Sunday, March 27, 2005

Supervising animator?

Here's something interesting. Or at least I think it's interesting.

A while back I had a conversation with a (remote) co-worker. Fella named Ken Duncan. Good egg, been around the animation scene a long time. Good Canadian stock, too. Highly regarded in the field for his talent and really, really great animation. You know his work even if you don't know his name. He was the supervising animator for Meg in Hercules, Jane in Tarzan and other fun Disney films. He was at WDFA from nearly the beginning of the 90's rennaissance of animation. He most recently was a sequence lead on Sharktale where he brought his skill to the Angie character, for which he received an Annie nom this year. Anyhow, Ken knows his stuff. His work methods make some Cg animators cringe in fear (that's an entire series of posts in itself!), but you cannot deny- dude knows how to animate a character really, really well.

Anyhow, he was in Dallas for a short animator's training session a while back. We were talking about ways to structure a feature film crew for a potential film project we have brewing at the studio. The interesting thing he brought up was how traditional animation and CG animation have completely different views on the roles of supervising animators. Here's a quick breakdown:
For decades upon decades in traditional animation, the supervising animator was the person who led a team of other animators in animating a single character. A former workmate of mine from Big Idea days, Tom Bancroft, was the Mushu supervisor on Mulan when he was at Disney. (sidenote: Tom's twin brother Tony was the co-director of Mulan. How would you like to have your brother as your boss? Tony went on to be the animaton director for Stewart Little 2. But the weird thing for me was seeing two men, 6'4" tall in their mid 30's who look exactly the same! We're used to seeing twins as kids now and then. But when you see them as adults, it boggles the mind. Well, it boggled this mind.) Anyhow all he did was Mushu. Mushu, Mushu, Mushu. The Mushu Team was maybe 10-15 people (including assistants). In traditional animation the supervising animator is the de facto expert on the character they are in charge of. In essence, they are the character. They define how to draw the character, often times they even design the character (Andreas Dejas designed many of the characters he supervised). They help discover and set forth who the character is, how they act- everything. No other supervising animator is responsible for that character (unless it was a major major character that needed more than one team to do) and except for the odd occasion, no animator who wasn't on the team animated that character. It's a pretty single minded focus. If you're on the "team", you also have this single minded focus of character. You do Mushu. Everyday. Occasionally you'd do another character, but I've been told it felt awkward when that happened. Maybe Tom was expressing the awkwardness of being one of twins who both went into feature animation for Disney. Who knows...

In CG films, it's not quite the same. A supervising animator (in most CG shops) is a person who has a team and they're responsible usually for a chunk of the project as a whole. Or maybe no particular chunk of the film at all. That's been my experience. Here's a team. Here's some mix-mash of scenes, make sure the stuff looks good and is in on time. At best maybe they're a sequence lead or somesuch. But then they and their team are responsible for all the characters in that section of film. The number of animators "touching" a character is much higher. There may be character leads (example: Bobby Beck, formerly of Pixar now of Animation Mentor, was the character lead for Boo in Monsters Inc. and Nemo in Finding Nemo), but the character leads are often just resource guys. They don't focus only on their character. They also animate just about every character in the film. (a quick look at Bobby's reel points this out to be the case).

Now based on the brief explanation of the two systems, which one do you think will yield more consistent character performances?

We'll pick this discussion up again in a bit. There might be something here.



Mike Feil said...

I really like the angle you are taking with some of your posts Keith. I really got whacked out when I read the 'illusion of life' a couple of months ago and they went through the whole deal with there traditional super's. When did this methology get lost along the way to CG animation. Keep up the good work, I'm thoroughly enjoying them :)

Anonymous said...

I would think that if all the animators within the team are good, then there would be no worries for everyone to animate a shot or two of a certain character.

the main issue here is the character personality staying consistent throughout the film, but maybe a good idea in the pre production stage would be to have animators do some acting tests with characters, sometimes, an animator nails down a character really well, this could point out some guidelines for when you need to assign shots to animators.

of course, you need to have the director and directing animator to work out every aspect of the characters personality before any test are being done.

Lars van Schagen said...

