I’m an animator. I’m a writer. I’m an artist. I’m a math and science geek. I’m a gamer and a game designer. I do a lot of creative things, and always wish I could do more. My interests are varied and my skillset rather “MacGyverish”, and I work at a fairly small company, so I don’t really focus on animation, but it’s what I earned my college degree in. En route, I took many classes that required many papers to be written, and a handful of creative writing courses. Much of what I ran into there was either dry and boring or trippy hippy artsy fartsy nonsense, but it was at least good practice.
So… this NaNoWriMo thing. I’ve known about it for years, but I’m always too busy. This year, I’m actually even more busy than I’ve ever been. Still, I have a lot of novel ideas rattling around in my skull, and some of them really need to escape and see if they can’t spread their wings a little. I’m sort of not really committing to anything, but I’m going to spend a bit of time writing a novel skeleton, if not a novel itself. The thing is, there’s an interesting effect that I’ve noticed in my own writing that correlates really well to my animation. I think that the animator’s Illusion of Life can apply to writing as well.
There’s a difference between “straight ahead” animation and “frame to frame” animation, or keyframe animation. I’ve done traditional hand animation and computer animation. I specialize in the latter, but enjoy both. In both, straight ahead animation tends to produce a more lively, chaotic sort of feel, where the characters and action builds on itself and inertia carries the day. Keyframe animation is much better when certain story beats or timing points need to be honored, and it’s especially useful for things like walk cycles and other sort of motions that game development uses (I presently work in games, though I’d love to animate for feature films). Keyframing is also one of the major things that computer animation can leverage, since the computer can calculate the interim frames between keys, instead of needing an army of inbetweeners, as hand-drawn animation needs. There’s still artistry in making the bezier-like animation curves carry weight and timing well, since computer interpolation is pretty dry and mathematical, so it’s not really a magic “Animate Awesome” button, but computer animation uses keyframing very frequently, simply because it’s good at it. (And looking at those curves should give you an idea of how knowing math and physics are important to animation.)
Anyway, I’ve been thinking in similar terms for the novels I’d like to write. There are “story beats” that I’d like to hit, character moments I’ve written mentally that I’d like to work in, and other assorted vignettes that I’ve worked more on than others. It’s a sort of mental tapestry of ideas, themes, events and moments that I’d like to commit to paper. It’s not so much a bullet-pointed outline as it is a sketch. A sort of “concept art” for the story I’d like to write, a rough mental image that can be built into something stronger. I’ve tightened the art a bit here and there, and left some other pieces loose so that they can be reworked as the whole thing comes into focus.
Interestingly, there’s a bit of what I wrote about here going on, too, where certain bits and bobs of detail can intimate other details, and ultimately, there really is a lot I can leave up to the reader. It’s very much like a painting, in a way, where the novel has to carry enough detail and interest to let the reader fill in the gaps. The interesting thing is that I think this applies in the creative process, too, where I hit the high points, the key frames, if you will, of my story, and then go back and fill in the gaps as necessary, but find ways to leave other gaps open for the reader.
As I’ve been writing this, then, in bits and pieces over the years, I do parts, the vignettes, in “straight ahead writing”, but I use those vignettes, those “fixed points in time“, as key frames to hang the larger story on. It’s a relatively fluid approach, not unlike working from a sketch to a fully realized painting. Like figure drawing, It’s important to nail down a good sketch, understanding the skeletal structure, musculature, physics and such, before going on to finish a piece. Some elements can be done in a relatively straightforward manner, and other things might need to be left in the air, and in many ways, the whole piece gets attention over time, instead of just drawing a head, polishing it to a shine, then doing shoulders and so on. More than once, I’ve seen students do that sort of thing in figure drawing sessions, and then they are surprised when they run out of room at the bottom of the paper for the legs of the model. The piece really works best when considered as a whole from the outset, even if some of the process winds up being really straightforward, like rendering a face or a hand.
I know, it’s a bit of a stretch, writing about how visual art creative principles inform my writing, and all without using much in the way of visuals to underscore the idea (though the links I’ve included have good visuals). Still, I thought it might prove useful to try to illustrate how these principles of creativity can bleed between disciplines, and how learning in one sphere can enhance another. I’ve long believed that, like the basic physiology of neurons, creativity and intelligence grow as you start making connections between individual building blocks of your palette. If you want to have a rich imagination, you really should be inquisitive and explore. Learn as much as you can. Find things that allow you to reframe an idea in a way that you haven’t looked at it before, and it will help you understand what you’re looking at. Look for the connections and look for the different perspectives.
And then commit it to paper. I sketch most often with a ballpoint pen. It forces me to either roll with the mistakes or do it right in the first place. It’s an emboldening process, ultimately, even though mistakes are inevitable. Funny how often that’s true.