Saturday, July 30, 2011

Masterclass: Ryan Woodward

The last Masterclass was definitely one of the most touching moments of 2011’s Anima Fórum edition, an event specially organized for professional animators. In spite of the “business” purpose of the encounters, the felling and the passion were pretty much alive in all the lectures. This was remarkable in Ryan Woodward’s Masterclass. He is an American animator and storyboards artist, who worked in the films Ironman 2 and Spiderman 2 and 3. He came to Anima Forum to tell us about the creation process of storyboards and animatics for feature movies. And he did not forget talk a little bit about the inspiration and sacrifice demanded to create an authorial short-movie.

Since Ryan was five years old, he already knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. And others already knew that about him as well. In one of his notebooks, a teacher sent his mother a message: “Ryan doesn’t pay attention in class. He draws too much”. In 1995, he started looking for a job in the animation field. Back then, there were no such things as animation courses or specialized schools. The studios would hire you only by looking your portfolio of drawings and then you would learn working. He was hired by Warner and helped doing the feature movie Space Jam.

After a while, the animation industry started to change. New technologies were incorporated and now drawing well was not enough anymore. The animators should have knowledge of computer science and skills to deal with the new advanced tools. Ryan knew that he should learn to keep up with the transformation process. He tried, but he ended up finding out that his heart belonged to the simple pencil and choose to leave the algorithms behind. To stay in the business doing what he wanted, Woodward realized that he would have to find a new area. That is when he started showing some interest in storyboard and animatics’ creation, even thought he didn’t know absolutely nothing about it. He left WB to look for another job, while he was trying to learn more about this specialty.

For someone who used to draw too much since the age of five, learning the proper skills to create storyboards wasn’t that hard. Ryan developed sort of a method to adapt his own mind to the creative process of designing storyboards. He pointed out that one of the most important things is to always carry a sketch book, so then you can be able to draw pretty much everything that crosses your eyes. The purpose of this is not to improve aesthetics drawing abilities, but to stimulate the artist’s capacity of observing and documenting the biggest variety of situations as possible. “Then, when a director asks you to draw a man in a bike, for example, you already have a memory to rely on”. This way, the artist is amplifying his horizon of creation possibilities.

Another important advice given by Woodward is the necessity of training that part of your brain that is responsible for creativity and imagination. He told us that he usually draws figures based on living models, in a realistic perspective, copying in the paper what he sees. He call this an “academic” portray. After been bossed around by his eyes, he says he likes to let his imagination fly free, with heart and feeling. “I like to be able to interpret the model in a creative form”. So he draws the figures again, but now in exaggerated and deformed ways, that doesn’t correspond to the “reality”. This process, according to Ryan, activates the part of the brain that is responsible for creation and not only copy. In long term, this would make your mind a lot more reactive in moments of creation demand, where you have to draw something you are not actually familiar with or that you have never seen. He found out, working as an animation teacher, that the students that are more concerned about making a photographical copy of their models are the ones that have the biggest difficulty when it comes to creation. Woodward believes that drawing is a constantly journey through your own mind to find ways that allows you to think things in different frequencies and perspectives.

All these methods could only be discovered after years of practice. After living Warner, Ryan went to work for Sony, where he drew the storyboards for the last two Spiderman’s films, directed by Sam Raimi. Ryan told us that he learned a lot with the director. “The best type of director you can possibly work with are the ones that let you participate of the creative process”. Raimi used to come to Ryan and say: “I had an idea”, then he would describe something completely fantastic and would always finish with the sentence “draw that for me?” For Ryan, working like this is a million times better than to just receive a screenplay and an order to draw letter per letter.

All this time working in constantly communication with the director, made Ryan realize which skills make a good storyboard artist. He believes that is not the artist job to judge what can work in the movie, because the person doesn’t see the full picture as deeply as the one who is directing. The important is to give support and stimulate the expansion of the director’s ideas. The storyboard artist needs to add value to the initials thoughts and suggest new ones, to complement. The purpose should always be to add, never to compete. There is also the other side that should be kept in mind: the producer’s. The directors don’t spend their time worrying about logistics and budget. It is the producer job to make the film economically viable. Ryan pointed out that is important to have good-judgment and be able to balance creativity and possibility, so you don’t transform the production team’s life into a living heal.

Another important skill is the capacity of thinking the narrative arc of the film and its continuity. You can be able to do amazing figures inside every single board, but it is necessary that the scenes work in a harmonic and cohesive way, board to board. For that, it is central to know a lot about cinematography, which means actually knowing how the camera conducts the story. It is important to also think about the actors, recognize their possibilities and let they participate of the creative process. To cut a long story short: the storyboard animator is an artist of balance. He walks upon the tightrope, sustaining white china plates full of creativity, narrative, draw, cinematography and many other ingredients of the creation process.

Ryan Woodward seeks for balance within his professional life in Hollywood. But he is also trying to reach an internal balance. “I have a lot of fun working in these commercial projects, but it comes a time that something starts itching on the inside and you have to do something of your own, otherwise it will eat you alive”. From time to time, Ryan takes a breath from Hollywood to dedicate to something he really wants to do, something to feed his soul. Once he did a comic book and then he started doing short movies about things he liked. In this last creative momentum, Ryan produced one of the most amazing pieces that are being exhibit in this edition: the short-movie Thought of You. The inspiration came during a flight. He was feeling very tired, physically and emotionally for be working too much. All of the sudden, the music “Thought of You” started to play in his IPod. That minute he knew he must do something with it.

Simple, delicate and remarkable for a sweetness that brings the pain attached, the human figures’ dance of Thought of You translates the history of those who are watching. Ryan put together some of his greatest passions: drawing, 2D animation and contemporary dance. “I made a movie for me in a way that is almost a little selfish”, said the artist. “It is an attempt to solve some internal issues. But I would never reveal what the movie means to me. What I hope is that each and every single person who watches it can be able to find a little bit of their own life inside this animation”.

The lecture ended up with the audience applauding endlessly. It weren’t only the good advice he gave about designing storyboards or the beauty of the short-movies produced with the soul. It was the reunion of all these elements that can be resumed into one thing: the passion for animation.

You can check here the official website of Thought of You and watch the film and the documentary that tells its story, besides more information about the project Conté Animated.

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