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Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

Recently I’ve watched a Ted talk presented by Pixar’s filmmaker Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed “Finding Nemo”(2003), “WALL-E”(2008) and wrote scripts for Toy Story movies and Monsters, Inc. In his talk he spoke about storytelling, how he approaches it when he’s writing a script and why do we love stories.

Stanton says that we all love stories because “Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories.”(2012). I think that’s something that gets overlooked sometimes when we discuss stories. It seems to me that the main reason people like stories, whether is it a novel book, or a movie, or a story on a radio, we seem to think that it all comes down to the entertainment, how we, humans want to be entertained. But his point is different, or at least he gives it a fresh perspective, as he sees it from a different angle.

As a storyteller/writer you should “know your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal”. This is important – it shows that stories should be well planned ahead and the ending should be figured out from the start so the middle part is the journey to that goal. Coming up with endings is hard, I realised that while planning and writing the story for my final project and I’m still not satisfied with it.

Another point he makes is to ““Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care. We all know what it’s like to not care”.(2012) This is something that every scriptwriter should have in a back of his head, that the only way to catch audience’s attention, to entertain them is by making them care. Later on he goes on about how we should make the audience put things together, make them work for it. So instead of giving them everything on a plate, let’s make it fun for them to solve it for themselves. As he says “We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.“(2012).

A character should have a spine, a goal, something they’re striving for. He gives examples of Pixar characters, such as WALL-E, or Marlin from “Finding Nemo”, but what’s really interesting is what he says at the end, that these goals can sometimes lead to some bad decision making, that characters get in trouble because of them, there are new obstacles in front of them. And that’s what makes stories much more interesting and entertaining.

He also talks about how he was struggling in the early days of Pixar, while writing “Toy Story”. At the time there was a certain formula for animation movies. For example there was a lot of singing involved and there was some romance. The story wasn’t working out and Disney was panicking, so they wanted all these things in the movie. But Stanton and the rest refused, and as he says: “And thank goodness we were just too young, rebellious and contrarian at the time. That just gave us more determination to prove that you could build a better story. And a year after that, we did conquer it.”(2012). It shows that there are no hard rules in storytelling, there are only guidelines. However liking the main character is something he says is a “fundamental”.  I think it would be hard for the audience to relate to an unlikable character, especially in the animated movie. Although there are examples of successful stories with unlikable characters in main roles, I’m thinking about House from “House MD”, or Kevin Spacey’s character from “House of Cards”, but I’m not totally convinced they’re unlikable. They might be evil(in House of Cards case), or rude and cynical like House but there’s something about their characters that people like.

According to Stanton one of the most important ingredients that a story should have is a sense of wonder. “Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent. It can’t be artificially evoked. For me, there’s no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling — to hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder”(2012).

He ended his talk with saying that drawing from our own experiences, our own stories is also something a storyteller should do. “Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.”(2012)

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story, 2012. [online] TED talk. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story/

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Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny Valley occurs when a CGI character(mainly human characters), or a robot, looks too realistic it makes people feel uneasy and uncomfortable. It also happens when the character tries to mimic a human behaviour but fails, when its movement isn’t quite right, it looks rather mechanical than natural, when the character tries to make an eye contact but fails. The phenomenon known to us since the 70’s, when the term was first used by a Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori and ever since is a cause of a debate for scientist and artists.

Pixar avoided the uncanny valley effect by coming up with its own style of character design. It might not be a common knowledge but one of the reasons that pushed Pixar to achieve this was a the audience’s reaction to their short, “Tin Toy”(1988), featuring a very realistic looking baby character that freaked people out. Stylized characters let animators do so much more that realistic looking human characters.

A well-known example of the Uncanny Valle effects is the “Polar Express”(2004) and to a certain extent Beowulf(2007). What these two films have in common is a same director, Robert Zemeckis, and the fact that instead of using key frame animation, motion capture was used to capture actors facial expressions. What I’ve noticed is that even that the visuals in that film look pretty great the characters’ eyes look dead, they don’t have any emotions. Similar things could be said about characters in The Adventures of Tintin, in which also motion capture was used. I think that could be something that puts us off when it comes to realistically looking characters. It seems to me that the motion capture, which works fine when it comes to capturing body movement is still limited when it comes to facial expressions. That’s why Golum’s face, from Lord of The Rings was animated by actual animators and not by motion capture.

