Ian's Rambles - Cliché

Between other distractions and posts I’m going to work my way through some of my major Big No No’s for student short films and then will put up an index post that links to them all when I get to the end.
We have already looked at wether a student film needs to be long, now I want to talk about the evil of the cliché.
Flikr image By Lil Erna

I’ll tell you about the worst thing you can ever say to your animation teacher, “Yeah I know it’s a cliché, but I’m kinda doing a caricature of a cliché, kinda plying with it and putting my own spin on it.” It this kind of talk that’s likely to make steam start pouring from my ears, or I might just excuse myself quietly in the middle of the conversation, calmly leave the room, stick my head in the nearest hole and scream my lungs out.

Here is the thing, I know this may be hard to believe, but teachers aren’t all idiots (some maybe, but not all). If we assert that your film is cliché then that’s because it is, not because the subtle nuances of you extremely clever and subtle concept have eluded us. In case you hadn’t noticed we have seen a few film is our day and we get it.

The sad truth is that the student is often just trying to divert attention away from the fact that they couldn’t be bothered putting in the effort to come up with something original. There I go sounding cynical again, I suppose it going to be hard to avoid when I’m writing about stuff I DON’T want to see in your films.

So what’s the big deal? If you want to make a cliché then what business is it of ours? We are just here to show you how it works, and what you do with it is your business, right?

You see the problem is that we care. We care about you as a person and we care about your future. Lets be honest, we also care that you are going to wander out in to the world and apply for jobs with that cliché on your show reel and tell them how wonderful your teachers were for letting you make it. You see I can tell you from having sat on the opposite side of the job interview table that if you’re going to go out and apply for jobs with a cliché idea on your reel you may as well stamp “I have no imagination” on your forehead before you go.

I’m going to do my best to back up all of these posts with opinions and advice from other (perhaps more respected) folk. I cant imagine finding a more respected point of view than that of the great Ward Kimble, in this amazing letter he wrote to present day animator Will Finn back in the 70s.

My Favourite quote, “Curiosity is the key word. See everything! Do everything! Find out what makes everything tick. How does it work? What motivated this---What motivated that. Learn from others, BUT DON'T COPY THEM! Try to retain your individualism while learning the basic rules. Don't be dogmatic because you're going to change your mind about what you like and what you dislike hundreds of times before you're thirty!”

Here is another one from the Temple Of The Seven Golden Camels blog, run by veteran storyboard artist Mark Kennedy. He has a two part post entitled Advice for Students on his Blog that is all gold (part 1, part 2).

I like, “Relying on a cliché can be comforting because you're building on something that's a known quantity. It can be easy to rationalize as well. After all, you say you want to show off your skills as an animator - not as a character designer - so why not just draw characters that are only slight variations on what we've all seen before? Why waste timing searching around for a fresh design when you really want to spend your time focusing on animating? Well, because re-using an old design will inevitably cause you to fall into the same expressions and acting patterns as whoever animated it the first time - it's unavoidable. You won't be able to divorce your mind from the performance you've already associated with that design. You won't invent a new personality because that would be impossible - your mind already perceives that design as having a personality assigned to it. Any audience that sees it will have a hard time forgetting the personality they already know and accepting whatever new character you're trying to sell. It's an uphill battle and it's pointless.”

I don’t have a link for this one, but it’s a quote from a guy named Randy Cook from Weta Digital, “Study acting, keep your eyes open and learn from life, not from movies. And, above all, try to bring something of yourself to your work. You, after all, are unique

Here from Nick Park founder of Aardman Animation in the last line of this interview, "So, my advice to young animators? Tell a good story, for heaven's sake"

Here in the comments section of this post from Stephen G of Pixar, "Great Animation Always Has Original Ideas. "

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture. Here is a question for you. If the animation or film idea you are so keen to copy had been a copy of something or a cliché when it was made, would you love it as much as you do? If there is a piece of work you love to bits, that is burnt into your mind, chances are you had never seen anything like it before. That aspect is what you should be trying to replicate, the ability come up with something totally new and engaging.

Sounds scary I know, but don’t worry, we are in this together. Better to go down in a blaze of glory than to prove how mediocre you are by copying someone else’s idea.


frank said...

Hey Ian

Terry got us brainstorming our narrative piece ideas yesterday.

When I looked at the thumbnails I drew I recognised that what I thought was original, was somehow familiar.

I have to admit now (after the penny dropped) that I'm influenced by Michael Dudok de Wit, in story and design. Especially the 'Father and Daughter' short film.

[Terry said, "Michael Dudok de Wit is a genius. I love how he uses space... he uses so many amazing wide shots and really focusses on showing the characters in their environments. When he uses a close-up it really MEANS something."]

