I’m three days into being 29 and my voice still hasn’t fully returned. Sometimes I wonder if one of these days I’ll just wake up with no voice for the rest of my life. Maybe that’s why I’m so desperate to communicate in other forms. I’m paradoxically apprehensive about speaking with strangers and yet I also feel this strong desire to speak to the public, behind my wall of paper, pen, and words on a screen.
Speaking of inaudible communication, I want to rave for a little bit about facial expressions from two artists that I just can’t get enough of.
The first should be obvious: Bill friggen Watterson:
To say that I’m influenced by the genius of Calvin and Hobbes is a bit of an understatement. While I go through phases of interests that pass through my life like cloud formations, there has never been a moment of my life since my discovery of the strip that I haven’t been completely and utterly infatuated with it. I don’t think I’ll ever look back at my childhood, when I would pore over (and consequently destroy) my paperback copies of Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat or Scientific Progress Goes Boink and think, “Oh yeah. I used to be really into that.”
Wrong. Erroneous. You used to be really into ska music, Kristen. You will never not be really into Calvin and Hobbes.
And I think part of what makes the strip so timeless and intrinsically humorous (apart from Watterson’s imaginative, eloquent, and thoughtful writing) is how simply and hilarious his facial expressions are. I remember being amazed when he would break from his usual style of big-headed, small-footed cartoon characters and put Calvin and Susie in a soap-opera style illustration of them playing house, as if to demonstrate what else he could draw. The man clearly was up to his eyeballs in artistic talent. And I think that by drawing in an art form that was easy to consistently reproduce (drawing the same cartoon characters within a daily strip), facial expressions allowed Watterson to flex a particular artistic muscle: the art of simply portraying meaning in a face. Simply being the operative word.
I’ve been having the same conversation with professors, mentors, and friends about the connection between talent and skill for like ten years. We were taught throughout our schooling that writing (and, I assume also, art) can be taught and perfected like a skill. Talent, however, is intrinsic and cannot be taught. Now I’m not sure how much of Watterson’s work is talent and what is a taught skill. But I feel pretty confident (looking at my own work) to say that in order to render something as complex as the human face with as much cartoonish simplicity as Watterson did, a lot of study has to go into it. Study means this is a skill; achieved and perfected by anyone with enough drive and work and time.
Moving on (with the obvious disclaimer that I COULD CONTINUE to gush about and praise Bill Watterson….), let’s talk about the animator Will Vinton:
When I was last home, my family and I watched the Return to Oz which I think (as an adult) is a stylistically brilliant film. If I’d seen it as a kid, I probably would’ve hated it. After all, I was scared of the abominable snowman in the stop-motion Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer film. (I know. What a weenie…) However, I was most intrigued by the claymation of the Nome King. I knew I recognized the style from somewhere and sure enough, it was Will Vinton, the guy behind this creepy clip that I love:
Now this is a bit of a tangent (I should be talking about other comic artists right?), but I have to say how much I love when expressive animation that can add a dash of darkness to a film. Claymation and animation have long been dominated as a medium for children, so when animators take risks in this field, they gamble at terrifying their audience. (Wait, weren’t comics “just for kids” too?) Ironically, despite being frightened as a child of the benign snowman in a holiday special, I can’t get enough of the darker, creepier animations for children. Think Coraline or the Night on Bald Mountain from Fantasia. Or better yet, look at the climax of Return to Oz, when the Nome King accidentally swallows an egg. Look at his minion’s faces. I just love how they claw into their own mouths to escape their poisoned monarch.
I think another thing that makes me appreciate Will Vinton even more is the knowledge of just how long it took to animate his expressions. I often whine about how long it takes to draw a comic (especially when compared to how long it takes to read it). Claymation puts that into some perspective. Vinton’s first short film (which was made here in Portland!) was seven minutes long and took fourteen months to make!
Also, this is what Will Vinton looked like. The jury’s still out on whether or not he brought the hipster mustache to Portland in 1973, or the mustache brought him.
I have another animator that inspires me, but his style has less to do with facial expressions than Vinton, so I’ll probably gush about Cyriak in a later post, for the sake of a continuous theme. In the meantime, if you guys can think of any animators or artists that are similar or comparably talented to the two I mentioned in this post, send them my way! I love a good face.
Also, you know what Bill Watterson and Will Vinton have in common (besides their first names and tremendous skill when depicting facial expressions)? They were pretty big in the 80’s.
You know what else was a big thing to come out of the 80’s?