Study the basics: John Lasseter on the secret to success

PixarBallJohn Lasseter is Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and Principal Creative Advisor, Walt Disney Imagineering. He's a two-time Academy Award-winning director and today oversees all Pixar and Disney films. Not bad for a guy who first learned how to entertain an audience by working part-time as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland during his college days. A few years ago the Disney Pixar Facebook page asked fans to submit questions for Lasseter. The answer here in this two-minute video reply by Lasseter to the question "Any advice for aspiring animation students?" is simple and wise and is relevant for just about any creative person.  

Two-minutes of great advice from the master
In the clip below Lasseter shares his advice. Using our imagination just a little, it's not too hard to see how the spirit and even the letter of what he says is relevant for those outside animation as well.



"Do not forget to study the basics," Lasseter says. A list of some of the basics:
 • Basic drawing (figure drawing, perspective drawing, etc.)
 • Basic design (visual grammar, design process, etc.)
 • Fundamentals of animation (principles of animation, movement, etc.).
 • Film grammar (e.g., learning from staging in live action, etc.)
 • Story/storytelling. Three-act story structure. Creative writing, etc.

As for "design" what Lasseter means to have have a sold level of visual literacy in general and also a real understanding of the myriad visual design principles such as line, shape, space, balance, value, color theory, scale and proportion, focal point, and many, many more fundamentals.

It's like eating your vegetables
"You've got to learn all these basics," Lasseter says, "it's kind of like eating vegetables." Most people, he says, do not want to spend the energy learning the fundamentals and "just want to get on to the more flashy stuff of using all the latest software." The problem is, Lasseter says, the software is ephemeral. "Throughout your career the software will change. It will always evolve and get better." So Lasseter says what is important is to remember this: "Software never makes a movie entertaining. It's what you do with the software that matters." And what you end up doing with software, Lasseter says, you get from drawing upon the knowledge and insights you have obtained by having a solid base in the fundamentals.

"I rely on the basic fundamentals of art, and design, and filmmaking, and animation, and storytelling every single day of my career. It's something that is just a part of you, It's the foundation in which you work, and without those...you won't go anywhere."

Forget the technology
In this piece below, Lasseter says that the technology is amazing and it is getting better all the time. The tools are remarkable. "But!" says Lasseter, "the most important thing is, as you are deciding to learn about computer animation, forget the technology! The technology never entertains an audience—it's what you do with the technology. Therefore, the most important thing to learn is learn the basics...learn the fundamentals...of art...of drawing....color theory....principles of animation..."



Yes indeed. Technology never made a bad story good and no amount of technology will make an ineffective presentation an effective one.


Sharing stories from the heart...about mom

MomThis Sunday, it's Mother's Day, even here in Japan. Nothing is more important than mom. This is what I always say. I don't care how sentimental or saccharine it sounds, the bond and the love between a mother and child is the most precious thing on earth. I am a father to a four-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. Being a father is my number one job and my number one priority. As a father I'm also learning about the mother-daughter bond as I watch the relationship that my wife and daughter are building. It's beautiful. Yet, the mother-son bond is the one I have the most personal experience with, obviously. For me, my mom is the reason I am the man I am today. My mom passed away in 2010, and think about her everyday. But this quote here gives me inspiration.

OK, since it's Mother's Day, I want to point to two clips below which are beautiful examples of two men paying tribute to their moms by speaking from the heart. The first one is of Kevin Durant who won the NBA MVP Award last week. The clip features the highlights from his speech. Near the end Durant shares a story from his childhood that is particularly touching.

 

"Genuine, spontaneous, and authentic." These are the terms often used to describe late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson. Ferguson ad-libs much of his material and often goes off script (not that there is much of a solid script to begin with). His approach is unique among the late-night talk show hosts. His approach may not be for everyone, but his dry wit and authentic, down-to-earth style is engaging. Ferguson is my personal favorite. In this second clip below, Ferguson eschews his normal monologue and instead talks about his mother who had just recently passed away.