Here is an example that in my opinion works. The model is very realistic(when I first saw it I didn’t realise that it was CGI), however it doesn’t give any creepy vibes. The performance feels human, doesn’t look mechanical or unnatural. Of course after looking more into it we cane notice that her face looks too smooth, and there’s something different about her eyes, but I wouldn’t say they’re dead but I think it could be said that Image Metrics, company that’s behind this project successfully avoided the Uncanny Valley effect.

It seems to me that when it comes to animation eyes and eye brows are important in avoiding the uncanny valley. It’s something that motion capture can’t do, or can’t get it right at the moment and by focusing on that we can get much more natural looking expressions and much more interesting expressions. Some say that eyes are the window to the soul and we want our characters to look alive and believable.

HSU, J., 2012. Why “Uncanny Valley” Human Look-Alikes Put Us on Edge [online] Scientific American, Available at:  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-uncanny-valley-human-look-alikes-put-us-on-edge/ [Accessed date: 06.01.2015]

Snyder D. D., 2011, ‘Tintin’ and the Curious Case of the Dead Eyes [Online] The Atlantic, available at:  http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/12/tintin-and-the-curious-case-of-the-dead-eyes/250432/ [Accessed date: 20.04.2015]

Rose S., 2011, Tintin and the Uncanny Valley: when CGI gets too real [Online] The Guardian, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/oct/27/tintin-uncanny-valley-computer-graphics [Accessed date: 20.04.2015]

Adobe’s Character Animator and what does it mean for the industry

Few days ago Adobe released a video in which they present their latest software to the public. It’s called Character Animator and it’s able to motion track the head movements and facial expressions. One of its main advantages is how easy is it to rig a character. It’s also clear that it’s rather targeted at hobbyists, small corporate projects and maybe schools. I can’t imagine it being used in a professional environment on a big project. The software itself isn’t really an animation program, as it’s rather a motion capture software. It raises a question if this can be still called animation if no one is actually doing any animation. Purists would probably argue that it’s not, as the animation is an art form and there’s not a lot of art going on in motion capture. They could fear that it will make damage the industry, make it look as something easy to do and cause some jobs to disappear, but people had similar worries when CGI was becoming a big deal. I can’t imagine using any of the animation principles in that software, so at the end the result would be rather poor. But maybe that’s not the case? This software could be used during the planning and testing phase, if I was available now I would probably use it in my research as I can see a very little alternative for a motion capture of the face.

What are emotions?

Until 17th century, the word “emotion” didn’t even exist in the English language. Instead terms such as “passions” or “affections” were used. So what exactly are emotions, and how do they relate to animation?

For years emotions were somehow ignored by psychologists in their research, there was very little work done on that subject and it was only Paul Ekman that really saw potential in that area. He started his cross-cultural research by traveling around the world and showing people images of different facial expressions and asked them to match them with emotions such as: happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger and surprise. He wanted to find out if our perception of facial expression is influence by the culture, or is it universal. That’s why he decided to try his experiment in a remote location, where he was confident that people weren’t exposed to the western culture. He continued his research in Papua New Guinea, where he did the same experiment. After getting his results he established the idea of six basic emotions, which was a very popular opinion throughout the years, but it is being challenged right now by other researchers.

One of the criticism of his research was based on a fact that the pictures that he was showing to people were posed and over the top. We know that emotions don’t exist without a context, in a vacuum. This is something that has also came up during my tutorial sessions, researching expressions and facial animation is ok, but without the story, the context it tends to be meaningless and won’t help me improve as an animator.

So why are animators obsessed about emotions and facial expressions? Personally I think that everyone is somehow interested in it, as we all want to know how our minds work. Animators use it to their advantage. They can transform a single thought into something creative and amazing and share it with others. Understanding character’s emotions is important when it comes to telling the story and acting. I think that unlike the actors, or directors or other people from the film industry who can show other valuable skills, animators ability to show what character is thinking, how is he feeling, is important when it comes to getting a job, that’s what makes animator’s work stand out.

