Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Clarity, Logic, and Entertainment
(November 8, 2009)

Last week, the 4th year students at Sheridan had a screening of their story reels. I mentor 10 of those students, out of 108 this year.

I've been looking at my students' reels as they developed since September, but it's always different seeing work with an audience. It struck me that there are three stages the students have to tackle in order to make a successful film, and various films were already at different stages.

The first is clarity. Can an audience understand what's happening on screen? I've asked students to explain something I don't understand about their films and their explanations make sense, but what's in their heads hasn't been communicated on the screen. Things, often important things, get left out. Clarity is pretty easy to achieve once a storyboard or story reel is shown to a few people, as they inevitably ask questions about things they don't understand.

Logic is a bit tougher. Getting the events of a film and the characters' behavior to be consistent and logical takes some doing. Some films have problems with tone; they signal to the audience that they're one type of film and then become another. That could potentially work in a longer film, but it's tough to get an audience to make a sharp emotional turn in less than two minutes. Other times, a film starts off with a theme and then contradicts itself by the end. Sometimes, there's a lack of consistency in terms of plot or character; events don't make sense based on what an audience would expect.

Logic is harder to fix than clarity. It sometimes means tearing up a story and rebuilding it, which can be a lot of work. It also means sacrificing something that the film maker probably wants to keep and getting a student to give something up is often a difficult task.

The toughest problem is entertainment, and you're never really sure what you've got until you get an audience reaction. I had a couple of students doing films that built up to punchlines. While they were clear and logical, the punchlines didn't get the expected response. Reworking the endings to evoke a laugh is going to be difficult as entertainment isn't as clear cut as clarity or logic.

If I could wish for anything for animation artists, it would be for more audience contact. Stand-up comics get good by constantly honing their material based on audience reaction. Actors or directors who start out in theatre do the same. Even bands that play bars get feedback.

Animators (especially those working in TV or games) exist in a vacuum. Feature animators have it a little better but still have to wait years to learn whether what they've done is successful or not. Animation people as different as Walt Disney and Bob Clampett viewed their films with audiences on a regular basis, measuring their intentions against the results. It took both of them years to solidify their ability to entertain, as it did Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Friz Freleng.

People with the ability to entertain an audience are the ones most in demand. While some people may have a flair for it, I believe it's like any other skill and can be honed through practice. The problem for animation artists is that they have so few opportunities for audience feedback.

The Sheridan students now have their own experience of watching their films with an audience as well as feedback from friends and instructors. The films generally get better between the story reels and the final films as the students continue to polish their work. However, I wonder how much better the films would be if the students had more experience with audience reactions and I wonder the same about the whole animation business.