The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ran from September 5th to 15th, and one of the highlights was a documentary called Jodorowsky’s Dune. It has garnered raves and won the Audience Award at Fantastic Fest. It makes a fascinating counterpoint to the film we discussed a few weeks ago, Persistence of Vision. In many ways, they tell similar stories. Both films document men who at early peaks in their careers, embark on epic (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to make epic films.
In 1975, Alejandro Jodorowsky optioned the film rights for Dune, and the documentary chronicles his labours to bring his vision of Frank Herbert’s critically acclaimed science fiction novel to the screen. Dune, the novel, was published in 1965, and by 1975 both it and LSD were part of the culture/counter-culture. Jodorowsky wanted to bring a mind-blowing ‘acid trip without the acid’ movie to the masses, and to say his vision was expansive is an understatement. He proceeded to professionally woo the likes of Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles to act, French comic book artist Moebius (Jean Giraud) and artist H.R. Giger to design the look and draw the storyboards, the bands Magma and Pink Floyd to create parts of the soundtrack, and Dan O’Bannon to supervise special effects. Jodorowsky became something more than a director. He drew people into his vision and motivated them to put incredible work into a shared creative endeavour.
Unfortunately, despite ample initial funding, a finished script, a massive and meticulously illustrated storyboard, enthusiastic and legendary cast and crew, the film ballooned to a vision that broke with cinematic convention: filmed, it would likely have been more than 14 hours long. That was a film length that no studio would even consider and naturally, required a bigger budget. Ultimately, the producers could not raise the extra money they needed, and eventually the film rights expired.
But instead of focusing on the failure of the film to reach completion, director Frank Pavich focuses on the incredible power of Jodorowsky’s vision to inspire countless other visions beyond his film. From the talented group he assembled, came, for example, the O’Bannon script and Giger designs for Alien, and influences have been noted in Star Wars, Tron, and other films, not to mention albums and comic art.
So why is the documentary post-mortem on Jodorowsky’s Dune so different from Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler? Here are our observations:
1. Both directors were organized, but Jodorowsky completed his vision on paper. It was a massive tome, likened to a phone book, but it was organized and complete. Williams never finished his storyboard. Jodorowsky’s vision lived on perhaps because it was fully imagined in each of his crew member’s heads. Williams’ crew, in interviews, seemed to get eventually disillusioned by the lack of vision or coherent direction.
2. Jodorowsky had more practice in feature-film directing. He had a complete vision that he could inspire people with and adhere to. He hired people to do the things he couldn’t do. While Williams was a highly regarded animator and masterful animation director, he had no experience in helming a feature film alone. This seems (to us) to be the reason that he won an Oscar when he led a crew within someone else’s parameters (or vision), as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
3. Jodorowsky, while bombastic enough to call the movie he wanted to make “a prophet”, never called it a masterpiece. Williams’ insistence that he was working on his masterpiece prevented him from seeing that his great strength was in animation directing rather than feature-film directing, and also set-up enormous pressure on himself as he suddenly had a proclaimed masterpiece to live up to. His reaction seems to be, understandably, bitterness, and yet, Jodorowsky’s apparent lack of bitterness seems to have freed him to continue working on other things, including non-film projects.
4. Jodorowsky accepted his un-movie and moved on. He had projects that were considered successes and projects that were considered failures, but he did not go into hiding. While we can hardly judge the need to slink away and lick one’s wounds after the public pain of a failed masterpiece, perhaps it’s best to get back up and start-and-finish something new and put it out in the public eye right away.
Perhaps what is most inspirational about Jodorowsky’s Dune is seeing how powerful a creative vision can be. From a novel initially rejected by 20 publishers, came a director’s vision that inspired other scripts, other films, music, art, design, and illustration. It is a reminder that while obsessiveness and perfectionism can be harmful to a creative person’s health, dedication, passion and collaboration can be nourishing, even when the project seems to bear no fruit in its season.
Welcome back to our bi-weekly playlist!
In this instalment, we have songs about being wicked… And paying for it.
Together Mixtape ‘Crime And Punishment’ edition.
You have an idea. You’re pretty sure you could direct/write/draw/compose/play/sing/act/animate this thing you have imagined, and it will be great. You get to work.
Some of it is good. But it’s not good enough. You need to fix the beginning and maybe also the middle. Or re-do that part…you have some new ideas for it. Then, someone sends you a link to someone else’s project and it’s pretty much the same as your original idea…but finished. You start again. Your new project is similar, but definitely different. You can use a lot of what you have and finish it. What you need is some more time to really focus on it, to make it good enough. To make it better. To bring it up to your exacting standards. To go over it with a fine-tooth comb from the beginning. There’s no deadline, exactly. It just has to be perfect, is all.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why the obsession with perfection to the detriment of actual completion and improvement? Why the fear and the self-sabotage, and the ultimately paralyzing perfectionism?
The documentary tells “the untold story of the greatest animated film never made”. The Thief and the Cobbler, was to be a dazzling masterpiece by master animator, Richard Williams. The Toronto-born Williams had a respected animation house in London, England, producing commercials and shorts. In 1988 he received a Special Achievement Academy Award for the animation direction of the innovative and massively successful Who Framed Roger Rabbit? There was no doubt that Williams could draw and direct and animate. But Williams laboured for a quarter century on his magnum opus, only to have it snatched away by Warner Bros. and a completion bond.
It is easy to make the big company the villain here, and clearly they had no appreciation for the material they subsequently butchered, but what is most fascinating is that none of the obstacles the film faced could really take the blame for how things turned out.
