Thursday, October 27, 2011

Story Analysis: Example (Part 2)

I'd like to thank the brave student who volunteered their initial thesis animation story treatment for critical review.

If you watched "Owl" you'll understand that even short film writing (20 minutes) gives you enough time to craft a three act story. In "Owl" the three acts are presented unconventionally:

First Act

Our eventual protagonist is led to the gallows, and will be hanged for acts hinted at in the opening close-up on the proclamation (nailed to the tree).

Second Act

When the rope breaks, the viewer's position shifts from one of passive voyeurism to one of active participation. The protagonist's escape and mission to elude his captors is basically a chase scene, revealing his will to survive and return to his family, to his life before the war.

Third Act

Comes abruptly at the very end of the film, when he is hanged, and the entire lens of the film returns to the first act, revealing the red herring, the flashback, and instantly confronts the viewer with the shocking divorce from our hope that this man would escape the unfair justice thrust upon him at the beginning of the story.

This three-act presentation is unconventional in the length of each act. In a typical 90 minute feature, you might divide the acts somewhat equally throughout the film. Here, the second act basically comprises the entire film, with first and third acts serving as book ends.

Shorter Form Writing

How can you accomplish a powerful story like "Owl" in two to three minutes?

"Breathe" presents nearly the same story outcome, but where "Owl" is not predictable, "Breathe" telegraphs its arc from the outset. The viewer is never placed in a position of emotional choice, that is, from the onset of "Breathe" the viewer knows that the condemned man is dreaming. When he escapes his jailors, he leaves his cell and steps into a grassy field. The author keeps us in a dreamscape with a series of distinct, surreal scenes. We know that he is dreaming. When he is executed at the end of the arc, it comes as no real surprise because we suspected this outcome all along.

Super short form story development, whether dramatic or comedic, requires a tightly crafted load up and payoff in order to keep the audience, and ultimately leave them with a memorable project arc!


While "Breathe" could be re-written to follow the "Owl" device more closely, I would caution those of you who would write dark dramas (stories involving death) as a 2D/3D thesis vehicle. Frankly, you must consider the market that you wish to work in out of school. While this might be considered selling out to a commercial standard, I think that the two to three years you are in a training program is barely enough to learn ALL of the complex collaborative concepts that are expected of you when you apply for your first job.

This is the reality of trade education. You are suspending your life to find a new career. You do not have the time to create impressive exercise work AND a thematic project of a quality that will impress your future employer. You need to make some choices.

Crafting a portfolio marketing piece, an entire project designed start to finish, presented as an MFA thesis project supported by exercise work is the best way to derive value from your hard-earned investment dollar.


Right now, the hottest employment markets for animation are the big films coming out of Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and Sony Animation. These films tend to be aimed at younger audiences and their parents. I can't think of a single 3D animated 90 minute dark drama developed for the US market in recent history. Japanese Anime films (Akira, Princess Mononoke, etc.) have been distributed in the US with cult success, but these are not the films that you will be working on out of school.

In order for your time to be used most efficiently in school, it's imperative that you learn the comic trade, comedic performance, comedic timing and other skills that support this market. Selecting dark dramatic themes force the portfolio reviewer to change gears and regard your material in a category that they are not hiring for. Though your material may be thought-provoking, ultimately the reviewer is looking for a company fit. Will you be able to work on Shrek 10? Though you may not want to, you may have little choice.

Animation as Art

I love experimental art. I love to see young artists pushing the commercial envelope and presenting story forms that defy pop cultural norms. However, an MFA program, especially a trade MFA program is not the place to do this. You are most likely accruing a mountain of debt (in both lost revenue from non-full-time employment and student loans.)

As difficult as this is for me to say, I think that you need to focus on getting the skills you need while in your program in order to find a job after graduation. You'll need to make your iconoclastic animation masterpiece later, when you have more financial options. Sooner than later, short form production will be commonplace, where distribution channels offer per play or per download monetized reward for your efforts. It's coming but it's not here yet.

