Only after the wolf swallows the world, is the sun god reborn. Only after the fire, can the seed of the Sequoia sprout. The Christ Child waits for the dead of winter to appear, and it is not the flowering tree that speaks to Moses. We learned to fly by leaping from the nest but our wings were grown within shells. The dragon devours the roots of the world tree, cling not to its branches. Care instead for the seed hiding in the warm earth waiting for spring rain and a fiery chariot that pulls the dawn. -Dec, 2020
The question of “who” keeps coming up as important.
I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over “what” – what do I want to do? What do I want to be known for? What do I want to spend my time on? What should I get good at?
But I’ve realized (far later in life than I ought to) that “who” should often come before “what” in the order of operations.
Who do I want to work with? Who do I know that elevates the game? Who do I combine with to make something great?
If you know someone you want to work with, it helps you narrow your field of targets.
WHO do I want to spend my time with?
It’s not putting the cart before the horse if you’re thinking about “what can be done really well with this team.” It’s an act of looking at your horse and thinking about what cart it’s best suited to pull.
Who do I want to be connected with, personally, professionally, casually…?
Conversely, if you have a great idea, but your current team isn’t the one to do it, you either need a new team, or a new idea. Or you need to build in the time for your team to learn how it can execute this new idea – but in most creative work, that time isn’t readily available.
Who do I want to be? Not what, but WHO? Who pulls me towards that best, most mature version of myself?
Talent is wonderful. Some people find easy and enjoyable things that others find difficult and scary. At an early age, I found that a few things that other people thought were hard, I found easy.
But there’s limits to (most) talent. There comes a point where raw talent will not take you further, whether it’s in athletics, acting, singing, directing, mathematics…anything.
Education and practice must step in. The more talented get further more easily, and perhaps can enjoy training more readily, because there’s an inherent joy in doing something you’re good at.
But therein lies the danger of talent. At a certain point, something stops coming easily. The enjoyable part is over, and the work must begin.
For me, and for many of the talented, I suspect, it meant that when the going got tough, I thought to myself “ah, that might be the limit.”
For those with less initial talent, but more determination, however, hitting the wall is a familiar feeling. They know that if you keep leaning on the wall, keep pushing, it starts to break. Tenacity is the first order of business.
For those who have never met the wall…they can be stymied, and decide it is impenetrable.
Talent does not guarantee tenacity – even as the fullest realization of talent REQUIRES tenacity.
I’ve found myself once again fascinated by acting and the art of working with actors. Subsequently, I’ve been re-reading Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares – and I realize now that that’s incorrect. Confession time: When I was in undergrad, I never really read Stanislavski. I had some sort of unhealthy distrust of him, and I don’t exactly know why. Perhaps I was afraid of corrupting my intuitive “talent” with any kind of prescribed “method.”
Regardless, I’ve finally begun truly reading his seminal work, and it lives up to the hype. It’s tremendously applicable not only to acting, but to any art.
At the same time, I’ve been watching the “VFX Artists React” series, along with the “Stunt Men React” series on Youtube. So with both things on my mind, I’ve gotten a better articulation of why, to me, Thanos works so well as a CG character.
It stems first from this quote of Stanislavsky’s “A role which is built of truth will grow, whereas one built on stereotype will shrivel.”
- Josh Brolin understands acting, clearly. He’s a great actor. He knows that in order to play a character like Thanos, he cannot view himself as a villain. He must view himself as a being with desires, whose own desires and needs and emotions are grounded in a reality that, to him, makes the most possible sense in the universe. He bases his performance of the role in as much reality as he and his directors can muster.
- The character as a CG entity is based on facial capture techniques that are continually advancing, yet have been tested heavily by now, with amazing success in the cases of Gollum and Caesar (thanks Andy Serkis and team for pioneering this). So again, the animation is not manufactured so much as generated based on a physical reality: the movements of Josh Brolin’s face, which have in turn undergone Brolin’s extensive acting work based on the reality of the character as it relates to Brolin’s own inner being. As Stanislavsky would say, Brolin has trained his bodily instrument to be supple and expressive, not so that it can manufacture false emotions but so that it can easily transmit an inner life that is as real as possible.
