Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Year of Exploring Possibilities.

This year of 2014 had me exploring multiple different disciplines related to animation. I began the year with far too much on my plate (two novels started, a graphic novel needing monumental amounts of work, a possible small business making and selling custom lamps made out of found items, learning about animation, trying to figure out a plan for getting a real job). It took me a while to streamline and get anything done.

But anyway, here's a timeline of my process of wandering into the wilderness only to return to where I'd started from...

  • January - Focus: Learning
Started binging on podcasts related to animation. I was also reading about story-boarding and becoming very overwhelmed. I was still trying to decide what I wanted to do about lamp making.

  • February - Focus: ?
I sent off my script for Fading Cloud to a friend's sister to get feedback. Continued studying animation. Head constantly exploding. Trying to do too many things. Started to realize I need to streamline.

  • March - Focus: Animating
March was a big ramp-up in my focus toward animation. A lot of other projects got pushed to the side. I got a trial version of some professional 2D animating software and did my bouncing ball animation and experimenting with a few other things. My friend Evan Mayfield (who worked at Disney Toon Studios for four years) give me a one-day crash course on 3D animation in Maya. I started trying to figure out how to animate in 3ds Max. I even started building a plan for putting together an animation film reel.

For animation practice, I reproduced the frames from a flip-book for the Miyazaki film Ponyo

  • April - Focus: Planning 
I sadly realized that a film reel would take a monumental amount of time. I went into even deeper planning for what I needed to do in order to move forward. I considered buying a video tutorial package from the company that made the 2D animation software I was experimenting with. I was still also working on Fading Cloud. By this time I had decided I should finish my novel Antediluvian Blues novel, because it was the project that was the furthest along toward being finished of all my projects.

The end of April was very important, because I made some decisions that locked in what I would be working on for the next four months. I found out about two important opportunities: 1) Writing contests to get into studio TV writing workshops and 2) classes at the Animation Guild.

  • May - Focus: Screenwriting
May was this little pocket of writing in the midst of a year of drawing. I decided to enter the NBC Writers on the Verge and the Warner Bros Writing Workshop contests, which are both fall-time internships. Spent every free moment of May working on a spec script (example episode script) for The Walking Dead. I didn't make it in (thousands apply, about a dozen get in), but it was good practice writing on a deadline.

  • June through August - Focus: Storyboarding
For the entirely of the summer, I took an insanely intense storyboarding class at the Animation Guild. Spent about 120+ hours outside of class planning and drawing and going completely insane. I had two or three mental breakdowns, broke my Wacom tablet and had to buy another one, and pulled of feats of story artwork I had no idea I was capable of.
Sample of one of the storyboards I did for the class at the Guild.

  • September through October - Focus: Drawing/Inking (Fading Cloud)
I decided to dedicate some time to working on my own projects, since I hadn't had any time to work on them in the last four months. Figured out some technical details with Fading Cloud, almost got a rhythm going, but thing still moved slowly.

Sample inking page from Fading Cloud.

  • November - Focus: Character Art and Storyboarding
Now, this was the month to get ready for CTN-X, the big animation conference that takes place in Burbank. I wanted to get some more character art ready and some storyboards ready for portfolio critiques, so that took up most of my time.

  • December - Focus: Writing (new screenplay, webseries script, Antediluvian Blues)
CTN out of the way, I wanted to finally finish the novel that I'd been casually dating for almost 4 years. I also wanted to do some more isometric (flat) art (like schematics, diagrams, maps, etc), because someone I met at CTN said that was the most impressive stuff I have (and it's probably my favorite type of artwork to do).

But then, I sat down with a friend of mine, Jeff Turley, who's already well established in the industry, and he told me that I really need to pick one thing to work on. That I should dedicate a year, one year, to focusing entirely on just one thing.

So, I picked writing, and started writing like a madman. I wrote the first half of a feature screenplay, two episodes of a webseries, and finished off the first draft of Antediluvian Blues.

Antediluvian Blues, as revision begins.

So, after all that, I came to the point of saying that I need to take time away from drawing (at least as a point of focus) for the year 2015. I'm going to dedicate this new year to writing. I'll get a few feature screenplays knocked out, write a few TV specs, get Antediluvian Blues self-published, and maybe start another novel.

