Sunday, August 5, 2007

Poses Pushed A Little Too Far

A Gentlemen's Duel image © Blur (click to enlarge)

(Warning: a sexually suggestive image is at the bottom of this post)

NOTE: August 21, 2007... Compared to other items found on this blog, there has been a lot of reaction to this post. Some I care to speak of... some I don't. Everything in this post is intended to be thoughts and opinions expressed for constructive purposes. As with any opinion expressed publicly, not everyone agrees. All I can offer before anyone gets bent out of shape is to consider the source. I have made a few minor adjustments to the original post because of source files no longer being available, and to fix two little typos. The gist of this article is essentially the same as originally posted.

When teaching animation I tell my students to observe the work of others and learn. I show them stills from various animations, great and small, and I point out all the tools being used by skilled artists who know how to create inspiring, appealing, and life-like performances on screen. As with all things that I teach, I tell my students to do what I do as well. Which brings me to the images you see in this post... and the name of this blog.

Poses are fundamentally important to how I understand character animation. The performance is in the pose. No amount of fancy pants spline tweaking, blur frames, or what-have-you can make up for poses that fail to communicate who a character is and what that character is driven to do internally by intentions, attitudes, and emotions. We understand the inside of the character by what we can read on the outside... the pose. To push a pose (as I understand the phrase) is to find the essence of a character performance by exaggerating those qualities of the pose that communicate what the performance is all about. Getting at the essence of what I understand about animation is partly why I came up with the name for this blog.

A Gentlemen's Duel image © Blur

As with anything in art, you can take something too far.

The expertly staged, nicely composed, and beautifully lit stills you see in this post are from A Gentlemen's Duel which was recently created by Blur. Blur Studio is very unique production house with some fantastic work to their credits. Like Pixar, Blur is one of the few CG shops that consistently puts out animated shorts. As is to be expected, A Gentlemen’s Duel is a beautiful production that is very well animated.

NOTE: August 21, 2007... the YouTube link originally found here was pulled (as it probably should have been.) You will not find it on Dailymotion either. To see the entire short check out Stash 32. Below is a still that matches the original YouTube rip. Click image to see Blur's trailer.

A Gentlemen's Duel image © Blur
(click to jump to Blur's website)

Yesterday, I surfed over to Angie Jones' blog Thinking Animation and I noticed that one of her recent posts was both applauding and criticizing A Gentlemen's Duel. The negatives she summed it up as reasons for dissatisfaction and feeling insulted were probably a by-product of her not having a Y chromosome.

Well, I have that particular chromosome and I wasn't entirely thrilled with this latest Blur short either. To sum it up, I am not a fan of humor that requires the audience to turn off empathy towards a character. In general, I don't like jokes that are "funny" because a male character keeps getting nailed in the nuts... and I don't like jokes playing off a lack of concern for a female character's well being, so much so tha
t she is beaten, punched, smacked, knocked over, and hit on the head with a broken stone planter. I also don't find a story funny just because ample bosoms giggle on female character who is generously endowed.

While well endowed women are a wonderful site to behold, and the way certain areas of their anatomies giggle can be a delightful experience for many of us humans - for me, it would help if a female character in a story where, oh... I don't know... in possession of a brain, some wit, and her own agenda that may happen to be separate from that of men. Some of us Y chromosome people find such qualities in women attractive, and dare I say it... appealing.

Good grief, the toy poodle has more personality than the female character around which so much of the plot revolves.

Angie Jone's post regarding this short reminded me of a rendered still of the production I found online in November of 2006. With this image I made a few discoveries that, atypical for me, I haven't bothered sharing with my students.

A Gentlemen's Duel image © Blur (click to enlarge)

One thing I try, desperately, to get across to my animation students is how all elements in the frame are connected. Which leads me to the still you see directly above this paragraph. If two characters are on the screen at the
same time they have a relationship, and that relationship is communicated with all the tools great animators developed oh-so-many-decades in the past... staging, silhouette, line-of-action, contrast, asymmetry, eye-line, competing angles, flow-lines... flow-lines are big. Ask any of my students; I never shut up about flow-lines. With that in mind, what is with the male character's arms and hands in this image? He isn't just gesturing, and he isn't just positioning the chair for the female character to sit in... what is he doing with his hands?

His hands are all wrong. The flow is wrong. They have been pushed too far. But first lets look at his eyes and his crotch. Oh goodie.

Ok, so in part the joke behind this animated short is two "gentlemen" (who are nothing of the kind) are competing for the attention of the female character. The attitude and intension of this particular male character is pretty well summed up in how his eyes are positioned towards the female character's backside and how his crotch is protruding forward unnaturally. I'm no prude, I get the joke and I can find this kind of humor enjoyable if it is done well. What stood out to me when I first found this image in November was that all kinds of elements of his pose where pushed too far. Probably on purpose. But why?

