Saturday, September 08, 2007


I hesitated to put this up because a lot of people don't like ballet, probably because they've only seen it on TV. It's a medium that has to be seen live. The thump on the floorboards, the sweat, the commitment and almost super-human determination of the dancers to do impossible things; none of this translates to the screen. In almost every case the people who don't like ballet are the ones who've never seen a good one.

Anyway, there are a lot of parallels between ballet and animation. The examples I'll use here come from the collaboration between Balanchine and his star ballerina, Suzanne Farrell. Balanchine fell in love with 16yr.-old Farrell who was forty years younger. They both new it couldn't work in the long run but they were determined to translate the intensity of what they were feeling into art. It was a case of two first-rate people giving everything they had to an ephemeral medium.

Here (below) is an excerpt from Joan Acocella's "Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints." Farrell eventually became a teacher and here's what Acocella says went on in her class. Click to enlarge the page.

Holy Cow! I never heard of developpe' before and now I'm dying to try it in animation. Not an animated ballet, I mean something funny that requires a long, nuanced unravelling in a single scene! And what's this thing about gathering space to make a turn? Maybe I could use that if only I could see an example of what Farrell was talking about!

Wow! True enough! An animator has to be in the moment too, in a sense. A really good and unique performer is wasted by a director with a too specific view of how an action should be done (this doesn't apply to John).

This (above) is why I don't believe in animatics. Even the wrong choices a first-rate artist/filmmaker makes give a feeling of live performance and spontaneity to a piece. Choices, good or bad, reflect the character of a filmmaker. Getting too precious in a quest for perfection is a big mistake.

BTW, I do believe in careful editing, I just don't believe in animatics, which are a tool of the devil.

Unbelievable genius! Balanchine (above) was right! You can't change artists, all you can do is develop what they already have. Clampett was great at this. He didn't try for a homogenized unit. He pushed Scribner and others to take what they were already good at and make it even better.

Much wisdom here (above)! This is one of the many reasons why animation scripts should never, ever be written by writers. Writers don't know what individual artists in the unit are good at. Only another artist could appreciate that. A good story has to be tailor-made to fit the strengths of the artists who will work on the show.


Callum said...
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Callum said...

Interesting post- I never thought ballet had anything whatsoever in common with animation, but I guess I was wrong.
"When the cast of a ballet changed, he often changed the choreography to fit the new performers."
"Another thing that Farrell constantly asks for, particularly from her young students, is variety."
Some execs could really learn from this.

JohnK said...

I agree totally!

That's why I love working with stars. You can't take an average talent and force them to do something unique and alive, but when you're lucky enough to get someone who has his or her own personality and the raw skills and talent to develop a style and statement, then you're on your way to real performances.

You give your artist context and are in turn inspired by the new ideas they give you. When you discover these new ideas, write something to show them off.

When a director has to work out all the details himself, it's no fun and a waste of his own skills.

Today's system (in animation) unfortunately is completely designed against this kind of director/performer collaboration.

Clampett and Balanchine had it right.

JohnK said...

BTW, why do you hate animatics?

I haven't heard this theory yet.

I love them.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Whoa Eddie- that is a good parallel, who woodda thunk it!

I want to see their love translated into intense dance! That sounds great! Nothing wrong with age gaps either, "haw, haw, haw!"

Last year I went to a ballet for the first time, a modern ballet, but even though I didn't like the music etc. the skill involved was mesmerizing. It was by Raiford Rogers, who I got to meet personally because the party that I went with knew him personally. It was quite amazing to see what the human body is capable of, Eddie!

Katie said...

Wow, interesting post Eddie! I want to read more from the book you are drawing these theories from! I love ballet, by the way. Do you have a favorite performance that you've seen?

Dooley said...


You are absolutely right that a dance performance needs to be seen live. When you see them on TV, you are forced to watch what the director chooses to show you through camera angles and cutting. You never fully grasp the performance as a whole. When you're there sitting in the audience, you just feel the energy coming off of the stage, and your eye is allowed to naturally move around the way it should, without camera cuts interrupting.

Anonymous said...

Its really the difference between being a technician and an artist.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Actually quite off-topic, but still, had to post this:

Sean Worsham said...

I don't see the problems of animatics, to me they aren't restrictive, they are just a visual interpretation of what the director/ storyboard artist has in mind that doesn't necessarily have to be followed exactly. I animated a couple of shorts this way under two directors and I reinterpreted the scene, but still kept what each scene meant in the end, but at the same time giving it my own two cents and feeling. Whenever someone sees my scene they still know it's mine.

