Points of View website launched

nwhf_points_of_viewThe Northwest Health Foundation wanted a new website to support their work in public policy advocacy. Built on the concept of a video magazine, each issue of Points of View covers a topic germane to the work of the foundation, with a short introduction and a collection of videos that reflect the point of view of the NWHF, along with the many points of view represented by their diverse community partners.

The Problem with Avatar

avatar“What a stinker,” my friend said as we exited the theater, and I was relieved to know it wasn’t just orneriness or hormones that had turned me against Avatar. My friends and I spent the rest of  evening critiquing the film, but then the next day I opened my laptop to rave reviews. Were we the only three people in the world who found Avatar insulting? Apparently not, and I have gradually become aware of others out there who didn’t become instant Avatarphiles. Despite how gorgeous it is. But more about those other critics later.

Yes, it’s gorgeous. A technical and aesthetic marvel. The plants, the blue indigenous people, the textures, the colors, the light, the planet hanging in the sky of the moon Pandora. Sumptuous. Seamless. No pixel left unedited.

It’s been called “revolutionary.” I assume this adjective refers solely to the digital effects, because if we’re talking plot, memes, politics, or history, it’s not even close.

avatar-movie-lush-landscape-600x338Ostensibly, the film’s message is anti-imperialist and anti-corporate. The army boss is the epitome of the ugly American invader, and the corporate boss is the epitome of the ugly American capitalist. They are clearly “baddies”: uninformed, insensitive, greedy to win. Their attitude evokes the Bush administration, even down to their use of phrases like “preemptive strike”. One dimensional characters, to be sure, but I get it that they stand for something bigger.

Ostensibly there is a “conversion”. The jarhead (Jake Sully) who is sent to infiltrate the indigenous people, comes to love and respect them. (He also happens to be a “wounded healer” – a new age cliché if ever there was one). Okay. Love and respect are good things.

Ostensibly the indigenous folks drive out the invaders. Now that’s a message I can get behind.

Except that it is undermined in so many ways.

That evening when my friends and I picked Avatar apart, I kept thinking about how it could have been soooo much better. For instance, imagine an Avatar in which it’s not a foreigner jarhead who unites the indigenous people and saves the day, because the indigenous people have the wherewithal to save themselves! Or, to be even more revolutionary, they save the stupid invaders and ALL of them “go native”. And imagine if they solved the problem of their invaders not through Massive Violence, but through cunning. Or playful trickery. Or even diplomacy!

jake_sully__neytiri_in_avatar-wideAnd imagine an Avatar in which the hero doesn’t automatically get the girl. She was, after all, betrothed before her tribe and her god to another, and when she and jarhead hook up it’s really a massive violation when you think about it. Which sorta matters, because folks get mad for a bit, but they don’t have time to be permanently mad or banish her or anything, because they need the violator to save them from ones like himself. Even her formerly-betrothed conveniently comes around after about three minutes of speechifying by the jarhead, and the formerly-betrothed even obediently agrees to translate the jarhead’s further speechifying for the masses. Which struck me as odd because the jarhead by then had managed to pick up the language quite well, I thought.

avatar-attack-on-home-treeThe formerly-betrothed conveniently dies during the Massive Violence, as does his father, the chief. This leaves a power vacuum into which the jarhead will naturally step. And the indigenous people are down with that because they are in awe of him because he rode the red dragon. And up till then nobody had ridden the red dragon. So he is automatically awesomer than any of them. Even though he had to learn dragon-riding from them. And even tho’ he boinked the chief’s daughter. (Or maybe because — ?)

Which brings me to the dragon-riding. Which starts out with dragon-subduing, because those beasties do NOT want to be subdued and ridden, thank you very much. Like my friend said, it looked a lot like rape. This is how it works:

