Saturday, July 25, 2009

How To Draw Manga Badly

Allow me to put on my burn suit because I just know I'm about to get flamed for this one.

But seriously, guys. The Japanese are really, really good at drawing manga and anime. And there are a lot of them doing it. Let them be.

If you're wondering exactly what I'm on about here, I remember times gone by - days of yore, yesteryear, when carts were pulled by horses, the family sat around the radio to tune into the Goon Show and bookstores had a "how to draw" section.
This section has now been replaced by "how to draw manga".

Now, this would be okay if it were a small portion of the health, but no - it seems instructional books teaching you the basics of drawing have been all but reduced to an afterthought against mountains of shitty books on how to sidestep coming up with your own art style. The worst part is how rarely these books are even of any value - if they were drawn by manga artists, then maybe. But most of them are written by westerners who have NO IDEA how to draw manga in the fucking first place!

Jesus CHRIST. Do you really want to learn how to draw like this? I think you'd be better off teaching yourself, and that DEFINITELY includes people who do not possess a single artistic bone in their body and inherently suck at drawing.
Not only are we being encouraged to copy someone else's style, we are being encouraged to do it BADLY.
Now, I don't know what the situation is like over in Europe or America, but here in AUS it's books like these that fill up two shelves in every single bookstore under the "how to draw" section. Books written by American weeaboos who cannot draw. And they are replacing the books that teach people the basics.

Mmm. Thanks, Scholastic, now you are getting to the kiddies so they can learn how to not draw properly even sooner. I'm sorry, but if you are going to publish a book on how to draw ANYTHING, youshoudl at least have a basic knowledge of how to draw... I dunno, hands? I mean fuck, you are getting PUBLISHED. Aspiring artists are looking to you to LEARN HOW TO DRAW. Take some goddamn responsibility!

Thanks to Newgrounds and the internet in general, I see there are some talented (and many not-so-talented) people floating around who are also trying their balls off to make their animations look like anime. This is the bit where I am going to get flamed.

Why would you? Why would you want to imitate limited animation on purpose?

Granted, there are some beautifully animated Japanese efforts (I'm thinking Akira, which I consider to be one of the greatest animations of all time), but such excellent animation is the exception rather than the rule.

Akira, for the record, had some of the most amazing special effects I have ever seen in a movie from its era, and was just as ahead of its time in many other ways. If there is a work as deserving of introducing the western world to Japanese animation in force, it might as well have been this one.

However, Akira had a very big budget - something not shared by a bulk of other anime.
This industry grew out of a tradition which 1970's Hanna Barbera would relate to - getting the most out of the smallest possible budget, racing against the clock to knock out episodes. Because the shows that came from this work ethic produced a regular following, it became cultural. Anime has pretty much ALWAYS been based off some manga or another in the old days (even today, an autonomously created anime is rare). As such, there is also a tradition of attempting to capture the illustrative qualities of the printed page, which often means skimping on animation, unless the studio has an *insane* amount of time and money on their hands.
Copying the animation style of an anime, to me, is like copying the animation style of Scooby Doo. I don't think that's the way to go if you want to be worth your salt as an animator.

Another problem I see with pushing this philosophy of "you can do it, too!" is that it makes a bunch of young hopefuls think (wrongfully) that there is some kind of industry you can get into if you learn to draw like this.
The Japanese are not racist, but they can be a little elitist when it comes to this kind of thing. They think, if we have great artists biting each other's faces off to get a bottom-wrung job here, we'd rather have great Japanese artists than great American ones. You'd have to be the next Osamu Tezuka to get hired. Because there are actually a couple of Americans who have gotten a job in Japan as a manga artist or whatever, everyone else thinks they can do it. But again, it's the exception rather than the rule.
Alternatively, you could make manga comics for like-minded manga-loving westerners, but seriously...
Few people read comics these days.
Even less read manga.
Even less of them read western manga.
It's a cult thing, obviously. But you can't possibly expect to make any money from a fraction of a fraction of a waning market.
It's okay if you want to do it for a hobby, by all means, go for it. But don't expect to make a living out of it - and I have had to give reality checks to young gun kids who think they can. It makes me feel like a dick for taking the wind out of their sales, and it pisses me off that someone out there put the idea in their fucking heads in the first place.

