Disney Animated

This was first posted on the Touch Press blog: http://www.touchpress.com/blog/2013/08/disney-animated/

I came to Disney late in life. Well, OK, let’s not beat around the bush here, my parents flat out banned Disney in the house while I was growing up. So it was a bit of a surprise when it became clear that I was going to spend nearly a year studying and writing about the past and present of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, for an app to be published in partnership with Disney.

I had some inkling over the years that my parents’ attitudes towards Disney might be slightly off base. Indeed my own kids had plenty of Disney around, though due not to any great enthusiasm on my part, but rather to my general laissez-faire attitude towards parenting. But when I started studying and reading deeply on the subject, I discovered something quite wonderful. As always, behind polished facades, there are gears and levers, and remarkable people.

Perhaps those who grew up with the legendary figure of Walt Disney take him for granted more than I can, having become steeped in his life, his company, and his persona only as an adult. But he was there, playing a central role in the creation of a genuinely new art form.

“Inventing a new art form” is such a cliché: What self-respecting modern artist hasn’t claimed that achievement for themselves? But the development of animation as a storytelling medium isn’t a little twig branching off somewhere far out in the esoterica of conceptual art. It’s a soaring limb diverging very near the roots of the human desire to communicate.

One of those great branches, literature, is distinguished by the ability to weave narratives without limits. Authors can tell of fantastical things without regard to production budgets or the laws of physics: It costs no more to describe a graceful villa with terraces spilling down into an azure sea, than to write about a garden shack purchased at the local home improvement center.

Another branch, the theater and its evolution into motion pictures, can tell stories with images and actions that, when done well, touch the soul as deeply as any writing, and often with more direct force (and to a wider spectrum of humanity) than the written word. But theater by and large is restricted to depicting stories with human actors, and even motion pictures have historically been limited by the need to film real places, or re-create them at fantastic expense.

Animation for the first time in human history broke that dichotomy. Animators have the freedom to tell long-form narrative stories on any topic, no matter how fantastical, using the visual language of performance. Think about it: That really was not possible before the invention of sustained-length animated films in the early 1900s. You had to choose: Either paint pictures metaphorically with words, or hire human actors (and maybe the occasional camel) to tell your story on stage.

But…Disney? Yes, Disney. Although Disney-bashing is a popular pastime, the fact is that Walt Disney and his brother Roy executed with determination a breathtaking vision for the future of animation, and they deserve credit for that no less than the contemporaries of theirs whose efforts were not rewarded with the same popular success.

Creating Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 was art on an industrial scale. It was the Manhattan Project of drawing, and remains to this day one of the greatest concentrations of human effort, ingenuity, sweat and tears ever assembled with the simple goal of telling an old story in a new way.

It’s easy to dismiss those who enjoy great commercial success as somehow of lesser artistic merit, but this is a mistake. Walt Disney and the team he assembled started with nothing, failed repeatedly, and finally put together enough money and enough guts to bet everything they had on the dream of making a full-color, fully animated, full-length feature film. And what they created was a good film by any standard, as remarkable for the lengths gone to create is as for the fact that those measures were made invisible to the audience by its compelling and beautiful story telling.

All of which is by way of saying that I think the story of animated films, how they are made, where they come from, what goes into creating one, and how Disney in particular goes about its business, is a subject worthy of being written about. Maybe that’s obvious to many, but hey, I’m working through some childhood trauma here, give me a chance to catch up.

When Disney (more specifically the Disney Interactive Entertainment division of that multi-headed corporation) came to Touch Press seeking to discuss an interactive app about animation, we naturally paid attention. And not just because Disney is, well, Disney, but also because animation is a subject matter that cries out for the Touch Press treatment.

This is an intimidating topic to approach. There are quite literally thousands of books that have been written on the subject, some of them very good indeed, told by fine writers and by the animators who were there at the beginning (sometimes combined in the same individuals, as in the case of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s beautiful work The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation).

But there’s a fundamental issue when you’re writing about animation in a paper format. The laws of physics dictate that you can’t tap the images. Swiping them is utterly pointless, because they simply and stubbornly do not move. Which is a big problem because many of the images in question not only have movement as an integral part of their nature, but indeed as the fundamental reason for their existence. The very definition of animation is images that move.

The promise of Disney Animated is that it is a serious work about the history and present day practice of making animated feature films, in which the medium is finally able to speak for itself, where every image from every film is in fact a short clip, complete with sound, music, and life. (Except, of course, for those images or objects that call for different treatment, like background paintings zoomable down to the brush strokes, or animation maquettes you can spin with your finger.)

It’s difficult to exaggerate just how difficult that turns out to be. Making a similar print book would have been a walk in the park compared to the logistical, technical, and licensing obstacles to creating the first in-depth, comprehensive interactive telling of the story of animation. (Enough said on these obstacles, because the details of that process, much like that of sausage making, is no topic for polite conversation, and there are still a few raw nerves left exposed to the cleansing sandpaper of release day.)