No way of knowing what else the future will hold, but 2014 definitely gave me a lot of breathing room to feel things out and see what works. And, at the end of it, I came out realizing that the only thing that I absolutely can NOT live without... writing.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Chainsaw - Part 2: Confusion Over the Norm

This is actually more about adding something that taking it away, but it's really, really important (and one of my biggest weak points).

If you want to throw a world into chaos, you can't just show us chaos. If you want to turn a character's life upside down, you can't just show us everything turned over. You have to establish the norm first.

This is really important if you're doing a story where characters are subversive or resistant to the culture they live in. There will be very little sense of conflict and danger if the reader/audience has no idea what the culture that character lives in is like.

Really, both need to be clearly defined. The novel I'm revising right now has characters living in a world where the ruling class believes that they are immortal gods living on earth. The main characters, conversely, believe in an all-powerful, singular, spiritual god. I've spent all this time showing people being shocked by all their blasphemy, but just today I realized I never really explained how the religion of the world at large works!

The reader won't understand the shock people experience at the character's subversive behavior, because I never let them know why it's subversive!

I'm a bit embarrassed...this is plot structure 101 stuff, here.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Chainsaw - Part 1: Overacting

My screenwriting professor at Portland State had a favorite saying: "The chainsaw is your friend." It had to do with cutting out unnecessary stuff to make things more efficient, less cluttered, and just all-round better. It's mostly specific to film, but it really can be applied to any storytelling medium.

Well, as I work on revising the novel I recently finished the first draft for, I figured I could use this time to talk about what sort of things I'm doing.

So today, I will begin with overacting. It's lame, unless you're going for campiness, but it happens. Not just in movies, but in books as well. If you've ready any decent number of novels, you've seen it. People crying, laughing, or yelling when they really wouldn't and shouldn't. Stuff like that.

The revision process for a Novel is where over-acting stands out and gets tossed or fixed.

Kind of like the editing stage of a film, where you're away from the moment and can see things more objectively.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Gettin' Ready for CTN!!

Going to be a lot of little tweaks and reorganization coming to the website here soon. Gotta get the page ready for CTN, where I'll be conversating with all sorts of awesome artists. And getting this site ready is only one small part of all the preparations I want to have done by then. I have concept art to clean up, prop designs to organize, story-boarding projects to revise and improve, many pages of Fading Cloud to get at least to the finished, inking stage....

...and only about three weeks to do it all. Hmm...

I'll be going to the full three days of CTN because, hey, I live about three miles from where it's being held, so why not?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Just for Fun Reproductions

I make it a habit to take a day off from any sort of work one day a week. It can be tricky to schedule an entire day, and it can be a challenge to not get bored. So, I gave myself permission to work on easy, fun drawings on those Sabbath rest days. Something that doesn't require any brain power.

So, here are the drawings I've done in the last few months (well, the Batman one I actually did very quickly and roughly on a Wednesday, because it was Batman Day):

Pencil and colored pencil reproduction of scene from Lilo and Stitch.

Colored pencil reproduction of the Absolute Dark Knight cover.  

Ink and colored pencil reproduction of Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Thicken Your Plot

This is by no means an accredited assessment of how plot and story works, but it is a good collection of principles I’ve discovered. I’ve written short stories, novels, feature-length screenplays, short screenplays, and graphic novel scripts, so I’ve played around with the concept of plot in a lot of different ways.

What I’ve found is that there are some key principles that one should focus on in order to have strong plot. Each of these can be view as an arc. Whether or not these are outlined or planned (and each writer has their own system and their own different levels of preparation need), they will be present (unless the story is extremely strange):

  • Story Structure: There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Things happen. This could be called the external conflict.
  • Character Motivation/Obstacles: What the character wants changes throughout the story, as does what stands in their way. This could be called the internal conflict.
  • Relationships: Who cares about who in this story.

(Meta plot elements. I won’t elaborate on these, but they’re good to keep in mind:)
  • Underlying Message: You are human, with an agenda. Whether you like it or not, this will be an issue.
  • Reader/Audience Expectations: Manipulating the audience is key to delivering powerful stories, but this is more of an improvised dance that your story does with them. It’s a much less precise art (unless you’re Shakespeare).

