Throughout my life I’ve met many different kinds of creative people. I marvel at most of them. Always, I can’t seem to get enough of their product and find I’m increasingly fascinated by those skills that have plumb evaded me (Like singing ... especially operatic numbers). I have been trying to understand creativity since I was very young and over the years I’ve come to understand that the craftsmanship of creating holds a fundamental truth, no matter the means by which it comes to life. And, that truth is as simple as conception.
Conception, literally defined, is the act or power of forming notions, ideas, or concepts. A creative person is one who can harness that power.
Another way to consider conception is to define the word thus: origination; beginning.
I hurt my brain when I try to think about the conception of conception ... or, the origination of forming notions, ideas, and concepts. It is necessary for me to parcel things down in socratic method and compartmentalize my thoughts to get any sort of handle on this notion. The interrelation between those compartments is a bond worth noting and I work on developing recognition of those ties all the time.
What makes me vocalize these thoughts today? Avatar. So many people seem to think I really need to watch that film and love it. I am an artist and I will adore the beauty of it. I don’t want to love it. I am turned off by it. Why? One word comes to mind. Sterilization.
Sterilization, literally defined, is the act of sterilizing; A condition of being sterile or sterilized.
Another way to think of sterile is to stretch the definition in a botanical (living) sense and say thus: not productive of results, ideas, etc.; fruitless.
The ironic thing about this thought-line of mine is that Avatar is considered the very first to pull off 3-D animation of the human form in a fluid and believable way (I’d call it 2.5-D, myself, but that's another story). I have seen trailers for it and can vouch that, yes, it’s more fluid than previous attempts and CGI-ing the human form. I recognize that I am way outnumbered in my lack of interest for this film and that’s ok with me. I have a love for another kind of animation that has been a part of visual creation for a very, very long time. I’d rather talk about that.
When one thinks of early animation, what first comes to mind? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Mickey Mouse? I think the answer will depend on the age of the person being asked. Or, perhaps, it will depend on the level of creativity that person holds. I know, for a solid fact, that those of us with the sketching bug used that skill to draw stick men along edges of our text-book pages in school so we could watch them bounce balls and run as we flipped the sheets of bound paper during the teacher’s ever so boring lecture on whatever inane subject was on the docket that day. That’s a long sentence for a big idea. Why so big? It took evolution a long time to teach the human race how to make a stick figure run. So, let’s compartmentalize this idea and figure out how Avatar came to be, creatively speaking.
Animation is illusioned movement using still drawings. To find the first invention of such, we have to dig back and back into the history of drawing to look for indicators showing some sort of imagery depicting the same figure with superimposed positions. A drawing like that would indicate that the draftsman conceived movement and struggled to express and suggest it. Believe it or not, that sort of drawing can be seen in Paleolithic cave paintings where animals were shown with multiple legs in superimposed positions. Paleolithic is prehistoric. That is the Old Stone Age ... like, 35,000 years ago or so. Our brains have been trying to figure this out for quite a long time.
Continuing through the ages we find artists in places like Iran and Egypt suggested implied motion the same way ... so did Leonardo Da Vinci during the Italian Renaissance. None of the known samples up to Leo’s time could actually make a stick figure run, though. All moving positions where drawn on the same rock, or wall, or piece of paper. Sometimes there were cartoon-like strips where figures would change position from panel to panel, indicating movement in a very still way. Other times there were lines or arrows added next to the multiple-limbed figure to further indicate motion. That is all that evolved.
I just laid out about 35,000 years where nothing really changed. Rock to paper was good inventive development, but the actual motion within a drawing remained pretty much the same. I like to think of this as the primitive stage. The beginnings.
Now, if we dissect animation we find that even a modern creation’s beginnings are really the very same. We just call the primitive stage something else. A Story board.
One of the greatest (many say the greatest) Story Board artist was an American Post-Impressionist genius named Mentor Huebner. His prolific-self conceptualized film production for over 250 movies, he had more than 50 one man exhibits (for his fine art), designed 10 theme parks, created more than 2,000 paintings, and produced over 40,000 drawings. He was a powerhouse of creativity. His wife (Louise) is the official witch of Los Angeles, and his son’s (Gregory) left hand was the stunt-double for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s during his Hollywood film making days.
