Just a little animation thought today. Those who have worked with me know how much I value life in animation. I can be quite critical of animation that, really, is just movement. Anyone can make something move. It takes real skill and heart to make a character really live.
That’s acting. No matter what kind of character you are animating, it’s about the acting. The understanding of the moment, the feeling, the drive of the character. It has many layers of depth that you can apply to even the simplest, crudest preschool show.
But animators have to bring something else that actors themselves generally don’t have to worry about: physics. When you’re on a set or a stage performing, physics takes care of itself. Weight and gravity just happens. If you drop a glass, you don’t really have to sell that the glass is hitting the floor as part of your performance. As an animator, you do. As an animator, the physics of and around your character is part of your challenge. It is part of how you sell the performance, then the scene, then the whole story.
And so good animation is much more than movement. It is acting plus physics.
One little thing unrelated to animation – a Gråtass live action children’s feature film I wrote picked up the Audience Award at Cinekid last week. Congratulations to the director, producers, cast and crew!
Disclaimer: I have never written Star Trek. Instead, I’ve been reading the late Michael Piller’s book Fade In, on writing Star Trek Insurrection. Being honest, reading it is like being at work. It documents his ideas for the movie, the notes he got back, the discussions over the roles of actors and then the subsequent drafts. Nothing too dramatic. Actually, he had it pretty easy. I’ve had it pretty easy too for the most part so, yes, while I haven’t written a Star Trek movie, this all feels really familiar.
One thing really struck me at the start of the book. He describes the initial concept he pitched and then describes the notes that came back. Instantly, I looked at the notes and thought, well a lot of that ended up in the final movie. If the problems were identified right at the start, how could that happen?
As I read through the book, what became apparent is how good Michael Piller was at two things which, personally, I think worked against his movie.
1) He was great at talking people round.
I guess it’s hard to see this as much of a negative. To succeed as a writer or anything else creative, you have to be able to make a really great case for your ideas. You need to be able to pitch them well and get people on your side. Those skills are crucial.
And yet where this skill betrays you is if you’re talking your way into proceeding with problems that have been clearly identified. You have to know when to stop talking and start listening and really take the notes seriously. Most of Michael Piller’s process as he describes it was rejecting the notes and either talking his way round them or he would use his next skill which I think worked against the movie:
2) He could patch holes quickly.
For every problem he didn’t just talk his way out of, he patched it with a quick solution that allowed him to continue without him having to completely re-examine his story. That too is a good skill and it allows you to keep up momentum and I know he had a preproduction deadline staring him in the face. But the thing about patching problems is that it doesn’t actually remove them. People still ask questions, still pause for a moment to wonder about the actions of a character or the reality of the situation. Even though you add lines in that explain those things, people have still been taken out of the movie and may or may not accept your explanation.
I think the problems required more thought. More willingness to tear open the story and make real fundamental changes. Because for me, the way to tackle a script problem is not to actually find a solution or a fix – it is to remove the problem altogether. Don’t give an answer to the question. Prevent the question from ever being asked. And that usually takes a LOT more thought and, unfortunately, often requires going back many steps in the process to achieve.
I don’t mean to come down hard on Michael Piller. In his life, especially with Star Trek, he achieved more than I have ever achieved and his work on the TV show was excellent. The reason these two things stood out to me is for the same reason that reading the book felt like work – they were all too familiar. I too have talked my way into going ahead with story problems when I shouldn’t have. I too have patched scripts when I should have taken a step back and really looked at why the problems were there in the first place. So I guess in a way, I’m really meaning to come down hard on myself for doing this in the past. As is so common on this blog, this post is really a note to self. But maybe you’ll see it’s something you can watch out for too.
Great movies and shows will only come from great scripts. We have to be willing to listen to every note, hear every problem and we have to do what it takes every time to make that script better.
Here’s a thing about your creative endeavours, whether it’s that project you’re pushing, that job you’re hoping to get or your whole career – you need to keep up the momentum. It can be so hard to get any kind of movement at all. So when you do get it, even a hint of it, you have to keep pushing and keep that movement going.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Nope. Absence makes the heart (or the mind or whatever) forget. People move on and they notice other things and other people and, soon, that momentum you felt you had is gone.
It’s not easy, especially when you have to bury yourself away like a hermit to actually get some work done, as I’m sure many of the writers will understand. But you have to get out there and keep up a presence in whatever form you can. Even if it’s just a blog post about keeping up a presence.
Get out there and build that momentum. And when you get a tiny bit of movement, don’t let up. Stay out there as much as you can and let people see your newest work, hear the stories of what you have coming soon or even just see your face around. Keep that momentum going.
I remember the first feature script of mine that was ever optioned, well over a decade ago. The concept was sound but I was in the fourth draft when I knew in my heart it wasn’t going anywhere. It was dropped soon after.
When I look back on that script now, I realise that I didn’t actually write four drafts of that story. Instead, I wrote four first drafts. Each time, I threw everything out and I started again. So maybe I avoided some problems but I introduced a whole new set of problems. That’s expected in a first draft, especially from a new writer which is exactly what I was.
Soon after, I was working on a different feature script. People liked it. But when it came to the second draft, I caved and couldn’t fix it. I moved on to a whole other story.
Movies can be overwhelming due to the length. Fixing story problems is hard. Pulling structure together is hard. Moving scenes around is hard. Patching logic holes, making sure everyone acts in character, it’s all hard. You only have to see movies to know that certain problems slip through the cracks so everyone finds it tough. And everyone had told me how important the rewrite is. How important it is to let go of the parts you might love when tackling notes. And generally notes (even your own) mean a big list of things we don’t like.
What we sometimes forget to focus on is: what do we already love?
For whatever reason, I got a lot more protective when I began to write TV scripts. I have a feeling that’s because TV scripts are smaller and more manageable so it is easier to see all the knock-on effects to changes I’m about to make to a draft. It was still very important to learn how to tackle notes, be flexible and not get stubborn but, when I approach new drafts of a TV episode, my first goal is to make sure I don’t lose what is working. I make a note of the good parts. Then I set about fixing the problems, patching the holes. It’s a fixing job, not scorched earth. And each draft gets better and better rather than losing the very things everyone liked in the first place. Side note: this is something that is very important to me when I work as a script editor. The writer MUST know what bits I love already.
It is only in the last couple of years (and three produced features in) that I approach feature drafts the same way I do TV scripts – protect what is working, fix what is not. Make a second draft a second draft, not a whole other first draft.
It’s not easy. It might sound strange to some people but it can actually be easier to start from scratch on a whole different story than it is to fix one in progress. But fixing the existing story, improving it, working at it is exactly what needs to be done. That’s how you get to a good script that can make it to screen.
Protect what is working. Fix what is not. Sit down and do the work.