hardware and the main animation programs. This time, we're on to the act of conceiving a project.
The one question writers/musicians/artists get asked the most seems to be: "Where do you get your ideas?" Some times I'm tempted to reply, "From The Idea Book by Cranston Snord," but I usually hold my tongue (no mean trick).
So, before doing anything else on an animation project you need an idea. Oh sure, you think, easy for you to say. Like what? Well, if I had a foolproof method of coming up with good ideas, you'd all know it because I'd have already written a best-selling book on the subject and retired to Barbados. Sadly, there's no pat and easy answer. I'm not much of a believer in inspiration, especially not the "bolt out of the blue" variety. In my experience, ideas don't just happen; like just about every other thought in our brains, they come forth through the mind's processing of information already received.
Some philosophers say there's "no such thing as a wholly original thought," meaning that all ideas are extensions and modifications of those that preceded it. I can't say that this is entirely accurate, but it does hold a grain of truth. I've found that the more I experience and learn, the better I am at coming up with ideas; concepts pop readily into my brain, and what's more important, they are diverse ideas. I do not find myself locked into one genre.
For example, my extensive studies on classic short-subject animation were instrumental in my deciding to make the Art & Film Director sales video in the form of a funny cartoon. Had I not had the knowledge I do about these kinds of films, the idea probably would not have occurred to me, and I would have made something completely different. Another project I am working on is a serious animated music video with realistic human characters, one presented in the form of a short film that actually could be understood without the music it is designed to accompany and accent. (But it's better with the music, of course.) This is a complete turnaround from the cartooniness of the Art/Film project, and one I would not have been able to do it had I been the type to focus entirely on one type of film.
I should point out that focusing on one particular medium or style is not bad. What I am saying is that the broader your background, the more diverse a range of material you will be familiar with, and the better equipped you will be to get the most out of the medium you have chosen for a particular project. Even the serious films usually have some light moments and funny films their serious times. To carry these off effectively you have to know about a lot of subjects or be willing to research them.
So, the best thing to do is to think about the kinds of things you'd like to animate, pick a genre (i.e., funny cartoon, space opera, etc.), and do some in-depth research on it. Study films that use the subject, and, even when you look at films, books, and other mediums not related to the subject (you can learn a lot about storytelling by studying novels and scripts, or about visual styles from paintings, books on anatomy, photographs and advertising art), look at what they do and try to understand why they have done things in certain ways. Look not only for good things, but also pay close attention to what you feel are errors. And, when you find such a mistake, think of a way it could have been fixed. In this way, you build up a library of references in your head, good and bad, and can use these as a wellspring of ideas and a checklist.
For example, if you noticed that certain types of shots in films tend to be boring, you'll want to avoid using such a shot—unless you want to use that effect. For example, you might use a slow, stately pan to lull viewers into a false sense of security before springing some surprise on them. What you might perceive as wrong may be wrong only in the context it was used. Likewise if you were very impressed with a particular visual effect, you might find that it works well only in the context you saw it and not in the project you are planning. The point is that good and bad are (generally) relative terms film/animation-wise and not absolutes. You'll have to learn to judge things based upon their application in a given situation, not on a set of absolute standards.
In case you haven't caught on yet, what I'm trying to impress on you here is one of the ground rules of critical thinking—and one of the most difficult things to apply. You have to be willing to reject ideas that you like, but which are not appropriate to your subject. And at the same time be open to using things you don't particularly fancy, but which would work to your advantage in the context of what you are trying to do.
At this point, you might wonder why I haven't discussed software. Well, I tend not to consider that in my initial concept of a project. I prefer to come up with the ideas unhindered by the limitations of the software and/or hardware at my disposal. After I determine what I would ideally want to do in the animation, I get down to the nuts and bolts of how to do it and which program, or combination thereof, would be best for the task. As I have just about any paint/animation tool there is for the ST, this is not much of a problem.