1. to prove your manhood, you have to subdue and ride a dragon.
2. you and the guys approach the dragon hangout.
3. the guys tell you to go in among the dragons and find the one that will become “yours”. As in “you choose it and it chooses you”. Mutual choosing. Very nice, okay. So you ask how you’ll know when one chooses you? “It will try to kill you,” you’re told. Not so nice after all, but here goes…
4. You go into the dragon hangout. The dragons are pissed. Some leave. One stays and tries to kill you. In a violent struggle you mount it and connect your hair filigree stuff to its hair filigree stuff. A jolt runs through you both, and there’s a glazed look, a grunt. The dragon falls quiet. You feel triumphant and you whisper, “You’re mine now.” to the dragon.
5. The guys, who have been watching, are proud of you. Even the one who is betrothed to the woman you’ll eventually steal from him is grudgingly proud. (Funny how he was right to be suspicious of you all along.) The guys tell you to fly the dragon. “The first flight seals the bond.”
6. You take flight. Awkwardly at first until you realize the dragon is relying on you to control it with your thoughts.
7. Then you and the dragon are flying around gloriously. Awesome. Who doesn’t want to fly a dragon by controlling it with their thoughts? (Well, maybe me, but I’m just generally scared of big animals.)

jakes_banshee_action_figure_box_artNow this dragon will be there for you whenever you need it. It’s yours. (Except when you ride the other dragon, the big red dragon – which makes me wonder, did the jarhead’s chosen dragon feel hurt when he abandoned it for the bigger, nastier one? So much for the lifetime bond…)

Anyhow, my point is that considering how beautifully connected the indigenous people are with every living thing around them, couldn’t James Cameron have come up with a way to get them flying dragons without all the struggle, dominance and subjection? Me, I’m tired of that shit. It is so time we moved on.

So why have a jarhead infiltrate a tribe, go native, then save them, anyhow? Avatar is a textbook example of what Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence call the American Monomyth, a variation on the classical monomyth as proposed by Joseph Campbell.
Jewett and Lawrence define the American monomyth as:

A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.

navi5Except jarhead hardly renounced temptations: he bagged the betrothed girl. But enough about that. Oh wait, I did want to say something more about that. About the indigenous bodies in general. The indigenous people were quite animal-like in some ways. They’d drop to all fours, hiss and spit, leap from branch to branch. But interestingly, they weren’t animal-like in any ways that might make the audience feel uncomfortable.

na-vi-003jpgFor instance, they had prehensile tails. Did they ever use them? No. That would make them too monkey-like. But if you watch animals with prehensile tails, they use them all the time, like a fifth limb. And the sex. When jarhead and betrothed-girl hook up it’s all tender and slow and gentle. Very human, actually. But I wish they did it more like bonobos – that would have been funny. Oh and what’s with the bits of necklace artfully stuck to betrothed-girl’s boobs no matter how much she moved? picture-3A la Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon, thanks to wardrobe tape there was glorious natural wild nakedness, but not really. Those noble savages have to seem decent, after all. No bouncy bits, please.

And as for the ending. Nice! The bad invaders slink away with their tails between their legs! (Wait, no, they’re not the ones with the tails.) But anyway, all chagrined, the human survivors of the Massive Violence get back on their space ship under the watchful eye of the indigenous people and the few humans who went native and gave up their human bodies for the tall blue bodies. They happen to be brandishing machine guns to make sure the bad humans don’t retaliate again. Peaceful living-in-harmony-with-nature beings still gotta have machine guns, JIC.

jake_flying_great_leonoptyrex

But there’s a 500 pound gorilla in this ending. The unobtanium. It’s still there. Under the destroyed home tree. As if the humans won’t be back for it, this time with massive firepower and reinforcements and the taste of vengeance in their throats. Because during the whole course of this movie, NOTHING REALLY CHANGED. NO ONE LEARNED A THING. HISTORY WILL REPEAT ITSELF, and the blue people will be toast when the humans get back. A few leftover machineguns and some fast obedient dragons will be no match for whatever weaponry the humans will unleash.

James Cameron, if you’re such a genius, surely you’re smarter than this?

How much more spectacular it would have been to take us to the fabulous moon Pandora, let us dwell among the fantastic flora and fauna till we fell in love with it, have our expectations of the inhabitants delightfully, inspiringly raised above the level of humdrum response of violent revenge, and watch them solve a massive problem, with multiple stakeholders with conflicting desires, in an ingeniously non-violent way. You could still do it with tension, danger, and excitement. It needn’t be Pollyannaish or preachy. It could be thrilling, with plot twists, shifting alliances, and surprises. It could still be truly entertaining. But, you fell back on the American Monomyth.

Is there software for that? Like you open up a template and do a find-and-replace so all the ‘hero’s become ‘Jake Sully’? And where it says ‘Rise Up In Revenge Speech’ it gives you ten lines to write it because there’s a time limit to what audiences will tolerate?

