Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life

The illusion of life

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Last week, The A.V. Club ran an entire article devoted to television shows in which the lead is also the best character, which only points to how boring many protagonists tend to be. I’ve learned to chalk this up to two factors, one internal, the other external. The internal problem stems from the reasonable principle that the narrative and the hero’s objectives should be inseparable: the conflict should emerge from something that the protagonist urgently needs to accomplish, and when the goal has been met—or spectacularly thwarted—the story is over. It’s great advice, but in practice, it often results in leads who are boringly singleminded: when every action needs to advance the plot, there isn’t much room for the digressions and quirks that bring characters to life. The supporting cast has room to go off on tangents, but the characters at the center have to constantly triangulate between action, motivation, and relatability, which can drain them of all surprise. A protagonist is under so much narrative pressure that when the story relaxes, he bursts, like a sea creature brought up from its crevasse to the surface. Elsewhere, I’ve compared a main character to a diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. And on top of this, there’s an external factor, which is the universal desire of editors, producers, and studio executives to make the protagonist “likable,” which, whether or not you agree with it, tends to smooth out the rough edges that make a character vivid and memorable.

In the classic textbook Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, we find a useful perspective on this problem. The legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston provide a list of guidelines for evaluating story material before the animation begins, including the following:

Tell your story through the broad cartoon characters rather than the “straight” ones. There is no way to animate strong-enough attitudes, feelings, or expressions on realistic characters to get the communication you should have. The more real, the less latitude for clear communication. This is more easily done with the cartoon characters who can carry the story with more interest and spirit anyway. Snow White was told through the animals, the dwarfs, and the witch—not through the prince or the queen or the huntsman. They had vital roles, but their scenes were essentially situation. The girl herself was a real problem, but she was helped by always working to a sympathetic animal or a broad character. This is the old vaudeville trick of playing the pretty girl against the buffoon; it helps both characters.

Even more than Snow White, the great example here is Sleeping Beauty, which has always fascinated me as an attempt by Disney to recapture past glories by a mechanical application of its old principles raised to dazzling technical heights. Not only do Aurora and Prince Philip fail to drive the story, but they’re all but abandoned by it—Aurora speaks fewer lines than any other Disney main character, and neither of them talk for the last thirty minutes. Not only does the film acknowledge the dullness of its protagonists, but it practically turns it into an artistic statement in itself.

And it arises from a tension between the nature of animation, which is naturally drawn to caricature, and the notion that sympathetic protagonists need to be basically realistic. With regard to the first point, Thomas and Johnston advise:

Ask yourself, “Can the story point be done in caricature?” Be sure the scenes call for action, or acting that can be caricatured if you are to make a clear statement. Just to imitate nature, illustrate reality, or duplicate live action not only wastes the medium but puts an enormous burden on the animator. It should be believable, but not realistic.

The italics are mine. This is a good rule, but it collides headlong with the principle that the “real” characters should be rendered with greater naturalism:

Of course, there is always a big problem in making the “real” or “straight” characters in our pictures have enough personality to carry their part of the story…The point of this is misinterpreted by many to mean that characters who have to be represented as real should be left out of feature films, that the stories should be told with broad characters who can be handled more easily. This would be a mistake, for spectators need to have someone or something they can believe in, or the picture falls apart.

And while you could make a strong case that viewers relate just as much to the sidekicks, it’s probably also true that a realistic central character serves an important functional role, which allows the audience to take the story seriously. This doesn’t just apply to animation, either, but to all forms of storytelling—including most fiction, film, and television—that work best with broad strokes. In many cases, you can sense the reluctance of animators to tackle characters who don’t lend themselves to such bold gestures:

Early in the story development, these questions will be asked: “Does this character have to be straight?” “What is the role we need here?” If it is a prince or a hero or a sympathetic person who needs acceptance from the audience to make the story work, then the character must be drawn realistically.

Figuring out the protagonists is a thankless job: they have to serve a function within the overall story, but they’re also liable to be taken out and judged on their own merits, in the absence of the narrative pressures that created them in the first place. The best stories, it seems, are the ones in which that pattern of forces results in something fascinating in its own right, or which transform a stock character into something more. (It’s revealing that Thomas and Johnston refer to the queen and the witch in Snow White as separate figures, when they’re really a single person who evolves over the course of the story into her true form.) And their concluding advice is worth bearing in mind by everyone: “Generally speaking, if there is a human character in a story, it is wise to draw the person with as much caricature as the role will permit.”

Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally

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Concept art for Disney's Robin Hood

Over the last few weeks, my daughter and I have been slowly working through the Disney movies that are available for streaming on Netflix. I’m not sure about the business details of that arrangement, which I can only assume involved some protracted negotiations, but Disney’s conservative approach to its back catalog leads to an intriguingly skewed sample set. It’s reluctant to give unlimited access to its most lucrative plums, so the selection includes neither the masterpieces of the first golden age, like Snow White or Pinocchio, nor the heights of its late renaissance, like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. Instead, it gives us the movies that fell through the cracks: lighter fare, much of it from after Walt Disney’s death, like The Aristocats or The Rescuers, or the movies that the revitalized studio continued to produce after the bloom had gone off the rose, like Hercules or Treasure Planet. And although my daughter seems equally happy with all of it, as an animation buff, I’m most interested in the way the result amounts to an accidental canon from a parallel universe. As viewers of the excellent documentary American Experience: Walt Disney can attest, the studio’s history consisted of alternating periods of boom and bust, and watching the movies on Netflix is like experiencing that legacy with most of the high points removed, leaving the products of the years when money was scarce and the animators were forced to work under considerable constraints.

In his indispensable book Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards, the historian John Canemaker says this about that era:

After Walt died in 1966, story took a backseat to animation at the Disney Studio. In films such as The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound, the animators brought new degrees of subtlety to the characters’ personalities and relationships. But the stories, concocted solely by storyboards that were mainly contributed to by a committee of animators, were weak and almost an incidental backdrop to the often bravura performances. Observing fine animators going through their dazzling paces in second-rate vehicles was likened by one pundit to watching great chefs make hot dogs.

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston make much the same point in Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life:

The interrelationships of these characters were of particular importance in Robin Hood, because the story was secondary to the characters. There was no real suspense in Prince John’s many attempts to catch Robin. They are showcases for the histrionics of the two villainous actors who become richer and more entertaining as the picture progresses.

Concept art for Disney's Robin Hood

This goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar appeal of Robin Hood, which remains one of the most beguiling works in the whole Disney canon, as well as the movie that my daughter and I have ended up watching the most. Its reduced budget is painfully apparent, with animation and character designs repurposed from other projects, reused from elsewhere in the movie, or simply flipped and repeated. Much of the writing feels like the work of animators more accustomed to thinking in terms of isolated character poses and bits of business than considering the story as a whole, leading to the kind of crude, obvious gags and tricks that we find even in Winnie the Pooh. And the story suffers from a manifest indifference, verging on boredom, toward Robin Hood and Maid Marian: Disney has always been better at evil than at good, and it’s particularly evident here. But the evil is truly delicious. The pairing of Peter Ustinov as Prince John and the British comic Terry-Thomas as Sir Hiss—both playing wonderfully within type—still makes me laugh with delight. And the rest of the cast is stocked with the kinds of dependable character actors that Disney used so capably: Phil Harris, Pat Buttram, Ken Curtis, George Lindsey, Andy Devine. (You could write an entire dissertation on the evolving pool of talent that the studio employed over the years, from vaudeville and radio pros like Ed Wynn through the television stars of the seventies through the Second City and single-camera sitcom alumni that make up the cast of a movie like Inside Out.)

And it’s still oddly charming, especially in the songs that Roger Miller contributes as the Rooster: if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably got “Whistle-Stop” running on a loop through your head right now. (There’s something undeniably shrewd in the way the studio outsourced the music to different writers, with Miller’s novelty country numbers sharing screen time with “Love” by Floyd Huddleston and George Bruns and Johnny Mercer’s “The Phony King of England.”) It’s a cut below the classics, but luckily, we don’t need to take it in isolation. When we’re in the mood for a movie on which the studio lavished all its resources, there’s always Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty, but there’s also something engaging about the sheer roughness of Robin Hood, cut corners and all, which is as close as Disney ever got to the actor’s performance passing through the pencil sketches to end up almost intact on the screen. It all feels like the result of a private huddle between the animators themselves, and they weren’t afraid to poke fun at their own situation, as Thomas and Johnston note:

The subtler shadings of [Sir Hiss’s] personality were based on real experience. Occasionally, over the years, there had been men at the studio who in their determination to please Walt did a fair amount of bowing and scraping…Suddenly there was a place to use these observations as our cartoon character matched the reality of human actions. “Now, what was so funny about the way those guys did it?”

Now that Disney is an entertainment juggernaut once more, I doubt we’ll ever see anything as unvarnished and vital again. And as much as I love Frozen, I also miss the spirit that we find here, with Robin Hood himself—in the form of Walt—gone from the forest, and a ragtag group of merry men doing their best in his absence.