Meanwhile, as an animation writer, you'll have to tow the popular story line, developing material that will appeal to the widest possible employer pool.

Story Aside

Even if "Breathe" was a well-constructed relevant 3D animation short project, the treatment indicates a project that is way off-scale in terms of academic production complexity. Considering the montage sequence and the number of shots, number of unique characters, and the complexity involved in animating realistic performances, this project will run over the two semesters you'll have after midpoint. Unless you can generate a team consisting of a dedicated modeler, rigger, environment modeler, painter and several lighters, this project will hobble any solo animator. It's just too big. (This sort of project calls for some motion capture assist, which is a bit beside the point for a feature animator.)

Keep it Simple

The best short form animation projects are those that pit one character against another, or pit a character against an obstacle. They usually can occur in a single setting. As long as you are able to derive a believable performance from your simple story, you have succeeded as a student animator, and are ready to prove yourself in the professional arena. Take another look at the Student Academy Award winning animation project "Bert" (2004) .

Simple concept == Solo-able project.

Student of Writing

Try to take a writing course that showcases not only the three act ninety minute feature form, but also covers four act (hour long television show) writing. Learn how to write comedy gags. Critically study the Warner Brothers short animation films of the 60s and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Hanna Barbera model of the 70s. Watch Ren and Stimpy, the John K. wellspring of the current thirty minute story model copied by every short animation anthologist since the 90s. Watch SpongeBob. Watch everything, taking note of timing, scope and physical comedic (gag) action.

You're a student of the form! Know your market and scope. Know the history of the form. Do these things and you will succeed in getting your first job in the field, paving the way for your avant garde masterpiece down the road.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Story Analysis: Example

Here's an example of a character animation story treatment that is fairly typical of MFA candidates. (Represented here by permission.)


Late-20’s, 6’2” athletic build, Short dark hair, dark eyes, light skinned, Latino

Mid-20’s, 5’10” curvaceous body, Long dark hair, light eyes, caramel skinned, Latina

The story begins with a dream sequence of a man’s relationship with his wife from first meeting to happily married, and then the man starts from his sleep only to find himself in a jail cell. When the man looks to see what woke him he sees two guards coming into his cell with handcuffs and leg irons.

Powered by panic and confusion the man throws his head back breaking the guard’s nose as he tries to put on the handcuffs. Rushing the second guard the man breaks free of his cell and runs down the halls of the prison looking for the door that he constantly sees flashing in his mind.

When he finally reaches the door he bursts through it and finds himself running through the grass with nothing between him and freedom. Before the man can get too far he stops short to find himself looking over a sheer cliff face. The breeze coming from the sea far below triggers a flash back and the man finds himself standing in his bedroom looking at another man in bed with his wife, a policeman’s uniform in a pile next to the bed.

In a blind rage the man jumps on top of his wife’s lover raining down blows until his arms are heavy and his face is covered with blood. The man turns to face his wife, wearing nothing but a bed sheet, as she screams in fear. Crying, he walks towards her pleading for a reason why she would do this. Backing away from him the bed sheet covering the woman’s body gets tangled in her legs and she tumbles and falls over the balcony to her death on the sidewalk ten floors below.

After seeing his wife die floors below him the man hears the door being kicked open behind him and as people start to point at him accusingly the man turns and is transitioned back into the present looking at several guards hesitantly approaching him with another set of cuffs and leg irons.

With tears falling down his face the man looks at the guards as he leans back over the edge. Falling over the edge as lab coats and ceiling tiles flicker into his vision. As the man falls he sees his wife’s face appear in the sky and her arms reach out to embrace him and as he reaches his hand towards her to be reunited forever, he mouths the words “forgive me”.

The background fades as the camera pulls back to show the man in a sterile room, eyes on the ceiling, and hand reaching towards the sky as the contents of the needle empty into his arm and people can be seen watching from the other side of a glass window. As the man releases his final breath into the air his arm falls limp to his side.

