GUEST PERSPECTIVE: Ellen Besen, Animator – Part One

Hey, folks—

We have a special guest with us for a couple days, animator and National Film Board of Canada director Ellen Besen, author of the recently released Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writers, Filmmakers, Video Artist, and Game Developer Should Know.  I had read Ellen’s book and loved it… and thought it would be interesting to learn more.  

I know very little about animation, and Ellen was incredibly generous in hopping on the phone with me and chatting about how animation works (both creatively and practically), how to break in, how digital technology is changing the medium, etc.  It has been a great conversation  and a terrific addendum to her book (which I highly recommend even for non-animation writers—it’s a great tool for thinking differently about story and characters).

So without further adieu, let’s dive in.  Today, we’ll chat with Ellen about her career path… and some of the primary creative principles of being a modern animator…

ME:  ELLEN, YOU’RE AN ANIMATOR, A TEACHER, AND NOW AN AUTHOR.  HOW’D YOU GET TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?  TELL ME YOUR CAREER PATH, YOUR STORY.

ELLEN:  It’s a story that’s not uncommon from my generation, but it’s different from what people are experiencing coming into the field now.  Going back to the late ‘60s, early 70s, animation, especially classic animation, was on the cusp of becoming a dying art.  All the big Hollywood studios had shifted out of doing short productions.  All they were doing was TV work, and Disney for some bizarre reason decided not to train any new people.  They were still producing features, but there was no apprenticeship going on.  If you tried to ask about producing animation for adults, for older audiences, [people would say,] “no, no– it’s just for kids.”  They had spent so long making it only for kids they had come to believe it was something inherent in the medium.  

[Fortunately, there was] a bunch of kids who came up around the same time, retained an interest, and wanted [animation] to be for more than kids… and that coincided with the period where animation schools started showing up.  So [once again] you could actually get trained, then go into studio jobs.  

I came in having always loved the medium; I was made fun of when I was a kid for liking animation—it was a weird thing to still like cartoons when you were 16, 17 years old.   I was [also] coming from a background that had some music and some art and some dance: a whole lot of different pieces that weren’t adding up to anything.  One of the beauties of animation is that it takes all those things and uses them in balance, so it was like a prism that took all my bits and pieces and combined them into something that made sense.  It was a very exciting thing to fall into.  

Many people ended up in animation by falling into it; it wasn’t something you considered or thought about ahead of time because there was so little structure for it.  It was exciting because it was a period where we were rebuilding, recreating the art.  It was also a period where places like the National Film Board of Canada, which was a major center, was one of the keepers of the flame, and I was lucky enough to work there from 1977 to 1981, and then on and off.  

I was actually at Montreal at the Film Board headquarters when they were producing the most amazing stuff in the world, and anyone who had any degree of interest in animation—like the old Warner Brothers directors—would show up.  You’d walk through the waiting room and the old Disney animators would be hanging around, having a chat.  

Gradually, I went from being a filmmaker to teaching other people how to do it, writing about it, being an organizer.  [Then] the whole thing broke thru in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, when suddenly you had The Simpsons, The Little Mermaid.  And then, of course, you had CG, which changed the whole world in terms of what animation is.  So here I am, now having had twenty years of active filmmaking, and a number of years of supporting people and being a critic and analyzer of animation.

YOUR BOOK, “Animation Unleashed,” IS A PRACTICAL HANDBOOK ABOUT THE CREATIVE PRINCIPLES AND PHILOSOPHIES OF ANIMATION.  OF COURSE, THERE ARE LOTS OF BOOKS ON ANIMATION OUT THERE.  WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE THIS BOOK?  WHEN YOU LOOKED AT THE WORLD OF ANIMATION AND ANIMATION BOOKS, WHAT WAS MISSING?

After I’d been teaching for a few years and a certain number of students had passed thru my classroom… [so] over the years, I’d seen certain patterns, certain common problems.  

First, I noticed certain blocks people would have, quite consistently, in their thinking.

Secondly… animators really weren’t taught film analysis, so we were operating on instinct, but we weren’t learning how to “close-read” the films, or really look at other films to see the techniques that were there.  The most important [technique] was having a very strong visually-based analogy underneath the film.  If someone arrived at that analogy, not only was it a better film in the end, but it was an easier production process because there was some logical means for decision making.  You have to control every element, and everything has to be decided.  There’s no given [in animation], so the decision-making process can be excruciating and every decision can throw your story off if you are not super-careful.  You need a reason to decide this or that… so certain patterns became obvious.  

The other thing that happened was: we started doing intense film analysis classes.  I had always liked Disney features, but had never had any real insight into what was going on.  Suddenly, in that context, the scales come off your eyes and you see things you never saw before.  Suddenly, it was, “Oh my God—look what they’re doing there!  Look at this incredible storytelling!  This is such astonishing craft!”  

I even dare to say that—at a point where live-action was still figuring out a lot of their technique—Disney animators had figured out such a sophisticated style.  The level of storytelling, the level of control over every element… the
y were controlling and working every bit so it added directly to the storytelling in a precise way.  So [as] we had more of that kind of analysis, the more we’d see that certain principles were in play [and] specific to animation.

[What excites me now is that] we’re in a world where film is digital, and once you make things digital… they become animation.  They suddenly have the same principles; the source material is different.  And actually understanding what it means to be able to manipulate something—every pixel in every image in every frame of a piece—is the essence of animated thinking.