 

Here's a bit from me. Below is a 6-min segment from a longer talk I gave at TEDxKyoto in 2012. In this story, which I  also shared at Webstock 2013 in New Zealand, I talk about our two-month-old daughter meeting my mom for the first time, just days before my mother passed away. (Here I share a little more about my mom and what it was like to be with her in her final moments).

 


Storyboarding & the art of finding your story

Storyroom Storyboarding as we know it may have been pioneered by filmmakers and animators, but we can use many of the same concepts in the development of other forms of storytelling including keynote presentations or short-form presentations such as those made at TED or at conferences, pecha kucha nights, and so so. The storyboard process allows you to flesh out themes and look for patterns as you apply your creativity toward presenting your content in a structured yet engaging way. Storyboarding is a great way to begin to visualize the story of your content.

What can Pixar teach us about storyboarding?
Ever since Pixar made it big with Toy Story in 1995, they have been generous in sharing the "secrets" of their story design and their story process for the world to see. Even if you are not interested in becoming an animator or a filmmaker, the lessons and inspiration one can get from studying the Pixar methods can be a huge help in your work. This 4-minute clip below illustrates a great example of the storyboard process. And if you remember seeing A Bugs Life, the clip will be all that more enjoyable. Joe Ranft, who died in a automobile accident in 2005 during the making of Cars (the film is dedicated to his memory) was the Head of Story in A Bugs Life and also did the voice of Heimlich. At the end of the clip Joe demonstrates the pitching process. Joe was not only super smart and creative, he was a master storyteller and hysterically funny.

 

In this next clip below, you see the great Joe Ranft storyboard the classic army men sequence from Toy Story. Amazing stuff.

 

It goes back to Walt Disney
Walt_disneyThis video below is a wonderful introduction to storyboarding with clips from Walt Disney and others. A great storyboard artist is a great communicator (not necessarily a great illustrator/animator). Walt Disney developed the use of storyboards in the 1920s. Storyboards allow film makers to see a blueprint of the movie before going into production. You tack them (your sketches/ideas in visual form) up on the wall so you can see the entire sequence, flow, continuity, etc. Storyboards are an effective, inexpensive way to develop the story. You can "board it up" on the wall and see if it works. Because ideas can be changed easily and quickly, storyboarding works. The key is to put down in your storyboards the minimum amount of information that gives a dynamic and quick read of the content (and the emotions) of the sequence.


A good storyboard artist is a good storyteller. The drawings do not have to be pretty, but they must have the meaning and the feelings behind the idea. A good storyboard artist is a good pitchman. Walt Disney, they say, was an amazing pitchman/storyboard artist. Walt's great ability was his passion and vision behind the pitch. The storyboard pitch is one of the great performance arts developed in the 20th century at Disney (yet no one ever gets to see it). The use of storyboards is one of the reasons Walt Disney's early films were so remarkable; the practice was soon copied.

"At our studio we don't write our stories, we draw them." 
— Walt Disney


With storyboarding you tell the story in the simple form (storyboard reels) before entering the more complex form. The storyboard lets the whole team in on what's going on with the production. The storyboard is "an expensive writing tool, but an inexpensive production tool." The storyboard can cut out a lot of unnecessary work. Storyboards allow you to see what is not working (and toss the bits out that don't work).

"If I can make things work on paper, then I can make them work on the set."Kevin Costner

Applying the concepts
Can you visualize your presentation like a comic? No, not literally perhaps — but something like the sequential flow of a comic or rough sketches in storyboard form. You can do this on a whiteboard, but one of the best analog ways is with sticky notes (Post its) on a wall on in a notebook.

In Presentation Zen 2nd Edition I outline an analog approach to preparing digital presentation visuals. Near the end of the process is when we really start thinking about what visuals we'll want to use. This is the time when I start making very rough sketches of how I want the slides to look. It is a form of storyboarding. I use sticky notes in my own sketchbook. The advantage is I can get the flow and structure down before I ever make slides. Below is a sample of just eight slides from a much larger set. (Click images for larger view.)

