I know it’s been a while since I’ve done a full-fledged article here. I’ve been insanely busy and unable to really process what I’ve been dealing with. It’s all been good work recently and that’s part of what is driving this article. Most of the features I’ve AD’d in the past two years have made…
IT WAS a tiny kitten when it came and could drink its milk only from a nipple. Fortunately, they still had Sophia’s baby bottle in the attic. In the beginning, the kitten slept in a tea cozy to keep warm, but when it found its legs they let it sleep in the cottage in Sophia’s bed. It had its own pillow, next to hers.
It was a gray fisherman’s cat and it grew fast. One day, it left the cottage and moved into the house, where it spent its nights under the bed in the box where they kept the dirty dishes. It had odd ideas of its own even then. Sophia carried the cat back to the cottage and tried as hard as she could to ingratiate herself, but the more love she gave it, the quicker it fled back to the dish box. When the box got too full, the cat would howl and someone would have to wash the dishes. Its name was Ma Petite, but they called it Moppy.
“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”
I’ve been reading NYBR’s translations of Tove Jansson’s books - Summer Book, Fair Play, and The True Deciever. If you read and liked the Moomin books, with quietly honest & philosophical undertones underneath all the adventure, you’ll probably find something great in these. I’m learning valuable things about being an artist and making art from the characters in these books, approaches to problems I’ve been struggling with.
If you haven’t read the Moomin books, what are you waiting for!?
I’m glad she wrote them. They’re like letters from the big sister you never had.
Writing as a drawing tool - yeah, that sounds weird. If you wanted to work with words, you’d be a writer, right?
This isn’t beautiful writing, though. This is organizational, planning writing that I’m going to talk about. Writing out a scene beat by beat. Outlining an entire story.
Full disclosure: I’m not a visual thinker.
If I’ve only met you a few times, I recall you in terms of a general impression and descriptive words. I have no picture of you in my head. It’s kind of crazy that I’ve gotten this far in this field without a mind’s eye, but using writing as an intermediary between intention and drawing has helped me a lot. If you’re a visual thinker you probably have your own methods of working, but either way I hope this is useful.
When I jump straight into boards or thumbnailing, it can be easy to get lost or forget the point of view I intended to convey in the scene.
When I work straight ahead - in either writing or boarding - it’s easy for me to go down the rabbit hole of possibilities. The farther down the rabbit hole you go, the harder it is to distinguish which choices are serving your goals, because this option is awesome — wait, and this one is, too. All of them are interesting and worth pursuing, and sometimes you forget where you were going in the first place.
While that exploratory work is useful, it can be deadly when I’m crunched for time.
Not LITERALLY deadly but deadly to productivity for sure.
So that’s where writing comes in.
When I write down where the scene should end up, what each character is doing, that’s one thing I don’t have to constantly grip in my mind. I’ve got it on my notepad, and my mind is freed up to explore within the constraints I’ve set down.
It all seems clear in my head, but it helps to write it down. Seeing the whole thing down on paper gives me a good look at where the disorganized areas are, so I can make adjustments. When I go straight ahead, it’s easy to tell myself I’ll figure it out when I get there… but this brings me to another point:
Writing is so, so much faster than drawing.
I’m not talking about flowery description. I’m talking about basic “she goes there, he feels this, because of this she does that,” etc. You can knock this out in five minutes. Even looking at the bare bones it’s easy to see where you’re losing the spirit of your pitch.
I’d much prefer to find out that I’ve lost the spirit of my pitch in five minutes than an hour later, after thumbnailing the whole thing.
Here’s another advantage: I can write down my plan, approve of it in sound mind, and have that paper with my plan for the scene or story written on it when I am:
in the throes of self-doubt
seduced by the compulsion to change everything at the last minute
wondering whether this was ever a good idea and what is on TV (very subtly different from the throes of self-doubt)
If you’re not convinced, you’re not convinced.
If you are, here are some guidelines:
When you’re beating out a scene, think about WHY the audience is watching - like, what do they want to find out? Think about what they probably EXPECT will happen (so you can support that) and what ACTUALLY happens (so you can surprise them with it).
Write down everything that happens in the scene. Descriptive words help (because again, when you’re tired and can’t decide what the acting should be, you can look at your descriptive word and just do that).
She looks up, confused.
Above: wasp nest on a tree
Wasps buzzing around it
She is horrified
For an outline - for your whole story - things are a little different. A general guideline I use for writing out an outline is that each of the following gets a paragraph:
the concept of the story
who the main character is
what is her place in the world
what goes wrong (inciting incident)
how does she try to fix it (act 1 break)
brief description of complications (act 2)
what really goes wrong (midpoint)
resolution (act 3)
It seems counter-intuitive that almost half of the outline would be setup for the story, and that the end would be just one paragraph, but this really does work and make sense when you need to see your whole story in just a few pages.
So next time you have a story idea, try writing some things down before you start sketching your favorite moments. Maybe you’ll like it.
Hello! I have trouble writing characters being mean and/or unpleasant, and sometimes I have a hard time letting bad things happen to them. I think I'm putting too much of my own personality into the characters. How do I stop this and write them properly?
Stop worrying about making your characters’ motivations bulletproof, and making them reasonable and measured people; that tends to be where you most easily slide into making them like you - or like you wish you were.
Take a side character and make them into the main character. Or give your character a desperate want. Think about who they are at the end of a long, stressful day - they can’t possibly be perfect - how do they blow off steam?
Putting your own personality into the characters works best IMO when it’s only the stuff you hate about yourself. The stuff you’re proud of winds up preachy (and will sneak into the character anyway).
