// Temple of the Seven Golden Camels
When I was at CalArts many years ago, my teachers would use the words "sincere" and "sincerity" often. I know Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston used these frequently words as well when speaking about animation. These words aren't used very often anymore (at least in my experience), and I've been thinking about them a lot lately. Maybe it's a good time to bring them up again.
The dictionary definition of "sincere" is free from pretense or deceit; proceeding from genuine feelings.
Some great advice on the importance of the subject from Ollie Johnston: "you have to make it sincere, so that the audience will believe everything they do, all their emotions. Ask yourself: 'what is the character thinking and why does he feel this way?'"
Sincerity is an elusive quality and hard to define, but very important to what we do. The films and characters that come from a real place and feel grounded and sincere will stand the test of time and be enjoyed by audiences for decades to come. Over the years there have always been snarky, insincere movies and they just don't touch audiences or live on in people's memories the way a really sincere story will. There's nothing wrong with those kind of movies, of course, but our goal in animation is usually to create stories that stand the test of time. And sincerity is key to accomplishing that goal.
I think the word sincerity has fallen out of fashion in the animation community, and I feel like when I use the word sometimes people roll their eyes. I think this is because, over the years, people have begun to associate the word sincere with things that aren't actually sincere at all, but are instead saccharine, cloying or overly earnest.
The definition of "saccharine" is excessively sweet or sentimental. The definition of "cloying" is to disgust or sicken someone with an excess of sweetness, richness, or sentiment.
I think that those of us in animation are wary of the word "sincere" because so many animated films over the years have tried to mimic the tone and feel of the best Disney movies and many of them have missed the mark. Many of these films have an overly sweet and sappy tone and feel completely insincere. Some people even have an impression that Disney films tend to be sappy or saccharine. I don't think they are (at least not the best ones). Over the years, Disney story people and animators have always tried to find the real, true feelings at the heart of every story and build our stories and characters on real emotions.
Also, the best Disney films don't shy away from the darker, more frightening parts of life. I think that's one mistake people can fall into that can cause a story to feel saccharine: they gloss over any actual conflict or potentially dark part of their story. That can make a film feel too overly earnest and create a feeling of insincerity. The best Disney movies find a way to deal with darkness and tragedy in a tasteful way that isn't overly heavy-handed or manipulative. That's another way for a film to become insincere: if the audience feels like you're exploiting something dark or tragic to force them to feel an emotion. Great film makers have a deft touch and can lead you into feeling what they want you to feel without you realizing what they've done. It's not easy, but it's key to what we do, and sincerity is very important to pulling it off.
So keep "sincerity" in mind as you work. There's no easy way to grasp what it means or implement it, but here are a few thoughts that might help you in that area:
No matter how fantastic or imaginative a world you're creating, your story and characters should always have a least a glimmer of basis in your experiences to ground everything. It's always best to base your stories and characters off of real people you know and real emotions that you've felt. If you're trying to express an emotion in your work that you don't understand or haven't felt, it just isn't going to feel real.
Don't ever base your work on what someone else has done. Copying someone else's work always falls flat and feels insincere. There have been a few distinctive animators over the years that have developed a unique style because it came out of their individual taste and personality. When someone else tries to imitate that style, it never feels sincere. Similarly, when a storyteller creates a story because they were inspired by another story, that always feels insincere and you can always tell. Dig deep into your own tastes and feelings to create something original. The world doesn't need clones of something that already worked once. The world always needs fresh ideas.
When you're being sincere, you will sometimes feel vulnerable. You might worry that people will laugh at you or mock you because you are putting real emotions on the page. I think that's why so many snarky and sarcastic stories are created: nobody ever mocks anyone for being sarcastic. People who are snarky and sarcastic are often revered for being cool and hip. It always seems more cool to not care about anything. But it'll never lead to a story that goes to a deep level or touches people.
As screenwriter John Milius once said, "It's easy to be cynical. It's hard to be corny."
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