Reflections on Teaching
I'll begin with an introduction to the courses we offer in Moscow. In recent years, we have had students from every republic of the former Soviet Union. They were sent to us from animation studios to which they returned after their studies, and where most of them continue to work.
The Higher Courses in Animation do not have a long history. We have been in existence for only ten or twelve years.
Before that, as now, there was the State Institute of Cinematography, where there is a department of animation but it deals strictly with graphic designers or designers for films. The Institute has only recently begun to train animators and directors. Because of that situation, we decided to do something more for animators as we felt animation was being ignored on a government level.
Everybody in our country loves animation. But at higher levels it was thought of as childish, and that animation cinema was the child of movies. When we asked for help, especially for money and a place to work, they said: "Oh, who is that? So small, so stupid. Here, have a candy and go away. We have big cinema..."
Recently, things have begun to change, but not too much.
Now to the courses themselves. We have few students, not more than twenty in Moscow.
The reason, of course is primarily money. We have very many talented young boys and girls who want to be there, but we don't have enough teachers.
It is always better for one teacher to deal with five students, instead of twenty or thirty at a time..
The one reason for this is that our Higher Courses are preparing film makers, not for series films, not for factory films. We try to teach them to make art films. Maybe not that word "art film", but it would be better to say "real films" which can improve your heart, your brain, your opinion of life, and your artistic viewpoint.
We work with each student individually. I, myself, am very shy, and am rarely the first one to speak, even with students.
With students I am afraid of one thing. I fear that if I push the student, if I express my opinion, it might destroy the ideas of the student. So, even if the student is headed in the wrong direction, doing something the wrong way, I let him go this way until he realises that he is making a mistake.
It is best if the student understands his mistakes by himself, without my pushing him.
Even if I push him only one time, help him only once, he can begin to look at me as a dog would to his master, waving his tail all the time and asking me what to do next, what to do this way or that way. It sounds simplistic, I know, but it's a general behavioural pattern in the relationship of a student with a teacher.
That takes care of the first point. I'll go on to the next.
What do I do with the students who join the courses? I do the following. I ask them:
" What are you doing here? You're a young guy, so healthy, so young, so beautiful. Look out of the window. You can see what fine weather it is outside. Normal people are playing football. They are drinking, if they drink. Look how many girls are walking through the street....
"And you? You can spend your time with more pleasure than sitting with me here in this dark room at this old table, scribbling with me on paper for hours and hours, months and years."
Some of them do leave after a while, mostly in English style, without saying goodbye, only closing the door and never appearing again.
But the rest of the students become our friends, not because we wanted it, but because it's the only way to be on one level and to speak like human beings and to understand each other from the very beginning. And usually, I say:
"Of course you are crazy. You are crazy sitting here with us. But wait a little, be temperate, be calm. Wait a little. After a while, when you see your first results on the screen, you will understand what happened to you. If your first crazy idea begins to move, you will feel that it's a beautiful thing. It's a new life, a new life which exists only on the screen. You never can meet it on the street or in real life. It's something indescribable."
We try to explain to students that each film must be individual and unique. And for each film you need to have a sort of scientific research. We must know everything that concerns the film, everything about the characters in the film. You must surround yourself with the characters in your film and you must surround yourself with all the things which will be used in the film. Only when you have all these things around you in your mind, can you feel like a real man who rules his film in every way.
In researching and choosing what you will use, in the thousands of things that you think of, there will be the few that will let you know immediately and without a doubt that they are right.
Even if you gather things that are not useful in the film, you will know exactly what to choose from all these things, absolutely, automatically, without thinking of it.
First we teach students to think like that. Then you think of style. Somebody said once that the human being itself is style. And film itself is style too.
The style of the film consists of everything -- movement, design, music, and so on.
It's a very strange thing. Nowadays, when you look at your screen, and if you have missed the titles, you don't understand the film. You have to ask: what is that film? which country, which nation? who is the director? what is the music? who is the composer?
You understand nothing at all. It's like candy....it's like chewing gum. I know that kids like chewing gum very much, but no parent should give their kids chewing gum all the time. Chewing gum is quite nice, but it's not meat, not bread, not vegetables. You can die after you're eating... consuming.. these T.V. serials. We are becoming, not we , but maybe our kids, are becoming just like soldiers. It is all in the mind of course, but it's a very dangerous thing.
During our courses, we go to museums, where we try to demonstrate that the beginnings of character an be found in any museum in the world. There, in paintings and sculptures, they can see the faces, the hands, the bodies are all different. Each is quite different. Its simple but you can examine a face in a picture and work out what happens when this person is doing this kind of work, or what happens to this face when, for example, it feels good with the world.