Aside from creating a book-where-the-pictures-move, we decided early on that we needed to address another aspect of animation: That it is at heart a craft skill to be learned with the hands. You can read about animators at work all you like, but you will not start to feel close to them until you try your own hand at their craft.

But animation is hard. Even simply drawing a good figure in a fixed pose is nearly impossible for many people. (For example, me. I could not draw my way off the edge of a sheet of paper to save my life.) So, because we had no intention of trying to teach animation in a serious way, we tried instead to design interactive experiences that distilled some essences of the process so that it could be experienced even by people with no sense of draftsmanship.

A bouncing ball, for example, can be controlled by sliding individual frames up or down, adjusting the timing without needing to draw anything. This elegantly, I think, makes the point that for master animators, it’s really not about the drawing, it’s about the timing. Indeed some of the best animators of all time were known for their inability to draw anything “on model”. The brilliance of their sketches wasn’t in the shape of the figure, it was in the life they instilled in the movement of their awkward sketches.

The modern world of computer graphics animation is robustly represented by a fully rigged character model, Vanellope from Wreck-It Ralph, which the reader can pose with complete flexibility, distributing key poses along a timeline to create complete animated sequences.

Although I have spent decades working with computer graphics and computer animation from the technical side, I have never tried actually animating a human figure before I started testing early versions of the app. It was a delight to see this strange misshapen creature (the app I mean, not poor Vanellope) slowly shape up into a delightful tool that I hope will inspire a wide range of creative expression by our readers. (Who can share their work both as video files and as editable files that can be loaded into the app for further work and collaboration.)

Which brings me to the final reason for creating this app, beyond my interest in the topic and its natural suitability to the medium. I was privileged over the course of months to visit the Walt Disney Animation Studios many times and talk to the top animators, artists, directors, and technicians working there. (It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t really know who some of these people were until after I’d interviewed them, because it could have been intimidating had I realized just who exactly they were letting me talk to!)

I asked all of them the same question: Why did you get into the animation business? It was striking that in nearly every case, the answer was a book. For many it was Frank & Ollie’s Illusion of Life, for others it was The Art of Walt Disney (named by John Lasseter in a new foreword as his reason for choosing to spend his life in animation), or one of the many other fine books of this kind.

During the early stages of defining this project, when it was very unclear what exactly the subject matter would be, whether it might focus on a particular film, or perhaps be mostly historical, I wrote an email to the senior executives sponsoring the project in which I laid out a simple goal. I said that this app should be the answer to that very question for the generation of animators who today are seeing it as children, and who don’t yet know that they are the future animators, artists, technicians, and perhaps studio heads who usher this art form into its second century.

I hope we’ve created something worthy of such an ambition, but whether we have done it or not, it has been a remarkable ride, and one I would not trade for anything, with the possible exception of a day off.

Our creative director waxes lyrical about The Orchestra

This was originally posted on the Touchpress blog: http://www.touchpress.com/blog/2012/12/our-creative-director-waxes-lyrical-about-orchestra/

A delight to behold – a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the heart. The Orchestra is quite simply the most beautiful thing my company has ever made. Beautiful in every sense of the word. It’s filled with beautiful music. It’s filled with beautiful images. And it communicates its subject more beautifully than anything I’ve ever seen before.

Anything? Yes, anything.

Sure, there may be more beautiful paintings, more beautiful poems, or more beautiful sunsets. But I’m talking about things whose purpose is to communicate a sizable body of knowledge, to teach me something interesting about the world, to expand my horizons and deepen my understanding. I cannot think of anything, anywhere, in any medium, ever, that has done this as beautifully as the interactive experience we call The Orchestra.

No, seriously, I really mean that. I even mean that it’s more beautiful than my own interactive book, The Elements, which I used to think was pretty hot stuff.

You should be skeptical. After all, I have an interest in convincing you to get a copy of The Orchestra. So let me elaborate (unless you’re sold already, in which case, please, be my guest, get it now and start enjoying).

The first beautiful thing about The Orchestra is the music. For that we thank Haydn, Beethoven, Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky, and a certain Mr. Berlioz. (Music by these great composers and others was performed for this app by the Philharmonia orchestra, one of the world’s great musical institutions, and also one of its most innovative under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, a big name in such circles.)

This is music that stirs the heart and lifts the soul like an orphan’s new smile or a really profound piece of chocolate. You might think the best thing you can do with a piece of Beethoven is just listen to it and be glad you are alive. But it gets better. Unlike sausage, you really do want to know how this stuff is made.

In The Orchestra, we play you the music, but we also show it to you in ways that let you see its inner structure and hear it with greater understanding.

First, a traveling score runs across the screen as the music plays. This can be either standard musical notation, or a diagrammatic representation designed to highlight the pure form of the music. You may have seen this kind of thing before, but we’ve tried to do it better. The standard score is exactly the same as the one the musicians and conductor worked from, lovingly typeset by the experts at The Music Sales Group (our other partner in this work). The simplified diagrammatic score is beautifully designed for maximum communication in minimum space.

