Monday, March 14, 2011

Kick starting the blog in 2011....and the neverending questions.

This is my first post in 2011, yay!

Sitting in deep concern, recollecting all plausible knowledge I can possibly gather from my experiences as a creative person engaging in others creative efforts, both as spectator and contributor, and also exchanging views with people from the closest and pertinent circles, I realized that I’ve always been attracted to the unique, subjective dilemma that, in my own senses, every single art has always suffered from, "sincerity versus aesthetics".

In the medium of films, animation becomes one of the many tools used to envision a story. Combining cinematic techniques with animation tools just lets you create another audiovisual experience, but ultimately is a film, and it needs to have a story. The better the story, the better the film will be? I would tend to believe so, but I´m not sure myself 100%.

The art of character animation has to serve the art of storytelling, at least in this instance. What is a story? And why is it so important? Wikipedia has a great explanation for these questions. The bigger question then would probably be "Why we watch films/see the same stories if we know them?". "To get entertained". what is entertainment exactly? Is it anything that someone enjoys either by just being present or by actively participating in it for sake of fun and/or leisure? This is the part that businesses exploit, because it makes money at the end of the day. Is the easy way out. But storytelling is more than just entertainment: you can share experiences, learn from others experiences, retain and retell those experiences in your own way....ultimately, storytelling to me is about the human itself, the people.

I really think that the beauty of the art form itself can be the very essence of storytelling too. Amazing aesthetics could extraordinarily take the capabilities of storytelling beyond your usual formula, and make the experience unique. Maybe this makes it “less cinematic”, though, but surely keeps it "entertaining". Video games could be using this to its full extent, since is all about the interactivity with the player. Is also present in films, but rather creating that sense of entertainment purely from the artistic audiovisual magic you get to contemplate, which ultimately though, serves the purpose of storytelling.

Perhaps this is why overall people tend to label animated films as “animation movies” or “films for animators”, since us who indulge in the creative process can appreciate this further. And more so in the classical animated films. I don´t cease to backup Brad Bird on "animation NOT BEING A GENRE", but I'm getting tired of recurrence to the same subject. And then the next question would be "what is good animation"? It depends, to great extent, in the story demands. And is a topic I keep referring to constantly in my blog.

Anyone could dare to draw an analogy with VFX and the stereotype Hollywood gizmos: giant robots, special effects, big explosions and exotic digital environments (and nowadays making everything “3D”). These things tend to adorn and overwhelm in order to dramatize hyperbolically, to the point of sometimes even detracting from the main point or hiding the weaknesses, but if done well, they cause marvels in order to deliver a story. Peter Jackson´s Lord of the Rings would have fallen apart if the extraordinary visuals, actors, musical score…..”the aesthetics” were not taken as seriously. Same for Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park. Even the classics from Ray Harryhausen are revered today.

Here are some awesome clips which I thought illustrated my point regarding how great usage of aesthetics can be the essential component in good story:

There is always the statement that perhaps every story has been told already: there seems to be nothing to invent, to conceive, or formulate. At the same time though, there is for sure a place to imagine, to interpret and perhaps to discover, both introspectively and objectively. And along with this exists also a place for embellishment, diversion, and entertainment.

To me, it’s the dual existence of sincerity and aesthetics that keep a successful balance in every art. A dancing choreography can be purely showcasing acrobatics, but surely when there is a story told with it, it becomes captivating. Music can be purely aesthetic, or it can also convey a story and draw from nature. Classical paintings tend to communicate either a story or a certain emotion, through great compositions, uses of color, shapes and forms. Same with photography.

Is more apparent when we talk about visual mediums....but then, people like Gareth Edwards are also right when stating that sound can be more important than visuals (in films):

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Numerous times we’ve seen the same stories told again and again, in various forms and sizes, but somehow even more versions get made. I truly believe though, that when the author's mark is seen in his work, the connection with the audience is much more tangible. Sometimes emotions go beyond our body and verbal languages, but we understand them and feel the connection when is properly achieved. And arts are always about emotional reach, emotional connection, or emotional reveal. Is all about honest and sincere delivery.

Politics have a major role (if not "the major"), no doubt: budgets, company demands, markets, decisions by superiors....all these affect the work as a product down the line.
Deadlines are seen by some as a hindrance too. Along with technical limitations. I am myself a victim of this, and hopefully after this post I will feel more enthusiastic about "failing" in order to keep going forward. Here is an awesome article by Phil Willis at Animation, called "Deadlines vs Perfeccionism" (thanks to David Martínez from "Chronicles of an animator" for the source!).

