Tag Archives: Animation

Voice Acting Mastery

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This weekend I took a class on becoming a voice actor, with teacher and voice actor, Crispin Freeman. It was a pretty incredible experience. The two classes I took that day were Improv for Voice Actors, and Audition Analysis. It was a little trippy trying to put myself out there and surrender to a character. It was not something I could do easily. One of the interesting aspects of the class was that we used masks and played archtypes through what’s called Comedia Del’Arte. Once you put on the mask, you become that archtype and play that character from where their power center is focused. Sometimes the character leads with their head, or their knees. Some like Capitano lead with their chest, or others like female archtypes might lead with their hips. It was a fascinating experience.

The second class, Audition Analysis was also enjoyable. Where Improv worked on our right side of our brain, Audition Analysis worked on our more analytical skills. I learned quite a bit about the structure of playing a character, and especially learning how to play with a scene partner. There was one particular thing that fascinated me when working with a scene partner, and its so true to the relationships we have with people in real life. You as your character wants something out of your scene partner. It’s a pie in the sky desire. Where, for example, if your scene partner was bossy, you would want them to see that they are too obnoxious and want them to apologize for being as bossy as they are. Of course, the scene partner isn’t going to give you that response, but justify their reasons for being the way they are, as well as wanting you as a character to change the way you are to suit their needs. When both characters do get what they want out of their scene partner, then it becomes a love story between those characters, regardless if they are lovers, or friends (or even foes). It was an amazing and enlightening thing to learn from the class.

Now, do I consider myself an aspiring voice actor? After taking the class, I would say….No. I cannot act to save my life, and I don’t think I have the patience to learn how to be a better actor. BUT…I found the information I took from the class incredibly useful and helpful to my own animation studies. As an animator, I learned so much about character from an actors point of view. It made me contemplate things, not just in my personal life, but how I see myself as an artist and as a filmmaker. I can not thank Crispin enough for passing on his incredible wisdom about life and how it can apply to anyones craft. So what I am saying is, if you’re not a voice actor, but an aspiring filmmaker and artist, this is the class for you. You wouldn’t think so initially since the majority of students are there to learn to become voice actors. But it was an enlightening and engaging experience, and I can’t thank Crispin enough for what he showed us in those intensive eight hours.

Before entering the class, I listened to Crispin’s incredible podcast, Voice Acting Mastery, which helped prepare me for the class. Episodes 66 and 67 were especially inspiring, as the first dealt with…following your inspiration! And the second is about the secret to becoming a voice actor. I’ll let Crispin tell you what that that secret step is, but check out his website at http://www.voiceactingmastery.com and also check out his next classes. He offers classes in LA as well as Online classes, and for those students who have gone through his workshops, he offers Private Coaching as well. I highly recommend you check out this incredible and enlightening website.

Some Villains Deserve Better

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I was watching the film EPIC last week, a moderately decent animated feature with a few notable flaws. One of them being having a villain without much in the way of redeemable qualities, who is the yang to the forest peoples Ying. His job in the film is to bring decay to the forest. In a sense he is a bringer of death. The plot goes that he gets bored with his job and wants to bring ruin and death to everything in the forest, making himself ruler of a dead, decaying world. This is not dissimilar to the film RISE OF THE GUARDIANS which came out last year, where the villain Pitch Black (aka the Boogeyman) wants to bring nightmares to children all over the world because he is outcast and bored with his job.

I’d like to address a problem with both these characters that I think is an issue with the whole “good”/ “evil” aspect of storytelling, which I think is becoming more of an extinct concept. For one thing, as I mentioned, there is the ying/yang concept. The light cannot exist without the dark. These “villains” have their job of bringing contrast to the universe. I say “job” quite distinctly because that’s what they’re here to do. In GUARDIANS, Pitch’s job is to bring Nightmares to children, with the effect of bringing more appreciation to the joys of life, such as the sweet dreams brought to children through Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc. It’s a bit of a thankless job, but if the bad guy has been doing it for thousands of years, you’d think they’d be above petty concerns such as the insecurities of being loved by the outside world. The same goes for Mandrake, the villain in EPIC who is a bringer of death. What makes things difficult is that the so called Good Guys are not accepting of these characters, and show no appreciation for the work that the darker characters do, because the “bad” guy’s job is important.