Likewise, if you want to get a job in animation, most studios actually stipulate "no anime or manga style drawings" as one of their portfolio requirements. In fact, even most universities stipulate that in their entry requirements. The main reason why is because western studios (and I have to admit, this goes for me too) believe that a unique personal style is more desirable than a replication of other people's styles. Now, I am not so jaded that I cannot enjoy anime or manga - but the people who will hire you are. They don't give a fuck about 'any of that manga bullshit' and they will throw your whole portfolio in the bin if you sneak one drawing in there. It doesn't help that these people get literally hundreds of port folios full of manga style drawings a year.

I mean... really, this all wouldn't bother me so much if the books on how to draw this stuff had not *replaced* books on how to draw. If they were there just to supplement them, it would be okay.
I feel so conservative, and therefore, dirty.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Masters of emotion

Today, I will be talking a lot about the technical side of animation and how it is used to achieve an emotional response from the audience, so I'll take off my potent Writer's Hat for now.

Gesture and body language are pivotal to relaying a thought or emotion. A lot of people forget this, and go straight for the face, the expressions and the eyes. There are really annoying phrases like "the eyes are the window to the soul" flying around that give many animators the wrong idea. I think they are just one more tool in the toolbox of a good animator. You can take facial acting and cocked eyebrows and half-smiles and all the rest of it, but you should never neglect the potency of a well animated gesture.

Have any of you seen The Hand? It's a film by Jiri Trnka, a brilliant Czech animator who made and used little marionettes for a number of beautiful stop motion films. The thing about Eastern Europeans who made films like these before the nineties is that they were in a very unique position of being able to sneak past the censors and make harrowing political commentaries in their films that harshly criticised the reign of the Soviet Union. This stuff really deserves a post of its own (don't get me started on Jan Svankmajer, we'll be here forever), but as far as The Hand is concerned, when I saw it what blew me away was how much emotion Trnka managed to get out of this little wooden puppet.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but watch the film and you will see what I mean about the political commentary. It's so obvious, but I think the censors regarded animated stuff as 'kiddie shit' or something because animators were amongst some of the only people in the Soviet states who could get away with criticising the government without getting a pick-axe buried in their skull. So in a way, Walt Disney saved lives. But I digress... Seriously, we will come back to this at a later date because it really is amazing.

The design of the puppet is exquisite. He's simple, funny, and a mixture of 'cute' and 'ugly', which I go crazy for. Anyone who has talked to me about design or seen my pictures knows this all too well.
What you're looking at here is a man, a human being, with a beautifully broad range of emotions - and a stiff, wooden head. The eyes and mouth are painted on, they are fixed into that position forever. His only options as far as the head and face go are to swivel his head on his neck.

If you've got a minute, turn down your speakers because there is a rather loud trumpet or something at the beginning:

A man with one expression but many emotions (not Tom Cruise)

Did you see that?!
Unfortunately this video on YouTube is out of sync with the sound, but it will give you an idea of what I'm talking about with the animation. Now, there are some bits near the beginning that are a bit 'twee'. Spinning around and loving life, our little man may come across as a bit overdone sometimes, but most animators like Trnka were totally self taught. These were pieces of art, they were designed to make a statement and pull you into the mind of the animator. They were not designed to make money or fill a slot on Saturday morning, and so I think Trnka has done amazingly well animation-wise considering.
Notice how he goes through a rainbow spectrum of emotions? You can tell when he is happy, when he is irritable, or when he's neurotic, or angry, or even nihilistic. And yet not a word is spoken or written. Who needs a face? That's the skill of a master animator.

Jim Henson didn't even need a smoothly animated body to make people connect. Anyone remember Dark Crystal?

Oh, but he cheated in that movie! Characters like Aughra have animatronic eyebrows that give them a bit of a leg up in the expressions department, but at the end of the day, this is the skill of a good puppeteer.
How about the Muppets?

Go ahead and tell me that when Kermit the Frog opens his mouth, you can't tell exactly what is on his mind. These things are pieces of fabric and foam rubber and they have hundreds of millions of fans worldwide. And it's not just because of witty dialogue.
What I'm trying to say here is that people need to go back to basics and figure out what it is that makes these creatures seem 'real' to us. Everyone knows Kermit is a puppet, you can tell it just by looking at him, but there is something about how he is performed - his acting, limited as it is - that makes people suspend their disbelief.

When Disney animators (or animators from many other studios) are first being taught, they are told to do an exercise where a flour sack, with no face or limbs, walks around and it must show some kind of thought process and emotion. This is a brilliant exercise because it teaches you not to RELY on anything.

