Four Years & in Defence of Avatar


As of yesterday, my gorgeous lady and I have been together for 4 years. I drew this picture for her as a gift:



anniversary_03_smallClick the above image for a larger version.

We saw James Cameron’s Avatar at IMAX and both loved it. I’ve noticed some very vocal backlash against the film amidst all the accolades and applause. On some points I tend to agree, but I don’t think the negatives (the story’s lack of originality, cheesy dialogue, etc.) come close to outweighing the positives of the “experience” of Avatar. Avatar is a fine piece of entertainment, and offers a visceral thrill ride that I’ve never before experienced in a movie theatre.

Avatar is a movie made for the mainstream, not the discerning intellectual film goer. Although that doesn’t stop every armchair critic from tearing it apart. I understand where those people are coming from, I really do. I was like them once: haughty, elitist, unable to let myself go and just enjoy the ride. So what if Avatar adheres to tried and true story-telling conventions? Not every film needs to be Pulp Fiction or Run Lola Run. There is a place for classical storytelling in cinema, and that place is in the big-budget high-grossing films of Hollywood. Movies like Spider-Man, Titanic, Lord of the Rings and Avatar all share a naiveté and sentimentality that appeals to the masses, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Storytelling like this works, and has done for thousands of years. I wrote an essay five years ago called “Smart Film vs. Dumb Film” which you can read by clicking here.

In it I wrote:

The real reason some people abhor mainstream cinema is because of their need to rebel and feel part of a select few. So-called “smart” cinema is just the elite group they’re looking for. “Smart” cinema really isn’t all that smart; it just makes the viewer feel smart. To a “smart” movie-goer, becoming lost in the myth, fantasy, drama, romance or action of a film seems dumb because it appears to require less brain-power. “Smart” movie-goers want a film that makes them think, thus making them feel smart. But what “smart” movie-goers don’t realise, is that it takes more intelligence on the film-maker’s behalf to have an audience become “lost” in the movie, than to have them constantly question everything they see on screen. “Smart” film wants to be overtly smart. It wants to show off its intelligence to the world. Mainstream cinema is content doing what it’s always been doing – entertaining.

Story aside, I simply don’t understand people who didn’t enjoy Avatar on a visual, visceral, sensory level. I guess the aesthetics might have turned some people off, but to me they were absolutely stunning. It’s on this level that Avatar rivals and arguably even surpasses it’s predecessors (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings), and I’m inclined to think that people who disagree with that are stuck in a reactionary point-of-view based on the massive success of the film.

I’m siding firmly with the mainstream here, and recommending Avatar to everyone I know. I’d be more than happy to debate my point of view in the comments section.

Oh yeah, and Happy Anniversary Lucy!


Drawing from Reference


For the latest project I’m working on, my client is asking for more realism than I usually deal with (which seems to be a trend of late). While I’d much rather push the grotesque, cutesy or stylised angles than the purely representative, I’m taking the challenge in my stride and forging ahead.

Whenever I’m having trouble getting a drawing right, I always remember an important tip I read in one of my all-time favourite books about drawing, Roland Harvey’s Drawing Book:

When in doubt, observe, observe, observe.

Nothing beats drawing from a reference, at least when it comes to representative drawing. And the more tangible the reference, the better. Drawing from a photo is good. From the actual live subject, better. Fine artists like Stan Prokopenko stress the importance of “being there”:

You might get tired and hungry, but you have to push through and finish that painting. “I’ll take a picture and finish it at home” usually doesn’t work.

In “The Art of Seeing”, writer Aldous Huxley also gives credence to drawing from life, but in a much broader sense of developing one’s appreciation of nature, citing vision as our strongest and most personally affecting sense (although this may be a wistful bias of Huxley, who had severely scratched corneas since the age of 16, and hence, horrible vision.)

With all this in mind, I hired the cheapest model I know: me. I probably would have been able to use myself as a “live” reference with the aid of a mirror, but I opted for an impromptu photo shoot instead:


Part of the brief for this project was a character that looked “obsessed”. I guess I really took that note on board, as evident in the amount of reference photos I took before I was happy.

