Friday, November 11, 2005

Observation from voting

It's interesting the way our minds work, and how we often react to things out of habit rather than really paying attention to what's going on.

I went to vote the other evening. At the place of polling, there were three lines of people waiting to get their ballots, with the lines dividing folks alphabetically based on their last name. Occasionally someone would trek to the back of the line and make sure that people knew about the division, as the o' so helpful signs were out of view once you rounded a corner and left the main room. Now, if I were describing this scenario as part of a fictional story I was constructing, I would most likely have the exchange go something like this...
Poll person: "What letter does your last name start with?"
Voter: "M"
What was interesting to note is that in all the exchanges I heard, the majority of them didn't go that way. Instead, they went like this:
Poll person: "What letter does your last name start with?"
Voter: "McIntosh"
Interesting, eh? I have a hunch that most people focused on the "last name" portion out of pure habit. Most of the time when we're asked about our last name, it's usually not just the first letter that someone wants to know, so it becomes instinctive to just rattle off our full last name.

That takes me back to the whole idea of writing this scenario as part of a fictional work. If we are so conditioned to instictively answer with our full last name, it would seem more natural to craft the story that way. The trouble is that during the course of writing, an author might not think about something like that. Because he/she generally isn't in the natural moment, or observing someone else in such a moment, the response that they write to that question will likely be logical, like the first version, rather than instinctive and natural, like the second version.

In terms of animation, what this experience reinforced to me was the importance of observation. We often think we know how a character will do a certain action or react in a certain situation, but in doing so, we're in danger of creating something that feels more logical than natural. By taking time to research and observe as we plan an assignment, we will often find things that might not have come to us if we'd gone purely on our own thought process.

An example of this was shared by Bobby Beck at the presentation he made here in Dallas during the Industry Giants event this past summer. He asked the audience to think about a child doing a somersault, and picture how that motion would look. He even did a somersault for us on stage, demonstrating the gut reaction that most of us would have if asked to animate something like this...just a plain ol' somersault.

He then showed us some video reference of that was shot while he was working at Pixar on Monsters Inc. In the clip, this little one- or two-year-old boy bent over and put his head and hands on the floor, ready to do a somersault. However, he had simply bent down from the waist, keeping his legs fairly straight, so he didn't have the leverage needed with his legs to push himself over. He shifted his feet from side to side numerous times in an attempt to finish the somersault, all the while balancing his upper body on his head and hands, and everybody in the audience just cracked up. It was hilarious to see, but more importantly, it was so much more natural because it was real.

It's entirely possible that someone could come up with the same idea if given enough time, but the point Bobby was making was that observation gets us to those instinctive, natural ideas much faster. And the sooner we can get to those great ideas, the sooner we can start putting those ideas into our work.

Observe, observe, observe!!!


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Bobby Rocks!

Anywho, it's funny that most of us never think about it this way. We keep on saying observation is the most important skill for an animator, but I've never heard something similar for a script writer! I've heard about writers doing it (eg. one guy sat in the subway for 2 years everyday with his headphones on - but without music - so he could listen to what most women talked about and how they thought and how they behaved, and used that for his book), but I've never read an interview with a director or storyboarder or anything where they actually talked about observation... While your example makes it really clear it is an important part of it.

- Benjamin

Aja B. said...

Cool post, Justin! Makes me think of another weird habit thing that happened to me the other day... I was buying a bottle of wine from a store with a very strict ID policy, so I handed her my ID as soon as I walked up. She scrutinized it, handed it back to me, and I slipped it back into my pocket.

When she was finished ringing up and bagging the wine, I took the bag, wished her a nice evening, and started walking out of the store. Without having paid for it. It took me a few moments to realize why she was calling after me. :-)

Weird. She said it happens at least 20 times a day there, people assuming that they've paid for something because they already handed the cashier a card.

forvrin said...

I would argue its not the answer that's necessarily broken, but the question.

"What letter does your last name start with?" is a crappy question. It limits the answer we can give to the barest minimum of intelligable data. Naturally, in order to do anything else (like actually look up the person's name to check the rolls), the Voter Volunteer would have to then ask the person's name.

Our brain's are phenomenally smart, even when we aren't. The person asked for crap data, and we immediately provided data that not only encapsulated the desired answer, but also provided pointers to further data should anyone wish to know more.

forvrin said...

And yes, I realize that the question had little to do with your point, which is spot on.

But the thought occured to me, and I would have been bothered by it all day if I didn't say something.

Justin Barrett said...

Interesting point, forvrin. However, if you look closely at the scenario in which that question was asked, it's totally appropriate. The person asking wasn't looking up the person's name on a list. In order to get people through more quickly, the voter lists had been divided up based on voters' surnames, with a separate line of people for each list, and the volunteer who was asking the "first letter of your last name" question simply needed to route people into the proper line.