the Plausible Impossible

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Rusty works in the animation industry doing Storyboards, Timing, Animation and Directing. Recently he has worked at Disney TV Animation and Universal Animation Studios. He's best known for his Directing and Producing for Warner Bros. on "Animaniacs" and "Pinky and the Brain".

Monday, July 31, 2006

Adapting to Digital

Teaching a class in using digital media to replace traditional means has shown me how much creatures of habit we humans tend to be. The students that pick up the process fastest are those who have been using software for a while. The menus and interface become easier when you already have a sense of how computer software works. But there is one area that everyone has a hard time and that's adapting your work habits to unfamiliar software.
The drawing above was done to mimic pastel on paper. When I did it I had to adjust how I would usually work with pastels. The blending was very different and getting different looks for the edge of the pastel took a bit of tweaking. However once I got the technique down it went smoothly. I have had animators ask about using an x-sheet in Mirage (my software of choice for my film). They wonder how I am able to do my animation without a traditional x-sheet. In a sense I do have one, it's the timeline. It only takes a different way of thinking about the x-sheet to make it work. I still think the same way about my planning and animating. The only difference is how I place them on the timeline instead of an x-sheet.
Being in the digital world means I do have to think differently about the numbering on my drawings. Digital work requires sequential numbering so skipping numbers can be a problem. Once the drawings are done or if you've figured out your timing already you can place your key drawings at your chosen frames. So essentially you are numbering like on an x-sheet.
I find most often though that I do my animation by timing and feel so all I really need to know is how many inbetweens are needed to get my desired timing and action but not the drawing numbers.
Adapting to the medium that is the hardest to overcome. To do that you have to be willing to accept change. If you approach new software by wondering why it works the way it does you will have a more difficult time. Mastering software is done by mastering how it allows you to get your desired results.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Note: listen to self!

As I began to work on my next scene I was looking forward to it so much that I had all these ideas in my head. In my excitement I decide I would just jump straight into animating. After all I had all the ideas already in my head so it's got to work. Sure I have always stated that it's a good idea to do thumbnails first but after all I'm an experienced animator and don't need to do that, right?
(buzzer goes off here)
Well, this proved that no matter what, you need to listen to your own words of wisdom. I spent a couple days agonizing over this scene only to watch it over and over and realize it didn't work. Though the action worked it was so over acted and complicated even I would watch the scene and wonder what was truly going on.
I grinded my gears into reverse and spent the next train ride thumbnailing out the scene. Wow, look at how much better these thumbnails are then anything I did in the scene. And I can tell what's happening. Now the thought is clear in my head. I not only have an idea of where it's going but I have a visual reference of it to. The basic poses have now been worked out. His change of attitude is clear.
Now that I've begun the animation again the drawings are better and the line is more confident. Believe me, animation has not begun before you've worked it out in thumbnails. And that's the bottom line!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A World of Motivation

Animation film making and storytelling should always involve motivation. Too many times it seems that I see it missing in so many places. Take for instance a simple pan. To me a pan needs to me motivated by either the action or story point. Often I see storyboards where there's a slight camera adjustment simply because the artist couldn't keep their drawing inside the field. Camera adjustments should be to help reveal something or to include another character. For example, in the image presented here, the gag would be made funnier simply by starting on the smaller character then pulling out to reveal the bear getting ready to kick him. Remember in the haunted mansion ride at the Disney parks. The elevator at the beginning has paintings that seem to stretch. Each of those paintings reveal a gag once they are fully stretched out.
Motivation should also be what makes a character do what they do. Here is a simple list of questions to help understand the motivation in a scene.
1. Who or what are they reacting too?
2. Why does this scene exist?
3. How does the character feel about what just happened or is about to happen?
4. How does their environment effect them?
I always ask myself these kinds of questions when working on a scene either in story or in animation.
I wonder why more people don't look for the motivation behind the story points in a film. Convenience is not a motivation but rather a easy way out. It's used way to much in stories these days. Figuring out the proper motivation may take a little research or perhaps a new story point elsewhere in the story.
Let's analyze a quick idea here. Say we have a super-hero with extraordinary powers. There is a love interest who is in the proximity of a car and truck that are about to collide. The super-hero goes to prevent the accident. What is the motivation? The motivation might be to save the people in the car and truck. Or it might be to show off for the love interest. Depending upon the motivation will depend on how the super-hero feels, reacts, and even the out come of their actions.
So even a simple walk needs a motivation to know how the character will walk. And remember motivation isn't always positive.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Funny appealing shapes