When analyzing this image I noticed that the silhouettes of the two characters create an outline that is almost in the shape of a heart. Ok, kind of clever, but why? The male is only one of two rivals for the female character's affections. Her eye-line seems to match his and keeps the viewer moving back to the male character. But her arm, although natural, had a strange correspondence with the male characters left hand.

Then I noticed the strange posture of the male character's right hand seemed to have a strange correspondence with her neck, right shoulder, and breast. So, I pulled out my old image manipulation and compositing skills and did a little Photoshop work to test the theory that was developing. And sure enough...

(click to enlarge)

What the heck?! A subliminal suggestion? That is somewhat pornographic in nature? Again... why?

For the record, all I did in Photoshop was slide one character closer to the other and layer the male character's fingers appropriately. The "relationship" on screen between these two characters is no accident.
I would not be surprised to find more cleverly disguised messages in the staging. In my opinion this type of artwork, and the ideas behind it, derives from the preoccupations of adolescent boys. I'm not so prudish as to be offended, but I am mature enough to wonder why Blur, a great creative production studio, would stoop down to this kind of juvenile silliness.

Maybe someone else can help me understand why this animated short is so contorted around sexual innuendo as if we haven't had that kind of thing before. Farce, sexual or otherwise, can be a wonderfully entertaining experience for the audience but only if it has been created by masters of the genre.

Sorry folks at Blur, in this particular case, I'm not seeing the brilliance of your previous animated short productions. There is brilliance in the lighting, character designs, models, the technical accomplishments for sure, and yes... the layout. But the brilliance on full display in all these areas isn't finding it's way into a story.



Keith Lango said...

Heh, good observation, Erik. That pose combo is definitely no accident. The boys at Blur are indeed talented, skilled and dedicated to their craft- but it can also be a bit of a frat house kind of place as well. Fine if that's your cup o' tea, I suppose. My friend who worked on GD expressed a kind of sad regret about the film. After seeing it I can understand why.

blauereiter said...

Interesting analysis, I for one wasn't particularly entertained by the humor presented, if there was any. I applaud the technical mastery, lighting, rendering and modeling, but not so much the animation and performance of the characters.

Erik Westlund said...

Thanks Keith! I thought I might be out on a limb on this one, but it just seemed to obvious when I first stumbled across it. At the time I didn't know if I would have a reason, much less opportunity, to point this observation out publicly.

I don't want to criticize the work of talented people who have achieved critical acclaim in the recent past. But that frat house mentality is also kind of obvious.

Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the unofficial confirmation.

blauereiter: I agree with you about technical mastery. Blur has staked out a unique place for themselves in the industry.

Perhaps we see animation a little differently though... I see the animators as tools of the director. If the director is seeking a shallow but highly finessed performance, then that is what he will get.

These performances have a lot of finesse although the characters they reveal are shallow.

Anonymous said...

Honestly who do you think you are. What have you worked on that you can critique our work? Really keep your opinions to yourself, they are unwarranted and unwelcome.

Erik Westlund said...

Anonymous: sorry to have offended you and anyone with whom you work.

In my own defense I repeat an important part of my post:

"The expertly staged, nicely composed, and beautifully lighted stills you see in this post are from 'A Gentlemen's Duel' which was recently created by Blur. Blur Studio is very unique production house with some fantastic work to their credits. Like Pixar, Blur is one of the few CG shops that consistently puts out animated shorts. As is to be expected, A Gentlemen’s Duel is a beautiful production that is very well animated."

I have an immense amount of respect for the work Blur does, and for the unique place your studio has carved out for itself. That's why I put the name Blur in the same sentence with the name Pixar.

I refer my students to the work of Blur often as something to which they should aspire. Unfortunately, I don't feel comfortable showing my students this latest work because of several negative underlying themes in the story that I cannont endorse. As a citizen of a free society, I am entitled to my opinions - as are you to yours.

I take it that you have a low opinion of me, my status in the industry, and a low opinion of my attempts to speak my mind publically. So, I'm not so sure about "unwarranted" but I am now quite certain regarding "unwelcome". Notice, I am not saying the same in return. Such ideas regarding other peoples opinions puzzles me.

As for my industry status... your opinion/suspicion would be correct. I am nobody in this industry! Please, in the future regard my opinions with that in mind.

Regardless of your feelings towards me, I wish you and your colleagues at Blur all future success.

davidmaas said...

my post popped up on another thread. Here again:

Well, damn.
That's too exact a fit not to be somehow intentional. Just... odd. Coming from advertising, its no shock to see this, just... its surprising to have a subliminal message so ininspiredly in-line with the film's overt tone.
Imagining a film that might build on hidden messages contradicting the apparent film makes me mourn this film's potential even more.

Erik Westlund said...

