Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Again with the simplicity

--> "Simple is good." – Jim Henson

Many years ago a buddy of mine worked in a comic book shop. One day a bunch of teenagers who were very excited about the work of a particular artist came in. They were hyped to see that his new book was out, very impressed with all of the detail in his work. Conversely, they made fun of another artist, calling his work “lame” because he did not use enough lines in his work.

The artist that they liked was a young man named Rob Liefield. The artist they hated was named Mike Mignola.

Today, Mignola, known for his spare style, is recognized as one of the top artists in the field, and as the creator of the popular Hellboy character. Liefield, whose style was kinetic and busy, is barely remembered at all.

-->Rob Liefield's Youngblood

Mike Mignola Hellboy Book Cover
But there was a time when you could not get bigger than Liefeld. He starred in a Levi’s commercial directed by Spike Lee.

The youthful and the inexperienced tend to be more impressed with work that is visible. The flashier something is, the better they think it is. They cannot conceive of another way of viewing things.

When I was a teenager, working for my mentor Bruce Walters doing motion graphics, he said something to me that put me on the path of seeing the beauty in simplicity.

Bruce was a very smart guy and I paid close attention to the things he said to me all those years ago; I still use what he taught me.

We did a lot of animated graphics for local television spots, so we dealt with a lot of logos. One day as we were shooting some animation, he said to me, You know who makes a ton of money? The guys who design those international signs that tell people—without necessarily using words—things like “slippery when wet” or “this way to the hospital” or whatever. You know the signs.

I was surprised. He said it was because it was hard to design something that was so easily understood by so many different kinds of people.

 From that moment on I started to see the beauty in simplicity. I began to notice how effective simplicity was in all kinds of design and composition. I saw how simplicity communicated ideas so clearly. Simplicity can be hard to execute—it is marksmanship. It is about hitting the target. In design, it is about eliminating everything that is not necessary. Novices always want to add and seasoned designers want to take away.

From an essay on writing by Robert Louis Stevenson

When John Williams played his simple JAWS theme for a young Steven Spielberg, the director laughed because it was so simple. He thought Williams was joking. This is now so iconic that the simple notes are synonymous with sharks. Just as Williams’ simple Raiders of the Lost Ark march is synonymous with adventure. Williams is a master of these “sound logos”—simple ideas that communicate mood so perfectly that decades later they can easily be recalled and applied properly.

One of the most difficult things that I teach is the appreciation of simplicity. It may be better to think of it as precision. Legendary illustrator Alex Toth said (and I’m paraphrasing here) to figure out what you need to draw. Draw that and only that. And draw the hell out of it. Precision.

Drawing by Alex Toth
Mignola comic book art
Just as with these other crafts, storytelling can communicate much more clearly when there is no fat on it—nothing extra. Figure out what you need to write, write that and only that. And write the hell out of it.

“It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” -- Bruce Lee




Will J said...
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Jonathan Moore said...

Hi Brian,

This is a bit off topic but I am curious as to how you feel of Paul Thomas Anderson's work?

For instance,

Punch Drunk Love


There Will Be Blood

I know you mention you do not like many current movies as most of them are not as good with their craft.

I do feel that Paul Thomas Anderson has some pretty amazing craft. I do need to re-watch them now after having been reading your book this past week, but I am curious what your take on his work was?

Also, is there a way we can suggest films for your feedback on or to get your opinion on? I would love ot submit a few of my favorites (most are actually older films from the 70s or 60s) that I havnt heard you talk about before.

Thanks again,


José Manuel Alonso said...

Hi, Mr. McDonald. I'm a new follower of your blog from Madrid, Spain (please excuse my poor english, I studied french in the school). I bought recently your two earlier books and I became quickly a fan. Now I have discovered your blog. I'm delighted to hear the news of your next book. Thank you for your outstanding work and greetings from Spain!

Brian McD said...

Hello Jonathan,

Many, many people ask me to talk about current films and filmmakers and I have had to adopt a policy of not answering these questions. People have their own perspectives and often they are different from my own. People like what they like and that’s fair, I get that. But as I have stated I don’t like very many films made today. I wish I did, but I just don’t. The most very basic skills of communication are sorely lacking, in my opinion.