Imagine if you had the power to make someone fall in love with your character and root for them even if they didn't have a face.
Then add a face onto it and animate it well.
That's what makes damn good animation.

Monday, July 20, 2009

And so the loud opinion begins!

My name is Peter Turner. I pretentiously call myself Professor Fate. You would too if you had seen The Amazing Race and loved the confounding purity of cartoonish villains as much as I do.

I have a lot of opinions about animation, and it's probably alternative to what you are used to. As such, I didn't know where to begin when I decided to rip off one of my personal heroes and begin a fiercely opinionated animation blog. My friend Meo suggested I begin with something 'classy', but I'm about as un-classy as they come so I guess I'll start with something recent and relevant.
I just saw an animated movie today, and it was Don Bluth's Anastasia.

I will preface this rant by saying that I am the kind of guy who will spend the time he should be spending with a girlfriend watching movies that were aimed at ten year olds. Partly so I can study the animation frame-by-frame, but mostly so I can cry at the sad bits and really wish the bad guy would win for a change, because his dance number is way better than everyone else's.
Therefore, I still have that rare gift of being able to get into the mind of a kid and really enjoy these movies - provided they're good.

For what it is, Anastasia is good. It's very good compared to a lot of its competition, and I would say a cut above most Disney stuff. However, it suffers the same drawbacks of practically every other Studio big-budget animated film.

  • The characters break out into song needlessly. Am I the only one who didn't like the song and dance sequences in these movies, even when I was three years old? I remember waddling out of the room and coming back when the singing stopped before I was tall enough to reach the light switch.
  • The villain had a huge build up, but both the final confrontation and the ending were weak and "Disney 101". Bluth has a reputation for sucking at story, but he was doing pretty well with Anastasia before I found myself scratching my head for the last ten minutes of the film. In fact, beyond the opening scene, Rasputin's involvement with the plot was far less than it should have been. They had potential and they wasted it.
  • The cartoony sidekick, while cute, has no reason for being there. The stupid puppy whose name I can't remember had a number of moments in the film where it had some small impact on the plot, so why doesn't Bartok? Why waste Hank Azaria's funny acting? Oh, right. Sequels.
  • Anastasia and Dimitri both have American accents. This is a pet peeve of mine with all American cinema - executive bigwigs seem to be under the impression that Americans will not watch a film unless it has Americans in it, even if they are Russian. It mostly comes down to casting big name American actors who probably fail hard at Russian accents, and so are told by the director not to bother.
  • But you know what I really don't like about this film? Like, really, REALLY don't like about it?

I shouldn't get so worked up about the hero's hairstyle. But I do. Dimitri's hair has been seen in virtually every other Don Bluth movie to date, and a number of films from other studios.

It is a very specific hairstyle, and not one you see very often. But it seems to have permeated every animated movie in the world!!

Incidentally, I actually really liked Titan A.E. It wasn't perfect, there were huge story problems and a bunch of characters that didn't need to be there, but for a Don Bluth film it was surprisingly progressive. But Cale's hairstyle is just so goddamn generic.

It's not just Bluth who does it! This fucking hair appears everywhere!!

Oh wow, this guy has a mullet! That's a bit of a difference, I suppose. At least it's only the rest of the hairstyle that looks exactly the same. I guess this universal hairstyle that all good men have wasn't around back in those days.

Disney is trying to get more creative with it now. But you can still spot it if you have a keen eye.

You know what I think it is?
The animators are too fucking lazy to learn how to draw men's hair. So they sat down one day and learned how to draw one style, and that's all anyone knows how to do. For the characters that have really BIZARRE hairstyles (like, say, short hair, or maybe long hair if they're feeling adventurous), they will need to hand it to more experienced, hardened animators who know what they're doing.

At the end of the day I enjoyed Anastasia, and I can see why it won so much praise. I think it's remarkably good for a Don Bluth effort (I am not the world's biggest fan of his work), but despite small, FLEETING moments of trying to take the medium somewhere new, the film feels so generic you wonder if they even hire story people anymore. Dimitri's hairstyle is a metaphor for this whole genré.

And to think that bastard Michael Eisner had the nerve to say that the reason all these 2D studios were failing and Pixar was all the rage was because 2D is old hat.
Uhh, maybe the stories are old hat. Maybe the characters and the frigging hairstyles and the goddamn formula is old hat. You begin to wonder this when you see that even the crap films that these studios put out consistently have spellbounding character animation. Making it move nicely is not enough to save a film alone.

Feel free to comment, I'd love to hear your thoughts.