Sketchbook    8_slides_order

Suggested reading
From Word to Image: Storyboarding and the Filmmaking Process
by Marcie Begleiter
Directing the Story: Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques for Live Action and Animation by Francis Glebas
Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know by Jennifer Van Sijll


Activity for talking about good (and bad) presentations

Window_write

This semester I'm teaching three classes on presentation for undergraduates at my university in Japan. On the second day, I have students share with the class what they think are the elements of a good presentation and what they think are the kinds of things that make for a bad or ineffective presentation. Students may still be quite young, but they have sat through years of classes in school and lectures in college, sat through orientation meetings, and they have seen many kinds of presentations online such as TED talks over the years, so students actually do have quite a bit of experience with various kinds of presentations.

Elements_slide
I use a slide like this or just write something similiar on the whiteboard. "Think about the best and the worst presentations you have ever seen. What's the difference? What made the good ones good and the bad ones bad from your point of view? What are the elements of a good presentation, including visuals (if any), preparation, delivery, etc. What was happening during the presentations that you identified as 'bad'?"

Activity
For the activity I ask students to break up into groups of 4-5 to share their ideas—based on their experience—on what makes for a good presentation and what makes for a bad presentation. I give them about 20 minutes. One person in each group keeps notes using a t-chart with "Good" on one side and "Bad" on the other. Before this we discuss a bit on what we mean by "Good." A good or effective presentation, from the point of few of the audience, being one where the audience was engaged and learned something, but also was motivated, or inspired, etc. in addition to being informed. After students have discussed their ideas and they have a "good/bad" list, they then put that info on the walls around the room, edit as they like, and then finally share their ideas with the rest of the class.

Class_pic

There is no right or wrong answer for the exercise I tell them. The point is to share their ideas based on their real-life experience and to get a conversation started, a discussion that will last the entire semester. The point of the exercise, besides being a good icebreaker, is to introduce many of the concepts we will be talking about for the next 15 weeks, but in this case the ideas are coming from them, not just from "a professor" at the front of the room. "You know this stuff all ready" I tell them, but there is a difference between knowing it and having the skills—and eventually the courage—to actually do it. The students identify many classic elements of a good presentation of talk. Below is a list of some of the more common elements identified by the students. This is a rough assembly of the items that students, numbering more than 100 in total came up with. Each element is quite commonsensical, perhaps, but common sense is not common practice. We'll spend the reset of the semester learning the principles, techniques, and practices of 21st-century presentation.

Elements of a "Good" & "Bad" presentation
Here is a list that a group of about one hundred young Japanese college students came up with this week.

 
"GOOD"
"BAD"
 

• Start with interesting hook
• Big Voice (good projection)
• Smile, friendly, natural
• Passion, excited by topic
• Conversational tone
• Points are clear
• Use of humor, emotion
• Use of great visuals
• Use of video/movie segments
• Simple design, delivery
• Has a clear main point
• Confident body language
• Use of interesting examples
• Uses personal stories
• Clear pronunciation
• Gets audience participation
• Speaker asks questions
• Q&A, discussion time
• Feels like a journey
• Lots of photos/visuals
• Good time management
• Clear conclusion
• Has surprises, unexpected bits
• Makes audience think
• Is entertaining, fun
• Has new or "rare" info
• Variety of content
• Statistics *with* context
• Explains why not just what
• Makes the abstract tangible
• Changes pace periodically
• Uses original content
• Shows "the big picture"
• Not just lists of info
• Presenter is "authentic"
• Presenter is having fun