Each of these manifests both generally and specifically. Meaning, they can be seen as 1) nebulous, over-arching elements of the entire story; 2) inferential, menacingly immanent influences that push things forward across sequences; and 3) critical, almost-concrete elements that drive each individual scene.

Fancy Vocabulary

Let’s define some key terms, because things can start to get really technical really fast:
  • Plot: The over-all plan or outline of the story, from beginning to end
  • Plot point: an incident in the story that causes severe change in characters’ motivations, in the story’s conflicts, or the rules of the world.
  • Scene: A series of actions in a specific place and time. Jack Sparrow spars with Will Turner in the blacksmith shop. Onboard the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo tells Obi Wan that he doesn’t believe in the force.  
  • Sequence (film)/Chapter (novel): A string of scenes forming a discrete story chunk, or “beat.” Andy Dufresne escapes from Shawshank. Buzz Lightyear discovers he’s a non-flying toy. Sequences in a film can range from a single scene to multiple scenes, but chapters in books tend to be about 2,500 to 10,000 words and are usually all about the same length in a given novel. Chapters also can contain multiple story beats.
  • Act: A string of sequences making up a full movement in the story, where character motivations remain fairly consistent. Neo tries to find out what the Matrix is. Ana searches for Elsa. Everyone is generally moving in a particular direction and the world around them follows a certain set of rules. In movies, an act is usually 20-90 minutes, with the first and last acts usually being shorter (about 30 minutes). In novels, it’s a bit less predictable, but tend to be around 10,000 to 50,000 words.

Story Structure

So, with that out of the way, on to the first element of plot. Here’s Freytag’s pyramid, often used to explain the traditional structure (via Wikipedia):

Act I is the introduction (or “exposition”), which ends with a plot point that leads to Act II. The second act begins with rising action that leading to the climax. The latter half of Act II is the falling action. Falling action ends with the anticlimax, which leads into Act III (the “denouement”), which has the resolution and ending.

Western storytelling doesn't follow this as format as much as it used to, especially in the second half. I’m not sure if he was the cause, but the beginnings of a switch in dramatic structure can be seen very clearly in Shakespeare’s work.

In a Shakespeare play, there’s still a climax near the middle of the story, but contained within this climax is a twist, something unexpected.

In Much Ado About Nothing, for the first half there’s a bunch of frittering around with this person in love with that person and what-not. Romantic tensions gradually rise, until Don John tries to trick everyone into thinking that Hero is sleeping around. Everything crescendos when Hero’s father falls for the deception and condemns her in a blast of rage. What was just a story with playful flirting and gossiping escalates suddenly into the near collapse of a family.

Modern film has shifted the dramatic structure even further, but it’s still centered around this transformation of the “climax” into the “midpoint twist.” The middle of the story is no longer the peak of action, though, instead becoming a peak of success. It is the point where the hero is winning, where it seems goals will be achieved.

The twist then robs the hero of this position and leads to an emotional decline. The stakes begin rising higher and higher and hopes drop deeper and deeper, until the story ultimately reaches the plot point that is now the staple of western storytelling, the low point, or reversal.

In most films, there will be one mid-point twist, followed by a low point. In longer films and in novels, however, there can be multiple twists and reversals, often disguised as false low points. This is why longer films and novels usually have more than just three acts.

The lower the low point, the stronger the story will be, in theory. The more miserable, the more hopeless, the greater the failure, the better. This brings in the last act of the story, where the hero will attempt to overcome this situation with varying degrees of success.

Because of all this, the plot arc has morphed into something more like this (animation story artist Francis Glebas refers to this as a “dragon weave,” due to the swooping nature of the arc):

Character Motivation/Obstacles.

To the untrained observer, a story is a series of actions, one leading to the other. But good stories have good characters, and good characters feel real. It’s those real characters making believable decisions that create those actions that make up the story.

So, just as important as mapping the actions of a story is mapping out the character’s motivations. What do they want? Why? What is standing in their way? How different is what the characters want from what they need?