- The hardest part of this is putting actors in a room together without the majority of the actual physical elements they’ll be dealing with. Getting characters to interact that are at different heights, for example, can involve creating a prosthetic head that mounts above Brolin’s own head so that the eyelines are correct. I’m willing to wager, however, that this varies from scene to scene. In scenes where the interactions are more physical and up-front (like a combat scene, or when Thanos is, say, stabbing Iron Man) it is easier to produce believable performances with the strange-eyeline methods. However, in scenes where more intimate, face to face interactions are necessary, I will bet my left foot they shot closeups arranged so that the actors can look each other in the eyes. When Gamora and Thanos are having a nuanced discussion of her past, you want Zoe Saldana to be able to look Josh Brolin in the eye and each of them to experience the full emotional impact of each others’ performance. Dialogue scenes like this are probably the easiest to shoot but also the easiest to screw up.
Thanos works, I believe, because the makers of the film have, consciously or no, followed the basic principle stated by Stanislavsky: a role built on truth will grow. Basing a character in reality is not always easy, and not always done the same way, but it is always necessary to create an effective performance. Now that performances are created by teams of the actor, director, editor, and vfx artists, this is MORE true than ever, and requires a new level of coordination.
Like any person crazy about telling stories with images and sounds, I often find myself digging around the blogs and forums regarding cameras, and, even worse, allllll the youtube channels. Now granted – there’s a number of youtubers who really do put out some quality stuff about the craft (Every Frame a Painting comes to mind, as well as Cooke Optics’ channel), but there’s always a lot of individual creators who are well-intentioned but keep using a phrase that I almost exclusively hear or see online. “cinematic”
Talking about a lens, or a camera setup: “the images are just so much more cinematic.”
“buy this lens, it’s so cinematic”
What does that mean?
What makes something cinematic? Shallow depth of field? I guess Orson Welles’ famously deep shots make his work “not cinematic.”
The funny thing is, this term “cinematic” almost never comes up in film school – I think I’ve encountered one discussion on the topic, and the answer came up moot. Everyone has a hard time defining it. And I think this makes perfect sense, because the discussion always seems to range around a particular IMAGE. Is the IMAGE cinematic.
I think it’s impossible for a lone image to be, or not be, cinematic, because cinema is, by its own definition, contextual. Cinema is NOT still images, though it can use them. It is the art of the moving image, combined with sound, over time.
Eisenstein’s oft-quoted theory of editing, that the human mind infers story from one image to the next, is the defining idea of film. It is the combination of elements over time that creates the immersion of an audience in a cinematic experience. I don’t say immersion in story because there are cinematic experiences that aren’t about story, or that keep you at arm’s length from the story, but are still complete cinematic experiences in and of themselves.
What the hell am I doing? Now I’m throwing around this term “cinematic” after I’ve called into question its definition.
I guess I’m trying to walk myself up to a definition. There’s a famous photographer, name I don’t remember, who makes famously “cinematic” images. He even shoots them like a film set, with a full crew and lights and performers. And yeah, it looks like you’re looking not at a still from a movie: it replicates the immersive feeling of watching a movie. It implies a before and after of the image, it is not merely about the image in and of itself but of the implied surrounding images.
A movie is a waking dream, it pulls us into an experience that is total, that turns off the rest of the world for a time. There is a flow of images that carries us along.
So why then, is shallow depth of field considered by some to be a “cinematic” quality? If I could hazard a guess, it is because it 1) abstracts the background and foreground and thus 2) points out what is important in the image. And if you point out what’s important, from shot to shot, that’s one way to achieve a cinematic flow.
Intent. Is it intended to induce the state of immersion that cinema can achieve? Is it intended to guide the audience’s experience on a visual and aural journey? And thus, any tool that helps us do this is a cinematic tool. I’m writing this because I’ve fallen into this trap, that of using the tool or considering it to be superior because it makes it look like I have intent. So yes, depth of field can be cinematic, but only if you are aiming at the audience’s experience, not what looks kind of like movies you’ve seen.
That’s the director’s job – not only to direct the cast and the crew, but to ultimately direct the audience. Look at this, now look at this, now we are here, now he is doing that, here’s something you can’t quite see – want to understand it? Keep watching. You can’t control how people are going to react to a movie, but you can control the way they experience it.