In order to analyze the value of this project as it relates to short-form thesis production, we'll have to take it apart in layers.


First, as filmmakers, we need to establish a historical story precedent, if we can. There are few truly unique stories, and it behooves the writer to understand those projects that are related to his or her work in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the precedent vehicle. If you can identify these story areas in a work that has been completed, you can guide your own project accordingly.

The work that most resembles this piece is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a French adaptation of the Ambrose Bierce short story. A powerful work, the black-and-white short subject film is as moving as any feature-length film. The writer of this treatment should watch this film to understand what I mean.
Here is a passable streaming version: It's about 25 minutes in length.


While the emotional tone of the two stories is vastly different, they climb aboard the same plot vehicle: the flashback. Both stories utilize the flashback in support of a red herring (twist) ending, but Owl succeeds where Breathe does not in that our expectations (and therefore our connection to the protagonist) radically change in the opening scene.

Dramatic plot lines necessitate the loading and unloading of audience emotion. In Owl, we open on a contrasting scenario of a bucolic autumn landscape serving as the backdrop of a hanging. Our expectation is that this faceless man will be hanged; yet another faceless malefactor dealt a deserved justice: we are not emotionally connected to the man we do not know.

When the rope breaks, despite our passive acceptance that his hanging was a just reward, we are ultimately relieved to be spared the extremity of his death. After all, we are human, sympathetic, empathic, and at our collective core, we ultimately cherish life.

This is Owl's powerful set-up. We are moved between two emotional extremes: from our flat-line initial resignation to the certainty of the prisoner's death to the spike of his sudden and miraculous salvation.

The second act plot line allows us to put flesh on the character brought to the hangman's noose. A faceless, condemned, throw-away character takes life in the following twenty minutes, as we learn to understand the humanity, the frailty, and the passion within the character we had initially written off.

This device is known an emotional loading. You are bonding the character to the audience in a way that defies contrivance. He is proving in deed and action that he is like any other man, with sensitivity and motivation and love. We grow inside him as grows inside us as we move through the story.

When we are certain that we like this man, understand his desires, have bonded to his mission, he is suddenly and irrevocably dead. The entire story has taken place between the beginning and end of the man's fall on the hangman's rope.

The proverbial "life flashing before a man's eyes" takes on a new meaning as a story-telling device in this classic film.

As we are presented with his death, the red herring twist of flashback realization hits us, and we can view with clarity the circular nature of the story through a new lens: these realizations arriving in a simultaneous flood of awareness: the "aha!" moment of successful storytelling.

The finale's perfect storm of emotion has earned this Bierce story a powerful and enduring legacy. When I first saw this film in high school, I was left speechless.

So, how does Breathe fail where Owl succeeds?

We'll explore more in the next installment.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Vintage Production Workshop Poster

Feel free to download and post this signed copy of the infamous "I Want You" Production Workshop publicity poster, first appearing on walls and doors of the largest cubicle-farm-turned-cubicle-farm-animation-school in the world, Academy of Art University, in the Spring of 2010.

This crafty rip-off of the classic James Montgomery recruiting poster (c. 1917) attracted the largest producer turn-out on record for a production workshop: 12 candidates, including two CAPs guys that were in the wrong room and a ditsy fashion student that simply found herself trapped by several large boxes near the elevator.

We will be having afternoon coffee in the old coffee place across the street next week. Try to be there. We'll have fun.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mining Story Ideas

Story development is difficult at best (even for the professionals) and nearly impossible for most student candidates, especially during the pressurized semester involving the pre-midpoint scramble to develop thesis project concepts.

In order to get back on creative track, I've suggested to students that they consult some tried-and-true comic material for idea mining. The best iconic, single gag material can be found in one-panel illustrative comedy.