THAT’S AN INTERESTING NOTION.  SO BASICALLY… EVEN A LIVE-ACTION DIGITAL FILM FOLLOWS THE SAME CREATIVE PRINCIPLES AS AN ANIMATED FILM?  OR IS SUBJECT TO THE SAME RULES AS AN ANIMATED FILM?

You have that option.  You’re not necessarily going to want to do that with all live-action, but you’re going to want to understand that the potential is there.  And there will often be a great mix, now that extras in a scene may be animated instead of actual people.  Certain effects will be digital.  More films, even if they’re not obviously hybrids, are going to be hybrid films, so understanding that you need certain rules for playing with those tools becomes incredibly important.  

All filmmakers now should be studying animation to understand these new tools they’re taking on.  It’s an interesting and relatively new area.  How do you marry the rules of live-action to these new rules?  

A film like Amelie is an incredible example of hybrid filmmaking.  You don’t think of it as using animation principles, but it totally does.  You can actually break it down on a frame-by-frame level and see how [director Jean-Pierre Jeunet] controls it and makes decisions that are almost invisible when you watch it the first time.  But when you go back and do analysis, you see incredible stuff.  Jeunet is a guy coming from an animation background and bringing that sensibility to live-action filmmaking.  

I had an interesting experience with that film; I was watching it with a guy coming from a theatrical background… and when we came out he said, “I know it looks like a fantasy, a fairy tale, but I’m not sure why.”  He was certain it was because of the acting, but the reality was it was everything in that film.  Jeunet actually took every frame, all the beautiful shots of Paris, and he scrubbed the film—altered the lights and colors and everything—in order to heighten, or make it the ultimate caricature of Paris.  That’s animation: you can alter terrain, as well as characters, special effects… and marry it all for a very specific, controlled kind of effect.

I THINK A LOT OF PEOPLE TODAY—MYSELF INCLUDED—STILL THINK OF ANIMATION IN TERMS OF OLD-SCHOOL, TRADITIONAL FORMS LIKE Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
OR EVEN The Incredibles.  BUT THE WHOLE WORLD HAS EXPLODED OPEN… THERE’S BIG BUSINESS NOW IN COMICS, GRAPHIC NOVELS, VIDEO GAMES.  HOW IS DRAWING FOR TV OR MOVIES—CREATIVELY, STYLISTICALLY, AND PHILOSOPHICALLY—DIFFERENT THAN DRAWING FOR A COMIC STRIP OR A GRAPHIC NOVEL OR A VIDEO GAME?

Video games come into the same territory as animation; once you insert movement into the process, it changes everything. That’s an important thing to realize.  I’ve had students who come from a comic book background and have had the hardest time making the leap into animation; they can’t fathom why it’s different.  

The key with animation is that every drawing is only a tiny piece of the greater whole, and what you are looking for is the combined effect, which is often quite different than any little piece.  For examples, when you are drawing a background, a background isn’t just a landscape, it’s a place where action can happen.  You have to actually build and affect what will happen with the action by what you do in the background.  

There’s a beautiful section in Spirited Away, by [writer/director Hayao Miyazaki] where Chihiro, this girl who is being led into adolescence, is being led into this crazy fantasy park.  It looks like she’s walking through a park—you just kind of look at it superficially—but if you really look, there are buildings pressing into the frame, blocking her ability to go backwards.  She can only walk in one direction, and there are stone paths and all sorts of enticing things… which basically means she has to go a certain way.  She can’t go another way.  You think she’s operating on free will… but Miyazaki has made it so there’s no other way for her to go.  There’s your background.  It’s a location for action.  You have to decide what actually needs to happen there, what supports the plot, what supports the theme, and build those things into the background.  

[Here’s another] anecdote of sitting in on a live-action shoot of a script I helped develop  It was supposed to be a hybrid, but a major piece was live-action, and they were doing a critical scene that happened in an alleyway.  They had three or four alleys to choose from, and they were talking about the benefits of one alley versus another.  I turned to my partner, the other animator on the team, and we realized that in animation this discussion would be completely different.  [They were talking about] how long the alley should be, and they were trying to adjust the action to fit the alleys they had.  This is one of the key obstacles young animators get into.  They draw a certain alley, then try to stuff the action into it.  They forget you can make the alley whatever length you need it to be.  If you need it longer, you can stretch it.  If you need to add a hidden passageway, put it in there.  

It seems simple, but remembering you have that power is one of the critical principles.  You can alter every element and make all the pieces fit together, not just adjust one thing against the other, like we would in the real world.

Also, very important, is that movement is created by this series of tiny positions… but have you ever actually taken a piece of great animation and watched it frame-by-frame?  You’d be amazed at what the individual frames look like!  The distortion of them… you almost can’t believe it, because when you run it, it looks like a fluid piece.  But crazy stuff is happening in there: extra arms and legs, extra eyeballs, bodies are squishing and stretching—very bizarre looking things.

Understanding that piece of artwork—not only for the moment it’s the frozen moment in a piece of action, but that it must exist in relationship to what comes before and after, that it exists in the total flow of where the action is going—completely changes the nature of the drawing.  You don’t [usually] see the individual drawing, you only see the flow, and it’s almost between drawings that the movement happens.  

It’s actually a physical thing that happens.  It’s the relationship of how your eyes work into your brain—a little thing called persistence of vision—that you play with in animation; you actually play with the gap and our willingness to assume there’s action there, even though there isn’t.  Live-action does that in a mechanical way; your mind recreates action.  In animation, you’re creating action that doesn’t exist under any other circumstances; it only exists in your brain.  It’s a weird thing, but it’s important to understand: it’s all raw creation.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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