Making that film must have been enormously challenging. Hard, you could say. It must have been a hard film to make. But how hard would it have been to make it conceptually so much better? You already solved all the technical and aesthetic problems: a better plot should have been relatively easy. All you need for that is a pencil, some paper, and the will to be truly revolutionary.

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What others say:

New Zealand blogger Tom Goulter’s series called The Week Of Trying To Say Anything In The Least Bit Interesting About Avatar.

Avatar…spends two hours talking about how beautiful it is to be peaceful and in tune with nature and what-all and then has a final hour in which the killing of people is fetishistically rendered up for our delectation even as elegiac choral music plays to provide the token suggestion that said killing might be a bad thing.

NYT Columnist David Brooks’ piece, The Messiah Complex,

[Avatar] rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

From British blogger Jon Brown’s 1000 Tiny Things I Hate

If there’s one thing we can be absolutely sure of the day we finally “make contact” it’s that the extraterrestrial civilisation we encounter will have developed its own uniquely shitty brand of world music.

Fix the World Challenge

Figuring out a way

Figuring out a way to defeat the logic that's destroying our planet.

The Yes Men’s Fix the World “Identity Correction” Challenge is alive and kicking. You create an account, then choose a challenge, such as Liberate Stupid Footage, Correct an Identity Online, and Create a Special Edition Newspaper. This one sounds fun: Engage in Jobjacking.

Buy an Exxonmobil shirt on the internet, and stand at the local filling station. When people stop for gas,talk to them! For example, “The money from your gas today is going towards helping us defeat the indigenous people of Alaska and exterminate the violent polar bear of the Far North. Thank you!”

Or, for example, become a Wal-Mart greeter. Introduce shoppers to some really weird products….

or

Do a training at a Trade Show: British Comedian and noted Activist Mark Thomas posed as a public relations specialist at an arms fair, offering to help improve the image of governments and companies who abused human rights. As various high-ranking officials visited the stand, Thomas videotaped their discussions. He devised a hilarious mock workshop on “winning the war of words” in which he convinced an Indonesian general to admit to the use of torture – an admission he would not normally have made….

There’s a Google map with the location of players, and a system for meeting up with like minded players in your area. The FAQs section answers such questions as Can I get in trouble for this stuff? and, How can I hijack a Twitter backchannel?

Oh yes, and the Yes Men’s new movie The Yes Men Fix the World is coming to theaters in the US on October 7th. Can’t wait!

Devising Narrative Structures, Day 5

I’m fast, I know. I managed to turn these puppies around in…a month. Wow. So anyhow, the fifth and final day of Paul Wells’ course was mostly spent working on our projects, which were to be about 4 characters who had an effect on each other (after the animation ‘Four’ we’d seen previously). We worked in pairs, and Christopher Huizar and I collaborated. There were also some mini-lectures on the basics of storyboarding and event analysis.

From a Ren and Stimpy storyboard, courtesey of animationarchive.org

From a Ren and Stimpy storyboard, courtesey of animationarchive.org

STORYBOARD
Each storyboard panel should depict a dominant story point. Each panel should also have plenty of space around it to indicate actions within the frame, actions outside the frame, dialogue, and notes, such as points from event analysis, the color script, etc. Since we were working in a super sped-up way on stories we’d come up with really fast, during a prior 10-minute exercise, I personally found it difficult to integrate these layers of analysis and meaning onto our storyboard, while also trying to figure out what the dominant story points were for said storyboard. Now collaboration is a great thing, and some of the most enjoyable projects I’ve worked on have been collaborations. But collaboration never shortens the amount of time it takes to do a project. In fact the opposite it true: always lengthens it. So Christopher and I went round and round trying to figure out what our actual story was, which was time not spent on setting it into storyboard panels and layering the other information around them.

Paul went over the definitions of ‘blocking’ and ‘performance point’. When a director says to an actor, “Enter the room. Sit on the chair. Show nervousness,” the blocking is the “Enter the room. Sit on the chair” part, and the performance point is “show nervousness.” The same blocking could have a different performance point, e.g. “show confidence.” This is theater 101, I’m sure, but having never studied theater, it was news to me, and a handy way of looking at action.