The tension between character wants, needs, and obstacles is the framework beneath, holding up the story. Without it, the story will feel fake, boring, extremely cliché, or all of the above.

There must be an awareness of this tension at every level of structure, from the over-arching plot all the way down to each individual scene. At the very least the main character's tensions should be outlined. 

Character motivations can sometimes appear unclear or subdued, but they can not be either of these things to the writer. However they are presented to the reader/audience, below the surface they must be very real. On an episode of ScriptNotes (a popular podcast for screenwriting), visiting screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna said that one must “harden the wants” of the characters. Clues need to be dropped, concrete ones. Make the reader/audience want to figure it out, if it isn't made clear right away.

The simplest way to track this is to note what’s changed at each plot point:

  • Hook/introduction (enter Act I):
    • What does the character want?
    • What are the obstacles?
  • Call to action:
    • Which choice does the character want to make?
    • What stands in the way of them making either choice?
  • Point of no return (enter Act II):
    • How have the character’s wants changed?
    • What are the new obstacles?
    • How will the new goals be pursued?
  • Midpoint twist:
    • How will the new obstacles be dealt with?
  • Low point (enter Act III):
    • What is the greatest goal?
    • What are the greatest obstacles?
All these details can be mapped out for any character. It's very helpful to do this for the antagonist in the story, as well as the protagonist. 


A arc within stories that isn’t talked about as often is the ebb and flow of how close different characters are to each other. This is similar to character motivation, but has an entirely different dynamic. If the hero is in love with another character, then that character is an element of the hero’s wants. But relationships, both in stories and in life, are far more complicated than that.

Mapping out the relationships of the characters around your hero is extremely helpful in having realistic stories. Why do love triangles always feel contrived and annoying? Because the writer didn’t plot out the relationships and instead relied on one of the most over-used tropes in the universe. 

And this isn’t just an issue of romantic relationships. The complex feelings and mistrust held by Harry toward all the adults at Hogwarts dictate nearly everything that happens in the stories. The relationship doesn’t even have to be with a “living” thing. One of the key relationships on the show Lost (at least in the first two seasons) is between Locke and the island.

To quote McKenna again, as the writer goes through their story, they need to constantly be asking the question:

  • “What is the most important relationship?”

It allows one to look at the story from an entirely different perspective, revealing motivations and might be unclear to the writer and the character. From this, the weaving together of all the different relationships can be mapped out.

This becomes especially useful when a story has a lot of subterfuge and intrigue. Without a logical ordering of relationships between people trying to manipulate each other, their actions and reactions may not be believable. 

Don't Go Crazy

I feel like it would be important to mention that it's not necessary to outline every single one of these things I've pointed out. These are all tools, and a lot of them a writer keeps track of in their head anyway. But, if something isn't working, going over these details can help reveal what needs to be fixed. Even just keeping these tips in the back of one's head when planning out a story can very helpful. 

And the last thing I would want to have happen would be for this to turn into a gigantic intimidation; something that keeps someone from writing at all. You don't have to have any of this planned out to start writing! If anything written here doesn't help, ignore it. And before anything else, just keep writing. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

More Drawing, This Time With Better Paper

More sketches from the Wednesday night drawing session. Since I realized that the big stack of Bristol paper I got was the wrong size (I was going to use it for inking the pages for Fading Cloud), I figured I might as well use them on Wednesday nights.

So first off, here's some from my warm-ups on newsprint:

And here on the Bristol paper:

Friday, March 14, 2014

Getting My Feet Wet

After months and months of reading blog articles and books by masters in the industry, as well as listening to podcasts every day about animation, I couldn't handle it anymore. I had to play around with 2D animation.

So I downloaded a demo of FlipBook, a powerful program for doing 2D, and did a bouncing ball, but threw in an explosion. It took me about an hour:

There were a lot of issues. My timing was really bad, and the ball/bomb was shrinking as it progressed along. So, I knew I wanted to touch it up a lot. Ah-ha, but I also wanted to play around with some other principles, such as secondary action. So, I figured I turn the ball into a bomb with a burning fuse. Then I figured the bomb should come from somewhere, so I added cannon. Then I wanted to make more particle effects from the explosion. Then I wanted to make it so it could loop continuously.

