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The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Conception Versus Sterilization - Paint it or Abort!


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"

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.


One of my favorite paintings of all time is his self portrait, The Artist, painted in 1946. He worked in front of a mirror, in the traditional way, and gave us a perfect impression of the artist in the zone; thinking, pondering, evaluating. I spent quite a lot of time talking with his wife and son and learned that he was a confident, yet humble, man who was dearly loved by his family and friends. Today you can enjoy their pride and memories, as well as a good collection of Mentor’s work, at the official Mentor Huebner web site: www.mentorhuebnerart.com

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.

20 comments:

courdeleon said...

Well said! I have felt the same about digital cameras, photoshop etc.
I remember how sad I was watching the TV Show "Fame" when the orchestra leader faced the talents of the keyboard player. Keyboards could replicate all musical instruments as well as vocals...where is the human talent?
I guess new talents are in the generation of computer arts! I am sure that is a talent as well. Us "oldsters" know the difference another generation won't!
I did see Avatar and saw the beauty in it but at what cost? I am sure those in the business saw it as amazing new technology. And that is the new world for now, technology, a blessing and a curse!

Irelock said...

Exactly! There is nothing wrong with technology as long as we recognize it for what it is. No matter how wonderful it seems, we shouldn't toss out the old and forget about it. When I jury art shows I always refuse to include computer art in the mix. It's a different talent to produce and needs to be judged by similar works, not against that which was produced by hand. The same is true for digital photography compared dark-room productions. For me ... I'll always lean to the side made by the artist's hands. Makes sense ... I am a painter :o)

rogle_99 said...

Now that was interesting – storyboards. I’ve always thought the storyboard artists were amazing. Kind of like a comic book, but the drawings are more spontaneous and ‘free-er’. Mentor was a busy guy – even the Depression didn’t slow’m down. It made me think of another chap who did this kind of thing really well - Henry Bumstead, art director on many successful films for many yrs.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0120317/

I visited with him just before his death in 2006 – 91 yrs old, and worked right till the end. He could draw (well), like mere mortals breath – and his watercolors were great – lottsa ‘mood’. He worked exclusively for Clint Eastwood during his later years – was proud of that. His son Steve was a high school buddy – that was back in the 1960’s. I remember the oscar statue on their TV in the family room – best art director, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird'.

Avatar was new-tech done well. We've all seen the eventually-boring cgi stuff on sooooooo many films of the last few yrs. Cameron's offering seemed fresh - like Titanic, when it debuted. I wonder.....did they use a storyboard sketch artist on Avatar?

Irelock said...

Ah, Clint Eastwood. Another HERO from childhood. I LOVED Paint Your Wagon. I'm going to read up on Henry Bumstead - he would have been Mentor's competition back in the day and that could be very interesting. Do you have any personal stories about him that would help us all get to know the man?

Yes, new-tech done well is the truth. I still think it's all too clean, which was my complaint about Titanic. Too clean and not completely true to the real details. But that's another story.

I'm sure they used story boards for Avatar. The question really is, did they use a script? I wonder who we pester to find that answer.

Thanks rogle_99. Your comments are consistently informative an thought provoking. That's exactly what I'm hoping to inspire.

rogle_99 said...

gosh - Henry was just 'Mr Bumstead', while Steve and I got into trouble. But I'll offer this story:
In the 1930's, my father an 2 friends got jobs at Disney Studios, when it was on Hyperion Avenue in LA. Starting as messenger boys, they all advanced. One of my father's duties eventually included operating the projector in the hot-box - the name they gave the projection room for reviewing animation roughs (it was hot in there). Walt and the director(s) would watch, then discuss how to edit/change. My father was also one of the (many) asst directors on Bambi - worked on the forest fire scene. The animators had their own bldg and they built a fenced yard on one side - brought in live deer, including fawns, so the animators could draw from life. Maybe that's why the finished animation is so dang good!

Irelock said...

Wow! That is a GREAT story. You know, I've met so many illustrators who worked for Disney in the day. Another animator I know very well worked on the Flinstones (for Bararbara), and then went on to develop He-Man (her son was the model for that toon), then She-ra. I asked Karen to draw Swiftwind for me one day (She-ra's horse) and now consider that sketch to be one of my treasures. The cool thing? My kids LOVED He-man and She-ra when young, and when I introduced them to Karen after they'd grown, they were simply tickled - then asked Karen to autograph the pillow cases and such the girls still had. Karen told me later how nice that was ... most people don't care anymore about the work folks like she did back in the day. The sad part is that animators from back then did inspire young ones to draw and learn the craft. The new-tech inspires the learning of driving the machines. That's the difference to me. The hand/eye work is not the same at all.

