Today I would like to share a unique letter written by Clay Kaytis, animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Kaytis found this letter that he had written to himself years ago, and graciously offered me the opportunity to share it with all of you. He gives a great introduction to the letter below, giving it a little more context.
Kaytis’s feature film credits include Tangled, Bolt, Meet the Robinsons, Chicken Little, Home on the Range, Treasure Planet, The Emperor’s New Groove, Fantasia/2000, Tarzan, Mulan, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas. Kaytis is the creator of The Animation Podcast, where you can hear him interview top industry professionals. After you check out his podcast and read his letter, please be sure to follow him on Twitter @AnimPodcast.
It’s funny that I’d be writing to you on Valentine’s Day because I have a strange sort of love letter I’d like to share with you and your readers. It’s something I wrote to myself in 2000 during the production of Treasure Planet. It was my second film as a full-fledged Disney animator and I can see that I was still finding my way in terms of process. You’ll see that it starts out as a guide to animating a hand-drawn scene and grows into a pep talk on living a creative life. Finding notes like these is like opening a time capsule from a different version of myself. I encourage other people to do the same- get your thoughts and dreams down on paper. They are a hoot to read thirteen years later!
(Letter written by Clay Kaytis to himself.)
When doing a scene just concentrate on roughing out the basic shapes to define head angles, expressions, squash & stretch and work to make arcs and paths of action work. If something is not in the right arc, repeg it. Work fast, flipping and making everything work together. This is the time to work loosely and not to worry about drawings. Just make the animation work. Do major keys, defining arcs and expression changes (e.g., if there is a hold and the character goes into some dialog, do a drawing for each, don’t just have a hold drawing of the mouth shape. For every change – be it arc, expression, squash, stretch – draw it. If it is not animated it will not be seen.) Put everything in the scene now. Make it work in a rough form and it will work later. Concentrate, however rough, on arcs and learn to know when to animate within a pose.
Do not be afraid to make a mistake! Now is the time to do it. Try different things and mistakes will happen but sometimes they will be good mistakes and lead to better ideas. Think of the way Chaplin worked towards a final idea. He gave himself room to work. Allow this for yourself. Now take a breath and really think about your scene. The phrasing, the tempo and rhythm, the amount of movement. Decide where it will go and then figure out how to get it there. It’s really very simple if you start simply.
Now is the frantic, rapid creative time of the scene. Get caught up in it. Let it absorb you and all your attentions and energies. Pour yourself into it until you reach an end. When you have arrived, take a look at it but don’t rest yet. Try to see it from a fresh perspective and start from the beginning, asking if everything is as it should be. If not, fix it now. It really isn’t that much work. A few loose drawings are all it will take to design a complete animated scene. Start now with a mind clear of all negativity with only the creative energy the scene requires. Find that energy and get more than you need. Now is your time to make a statement. Don’t stop until you have said everything.
Basically, the whole scene is worked out in this rough form with keys and breakdowns and breakdown partials of things like mouth shapes. Every change should be animated and the whole thing will probably be on 4s or sixes or more. For parts where very little is happening longer hold drawings will be used but wherever there is a drag, angle change, anything that is not a direct inbetween, a drawing needs to be done. Once it is all worked out as described above (with adjusting drawings, timing, etc.) then begin to tie it down.
All the keys and breakdowns will be tied down (including partials). (Simply put, if it all works and reads in this stage, all that are left are inbetweens to be done by a rough inbetweener.) So, do these tied down drawings and decide as you are doing them what needs to be pushed in the final version, what needs to be stronger, emphasized or tweaked. Shoot all these drawings together and look at the scene. Evaluate and fix/adjust if necessary. When it is all working and all the ideas you want to show are coming across, it is time to be inbetweened.
Once this is done, shoot the entire thing and evaluate again. Does everything still read? Does the timing work? Do drawings need to be removed, added, put on ones? After these changes does the dialog still work? Adjust to fit. Does the dialog on a whole work? If all the preparation has been done (thinking) beforehand, this last stage should fall into place. What is required for this to work is a commitment to do all those drawings – they are what make it alive compared to just 2 drawings and a chart. Granted the latter is what is called for sometimes, but when a scene calls for specific acting in angles, dragging, arcs, expression changes, extreme keys, if you don’t draw them and put them in, then no one will and the scene will be that much less unique and alive.
A commitment to drawing all of the things is a commitment to what you want to say. Decide what you want to tell the world and have the conviction to say it all – loudly and clearly – with a distinct voice. Then you will be heard and recognized as a contributor with value to offer. A person with something to say is far more interesting than a non-committal, or non-confrontational person. The same goes for animated scenes. They need to explode off the screen with individuality – LIFE – and the only way to achieve this is by complete commitment to the finished product. But this commitment needs to start at the beginning and last through the bad ideas, bad drawings, blocks, other people’s opinions, everything that can discourage or dissuade you from your ultimate goal and that is to create a stack of drawings that, when projected on a screen in a darkened theater, fool people the entire world over so much that they believe this is an actual living thing that they can love, hate, root for, wish against, care for, or fear. When that happens, your job is done. It will not be easy and it will require torturous hard work and that is why the commitment is so important.
Again – reckless, unrelenting commitment to the message, the idea, the voice and also the fact that this includes a commitment to do every bit of work to get there. The work is the hardest part. But in the end it will have been worth it. Imagine working all your life without this commitment only to look back and realize that you never were capable of saying what you had to tell the world. That your work was just a truncated, watered-down, scared version of the real you. Why bother? This version will never make a great animator or entertainment – just filler, also-ran scenes that lead people to remember that their favorite part is coming up. You be the one to make those favorite parts. People have made whole careers of favorite parts because of their commitment to tell what they had to say. Decide now that no matter what crosses your path, you will run through it like a locomotive with your eyes on the goal, never slowing down until you reach the target. This will make greatness in your work and satisfaction in your professional life. Take the brakes off now, there is no need to ever use them again.