My favorite source material is the one-panel work of Bernard H. Kliban (B. Kliban) who rose to some critical fame in the 70s, his protege, Gary Larson (Far Side) who carried his torch in the 80s, and the cinematic multipanel work of Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) who was all the rage in the late 80s, early 90s. This single-panel material is concise, the gags clearly identifiable, and the humor bizarre enough to generate some intellectual activity in the viewer, and hopefully, in the blocked thesis story developer (you).

This is not about ripping off ideas that have already been made. The point of the exercise is to assimilate combinations of gags in order to hone your own unique comic voice. Sometimes you just need a little nudge. Without sensitizing yourself to single-panel gag material, you'll not gain the ability to critically assess why bizarre juxtaposition works comically. Single panel work is typically shock-layout material.

I like to keep this type of reference handy for ready inspiration. I've probably read each one of these a dozen times and have pored through dozens more like them.

I believe that you must be a consumer of this material in order to write it. You can't just wear a funny hat during a single course in a masters program and call yourself a writer or an animator. You need to breathe, eat, sleep the medium. If you can't do that, quit now and save yourself some cash.

So, if you get stuck developing comic story in the coming semester, try looking through this type of single-panel comic. Immerse yourself in wacky single-concept humor and let me know how it goes. If you're an animator and you're not looking to develop a comic story, you're probably going in the wrong direction and you should consider transferring to a documentary film program instead.

Watterson's panels are gorgeous and are really conducive to animation layout. His illustration background really shows in his work.

In fact, most graphic novels feature unique layout ideas ... every animator should be familiar with the most successful of the graphic novel illustrators!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Story Aim

If you are in a MFA program, and you've been invited to present a thesis proposal to a committee, this post is aimed at you, your story, and in truth, your nascent career.

Market drives everything in the world, and no more so than in entertainment. Focus groups and market research drive story development, and for a fee, will provide you with the likelihood that your project will succeed, based on previous box office results. Believe it or not.

Because market is derived from the vagaries and whimsy of stratified age groups, your project needs to appeal to some section of the market. You can divide it roughly this way:

Age Genre
Range Examples

0-3 Baby Einsteins

4-8 Wiggles, Thomas the Tank Engine
8-12 iCarly, SpongeBob SquarePants, Texting
13-20 Millenials (Born >2000) Vampires, Alternative Rock Bands, Facebooking
21-31 Echoes (Born ~1990s) - Romantic Comedies, Horror Bs, Comedy Central
32-44 Gen-Xers (Born ~1970s) - Action Films, HGTV
45+ Boomers (Born <1960s) - Mysteries, CNN

Market focus is especially important when it comes to choosing your thesis project storyline. Clearly, if all goes well, this project will be your sole calling card to the industry, separating you from the countless children spilling forth from the art mills dumping BFAs into the world. I'm reminded of the Matrix, with it's endless colonies of human batteries. As an MFA candidate, you are special, and the thing that makes you special is your pride and joy, your creative brainchild, your thesis project. You'll invest three years and nearly 100,000.00 in your child, all in the hopes that upon maturity, it will help you guile your way through the heavily guarded Pearly Gates of Industry. Choose poorly, and well, we know what end the hot arch-villain came to in the finale of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

You MUST choose wisely. In the half-decade that I guided young candidates at the AAU, I always counsel these three major points:

1. Choose a story that will mesh with the part of the industry you will choose to work in. For example, if you really want to work at a major, figure out what work they are doing, and build a project that is close to that work. Don't copy it, but understand that when they see your project, they might see you working on THEIR project.

2. Choose a story that suits the medium. Poignant, funny, gag-based material for 3D Character Animation projects. Poignant, funny, action-based material for VFX projects. If you are not sure where you'd like to land, craft your story to serve one of the aforementioned markets. Ask yourself what one of the people in those demographics are watching, what music they are listening to, what comedians they enjoy? Are they watching Nick, Jr. or Adult Swim? Know your market.