So. Is that lens more cinematic?
It can be.
A recent showcase I was in had a fun piece in it: a funny fairy tale about facing Adulthood, a legendary monster. I really enjoyed this piece. The hero, accompanied by his not-so-trusty-sidekick Student Loans, journeyed through all sorts of tests before facing the big monster. It all dealt with the overwhelm of suddenly being an adult.
I’m decently out of my twenties now, but I still know these feelings. I think everyone does at some point. There is a sense of wonder, following on your heels towards your middle decades, that asks whether one will ever, ever feel like a grownup.
But a couple of recent experiences have made something clearer for me. The first was sitting in rehearsal, talking about theaters and MFA’s and careers, and mentioning “being a grownup”, and the sixty-something in the room saying “oh I’ve never really felt like a grownup.”
Another was a moment of decision for me, a simple sequence where the check engine light came on in the car. I made a decision not to go to my appointment, but rather to call in and say I had to stop by the mechanics, and I had decided to work remotely so I could make sure my car was functioning. And my contact accepted this as a good decision and went on to chat about some other things. And I thought to myself that this was that feeling of adulthood. Simply the act of taking responsibility not just for the moment, but for your future, making a decision, and owning it.
I thought about this as I walked home from the mechanic’s.
We think, when we are children, that adulthood is an absolute — that you can cross a threshold somewhere and permanently become an adult.
But I believe now that one of the biggest markers of adulthood is knowing that adulthood is truly relative. It is always a moving target.
You can never “be” adult. You can only do adult things — which I take as owning your actions and making solid decisions. There’s a lot of adults who relax by playing video games. The games are not what’s childish, it is when the time playing the game overtakes the time spent on other responsibilities. Relaxing and having fun, leisure and play, are necessary parts of adulthood too — it is when they are simply managed in a responsible fashion that they are part of the adult context, rather than a childish symptom.
Perhaps it can even be said that a major part of adulthood is knowing, loving, and managing your inner child.
The status of adult is only a perception. There’s always going to be a time when you’re the kid in the room. There’s always going to be a time when you’re the grownup in the room. But the actions of an adult are always within grasp.
Keeping your eyes open, producing more than you consume, owning your decisions, knowing that you are in a constant state of change and growth. The target is always moving.
Your Dear Author’s personal insistence on calling his blog “The Workbench” should be enough of a clue into his psychology for the content of this post to be self evident. It is one thing to dress a certain way, to title one’s blog a certain way, or to refer to oneself in the third person. All of these may have practical value, but these are also aesthetic values, and personal aesthetics are all about how one wishes to be seen, or how one wishes to see oneself.
Granted, the Dear Author (me), believes himself genuinely committed to the understanding of the artist-as-laborer, but he also, by his choice of blog title, wishes to be seen as such.
Most often, the traits that annoy us the most in people close to us are those faults that we ourselves possess. The Dear Author is more annoyed by a messy coworker than a clean one, even though he himself is rather messy in that endearing, maddening way of artists worldwide. “What makes you think that your ideas are so special that you can just leave your s**t everywhere???”
They are not.
So the irony of this post is that ever so human irony that the author wishes he were able to live up to what he imagines himself to be. But he spends so much time, like much of the world, in a state of cursory study and half-practice, punctuated by cat videos. He blames the internet, but knows that it is not the internet’s fault.
The internet is a gateway to both immense output and tremendous consumption, but is not, in and of itself, an evil. Or a good. It has the potential for both. It is a tool, like the telephone was a revolutionary tool.
The thinking for 2015 reflects a beloved article from the Art of Manliness, one of the older, wiser, more well established blogs out there. http://www.artofmanliness.com/2010/04/06/modern-maturity-create-more-consume-less/
Create more, consume less. Granted in spheres where you need to continually practice and collect inspiration, it is easy to say consumption of new information is necessary. Sorry, that’s only partially true. It’s useful up to a point. There isn’t a good rule of thumb here, as a complex work of art can take immense amounts of research and collection, tremendous hours of practice and preparation, before being worthy of public consumption. But we must always take care not to let our consumption grow so deep as to waste away having never made something.
Honestly, that’s what this blog is supposed to be about — getting down to work and doing it. So the Dear Author, amid lots of random practice, thinking, reading, etc., must get down to putting something out there, even if it is only 500 words about getting something out there.