Shapes are very important in helping define the look and personality of a character. Whenever I am designing a new character I try and find shapes that help give the audience a first idea of what a character is like. These same shapes need to allow the animator to easily pose a character to show specific attitudes and gestures. Sometimes certain folds or patterns in clothing, hair, and even skin can help the animator move the character. Appeal doesn't necessarily mean likeable but interesting. Even some of the best villains are appealing. You want you audience to be able to watch your characters no matter what role they play. Each of the characters and hands above are derived from appealing shapes. Though these are quick sketches you begin to get an idea of what each of these characters personalities are. The gestures in each of the hands even tell a story. These shapes are exaggerated versions of real world shapes. So go out to a park, the mall, an airport and find the shapes in people and animals.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain DVD's

Well, finally Warners got past all their legal deals with Amblin and have released the first volumes of Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain to DVD. I haven't said much about this since they began talking to me about them last year. I'm very happy that so much of my work will finally be available in this way. It's too bad Warner's wouldn't put more into the extras. It's great to have the interviews and all but so much artwork exists and little if any is included. Hopefully on future volumes we will be able to include some of it. For most of the 1990's this was my life and an extraordinary run it was. Like many things it was the right time, place and people who made it happen. I recently was told by one of the people putting the extra material together that the diversity in people who were involved is pretty amazing. I believe that's why it worked so well. From the voices to the writers to the artists involved everyone cared about what they were doing. We would have regular screenings of new shows that had been completed and the crew was always laughing. I knew things were working well when the same people who had written, drawn, and directed the show were still laughing at it after having seen it over and over. The Emmy's I won from these shows hold a special place in my heart. It was nice to be recognized for doing something I loved. After having directed so many of the first Animaniacs it was nice once in a while to be able to step back in as Director after I had become the Producer on both shows. It was especially nice on the Pinky and the Brain Christmas show which is included on this first volume. Here's a little behind the scenes goodie for you that probably isn't mentioned in the extras.
There is a part in the Pinky and the Brain Christmas episode that accidentally got left out. Pinky and Brain are attached to the reindeer rig of Santa's sleigh. Santa walks up and inquires about them. One of the elves says "that's one of those noodle noggin dolls." As it exists now Brain just winces. Well, there was a different reason he winces. Originally Santa then lifted Brain's tail and said, "Where do you put the batteries?". This little bit of business got left out when the storyboard was duplicated to send overseas to TMS for animation. It wasn't noticed until the show came back and by then there was no time to correct it and still get it on air. So it stays the way it is for history.
I hope everyone who enjoyed these when they aired gets to enjoy them again and share with a new generation of viewers.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Expression by Shape

When I was in school at Cal Arts we used to get the "flour sack" (some of you might not realize that flour used to be sold in large sacks) lecture all the time. Through the years I find myself still coming back to the principals set forth in that lecture. Basically the lecture showed how you could take an old flour sack and get expression simply by how you posed the sack. I've done a similar thing above but through a simple bean shape. You can see how with a simple shape you can express emotion. Even complex ones can begin to be betrayed with the initial shape you put down on the paper. Now you may look at these shapes and think 'but my character is not that shape". Even so you can take your character and break it down into the most fundamental of shape(s). A realistic human can be divided into about 8 shapes. There are times where I have figured out my initial action simply by animating a single shape. Then I can begin to bring more details of the character into the scene. This can help with overlap of action and secondary motion. Drawing simple shapes are a great way to start when designing a character. I'll write about that subject in another post.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Criticize Yourself