SCENE BUILDING AND EVENT ANALYSIS
Once you have some potential scenes, you address them through these core questions:
1. Description of the scene. What happens? Which characters are involved? (The psychology of the character is revealed only out of what happens.)
2. External event. What happens that is the definitive development of the plot? What moves the story forward?
3. Internal event. What happens in the scene that is a definitive movement of each of the characters in the scene?
4. What the action means for the screenwriter. This is a ‘stepping back’ question. What is happening in the story? What emotional response are you looking to evoke? If you can’t answer this satisfactorily, then go back to Qs 1, 2, and 3.
5. What the event means for the audience. (meaning viewer or reader) What does it mean for them in terms of information, understanding, and emotional response?

Kitchen fight scene from The Incredibles

Kitchen fight scene from The Incredibles

We then looked at a scene from The Incredibles in light of these questions. Every scene needs a hinge that turns it and moves the plot forward. The scene we watched depicted family dinner table chaos in which most of the action was taken up by the mother trying hard (and failing) to enforce a “no superpowers” policy amongst her fighting children. The hinge was a quieter moment when the father opens the paper and finds an article that piques his interest, and causes him to lie to the family when he leaves with a friend.

Next there was a mini-lecture on THE ANIMATION EVENT
Paul kept coming back to the question of what can animation do, that can’t be done in live action? It’s fine to take from live-action theory, but in what ways is animation different, and in what ways does the theory need to be expanded or adjusted to accommodate this?

Examples are:
- A phase of imagined motion for it’s own sake. It may take on narrative purchase, but it can be for its own sake.
- A sequence of choreographed emotive images, e.g. a contrast of fantasy and reality.
- A dramatized scene that contains something not possible in live action, e.g. a mythic character.

One problem that Christopher and I had with the story we were trying to develop into a storyboard was that it could easily be shot as a live action film. We had to search for ways to give it attributes that could only happen in animation.

ADAPTATION OF EVENT ANALYSIS WITH REGARDS TO ANIMATION
(I have to admit my notes start to not make much sense at this point. My brain was full. So I will transcribe them verbatim.)

Q1. What happens in the phase/images/scene under observation? How might its intrinsic action be described and how does it specifically relate to the methodology of process and visualization in general?

Q2. What is the key narrative development in the phase/images/scene? Animation trusts color, line, form, etc. How can the sequence progress?

Q3. What is the core punctum (from Barthes) of the sequence, and how does it advance its presence and effect? Barthes’ punctum refers to the key point of attraction in the image, and in this context might be a character, a form, a pictorial event, a visual gag, etc.

Q4. Asks the same kind of questions [as what, I'm not sure]. How far are you using the language of animation? I.e. metamorphosis, condensation, symbols, associative relations, sound, etc.”

Q5. Who is your principal audience?

As Christopher and I progressed (or failed to progress) with our story, Paul reminded us to differentiate the central story motivation from the core story event. The central story motivation is what motivates the four  characters in the story to come together. In our case it was an outdoor tuba concert. I won’t go into why a cyclist, an indie music blogger, a truck driver, and a tubist had to be there, but we spend the better part of our work time getting those details sorted out. The core story event, on the other hand, is the crash between the truck driver and the cyclist. This causes 1. the cyclist to die, 2 the driver to be devastated 3. The tubist to play the saddest tuba music in the world, and 4. the indie music blogger to write a heartfelt, instead of cynical piece. So the central story motivation gets them to the scene, and the core story event changes each one of them in a different way.

Looking back, perhaps I should change my opinion of how the last day went. We actually progressed quite far with our story, we just didn’t get it down into a nice storyboard in time for the presentation to the class at the end of the day. I think if we’d slept on it, and come back to the storyboard refreshed the next day, we would have popped one out. However, we still struggled to nail down how to work in the language of animation. Our story could have been shot in live action. Our ideas for how to work in the language of animation were mostly fine, but seemed to add in merely a decorative element, (e.g. a dreamy surreal sequence of visuals during the playing of the saddest tuba music) and as such could become contrived. I wished there was something central to our story that could only have been done via animation.