Sandy Cathcart said...

Well...being a writer as well as an artist. I loved Avatar! It opened all kinds of possibilities as I write supernatural suspense. And flying dreams are my very favorite...and that movie was Like the very best flying dream ever! On the other hand it was quite frightning. With so much of our lives being lived electronically (hence me talking with you by I-phone instead of talking with my traveling partner in the same room as me) doesn't seem so far off that we can create REAL Avatars and live our lives thru them while we sit in a chair or bed somewhere.
Thanks for sharing. I plan to check those sites after I walk the REAL Las Vegas Strip. Now there's fodder for another discussion. How sterile is that!
Scat

Irelock said...

Sandy! The idea of real avatars is scaring the heck out of me! Perhaps that's why advances like the movie Avatar's advances make me so uneasy. Maybe I've seen too many Twilight Zone episodes and reality for me is bent enough to believe so many things are possible. Whatever the case, I've been to sterile Las Vegas Strip and I will say .... it's way unreal and a little bit disturbing. Have fun, but not too much ;o)

rogle_99 said...

Las Vegas? Disturbing?? - spoken like a true square.....(takes one to know one:)

Irelock said...

I grew up in the woods ,,, the Strip is extremely disturbing for someone like me. I'm a square and proud of it!

Joan said...

My post vanished....so I am trying again. I love what you are
doing!

savagegoldie said...

I found Vegas utterly fascinating. of course I did down a tickle me pink pretty quick......allt he flashy lights and music was very surreal. I too, think that the old hand drawn animation is far more impressive then computer work. Meeting Karen and hearing her stories is one of the highlights of my artistic life, she sure can whip out those horses! Not to mention I learned all my life lessons from He-Man..... :-)

jess said...

Well, I don't know that I can really bring anything new to the table, seeing that I happen to agree with the majority here in saying that I prefer the good ol'fashioned hand drawn animation. But at the risk of a bit of regurgitation I'll put my 2 cents in anyway...

I did see Avatar, and you know what? After about 5 minutes of thinking "wow, this is really sharp and colorful" my fascination with it sort of died,...mostly for the aforementioned reasons regarding sterility. I must admit, beyond being a bit of 'eye candy', it really evoked no impassioned response from me whatsoever. At nearly 29 I am "just" old enough to remember some of the older time animation, and I agree that the idiosyncrasies of those films did add character.
There's just something so 'organic' about asymmetry and the little inconsistencies that sneak their way into anything drawn by the human hand. In fact, the entire post calls to mind the age old argument of man vs. machine, and I have always argued heavily in favor of the human equation.

So very well said! :o)

Irelock said...

Well said, Jess. Thank you for recognizing and supporting the necessity of the human hand. You may be only 29, but remember we need people to preserve life before computers for humanity's sake. I believe the first comment post in this thread said that there will soon be a generation of young ones coming who will not remember what we had before high tech took over ... I want to believe otherwise.

jess said...

Don't worry...you CAN believe otherwise, because I for one will not be changing my opinion!

Irelock said...

Thanks, Jess. It is comforting to know that young people still see the magic of hand-made. It would be simply awful to lose that part of life.

Hap Murphy said...

Well as a child from 1946 all animation fascinated me and especially the Disney works but I fortunately was introduced to Winsor McCay's works early on because I had a great Grandmother who understood my mind. I grew up wanting to make balls roll, sticks walk or dogs bite the teacher in the rear to the amusement of my fellow students also. So I like your incites on the story board process and though I never thought of them that way I guess Winsor and all the other Sunday morning cartoonists were story boarders as well, many of whom went on to make animated "Cartoons" such as Elzie Segar's "Popeye" from the Thimble theater features.
Thanx for your look at the process!

Irelock said...

More people make story boards than you realize. When my husband builds anything out of wood or metal, he's got pencil and paper out first. His purpose is the same as animators ... find the flaws, save headache and money with planning. The automotive industry were actually some of the first to really promote and utilize the concept. I suppose the visual arts are thought of most simply because our final product is so close to what story boarding is ... wherever it's used, what a great way to communicate ideas and ambitions!

donna said...

Avatar, as an artist , I absoultly loved it! It, for it transported me to a world of wonderment ,loaded with georgous lighting and dramatic colors. Eye candy for the soul, I personally could not wait to try to incorporate such awesome lighting and colors into a piece of my own art. Donna Walsh

Irelock said...

I've heard from so many people that Avatar was beautiful. The packaging of the DVD is beautiful, too. I'm not denying that at all, I'm simply saying that, for me, it's just too perfect. But you, Donna, if you can incorporate such awesome lighting and colours into your own pieces of art then the world will respond. It's pretty obvious they like perfection, too :o)