Well, I have completed 10 scenes of my film in rough animation. As nice as it is to move on I find I constantly have to look back over my work with a critical eye. This is a constant struggle. Because it's always easy to find fault with your own work while at the same time not wanting to redo what you've already completed. I realize I will have many more chances to refine these scenes but at this point I need to be sure it's flowing as a film and inside individual scenes I need to be sure the acting is coming across. As I completed this 10th scene I felt that even though the hand action is working it needed a little more of the frantic feel that the dialog has. It's a short line in which he says "No, no, no...don't say it" very quickly. I knew the facial expression couldn't change too drastically in order to make it read. So I looked at the hands and saw that I could push the action further.
In order to be sure I didn't lose the original I animated the hands on a new layer then once I was satisfied I erased the old hands and merged the new ones into the same layer as the rest of the character. I ended up doing a few more tweaks beyond this that helped with the overlap of action even more.
I like the way the actions overlap even though the entire character flows as one. With the overlap in timing it helps a bit with the frantic nature of the scene. You can watch the scene here

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

More on Clean Up

The above drawing is from a scene of Brom Bones by Milt Kahl. I've included it here to illustrate how cleanup has changed over the years. When Ichabod Crane was done the process included inking, a technique that has not been used much since ink and paint has been done on computers. Even when the Xerox process was used there was still portions of a character and especially special effects that were still being inked by hand. Having work a little bit on projects that were inked I know that the cleanup artist only had to concentrate on the drawing and not the line quality. The line quality came from the skilled inkers who put the images onto cells. These days clean up in my opinion has gotten too clean. Shows that use software to give their animation a good line many times lose out on the freshness of the drawing. Even once Xerox came into the process many of the animators drawings were lost since studios manly considered the finished scene worth saving. A few enlightened people save some of these roughs and they still exist for us to see and study. This Brom scene shows how the earlier work still has the animators work directly under it. I look at the digital process of a way of keeping the animators roughs while still having a clean version of the scene.
When I approach a clean up I try to concentrate mostly on the drawing and then on the line. If this means doing a blue semi-clean drawing first then I do it. The best way to do this is by not using a light table too much if at all. When you use a light table you tend to draw just lines instead of shapes. In the digital realm I do use a light table but turned down so low as to look no different than if I was seeing through a sheet of paper. This emulates exactly what I would see if I were using paper on an animation disk. The only time I find I must use a light table is when the inbetweens get so close it's hard to see the different lines. In that case I use the table only to get the placement of the lines but make sure I finish the drawing off without the light table to be sure the drawing looks good.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Clean up or Screw up?

I have had a request to post about my "philosophy" on cleanup. I will be writing about clean up for animation but this could be applied to any sort of drawing cleanup. First off let's look at what the job of cleanup is for. Getting the animation ready for paint is the main function of clean up. It is also a way of giving a consistency to the characters in the film. When approaching a clean line you must first understand how the animator has approached the scene. If by talking to the animator or if the animator is you the action needs to flow and there needs to be an understanding of why a line is were it is as well as which line might be the right one. You are drawing shapes not single lines. Every line you put down needs to help define something on the screen.
Often I have found cleanup artists who just "trace" over the animators drawings without observing if the character is on model. The problem here is you can lose a consistency to the film. An animators concerns are with getting the action, acting and expressions. The clean up artists concerns are with bringing those factors to the screen. I was once told by Eric Larson, "a clean up artist can kill, in one stroke, what took you hours to put down on paper". This was in response to my question to him on how an animator can be sure anyone who do follow up work on a scene will do exactly what you wanted. He went on to say that it's up to the animator to provide as much information as possible without going overboard. This is why if you ever see a completed rough scene there are sometimes partial drawings. These drawings show particular actions that may differ from the timing charts on the extremes. I remember on one particular project I was working on years ago where I had animated a scene of this cartoony bat jumping of a chandelier. As he came forward his wings bent backwards as he zipped off screen. When the clean up artist did the scene they corrected the backwards wings to be more anatomical. The director called me into dailies and asked what happened to my scene because now the character strobed as he came forward. I had to take it back to the head of clean up and have the clean up artist re do the scene to follow the animation. It was a classic example of how a clean up artist might put a beautiful line to the drawing but ruin the animation.
It doesn't matter if the style of the show you are working on has heavy lines, think and thin, or razor thin lines, you have to use those lines to help define the form. Overlaps such as in the girls hair and in the way her ear overlaps help that definition. Eye direction and expression is crucial. The eyes are generally the first place the viewer looks on a face. Even if I am doing my own clean up I still clean up the scene in stages. First I do the extremes then the breakdowns and inbetweens. That is why I put the timing charts on my own animation. So later when I come back to clean it up I know what my thoughts were when I animated it. It doesn't hurt to jot down some notes on the first drawing of a scene about particular things you need to remember. And if you are doing clean up for someone else, talk to them if you need to get a clearer understanding of the scene and it's particular needs.
I will be writing more about clean up in future posts.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Technology Pillow