• Rambling, boring, slow start
• Small, weak voice
• Reading a script
• Reading text on slides
• Lots of text on slide
• No eye contact
• Looks at paper all the time
• No gestures
• Seems not confident
• Looks bored/disinterested
• Too long/too short
• Too complicated, confusing
• No attempt to simplify
• Material only memorized
• Ugly, amateur design of visuals
• No clear point
• No examples
• No stories
• Faces away from audience
• Repeats a point too often
• No audience participation
• Monotone, monopacing
• Seems unprepared
• Talks too fast
• No body movement
• Data overly complicated
• Charts are irrelevant
• Charts impossible to see
• Using jargon
• Speaks down to audience
• "Showing off" by using jargon
• Presenter not motivated
• Talk contains nothing new
• Speaking sounds memorized
• No flow, just many "points"
• Does not inspire or motivate

Students_write
Students listing their ideas on the whiteboard. Then we have a class discussion on what they think are the most important elements and why. A chance to share the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly based on their own experience.


"The moment defines the creative expression."

A presentation is a moment in time. I have long referenced jazz and my own experience with jazz as having a great parallel to the act of a live talk or a presentation on the center stage. One thing that a live talk and a musical performance have in common—especially improvisational music—is that neither event is ever the same twice. They may be similar, they may cover similar ground, but they are never exactly the same. The message—the real meaning—is in the moment, in that interaction between audience and performer (or presenter). In this interview with London Real, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson relates Miles Davis's idea that you can not do again what you just did.

Tyson: The talk is my interaction with your live audience.
Below is the transcript from Dr. Tyson's riff on the importance of spontaneity and being in the moment.

"When you create—and it's on he spot and it's live—it's something that's never been created before even if the notes are the same on the page. The moment defines the creative expression. I feel that way when I give talks. When I give a talk, there are hosts of that event who will say: 'Oh, could you send your talk in advance?' No. The talk is the talk I give at that time, in that moment, to that audience. There is no 'talk in advance.' If I could send a talk in advance, I would do that and I would stay home. The talk is my interaction with your live audience. That's the talk." (emphasis mine.)

When I heard Dr. Tyson speak to the absurdity of "sending your talk ahead of time" in this interview, I practically fell out of my chair. I have been saying the same thing for more years than I can remember. It's just common sense. And yet it's refreshing to hear it from such great speaker and respected communicator of science as Neil deGrasse Tyson. Yes, dear conference organizers, please stop asking people to send their presentations in advance.

Related links

"Slideuments" and the catch-22 for conference speakers
Advice for conference presenters
Advice on giving technical presentations

H/T @brainslides


Danny Hillis on his friendship with Richard Feynman (TEDxCaltech)

In this 7-minute video below, Danny Hillis shares two wonderful short stories about the legendary physicist Richard Feynman. Hillis is a well known engineer, scientist, and inventor who, in his younger years, was lucky enough to spend a good deal of time with Feynman. There are many ways Hillis could have used his time to talk about the amazing Richard Feynman, but he chose to simply tell two short stories from his personal experience. And it was a very good idea to do so.

A good story does not have to be slick or polished or augmented with amazing visuals. Often a good story just needs to be authentic, from the heart, and told in the spirit of contribution. That is, a story well told is a gift to the audience, it is designed for the audience. What they do with it is up to them, but it is created and told for them. Once we tell the story the ownership is no longer ours. But if it is created and told in the spirit of an offering for them and not merely as an exercise of egotism for us, then it just may make an impact and have lasting resonance. The example by Hillis above is simple and seemingly unremarkable, perhaps. But I think it works very well, and he leaves us with at least two good, memorable takeaways, pieces of wisdom from Richard Feynman himself.


Richard Feynman: "The Great Explainer"

Even if Richard Feynman had not been a great communicator, he'd still be famous today for the incredible contributions he made to physics. The fact is, however, Feynman was indeed a great communicator as well as a Nobel-Prize winning physicist. Who knew the two could go together? Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and advocate of the public understanding of science, says in his "ASU Origins Project: Storytelling Of Science" talk that Feynman's abilities as a communicator inspired him to want to be a scientist. "What was amazing about Feynman was that he conveyed his excitement and his interest and the integrity of science." For Feynman "science was an adventure," Krauss says. "Everything in life [for Feynman] was an adventure. Learning—just the pleasure of finding things out." Feynman's passion for learning and for teaching physics was infectious, says Krauss.

