What I tell myself everyday.

To all the people watching, I can never ever thank you enough for the kindness to me, I'll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask is one thing, and this is.. I'm asking this particularily of young people that watch: Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism - for the record it's my least favorite quality, it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen." - Conan 'O'Brien

October 18, 2009

Starting Point By Hayao Miyazaki

I am reading this book and I have to say that this probably the most important animation book out there for me. Even above Illusion of Life.

Unlike most how-to animation books that focus on breaking down about theme and story structure, character's motivation, this is a book that talks about the philosophy of animation and thought process through articles and interviews of Hayao Miyazaki collected over a 17 year period.

Below is a few notes from a review by Mayer Masterson on the book.

"Having said all this, if someone were to ask me what the most important thing is when creating a new animated work, my answer would be that you first have to know what you want to say with it. In other words, you have to have a theme. Surprisingly, perhaps, people sometimes overlook this basic fact of filmmaking and overemphasize technique instead. There are innumerable examples of people making films with a very high level of technique, but only a very fuzzy idea of what they really want to say. And after watching their films, viewers are usually completely befuddled. Yet when people who know what they want to say make films with a low level of technique, we still greatly appreciate the films because there is really something to them."

"I like the expression "lost possibilities." To be born means being compelled to choose an era, a place, and a life. To exist here, now, means to lose the possibility of being countless other potential selves. For example, I might have been the captain of a pirate ship, sailing with a lovely princess by my side. It means giving up this universe, giving up other potential selves. There are selves which are lost possibilities, and selves that could have been, and this is not limited just to us but to the people around us and even to Japan itself.Yet once born,there is no turning back. And I think that's exactly why the fantasy worlds of cartoon movies so strongly represent our hopes and yearnings. They illustrate a world of lost possibilities for us. And in this sense I think that the animation we see today often lacks the vitality of older cartoon movies. Economic constraints in production are often said to be the main reason, but it seems to me that something spiritual is also missing. It would be stupid to turn my back on the times in which we live and act arrogrant about it all, but I always find myself thinking that the old cartoon movies were indeed more interesting and exciting that we have today."

"I think there is is no way we can live and "not cause difficulties for others," as the saying exhorts us. I have come to think that even when we are overflowing with love and goodness, the world of human beings is one in which we cast our shadows onto each other, giving each other troubles as we grow and live.The question then becomes, what it is hope? And the conclusion I'd have to venture is that hope involves working and struggling along with people who are important to you. In fact, I've gotten to the point where I think this is what it means to be alive."

October 15, 2009

The Anatomy of Determination

Very interesting article about the anatomy of Determination. And its relationship with Ambition, Willpower, Talent to succeed.

"We learned quickly that the most important predictor of success is determination.....But while it certainly helps to be smart, it's not the deciding factor. There are plenty of people as smart as Bill Gates who achieve nothing."

"I can't think of any field in which determination is overrated, but the relative importance of determination and talent probably do vary somewhat. Talent probably matters more in types of work that are purer, in the sense that one is solving mostly a single type of problem instead of many different types. I suspect determination would not take you as far in math as it would in, say, organized crime."

"The simplest form of determination is sheer willfulness. When you want something, you must have it, no matter what."

"Being strong-willed is not enough, however. You also have to be hard on yourself. Someone who was strong-willed but self-indulgent would not be called determined. Determination implies your willfulness is balanced by discipline."

"That word balance is a significant one. The more willful you are, the more disciplined you have to be. The stronger your will, the less anyone will be able to argue with you except yourself. And someone has to argue with you, because everyone has base impulses, and if you have more will than discipline you'll just give into them and end up on a local maximum like drug addiction."

"If this is true it has interesting implications, because discipline can be cultivated, and in fact does tend to vary quite a lot in the course of an individual's life. If determination is effectively the product of will and discipline, then you can become more determined by being more disciplined."

"In fact the dangers of indiscipline increase with temptation. Which means, interestingly, that determination tends to erode itself. If you're sufficiently determined to achieve great things, this will probably increase the number of temptations around you. Unless you become proportionally more disciplined, willfulness will then get the upper hand, and your achievement will revert to the mean."

"I think there probably are people whose willfulness is crushed down by excessive discipline, and who would achieve more if they weren't so hard on themselves. One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don't realize how incompetent they are. This lets them do a kind of deficit spending. When they first start working on something, they overrate their achievements. But that gives them confidence to keep working, and their performance improves. Whereas someone clearer-eyed would see their initial incompetence for what it was, and perhaps be discouraged from continuing." I think you definitely need a certain amount of hard headedness and warped sense of reality to succeed. Since young I was too concerned with other people's opinion as a gauge of my self worth)

"There's one other major component of determination: ambition. If willfulness and discipline are what get you to your destination, ambition is how you choose it."

"Ambitious people are rare, so if everyone is mixed together randomly, as they tend to be early in people's lives, then the ambitious ones won't have many ambitious peers. When you take people like this and put them together with other ambitious people, they bloom like dying plants given water. Probably most ambitious people are starved for the sort of encouragement they'd get from ambitious peers, whatever their age."

