Sunday, August 21, 2016

Design & Style

I feel like these words tend to be used indiscriminately in the visual narrative arts, especially with regards to animation and film. I commonly hear highly-stylized or VFX-heavy films described as well-designed, while I rarely hear films with little stylization or VFX described as well-designed. It’s as though design is used as a measure of the amount or quality of visual style rather than as a measure of how visuals serve the story. 

Perhaps this is because overt stylization and visual design is easy to identify and appreciate, largely in part to the continuing advancement and proliferation of CGI that spurns filmmakers and storytellers into the race for ever more complex and impressive visuals. What this seems to be doing for design, however, is tying it to the output of these tools, so that in this particular view, an epic science fiction film like The Phantom Menace is considered a better designed film than its 22-year predecessor, A New Hope, and both of these films are far better designed than a low-budget independent film like Sideways.

Star Wars I The Phantom Menace ©1999 Twentieth Century Fox Films

Star Wars IV: A New Hope ©1977 Twentieth Century Fox Films

Sideways ©2004 Fox Searchlight Films

By this assertion Hollywood should be cranking out ever and ever better-designed films. Take a look at the marked improvement of design between the latest Independence Day and the original. Or take Transformers, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The newer films are so much better designed.

Independence Day/Independence Day Resurgence ©1996/2016 Twentieth Century Fox Films
Transformers/Transformers Age of Extinction ©2007/2014 DreamWorks Picture/Paramount Pictures
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ©1990/2016 Paramount Pictures

But here is where the fallacy lies: design is not a volume dial for visual complexity, sophistication or stylization, and turning it to 11 does not make a design any better than 10, or 9, or even 1. Instead I propose that design is worse in the face of the ‘more is better mentality’ and that The Phantom Menace is the least successfully designed film next to either A New Hope or Sideways. I would even go so far as to say Sideways is the best designed of the three, but I'll save my rationale for the end.

To be fair, design and style are certainly subjective affairs with many different approaches and interpretations. Additionally, these problems with design as I see them are not simply symptoms of over-design, but more often than not reflect of a deficit of storytelling, and in many cases are presented as a substitute for storytelling. Although I am presenting my own personal ideas on the relationship of design to style, my intent is not to just asset my own nerdy opinions, but hopefully to stir thought and conversation.

But first my opinions! Let's start by asking Google how it describes design and style:

design - n. purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.    v. decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), typically by making a detailed drawing of it. 
style - n. a distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed.

This is actually pretty close to how I see it:  Design in my mind is a process of understanding and visually representing creative intent, which in the case of cinematic narratives like film or animation usually comes from story. This process begins with asking questions: what is the overall story and overriding themes, how do the constituent parts (characters, settings, plot, etc.), and narrative structural components (acts, scenes, shots, beats, etc.) all serve the greater whole? The execution process then follows with a mixture of research & reference, visual development, conceptual iteration followed by the final execution of informed visual choices. Ideally the design process follows the story process, but in cases where the two happen concurrently design can actually help inform story.

Style, on the other hand, I see as an end product usually informed by some combination of creative intent (story), and artistic voice (aesthetics, taste & judgement). More stylish film-makers tend to put greater emphasis on their own aesthetics and artistic presence, often ending up with recognizable bodies of work informed by a common style or aesthetic—think Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, David Lynch, and so on.

L to R: Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino, The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, The Elephant Man by David Lynch, Edward Scissorhands by Tim Burton

Where design is successfully balanced between the interests of story and voice, we are left with memorably original, artistic and moving stories. Where there is an imbalance of voice over intent we are often left with stylistically overwrought films that may be interesting to the eye in the moment, but ultimately feel empty, over-whelming or meaningless. I won't show any examples to protect the guilty, but I'm sure everyone has their own examples.

Visual storytellers who work story first tend to place less emphasis on their own artistic presence to allow the unique style and voice rise out of the particular story itself. This is not to say they don’t leave recognizable fingerprints on their work. Every film-maker or storyteller is guided by their own personal aesthetics and taste, consciously or not. Look at the consistent creative judgement informing the Coen Brothers’ vast body of work, despite genre, tone and style. 