The darker element is not something that is meant to be destroyed. It’s something that is meant to bring an appreciation for the better things in life. So it aggravates me when I watch movies like RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, where the GUARDIANS wind up banishing Pitch Black into another dimension where he can’t do any more harm. Well, to be quite honest, I feel sorry for Pitch. I understand how he feels because he is in essence neglected by the heroes of the film. Why was he not asked to join the Guardians? He’s important part as to why the heroes are who they are, and if only they had shown him some respect in return, maybe he wouldn’t be so inclined to ruin everything for everyone else. The same goes for Mandrake who is also deemed a villain because he’s also a guy nobody invites to parties or gets any kudos for his job. Heck, even Hades in HERCULES does not get much appreciation for his work, and never understands his place in the universe.

They shouldn’t be made evil because they do a job that nobody wants. Someday I’d like to see a film where the darker element actually gets a little respect for the job they do, even if it’s to bring contrast to the light of the hero. It’s a misunderstanding between worlds.

When it comes to villains in most animated features, it’s difficult sometimes because there is very little in the way of making them sincere characters. They’re just evil, and it’s usually out of boredom because the heroes never show any appreciation for them. So it’s not surprising they would lash out. It’s one thing when the hero finds some understanding in their life, but to proclaim that the contrasting force is bad when it was actually there to help them, the hero never thanks the villain for helping them, and the villain is usually banished or killed. Villains are much more interesting when we get a peek inside their pain.

What I mean by contrast is that a villain often times is a symbol for the hero when the hero is out of alignment with their inner being. It’s through this conflict and struggle that the hero sees their own reflection through the villain, who is secretly helping them find their true calling and the heroes connection to their highest self. So when the hero gets the message, but then has the villain killed or banished, there is no appreciation for what the villain has helped the hero achieve. Because even if the villain dies, it will come back as something else, in a different form. Because the villain is a reflection. If the darker element is not understood, it will come back in another form until the hero does get the message. Maybe one day there will be an animated hero who will actively show mercy and thank the villain for what they helped them accomplish. A great example of this is HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, where the Witch of the Waste transforms Sophie into an old woman, but when the witch gets punished and aged severely, Sophie changes her outlook towards the witch and treats her with kindness. She feels sorry for her and helps her. There is a mutual understanding there.

I think it’s time for a change in the way we see villains portrayed in movies, especially with the hero much more actively understanding that the villain is not something to be merely destroyed, but is someone, or something to be understood. After all, a villain is finding their way just as much as the hero. With that in mind, maybe the hero could cut the villain a little slack in the end.

MONSTER’S UNIVERSITY (2013) Dir. Dan Scanlon

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Last Friday I went on a renting binge to play catch up on the animated features I had missed in 2013. To my biggest surprise, Monster’s University, while not a hugely spectacular film…I actually walked away feeling some enjoyment from the latest Pixar canon. That’s really saying something because Pixars features over the past 8 years have failed to thrill me in any way. The last great Pixar film in my mind was THE INCREDIBLES, which is where I really feel that the studio peaked in terms of outstanding and sophisticated storytelling.

There’s nothing terribly sophisticated about the plot of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, which borrows from several different college films in the 80’s. Here, the attention is focused on Mike Wazowski, who is made the main character this time. I really liked Mike’s journey through the film. While he never achieves his dream of becoming a scarer, what he does find is a talent for being a coach. In the film he’s pretty much an over achiever, studying every aspect of what it means to be a scarer. The film does address such things as following your excitement and finding your calling.

Sully’s journey through the film is also interesting, as here we find out he was actually an under achiever in school, sliding by on the reputation of his father. Sully as it turns out knows very little about scaring, as his ego brazenly takes over because of the reputation his father holds over the scarers at Monsters Inc. It’s not until he teams up with Mike, and their fraternity OozmaKappa competes that Mike and Sully manage to form a friendship, playing to each other’s strengths to become a winning team.