I also struggled with meaning. The story we were proposing was not going to re realized. We were pulling ideas out of thin air with no thought as to how we’d pull them off technically, or to budget, time, etc. As such it remained an academic exercise, and that keep tripping me up. Not that anything could be done about that in a course of such short duration, but it did give me pause. We’d have an idea, and I’d think, “wait, no, that’s too hard to do.” Then I’d think, “Hang on, that doesn’t matter. We’re not going to actually do it.” Then I’d think, “Well then why should I try and find the perfect solution?”

Perhaps I’ve been a web designer for too long. Too many years in charge of projects from start to finish, with budgets, subcontractors, client expectations, and ongoing technical developments to keep in mind at all times! It was certainly hard to let go and just make up a project that had no real-world constraints. My brain is indeed full. I need to rinse it out.

Devising Narrative Structures, Day 4

Yes, it’s been more than three weeks since the course finished, but, it is what it is.

Day 4 began with a brief overview of Bruce Block’s model of visual storytelling. Now Bruce Block is a narrative designer/film producer/creative consultant who teaches at USC’s school of Cinematic Arts. He’s the author of  The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media. I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Block last year, hosted by Cascade Siggraph, and I was excited to revisit the material again. (And I just came across this interview with him.)

From Visual Storytelling, by Bruce Block

From Visual Storytelling, by Bruce Block

Block’s model of visual stortytelling is based on live action. Paul Wells has adapted it for animation. The following is from my notes:

Much building of narrative is about associative relations, literal and abstract. There are six areas of visual communication that you can work with to build a story, without relying on text or dialogue. They are embedded in our thinking. The key is to use the consciously. Be aware of visual tropes and reconsider them with intention.

Within animation, the six areas of visual communication are:
- space
- line & shape
- tone (what I call value: lightness or darkness)
- color
- movement
- rhythm

SPACE
Deep: offers compositional opportunities. background and foreground issues.
Limited: we saw a short film in which there were 27 loops of behavior happening in a small, kitchen-like space. I think it was called ‘Tango’.
Ambiguous: Paul Driessen’s films use this. E.g. ‘The boy who saw the iceberg’.
Flat: used in a lot of 2D animation, e.g. SouthPark, and Stacey Steers.

LINE & SHAPE
Paul talked in general about line and shape’s relationship to space, objects, and surface. E.g. Felix the Cat is a cat and a changeable graphic mark. The code of conventions set up around him allows the creator to manipulate him via his line and shape in ways you can’t do with live action. (See previous examples, e.g. Felix morphs his tail into other objects.) The animator sets up the logic of the world within the animation. Populist forms often played with deconstructing the frame space. Tex Avery (Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, etc.) liked to play with this, e.g. draw a character running past the edges of the film holes, as if they could move in or out of the frame within which they existed. Also, anime has conventions around how line and form carry symbolic representations. Then there are the animators who use line for its own aesthetic pleasure, and draw directly onto film. E.g. Rose Bond‘s early work.

In animation, we draw a huge amount of information from visual tropes. Minimal iconographic information can do a lot. E.g. a triangle head with ears on top signals ‘cat’, even if the creature has two arms and two legs and may be walking upright.

Jessica Rabbit

Jessica Rabbit

But iconic shortcuts can be problematic, e.g. the way beautiful women a drawn extra-curvy. (Recall Jessica Rabbit’s “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” in Who framed Roger Rabbit.)

TONE
One of the chief converors of mood, tone (value) can be very persuasive on a narrative level. The play of light and dark can signal environment, relationships, and responses.

COLOR
Subdivided into Hue, Saturation, Brightness (I would call this value again. I.e. degree of darkness or lightness).
Color Interaction – how the tension between colors can help with the construction of mening within the image.
Color Symbolism – e.g. ethereal blues for dream sequences. Hitchcock’s use of color symbolism in Vertigo came up.Then there is also use of color and form for its own sake, to express the dynamics of feeling abstractly.

From Waltz with Bashir

From Waltz with Bashir

Yuri Norstein’s  Tale of Tales, which draws from Rembrandt, is an example of a fine art model being used for lighting and color. Also, Waltz with Bashir is a great example of the use of color (and tone) for narrative effect.

The color script is a sequential map of the colors used during the main events of a script. When I googled the phrase, I kept getting a color map of Pixar’s ‘Up’, which seems to be simply a collage of frames from the film. But the example Paul showed us was much more interesting, if not as–colorful. It was from Halas and Batchelor’s 1954 film Animal Farm, and it listed the main events across the top, then down the side were tension, mood, music, color, time of day, time of year, and maybe other variables. A graph was plotted showing the relative rise and fall of these variables, as they changed from event to event. This kind of graph was used in Bruce Block’s work, too, so I’m guessing it’s an industry standard. However, I’m having trouble locating an example online. Perhaps I’m using the wrong phrase when I search.