Random assortment of films in descending order from L to R:
Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, Fargo, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There, Raising Arizona, and The Big Libowski

Similarly, the film libraries of Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar each features stylistically diverse films, yet they usually tend to be bound by common ‘house’ aesthetics regardless of director or genre. Up and Wall-e may be completely different in terms of style, but they are guided by the same aesthetics. 

Wall-e ©2008 Pixar/Disney |  UP ©2009 Pixar/Disney

This balance between artistic voice and creative intent I would say is closely related to the classic case of form versus function. Where design is the process of understanding and communicating creative intent (what you want the audience to experience), story can be seen as the function (the what) and visuals as the form (the how). When visuals are informed by just aesthetics, unguided by artistic or narrative intent, the outcome is often design for the sake of design—because it looks cool, because it appeals to some artistic taste, or astounds the eye, or pushes some artistic boundary. To me this adds no more design value than using every crayon in the box. It is uninformed design.

Informed design, to my eye, is design that considers every crayon in the box to find just the right one for a given goal. Good design is not necessarily excessive, mindlessly aesthetic, technologically ground-breaking (although it certainly can be if the intent requires it). Good design is about finding the right tool for the job, and in many cases is completely invisible. When done right, design is the means to an end, not the ends to the means. 

Remember, the heart of every narrative art is an experience. Storytellers, writers, filmmakers, comic or picture book writers and illustrators all aspire to the same basic goal—to seize the imagination of their audience through the veracity of their storytelling. For visual narratives, visual design is just a tool, albeit an important tool. But when the tool itself, or the hand holding the tool, upstages the experience itself, the veracity of the illusion is challenged and the audience’s attention shifts from the storytelling to the storyteller, violating John Gardner's golden rule of creating “the vivid and continuous dream” (the Art of Fiction). 

A bad metaphoric way of looking at it: if a house is visually designed such that it is interesting to the eye, but creates a space one simply does not want to live in, is it truly good design?

Now about my audacious statement that Sideways is better designed than The Phantom Menace, and arguably even A New Hope, (I'll reserve my full design comparison of these films for my lecture series):  the visual design choices of Sideways consistently, subtly and cleverly represent thematic and character progression throughout the story. They are not bold, in your face, or even consciously present, but they work at a subtextual level adding to the emotional and intellectual experience and satisfaction of the film as a whole. You don't walk out of the theater or turn off your television thinking to yourself, 'Those designs were awesome'. Instead, if you were like me, you simply thought, 'What a great film!'

I propose that the design of Star Wars IV: A New Hope is thoughtful, incredibly well-crafted, bold, graphic and cinematic. But where the visuals are used to construct strong cinematic compositions, solid visual clarity and original, compelling, immersive settings, they rarely operate at a deeper emotional or intellectual level to underscore theme, story or character. I do expect some push back with this opinion as there are certainly examples of thoughtful visual language and relationships, from Darth Vader to the Star Destroyers, but these I feel are fairly academic.

The Phantom Menace, finally, I submit as an example of cutting-edge, over-the-top, visual spectacle, that is sadly devoid of meaningful or succesful design. Not only is there a clear absence of visual design in support of story, but in many cases the visuals are so visually complex and over-designed that they distract from the story, or stand empty in the void of effective storytelling. I would define it as a classic case of design for design sake--because it looks cool, or serves a particular aesthetic, or because it turns the dial to 11. And though this is a 'problem of design', I believe it stems more often than not from the directors, executives and studios who become so infatuated with the tools and what they can do, that they forget about what it is they are using the tools for in the first place, and rarely ask if it is even the right tool for the job. 

But enough of my nerdy opinions. I'd love to hear your thoughts on design and style, be you designer, storyteller or audience: What is good design to you? Where do you agree or disagree? How many crayons do you think it takes to make a good design? 