While researching Feynman's lectures, I stumbled on to a fantastic YouTube channel called SciShow. One of their videos is a 10-minute presentation called Richard Feynman, The Great Explainer, part of their Great Minds series of presentations. I like the simple, quirky, visual way they present the story of Feynman here. Watch it below.


The communication of science
There are many great scientists, and there are many people who are skilled at explaining things, even complicated, technical phenomena. Unfortunately, being a great scientist and being a great explainer often are thought to be mutually exclusive. Your own experience may suggest that remarkable communicators of science are very rare, but I wonder how much of this is merely an example of confirmation bias. The narrative of the day, after all, is that men and women of science are not skilled communicators, nor should they be. But this is a myth and sometimes even a lazy excuse for bad teaching and dull, lifeless explanations. Not all great scientists need to be remarkable teachers or inspiring, engaging communicators of science. But certainly a scientist who is charged with also teaching others must necessarily be a good teacher.

On learning the joy of finding things out
Much of his visual and clear approach to explaining things, says Feynman, he learned as a small child from his father. "Everything we would read we would translate, as best we could, to some reality. So that I learned to do that—everything that I would read I would try to figure out what it really means, what it's really saying." Translating abstract ideas into concrete realities that one can see is a simple, natural, and highly engaging way of learning and also of explaining even difficult to comprehend ideas.

 

As a father of two very small children myself, I adore this clip above of Feynman recalling lessons he learned about learning—or the joy of finding things out, as Feynman calls it—from his father. Feynman says his father knew the difference between knowing the name of something and really knowing something. "That's the way I was educated by my father, with those kind of examples and discussions. No pressure. Just lovely, interesting discussions." I'll take a child who is deeply curious and intrinsically motivated to pursue the joy of finding things out rather than one who is supremely obedient, and deeply motivated by pressure and extrinsic rewards. Unfortunately schools—even some elementary schools—are designed for the most part to nurture the latter.


Richard Feynman on the Scientific Method (in 1 minute)

There is not a device invented that can measure the joy I have in watching a Richard Feynman lecture. The man was not only a brilliant, Nobel Prize winning scientist, he was a great teacher and communicator of science as well. In this lecture by physicist Brian Cox—in this case speaking to school children for an event at Manchester University—I noticed that Cox played a one-minute clip (14:45 mark) from a Richard Feynman lecture given in the 1960s. Cox set up the clip by saying that it was one of the best definitions of science, or the scientific method, that he'd ever heard. Clear and simple and told in less than a minute. Watch below.



"If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong...."
Here is a transcript from the clip:

"In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it (audience laughter), no, don’t laugh, that’s really true. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature, or we say compare to experiment or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

A bit more on the scientific method (in 10 minutes)
Below is the same clip with an additional nine minutes where Feynman explains, among other things, that guessing is not unscientific. "It is not unscientific to take a guess, although many people who are not in science believe that it is."

Feynman was a great communicator in part because he continually gave examples or told personal stories to illustrate his message. My favorite one here is his telling of his response to a person he met who believed that UFO sightings were real and evidence of extraterrestrial life visiting earth. "So I said I don't believe in flying saucers. My antagonist says 'Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove it's impossible?' I said no, I can't prove it's impossible. It's just very unlikely!" Feynman goes on to say that it is scientific to say what is more likely and what is less likely. Feynman summed up his reply to the man who believed in flying saucers like this:

"It is much more likely that the reports on flying saucers are the result of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence, rather than the unknown rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence. It's just more likely, that's all. And it's a good guess. We always try to guess the most likely explanation, keeping in the back of our mind that if it doesn't work, then we must discuss the other possibilities."

