Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I’m going to share some personal observations / revelations on my journey as a visual storyteller today. I’m doing this for several reasons, the most important is probably because I tend to unravel my own mysteries through writing and illustrating. Maybe its stupid, maybe I’m slow, but it’s the way I analyze and retain things of importance to me.

I mentioned a week, or so ago that I’ve been studying Nancy Beiman’s Prepare to Board.
Prepare to Board! Creating Story and Characters for Animation Features and Shorts
In-between studying that gem I picked up another treasure to study as well…Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life.

The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation


These two books (Disney's and Beiman's) have answered a lot of questions about how I work and why I work a certain way. More importantly though, they show me that I have been on the right path, even though at times I felt utterly lost.

I’ve discovered the why it has taken me almost two years to write, rewrite and storyboard The Virtutus Key, as opposed to the four months it took me to write Tiani’s story. Here’s what I’ve discovered from Prepare to Board.

Feature animation does not often start with a written script. The germ of the story can be conveyed in a short outline or treatment. The characters and plot twists are then developed visually. Stories can change dramatically when they are boarded. Scripts are not finalized until the later stages of pre-production so that they may incorporate new material created on the storyboard.”

By the way, she gives definition of pre-production as follows…

Animation pre-production is called development for a reason. One definition of development is “the act of improving by expanding or enlarging or refining. “ The story and characters grow and change during pre-production from simple ideas to the complex, structured, visual story.”

What does this mean for me and The Virtutus Key?

First, unlike book II (Tiani’s story) where the entire story came to me while going for a walk , in The Virtutus Key (book I) I had to answer some very important questions before I could even outline the story. These questions eventually took me in so many different directions, that at times I felt quite lost.

In The Virtutus Key I had to develop the Flame myth from its beginning. I had to discover why some of the dragons believed the inhabitants of Diodee were worthy of the Flame, before Tiani‘s birth. I had to create and map the geography of each realm, particularly Diodee. I had to develop the three main races of Diodee and that of the other realms. This included, but was not limited to their social, economic and governing structures, their particular myths and cultural differences. What had begun as a sketchy story was evolving into a conspiracy driven by very determined characters.

I needed to understand these characters as I began to sympathize with, love and even hate them. I was compelled to try to understand their personal quests. This often meant many changes. As they evolved, I endeavored to explore their fears, conflicts, passions, motives. I continued to write and rewrite draft after draft viewing the story from various perspectives. Sometimes I felt certain of their journey, other times I felt as lost and lonely as they did. Each draft brought me closer, or father away from my goal.

I have a tendency to get lost in the hearts of my characters good and evil and if, I’m not careful, I can be influenced deeply, even swallowed up by their personalities, their needs, their personal quests.

So, how do you decide which road to take, which view to assume? This has been one of my hardest lesson. The answer…You keep your eyes on the goal. That’s right. You explore all your possibilities, but like an infant learning to crawl so he can get to the ball at the other end of his room, you stay focused on your character’s destiny. Seems so simple doesn’t it?

In retrospect I can see it clearly now. All that running, crawling and muddling around in their hearts and minds prepared me to view the whole with a deeper understanding. It made my characters real, solid and more memorable to me. Were I to have skipped by them lightly, I might never have discovered their true potential.

One last thought, but it ties in with why The Virtutus Key has taken so agonizingly long to write and board. The answer lies in Disney Animation The Illusion of Life. The entire book is invaluable, but this following quote provided one of those Eureka moments for me.

Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose

“ There are two main approaches to animation. The first is know as Straight Ahead Action because the animator literally works straight ahead from his first drawing in the scene. He simply takes off, doing one drawing after the other, getting new ideas as he goes along, until he reaches the end of the scene. He knows the story point of the scene and the business that is to be included, but he has little plan of how it will all be done at the time he starts. Both the drawings and the action have a fresh, slightly zany look, as the animator keeps the whole process very creative.

The second is called Poses to Pose. Here, the animator plans his action, figures out just which drawings will be needed to animate the business, makes the drawings, relating them to each other in size and action, and gives the scene to his assistant to draw the in-betweens. Such a scene is always easy to follow and works well because the relationships have been carefully considered before the animator gets too far into the drawings. More time is spent improving the key drawings and exercising greater control over the movement.. With Pose to Pose there is clarity and strength. In Straight Ahead Action, there is spontaneity.”

I now realize I wrote and illustrated Tiani’s story primarily in the Straight Ahead Action method, hence the relative quickness with which I completed my first few drafts. Several things are also apparent to me, for one thing the Straight Ahead Action method was almost impossible for me with The Virtutus Key, because I was not as sure of those characters. What’s more I kept shifting between the main characters. Whose point of view was I going to tell and illustrate this story from?

I have been using (without conscious knowing) the Pose to Pose method, plotting and planning and carefully working to piece The Virtutus Key together. A very slow process compare to the Straight Ahead Action method I used on Tiani‘s story. However, having arrived at the point where I understand where The Virtutus Key ends and whose POV it highlights, I can finish my final graphic novel draft utilizing the quickness and clarity of both animation methods.

I have a ton of work in various bulging three inch binders. Work I have compiled these last two years. Only a fraction appears in my final draft of The Virtutus Key. However, without all the sweat and tears of those previous drafts and the seemingly endless character journeys, The Virtutus Key might not have been possible.

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