I also enjoyed the amusing OozmaKappa fraternity, with their tagline, “We are OK.” It’s your typical underdog sports movie, where the most unlikely team has to face tremendous odds to win the day. Surprisingly, most of the competition stuff didn’t stick with me as much as the business with Mike and Sully, although the library sequence where the competitors have to get passed a giant monster librarian was pretty amusing.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is an enjoyable film. It’s on the small scale for Pixar films, but as far as making more original films goes, Pixar could use a “Dumbo” sized film…something that’s more emotional and intimate. Not everything has to be on a grand scale, although there are quite a few sophisticated crowd shots that must of been a chore to animate. But anyway, it’s recommended viewing. Definitely check it out.

Ursula as the Ghost Host (Unfinished)

I thought I’d put some of my animation talents on display for you.  This is an unfinished animation test I made of Ursula from The Little Mermaid reciting the opening spiel to The Haunted Mansion.  This is the first part of it which I got done in time for Halloween.  The rest will be coming soon, possibly in the next week or so.  The whole dialogue is about a minute and 20 seconds.  Here this version is about 20 seconds.  Enjoy, and Happy Halloween!

Entertainment vs. Character vs. Story

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One of the things I find interesting is that whenever I read animation books about making films, the authors all like to say the exact same thing:  “The Three most important aspects of any movie is STORY, STORY, STORY.”  What is it about this mode of thinking that have defined the way animated films are made?  What does Story mean exactly?  For one thing, most people will tell you that your story is “about something”, indicating either a theme or a message.  But when I watch an animated film, I don’t find that story is as much the emphasis that ENTERTAINMENT is.

By entertainment, I don’t simply mean the things that make us laugh, but it’s everything that moves us about the story and carries us along.  Is it funny?  Exciting? Dramatic? Engaging?  What’s the hook to get people interested?  That’s entertainment, not necessarily story.  The story tends to imply something about a theme or a message that makes it appear more that the film is trying to say something.  But what we do know about the greatest stories told in film is that they aren’t boiled down to a single message.  There is something powerful going on in movies like Star Wars, The Iron Giant, Finding Nemo, Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, The Wizard of Oz, Ghost, or TV shows like Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, etc.  Something about these films taps deeper into our psyche, and it’s not simply because they are good stories.  These films are enormously entertaining, and it’s a great story that evolves out of that.  The entertainment is what helps bring out the emotional center of these films.  What is a Bugs Bunny cartoon about?  What’s the meaning of a Wallace and Gromit short?  They just are what they are, yet we connect with them on a much richer, deeper spiritual level, than you would ever get from a film that has a lot of entertaining stuff going on, but then promotes a message “telling” you what the film is about instead of “showing”.

You’ll notice that the idea of slapping a message in animated films is something that actually came later on with the Disney “2nd Golden Age” as part of the formula for animated feature storytelling.  “Be Yourself.” (Aladdin) “Let your children be free to make their own choices” (The Little Mermaid), “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” (Beauty and the Beast).  They’re all very good messages.  But that doesn’t mean that’s what the film is about.  Compare that now to a movie like “Sleeping Beauty”.  What’s the message of that film?  Or Snow White, Pinocchio, or Lady and The Tramp?  Walt Disney wasn’t as concerned with what his films were about as long as they moved people and were entertaining.  Some of these films are powerful and emotional, which really get us going.  You are entertained when you laugh, when you cry, when you’re shocked, when you’re thrilled.  Entertainment and story working together is what brings these emotions out of you, not simply story by itself that brings out these things.  I’m not suggesting that films like Snow White have no story.  What I’m saying is that for these films, the story comes out of the entertainment.  The story shouldn’t have to be based on a message or a moral.  It should be allowed to be its own thing in the same way it moves its audience.

This is part of the reason why I think Pixar’s latest batch of films have been so problematic.  They’re so focused on “Story”, and the idea that their films have to be about something that it loses the connection that the characters and the entertainment can bring us.  American films are primarily about entertainment.  Story and Character and Entertainment are one in the same thing.  When I was in college, my first film was a cartoon called Bear Food.  It was a silly little concept about a bear trying to get at a bag of food hanging in a tree.  The story wasn’t much deeper than that, and the entertainment was in the bear getting frustrated and losing control when everything he tried to get the food failed.  My second film The Jellyfish Girl was a different matter.  It started out more as an entertainment short, until I got the idea that my main character should die at the end of the short.  It was a much darker ending than what people anticipated.  I was excited that I was starting to come into my own as a storyteller.  But at the same time the short also corrupted me, as my focus tried to shift more into story rather than entertainment.  I kept screaming in my head “My next film has to be about something! It’s supposed to be about something! Whats it about!!”  I lost something when I started fixating too much on the overall story and just trying to let it be what it is.  It wasn’t until recently that I realized that the idea I had about the kid dying at the end of the short…was also about entertainment.  I didn’t think about why the kid needed to die or what my deeper intentions of the story were…I just wanted people to be moved…shocked, and upset.  That’s entertainment.  That was my reason for people watching the short in the first place, to lead up to that moment.  It was fixating on Story that made things so much harder because everyone kept telling me it was the most all important aspect of making a film.  It’s not.