MOVEMENT
Movement carries a lot of narrative weight. Movement happens in and through the frame. We looked at fire in Fantasia, and the fighting-with-skeletons sequence in Jason and the Argonauts. Virile Games, by Jan Svankmeyer is an example of movement for narrative and symbolic effect. Football is represented lyrically, like ballet, but embeds violence and brutality in play and spectatorship.

There was an interesting digression about cultural norms/expectations. A lot of anime apparently ignores historical chronology, and this comes out of the different approach Japanese animators have. American animators usually work on story, then characters, then design. Japanese animators tend to work of design first, then characters, then story. It makes a difference in that when you’re working on the design idioms, you’re not necessarily designing for a purpose. Anime prefers to come up with a design that it then populates. Does any type of animation begin with character? Apparently children’s animation does. (I found this particularly interesting after studying creative writing for a few years, in which character, not plot, is considered the critical, central element of literary fiction. “You only need enough plot to hang your characters on” is an oft-repeated adage. Which takes me straight to something a Dutch friend said once about American fiction: “A lot of it’s very well written, but what is it about?” — a digression I won’t get into further here…)

beep beep!

beep beep!

RHYTHM
This can be visual, auditory, or felt. In terms of pacing, you can use different rhythmic models. E.g. the typical model of alternation used during a chase scene can be freshened by changing the oppositional variation. Beavis and Butthead uses repetition a lot.  Some animators use speed, temp and timing to effect. Contrast Text Avery, in whose work which speed is key, with Bill Plympton’s 25 ways to quit smoking, in which pauses and delay serve to intensify the gags.

CAUSE AND EFFECT
While this was discussed under ‘rhythm’, it seems to be important enough for it’s own headline. Cause and effect is a traditional narrative device. Fine-art animation often undermines cause and effect, and keeps it fragmentary. Films that combine traditional (continuous) and non-traditional (fragmented) cause and effect are interesting. Miazaki‘s anime films apparently do this.

CONTRAST AND AFFINITY
Contrast and affinity need not be only related to light and color. You can also contrast (or affine (new word?)) concepts, space, value, subject, movement, and so on. In fact (and this is something I came away from Bruce Block’s lecture last fall) it is the increase of contrast in some or all areas of the visual elements that works to convey the narrative as it hits  points of intensity. E.g. in a film you might use a lot of neutral hues at the beginning, but during emotional moments you can introduce a bright color or two, then during the final climax you can go all out with clashing colors. Maybe a a bit of a heavy-handed example, but you get the point. And it’s these changes of contrast that get plotted on script maps.
Waltz with Bashir uses tonal contrast with huge success. I have only seen the trailers online, but watching how he causes shadows to pass over people is quite wonderful.

COMPOSITION
My notes from this one are sketchy. Something to do with “middle eastern” composition used in Azur and Asmar, AKA The Price’s Quest. Plus the quote from Michele Ocelot, “What is important is that our work makes the audience intelligent”. Which is not to suggest the audience starts out unintelligent, but that the work stimulates them.
Also we learned that the famous Beatles film Yellow Submarine was very hard to animate. It was based on the graphic style of a famous designer who wasn’t an animator. Hence, it was never influential in animation.

Devising Narrative Structures: Day 2

imagesAnother great session with Paul and the class today. We began by finishing off yesterday’s exercise in storytelling without dialogue or text. Most stories are driven by language, but what if you drive the process through visuals? Based on the Aristotelian structure, the project was to come up with a story told visually in 6 frames. This following would make more sense with visual examples, which I don’t have. But I can outline one of the examples that was given us.

1.    Set the scene containing a character, with maximum suggestion using minimum of imagery. (Drawing skills were not important: stick figures would do.)
Sad man sits alone in empty room with tiny scrawny Christmas Tree.

2.    Second character enters and establishes a relationship with the first character. The second character must have what Paul Wells calls ‘animation quality’ – i.e. it must have or do something that could not be achieved if you were shooting this story as live action.
Santa Clause flies in through the door. The sad man is startled out of his chair.