For a shy main character how do you write dialogue? I'm having trouble with writing for him. -Alec
This is probably more about the characters you’re surrounding him with. A shy/passive character is going to avoid contact and dialogue until the issue becomes unbearable. Drop other characters in that push him around and see how far he’ll let himself be pushed before he says something.
If you’re having trouble thinking of what a character would do, maybe you haven’t made life unpleasant enough for them yet. :)
A couple weeks ago I was asking on Twitter what holds you up from making things - stories, drawings, art, films. Here are the problems that emerged as common and what I’ve got to say to give unproductivity what-for… based on my own experience.
What holds you back from creative endeavors?
What I work on won’t be any good. It won’t be worth the time invested. It will suck.
It’s not any good yet, as long as it doesn’t exist.
Do your best, it’s all you can do. Your best today is not going to be your best in a year - UNLESS you don’t do anything between now and then, UNLESS you don’t learn from your mistakes.
You’re investing time in making your project great, but big picture you’re investing time in YOUR skills. You will do better next time.
Scheduling - hard to find the time to do what I want to do.
Finding time when you have a family or a fulltime job (or both) is really difficult. An hour here or there can make all the difference.
If you don’t have a family yet, think about whether creating something is more important to you than watching TV? Video games? Hanging out with friends? Sleeping?
A quiet writer buddy can help keep you on task: you both show up to the same place at the same time and work on stuff. As long as you feel self-conscious about goofing around on the internet while she (or he) is being productive across the table from you…
I don’t know where to start. I procrastinate.
Make a list of what steps you need to take to start. Make a stupid-detailed list. Like, “1) find a pen. 2) find a reference picture of a snowy forest. 3) sketch the rough. 4) do the thumbnail value study. 5) etc” —- if each step is trivial enough, it’s not difficult to start. Once you get a little momentum, it’s not difficult to keep going.
That’s what works for me. I’m struggling with finding time right now - sleeping is the demon I wrestle with most. Sleep is very attractive when a project isn’t going well, or when the next steps are overwhelming. Time to make a ridiculously long detailed list of trivial steps…
If you’re going to be in San Diego this weekend for Comicon, do yourself a favor and stop by Trickster too. It’s at 795 J St in San Diego (handy Googlemaps here) and it’s a pop-up dedicated to creator-owned projects and the creators themselves. When the crush of Comicon gets too much for you, head over to the Trickster bar and meet some awesome people. Yes, there is a bar.
If you’re there and see a girl with a cast on her arm, she’s probably me. Say hi. If she’s not, she’s probably still awesome because she’s at Trickster.
If you are too far away for Comicon but happen to be in, say, Toronto, and happen to have July 27th & 28th free, maybe you want to check out the Pixar Artists’ Masterclass and get a day on story from story guy Matthew Luhn and a day on animation from Andrew Gordon. I’ll also be there*, talking for an hour or so on Matthew’s day so he can give his voice a break. What will I be talking about? I’m glad you asked — I will be discussing the story list of mine that’s been making the rounds online.
If you see a girl with a cast on her arm in Toronto though, hopefully she’s not me because my arm has atrophied enough and I vowed to have this cast off by the end of the month. She’s probably still awesome though, because she’s Canadian.
* even though I am no longer a practicing Pixar artist, I still feel a kinship with them and they with me.
It is hard to get in touch with you guys when you leave anonymous messages in my tumblr inbox with no contact info. Email addresses, people! Or at least ham radio callsigns or geographic coordinates or something!
#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
Actually this one was the prompt for the short film I’m finishing up right now. I heard something like it in an interview between John Cleese and William Goldman (one of my heroes, you may know him for writing a couple little movies called The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid): Goldman talks about how he is constantly trying to surprise himself. What better way to surprise yourself than think of what wouldn’t happen next?
It felt like discovering a cheat code for story. You have complete license to come up with off-the-wall, interesting stuff, and when something strikes your fancy you move on to the next step, which is:
- So that obviously wouldn’t happen next… but if it DID, what makes it plausible?
That’s how I worked with the idea for my film, Sweetpea. I’d been watching Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid a lot and wanted to do something like the Superposse chase - a bounty hunter tracking a mysterious outlaw across the desert. That’s not interesting in itself, though - so I played with what wouldn’t happen when the bounty hunter catches up to the outlaw, what wouldn’t in a million years happen: the bounty hunter is after this outlaw because she stood him up on their wedding day. Everything else came from that.
I really admire your distinctive voice as an illustrator and visual communicator. I am a student and would love to work as a storyboard artist, or generally in preproduction art and I was wondering what is expected from an artist at Pixar? Do you have to adapt your style, in order to fit the established appearance of a specific project? Thank you, I would be grateful for any input you could give. Mary Anne Del Buono
To work in story, you do need to be versatile — every director has a different sensibility and your job is to give them what’s best for their story. However… I’ve never heard of anybody getting picked for a project because of their versatility. You get gigs based on your strengths, and versatility is what keeps you useful.
Draw all you possibly can and your strengths will emerge. Don’t draw like other people, draw like you. Develop your tastes, what you like in a drawing and what you don’t like in a drawing, apply that to your work. That’s the best advice I can give you!
“I know the feeling of “if I could just get a chance, I could prove myself” - but this is how it works: you prove yourself to get the chance.”—It often feels unjust that people discount you before you even have a chance to prove yourself… so don’t wait for them to give you a chance. Prove it. That’ll get their attention, guaranteed.