It’s about the holy trinity working together in order:  Entertainment, Character, and Story.  What is the most entertaining aspect about a character?  What is it about the character that drives the story?  The story tells you inside what its really about (not the message or the moral, but the emotional center of the piece) and that comes back as entertainment.  But that’s not to say that every film is about entertainment.  Sometimes its purely character.  Sometimes it’s purely story or strictly entertainment.  But Story is not king.  In American animated features, it has and always has been about Entertainment first.  What the story is about is not so important as moving an audience.  In most animated features, putting Story first usually amounts to working with a formula.  I notice in Pixar films in particular, there is always a sequence that’s just about gags.  The story is still there, but takes a backseat to a string of gags, whether it’s about Toys or Bugs or Monsters or Fish.  These moments are cute, but they always bugged me a little because it’s like setting aside a little sequence to tell jokes instead of having them interwoven into the entire film.  This was done differently in The Incredibles, where the strings of superhero gags were part of the story, such as the films about the early days of the Supers, or Edna Mode’s “No Capes” speech, offering a string of gags that play a part in the story and aren’t just bundled together by themselves.

I want to mention one of my favorite Chuck Jones shorts, “Feed The Kitty”, an entertainment short that is about something.  If you’ve seen the film, Marc Antony is a bulldog who falls in love with an itty bitty kitten and wants to keep it for himself.  But he’s afraid his mistress (his owner) won’t let him keep it, so the entire short is a series of gags about how the dog is trying to keep the kitten out of trouble and away from his mistress.  There comes a point where Marc Antony thinks the kitten has been grinded in a blender and made into cookies that he thinks the kitten is dead (but we see the kitten was never harmed beforehand).  When Marc Antony discovers the kitten is not actually dead, and here’s the amazing part, he is overwhelmed with joy.  And so is the audience who actually had a little tear in their eyes.  Jones did not expect people to cry in that moment.  It was played for a laugh.  Because of that the short becomes about something…a much deeper connection is formed for these characters in the hearts of the audience (and it’s just a 6 minute short!)

What is the most entertaining aspect of any cartoon?  That’s a question that should be asked, and its what people want most when they see any animated film.  It’s the story that evolves out of that and helps us connect to a deeper place within our audience.

Hercules (1997) Dir. John Musker and Ron Clements

Herc1 It’s been awhile since I revisited the animated Disney film HERCULES, and apart from a schlocky looking CGI Hydra (hey, it was impressive for its time), the movie actually holds up pretty well.  Although I don’t love the film as much or find it nearly as funny as I used to.  It has a couple of good chuckles, and James Woods’ Hades pretty much steals the show.  It’s not as good a film as, say, Musker and Clements’ ALADDIN, and it tries to recapture much of what made that film so popular, only sans Robin Williams, who improvised most of the dialogue for the Genie.  So, Hercules isn’t one of my favorites.  But it’s got some beautiful design work (which must of been a pain in the ass to animate all those sharp angles), and some great layout and background work, thanks to layout supervisor Rasoul Azadani.  HERCULES is a beautiful looking film, and for the most part the story works.  It’s just there’s something about it that keeps me from going gaga in love with it.

One of my favorite characters in the film is Phil, animated by the great supervising animator, Eric Goldberg and his team.  Goldberg has a terrific knack for comic timing in his animation, which worked so well when he animated the Genie in ALADDIN.  Another one of my favorite animators is Nik Ranieri, who supervised the animation on Hades.  Hades isn’t one of my favorite villains ever, but he’s funny and effectively comical here.  There are plenty of great gags I enjoy having to do with his flaming temper, especially when he gets fumed to the point of sucking up his cigar.  Then of course there’s characters like Megara, but to be honest I find her a bit stale.  I give points for trying in making the heroine a bit of a bad girl, but it’s this problem with a lot of women characters in animation, that once they fall in love, they lose their power and independent spirit by settling down.  Whose to say that things will actually work out between Herc and Meg at the end?  What if Herc runs off like her previous boyfriend did.  It’s just one of those stale Disney romances I’m not crazy about.