2015 will need to be about give me all your eggs and bacon and let’s build a house or six. It’s really easy to pretend that you’re not ready, that you haven’t practiced enough, that you don’t have a good enough degree or enough awards or instagram followers, but if you don’t get out there, you’ll stay inside, and the tools will rust on the workbench.
See what I did there? See you shortly.
Technique is not art. Technique is the bridge between real experience and performance (or expression, aka human sharing).
Building technique is not building art, it is building a better bridge.
Last summer I had the privilege of going through a clown workshop with Brian Foley, a clown and theater mastermind who happened to be visiting us at Synetic as a part of an MFA internship. I’d had little experience with clown, formally (if you can call anything about clown “formal.” clowning eats formality and vomits it out as flowers and haddock), and so I did not go into it expecting to perform admirably. I ended up experiencing what was to me a pretty profound failure. Not on the level of “you’re a clown, you’re supposed to fall down,” but on the level of actual, personal artistic failure. At least it felt that way in my mind at the time.
Later that year I would get to play Feste in 12th Night at Synetic, and that one workshop definitely shaped a great deal of my work going into that role. People responded very well to the show, and to the performance. Returning to a clown workshop with Happenstance Theater‘s Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, I felt I had figured out some secrets of clowning, and anticipated that my failure would be clown-failure rather than personal failure. The workshop was wonderful, but I definitely failed a couple of times on a personal level…felt like I could have done better, felt left out, re-imagined my work as I was doing it…
But that’s the tough thing about clowning — it’s like any art, you have to actually fail, I think, to build anything good.
I also recently had the privilege of re-reading Jacques Lecoq’s book, “The Moving Body,” which is one of the seminal works of physical theater. It’s rare to find good writing about physical theater, in the main because the physical theater defies verbal description. However, his work is one of the best, and his school has been a central influence on physical actor training in the modern age.
The French title of the book is “Les Corps Poetique,” this indicates a finer translation of the title, one that I prefer, “The Poetic Body.”
Lecoq writes that, in his students’ early experiments with clowning, that the work started out with a focus on making each other laugh, and it inevitably failed. It was, in fact, the moment a student who was making an attempt actually gave up and sat down in frustration that laughter was elicited.
Clowning is about failure, it is the story of human frailty.
We love to watch failure, we love to sit in simultaneous judgment and empathy — why else would reality TV be so popular? Ok, perhaps this is a stretch, there is plenty of titillation in reality television, but the resounding effect of all the editing, all the music, all of the dressing people up just so they can tear themselves down, is inevitably a viewer that sits and says to his or herself: “at least I’m not like THAT.”
They say this, but I also think that deep inside they gain some comfort because the truth is that we ARE in fact like THAT…and we have found companions. Clowns just bring it out into the open and make it loud.
Perhaps the cruelty of (most) reality television is that the participants think they are signing up to be stars when in reality they are signing up to be clowns. And those that sign up knowing this are either brave or mad, much like anyone who decides to be a clown.
Choosing to be a clown is brazenly humble, because you wear your failure on your sleeve, you are vulnerable, and ultimately are laughed at…or worse…not laughed at. Crickets. Nada.
A big part of getting on the stage is, often, about ego and image issues. If you’re like me, you start out young and you’re a gawky kid who doesn’t know what to make of himself, and you step onto the stage and act out stories and people respond. As you get better they respond more, and you start to think that your success has something to do with an inner greatness that you bring to the stage, something in your voice, body, your manner or your way of thinking, is capturing people’s hearts and souls.
But try clowning, and you are defenseless. Good looks do you no good. A great voice suddenly makes you unlikable. Doing work that shows how special you are only makes you a terrible clown.
And so you fail, and in doing so you start to understand what might help you succeed.
A piece of paper falls onto the floor, and the fool is too fat to bend over to pick it up. As he reaches harder and harder, he pushes himself, unknowingly, into a split, and has retrieved the paper! He only does extraordinary things unwittingly, out of the blue — if a clown walks onstage with a clear intent to do something extraordinary, he must instead, at the moment of performance, do something mundane. Or back off in fear. Or just plain fail.