I'm listening. :-)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Designing Counterspy I: Origin (Inspiration & Aspiration)

Joining the newly formed Dynamighty as art director and fourth founding member was the perfect opportunity for me after having just left Pixar, which I often describe as after having been a long-standing member one of the world's greatest symphonies, the time had come to leave so I could learn to play new instruments and even write my own music. Dynamighty was my first chance to help form a garage band, and over the next three and a half exhilarating years, I was forced to play more instruments than I ever imagined...

For the rest of my approach to designing the 2014 Nafta-Nominated game, Counterspy, developed for PS3, PS4, PS Vita, iOS & Android, check out this post from my GDC lecture, Designing Counterspy: 

Part I: Origin (Inspiration & Aspiration)

Monday, August 1, 2016

What was it like working at Pixar?

I am asked this question often. It's a shame how few people know what working at Pixar is like given the creative and commercial success of this unique environment.

For me, answering this question is tough. Having worked there for over the 15 years, both I and the studio had changed quite a bit over that little stretch of time--the studio having grown from about 300 to nearly 1200, while I went from my mid-20's to my early 40's. There is so much I can say, but for the sake of this post, and giving an answer that is honest, but as objective as possible, I'll try to create a picture of the general environment at the time that shaped so much of my experience there. But first I'll give a little context to what shaped that environment.

I constantly hear people and companies assert that they want to be the next Pixar. Unfortunately this statement usually means little more than they want to be as successful as Pixar since few, if any, really understand how Pixar achieved its success to begin with. While there were many reasons for this success (more than I could ever know), the most important factor in my humble opinion was the one-of-a-kind triumvirate of Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter (and I would add John’s unsung former creative partner, Joe Ranft), as forming the specific DNA that truly expressed Pixar's accomplishments. 

With John and Ed's shared belief in the relationship between art and tech—that technology could express beautiful art, and that art challenged and improved technology—Steve's unforgiving demand of creating only the best experiences, and Joe's heart and belief in the creative process, they forged a rare harmony between creative, tech and business driven by a single goal: to tell great stories.

And by also firmly believing that great content is created by great talent, they put tremendous effort and resources into building the most supportive, empowering and humbling creative environment to not just to attract the best people in the industry, but to enable them to do their best.

And yet what is so remarkable about this simple recipe is how frequently misunderstood it has been by people and companies alike looking to reproduce Pixar's success. I have often seen the pursuit of the easy part: the financial investments in cool workspaces, gyms, game rooms, swag and all flavor of employee perks & benefits to attract good talent. But it is the other half of the equation I feel like people too often missed: the hard part of trusting professionals to do what they do best, even if it means challenging the status quo, questioning authority or taking enormous risks.

This was environment I entered into. 

So, what was it like? Awe-inspiring, rewarding, challenging, frightening, hilarious and exhausting. Pixar is, and I trust remains, a culture of perfectionists, over-achievers, visionaries and risk-takers, which by extension unfortunately includes a depressingly high percentage of insecure employees saddled with imposter syndrome, (myself having been high among them). 

No matter how smart or talented or successful you were before Pixar, coming into the studio was humbling because everyone operated, or at least give the appearance of operating, at an intimidatingly high level of achievement. For the initiate, Pixar’s iterative process was grueling, ego-bruising and demanding. Naked, unfinished, in-progress work was constantly subject to the criticism of peers, leads, art directors, production designers, directors, and just about anyone with a good eye and a valid comment. Bi-weekly reviews in front of dozens of team members could be exposing, nerve-wracking, and often lead to a worry that one was simply wasn't as good as everyone else, which if left unchecked, would slowly gnaw away at one’s professional confidence and could only be combated by working even harder to prove oneself worthy again.

Yet on the flip-side, it was inspiring, fun, exciting and encouraging to be in the company of so many talented and supportive peers, to earn the respect and approval of so many accomplished superiors, and to take part in creating something so large, so new, and so incredible that it could hardly even be imagined. 

Where there was fear of failure there was determination to succeed. Where there was doubt and struggle one day, there was confidence and pride the next. And whenever one felt overshadowed or outgunned by the level of competition, there was incredible camaraderie, team-work and a collective drive to bring out everyone’s best. At least this was how it felt for, up-and-down.