But the fun really starts with what I call the Blinking Lights Panel. (Others around Touchpress refer to it as the Laser Display Board for obscure British reasons, and officially we’re calling it the BeatMap, but I’m going to stick with calling it the Blinking Lights Panel, because it’s a panel, it’s full of lights, and they blink.)

The BLP is very simple in concept, but tricky in execution and profound in effect. It consists of one dot for each instrument in the orchestra, laid out roughly the way the actual orchestra is, though somewhat stylized and regularized. Any time any instrument group plays a note, the corresponding dots flash, a little or a lot depending on how loudly the note is played, and for how long. Every instrument, every note, perfectly in sync with the sound of the performance.

This is tricky because, even if you have the complete score of the piece, as we do, there’s this annoying fellow called the conductor whose job is to vary the tempo in ways that mean no mechanical interpretation of the score will exactly match the actual performance. But we figured out a clever, scalable way to do precise, beat-by-beat synchronization of the score to the performance.

Precise being the operative word. The human brain has hardware used to coordinate perceptions coming through the eyes with those coming through the ears. Consider for example the ability to pick out and listen to a single conversation in a crowded room. This skill relies critically on watching the face of the speaker: The act of seeing their lips move actually pulls their words out from the background, making them sound louder and clearer than they truly are.

This brain mechanism only works if the synchronization between sight and sound is perfect. And because we have achieved such perfection in The Orchestra, the Blinking Lights Panel allows you to experience this clarifying effect. By watching a particular set of lights when a given instrument is in action, that instrument comes out from the thick of the orchestra and makes itself heard more plainly.

It’s quite a remarkable thing, and if nothing else it’s a fantastic way to learn what each of these different instruments sounds like in the context of the whole orchestra. Even at a live performance it’s often hard to tell exactly which note is coming from which instrument, but in The Orchestra, it’s crystal clear to both your eyes and your ears.

Watching individual dots teaches you about instrument sounds, but watching the whole panel during certain passages puts you in the mind of the composer, almost literally. When I see the different sections firing off in rapid sequence, the sound flashing from side to side, front to back, now here, now there, I am reminded of those remarkable scans of the human brain in action, showing how thoughts flit from region to region as fleetingly as, well, thoughts. I wonder if that’s how Beethoven saw it in his own mind. It’s hard to imagine composing music of such exquisite complexity, with so many moving parts, without having some kind of mental picture of the orchestra laid out with different parts lighting up as their sound is called into action.

Our attempts at visualizing music, at elucidating, tracking, or reflecting its structure in visual patterns, are far from the first such attempts. This kind of thing has been done hundreds of times. We’ve just done it better, that’s all.

Beyond symbolic representations of music, The Orchestra includes very concrete ones in the form of complete video tracks for each of the eight pieces: One camera always on Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting, and two cameras on key performers, moving from instrument to instrument as the melody shifts around the orchestra. And the app contains a full book’s worth of text by Mark Swed (classical music critic for the LA Times) describing the music, the composers, the instruments, and the orchestra. And running commentary from both the conductor and the musicians during every piece. And separate audio tracks that let you listen to each section of the orchestra individually, as if you were walking around the performers while they play. Normally each of these would be headline features, but there’s just so much in this product that they rate only a sentence each.

If The Orchestra contained just the eight performance sections I’ve described, with all their richly layered content, it would be a fantastic product. But we didn’t just create a fantastic product, we created The Most Beautiful Educational Experience Ever. There’s more.

Right off the home page is a gloriously lush jewel box of a page that shows off the major instruments of the orchestra lovingly photographed and marvelously rotating all at once. (Those of you who have seen our previous products will recognize this look from many of our titles. But it’s never been as beautiful as in The Orchestra.)

And when I say lovingly photographed, I mean we photographed over thirty of the Philharmonia’s own instruments, nearly always under the nervous and watchful eye of their musician-owner. Yes, we hung a million dollar violin on a loop of fishing line suspended from a rotating motor, and we did not drop it. We put an 8-foot wide marimba and a full-sized harp on my custom-built large-object turntable. We did absolutely everything except a concert grand piano. I draw the line at pianos, not because we couldn’t do one, but because you have to draw the line somewhere, and I rather it be at pianos than Blue Whales.

Many of these instruments are gorgeous works of art in their own right, but of course they are meant to be played, so for each instrument we have both the rotating image (which you can control with your own finger) and a video showing one of the Philharmonia’s musicians putting it through its paces.

It’s quite a remarkable thing to listen to, say, the viola being bowed and plucked and knocked in various ways, and realize that this is one of the best viola players in the world giving you a fun and very personal introduction to the instrument he’s spent a lifetime mastering.

And if that weren’t enough under the description of each instrument you will find a virtual piano keyboard spanning the full range that instrument is capable of. Touch any key and you will hear that instrument paying that note. Not some kind of synthesizer, an actual individual recording of a world-class musician playing that specific note on an instrument that may be three hundred years old.

I don’t know if The Orchestra will be around in three hundred years, but I do know that this year, it’s the most beautiful tribute to the art and craft of the orchestra there is, bar none and by a wide margin. I invite you to take a look.