If a clown walks onstage with a clear intent to do something mundane, then extraordinary things happen. He must fail his way to miracles.
Makes you think, doesn’t it? If Lecoq saw clowning as the crowning educational moment for his actors (it is the final chapter in his book, and the last phase of his students’ sequence), what is it that we must carry with us into all acting?
It is not only the greatness of humanity that an actor must carry with her to the stage. She needs the failure of humanity, so that the audience member may watch and whisper in their heart “that is me, that is my story.”
Last night I read an article in the Atlantic written by a research psychiatrist whose previous career was as a Ph.D in literature, teaching Renaissance literature. She had spent years studying both mental illness and creativity. It’s titled “Secrets of the Creative Brain” (I link to it at the bottom of this article). The multiple studies cited in the article supported, glaringly, two pretty well established generalizations about artists and other highly creative people.
1) They have a high prevalence of mental health issues, with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or some combination of the three being the most prevalent.
2) There is some kind of connection between this mental disorder and the creative mind.
This was, in fact, a really heartening thing to read, because as an artist I know SO MANY people who struggle with this stuff, and to see science that supports something we’ve talked about for some time somehow makes me feel more…normal.
Why is this? Because I have struggled with mental flailing, as I like to call it, my whole life, and only in recent years have I been able to put the name “anxiety” on it. I consider my own situation to be on the lighter end of such disorders, and I think that it is not a unique experience, but a degree of something that everyone experiences from time to time.
The thing I appreciate most about the article is its conclusion, that sums up as “sometimes creative people make remarkable connections, and when they are real, we call them geniuses. Sometimes creative people make remarkable connections, and when they are not real, we call them madmen.”
And that’s it in a nutshell.
This is a good summation, though it does not capture the experience of it.
I’ve known a lot of moments in my work as an artist where I get kind of “swept away.” It’s elating, to get into that zone, it’s like time has sped up and slowed down at the same time and you’re seeing all these clear connections, and if you hit an obstacle you just move to the side and the path reveals itself to you. For me, choreographing a fight or scene can be like that…just watch the moves again from a different angle and the next movement or moment suddenly pops into your head…or the next TWELVE moves, or the whole strategic scope of the scene in the context of the play within the context of history, and you have to log that revelation somewhere so you don’t forget it and you can go on with rehearsal (though you have momentary doubts that everyone else hasn’t already figured that out while you were blundering in the dark).
The same thing can happen working as an actor…we rehearse through the scene, and in the midst of action, some moment of breath tells you that the NEXT thing must come sooner, or harder, or lightly, or in a haze of joy, moods and actions swirl around inside you like water waiting to come out of a firehose and you can steer that release ever so slightly.
Or writing. It’s like the words on the page disappear, and the world inside your head is just flowing out of your hands like a waterfall. The cell walls between image and expression become porous and you stop seeing a difference between grammar, structure, vocabulary, and the sensations spurring their use.
Like Nietzsche said, it’s like riding a tiger.
Because it can go the other way. Some of my best ideas as a writer, director, choreographer, actor, any of them…come to me as I’m falling asleep. And my worst moments of anxiety usually happen as I’m waking up, and if its 3am and I happen to be waking, well I can write off sleep for a little while.
Heavy anxiety is like taking a superpower like the Human Torch, that lets you fly and be on fire and stuff, and then suddenly the fire on your skin actually hurts and you’re flying blindly through a parking garage. A
(Another appropriate moment to point out that this is not an advice column. Don’t set yourself on fire and fly blindly through a parking garage. Just don’t.)
It took me years to realize that the same thing in my brain that lets me dive deep into a story and get immersed in the details of a world or moment also is the same thing that lets me dive deep down the rabbit hole of “what if the bad thing happens.”
It seems that the science is supporting this — that if something in a particular brain is turned up a few notches, it can have both good and bad effects. Sometimes very good. Sometimes very, very bad.
I’ve only had a couple moments in my adult life when anxiety was truly debilitating, and it only lasted for a little while…perhaps several minutes. But that taste of an anxiety attack was enough to wake me up to the fact that there’s this thing that needs dealing with. I’m lucky, because some people have much more severe anxiety attacks all the time. Other artists deal with depression or bipolar disorder, and while anxiety often comes hand in hand with one or the other, I’ve been spared. While what-if scenarios and near-crippling doubt will occasionally slow me down, those periods inevitably pass and I usually am able to find a rabbit hole that I’m excited about to take me somewhere cool.
