Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Cal Arts 1 - apology to the students

I'm making a direct apology to all you Cal Arts students. I have used the term "The Cal Arts Style" to point to many familiar modern drawing and animation cliches in order to contrast them against more universal animation drawing principles, and I can understand why students might think I am directly blaming them or attacking them which I am absolutely not!

I'll elaborate on this in the next article, but first I want to post some life drawings I saw at a show at Cal Arts a couple weeks ago.

I have to say, when I was invited to Cal Arts to see this artwork, I wasn't expecting much. But when I arrived with Eddie, I was shocked to see these wonderful drawings!
This seated woman shows that the artist is very observant, can:

see in 3 dimensions,

understands hierarchies of forms (the details follow the perspective of the larger forms) and on top of that

has some individual style. There are some angles imposed upon the figure, but the angles seem to fit in sensible places-unlike many cartoon designs today that just have arbitrary angles for the sake of having angles.

This tortoise shows both form and style. In some areas the form is more evident-in the legs and the bottom of the shell. The top of the shell seems more arbitrary-less sensible, because the plates aren't following the perspective and form of the shell. But I can see that the artist when he is thinking about it, can make it make sense and that takes a good eye and a good brain.This seated girl on a tortoise shows that the artist is capable of applying what he learned from life drawing to an image he created out of his head. This to me is the goal of art school-to learn how things really look, and then to remember the principles that make things look the way they you can then make up images that are convincing and show off your knowledge.

This drawing of a girl's face shows a lot of style and some form. Some of the form-the shoulder, the bottom of the nose, is cheated, but the drawing shows off obvious talent and personality.
Here is a slight caricature that looks like the artist really looked at the model. It doesn't look like a caricature that is trying to be in a certain caricature style. It isn't filtered through another artist's style. The artist didn't ask himself "How would Hirschfeld interpret this person?" Or "How would I draw this in an animation style?"

The drawing is based on pure observation, and when you draw from a model that's what you should do-get all your opinions from the way the model actually looks, instead of interpreting the model through a predetermined style. Every model is its own style.

This drawing shows foreshortening and perspective in the positions of the arms.
I'd love to see that in a cartoon drawing or animated scene.

These drawings are by an extremely observant and talented artist.

There were good "realistic" drawings like this plastered all over the walls at Cal Arts.

So if all this talent exists at the school, it makes me wonder why I never see this kind of talent translated into cartoon drawings or animation and acting, particularly in cartoons that are considered the "Cal Arts Style"-Don Bluth, Disney, Pixar, Cats Don't Dance etc. Or now- the flat style- The Cartoon Network/Nickelodeon TV fake UPA style.

None of these cartoons reflect the observational ability that I see in these life drawings.

Disconnect between life drawings and cartoon drawings
There were a few cartoon style drawings that hung on the walls and if I'd only seen those I would have assumed there was not much talent at Cal Arts. They mostly fit into current trendy non-principled styles, the ones I listed above.

It makes me ask the question; "What's the point of having strong talent and observational skills and then to turn around and not use any of these abilities in the cartoon drawings?"

Many of the cartoon drawings were at the level of typical Cartoon Network kiddie shows so it makes me wonder why the huge disconnect between the draftsmanship in the life drawings and the flat simplistic uninspiring cartoon drawings.
There's a big difference between these 2 drawings. The top drawing anyone can do. The bottom drawings are done by a highly principled draftsman who learned his fundamentals first before deciding to draw in a stylized way.


I know from 20 years of hiring and training students from Cal Arts and other schools-and kids with no schooling at all - that having good life drawings is absolutely no indication whatsoever of whether you can be a functional cartoonist or animator.

I know every animation school tells the students how important life drawing is, but then they don't teach you how to apply what you could be learning from your life drawings to your cartoon drawings.

I've been fooled before. I've hired artists who had great life drawings in their portfolio, and then found out they couldn't draw a cartoon to save their life. They couldn't make up a drawing out of their head and turn it around and pose it and make up expressions- all functional needs if you are to be an animation artist.

I have spent a ton of my own money retraining artists who already spent a hundred thousand dollars or so for 4 years at school and didn't learn to be functional.

This makes me mad, not at you students, but at the schools for not doing their job. I figure they owe me a lot of money because I have to redo their jobs for them. It's pretty established that I have trained a ton of artists and that after I do, these same artists are then in demand by all the other studios in town, so I hope you will take advantage of some tips I will give you for free now, while you have time at school to learn important principles of animation and drawing.


While I agree in theory that life drawing can be helpful to animators, it doesn't automatically follow that spending a lot of time drawing models makes you a good animator.

School should be methodical. It should teach you skills and then how to apply the skills to typical practical problems that you will encounter in the real world.

How many of you have seen artists who are really great at drawing something that is put in front of them, but when they have to make something up out of their heads, they can't do it? They draw primitively when they have to rely on their imagination or memory. It happens all the time.

Then you might know someone who isn't very good at copying things, but can animate and create things that look great, just out of her head.

The point of doing life drawings is to learn things that you can REMEMBER and then apply to your creative drawings-the ones you make up.