 

BECK J., 2014. Hard Feelings: Science’s Struggle to Define Emotions [online]. The Atlantic, Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/hard-feelings-sciences-struggle-to-define-emotions/385711/  [24.02.2015]

11 second club – March

Voice One: “I shouldn’t say this, because I majored in math, but you have my 1,000 percent attention.”
Voice Two: “Wow, that’s a lot! I’m thrilled to hear that! You, I…”
Voice One: “Excuse me one moment. Have you heard from Indonesia? Ok.”

 

I was struggling with the idea for this month’s competition, couldn’t come up with anything original, but as it’s a good practice I’ve decided to do a standard guy and a girl conversation over lunch. They male character will be somehow arrogant and will ignore his female companion. In my opinion that dialogue can benefit my research, as facial expression will be determinate if the acting is good or not.  I’ve decided to set the scene in Parisian type cafe. I’ve looked at some examples online and then started modelling my scene. As we can see it still needs texturing and some details.

Cafe de Paris

source: wikipedia.org

source: etsy.com

source: etsy.com

source: wikipedia.org

source: wikipedia.org

 

cafe

New “Inside Out” trailer

“Inside Out” is a new Pixar’s movie that is coming out this summer. The subject of the movies is close to my research as it tackles the issues of emotions. The main characters are Riley, a girl who just moved to a new city and 5 emotions that are leading her actions. What this trailer reveals is the fact that two important emotions, Joy and Sadness, lose control over her actions and get kicked out from the “control room”. It looks like from that point Anger, Fear and Disgust are going to guide Riley, so I can imagine where this story would be going. They either going to focus on puberty and growing up, as she seems to be a teenager, or go slightly darker route and focus on mental illnesses. Nevertheless I am pretty excited about that movie. I took few screenshots showcasing the facial expressions that characters are having. I’ve noticed how important the asymmetry is, especially when it comes to the eyebrows, character portraying anger is a great example of that.

joy1 joy2

disgust1 disgust2 disgust3anger1 anger2 anger3

It also reminded me of this little short:

And this old Disney, propaganda short, which cleverly tells the audience that they should always follow the reason, and shows how the public can be manipulated by the emotions:

Morality and ethics in media on an example of “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media”

Documentary “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media” talks about how the media are used for propaganda purposes and sometimes misinform the public on what government and corporations are doing. One of the examples he gave was a difference in how Cambodian Civil War and Indonesian occupation of East Timor were covered and presented to the public. The first one got a lot of attention form the press, with daily updates and news articles, while the other one was marginalised and very little was said about it in the media. Chomsky claims that disproportion was caused by the fact that Indonesia was an ally of US, while Cambodia was considered an enemy. In his eyes it’s a perfect example of media’s unwillingness to criticize an ally, which from a brief research I did and evidence provided by the creators of the documentary I have to agree with. However I’m not sure if it was pure unwillingness from the media. We have to remember that it was back in the times of the Cold War when world was basically divided in two sides. From my understanding that region was very important from sea travelling perspective, trade routes were going there and apparently American submarines were patrolling the region. I think that US was afraid that they might lose the control over it and Soviets would have took it over from them. The region is close to Australia who also played a role in the conflict and was criticised in the documentary as well. I think from their perspective it was better to have their allies “next door” rather than let Soviet get closer to them. As I said it was most likely morally wrong, but the Cold War times were very different and sadly the me versus them mentality was very strong back them. I think it is foolish to expect media to be objective, of course that would be great, but we’re not living in the idea world. Everyone has their own views and opinions that they will try to present to the public. I’m afraid we, as the audience have to remember to critically analyse our news sources. It also applies to people like me, who want to work in media and the entertainment industry. We will somehow try to get through with our own views and opinions in our work, I don’t think that it is avoidable. What I think is important is not to misinform the audience, present them with false data and claims, especially in the news industry. Issues such as global warming are still very controversial and some media are trying to present them as false and something that public shouldn’t worry about which is rather a lie and according to science we finally should do something about it.