3.    Something happens between the two characters. An exchange takes place that develops the narrative.
Santa gives the sad man a wrapped gift.

4.    One or both characters has an emotional reaction to what just happened.
As Santa leaves, the sad man is so happy and grateful he is kneeling on the floor, praying, with tears of gratitude.

5.    Preparation for the conclusion. Something happens that looks back on the foreshadowing that occurred earlier. This frame may be used for suspense/postponement. Or it may extend the nature of the exchange or emotional reaction.
Formerly sad, but now excited man starts unwrapping the gift.

6.    Conclusion of the implied relationship that was set up through the exchange. Revelation of that which was foreshadowed.
Sad man is in back in his chair, and back to being sad. He holds a badminton racquet in his hand. He’s assembled the gift: A badminton set with racquets, net, shuttlecock. But he has no one to play with.

Sounds simple, right? IT IS NOT SIMPLE. It was amazingly hard to come up with a story in 6 frames, using no dialogue, based on an exchange between two characters, in which what happens at the end is set up and foreshadowed earlier. And that isn’t just plain stupid. After 9 attempts I came up with a story that involved a confident seed, and a malevolent mower.

Some other points from yesterday:
Philip Parker’s Creative Matrix of a screenplay contains 6 free-floating components:
theme, story, form, genre, style, and plot
At any time any two can be linked for emphasis. E.g. genre (western) gets redetermined by style (comedy) in Blazing Saddles. And gets redetermined by theme (gay love) in Brokeback Mountain.

But Paul Wells thinks the matrix of an animation is different, because the mechanisms are different, because the whole economy of a film is embedded in early choices. Unlike live action filming, with animation you can’t make a whole bunch of material and edit it down. It’s just too labor intensive. You have to plan major choices ahead. The choice of technique, to begin with, will have a huge effect on subsequent choices. 2D stop motion using collage? Claymation? Flash?

Animation’s inherent ability to pass on metaphor and symbol invites people in. We are more inclined to watch a short piece about an anthropomorphized lamp playing with a ball, than we are to watch a similar piece involving a child playing with a ball. The audience immediately asks questions in a way that makes the work accessible.

The language of animation includes:
-  MetamorphosisThe ability to facilitate the change from one form to the next without edit. This generates a different model of storytelling.

-  Condensationthe maximum degree of suggestion with the minimum of imagery. E.g. focused gestures suggest particular things, and drive narrative precision.

-  Anthropomorphism - the imposition of human traits on animals, objects, and environments. Such characters often take on dominant traits. E.g Goofy is the empathetic amateur at sports. This gives a very direct way of understanding human behavior, by abstracting it into the non-human.

-  Fabrication – the physical and material creation of imagery, figures, and spaces. Built worlds create their own limits and currencies. These limits make for a clarity of impact of the story.

-  Penetration (term from John Hallis in the 1940s) – the visualization of psychological, physical, and technical ‘interiors’. E.g. animation can clarify something extremely complicated and mysterious, such as the workings of the human body. It can also easily represent dream, memory, and imagination. Can represent primal dynamics.

-  Symbolic association – the use of abstract visual signs and their related meanings. E.g. Felix the Cat pulls off his tail and it becomes a banjo that he plays. Or he pulls down two castle turrets, scoops up clods in them, and gives on to a lady he is wooing.

-  Soundthe illusionist stimulus and catalyst. Unlike film, where sound is driven by the primacy of dialogue and/or music, with animation you start with no diagetic sound. Whatever choices you make about sound will support the telling of the story.

Okay, we also talked about sources (prompts) modes of association, and the ’6 panel theater’ exercise was begun. But if I write all that out it will take me all night.

TODAY we talked about satisfaction. And about the 3-act structure (related to the 6-frame theater). Also Jacques Rancière‘s “ideaism” and “matterism”. “Regimes of visibility” and “Planes of intelligibility”. But that was only briefly, and pretty soon we were back on the ground in Paul Wells’ more straightforward analysis or what’s what. Then we discussed the 5 dominant models of narrative and looked at examples of a couple of them.
1. multiple perspectives of a single incident
2. list-led related events to a core topic
3. transitional narratives based on metamorphoses and associations
4. Single Scenario (e.g. John and Karen by Matthew Walker)
5. Character-led vignettes (e.g. Harvie Krumpet by Adam Elliot)

(John and Karen was wonderful. The clip on Walker’s site is not the whole piece, unfortunately. Harvie Krumpet was overambitious and required more empathy than it delivered. Was it’s Oscar win a pity vote, because it’s about marginalized people?)