We try to show our students that in all art history we can find many very good things already in place that they will not have to take the time to draw for themselves. They can use what our world already has. Even in Russian, in very simple pictures, in seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings and even in icons, you can see not only pictures, not only faces and expressions denoting character on the faces, you can even see the story board around Russian icons.
It is a very interesting exercise to examine an icon painting, to look at those faces, those movement of hands. The ancient painters were quite clever. No worse than we are. There are a lot pictures with such examples.
We do not use this exercise to such an extent that the students are not able to look around for themselves.
If a student is not able to look around, what can a teacher do to encourage him?
It is a mistake to think that you can teach somebody. You can never do it.
A student can be taught only from nature. You can only push him very slightly, very politely to look around.
"Please, you can have your education from a cat on the street, from a dog on the street. See how it moves?
"Even on this street, on the opposite side, you can lift your eyes and you can see a big white cat sitting from the morning until evening. It's a beautiful cat.
"If you can see this animal for some minutes, you can figure that this cat is not like all the cats on the street. He has character.
"The character is the main point in the story for the spectators. Always remember that you are making films for spectators. Even for one person in the world. It's absolutely impossible to make animation for ourselves....."
Anyway, students have to get their education from nature. It is our duty to move them in that direction.
What about characters? I remember when I worked on a film made from the book by a very famous English writer, A.A. Milne. The book was called Winnie the Pooh, Russian version. We tried to find a character for the hero, Winnie the Pooh. It was extremely difficult, because we saw that we already had a strong character, so the idea was not to find something new. We just tried to go the way the author, A.A. Milne had suggested.For two months we tried to draw these animals. We were in difficulties. "What a short time," we said. "What speed is needed". Then with a deadline of four weeks, everything was ready, character, script, even layout. The result which you get from the film, of course, is absolute fun. The film has now been screened in Russia for more than twenty years and is still remembered and loved by young and old alike. This is because of the characters and their way of life presented on the screen. Well, what we did we think of this Winnie the Pooh? First, that he is lazy. He is lazy and he likes to eat. And if he likes to eat, it follows that he is quite fat. He is quite foxy at the same time.Then after that, we thought that he could move quite quickly but only when he wants something. So he's quite greedy and moves fast when he wants something. At last we were able to draw him. You see in the film that the bear cannot turn his head without moving his entire body. When he looks down towards the earth, he moves his whole body. And when he looks up to the sky, he has to bend backwards. Of course that limits his movements but it is good for the character. Of course, it seems simple, but first you must do the research and find every detail because after you have drawn your first frame you are stuck. After you have drawn those that follow, you cannot go back and correct that first mistake.So our first steps in the course involve the use of paintings. This is not for the purposes of animation or movement but to study the paintings themselves, and to encourage students to have their own relationship with a camera, to study a face that will go into one frame. It is a very interesting experience to note how the students change their ideas about what is happening within a painting. I use an example of a painting of several young women who all seem very similar But when you view it correctly, you can see differences in their hands.
Each film needs its own moment and each film needs its own music. I hate serials as I have already noted. They seem to be made by one hand, one composer, one animator. Unlike those serials we are interesting to each other because we are different. We are all different and we are interesting because our art is different. We could go into a factory and make something together -- nails or something. But we are making films and it is our duty to make them with what we feel inside us. It is a great opportunity for animators, because only an animator can say something that comes deep from within his heart.
The first question that is asked of a student who is preparing his film is:
"OK, the characters are quite good, the timing is quite good, the length of the film is quite good, but what about the music?"
The student will usually say that the choice of music will come later." I'll think about the music later."
My God, why ? What for ?
In bad films we hear music from the beginning of the film through to the end. All films have music. You can sometimes see a dangerous situation happening on the screen accompanied by unexpected music... or at least music that has no connection to the film. The composer played one thing and the film is doing another. Then I ask my student if he thinks that his film needs any music at all. The question may possibly be incorrect and may shock him. I know that music should be used only where and when it is needed.
I remember that my first three films were made with music, but that while making my last film, I was in such a confused condition that I couldn't imagine what music I would use. I thought about it for two or three months. At last, one day I said to myself: My God, in this film I'll use no music at all."
At the same time I was afraid. I knew all films had music. Anyway, when I had finished the film, I was reading that Sergei Eisenstein had once said that if you want to make a film as a director, please do it without music. Try it. Then you will understand how difficult it is. The film was about insects. It is called "Journey of an Ant."
Finally, I would like to say that we cannot make films with a calm heart. A calm heart gives you calm results. Maybe this is not the correct moment but I once read something that was said by Michelangelo: "No more do painting and sculpture calmly. My soul turns to Divine Love, who from the Cross opened His arms to receive us."
It seems to me that until this Man from the Cross receives us, we must do our best to make our own films and not be too ashamed when we become different people.