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Getting There Episode 4 - Fail like you mean it

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

I'm a talented person, but there are two things I am truly terrible at.

Dancing and math.

I like to tell people I'm bad at dancing because I'm a little ambidextrous and a little dyslexic, almost literally giving me two left feet. That's a joke, of course. I just despise outward displays of self expression. As for math, we have a bit of history, the two of us. All through school I had the absolute worst time trying to wrap my head around simple math, algebra, simple math, you name it. It was the formulas - the concept of taking the visible, physical, and quantifiable things from the world, abstractifying them down to numbers and letters, changing the variables, then spitting them back out into the real world. It was unholy, and worse, it was confusing. The last thing I ever expected to do was to have to compare writing and storytelling to my horrible school experiences in math. But here we are.

Or there I was, rather, in the third week of my Story Development for Animation class with the incredible Tron Mai. This was an amazing class, and an experience well worth crossing the country to undertake. The class itself was focused not wholly on storyboarding. Along with storyboarding, staging, blocking, camera placement and movement, it was primarily focused on understanding the mechanics of storytelling, the function of scenes, and their place within the broader story. Character motivation, progression, conflict, dynamic characters, twists - all this he boiled down into his own secret-sauce formula.

Going in, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what we would be learning, this was my secret hobby, after all, and I had done my homework. I had read books on storytelling and script writing, watched video essays on cinematography, and even done a fair amount of writing myself. I expected to be challenged, but I didn't expect to fail.

There is nothing quite like knowing that you should be capable of accomplishing a thing, but when the time comes to do it, you learn that you can't. When it came time to develop our own stories based on his formula of understanding scenes and story structure, I was right back in high school math class. Every time I thought I understood what was on the board, I would try it myself, and inevitably come back with the wrong solution... over and over. This went on for a solid two weeks, trying and failing to understand how to write my own sequence from formula.

Eventually I realized that my own bad writing habits were getting in the way, as well as my death-grip on the story I had in my own head. I came up with an exercise for myself to break those habits, and it helped me sacrifice what I had in mind for the story in favor of the better story that would work, which I learned to find through formula.

Granted, all of my other classmates, former students of that class, and even Tron himself, admitted that this was a difficult process. It took me another few weeks to finally get a handle on it, but I have to say that those two weeks that completely kicked my butt had more of an impact on me than eventually coming out the other side. Those two weeks stripped away all the pride and assumptions that I knew what I was doing. I knew I had a lot to learn before then, but I wasn't ready for the cost. When it came down to it my choice was between holding on to those assumptions and that pride, or doing whatever it took to let go of them to learn a better way.

Talented though I may be, there is a lot to be said for failing well.

In the spirit of the saying that "it's not the destination, but the journey that's important", I've titled this series "Getting There." While I appreciate this saying, the journey would not exist if not for the destination, therefore the title "Getting There" is a reference as much to the destination as it is to the journey. The "Getting There" series is a collection of brief, episodic articles describing my ongoing journey into the animation industry. By Alex Esbenshade

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