You have a point Keith you really do. But hinting at the possibility that by not being exclusivly appointed to one character your making generic animation? Is'nt that goin a bit far? Btw it's very subtle anyways the audience won't know it and Disney films aren't allways in character either it's allways subtle... i know it would do the studio system some good but it would also train animators too let go of they're character and concentrate on doing other characters it's very strenuous on some animators too think that way all day. And i think youll make animators think too much about charcacter which will in turn restrict they're thinking about that character. They'll start boxing in a character and that will inturn lead too animators limiting themselves... Also because an animator cant step away from a project I think PIXAR is right in doing it they're way. Btw just because disney did it in the old days does'nt mean they'd do it now! Walt Disney never liked standing still he was allways pushing people to do more and to do it better and he wasn't a dummy so i think yes you have a point but i also think that in some studios this kind of thinking would be counterproductive.

D Bokser said...

I've been thinking about this for awhile too. Lars, while yeah, an animator might feel "boxed in" not doing other characters, I think the old methodology allows animation to be more about acting instead of about mechanics. Imagine working on a character day in and day out until the film is done - it's exactly how an actor must feel in their roles. Working on one character, you must really get a feel for them and the animation becomes more about the performance.

I wasn't around in those days, and it's a shame I missed em. Good posts, Keith, they always get me thinking.

Lars van Schagen said...

Yeah, someobody who agrees! But anyways i think with the propper counseling or supervision anyone could do multiple characters. Anyways one note extra i also think if Pixar in any way does not feel in character that it may be because it's 3d. Not to be an asshole but some shots sometimes feel slightly dead this is minor, really not noticible but you get it. Esspecially in crowds and extreme close ups...

And it's not because i hate em or think they stink or whatever, it's just because it's 3d and 3d is hard tough animation stuff even when it's like up there it still feels computery. 3D animation needs to be so much more detailed to make it believable. Has anyone else noticed this or am i ranting like a madman?!

And yes Keith it's a strong point it really is just letting my brain waltz over your thoughts.

greetz Lars

Ethan said...

You make a good point about being boxed in. This method works great if your animating on one of the lead characters. If you were able to animate only Woody in Toy Story for example, and you were able to focus only on his character & his rig you'd get to know Woody really well. I think that this method would help you to create a really great performance with him. But let's say you were on the Slinky Dog team. This method would still allow you to create a great performance on Slinky Dog, but because his character isn't on screen as much, and he doesn't go through as much of a character arch in the film then this would kinda suck.

Computer Animation studios don't split up by character mostly due to technical reasons. I feel like these reasons could be solved if people would work on them. But ultimately the film has to be done on time and on budget. To keep on budget, right now splitting characters doesn't make as much sense, performance or not. I think it's a big challenge to the animator to constantly switch gears when jumping between characters. As an animator I'd love to be able to focus on one character, but I don't think it's really that bad to switch either. Switching allows you to become more well rounded as an animator. But as an animator you have to make a conscious effeort to know who the character is.

As far as applying the lead assistant method from traditional animation to computer animation, I don't think this works at all. It works for traditional animation because of the way that traditional animation is made. It doesn't work for computer animation for the same reasons. A mentor mentee method works a lot better for computers. (You don't see stop motion animator making key poses and having assistances jump in to do the in betweens, why would computers be any diffrent?) We should all be striving to be the best animators that we can be, not the best assistance.

Keith Lango said...

Well, I'm certainly not advocating a switch. I just merely asked the question- which method holds more potential in the end result (the performance, not necessarily our work day experience)? I haven't given my answer yet because, honestly, I don't have one. I'm far from decided on the whole issue. My background is as a CG animator. But I guess I'm willing to look back and see if we tossed out any babies with the pencil water.

Usually folks stick with something if it works. The reasons for abandoning a methodology or techique are few and well defined.

a) it doesn't work anymore
b) a better one has arrived
c) a cheaper one has arrived

With the advent of CG I think the determining factor was technology. In other words, Option A above- the dedicated character team didn't work in the CG pipeline. Early pipelines didn't handle multi-user files well at all. But that call was made a dozen years ago. We've gotten better with technology. With advanced control or joint data caching and publishing pipelines being the norm on high end productions, the technological impass has been breached. Two or more people can work on the same scene at the same time and not overwrite each other anymore. So if the reason we chucked the character team was because it didn't work anymore, now that it CAN work, I think it's not a bad thing to ask, hey, should we bring it back? Again, I don't know. But I don't want to be afraid to ask.
Great discussion! Keep 'em coming.