But within all these constraints, you can still dare to play the game. You can still pursue true expression, value and growth. As much of a sermon or an idealistic view as it might seem, I truly believe so, specially after watching this very inspiring speech by acclaimed digital artist Bobby Chiu, at the Creative Talent Network Animation Expo 2010:

His perspective on career growth, individual expression and creative satisfaction is so confidently daring and honest. His talk about knowledge forging someone’s style is what really makes an artist grow. Someone who constantly ventures himself to obtain new interests and wisdom, and embraces this passionately as a way of living, will surely be far more capable of adapting and excelling on whatever bureaucratic limitations might fall upon his work. In fact, as Chiu suggests, sometimes you can use these in your favor to enhance your motivation and transform your ways. Adaptive thinking becomes vital to survive. Also I agree in the fact that, observing closely someone´s work, you get to know the person, or traits of his personality...this is probably applicable to every aspect of real life.

In such a complex Zeitgeist where competition is inevitable and saturation in the market is taking place over variety, where demands seem higher than what is being produced, technology grows exponentially, and ideas become more and more difficult to come up with, I guess there is still an opportunity to make work stand out. Either from an individual standpoint (Bill Plympton) or collectively bringing something to the table (Headless productions) the doors for independent art and, in this case, film making, are gradually opening more. Formulas might be the same, businesses still will be hungry for money, but audiences are evolving. And with them, the art itself is growing.

Then it comes the question of which stories are actually better? There seems to be three types: character driven, plot driven, or a hybrid?

Obviously the latter is the best one...right? hmmm...again, something I´m not sure of 100% myself.

A plot is not just a mere part of the structure of a story, a sequence of also an emotional curve. Plot establishes the highs and lows in the pace, where drama takes place and how intense catharsis can be. But I also mentioned beforehand that emotions are a consequence of thought in our brains, which is purely human, so....isn´t it ultimately about us, people? And what a better way to make this "through characters"? And acting is how characters perform, in any kind of medium. A single pose for a model in a painting is also an action, perhaps captured in time/space, to suggest a story through one still image. But it still has rhythm, highs and lows, and an infinite variety of aesthetic elements that enable it to creat a story.

As a closure to this post, I´d like to quote my uncle, acclaimed fiction writer Anil Menon, on an email from a few months ago, in which he explained to me how the mechanics work for the audience when it comes to narrative:

"All stories try to play the audience's need to know what happens next. Plot-driven stories engage the audience's intellectual curiosity, while character-driven stories work with the audience's emotions. In both types, somebody wants something and there is something that's blocking the person from getting it. Plot-driven stories will focus on the blocking and its removal, while character-driven stories focus on the wanting and its resolution.

A lot of genre fiction is plot-driven. Westerns, murder mysteries, science fiction, romance novels (like Harlequin), adventure stories, quest fantasies, etc. In the 1930s, Vladimir Propp studied Russian folktales and found that they all involve some subset of 33 situations, and that too in a fixed order. There's even a Brown University program to automatically generate a folktale. I blogged about an experiment I did with it sometime back.

Agatha Christie's murder mysteries, Barbara Cartland's romance stories...

Stories like Star Wars are largely plot-driven, I think. Lucas was strongly influenced by the Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces model. Most Hollywood studio movies have bought into Vogler's mythic-model of developing screenplays. Those are all plot-driven stories. The specifics of the characters don't matter so much. Video games are mostly plot-driven.

In contrast, movies like Scent of a Woman or Forest Gump are strongly character driven. Most of Kafka's stories are character driven. Literary fiction has mostly moved to character-driven stories; plot is considered something embarrassing.

Movies like Pulp Fiction or Gladiator are both character driven and plot driven. Even when people have forgotten the movie's complicated non-linear structure they remember the strange, powerful characters."

More on this soon (I hope)...I pen off here.

1 comment:

Aron Durkin said...

its an interesting debate, of plot versus characte stories. and i feel its one which will never be settled. the hybrid is a safe bet.

I always like to talk about Casino royale, as a great mix of action packed story with real emotional character resonance.

I think a lot of it falls on personal taste. I'd liek to discuss it with you more but i'm at work right now :P

good post man.