An alternative library of creativity

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If you want to be a writer, there are plenty of guidebooks and manuals available, and some of them are very good. When you’re stuck on a particular narrative problem or trying to crack a story, though, you’ll often find that it’s helpful to approach it from an alternative angle, or to apply tactics and techniques from an unrelated creative field. I’ve always found inspiration from works intended for other disciplines, so here’s a sampling, in chronological order of original publication, of ten I’ve found consistently stimulating:

Magic and Showmanship (1969) by Henning Nelms. A magic trick is a work of theater in miniature, and writers can learn a lot from the insights that sleight of hand affords into the use of staging, emphasis, and misdirection, as tested under particularly unforgiving conditions. This book by the great Henning Nelms is the most useful work on the subject I’ve found from the perspective of storytelling and performance, and it’s particularly helpful on the subjects of clarity and dramatic structure.

Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation (1972) by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver. An eccentric, highly opinionated meditation on bricolage, or the art of making do with whatever happens to be at hand, which is something writers do all the time. (The real trick is taking a story assembled out of odds and ends and making the result seem inevitable.) Out of print for many years, it was recently reissued in a handsome new edition that belongs on the shelf of any artist or designer.

A Pattern Language

The Little Lisper (1974) by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen. Coding is a surprisingly valuable field for writers to study, since it deals directly with problems of structure, debugging, and managing complex projects. I could have named any number of books here—Programmers at Work and its successor Coders at Work are also worth seeking out—but this classic work on the Lisp programming language, later updated as The Little Schemer, is particularly elegant, with a focus on teaching the reader how to think recursively.

A Pattern Language (1977) by Christopher Alexander. Alexander’s magnum opus—which is one of the two or three books I’d take with me if I couldn’t own any others—is ostensibly about architecture, but its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software design. This isn’t surprising, because it’s really a book about identifying patterns that live, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures, all from the perspective of those who use them every day. Which is what creativity, of any kind, is all about.

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. I’ve always been fascinated by animation, which scales up from the simplest possible tools and materials—a pencil, a pad of paper, a hand to flip the pages—to collaborative efforts of enormous complexity that can require years of effort. Not surprisingly, its traditions, tricks, and rules of thumb have plenty to teach storytellers of all kinds, and this work by two of Disney’s Nine Old Men comes as close as a book can to providing an education on the subject between covers.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) by Edward Tufte. Tufte’s rules for clarity and simplicity in the presentation of statistics apply as much to writing as to charts and graphs, and his ruthless approach to eliminating “chartjunk” is one that more authors and editors could stand to follow. (“Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.”) His other books—Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and Beautiful Evidence—are also essential, hugely pleasurable reads.

On Directing Film (1992) by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book endlessly before, but it’s still the single best introduction I’ve found to the basic principles of storytelling. (In the meantime, I’ve also learned how much Mamet owes to the works of Stanslavski, particularly the chapter “Units” from An Actor Prepares.) It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a set of immediately applicable tools that solve narrative problems under all circumstances, and although it can be read in less than an hour, it takes a lifetime to put it into practice.

Behind the Seen (2004) by Charles Koppelman. The problem that a film editor faces is a heightened version of what every artist confronts. Given a large body of raw material, how do you give it a logical shape and pare it down to its ideal length? The physical and logistical demands of the job—Walter Murch notes that an editor needs a strong back and arms—has resulted in a large body of practical knowledge, and this loving look at Murch’s editing of Cold Mountain using Final Cut Pro is the best guide in existence to what the work entails.

Field Notes on Science and Nature

Finishing the Hat (2010) by Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim’s candid, often critical look at his own early lyrics shows the development of a major artist in real time, as he strives to address the basic challenge of conveying information to an audience through song. Cleverness, he finds, only takes you so far: the real art lies in finding a form to fit the content, doing less with more, and navigating the countless tiny decisions that add up to the ultimate effect. “All in the service of clarity,” Sondheim concludes, “without which nothing else matters.”

Field Notes on Science and Nature (2011) by Michael Canfield. Much of the creative process boils down to keeping good notes, which both serve to record one’s observations and to lock down insights that might seem irrelevant now but will become crucial later on. Scientists understand this as well as anyone, and there’s an unexpected degree of art in the process of recording data in the field. It’s impossible to read this beautiful book without coming away with new thoughts on how to live more fully through one’s notes, which is where a writer spends half of his or her time.

Looking at the books I’ve cited above, I find that they have two things in common: 1) An emphasis on clarity above all else. 2) A series of approaches to building complex structures out of smaller units. There’s more to writing than this, of course, and much of what authors do intuitively can’t be distilled down to a list of rules. But seeing these basic principles restated in so many different forms only serves as a reminder of how essential they are. Any one of these books can suggest new approaches to old problems, so you can start almost anywhere, and in the end, you find that each one leads into all the rest.

The Dumbo solution

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The clowns have been celebrating and dropped a bottle of liquor into a tub of water. Timothy and Dumbo come along, very disconsolate, and Dumbo begins to hiccup. Timothy suggests he drink some water, and soon the little elephant is behaving in a strange manner. Timothy wonders what kind of water is in that tub and takes a drink himself. This was the action the storyman left up to the animator.