Film Production, Conceptual Design, and even Visual Development are forms of illustration, and that’s how Mentor Huebner made his living. The key to this sort of work is that the subject matter drawn is beyond the draftsman’s control. The artist must illustrate someone else’s story and look for visual stimuli, or flaws, before final production begins – hopefully saving the studio multiple thousands of dollars in the process. Story Boarding is the way to do this, which is tedious, intricate, and was developed at Walt Disney Studios in the early 1930’s. Huebner worked for Disney at that time and participated in the animation of Snow White and Seven Dwarfs (1937). That movie is considered by many as the first animated feature ever made. (Actually, there were 8 produced before, Snow White was the first successful one. This was also the first movie to use cells for animation.)
Story Board by Huebner for Hitchcock's "North by Northwest"
Story Board by Huebner for Hitchcock's "North by Northwest"
As animation goes, the first time someone drew on separate pieces of paper, then flipped those pages to make the stick figure run was in 1868. That breakthrough brought about rapid growth in the entertainment industry.
Story Boarding and animation grew together through the 20th century: In 1906 the first animation to film happened, showing a cartoonist interacting with a face that came to life on a chalk board. 1914 brought the first cartoon where an animated character seemed to think and have feelings. The first animated feature film happened in 1917. A film-short of the Three Little Pigs, in 1933, was the first to utilize Story Boarding to outline story sequence. And, 1937 introduced the first animation to have synchronized sound. Understanding the benefit of laying out production, Hollywood brought Story Boarding to live action films in 1939, with (some say) the first completely Story Boarded film being Gone With the Wind. This process became extremely popular in the early 1940’s and it has since grown into the standard process of movie making. So much so, that when today’s animation directors work on their films, Story Boarding is used so extensively that they have replaced actual scripts.
The artist behind the Story Board is important to developing the emotional impact of the visual product. If you consider the list of movies Huebner visually conceived, for example, you’ll find a ‘theme’ or ‘mood’ that is all ‘Huebner’: Planet of the Apes. Soylent Green. Forbidden Planet. Total Recall. Man in the Iron Mask, Lord of the Rings (Bakshi) ... the list goes on and on.
This painter made a living illustrating other people’s ideas. And he was good at it. In his spare time he would paint on canvas. His studio was the great outdoors and he’d plein aire close to home in California, or wherever the studios sent him on movie assignments. He never cared about selling his fine art. In fact, he seldom sold them simply because he wouldn’t let his work live with just anyone. He painted for the love of it and did it one way or the other every day.
For me, I’m interested in the links of this story of a creative guy. The first movie I ever saw was Gone with the Wind. That was the first (some say) movie to completely Story Board sequences and, in the beginning, Mentor Huebner helped develop that process (he was the first to draw story panes on large sheets and tack those to a wall for better viewing). The second movie I ever saw was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Not only did Mentor work on that film, he developed and completed the ‘off to work I go’ sequence, which was my favorite. Over the years there have been certain movies that stood out for me, on a creative or moody scale of things. Mentor was the production designer in a considerable number of them (Planet of the Apes, especially special for me). After I’d grown and found myself working in the art business, I met Gregory and first saw the self portrait of Huebner. I feel in love with that painting and recognized that Rembrandt was the Master that inspired Huebner as a young man. That is the Master that inspired me. And through Gregory I came to know Louise. She is a treasure still living in the same house where Mentor lived and worked; missing him and doing all she can to promote and preserve his art.
Animation isn’t the same anymore, neither is production for motion pictures. When I spoke about sterility above, I didn’t mean it in a mean way. I think it’s just progress speeding along so quickly that those of us from the old days really do miss the nuances of the human hand. It was brought to my attention in the Star Trek film released in 2009. Those creators went back to old cameras to allow for light flares and other flaws. Anything that was CGI-ed was given film flaws to match the old camera work used in the real life sequences. I thought that gave it a better Star Trek feel. I was more comfortable with that look, rather than the ultra clean and perfect CGI world most often seen. We artists have been striving for perfection since the beginning of time and I think computers and the digital age have beaten us to it. When I look at the perfection in something like Avatar I find myself very depressed. It’s as though our purpose is no more. I feel old. I yearn to put a heavy vinyl on the turn-table so I can enjoy the scratchy sounds of years of enjoyment.