So, 6 hours of my life later, I have my four and a half second animated clip. Enjoy:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

More drawring.

Had fun at the drawing session over at Center Stage Gallery. Today we had a model dressed up as a cowboy...and man, he was pretty amazing. I wish I could have sat closer and just drawn his amazing face all day. So much character and personality.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Chainsaws and Writing

In my screenwriting class in college, my professor had a favorite saying: “The chainsaw is your friend.” He was making a strong point about the “less is more” principle, but adding some umph and at the same time acknowledging that cutting out material from one’s writing is messy and painful. But oh, so necessary. 

He lead us through an activity where he took a scene from our scripts and then read the scene in front of the class.

Immediately after that, he read a version of the scene that he had edited...but the only thing he had done was cut out material. He created nothing new, he rearranged nothing. He simply deleted superfluous dialogue and action.

And it was magical. We all looked up at him, stunned in disbelief as he turned our clunky dialogue into tight, engaging material. One of my classmates cried out, “You’re such an amazing writer!” to which he replied, “I didn’t write any of this! You guys wrote it. You’re the great writers!”

I’ve never forgotten that moment. To illustrate how amazing this can be, let’s look at a famously clunky and bloated scene...the “breakup” scene from Star Wars: Episode III:


Anakin, I was so worried about you! Obi-Wan told me terrible things! 

What things? 

He said you turned to the Dark Side. That you killed Younglings! 

Obi-Wan is trying to turn you against me. 

He cares about us. 


He knows. He wants to help you. Anakin, all I want is your love. 

Love won't save you, Padme. Only my new powers can do that! 

But at what cost? You're a good person, don't do this! 

I won't lose you the way I lost my mother. I am becoming more powerful than any Jedi has ever dreamed of, and I'm doing it for you. To protect you. 

Come away with me. Help me raise our child far away. Leave everything else behind while we still can! 

No. Don't you see? We don't have to run away anymore! We no longer have to hide our love for each other. I am more powerful than the Chancellor, I... I can overthrow him! And together, you and I can rule the galaxy! We can make things the way we want them to be! 

I don't believe what I'm hearing! Obi-Wan was right; you've changed! You have turned to the dark side! You're not Anakin anymore! 

I don't want to hear any more about Obi-Wan. The Jedi turned against me. Don't you turn against me! 

Anakin, you're breaking my heart! You're going down a path I cannot follow! 

Because of Obi-Wan? 

Because of what you've done, what you plan to do! Stop! Stop now. Come back. I love you! 

Obi-Wan enters the scene from the ship behind Padme.

Liar! You're with him! You brought him here to kill me! 

How a lot of us were feeling while listening to this fool's dialogue. (Image property Lucasfilm/Disney).

This is a really long conversation for a film. That doesn't mean you can't write long conversations for a movie, but here it definitely doesn't seem to be working. 

Now, I will do nothing more than trim it down:


Anakin, I was so worried about you! Obi-Wan--He said you turned to the Dark Side. That you killed Younglings! 

Obi-Wan is trying to turn you against me. 

He cares about us. 


He knows. He wants to help you. Come away with me. Help me raise our child far away. Leave everything else behind while we still can! 

No. Don't you see? We don't have to run away anymore! I am more powerful than the Chancellor. You and I can rule the galaxy! We can make things the way we want them to be! 

Anakin, you're going down a path I cannot follow! Stop! Stop now. Come back. I love you! 

Obi-Wan enters the scene from the ship behind Padme.

Liar! You brought him here to kill me! 

I didn’t add anything. I didn’t change anything. I just deleted half the dialogue, and it’s already much stronger. And a lot of these tweaks could have been done in editing (which means that if anyone could get access into the editing room, they could fix a lot of these scenes).

Now, I know that George Lucas claimed he modeled all his story elements and dialogue to try and match the feel of ‘30’s serials, but I’m pretty sure most people would agree that some things are best left in the past. He didn’t film his movie on cellophane. He didn’t record the audio on phonograph drums.

But I digress. My point was to show how much an improvement can be made by trimming down a scene, cutting away things that may seem nice, but aren’t necessary. Almost the same amount of information is communicated in my version, but it flows much more smoothly and feels more realistic.