It brings up another connection, one about artists and ambition. I think it is sometimes easy for artists to pursue something difficult and creative, not because of a remarkable bravery (though that is often required) but because it’s just easy for the creative mind to imagine a path towards fantastic, positive outcome. Everyone has this ability, but the more creative folks just have more of a tendency towards it. And the ability to see the outcome, and imagine the many paths to get there, makes it less risky. Often, I think, we can FEEL a path before we can even describe it.
But it works the other way too. In a bad way. The bad outcomes are just as easy to conjure, and even the fact that a good path is felt but not seen can be incredibly worrisome, because one part of you is speaking, saying “the path is there, just walk forward and keep your hands in front of you” and every time that part of you takes a breath, another part of you steps in and screams “ITS TERRIBLY DARK AND MONSTERS WILL EAT YOUR HANDS!!!”
If it sounds schizophrenic, maybe it is. The voices and personas we conjure in order to do our work, in order to live our lives, sometimes get real mean. I think everyone deals with the world in differing personas, with different ideas and doubts appearing like voices. Just for some people those voices get way more substantiated, and start to steal the function of other parts of the brain (no I don’t hear voices, but the idea-world is kind of like voices, so I compare them).
Now, this is all just my experience, and honestly I don’t think its that bad. I’ve known people dealing with all three of the big ones (anxiety, depression, bipolar) to degrees that are much higher than what I have to manage.
When I was a kid, I would occasionally get panic attacks. I can’t even remember what that entailed, I just remember a sharp sensation of fear (I always see a blue knife when I try to catalogue that sensation…) and a period where I was just deathly afraid that something had happened to my mom or dad or someone or something important. But I grew out of it…sort of. I also learned some ways to deal with it — maybe a combination of my developing brain and developing mental strategies at the same time?
Now, I’m not offering a solution to anyone dealing with mood disorders. I’m actually just pointing out that I’m lucky enough to have found something at an early age that still works for me, though I’m far from having mastered or eliminated my own anxiety…I usually have to take some sort of action either to deal with the problem I’m worrying about or just to go down a more positive rabbit-hole. Meditating, stepping back, prayer, turning to God helps me to put my feet back on the ground so I can get moving again.
But here’s the thing, I don’t WANT to get rid of it entirely, because I know that that ability to go down rabbit holes is also like a superpower. Getting into the creative space is a phenomenal experience, and you often come out of it having made something really good!
Now this is not to condone the idea of people dealing with serious mental illness avoiding treatment because of occasionally intense creative periods or upswings of elation. But to those who don’t deal with any of these (and I think most humans have dealt with SOME form at some point in their life, or are oblivious to it, or avoid naming it…) it might explain WHY some people avoid treatment — they want to get rid of the problem but the problem is tied deeply to the very thing that makes them special. We might even identify it as actually being the thing that makes us special, and I’m not qualified to speak about that beyond my own experience.
For me, there has always been a process of learning to identify when I’m heading into the oblivion of worry versus the galaxy of wonder, and it will never fully go away, I think. Creativity takes multiple kinds of thinking: one is the ability to have all the ideas, but another is the ability to identify the right idea and then take action on it. It is a choice to do all the gritty work that the “aha” idea carries with it. It’s sifting through the tremendous disorder of ideas that are bubbling up all the time and choosing the good ones…then having the perseverance to go back to the disorderly tar pit and look for another one when the first one fails. You get better, over time, at choosing ideas that are not dark-rabbit-holes, or maybe better at backing out of the dark holes, but that doesn’t make them not there. And there’s a whole neuro-biological element that I can’t even begin to explain.
My point is, I guess, that the research here is important, and that artists and other creative types ought to be aware that their brains work a little differently, but they’re not alone in the vast variety of amazing, creative, interesting human brains out there.
And that there’s smart people out there who want to help if someone does struggle on a deep level with this stuff.
I highly recommend reading the article at the Atlantic, especially if you’re a creative type and want to feel a little less weird about yourself. http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/06/secrets-of-the-creative-brain/372299/
In conclusion, a kitten.