Is there a difference between influences and cliché in building our film?

Ian said...

don't have time for a long answer now (he he count your blassings), but the short answer is DAMB STRAIGHT THERE'S A DIFFERENCE!

Of course you are going to be influence by stuff you like. The trick is to cast a wide net, don't be influenced by whats on TV every morning from 6:30. Don't necisarily be influence by just animation. If you are then try to incorperate other influences, from your life, etc.

Michael Dudok is hardly the first thing that pops into my head when I think about cliche's. Maybe Terry is already getting you to cast your net wider. :)

I'll get back to this later :)

Terry said...

Two words that are closely linked are 'cliche" and "convention".

A convention is an element in a story that is a familiar yet perhaps necessary ingredient. Conventions are normally identified with a particular genre. For examples, it's a convention in hard-boiled detective fiction that the main character is a rough, physically strong, introverted and troubled soul with a fondness for dames and booze.

Cliches are essentially overused conventions that make us roll our eyes when we see them on screen.

The problem is that one person's convention is another person's cliche!

BTW Frank, don't worry about being overly influenced by Dudok de Wit... the similarities were insignificant to say the least! I don't think there's such a thing as a 100% original idea - nobody creates in a vaccuum. As a great writer once said, "We're all fishing in the same well."

Ian said...

Brad Bird is always saying that its important to draw on things outside of animation.

Go watch something else and think about ways it can come together with your idea.

It could be real life, do you have a relative or friend who is similar to characters in your story. There is a scene where the bad guy in the Increadables is walking through a hanger and his hand twitches. Its revieled in the comentary that they tood it from a co-worker. Bringing your real life into the mix ensures that your "convention" takes on a new spin.

Another great source is live action film and some (although no much) TV. Everytime they replay Laurance of Arabia on a Saturday arvo I end up glued to it, I just love watching the shot composion, colours, use of scale, contrast between serenity and chaos. I love to watch the West Wing for interestin g ways to frame a character so that it means something, The great Spagetti westerns are great, on their own theie conventions can be cliche, but what if they are crossed over into another environment.

Everyone is going to have a personal prefference as to where they look for inspiration, as long as you remember that there is more to consider than your favourite cartoons.

jane said...

There's no escaping influences from other artists, writers, film makers.(or janes very long responses to things!) and ditto,I would contend there's no such thing as an original idea... simply imaginative variations on a whole range of themes (conventions and cliches) in the human experience(or not so imaginative in some cases).

Most stories or idea's whether comedy , tragedy or a mix, revolve around several core themes - love, sex, birth, death, human beingness ...and a whole pile of sub-themes, like power, revenge,compassion, romance, greed,atonement,isolation,punishment,rescue, reconciliation, abandonment etc.there's a whole bunch of cliches with these.

My tip for idea's and story development- read and read widely (that old fashioned non internet activity, that shows you how so many others tell stories) - all sorts of literature - novels, poetry, scripts,biographies, fiction, non-fiction, graphicnovels,read about philosophy,art,science,psychology,
spirituality (east/west), history,travel and adventure. Read journals,newspapers. Reading fires up your imagination, helps you exercise your imagination, broadens your understanding of many different subject area's. It's not about stealing someone elses idea either, it's simply studying how others tell a story, relate an event, present information, and how it captures your interest.

Observe the world around you and the people in it more closely, sometimes those everyday, ordinary seemingly uninteresting activities of life contain the germ of a brilliant story, keep an idea's book (actually take the time to jot down your idea's no matter how ridiculous and improbable they might seem)- there's really something quite important in that process of transferring a thought from inside you into a tangible form outside yourself, where you can see it in front of you and develop it further. I don't observe many students doing this, even when I suggest it many times.

Be more attentive to your own imaginings, dreams, actions and reactions to other people , to events.Listen to conversations,to how other people describe an experience, study comedy and satire...etc etc This big old planet we live on presents us with story possibility in each lived moment, we often dismiss idea's that first present, that well might become the worthwhile final film/story...and pay attention in Terry's narrative theory class - it's full of cliches and conventions(just kidding Terry)

Ian said...

I've been looking for quotes lately and here is a relevant one I stumbled across from Einstein,
"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

frank said...

Just saw a great doco on the acclaimed WA and Australian author Elizabeth Jolley.

It was interesting that they interviewed her successful students and they all said that they were encouraged to look for stories in real life, from their own experiences and particularly look at family interactions.

They also noted that their teacher then asked them to look with eyes slightly twisted by black humour to find the gems in the dark.

Or something like that.

It was a fascinating documentary and touched on some of the ideas expressed here.

ref: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/guide/netw/200802/programs/AC0718V005D26022008T220000.htm