The scene was given to Fred Moore, one of the top animators…but he had trouble with this assignment…Timothy, somehow, had to react in an appropriate and entertaining way, first, to the taste of the water, and, second, to the way it was beginning to make him feel. There was not enough time to have him complete the change to a funny drunk; the point of the scene was just to show his initial reactions to taking the drink. It was subtle—and questionable planning as well.

After Fred had sweated and squirmed through several tests, none of which felt right, the decision was made to change the story concept at that point. They went back to the storyboard, and after many discussions, Ben [Sharpsteen] recalled they came up with this idea:

“When Dumbo showed signs of intoxication, Timothy remarked, ‘I wonder what kind of water this is anyhow.’ With that remark, he leaned over too far to look into the tub, fell in, and after a splash or two, the sound of his voice changed considerably. [In the final, they used a happy yodel.] This was done without showing animation of Timothy. The next time we saw him, he was resting on his elbows on the edge of the tub with a silly smile on his face.

“This was a simple and easy way of putting the transition over. It was a far better means of doing it than to have squeezed everything we could have out of the animator in some subtle manner. In fact, the resulting animation could have been done by an animator of lesser abilities.”

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2014 at 9:00 am

Zen and the art of browsing

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

Over the weekend, like an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force, two events in my life abruptly collided: 1.) I absolutely, unquestionably ran out of shelf space at home. 2.) The Newberry Library in Chicago held its annual book fair. For the uninitiated, the latter may not seem all that earthshaking, but as I’ve said here before, it’s the ultimate fulfillment of every library or church book sale I’ve ever attended, with six huge rooms packed with tables covered with beautiful books of every price, age, and description. As a confirmed book addict, it’s the closest thing to heaven on earth I’ve found, and I look forward to it every year like a kid waiting for Christmas. Yet after several years of collecting books in Chicago—and a few decades of obsessive book hoarding before that—I’ve reached a point where I can no longer unquestioningly grab every volume that catches my eye. I need to be selective. And although this may seem to go against the whole book fair experience, I found, instead, that it enriches it. Acquiring books is no longer the goal: the real attraction is that perfect hour or two of browsing itself.

First, an observation. When I was growing up, my attitude toward buying and accumulating books was very different. For reading material, I was effectively limited to the books I had at home, the stacks in my school and local library, and the inventory of my few neighborhood bookstores. This third category was a circle that slowly expanded, as I began to venture farther afield to bigger and more eclectic bookshops, but it was still far from a limitless selection. As a result, whenever I saw a book that I thought I might like to read one day, I’d pick it up, as long as it was reasonably priced. Nowadays, things have changed. I have access to the Oak Park and Chicago library systems, which have just about every book imaginable, and if I decide I want my own copy, thanks to the huge online inventories of Amazon, Better World Books, and elsewhere, I can usually get it within a week. This has led to an unexpected but inevitable shift in my thinking: I no longer need to own books that I can easily obtain elsewhere. The world is now one huge bookstore, and I’ve started to think of my own library less as a finite collection than as the conveniently available subset of every book on the planet.

The author's library

As a result, when I do buy books these days, they tend to be books I don’t think I’ll be able to easily find anywhere else, at least not at that particular price point. In practice, this means that I concentrate on the old, the musty, and the out of print. It leaves me with a personal library that grows more eccentric by the day, not because my tastes are all that far out of the mainstream, but because the books I tend to hoard are the ones that nobody else has heard of. I can always grab a copy of Lean In or The Signal and the Noise, but I may never find The Story Life of Napoleon—an enticing volume from 1914 that I unearthed at this year’s book fair—ever again, at least not for the two dollars I paid for it. If I come across a book while browsing, however interesting, that I think I might be able to find elsewhere without too much trouble, that’s actually a point against it. What I really want is either an amazing book that I didn’t know existed or one that I’ve wanted for a long time while holding out for the right price. In short, I’m looking for books that will make me say “Wow!” out loud.

And although those moments don’t come very often, when they do, they make everything else worth it. The upshot is that I spent five hours this weekend at the Newberry Library and emerged with a total of seven books, which works out to more than forty minutes of browsing for each purchase. (For the curious, the highlights were A Certain World by W.H. Auden and Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the latter of which I picked up for an unbelievable ten dollars.) That may seem like a lot of time, but really, the point isn’t the book itself—it’s the forty minutes. Once you commit to only picking up the rare, the exceptional, or the fabulous, you find that browsing turns into a kind of Zen state punctuated by rare but intense moments of enlightenment. You’re no longer there to acquire more books, except in a purely nominal way: you’re there because it’s good to be around books themselves, side by side with hundreds of other browsers who feel the same way. For a few hours, you’re in that perfect place. And if you do end up with a handful of treasures to take home, it’s less for the books themselves than for the memories of happiness they preserve.

Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

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