In the old days:

Wine, Women & Dance


Sex, Drugs & Rock n' Roll

Brian B said...

I want to hear about the animatics thing as well - animation I imagine has to have some level of planning. I really love the parallel, but it seems that you would support straight ahead animation if you were to parallel it precisely. I thought pose-to-pose and breakdowns have proven themself in time. I'm curious how far you take the idea of the performance, and the inneffectiveness of rehearsal and planning as opposed to spontaneity. I think it deserves another post or at least a follow-up

Anyway, that was a great read. There's a lot of knowledge in this post.

Marc Deckter said...

Cool post - the last ballet I saw was The Nutcracker back when I was in Middle School.

Anonymous said...

ive done some stuff in the canadian animation industry and directors are absolute fascists about not altering animatics at all. I think that John means animatics in the oldschool storyboard sense.

I love when john trashes the way canadian animation studios work

crsP said...

"This (above) is why I don't believe in animatics."

Finally, someone with sense! I don't think too highly of them myself. And up to this very moment of typing this comment, I have yet to make a single animatic, not without some effort I might add.

The hypothetical [see, it's not a theory so you can't sue me] I propose is that an animatic closes you in to draw the action in a particular amount of frames. When you come to creating that piece of animation, as you flick through your drawings, you may feel the need to make an action slower, or faster. but you can't add an in-between here or there because you're bound to the animatic's timing. Not having those shackles will allow you to 'feel' your way through the animation. I should point out that you're still following the structure of the film as you're not negating the storyboard, and also it allows for 'pose-to-pose' as well as 'straight-ahead' style methodologies as you may choose.

I know you probably dislike animatics for different reasons, but it's at least comforting to know that I'm not a mentalist. Let's hate the, I mean animatics, together!

Taber said...

Wow, I never would've thought that the type of spontaneity I've experienced in music and acting could be translated to animation but this makes it seem possible, even essential!

Thanks for the post, you always give me so much to think about!

chrisallison said...

RDML. Eddie,

I think you make a valid point from a large studio situation. In studios, you probably have too many people to make a fluid system economically feasible. It would be too costly to constantly make changes to the animatic once animation comes along for something as incredibly "superfluous" as animation. Hrrumph hrrumph!

However, this analysis does not hold up for a small studio situation. On a project headed by 3 or 4 people, or maybe even just one, an animatic is a very smart idea. Just like Sean Worsham cited, I too have made animatics only to change them to my needs during production. It was easy for me because everyone on my squad (me) was up to snuff and I quickly moved on. You can't do that on a big production when the sound engineer and the editor and the character layout and the blah blah blah need to all be informed and make correct changes.

My theory is that a majority of problems that you talk about stem from having a large production staff.

Anonymous said...

animatics can be great as a guide but in canada at least theyll be drawn up by some guy in one studio and then handed down as if from mount sinai to some other studio for animation

Matt B said...

I'm very disappointed. I was scheduled to take your class at LCAD this semester, and then they cancelled it. I could've had you as a teacher! Aaaargh!

Andreas said...

Very interesting. I have kind of avoided ballet for quite some time. Not that I don't like it, I just haven't had an interest. Did a quick youTube search and came up with this video (click me), quite interesting. I will have to study this ballet thing. I am very limited in my imagination for posing figures when sketching from my mind. Thanks Eddie, I always learn so much visiting your blog.

Oh, and I think that is a developpé at 32 seconds into the video.

Anonymous said...

"The hypothetical [see, it's not a theory so you can't sue me] I propose is that an animatic closes you in to draw the action in a particular amount of frames."

Pixar uses animatics, but by the time it comes to animate it the animator is able to pitch his own ideas to the director, as long as the scenes 'objectives' are achieved its pretty open. the animatic isnt in stone at all in that big studio.

theres nothing inherently wrong with having a framework, sticking to it detrimentally would be bad, 'because those five drawings are already in the animatic i must abide by them', thats retarded.

William said...

I've always loved ballet- enough to marry a ballerina. Somehow I've never connected my love of ballet and love of animation and related arts until now.

I can't thank you enough! What a thrilling concept. How Balanchine phrased his instructions in terms of space usage & manipulation, perhaps even packaging in a sense, around the limbs and form is fascinating.

I think I can see it coming, but would like to hear your thoughts on animatics.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

John, Kali: Thanks for the kind words! I'll post about animatics soon.

Katie: The best one I've seen? "Swan Lake!" Tchaikovsky had a brilliant choreographer and that plan for the dance has come down to us unchanged (I'm guessing) for over a hundred years.