(Yes, I did remove the exposition about how Anakin thinks he can keep Padme safe because he’s turned to the dark side, but it felt forced in the scene—I feel like Anakin would be more likely to minimize and simply the situation to someone he knows won’t understand, instead of going into a detailed explanation about his hazy fears of her dying).

So, don’t be afraid to cut things away. The chainsaw is your friend.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Just Draw

I could be remembering wrong, but I think it was Renato dos Anjos, the animation supervisor for Wreck It Ralph, who said in an interview that one thing that’s key for an artist to grow in their craft is for them to find time to just draw. To draw without expectations or any kind of pressure to make something good. To just observe the world around them and be free to draw it and enjoy the process.

I am very aware of my weaknesses as an artist. I am especially weak in drawing human anatomy, especially female anatomy, so I’ve known that I need a lot of practice to get myself where I want to be in my skills.

So I was excited to find out about how an art gallery in Burbank (Center Stage Gallery) has a cheap drawing session every Wednesday night, where a model comes in costume and does poses for a three hour period. I decided to hit two birds with one stone, and just take a bunch of big newsprint paper and my trusty 5B pencil and just draw.

I went last night, and it was so amazing. I felt such a deep sense of contentment as I sat on the extremely uncomfortable sketching desk thingy, just drawing gestures and line and shading. I kept thinking about how, yes, I’m doing this to reach a goal, but if you boil down that goal, it’s still just to make art. So there was double satisfaction in what I was doing. I was making art, so that I can make art.

I think I’ll be going back again soon. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Renewed Vision

I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly happened in the last few weeks. My attitude toward my goal of entering the world of animation has shifted dramatically, very suddenly.

I’ve been in LA for five months now, but it’s only been since the last month or so that I’ve been aggressively educating myself on the industry and the art. I’ve been reading blog articles by professionals in the field. I’ve been buying books on storyboarding and on how the industry works. I’ve been listening to multiple podcasts every day about what’s going on in Disney, Pixar, and other studios. I’ve bought DVDs of movies just so I can listen to the commentary tracks. I’ve learned about blocking and staging and layout and lighting and all sort of other film related technobabble.

During the last few days, I’ve been trying to remember what caused this shift in momentum. Why did I spend four months in this city before I started buckling down and really devoting myself to learning? 

Then I remembered.

It was the arts and crafts show at Disney Feature. Evan Mayfield, who had been working at Disney Toon Studios, invited me to accompany him to an employee-and-family-only arts and crafts show in the Roy E. Disney Animation Building. The two of us have been making custom found-item lamps, and he both wanted some help setting up his display and said that I could set up some of my lamps for sale as well.

I had driven by this building many times in the past and had day-dreamed about going in, someday, maybe, perhaps. Maybe, someday, even working there. And now I was inside it, for the last reason I would have ever imagined. Because of my silly little side-project of making custom lamps.

I got to look around the offices there and see concept art for Frozen and for Big Hero Six, which doesn’t even have a trailer out yet. I saw John Lasseter’s office, which is full of figurines of Disney characters and all sorts of cool Disney knick-knacks. I got to see the personal artwork of artists who work there as they set up their booths for the show. It was all so much to take in that I felt more numb than anything. 

As the show started, all sorts of employees who work there came by and admired both Evans lamps and mine. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many models ready to display and I didn’t sell anything, but through the experience I learned two things: One, that people who work for Disney Animation are just regular folks, not super heroes or gods among men. And two, I gained some validation as an artist, through the accolades given by people checking out my lamps.

I talked to Evan about all this afterward, and he offered lots of encouragement for my goals that seemed so silly and ridiculous. Through it all I realized that there’s nothing stopping me from believing I can attain the dream of working there.

Something about that experience re-sparked the fire in me. I think I needed the recharge, after all the energy exerted in moving here. It took so much out of me to press through the challenges of just getting here, so much prayer and hope in trusting in the impossible, that I must have been burnt out. Walking into the studio, looking around, meeting and talking to people who work there, all brought back clarity to the original vision. 

That was the cause of all the drive moving me forward.