Hi David, no problem. I'll just follow you around and respond to your comments wherever you choose to leave them. ;)

Yes, this double pose its just too obvious not to be intentional. And like you, I mourn the films potential as well.

Unfortunately, I didn't do a good enough job of explaining that my disappointment is based in part on the tremendous respect I have for the work being done at Blur. As you can see 'anonymous' claiming to have worked on that short (I take that claim at face value), has left a rather curt rebuttal to my critique.

It seems I have made at least one enemy (if not more) at Blur who thinks my opinion, developed absent having worked on anything of that status myself, is "unwarranted and unwelcome."

Yikes! In other words, I have voiced a dangerous opinion. Here I thought animators welcomed feedback because you never know from where your next insight towards improvement will come. At least that's what I was taught, and that's what I tell my students. I don't understand the need to tell others in essence to "shut-up". Seems a bit childish and weak to me.

I would think that someone accomplished enough to be working at a top-flight shop like Blur would be a little less insecure. Think of it this way: if I lack valid experience, and I am wrong, and I am a nobody on this subject... then who cares what i think?

Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous : Oh, come on, man.... just admit it, the story and jokes are uninteresting. Quit the Blur bad boy attitude and be realistic about it.

davidmaas said...

Animators desire feedback... sure! Some just expect it to be positive.
How's the ratio at Savannah?
I teach at the Filmakademie in BW, Germany. I'd say... 50-50.
To be fair, the white canvas is an intimidating beast and some need to protect themselves. I just find such protectionism odd in projects that are so overtly targeted at mass-audience, commercial venues. Of course, its always difficult to argue with an 'anonymous'.

The criteria set the bar... and here I see a potentially fascinating study of sexual competition carried out in a 'cultured' manner. That's why the idea of subliminal poses and counter-messages immediately jumps out, crying to be recognized as a potential story vehicle. The beast scratching from within...

Instead of pursuing such volatile and saturated potential, the makers have opted for cliched slap-stick - and I'll clarify: slap-stick is fine. Its the cliche that leaves the characters flat.

Erik Westlund said...


When I was attending SCAD the ratio of animators who desired feedback (positive or otherwise) to those how just wanted a pat on the back was probably about 50/50 as well. Of those who strictly worked in 2D the ratio was much more in favor of wanting honest feedback.

Where I teach now Raleigh NC, everyone gets feedback whether they like it or not. They just have to get used to it. Its how we run this place. I'm sure the very talented animators who worked on this production have reached the high level of skill they possess with the help if constructive feedback and know it.

When talking about story, that's another matter. Criticizing a story after the production is complete doesn't give the director or creative team an opportunity to use the feedback because it done. Finished.

Like you, I see the potential of the concept as have others. It takes an extremely experienced/talented screen writer to get the most out of a concept like this. That's a rare ability.

The original author had a good idea, but for whatever reason it did taken to completion with the same level of brilliance as all of the technical aspects... composition, design, staging, lighting, setup, effects, animation, etc.

Minus a few, important, underlying story themes, all the pieces are working. A compelling story isn't just amazing parts and pieces.

davidmaas said...

"Criticizing a story after the production is complete doesn't give the director or creative team an opportunity to use the feedback because it done."

To the contrary! I think the director here is thirsty for feedback, and not just fluff positive stuff. He's obviously quality, and good people long for perfection. As long as the critique is founded in story and not just personal digs.
I was just looking for the credits, but couldn't find them. Not at imdb yet and the site has no information...

Erik Westlund said...


Yes, all feeback (so long as it is constructive) is good for anyone who seeks perfection. Whether or not the director of this animated short is thirsty for feedback I don't know... but I would assume that only hearing fan-boy fluff is tiresome to any intelligent, self-respecting, creative person.

Here is the short version of what I have found out about the top credits for "A Gentleman' Duel":

Executive Producer-
Tim Miller

Francisco Ruiz
Sean McNally

Sean McNally
Francisco Ruiz
Jeff Fowler
Tim Miller

Why there are two directors I really can't say. Seems like a recipe for chaos and mixed-up objectives.

I don't know where I stumbled across this but I found a PDF for pages 68-69 of the Electronic Art & Animation Catalog that has the entire credit list, synopsis, tools, etc.

Electronic Theater pg.68 PDF

Finally, I have started finding double poses in other productions. Just found a rather silly one in "No Time for Nuts". A good bit more obvious than the one I have written about in "A Gentleman's Duel". Looks like I have a theme building for more posts. We shall see.

Jesse Janowiak said...

Maybe I'm underestimating the Blur guys, but my first reaction upon seeing the pose in question was not "subliminal double-meaning" but rather "last-minute self-censorship." Is it possible that the animators originally put the characters in the scene touching each other, then decided at the last minute that it was just a little bit too suggestive and simply translated them apart? It sounds like a solution I'd use, but maybe professionals would never have left the man in the same position as before.