Crsp: Good point!

Sean, Chris: If animatics work for you then by all means don't change!

Benjamin, Andreas: I'm too sleepy to look up the videos tonight but I'll get to them tomorrow!

Matt: It would have been great to have you there!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: Interesting! On a feature animatics are probably inevitable, I just don't believe in using them for comedy shorts.

In shorts you want to retain the feeling of spontaneity and for that the possibility of error and even disaster has to be present. You have to watch with abated breath as the performer narrowly avoids death. It's an interesting subject. I'll write about it soon.

Callum: Duke Ellington used to rewrite his arrangements every time he got a new guy in the band.

Karl Straub said...

I found this discussion of artistic methods fascinating-- i see parallels with the way music can be recorded when a writer/artist gives accompanying musicians breathing room. I'm a songwriter/musician, and more and more I'm trying to use this approach to recording and live performance.

you've got me wanting to go check out a ballet, too.

NateBear said...

I never thought ballet had anything whatsoever in common with animation,

Ahem, A Corny Concerto!

I think the essence of this post is on the concept of collaboration over utility. WHen you collaborate with someone you are showing respect for their talents and individuality as human, even if they technically "work for" you. Most directors, teachers, etc and employers in general merely utilize people as machines that merely fill a role they have spelt out beforehand.I think this is the major cause of job-dissatisfaction overall AND especially in creative* fields like animation.

Collaboration = respect =freedom = creativity

Utility = contempt = slavery = dull

*All jobs should be involve creativity and collaboration.

NateBear said...

More ballet in animation.

david gemmill said...

animatics are good for solo projects. whenever i have worked on my own stuff i always get bogged down if i didnt do an animatic or whatever. however they are interpreted loosely, if i think of something i want to add i will add it, but trying to do a cartoon without any planning is horrible and painful. for me at least. there needs to be at least some structure for the fun to happen in. there needs to be a context to which you apply your scenes and acting too. so they are good in some ways, but not in the ways most people use them (which is to restrict the action in a scene, or possible truncate it because of poor planning.)

Jenny said...
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kyle said...

really great post! you always site such interesting books.

Jenny said...
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Anonymous said...

Eddie, please consider monitoring/approving the comments. It would be easy to do and go a long way toward weeding out the obscene stuff.

Jenny said...

I'm confused about what you mean by "animatic". The biggest contribution you've always had to your own cartoons is the explicitness of your storyboards. In their unexpurgated state they're extremely detailed leaving very little to be improvised(and on the rare occasions where you wanted improvisation you'd deliberately insert a panel saying "[BLANK] should go here").
The more detailed your boards were, the more of your ideas and acting and posing were in them(ideally). This was of course for television where the schedule has to be adhered to on pain of death(with little time for revisions as in other mediums)and the board "approved".

So what's the difference between that and an animatic? I'd think the dismay you express about them might apply if you were a character layout artist who often have zero opportunity to break out in a new and/or different direction when doing their tightly scripted and timed board sequences. But in your own case as a director, making your boards as tight as you did ensured your vision on the screen--not the opposite.

aniMOte said...

Nice insight.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: I allow anonymous comments because some issues couldn't be discussed any other way. If the heckling gets bad I'll do something
about it.

Jenny: A very interesting point! I'll try to answer in a post later in the week!

pappy d said...

In a collaborative medium, the work of art is always in the process of becoming something else than what you had in mind. You need to start with a solid plan, but be prepared to rethink it when presented with new ideas & insights. Many times I find myself having to pitch a voice actor's peformance to the director in thumbnails just because he has a fixed idea of how the scene should play from way back in the storyboard stage months before the actor was even cast.

Some ideas peak at the pitch (an animated version of the musical,"Cats" is one perennial example). There are surely stories that peak at the script stage.

Eddie's movies probably peak at the storyboard stage, then the editor or the director time his gags poorly & fuck it up.

The big problem with animatics is that you can pitch it to management like it was a movie & get it signed off on. At this point, no one can make a creative change without costing money that production is not obliged to spend. Improvements would mean changes to what was contractually specified & threaten future payment.

It's so much easier for management to tell people what to do than to listen & use the input to question & improve your method. Managers are always trying to build a machine where you put money in one end & it automatically spits out more money at the other end. All parts are 100% replaceable & any nail that sticks up must be hammered down.

Von Weiggart said...

Nice parallels! Now I'm interested in viewing her performance in tandem with the book's descriptions of her teachings. The allusions sound fantastic, without having seen her perform them. Great food for thought, thanks for posting this.

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