3. Choose a project that won't make the viewer throw up or pass out. Pissing off a viewer, upsetting their sensibilities, offering the bird for all humanity to see won't get you closer to working for a button-down major. Everything is corporate and so shall you be when you are chosen. Keep this in mind. If you want to make art films after work, go for it. We need more art films. Don't mix business with iconoclastic nihilism. If you're a trust fund kid you can fall back on that when your Death to the Imperialistic Bastards art film tours the indy circuit.

4. Make sure that the scope of your story does not overreach your time and resources. Too bad they don't teach you about bidding or production or anything necessary to determine which end is up. Know how to determine your story scope. The little GANTT chart you made in pre-production is most likely as flawed as the project understanding it was derived from. Don't bet on it. Get a pro to help you. 100,000.00 is a lot of money to waste on a poor decision made during a single week in a pre-production class.

Story aim is everything. Aim poorly and you'll be back working for the wedding photographer in three years. Aim true, and you'll follow the folks that designed, implemented and succeeded in winning the Student Academy Award for Dragonboy.

A Proper Resume

Last week, I presented my take on the cover letter as an important part of the contemporary outreach package. The cover letter serves to identify you as a passionate artist, culturally adept and someone who is likeable, interesting and, most importantly, a potential co-worker. Without the cover letter, you're just another tool user in the great wash of partially educated tool users pouring out of trade schools, desperately hoping to find work.

The Outreach Package: A Primer.

Your outreach materials should include the following items:

1. Portfolio (web-based streamable .mov mpeq-4 compressed)
2. Portfolio (web-based downloadable .mov mpeg-4 compressed)
3. Resume (.pdf)
4. Vita (.pdf)
5. Cover letter (.pdf)
6. Business card

Since I'm covering these items in a seeming random fashion, let's talk about resume next.

Here's a template. This template is designed to serve the most common resumes, though you may not have industry experience and therefore may have to omit sections.

The idea behind the simplicity of the resume is the rationale of the resume itself: present the facts of your work and educational experience in a manner that is easy to follow, easy to scan, and complements your cover letter and vita (body of work).

Some basic rules:

1. Name/Address

Don't use your street address. Just put your email address, website and cell number in the address tag. Since your resume will be posted all over the internet, you want to retain privacy.
Nobody really cares about your snail mail address anyway, and when they do, they will be your employer.

2. Objective

One or two words will suffice: terms like "Animator" or "Technical Director." HR sorters use this objective to ensure that they've got you placed in the right "stack".

3. Industry Experience

Use this heading if you have industry experience. If you don't, use the following heading instead.

4. Experience

Even if you feel that your prior career is not related, it's important to establish that you held positions that might help you synthesize the collaborative, people-oriented business of entertainment. While meat-packing might not qualify, serving as a marketing liaison in a small internet startup might. If it helps paint a more complete picture of the collaborative or creative you, include it.

5. Education

Do not list high schools. Make sure you use the standard format of listing degrees (See the template for examples). If you haven't yet graduated from a program, place the word "Candidate" after the terminal degree.

6. References

Not necessary in your resume. If you need references, they will ask you for them after you complete a few more rounds of interviews.

7. Skills

Software skills only. Do not list creative skills here. Use your cover to mention your three most salient creative skill sets.

8. Hobbies/Interests

Don't do it. If you feel that you're intense exploration of Peruvian Salt Worms is essential to understanding your inner creative being, place that in your cover letter. I don't care if you like to hang glide or collect stamps featuring WWII-era sidearms.

9. Vita

This is a dynamic section, (often on the first page for young artists), which grows as your career grows. Use the following format.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Power of Story

Before I joined the faculty at the AAU, I had very little formal experience with story development. Certainly, the years of watching feature film and animation shorts provided me with a critical understanding of each medium and the thematic commonalities and structural differences between them. While in film school, I took a story writing course from Paul Lucey, a television writer and an able critic of short-form storytelling. I recommend his book, Story Sense, a complete guide for the novice storyteller, replete with script breakdowns and his own detailed scene-arc formulas.