Erik Westlund said...

Hi Jesse,

Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to leave a comment. While I can't speak definitively regarding a production I wasn't involved with I think its pretty safe to say regardless of any last minute decisions being made 'self censoring' wasn't one of them.

If you look at the pose as it occurs in sequence, the male character has just finished spinning the chair on which his hands are placed. With the amount of work necessary to change that shot to allow room for the chair to spin, they may as well have changed the poses too.

This short seems to be less of a story and more an accumulation of jokes and gags; I think this double pose is merely one such gag. I don't believe that the people at Blur involved in this production are likely to worry about offending their audience... which is a round-about-way of saying... I think they were their primary audience.

Wonkey the Monkey said...

That's a fair evaluation. I haven't had a chance to see the pose in sequence, except in the trailer, which is not going to be exactly the same context.

Aside from that, I don't know a ton about Blur as a studio, so this insight is interesting to me. I attend Purdue University, and I heard that one of our computer graphics alums recently went to work there, so I was curious.

Jesse Janowiak said...

Whoops! wonkey the monkey is the same as Jesse Janowiak, in case that wasn't clear.

Erik Westlund said...

Well hey Wonkey... er... Jesse. ;)

Blur is a truly unique studio with some tremendously talented people.

I was hoping to find an article I read about the studio a few years back, but my many Google queries have come up nil on this. Although, after a little searching I found this article at the site of Autodesk.

(sorry for the long URL, may require copy and paste into browser)

It refers in part to what I recall from the other article that I haven't been able to relocate.

Blur has use 3D Studio Max for a lot of their 3D work. Today that's not as surprising but 10 years ago, that was a bit more of a risky venture. Blur folks around at that time were significant contributors to such technologies as Brazil. They had the skills, and a stake in using 3DS Max in their pipeline and made it work... wonderfully. This is no small achievement.

One other note, for a variety of reasons they switched from 3DS Max to XSI mid production on Gentleman's Duel... again, no small achievement. They have the skills and have used them to great effect (Gopher Broke) in the past. In the future I would just like to see such talent set loose on better content than what I find in Gentleman's Duel.

Congratulations to the Purdue grad you mention. That's an elite crowd to be invited into.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Whoa! Interesting find- I was actually visiting the studio when they were concepting this short. All the handdrawn artwork I saw was great! They have a couple of talented artists there.

Erik Westlund said...

Woah, what pleasant surprise!

Thanks for dropping by Kali and taking a look at my ramblings. Maybe they are not as much fun as yours, John K's, or Uncle Eddies but, well... I'm glad you find my observations on this interesting.

It comes as no surprise to me that Blur has some talented artists on board. I'd venture that they have a lot of talented people in all areas; art and otherwise.

What does surprise me is that people are looking at this ancient post on my much neglected blog and still feel like commenting. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I was enchanted by this wonderful animated film (myself being in the business too) exactly BECAUSE of this hidden erotica in it. Finally someone in sexually-uptight-violence-glorifying America had guts and talent to combine something of artistic value with erotica for everyone to enjoy. Your criticism only shows that it is time for USA to become more open minded and break the chains of remains of Victorian suppression.

Erik Westlund said...

Well Anonymous, I'm glad you found it enchanting. Although I still marvel and the quality of the art direction and many technical achievements, It left me a little, *ehem*, flaccid.

Call me a left over, Victorian prude if you like, my point wasn't that sexuality was involved, but that the sexual subject was mixed with a huge dose of glorified violence, a portion of which was directed towards the only female character. In that regard you comment and my critique appear to be somewhat in agreement.

My concern about the double pose is only this... "why?", "why are you doing this?", "what does this have to do with the story?", and not "how dare you!?". If you look at my critique of No Time for Nuts created at Blue Sky you will notice that I revel in the cleverness, and appropriateness, of a very sexually explicit double pose. Its the appropriateness of to the story that concerns me, not that fact that my eyes have been subjected to seeing it.

Without being in a place to justify this feeling I can say that when watching A Gentlemen's Duel I get the sense that there was more than one director, with more than one agenda. And you know what they say about 'too many cooks in the kitchen'....

Let me follow-up with this, you and I agree. In the US audiences and major media sources are very, very uptight on the subject of sexuality, and not nearly so concerned about excessive violence. I would add that this causes a rather awkward over reaching on the subject of sexuality from time to time, and a tendency to fall back on themes that glorify violence instead of healthy representations of human sexuality.

Where we diverge is that I believe this production discussed in Poses Pushed a Little Too Far... although beautifully rendered, full of technical brilliance, made by the top talent in the industry... is an example of how folks in the US are still preoccupied with glorified violence and hung up about sex.

Thanks for taking the time to drop by, read my thoughts, and for taking my thoughts seriously enough to comment on them. All the best to you in your career.