"Achievements also tend to increase your ambition. With each step you gain confidence to stretch further next time."

"So here in sum is how determination seems to work: it consists of willfulness balanced with discipline, aimed by ambition. And fortunately at least two of these three qualities can be cultivated. You may be able to increase your strength of will somewhat; you can definitely learn self-discipline; and almost everyone is practically malnourished when it comes to ambition."

"Note too that determination and talent are not the whole story. There's a third factor in achievement: how much you like the work. If you really love working on something, you don't need determination to drive you; it's what you'd do anyway. But most types of work have aspects one doesn't like, because most types of work consist of doing things for other people, and it's very unlikely that the tasks imposed by their needs will happen to align exactly with what you want to do."

Indeed, if you want to create the most wealth, the way to do it is to focus more on their needs than your interests, and make up the difference with determination.

"For example, willfulness clearly has two subcomponents, stubbornness and energy. The first alone yields someone who's stubbornly inert. The second alone yields someone flighty. As willful people get older or otherwise lose their energy, they tend to become merely stubborn."

October 7, 2009

'Ponyo' and lessons in storytelling

Afterward as we walked the few blocks back home, Luke and I recounting our favorite moments in the film, he said, "It's interesting that there weren't any real bad guys in the movie."
There are characters and circumstances which provide a temporary oppositional dynamic:

* Fujimoto (voiced in English by Liam Neeson), Ponyo's father, who seeks out Ponyo after she disappears, uses his wave spirits to 'steal' her back from Ssuke (voiced in English by Noah Lyndsey Cyrus), and stands in opposition to Ponyo's desire to become a human.

* Toki (voiced in English by Lily Tomlin), a cantankerous resident of the senior citizen's center where Ssuke's mother Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey) works.

* The maritime job of Ssuke's father and Lisa's husband Koichi (voiced in English by Matt Damon) which separates Koichi from his family.

* A huge storm that puts Ssuke and Lisa's lives in danger on a perilous car trip home, turns Ssuke's house on a cliff into an island, and represents the front edge of an "imbalance" that threatens the very order of nature.

These narrative elements basically pass the antagonist baton to generate a sense of tension, but none of them is a classic "bad guy". And yet, the story works beautifully.

Which got me wondering: What other 'traditional' movie-narrative elements are not present in Ponyo. Here is a partial list:

* A specific Nemesis character

* Hardly any conflict between characters -- apart from one funny 'argument' between Lisa and Koichi played out using Morse code signals from electric lamps and one confrontation between Fujimoto and Ponyo

* Action that builds to a big Final Struggle: Since there's no Nemesis character, there is no classic 'battle' between Protagonist and Antagonist. Rather everything builds to a 'test' - of sorts - where Ssoke has to answer a question: Where Granmammare (voiced in English by Cate Blanchett) asks Ssoke if he can love Ponyo as a fish as well as a human. He answers yes, Ponyo becomes a human, and balance is restored to nature - just like that. Moreover the biggest action in the movie -- the huge storm -- occurs well before the story's climax which also runs counter to 'traditional' models of screenplay paradigms.Ponder that for a moment: If someone came up to you with a script they had written and they said, "The story doesn't have a Nemesis, there's hardly any conflict, and the Final Struggle is carried out not through action but in dialogue," you -- and I as well -- would almost certainly be concerned about what we were being asked to read.But, as I've noted, Ponyo works as a story.

Let's take a look at what Ponyo does have in the way of narrative elements:

* Engaging lead characters with clear goals: Ssuke wants to find and care for Ponyo. Ponyo wants to go back to Ssuke and become a human.

* Emotional connection for viewers: A father (Fujimoto) concerned about the well-being of his daughter; a boy (Ssuke) who finds a new friend (Ponyo); a fish-girl (Ponyo) who desperately wants to become a human; a mother (Lisa) concerned about her son (Ssuke); a son (Ssuke) in search of his mother (Lisa); old people who wish to become young again. In sum on this score, Ponyo is a deeply personal movie.

* Mythology: The world of Ponyo is a hyper-reality infused with rich, meaningful mythic elements -- the sea as Creator and Destructor, the Great Flood, the child as Seeker, wizardry, and so on.

* Nature: The movie revels in the outdoors, both aquatic and dry land, each (and especially the sea) visualized in rich details.

* Depth: The story is an intimate one - the friendship of Ssuke and Ponyo - but also one of great depth, taking the theme of their 'friendship' and expanding on that to explore the relationship between humanity and Earth, most vitally our 'friendship' with the sea.

And there's this: "Quiet moments." Anne Thompson has a great column about Miyazaki here in which Pixar visionary John Lasseter offers his thoughts (on video) re the great Japanese animator, writer, and director - and one of the reasons Lasseter admires Miyazaki so much is, "He celebrates quiet moments":