Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Ahhh, wisdom!

I found this beautiful gem from an interview here with Pixar supervising animator Alan Barillaro...

3DA - When one animator get his shot the camera, timing,...used to be set so, which are the more common problems an animator have to deal with?

Alan - Often times I think inexperienced animators jump too quickly into the computer. Computers are a dangerous medium. You can "feel" like you're animating when you really aren't. What I mean to say is, it's easy enough to make something move around, but what about your acting in the scene? ?Who is this character, and where is he in the emotional arc of the film? Are you handling this shot in the most entertaining way possible? You know, there's a whole slew of questions that you need to ask yourself before you begin a scene. I think keeping yourself very disciplined as an actor and an artist is the most important thing to keep in mind. Anything decent I've figured out in a scene has come from doing a lot of homework up front. Nothing is going to come for free, especially on the computer.

Of course all this is far too true. I see a lot of animation, much of it sent to me by younger animators and even folks who are making a living from animation. So often I can see the evidences of this "Illusion of Progress" (to borrow and pervert a book title) in the work I'm shown.

To the best of my knowledge the computer is the first animation medium that allows animators to see things moving without any real work. You can literally see something move within a minute of opening and working on a scene on the computer. By contrast in hand drawn the animator has no timeline and no realtime rendered puppets. They must plan their scenes before they do anything. I mean really, really plan. Think of the timings, the poses, the actions, the acting- all of it must be planned. That's because every single key frame must be physically drawn to define the performance. You can't draw something of any use without a plan. It's not until after a bunch of planning and then a bunch of drawing (which forces thinking) that a traditional animator can go shoot the drawings and time them in a pencil shooter to even begin to see the characters in pose and in time. The magic of seeing their decisions play out in glorious movement in front of a 2d animator is delayed by hours, often days! And even then there's no 'tweens, just held drawings- no cheap and easy spline interps. All this manual effort and delayed gratification absolutely forces thinking and planning. And that's a good thing- probably the best thing.

However with a computer it's as easy as grabbing and moving a control, setting a few keys and hitting "play". If you have a fast graphics card, a light rig and are a big fan of autokey you can slop in a lot of movement and see it played back within minutes. Speed! But at what cost? Not much thought is required to do that. We're impatient. I know I was in the beginning. But I am thankful that I learned Cg animation on slow computers lo these many years past. It forced me to have the discipline necessary to think my scene through. And even then I didn't think enough. So yes, we CG animators are an impatient lot. As a result, we tend to get a bit lazy. We see results that don't have much thought behind them and we're mesmerized by the movement. Loooooook. It moves! Cool! Here let me fix this little thing. Play again. Oooh! It looks so pretty when it moves. Here, lemme tweak this bit here. Play. Ooooo! Repeat ad infinitum. Next thing you know it's 3 days later and we've laid in a ton of work on top of a horribly weak foundation. We get sucked down a rabbit hole, tweaking poorly planned motion on un-thinking acting choices. We polish tin. This is the horrible thing about tin- no matter how much you polish it, you can polish it so you can see your reflection- it's still cheap, thin, tin. But gold is found by digging deep, and the digging is in planning your scene.

First spend time thinking about your character's motivations, their story, their drive, their negotiation. Then think how that looks for the key frames (a tragic language casualty in the computer age, but that's a post for another day). Then think how to get into those key storytelling moments. Break it down. Think it through. Sketch. Find the poses, try alternates, push them, try variations. All with a pencil. I don't care if you think you "can't draw". Do it anyway. It'll force you to think, and that's the goal. With time you'll get better, so just stop hemming and hawing and just pick up a stupid pencil already. (I swear if i read one more thread in some forum on whether it's important for a computer animator to know how to draw I'm gonna go to the corner store buy a gallon of bleach and drink it). Then think of the breakdowns- yes, try and plan/sketch the breakdowns. Think, dig, search, plan, explore, decide, analyze, deconstruct, express, execute. In that order. Perhaps some of the best advice I've heard from an old time traditional animator (and I forget who said it) is this: Spend half your time planning, the other half you time doing. The first reaction to that is "Half?! I can't afford half. How about ten minutes?" I'll be honest, for many of us we don't even take that ten minutes and it shows in the work.

