ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN IS A SHAMAN!
The July 30th issue of The New Yorker includes an excellent and in-depth profile of superstar musician Bruce Springsteen. It was researched and written by David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize winning editor of the magazine, and I recommend it to fans of "The Boss." The reason I mention it here is because Mr. Springsteen thinks of himself as a shaman. I agree with him and want to share his words with you. Reflecting on why he is drawn to the performance stage, he says:
"You're the shaman, a little bit, you're leading the congregation. But you are the same as everybody else in the sense that your troubles are the same, your problems are the same, you've got your blessings, you've got your sins, you've got the things you can do well, you've got the things you mess up all the time. And so you're a conduit. There was a series of elements in your life – some that were blessings, and some that were just chaotic curses – that set fire to you in a certain way."
As of 2008, there were 466,000 Chinese animation students enrolled in 1,234 universities and other schools. It boggles the mind, but this is how they do things over there.
My recent trip to Shanghai to participate in the China Comics & Game Expo 2012 was my first as a master for the DeTao Masters Academy. It was an excellent trip, and I send thanks to Jared Man, Manuel, Robin King and especially my personal assistant, translator and mother hen Linda Li (pictured). I could not ask for more generous hosts.
ACTING FOR ANIMATORS WORKSHOP SCHEDULE
The following lectures have been arranged through DeTao Masters Academy.
Oct 16th: Shanghai Theatre Academy
Oct 17th: SIVA (Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts)
Oct 18th: BFA (Beijing Film Academy)
Oct 19th: Peking University
November 19-22 Irish School of Animation, Ballyfermot College of Further Education, Dublin, Ireland (Still in planning stage.)
China: "We need to tell better stories!"
The elements of strong storytelling are the same everywhere. In these craft notes, I am talking specifically to my Chinese students about creating a story concept for animation. The principles apply universally, however, and I hope everyone agrees, even if they live in Brazil or Seattle.
Why tell stories at all?
We do things and then we tell stories to ourselves about what we did. Then we tell other people stories about what we did, and they tell us stories about what they did. We are storytelling creatures. We are defined by our stories. This is how we share experiences in life, the celebrations and tragedies, hopes and disappointments. Stories are a roadmap to successful survival in life.
What kind of stories are best?
People want to hear stories about other people that they can relate to. That means your central character must be endowed with a human brain and be able to form values that are expressed as emotions. All humans have the same seven emotions: happy, sad, anger, disgust, contempt, fear and surprise. All humans are born and die the same way but, during our lives, we have different survival strategies. Some of the differences are because of cultural influences, and some are individual. The important thing to keep in mind is that we all act to survive, and every person is a hero in his or her own life.
Comedy or drama?
Drama is a factor of man's potential; comedy is a factor of man's limitations. We enjoy and learn from both. In my February 2012 craft notes, I gave some pointers about how comedy works.
Conflict is essential to good storytelling. Yes, we enjoy seeing happy people doing happy things, but not for long and preferrably not in stories. Life is a struggle much of the time. Your audience is not very interested in seeing people getting along.
A good story includes an event that affects your main character. A story about a tsunami is not theatrically interesting by itself. We want to empathize with the character who is trying to save her injured husband from the terrifying giant waves. Think of the character as the fuel of a story, and the event as the thing that ignites it. When developing a story, ask yourself, "Whose story is this?" If you do not have an answer, you are going down a wrong road. Start over again.
What is empathy and why does it matter?
Empathy is an essential attribute for humans that live in groups. Literally, it means "feeling into," relating to the feelings of another person. We empathize only with emotions, not with thinking. This is why your character must have feelings and an "illusion of life." Humans are the only creature that can know something is bad for him and still do it. All other animals survive from instinct. If you are telling a story about a tortise and rabbit competing in a race, you must endow them with an illusion of (human) life if you want your audience to empathize, to care.
Who is your audience? Who are you talking to? Hollywood has gotten itself painted into an unfortunate corner making big budget animated movies "for the entire family." You do not tell a story to a child the way you would tell that same story to an adult. Children are going to respond best to literal elements and basic emotions. Adults will become bored with that. For an adult audience, characters can be more nuanced. Adults understand that a villain does not always look like a villain, and just because a person is a priest does not guarantee that he is a good person.
It is important to know whether or not your audience understands your culture. For Chinese animators (Indian, too), it is easy enough to tell Chinese stories to other Chinese people. But what if your audience does not know anything about Chinese culture? Even worse, what if your audience has misconceptions about Chinese culture? Your challenge is to tell stories about life in China in a way that will be understood by people everywhere. The key is to remember that we all share the same emotions. We just have different values. Something that makes you happy in China may not make a westerner happy, so it is your job as a storyteller to invite the westerner into your world and make him comfortable.
Do not copy Hollywood. A recent major Chinese animated movie is Legend of the Rabbit. This is not an original idea. It is a re-working of Kung Fu Panda. The fact that Legend of the Rabbit was made at all is part of the problem, not part of the solution. The world did not need another Kung Fu animal story. That has been done already, quite successfully, by DreamWorks in the U.S., so you need to do something else. You must make up your own stories. Do not copy somebody else's story, no matter how much money it made.
And now the really hard part: In order to be creative and come up with good stories, you must relax. Creativity is a playful activity. It is impossible to hurry up and be creative; the harder and faster you work at it, the more elusive it will be. When your car is stuck in deep mud, you make the situation worse by stepping hard on the accelerator. Creativity is a process of "allowing," not a process of "causing." Today's Chinese culture emphasizes the value of hard work, duty and making the extra effort. When you are creative, it will feel good and exciting. It will not feel like work, and therefore you may feel guilty for feeling that way. If that happens, tell your emotions to leave you alone because you are busy creating.
Until next month ...
"Actors and Animators are Shamans!"
Copyright © 2012-2016 Ed Hooks