Persistence of Vision is a psychological study of creative genius. Richard Williams, possessed with talent and vision, surrounded by some of the best animators in the world, obsessed aimlessly over his film, creating stunning sequences, while letting himself get away with basic rookie mistakes. In the meantime, he sacrificed his personal life, his crew, and his film. It seems he had no goal except perfection in sight. The Thief and the Cobbler was legendary in animation circles. There was a great deal of anticipation for the film’s eventual release, and a great deal of confusion and disappointment when it arrived. When we saw the documentary, two animators who had worked on the The Thief and the Cobbler were on stage for a Q&A and they had worked on the film 17 years apart.
The documentary is also a cautionary tale. Any creative person can see something of themselves and their tendencies in Williams. We understand the fear of completing a work, and the fear of submitting it to criticism. We understand the obsession with perfection, and the sacrifice art can demand. We struggle to let things go and aim to do better on the next project. We sometimes lack experience in collaborating, or ignore someone’s expertise or advice out of pride or stupidity. We avoid the difficult task of moving on to the next piece of the process by revising and revising the same piece of work or ditch it, unfinished, to obsess over something new.
Williams, in interview footage spanning decades, shows earnestness and artistic passion. But, as he is consumed by the sprawling ambitious project that he has created, he also displays hubris and stubborness, and that strange lack of empathy that people who have never worked for others sometimes have.
We were lucky to have seen the film at this this year’s TAAFI. It is hitting the international festival circuit to critical acclaim, so it is likely “coming soon to a theatre near you”. It is truly required watching for any creative person.
Meanwhile, Richard Williams has offered his knowledge and expertise in workshops, as well as the highly respected and much loved Animator’s Survival Kit, which began as a book, but is now a DVD set and an app. He is 80 and working on a new project, and no doubt he has learned a lot from his legendary past – both the high points and the disappointments. We hope to see it soon, completed to his satisfaction.
*If you happen to be in the UK, you can catch him speaking here in a few weeks.
Welcome back to our bi-weekly playlist!
In this instalment, we have songs in the spirit of working with somebody else.
Together Mixtape ‘Two Is Better Than One’ edition
One of the highlights at TAAFI 2013 was hearing Dr. Stuart Sumida speak. A renowned vertebrate paleontologist, he has advised animators at Disney, Dreamworks, and other animation houses big and small, regarding vertebrate anatomy, physiology, and animal locomotion.
Those who attend Sumida’s animation-related workshops and go to his lectures are usually character animators: people who need to make cartoon people and animals move realistically or who need to make imaginary creatures move believably. Sumida says that his job is to help the animators make a character’s movement believable so that the audience will accept the characters and get lost in the story.
But we’re not exclusively character animators here at Together. So what did we learn? Well, that we really miss regular science classes, but also:
1) We are what we eat.
In general, carnivores are lean, fast, and have jaws that hinge like scissors to enable them to powerfully kill and tear at prey. Protein is easy to digest and so the digestive tract in carnivores is short, allowing them to move fast, which in turn allows them to chase down prey. Think of wolves and cheetas.
Herbivores, needing to process the cellulose in plants, are barrel-shaped to house either a ruminant stomach or nearly a hundred feet of intestines. Their jaws are not hinged to snap or tear flesh, and the jaw hinge is above the teeth to allow the molars a better side-to-side grinding motion. They move slowly and they can roam vast distances, because their food source doesn’t need to be chased. Think horses and cows.
Humans and birds are weird exceptions to the “you are what you eat” rule.
2) We are neotenic apes.
Humans have a lot in common with baby apes. In fact, baby apes have opposable thumbs, just like baby humans, but as apes mature, their hands grow longer until the thumb is no longer opposable. We humans retain more “baby-like” traits than any other primate, including our opposable thumbs, our big heads, our wide-set eyes, and even our curiosity and ability to learn our whole lives.
Dr. Sumida consulted on the Disney film Tarzan, and when Tarzan compares his hand to his adoptive mother’s, he begins to notice their differences.
For more about human/gorilla similarities and differences in movement, check out Sumida’s Tips & Tricks video from Animation Mentor. This is a great clip because you get to hear him expound on his three favourite things: vertebrates, animation, and Aikido!
Because we are designed to respond to babies, neotenic features are especially exploited by character designers, whether for the screen, or for toy licensing. This is why Mickey Mouse has gone from a cute, but grown-up looking mouse to his current big-eyed, toddler-proportioned design, and also seems to explain the general trend from the already neotenic Barbie to the more extremely big-eyed and bobble-headed Bratz.
3) Animation and science go hand in hand.
Sumida calls paleontology, astronomy, and marine biology the “gateway sciences” – these are the sciences we are exposed to as kids that lead us to discover more as adults. Through animated dinosaurs to dolphin pool toys and glow-in-the-dark stars, we are exposed to our past, our universe, and our planet and we seek more knowledge. Sumida points out that animation is a perfect way to teach children about paleontology and evolution, because it is fun, it can be interactive, and can apply science to non-scientific things. Because of the amount of study animators put into things like anatomy and flight mechanics, Sumida says he can “teach kids in Louisiana science education with How to Train Your Dragon“.
4) Biological differences can be inspiring!
Writers, actors, and animators, even when their characters are simply drawn, intuitively play with biological differences (physical characteristics) all the time. We decide how our characters are built which determines how they walk, or we might decide how we want them to walk and then figure out what their physical build ought to be. We decide on their age, their strength, their agility or lack thereof. Sumida notes that the reason his consulting on animated films works is “because the studio has decided that the biological inspiration for characters is a very potent tool for creating differences in their characters”. That is something we all know, but it’s good to be reminded of it. It’s inspiring to look around at our biological diversity and to remind ourselves to include that in our work, or at least, to explore it as we develop new characters.