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As for Herc himself, as a hero, he’s just okay.  I’m not crazy about him as a character, but one of the things I do like is that they made him not too bright.  The songs are also one of the better aspects of the film, being light, upbeat, and catchy.  The gospel flavor to a greek story is kind of an interesting twist.

I think one of the problems with Disney animation is something that’s gone back to Walt Disney’s days:  It’s just not that funny.  It’s enjoyable and charming at times.  I know I’m mentioning ALADDIN quite a bit here, but it was the one time the studio took a risk and actually implemented some Warner Brothers style humor into their animation, and it worked big time.  That film has a special tone and flavor all on its own, and it’s just great fun to watch, as well as having Jafar, an absolute classic storybook villain.  There’s a lot to that film that HERCULES just doesn’t have going for it.  HERCULES doesn’t really take enough risks with it’s humor, relying more on pop culture humor for many of its gags.  It has its moments for sure, and its heart is in the right place, but the jokes are working mainly on the surface level, it doesn’t take it to a much deeper emotional place.  It’s basically your average light-hearted Disney comedy.  It doesn’t really let itself be much more than that or go all the way.

In the end, HERCULES is one of the better films of the late 90’s Disney films.  It’s not perfect mind you, but considering some of the pop culture references, it actually holds up okay.  And like I said, some of the animation and design of the film is absolutely beautiful to look at, thanks to the work of some terrific artists who worked on the film.  There are just some things about it I wish could have been a little better.

Wasting Away, Banished and Exiled!

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Well, I suppose I’m over my childhood trauma that was Ursula.  As I posted awhile back, she’s the one Disney villain that completely terrified me as a little kid.  Took me awhile to get over that one.  Maybe I’m just weird that way.  Or insane.  Or both.  But anyhow it doesn’t matter.  This is just another bit of a random post.  It’s quiet again this week.  I’m trying to work on a personal project in the midst of another project that’s in the works.  So far this new idea…is just okay.  Gonna take me some time to figure out the story and what it wants to be.  Bah.  I hate not knowing what a story is supposed to be.  But I suppose the search for the story is all part of the fun of it.  I SUPPOSE.  Sheesh.

I’ve been on a Breaking Bad high as of recently.  Last night’s Rian Johnson episode blew my mind at how good it was.  Extraordinary.  Between this and his film Looper which came out last year, this is a director to definitely keep your eye on.  I’ll be watching this guy for sure.  He’s phenomenal.  Last nights episode was absolutely gripping, showing without having to tell.  It’s the subtext and the fact that this show actually makes you think for a moment that really amazes me (although trust me, sometimes I’ve had to go on the internet afterwards to confirm certain aspects.  Hey I can admit it!)  The episodes end made me long to make a film where just everybody dies or is insane.  And make it a cartoon.  Yes, perfect!  Although admittedly there are times I wonder about that.  What’s my obsession with making dark cartoons.  Maybe not always dark, but sometimes complicated scenarios.  I long to create a masterpiece of television like Breaking Bad.  Seriously that show amazes me.  I want to make animation that powerful, even though Breaking Bad is not animation.  Somewhere I ask myself what I’d like to be.  Maybe Pixar’s dark evil twin.  I had some people comparing Jellyfish Girl to a Pixar film, at least until they got to the end.  That was satisfying to hear 😉

I suppose there’s not much more I can talk about.  This is expected to be a quiet week unless I see a movie that blows my mind.  Oh wait!  I did!  BLUE JASMINE!  Go see it.  It’s Woody Allen’s latest, and it’s a real treat.  It’s as funny as it is sad.  Jasmine is such a wonderful, complicated character.  It’s a real genuine, honest depiction of a melt down into complete psychosis.  It’s just really good.  Go see it or watch it when it arrives on DVD.

I’ll see if I can find more to write about this week if I’m not to busy.  Have a good week everybody.