Is this true of everything? No. But I think it’s true of most stuff.

The reason I do the posts about films I like is so that I am not focused on the negative – it’s bad for me physiologically and it gives people the impression that I hate movies just for the sake of hating them if I only talk about the films I don’t like.

Furthermore, I understand the curiosity about asking me what I think about particular films, but I ask you to use the information on my blog and in my books to extrapolate what my thoughts might be on the films in question.

Thanks for understanding

Brian McD said...

Hello José,

Thank you so much for writing. It’s nice to know that someone as far away as Spain is a fan of what I do. Thanks for reading the books and the blog. I hope the new book does not disappoint.

And again, thanks for taking the time to write.

-- Brian

Brian McD said...

by the way, here is an old post of mine on this same subject:

Jonathan Moore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Moore said...

Hi Brian,

Thank you for the response. I understand your stance on the subject. After reading your post on simplicity a few times, and really thinking about at least one of the films I mentioned, it does seem that the 'point' of the story was missing. The other film however, did have very much of a point and armature. However, I do need to do much more searching through the latter to try to understand if it holds up to more scrutiny.

Thanks again,


p.s. Is there a chance we could correspond outside of the blog? Aka email, etc? I'd love to talk more if possible.

Anonymous said...


the visual reminders of the beauty of simplicity really help to hone in the point. I am especially struck by the image of the dark figure (I'm not familiar with his name) with the hat, gas mask, and dark hilt poking over his shoulder, illumanated by a dramatic blue sky backdrop. It is so simple, it is made stronger by lack of distractions.

This is so much harder to do: writing without writing about anything extraneous, but I tell myself that the more I hear you say this, more ingrained it will become in my mind and the more I will write with a fierce determination to state my armature and only my armature through my storytelling process.

Brian McD said...

Hello Elise,

Learning how to simplify is a life-long pursuit. The longer you live the better you will get at it. Don't look at it as a goal and start seeing it as a process. That will help take the pressure off, at the same time making sure that you are headed in the right direction.

And I'm glad you think the pictures helped. Thanks for letting me know.

imyjimmy said...


Thanks for the reminder. I ran into this recently.

Sometimes a scene will be totally unnecessary but it becomes so engrained in your ego's view of how to tell the story. But those are exactly the scenes you have to let go of.

It's the hardest thing to convince yourself to cut certain shots.

imyjimmy said...

Here's the weird thing about stories Brian. From what I've experienced when your ego tells the story usually it doesn't turn out too good. But when the story tells itself it's great. I'm not saying a story writes itself but sometimes (very rarely) it sure feels that way. You know that feeling? It feels like you're taking dictation from god himself.

And when it's over you wonder where in the hell that came from and how to ever get it back.

It's hard to put yourself in a state where simple ideas come to you.

kenzi said...

I have rewritten my comment again and again for the past hour. Because I find myself rambling on and on about irrelevant things, on a post about simplicity! Keeping things simple seems more difficult than coming up with something 'complex' that nobody can understand or follow (chuckle).

It was interesting to see the simplicity/no fat rule in other forms than just story. I don't quite understand the picture of the billboard though. The one that sais 'a 15km' The other examples made a lot of sense though.


ERIK said...


Shaaaa said...
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Mr FogG said...

Hi Mr McDonald i'm a follower of your blog and a big fan of your book, i mean you really opened my eyes about filmaking,and it made realise many things that i need to learn and apply in my work so here is an exemple of trying to apply those principles :)
hope you're like it , it's simple but well i'm still learning :)

Mr FogG

Brian McD said...

Mr FogG,

Thanks so much for the kind note about the blog and book.

Thanks too for sharing your film -- you should be proud of it. It's really nicely done. I'm proud to have inspired you in any way.

And for the record we are all still learning. The best people never stop learning.

-- Brian

Brian McD said...

Hey Sunny,

Thanks for commenting. I think it's funny that you had a hard time understanding the billboard because what it really proves is that it is REALLY hard to communicate with everyone.

-- Brian