I get a lot of inquiries about what I'm using to do my film. Some of the questions are from people who are seeing me work on it. As I've stated before I work on the film while I ride the train to and from work. In order to do this I am using a TabletPC which allows me to draw directly on the screen and thus gives me greater control over my lines. I am using a tablet made by Motion Computing. I am doing all of the animation and color work using Mirage made by Bauhaus Software. I often get asked "how can you draw on the train with all the bumps?" Well it comes down to focus. Even with all the distractions I focus on my drawing. Sure there are times I have to undo or erase in order to correct a line but it's just not as difficult as people think. I do my editing using Premiere Pro 2.0 by Adobe right on the tablet. I am creating the film in 2K resolution which is another reason I can keep the lines steady. It does take some getting used to in order to go all digital but it's not that bad and if you give yourself time to get comfortable with the technology it will begin to feel more natural. Many people expect that the reason they don't pick up new software quickly is because they aren't smart enough. Generally it's that they won't take the time nor will they allow themselves to adjust their work habits. Even in the digital world each person will work differently. It's finding that comfortable way to work inside the digital realm that you have to achieve before you begin to see results you like. So work with it until it feels right...just like you do when you buy a new pillow. It's always the pillows that have been used and kneaded a bit that feel the most comfortable.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

More Inspiration

More images from my sketchbook. This is a group of drawings from various times that I did while visiting various places. It includes central park in NY and places in San Diego. Some of the people come from various bars and coffee shops which are great for doing quick sketches of people. Most are real media with the exception of the woman with the towel which is digital. When I visit places I try to sketch things that I can later pull out of my memory when needed. Sometimes it's the place, an action, expression or just the way I handled the color. Or it might be how not to do something. Either way the short time I took to sketch was well worth that later benefit.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Color Keying

Today I'm sharing with you some of the color keying I've been working on for my film. This is often called a workbook and is created under the supervision and sometimes by the art director of the film. This is a great way to work out the color of the film or a sequence of the film. Especially if there is changing color through out as is the case with my film. Slowly the film gets darker through out but not due to time of day. It is done to help drive the idea that things are getting and will continue to get worse.
I love to work with color which I guess comes from my fine art background. Using color to help evoke a feeling can be very rewarding when it works. Though I enjoy color, using black and white can be just as powerful. Truthfully it's really a grey scale unless you're talking about comic style inking or even hi-con film. No matter the choice they all can have a distinct visual impact even if it's not noticed by the audience. Sometimes the impact you want is for the audience to feel comfortable and to invite them in.
This painting of the houses of parliament by Monet illustrates how the use of color can change the way in which you look at a subject. It is obviously the houses of parliament in a haze but look at the palette of colors monet uses to pull you into it. This same approach can be used in film to help bring your audience in. If you're clever enough with your color you can completely manipulate your audience without them hardly realizing. These days with the ability to manipulate the color in life action films, director's are using this same technique that animation has always had the ability to do. Bambi is a great example of how color was used in animation to help drive the story and evoke certain feelings in the audience.
So when working out the color of my films I make decisions based on the story, emotion, and character and color keying is the best way to do this.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Utility Scenes