Over time, as I settled into the rhythm and flow of Pixar’s creative drum beat, I found my own pace and confidence and learned to revel in the process of tearing work my apart to make it better, of going in circles to confirm the right choices, to look at my own work and the work of others with an ever sharper eye. I learned that concept design was not just about producing a design, but exploring all the possible options to find the right design. I learned to research everything, to know my subject better than anyone else, to look at the world around me to inform the smallest details of even the most imaginative designs. 

I learned to become a good designer by first asking the right questions. I learned every film at Pixar was like a working for a different company: each director-producer team formed a unique culture that infused the entire production; each production designer had different taste and judgement, different priorities, different strengths, expectations and ways of communicating. Early on, much of how I learned to work on one film was discarded on the next, until eventually I learned how to become an empty vessel capable of holding whatever I needed to hold. 

But there were systemic challenges inherited from the long traditions of Disney feature animation, that in combination with the complicated mechanics and demands of a CG pipeline, made Pixar’s filmmaking process essentially a giant assembly line. To manage the long, complex task of making an animated film, productions were broken down into numerous distinct stages, each stage managed by specific departments, each department served by dedicated roles that could last months to years. 

Over time this process tended to turn artists and engineers alike into specialists. Efforts to mitigate risk encouraged repeat performances. Career-long leads, like team captains, hand-picked their reliable go-to’s. Type-casting and skill specialization became almost impossible to avoid. For most I think it was a fair trade in exchange for job security, professional pride and skill mastery. For myself, however, this was particularly challenging. I first came into Pixar with a fairly broad skill set and was lucky to enough to have some mobility between roles, but eventually I became so specialized that I could no long fight typecasting and eventually reached that point of having to decide if I wanted my career to be defined by my job, or if I wanted my career to define my jobs. 

Another by-product of assembly line compartmentalization was a tendency for departments to stick to their own and at times form cliquish cultures, interests or goals relative to their own position within the larger structure. Story, Art, Animation, and the various subsets of Technical felt like different hierarchical clubs with differing traditions, personalities, and politics. Infusing all of them was the subtle ever-present sense of friendly Pixar competitiveness: to be the best, the funniest, the smartest, the biggest partier or the most popular. 

Yet on the flip side again, Pixar had a wide demographic range of gender, ethnicity, age, persuasion and background (at least in relation to the historically male-dominated entertainment industry), and everyone there was of the highest pedigree, whether the most accomplished in their own fields, or just brimming with pure talent and potential. Across the board, Pixarians were mature, professional, collaborative, and fun. And because of Pixar’s focused creative culture, everyone swam together like the school of fish at the end of Finding Nemo, pulling together under the inspiring leadership of Ed and John to make the best films possible. 

Making films at Pixar was hard work, but it was work that was fueled by an especially combustable concoction of personal pride and dedication, fear of failure and the unknown, trust in the process and one's peers, and hope that no matter how long and arduous the process, it would yield something worthy of standing the test of time. It was like like rowing a boat at sea, toiling over the open ocean for months or years on end, our destination little more than a mark on a map for most of that time. We’d work hard together, play hard, struggle, sweat and press on if with only faith of the vision in the director's mind and our own trust in ourselves capable of getting us there. Eventually, usually very near the end, something would appear on the horizon, and if all went well, which it did less than you might think, it would grow larger and larger until we eventually found ourselves thrust on the shore of something far more beautiful and amazing than anyone of us had even even imagined.

At least that's what it felt like. Or I could say it was like sitting at a desk staring at a computer monitor 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, months on end, along side hundreds of peers. But that’s not quite as interesting, is it?

If there's interest, maybe I'll go into other aspects of my experience at Pixar in later posts. Having been gone for over 5 year, now, I'd also be delighted to share the views of other Pixarians. 

For a more detailed example of my day to day experience working on Wall-e, check out this old 2009 Thunder Chunky interview