Prior to film school, I had taken several creative writing courses, an initial touch with science-fiction writer Paul Garson, (The Great Quill), and then three more with T. C. Boyle, who had yet to reach the his critical successes in both short story anthology and feature screenplays.

While soul-searching through my baccalaureate program, I took a few journalism courses as I considered a degree in Journalism and Advertising Copywriting. Dropping further backward in time, I recall that I had briefly served as the Feature Editor for my weekly high school paper, The Tiger, during the first semester of my senior year.

All along, I have been an avid science fiction and fantasy genre reader, involved with the early genesis of Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons and M. A. R. Barker's , Empire of the Petal Throne. These board games required live role-playing, scenario building, and the ability to manage creative gaming teams. I never really thought about the skills that those early days provided to those of us who called themselves dungeon masters. It was a form of creative performance, story development and thematic flow.

However, I had never considered myself a story developer or writer before coming to the AAU. It was only after attending the first round of MFA midpoint reviews in 2005 that I began to help candidates develop story, craft small character arcs, and begin to deal with the exigencies of short form academic project work.

Identifying Emotive Structure

I learned more about short form structure from my colleagues, Chris Armstrong and Tom Bertino as we sat around the table during and after mid-point presentations in the years I worked at AAU. Both had early experience at Hanna Barbera, working in traditional character animation roles, and went on to forge careers in feature character animation with Industrial Light and Magic. Tom is a veritable living encyclopedia of the animation arts, and still teaches the History of Animation course at the school. (If you haven't taken his course, consider it one of the best critical foundation courses available.)

After seven years, I became adept at cutting through complex story baggage, bloated beat timing, excessive physical humor, hackneyed referencing, vast and barren prologues, and a host of typical storytelling traps that new storytellers fall victim to.

Over time, the key to successful short form writing became clear: build a story structure that allows a character to present well-defined motivation. Put another way, a short form writer should create an environment wherein a character can be released and allowed the freedom of predictable reaction, while not telegraphing the twist until the final gag.

Some Simple Rules

In order to craft successful short form animation projects, you have to follow a few simple rules:

(1) limit the number of actors
(2) get into and out of physical gags quickly
(3) understand the power of the camera (cinematic language)
(4) let the performance sell character motivation
(5) build story momentum with iconic character decision-making

Limiting the Actors

In academic production, you're often working solo on a three minute short. You must balance delivery (time budget) with story scope. For example, instead of launching a project with fifteen mimes in a clown car, you'd be best served to present a single mime, late in picking up his fourteen buddies, changing the flat on his clown car. Okay, now make the clown car invisible, like all things mime. Put the invisible clown car on a steep hill. Make it a tremendously hot day. Rinse, repeat.

If you can isolate your character's performance by utilizing a well-defined obstacle, you don't need more than a single character and a single monolithic challenge. The iconic impossibility of the challenge and the off-beat way your character solves his or her puzzle will deliver project success, whether that is a laugh or a poignant pause.

And while we're on the subject of actors, skip dialogue. If pantomime-based stories have proven nearly impossible to pull off in a short arc production program, then consider the difficulty of scripting a dialogue piece and then, once the script is complete, taking the piece into full production, starting with character modeling, rigging, blend shapes and automated dialogue replacement (ADR). Going mo-cap is expensive and has yet to be perfected at the professional level: (see A Christmas Carol or Beowulf).

We'll touch on this later, but dialogue and lip-sync skill sets are best proven in smaller dialogue tests gleaned from specific coursework. You should have several of these on your reel and they'll be sufficient to prove that you can work with both rigged and shaped-driven phoneme animation.