Click here to view the scene

Sometimes there are scenes I like to refer to as utility scenes. These are necessary scenes that are needed to keep the story moving by helping to establish location or to transition between scenes. Often these tend to be the more boring scenes for me. But they are necessary and can be a great place to hone your skills of simplicity. I like many animators tend to over complicate a scene by adding in extra action that doesn't help get the story point across. I constantly find myself simplifying my actions.
Above is the scene I am currently working on presented in it's roughest stage. Some of the inbetweens are even missing as well as one of the characters. In this scene the insurance salesman approaches the door again, knocks, and steps back ready to pitch his next form of insurance. I have already taken this scene further by adding the inbetweens and eliminating some of the walking to the door. There is a wipe at the beginning of the scene starting from the left side so much of the walk will be lost. I also decided the walk was a little to brisk for this point in the story. So I eliminated part of the walk and slowed it down.
Even though I find this scene boring to animate I know that not giving it the proper attention can make it weaken the entire film. I have even combine actions to help keep things moving. He pulls out the insurance policy as he steps back so the audience won't get bored watching him pull the policy out in the next scene. This is the setup for the next scene in which he starts to offer Auto insurance. There is no need to do any more than the setup. He knocks and the other character answers the door. Because this scene doesn't make a big story point it's best if the audience doesn't notice it so there's no dialog, no funny expressions, and no extra action.
So if you find yourself doing utility scenes do a great job on them by not drawing too much attention to them.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Letting the Audience Ahead

While reading Jenny Lerew's Blackwing Diaries
blog I began thinking about how story in silent and early sound films sometimes utilized a method by which you let your audience get ahead of the main character or characters. This was especially true in comedy. Notice in the picture above from Laurel and Hardy's "The fixer uppers" how letting the audience see the villain behind Oliver Hardy makes the look on Ollie's face much funnier.
Today's stories often misuse this method and instead of letting the audience ahead they make the situation too predictable. That's because the story point is lost. In the situation presented above the story point isn't if Laurel and Hardy are going to get caught but rather how are they going to get out of the situation. It's built around the characters.
Sometimes it's the surprise that comes from letting the audience ahead that makes it work. My film is setup early and leaves the audience ahead of the characters until near the end when an unforeseen gag leaves the audience wondering what's next.
Through most of the film the audience knows that each time a type of insurance is presented that situation will happen.Here the salesman offers Auto insurance. We as the audience know something is going to happen to the car. It's the surprise in how the gag is delivered that makes it work.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Artists Block

Like many artists I often find myself unable to get past a particular spot. Sometimes it's a single drawing of a scene or perhaps the entire scene. It might be one panel of a storyboard. No matter what the situation is I find that moving away from the problem is the best remedy to getting past the problem. I start sketching anything other than what I'm currently working on. Just let the pencil flow. I have accumulated quite a few drawings just from doing this. Sometimes I will sketch an idea I've been having in my head and have hesitated to work on because I have another assignment due. That might literally be the block. You see I feel that if there's something else I have ideas for floating around in my head it sometimes gets in the way of what I'm supposed to be working on and seems to block the flow. So if I get some of it out of my system I might be able to move past the block.
Many of these sketches give me new story ideas or character designs or environments. I find it helps to try and sketch situations. Small single sketches that tell a brief story or give a particular attitude. There are times that doing this makes me realize the initial approach I was taking was wrong and that is what caused the block. I remember one of my teachers at CalArts, T.Hee, saying that perhaps if you draw it with your other hand, or upside-down , or sideways you will get past the block. The point is, look at it a different way. I've even taken the same situation and played it out with different characters that are different sizes from the ones I'm currently working with. Then there's always outside input, from a friend, spouse or even child. Ask them how they'd do it. Even if they don't give you the exact idea they might spark a new one from you.