Anonymous said...

I prefer the system where the animators work on the shot rather than individual character teams. This character team system has only been used at Disney on the more recent films and is not the way it always was done. During the 70's the nine old men worked on multiple characters in a film. We used the shot based system at Bluth where you animated all the characters in the shot (certain people became the defacto experts on different characters and you would go to them for advice and drawings).

The biggest problem with character teams is the logistics. You have to have multiple people working on the shot which complicates things. You also get ego battles with people trying to hog the shot and have their character take over the scene. I remember one guy who was the third guy to get a shot and the nightmare it was for him to fit his character into the tiny little space left for him by the lead and the animator who had the scene before him. It is not just a technology thing it is a communication thing.

If you have a ton of time and oodles of money go with the character teams. If you want to get something done use the other method.

I think Ken's perspective on this is biased on this since he's been a lead for a while. Leads get first bite on a scene and don't have to deal with the pain of following up on someone elses work. They also usually take the juicey single character acting scenes so they don't usually have to deal with the logistics of multi-character scenes. If I were a lead I would prefer the character team system as well, but as a regular line animator I prefer the other system.

Keith Lango said...

And I think those are big issues- that back and forth between people for every single scene and the costs involved. Ensemble shots must be a nightmare. I'm glad to have somebody chime in who's lived that way to offer some perspective. Having never worked in traditional animation professionally I'm left to interpret what others tell me. And yes, everybody has their biases. I'll admit that so far the Cg animated films don't seem to be suffering terribly under the current system of one animator for all major characters in a scene. I mean I can see some scenes where it's a bit obvious, but overall it does seem to be working.

The Cg animated film era is about 12 years old now. A dozen years have passed and I guess it's evident that we've cemented a different paradigm. Now we're again asking the same A-B-C questions, but this time about the new method. It does seem the current system is working. So A is out. Has a better one arrived? Dunno. Seems that's open for debate. So B is a wash. The cost issue of C is the kicker. I can see how a dedicated team system (along with the assistant system, which is a different topic) would end up costing a bunch. But it's not like CG films are being done much cheaper than the big budget 90's Disney flick. The difference though seems to be that CG films spend a bunch more money on technology. So that money's gotta come from somewhere. Streamlining the animation process seems to be a good place to start.
And speaking for myself I do enjoy working out the back and forth between two characters in a scene, managing the handoff, the negotiation. I like owning that entire enchilada. But it's been good to explore the topic of different ways of doing things, kick the idea around, see if it holds water. Thanks for the great comments everybody! Good stuff.


Lars van Schagen said...

But in which way does CG animation fail with characters? Do you who work on such productions think it's mainly because you can't get a focus on a character specifically? Or is it the time or technique that makes it difficult?

Btw i can imagine not working on one character may be frustrating but if it's a couple of characters who are scripted to be friends it would then be advantagous to animate em all. Esspecially since you can then work on the shared quirks these friends immitate from each other, or the shared feelings they have friends often immitate each other.

Mmm sorry if i came over hostile did'nt mean it.

greetz Lars

Rick May said...

And to further confuse matters. Sometimes studios freely exchange the titles of Supervising Animator and Animation Supervisor. They really have different meanings, however that doesn't stop a lot of facilities from calling one the other and vice versa. Goes to show that roles and titles don't always mean what they sound like they mean at every place out there.

I believe that Pixar tried to put an animator or group of animators on one character for the entire film on one of their projects. At least that is what my horrible memory is telling me. I don't think it worked out very well since it has been abandoned since. CG animation is much different than traditional animation in so many ways. You can't use the same techniques from the hand drawn stuff and expect it to work in the 3D world.

If you ask me, financially speaking, it doesn't make much sense to put an animator or group of animators on one character throughout the production.