Link
Loads of Feynman lectures on video.


Apple Store presentation this week in Osaka, Japan

I'll be presenting in the Apple Store in Osaka (Shinsaibashi) tomorrow night (March 27 at 7:00pm). Apple is having a back-to-campus campaign so they asked me to speak to students & teachers about presentation design, etc. After my talk Apple staff will show some tricks and how to's in Keynote. If you happen to be in Osaka, Japan this week, please stop in the Apple Store and say Hi in the evening.

Apple-preso-3-27

Apple Store Shinsaibashi
Below is a photo from one of the first times I presented in the Apple Store 8-9 years ago (wow - where has the time gone?). I think the first time was in 2004 shortly after it opened.

Theatre_3


There's no shame in falling. The key is in getting up!

Penguin_slide.007

Penguins are one of the most fascinating animals on the planet. Quirky, odd, and yet always well dressed. What inspires me most about this flightless bird is their resilience.They make the best of a difficult situation with what they have. Penguins may be better suited for the sea than the land, but on the land they must also navigate if they are to survive. Life ain't easy, but they keep at it anyway. Far more graceful in the water than on terra firma, they push forward nonetheless. They make mistakes (See BBC video below). They slip, they slide, they bump, and they fall. And yet, even after these little blunders they do not seem to care at all what other people—I mean penguins—think. They simply get up, shake themselves off, and try it again. As far as I know, penguins do not blame others or dwell on their slips and falls. They simply move on and do not care what others in the crowd think of their little slip ups. We should do the same. In this regard, we should be more like penguins.

When you are learning anything, or testing something new, mistakes are inevitable. That's OK, of course, for how else can we learn? The problem is, perhaps as a result of our schooling, or perhaps just as a consequence of being human, we too often feel so discouraged by our mistakes that we fail to push on. There is no shame in honest mistakes. They are the things that move us forward. This is true no matter our profession, and it is certainly true in the case of science. “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” — Jules Verne.


We all stumble. This clip of bloopers from the BBC's Penguins - Spy in the Huddle may inspire you.

Fall down seven times, get up eight (七転び八起き)
There is an old saying in Japan that captures the spirit of getting back up after a mistake or a setback. Nana korobi ya oki (literally: seven falls, eight getting up) means fall down seven times and get up eight. This speaks to the Japanese concept of resilience. No matter how many times you get knocked down, you get up again. Even if you should fall one thousand times, you just keep getting up and trying again. You can see this ethic reinforced in all facets of Japanese culture including education, business, sports, the martial arts, the Zen arts, etc. It is especially important to remember the sentiment expressed in this proverb when times are dark. There are no quick fixes in life and anything of real worth will necessarily take much struggle and perseverance. Success does not have to be fast—what’s more important is that one simply does their absolute best and remains persistent.

Penguin_slides.001

Never give up!
A concept related to the saying Nana korobi ya oki is the spirit of gambaru (頑張る). The concept of gambaru is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and approach to life. The literal meaning of gambaru expresses the idea of sticking with a task with tenacity until it is completed—of making a persistent effort until success is achieved. The imperative form, “gambette,” is used very often in daily language to encourage others to “do your best” in work, to “fight on!” and “never give up!” during a sporting event or studying for an exam. You do not always have to win, but you must never give up. While others may encourage you to "gambatte kudasai!" — the real spirit of gambaru comes from within. The best kind of motivation is intrinsic motivation. For the benefit of oneself — and for the benefit of others as well — one must bear down and do their best. For many people, public speaking or presentations is really something they struggle with. It comes naturally for some people, but for most of us it is a journey of hits and misses and something we must always work on to improve. Sometimes we slip up, sometimes we fail. It's OK to fall down, the key to success is in bouncing back again.

Penguin_slides.002

Link
Be Like the Bamboo. A presentation about resilience.