ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
JOINING THE VFX DEBATE...
As most everybody knows by now, the Visual Effects industry is sailing through rough water at the moment, with cutting-edge Academy-Award winning VFX studios going broke while simultaneously collecting trophies. Check out Ang Lee's perspective. No doubt about it, VFX artists are out of public view and have little clout in the labor market. The movie producers are not going to suddenly come down with a case of the warm-and-fuzzies and save VFX studios. It is hard to blame them for seeking the best VFX for the least amount of money. On the other hand, it is hard to blame visual effects artists for wanting respect and job security.
Actors have had similar challenges, which is what led to the formation of Screen Actors Guild. In any industry, market forces will drive down compensation if there is an overabundance of skilled applicants. If VFX artists would move and speak in unison the way that professional actors do, the producers might be motivated to swallow hard and write bigger checks, passing the added production cost along to the customer. But organizing VFX artists would be akin to herding cats, and first you'll have to find a person crazy enough to try.
Bottom line, as I see it: unless the producers are pressured financially to pay more to VFX studios in the West, it is logical to assume the work will migrate increasingly to India, China etc. The Visual Effects Society is probably the organization best positioned to tackle the problem. Good stuff going on over there.
FYI GAME LEVEL DESIGNERS
I will be participating in GDC this year, in two events: The Animation Boot Camp and a 1-hour Talk. You probably would not normally attend the Boot Camp because it is not in the Design Track, but you may want to make an exception this time. Mike Jungbluth and I will be talking about "Designing the Performance", which should be relevant to you. I know there is an overabundance of riches at GDC, but if you can fit it in...
Monday, March 25, 2013 | 10:00am-6:00pm
Speaker(s): Michael Jungbluth (Zenimax Online), Tim Borrelli (5th Cell), Nate Walpole (Zenimax Online), Jalil Sadool (Dreamworks), Amy Drobeck (WB Games), Simon Unger (Independent), Jonathan Cooper (Ubisoft Montreal), Ryan Duffin (EA/Danger Close), Ed Hooks (Acting for Animators)
Track(s): Visual Arts
ACTING FOR ANIMATORS WORKSHOP SCHEDULE
March 25-29 GDC 2013 San Francisco, California
April 20 Catholic University Porto, Portugal
April 23-26 FMX 2013 Stuttgart, Germany
April 29-30 Filmakademie Animation Institut Ludwigsburg, Germany
WHY WE TELL STORIES
"Hi! I attended Animex this year and really enjoyed your talk. I'm studying game-design here in Norway and I'm really interested in how games can tell stories. So, I was wondering if you could recommend any books on storytelling. It could be any book, doesn't have to be game related." Marius Holstad
Thank you, Marius, for the wonderful lead-in to one of my favorite topics!
There are books aplenty about the writer's craft. Robert McKee's Story is probably the most popular when it comes to screenwriting, and The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner, is high on the list for novelists. Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, edited by Chris Bateman, contains valuable contributions from a number of respected game writers. Craft is the part of the writing equation that can be taught and improved, but you cannot teach artistry and creativity. You can only encourage it. All of which brings up the "Why?" question. "Why story?" What is the big deal about humans and the stories we tell? Why do we love stories so much in the first place? Why do the words "Once upon a time..." put us in a good mood? The answers to these questions depend, of course, on who you ask. One person will tell you that God did it, that He stuck a love for stories right in there next to a taste for apples. Another will tell you that, if mothers didn't read so many stories to their children, we adults would not be conditioned to respond the way we do. A Hollywood producer will tell you that we love stories because we have an innate lust for historic box office receipts.