Scene from John and Karen, by Matthew Walker

Scene from John and Karen, by Matthew Walker

THEN in a separate session, we discussed the very term animation, what it meant, what it includes. And that it is used to describe such a huge range of cultural production that maybe it has become meaningless. We also discussed its relationship to the term ‘cartoon’. And its relationship with art. I knew there was some contention in these areas, but I had no idea how much.

I suggested we revisit the root of the word, ‘anima’ – the soul, suggesting that to be animated is to be ‘ensouled’. Live action figures move under their own volition. Sure they’re following a script, but they are propelling themselves. They have cognition, sentience, and so on. When a figure (whether human or not) is animated, it is given qualities that make it seem to come alive. But it is not moving under its own volition. So animation is creating the illusion of aliveness, of ensoulment (Not meant in the Catholic sense, of course).

And we discussed that cartoons are not opposed to animation, as some fine-art animators think. Cartoons are rather a subset of animation. What defines that subset, though? The jury is still out on that. We got to a point where we were considering whether animation as an umbrella term could even include live action. Huh. Interesting idea.

Also, at what point does one draw the line? Is a CGI’d explosion in a live-action film animation? Do we still want to make a distinction between hand-crafted animation and that done digitally? And if my definition is correct, that animation is the illusion of ‘ensouling’ something to make it move and seem alive, then should I include the life-size animatronic Santa Clause I saw outside a thrift store on my way home? He was heavily dressed in the brilliant evening sun, waving his stiff mechanical arm back and forth. Next to him was a female mannequin sprawled in a pose that was probably supposed to be sexy. Together they were a splash of red velvet and white fake fur, doing their repetitive unseasonal dance for passers by. The mannequin stared at me through the bus window, and for a creepy moment they seemed to be really alive.

Agora: A film about Hypatia of Alexandria

agora1

Still from Alejandro Amenabar's 'Agora'

Finally someone’s made a film about my favorite ancient woman. Hypatia of Alexandria’s story gripped me in my 20s, and I read Charles Kingsley’s historical novel Hypatia: Or, New Foes with an Old Face several times. Romantic and Victorian as it is, the book is chock full of unique characters, and gives you the sweep of Egypt and the Mediterranean at a time of intense cultural upheaval. Philosophical questions abound throughout the book, and it paints a fascinating picture of the influx of the foreign new Christian ways of thinking as they wicked upwards from the poor and downtrodden to influence the upper classes. Christian ideas are contrasted with Pagan Neoplatonism and other schools of thought that Christianity was competing with at the time. hypatia_ck1Naturally, questions of fate, destiny, faith, identity, and love are on every page, and to his credit (Victorian Brit that he was) Kingsley presents the different schools of thought with remarkable even-handedness. 

 

 

hypatia_illoSince I read Kingsley’s Hypatia, scholarly biographies of Hypatia have been published, and I haven’t read a single one. I think I want to keep the Kingsley vision of her intact: heady, single-minded, proud, and pure, a mathematician and astronomer who presided over Alexandria’s great library in the waning days of the ancient Pagan world. (And I’m using ‘Pagan’ in the broad academic sense of ‘Not-Christian’)

Alejandro Amenabar’s film, Agora (not the most catchy title in English), just debuted at Cannes, to mixed reviews. It’s being released in the US in December. I hope the bad reviews are bad for reasons that bother those reviewers and not me. Like maybe, too much philosophy and not enough explosions or something.

It’s a mystery

Why do some men find the character River on Firefly (played by Summer Glau) so attractive? She’s sick and needs constant care/supervision. She looks like a child.  She’s not (made to appear) particularly pretty. She has little personality apart from the cold semi-autistic state she spends most of her time in, or the occasional crazed out-of-left-field personalities she slips in and out of. And she makes some pretty bad decisions, causing the rest of the crew danger and strife. Sure, she’s super smart and psychic, but this is what you like? Really?

(Disclaimer: I have only seen the TV series, not the movie. Maybe the movie takes the character to a new level?)