I dunno. The longer I have been animating the more I see that planning is doing. The best technique, the finest polish, the tightest arcs and sweetest technicals in motion are all for nothing if you spend your time pouring all that energy into acting and performance that hasn't been thoroughly searched, pushed, explored, explained and planned.
Anyhow, something to chew on.



Darrin Hofmeyr said...

Absolutely true - when I started animating after college, I jumped straight in and moved things without planning. It took me a while to realise what I was doing wrong and then start planning, but ever since then I have not looked back. My shots are so much better for it.

Matt Kelly said...

Great stuff,
Being a wannabe animator myself, i often find myself jumping in over my head and thinking that the work just looks wrong and not being able to correct it like this incredibly long run-on-sentence that i didn't think about until after i started. Without planning my sentence falls apart easily and is difficult to mold back into what i actually wanted. I have to learn that planning is not wasting time. It's animating!

Chad said...

It's so true that people get sucked in by the computer and think that they are animating, when they are just "polishing tin" as you say. I think it goes deeper than that too. There are artists in other mediums that get caught up in the tech. Begining photographers with expensive new cameras, who still dont understand making intersting images for example.

Also a side note: I had a director once who saw me planning out a shot on paper, and he said to me "I dont pay you to make pretty little pictures, I pay you to animate - get back to work". He ment get back on the computer!

I have a million stories about that guy, but I'll take the some-what high road ;)

Also I like your note about those who "can't draw". I find myself falling into that trap sometimes. Just gotta do it. Again and again. It's called practice.

Nye said...

Keith - About drinking the bleach. You don't need to run to the store for it. Amazon carries it for 2.99, and its shipped right to your door.

Keith Lango said...

Cool! Thanks for the link, Nye. Just discovered you can buy canned peaches on Amazon right from the comfort of your own home. I see my weight ballooning to over 600lbs by Christmas. But even in my advanced state of Jabba-the-Huttness I'll still think Cg animators should learn to get comfortable with a pencil.


Virgil Mihailescu said...

Please don't go drinking bleach or anything like that Keith, please. Just stop reading animation threads and you'll be fine... :)

Charlie Bonifacio said...

It's nice to hear support for mining the grey matter with a pencil. With the whole industry following the money into digital, it is a difficult task to convince animators and students across the spectrum that the intuition and analysis tool that drawing brings alive cannot be replaced by technology. For me it is nice to hear that from people who have lived in the digital world say it from their perspective. I haven't animated with a mouse yet, but I can hear the wheels turning in your description of the skewed routine.

Thanks Keith,
It means a lot, and thanks to James Robertson who linked me to your site,
Charlie Bonifacio

Keith Lango said...

Hey, great to have you stroll by for a visit, Charlie! I'm honored to have a battle tested vet of the animation biz stop by for a coffee and a read. If you haven't animated with a mouse yet, I'd encourage you to avoid it as long as possible. Heh. Actually it's not that bad. You just have to take a slightly different tack to the task- it's more of a highly polished stop-mo approach than a hand drawn one. We still need to plan and think and draw, but the puppets are still so very limited in what they can do from a line quality standpoint. It's getting better, but it's still a tedious game compared to just drawing things. I see the interface for CG animation actually shifting away from mice and more to Wacom pens in the coming years. Even so, there'll always be a measure of the clunky technical side that will be there, taunting us. Anyhow, thanks for the comment and thanks for dropping by. I hope to see you around these parts again. :o)

gibby said...

Pencils, paper, it. I know that when I use a pencil to animate a character reaching, bending, twisting, etc, I can feel the action in my body through the pencil. When you have tha kind of connection to your character, the computer is exposed for it's shortcomings. What were Rutger Hauers final words in Blade Runner? "Give me more life...!!" ;)