There should be a class that is a link between your life drawing class that makes you remember certain things about your life drawing class and then methodically apply what you learned to a cartoon drawing or a scene of animation.

Not anatomy. Anatomical cartoons tend to look awkward and clunky.
Solidity of structure but with organic surfaces
Individual specific features
Human expressions-as opposed to "animation expressions"

If your cartoon drawings are in some specific modern trendy style-like the flat style, then you don't need life drawing. In fact, you don't need to waste a hundred thousand dollars and 4 years of your life drawing in a style that so many amateurs with half your talent learn just by watching the Cartoon Network and copying the shows for free at home. There are a million people who can draw in that style.

You have talent. Don't you wanna show the amateurs and posers up? You can certainly do it, but you'd have to be methodical about getting there and you need to learn the difference between good drawing principles and stylistic cliches. You want to know how to take your observations from life and interpret what you have observed from life into cartoon form.

If I was your teacher, I wouldn't even let you design your own characters in animation class. I would make you animate characters that already work-simple, well constructed characters like Elmer Fudd, Donald Duck or Tom and Jerry. Students shouldn't even be trying to design their own characters. You need to learn to animate in 3 dimensions first. If you are struggling to animate an amateurish awkward design, your progress will be hugely handicapped. I would put your tuition to the most efficient use and give you the tools you need to be functional when you get out of school.

You should run and beg your teachers to show you fundamentals and to criticize your work if it's awkward, flat or clumsy. Otherwise you are throwing away a lot of money.

If you just want to be "creative" and an "individual", you don't need to go to school for that. Save your money and be a hippie at home! Schools should teach you decades of experience and fundamental knowledge.

Drawing good cartoon principles is not a style
Some of you probably think I am going to try to convince you to draw in the "Spumco Style" which I promise I'm not. I hate the Spumco Style and I tell young artists who have portfolios with fake Spumco drawings in them to go learn to draw cartoons for real before coming back to me.

Here is a clever page of cartoon drawings that is not typical of Cal Arts, These drawings are cartoons, but they don't fit into a trendy modern cliche style, but more important than that:

These cartoon drawings show a good understanding and observation of fundamental principles:
They show some knowledge of construction (they aren't flat). They show observation of real anatomy-which is not required in animation, but if you are going to do it, you should use your own observations like this artist did, not Don Bluth's imitations of Milt Kahl's observations.

I think this style would be hard to animate because anatomy is complicated and will slow down your learning of how to make things move in 3 dimensions. That's why I recommend using simple rounded characters while you are learning to animate-so you can spend your time learning to move things, rather than spending a ton of time trying to figure out how to draw very complicated forms from difficult angles, and then trying to animate them.

Then you see your animation test and it doesn't work, so you've wasted a lot of time drawing individual drawings that take too long to figure out.

These drawings have a lot of visual appeal too. Quite beautiful. The artist obviously has a good design sense and wants to follow in the footsteps of Mary Blair and Lynne Naylor. But both those artists have well rounded skills and drew in more principled styles before they developed their own signature looks.

If you intend to animate and choose a designy style while you are learning motion, you are going to run into a lot of problems trying to figure out how to get one pose to move convincingly into another pose. You will have to rely on tricks. You sure would have a tough time moving one head position slowly into another head position without having the features float all over the face.

I love design too, but think design is a more advanced goal and your design ability will be greatly enhanced by learning to draw and animate in 3 dimensions. I'll talk more about that in another post.

Use school to become a powerhouse animator
I really want to see talented people succeed and so I'm gonna devote some posts to you and try to give you the benefit of my own experience not only drawing myself, but training so many other talented people and encouraging their own unique talents. There is no studio in the business that is more open to artists using their individual styles and ideas in the cartoons than mine, but you need to earn that right by having solid functional skills and having a REAL style, not a trendy one. Every other studio will force you to draw "on-model" and I promise you, you won't enjoy that. You will also be in competition with much less talented artists than yourselves who can draw simple styles "on-model" and they will work for less than you and will suck up to the executives who hate you.

Draw better than the hacks and make good drawing be in demand. Your talent can lift the whole business up and make the hacks scramble to keep up with you! Don't aim low or you and all creative people will pay dearly for it later.

I know you are young and therefore rebellious and suspicious of all experience and authority and I don't blame you. I'm old and STILL suspicious of authority! But I distrust arbitrary authority-like dumbass executives who can't draw a straight line to save their life.

But I'll tell you one thing, I sure as hell begged Clampett, Jones, Avery, Hanna and a lot of the classic animators I knew to teach me every possible little thing they were willing to share with me and I applied many of their hard won techniques to my own cartoons and created my own style and quite a revolution doing it.

You can be much more of an individual if you learn the difference between solid principles and stylistic tricks so I can only hope a few of you take my advice and make yourselves the most powerful and creative artists your gifts will allow you to be.

I wouldn't go to this much trouble if I hadn't seen the strong talent and observational skills in your life drawings. Now I'd love to see you put that same kind of thinking into your cartoons!