Here’s the rough that came out of the observation:


I wish I’d saved the rough I did prior to using a reference, so you could see how much having a reference improves the drawing.

Here’s another round of reference photos, and the subsequent rough:



When you get a little confidence in your drawing ability, it can be easy to think that you don’t need a reference. Using one may even feel a little like cheating. But don’t underestimate the power of observation. Drawing from life forces you to really examine something, be it a landscape, still life or human figure.

Pay attention to what your eyes are telling you.


Disney's The Princess and the Frog & Chomet's The Illusionist


Disneyphiles out there would know that the new trailer for The Princess and the Frog (Disney’s much-anticipated return to the traditional 2D animated musical, in the tradition of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid) hit yesterday. If you have yet to see it, here it is:

I was looking forward to this flick as much as the next guy, but the trailer left me feeling a little underwhelmed. And for the record, let it be known that The Lion King is one of my all-time favourite movies, animated or otherwise, and I have a special place in my heart for traditional, hand-drawn animation.

The trailer for The Princess and the Frog just failed to capture my imagination. And I don’t think it has anything to do with my being almost 24, as the latest Pixar movies (such as Wall-E) still had the ability whisk me away into childlike whimsy.

I know it’s Disney, and we’re supposed to expect watered-down, palatable mush (I don’t mean that as a negative – Disney’s job is to play to the mainest of the mainstream, and it usually does it well), and maybe I’ve been tainted by the Shreks of this world and am expecting too much edge in my animated features, but this feels just a little too diluted for my tastes. The big-butt jokes did not help.

I dunno. Maybe I was expecting too much. After all, it is a kids movie, and I’m hoping it was just a poorly edited trailer, but going from what I saw, my interest in seeing this has gone from a 9 to a 4 (and I have a very accurate interest-o-meter). I’m still super excited that Randy Newman is providing the music, but other than that, there’s not much else that’s getting me into the theatre to see this.

Anyway, as this is a drawing and design blog, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t address the look of the movie.

The initial concept art for Princess blew me away. It was lush, colourful (bordering on psychedelic) and full of life. Here are a few of my favourites:





The animation on display in the trailer, while technically top-notch, just comes off looking a little lifeless to me (especially when compared to the concept art). The crispness of the characters against the beautiful painterly backdrops was jarring. At first I thought I’d been tainted by 3D rendered Pixar flicks, where the characters blend effortlessly into their environments, but then I came across these stills from Sylvain Chomet’s latest feature (also a 2D hand-drawn animation) The Illustionist – and keep in mind that these are stills from the animation, not concept art (via /Film):





Any of these stills look as if they were ready to be framed and hung on a wall, and you wouldn’t think they were stills from a movie. They are finished illustrations in their own right. Compare them to these stills from the Princess trailer:




Check out how beautifully rendered the painted backgrounds are compared to the flatness of the cell-animated characters. I guess Chomet’s backgrounds aren’t as fully rendered as Disney’s, which means that he doesn’t need to spend a lot of time rendering his characters in every frame to achieve a cohesiveness of style (line-work, colour and depth) – a cohesiveness that the hand-drawn animation of Disney lacks, despite the dozens of technical leg-ups they have over Chomet. Plus there’s something about the imperfections of the artist’s hand in Chomet’s work that gives it an immediacy and playfulness that the technically perfect Disneymation also lacks.

Now, I realise this is the way Disney has done it since the beginning (and Warner Bros. animation, for that matter), and perhaps I’m being nit-picky, and maybe I seem a little shitty for calling out Disney on something that isn’t really a flaw, more a stylistic choice – after all, Disney movies have been animated this way for decades, and no one’s ever faulted them on their visual ingredients (except maybe for their infamous recycling of animations, which was done to cut costs) – but after seeing Chomet’s gorgeous images, I can’t help but wish Disney would go out on a limb and provide us with something more interesting to look at.

If the above stills from The Illusionist took your fancy, I highly recommend you check out The Triplets of Bellville, Chomet’s 2003 animated feature debut. It’s not as plot-driven and cutesy as your average Disney flick, but it’s musical, it’s gorgeous, and it’s French.

What do you think, dear reader? Have I gone mad for questioning what Disney does best?