If you are using only one type of program, clearly that will limit your choices a bit. You may then have to take in account the kinds of things you can do with the software at hand. However, I advise you not to think on this too much, for being aware of the limits of your tools during the planning stage may deter you from a good idea, because you are afraid your computer and software are incapable of the task. That cliche "Where there's a will there's a way" perfectly sums up my feelings on this.
Okay, so you should start thinking about a topic. Just think of something that you'd like to animate. Don't try to work out all the .details or even consider if it's possible. Just try to form a general idea of the type of thing you'd like to do. I'll think of one too. It doesn't matter what the subject is or how long you plan the animation to be. It could be a one-shot ten-second gag or a ten-minute movie. I do suggest, however, a short animation. No more than a few minutes long, so you can actually finish it in some reasonable time. Got your concept? If not, think a bit more and come up with the idea before going on to the next paragraph.
Got it now? Good. The type of project I'll pick for myself will be... oh...a music video, one that is presented in highly stylized cartoon form. Is my idea a bit more complicated than yours? Probably; but because it's a complex project, it will be a good one to use to illustrate the creation of a project from the ground up. Why? Because not only is there the problem of linking appropriate images to pre-existing music, but there are timing problems, questions of graphic style, pacing, et al. Now, don't shift gears on your own idea and try to do what I am going to be doing, because if you're going to be creative you have to start doing so right now and not emulate what I'm doing. Just apply the examples I give to what you want to work on.
Breakdown and brainstorming
The first thing to do is look at the idea and start considering how to do it. In my case, the first thing I'm going to need is a song to animate the video to. I decided to animate a video to the song "I Know You" by the band Catzeye. What? You never heard of them? Well, not surprising, really, as the song in question is from an (as of this writing) unreleased album. Catzeye is a band whose members include ST-LOG's West Coast editor Charles F. Johnson, as well as Jim Studer, George Hawkins and Tris Imboden (all four are professional musicians who have appeared on the albums of and toured with many well-known artists—such as Al Jarreau, Kenny Loggins, Stanley Clarke, etc.). One of the songs on the album seemed a suitable subject for the type of animation I want to try. Not only is it a good song, but as I've known Charles for a while, getting the rights to use it was easy.
(If you chose something musically oriented, you could use a song you think appropriate. However, if you do animate to it, be forewarned that you cannot really do anything with your animation other than show it to people (non-commercially) because you probably don't have any legal rights to use the music, unless it's your own music or that of a friend who gave you written permission. If you animated to a Todd Rundgren tune and tried to sell your work without first obtaining rights to the song...well, does the word "lawsuit" mean anything to you?
Now is about the time to whip out some pencils and blank paper and get ready to sketch. Most good animators "script" with sketches. Sketching is a useful tool because it not only helps you record your thoughts visually, but it also allows you to see on paper what you are picturing and explore it. An image that seems crystal clear in your head often seems impossible to get down on paper. Usually that's because it's not as clear in your head as you thought it was.
For example, I tend to mentally act out the action I'm planning, but it's kind of like seeing the action from the point of view (POV) of the character or object that is going through the motions, and not from the third-person perspective of the "camera." The action is clear in my mind, but the actual appearance of it from a specific angle is not. In a like vein, I may have an image of the "look" I want for the characters and settings, but getting that on paper is also tough.
As you think, sketch. Don't worry if your drawings aren't detailed or even in any kind of order. Just scribble down a thumbnail sketch of any ideas you have. Don't wait until you have a clearer idea of what you're doing. You're not wasting time by drawing what you're thinking. These sketches can help you build a clearer idea because you can see what you're thinking. Also, by drawing these, you don't forget them as easily (easy to do on any decent-size animation project). If the ideas are coming so fast and furious that you can't sketch quickly enough to keep up with your concepts, and you are afraid of losing some of the ideas while you are busy drawing, quickly jot short notes along the edge of your sheet. You can then go back to sketching without fear of totally forgetting an idea. Sometimes a single word is enough to jog your memory back to what you were thinking.