Start On Action

One common error that novice writers commit is a long expository or prologue opener. They spend countless panels in backstory, slowing the pace to a crawl and losing the viewer. If you need a set up for you first gag, tell it visually, through cues. A slow pan along a wall hung with pink picture frames filled with photos of baby can easily introduce the nursery and your main performer. Add a few layered tracks: a music box and some random baby sounds and lift the mix as you move into your opening shot. Whatever you do, get there quickly.

Camera Language

Whether it's an action whip pan after establishing an exterior, a hand held focus/refocus as you track with your main character, or a slow push through a wall, you'll need to spend some time understand effect camera work. This is the absolutely essential silent partner of your short film, and without its help, no matter how crafty your story is, your viewer will walk away unsatisfied. Take a course or buy a book. Understand the basics of stage lines. Understand the basics of cinematography. You don't need to be a DP, but you must learn to use your camera to provide intimacy and grandeur as called for by your character's performance and scene staging.

35mm lensing is great for family photos, but sometimes you need to go wider (< 20mm) for effect. You can enhance a plot point with a super slow motion effect, and on the other hand, simulated time-lapse photography can provide the right story solution: playing with temporal reality is often overlooked.

Emotion as Performance

If you look under the hood of your characters, you should be able to easily identify three major motivators that allow your character to breathe within your structure. Think of your story as if it is a home, and your character, and all of its actions are derived from the detail that you've provided this environment and initial character cues. For example, a massive Viking raider decides to give up pillaging and applies for work with a temp agency. There he is in the waiting room. How do you set up the gags? Do you show him being put through a series of clerical tests? Can you introduce backstory through a thought bubble device? Temp Agency Viking might be funny. You know he won't succeed in any sort of non-pillaging job for long. The audience will be expecting some massive gags as he stumbles his way through a series of jobs that he simply wasn't designed for. You let the character and the structure open new gag routes for you. Let the character take on his own life. Crafting story in this way will never fail you.

Build Momentum

I've heard the three gag rule. You have your protagonist attempt a thing a least three times, with a success on the fourth and final attempt. That seems to work for short form comedy films. Add to this the fact that you need to build the intensity of each attempt until the finale. The weight of the gags adds to the character's perceived frustration with his or her inability to overcome the insurmountable odds you've set before them. Keep the obstacles clear and iconic. You need big action to convey subtlety. The bigger the pose the better the performance sell. Just watch the Warner Brothers Seven Minute shorts. Take a look at the extreme poses and the massive overlap. While you can't do squash and stretch as easily in 3D, you can still craft strong poses to sell your performances.

Make sure your edit quickens as you start overlapping gags. Don't create a series of three or four second shots, paced evenly until the finale. Learn to edit your material so that you are building pace, leading your viewer to the finale, hustling them along your red-herring route to a surprise ending, giving them exactly what they never expected, and having them laugh all the more at the deception. Pacing comes from the better understanding of film editing. Not a bad idea to take a course in film editing, too.

Water Under the Bridge

I have had so many story ideas pitched to me that I've lost count. A very small fraction of those stories are good. Good story development takes time and collaboration. It would be great if you guys could get together and have story workshops, where you pitch your ideas against the mob and see what you get back. There's nothing like a dozen or so writers all banging ideas off one another.

Avoid Psychotic Plots

Keep in mind that your dark, goth, animal sacrifice thesis project will weigh heavily in your portfolio assessment once you've graduated. Sure you'll have a bunch of exercise animation tests to prove your understanding of weight and stage awareness and overlap and all the basics of animation. Your thesis project, however, might just be the evidence of your ability that you'll need to secure your entry position in the field. If your reviewer is so turned off by your subject matter that your .mov ends up in the Recycle Bin, you've lost.

That's not to say that contemplative and poignant pieces cannot be successful: on the contrary. You simply need to show that you can handle the crafting of a start to finish project, convey emotion, do it with quality and attention to detail, and move your audience, whether it be to laughter or tears. Just don't offend them. Do that after you've worked awhile, at least.

I'll analyze specific examples in an upcoming post.