As an atheist and student of evolutionary psychology, I have other ideas. I am convinced that our unique and defining human feature is our brain. Walt Disney had it right: when it comes to the "illusion of life", "the mind is the pilot." We alone among animals are able to pretend that one thing is something else. A human toddler can pick up a banana and pretend to make a telephone call with it. We are dependent upon one another for survival, and we learn survival skills by doing things and telling stories to each other. This is why I use the genealogy of shamans and tribes to explain acting theory. The shaman tells stories that are designed to help the tribe stay together. Humans must live in social groups. An isolated person is more likely to die than one in a tribe.
Because the primal nature of story is so mystifying, there is a generally-accepted but erroneous perception in the entertainment industry - film, TV, games - that a writer's craft along with a producer's nose for box office represent 95 percent of what makes a "good story." It is accepted wisdom that, if producer #1 has a box office hit, then producer #2 will have a better chance of box office success if he does what producer #1 did. This is why there are so many movies and games that feel like they are same-song-third-verse except for a fresh coat of paint. This is why Cars II was made. It had nothing to do with story and everything to do with making as much money as the original Cars did.
So, "why stories?" Why does one story resonate with the tribe while another does not? With this introduction, I recommend to you a brief reading list, beginning with the book I have on my desk currently:
On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, by Brian Boyd
Humans have evolved to survive in social groups. We don't have poisonous fangs or lethal tails with which to protect ourselves, and we are more likely to die early if we are isolated. We live in tribes, and our unique adaptation is our brain. It is so special, in fact, that we are the only creature that can pretend one thing is another. A child can pick up a banana and pretend it is a telephone or prepare a mud pie and pretend it is a dish of ice cream. These activities would be impossible if we did not possess the unique ability - the necessity - to play and learn from stories.
Tell Me A Story: Narrative and Intelligence, by Roger Schank and Gary Saul Morson
We learn by doing things and telling ourselves stories about what we did. Then we tell each other what we did. In conversation, we do not take turns listening. We take turns talking, telling stories back and forth. All of human knowledge is based on story, and we cannot learn something that we do not already know. The word "furniture", for example, makes no sense unless you first understand "table" and "chair". "This is a chair" is a story. Simple, but a story nonetheless.
If you are going to read only one book on evolutionary psychology, this is the one. Mr. Wright is lucid, accessible and always interesting on this subject.
Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
I love this book, which I think may still be on the Best Seller lists. In a nutshell, Kahneman - a Nobel Prize winner in economics - divides thinking into "fast" and "slow". Fast thinking is scripted so that you do not have to re-learn the same things all the time. When you go to the grocery store, you don't have to figure out each time what one does in a grocery store. When you meet a new person, fast thinking will take you through the hand-shaking ritual. Slow thinking is when you stop and figure something out. If you meet a new person who happens to be a double amputee, what do you shake? Thinking still takes place rapidly, but it is more methodical and purposeful. Fast thinking is prone to error because it kicks in emotion so quickly. A person criticizes the sequence you just completed animating, and your fast thinking causes you to start defending and justifying rather than really listening. Of course the brain is not actually divided into slow parts and fast parts, but the ideas in Thinking Fast and Slow hold anyway.
The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell
Myths are stories woven into themes that guide the way we live. In this sense, the Bible, the Mahabharata and the Koran are comprised of myths. Also by Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is essential for anybody that wants to understand how we depend upon story in life. George Lucas famously was influenced by this work when he wrote Star Wars.
Aristotle's Poetics is essential for anyone planning a career that involves telling stories on a professional level, as in movies and theater.
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
Written thirty years ago, Mr. Dawkins's book is a goal post for the study of evolutionary psychology. His immensely influential perspectives will help you understand what it means to say that humans have "adapted" like we have.
Carl Sagan is the teacher you dreamed of having but could never find, one of those individuals who effortlessly cross-references various disciplines and fields of study to make his points.
That is enough for now. If you are interested in more of my views on this subject, let me know and I will devote some future craft notes to it. Evolutionary psychology and the nature of story is, as you can tell, endlessly interesting to me. Actors and animators, after all, are shamans.
Until next month...
Copyright © 2012-2016 Ed Hooks