Probably the best technique for coming up with ideas is a brainstorming session. Get together with your partner(s), or someone who is interested in what you are doing, and just kick ideas around. One of the most important rules in these types of sessions is to not shoot down ideas. Not only might you be completely closing off one approach you might find useful, but you tend to wreck the creative atmosphere by knocking down another person's concepts. Not much more to say on that, just keep notes on the ideas you come up with (or tape the conversation), so you can peruse them later.
One of the best places for brainstorming I have found is in a conference room on a telecommunications network such as DELPHI. Not only can you brainstorm with several people from distant locations at once, but if you are using good telecommunications software, you can automatically keep a transcript of everything said by using a capture buffer. The problem with this method is that it requires each person to have a computer, a modem and be a member of the service in question, not to mention the charges for using the system. Still, they're good places to work, if you can use them.
Another good method of idea-generating is to lay out what you want to do in your animation and determine how it starts and where it ends. An example: In the Art & Film Director video I created for Epyx, there was to be a scene that was a parody of a Japanese cartoon—the kind with giant robots and such. The animation was to make fun of these cartoons, so I studied some of them. I made notes of some typical cliches of the medium:
—Characters have almond-shaped eyes three times the normal size, and mouths one third the normal. They have very simple features, pointed chins and unruly mops of hair.
—Backgrounds are often lavishly detailed, often overloaded with small details. Robots likewise.
—Use of "modeling" (shadows, particularly on faces) on characters.
—Lots of camera work. Viewpoints change a lot. Also lots of pans (horizontal camera movement) and zooms. Lots of close-ups on characters.
—Often there is a child character, usually a boy, who thinks he's tough. The kid is usually short, kind of round, has rounder eyes than the "straight" characters, and usually possesses a big mouth and a highly obnoxious voice that grates.
—Animation is choppy, probably running only a few frames per second, as opposed to the 12 to 24 frames per second of "full" animation.
—More care lavished on flashy effects sequences than movement of people. Character animation (giving characters distinctive types of movements that help convey their attitudes and personalities) is nonexistent.
—As dialogue is looped (dubbed/rerecorded) with English-speaking actors replacing the Japanese voices, the dialogue tends to be out of synchronization with the mouth movements (which tend to be mere open and closed positions only).
Now, on this foundation I had to build my sequence. My initial picture was of two "straight" (a film term meaning "normal" non-comedic) characters aboard a giant robot spacecraft, conversing about some problem. Momentarily, a kid character in the background starts talking tough, rattling on and on until we can stand it any more. At this point, Megabit Mouse (the main character in the Art & Film video) enters the scene and shoots the kid to shut him up.
Why did I choose this action? I wanted to parody this medium, so I planned to use and exaggerate the cliches I noted. Showing a detailed giant robot that moved smoothly would contrast with the choppy movement of the characters. The straight characters would be typical Japanimation types (a popular term for this type of cartoon) slender of build, with giant eyes, tiny mouths and messy hair. They would contrast with the kid, who, as befits his stereotype, would have a truly obnoxious voice and a big mouth. Where a Japanese cartoon has choppy movement, I would make it choppier. Where voices were out of synch and annoying, I would exaggerate those. You have to be true to the medium, even when you're making fun of it, otherwise your audience may not recognize what you're doing.
At this point I scribbled out a few sketches to establish something of the look I wanted. That didn't take much, so then it was time to go to the storyboard.
We've run out of space! We'll continue our discussion next month, where I'll be writing about storyboarding and specifically about camera angles, breaking down action into scenes and viewpoints, visual linking devices, ad infinitum. I'll also be showing you the actual storyboard for the Japanimation sequence described above. See you then.
Maurice Molyneaux began playing with stop-motion model animation in high school and started working with computer animation on his 800XL using MovieMaker. Using his STs, he has created animated presentation and sales videos for software publishers, and co- authored two Cyber Studio design disks with ST-LOG associate editor Andy Eddy. He continues to produce aftermarket products for ST animation packages and consults on animation systems, as well as continues work on various video-related projects.