Sunday, May 29, 2005

Mmm. Asset Library Geekout...

I have a side geek that enjoys thinking about pipelines in the Cg film production biz. My years as a CG Supervisor have tainted me.
Anyhow, I came across this neat presentation about the power of links and Tags in a wide spread data world as compared to rigid categorization. Studios that wish to survive in the ever increasing crunch of tighter production cycles and budgets will need to have a really kick-butt asset library. An asset library allows you to re-use things (models, textures, FX solutions, comps, motion libraries, etc.) from previous jobs without having to always start from scratch. One of the problems with a large asset library is catgorizing things. When I was at Blur they had (and still have I assume) a very large library of previously built stuff. Problem is often finding what you need in it as one tries to browse through a huge directory structure looking for just the right thing. Tagging a file with key words, and then using a Tag search engine to find what you need will allow Joe Modeler or Suzy Texturer to get what they need as simply as using Google.
Anyhow, you pipeline and asset library builders out there (no doubt a huge percetnage of the readership here. ahem) should read this article.

While we're talking about cool animation notes...

Clay has posted some really great notes on Planning for animation over on his Animation Podcast site. Clay's been animating at Disney for a while. He knows what he's on about. Go check 'em out!

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Andrew Gordon in Dallas

Friday night was another example of the growing animation culture here in Dallas, TX. Upon special invite from an unnamed local sponsor (we have our suspicions as to who...) Andrew Gordon, animator from Pixar, came by and gave a 2 hour presentation. The talk was organized by a local CG animation user group called "A Bunch of Short Guys". About 200 folks showed up to see Andrew give a talk about his approach to getting into a character's heart and head for a performance. It wasn't your usual "fundamentals" speech, but had some interesting bits that you don't often see covered in other animation informational materials. I most appreciated his thoughts on the very early work of getting into a character. My quick synopsis of this topic would be...

- study and understand all the motion mechanics of creatures like your character (he showed examples of fish video for Nemo)
- Spend time animating to match/emulate those motion mechanics on your character rig in order to integrate that understanding into your thinking. Build up your animation muscles to deal with that motion type.
- Start pushing the animated side of things, seeing where to exaggerate, push, condense and approach the realities of the motion from an animator's point of view. How to get the idea across in a clean, communicative manner that is leasing to see and projects your character. In other words, define the universe of style and motion for the character (and perhaps the whole film).
- Start working in unique personality traits into the motion, begin crafting those solutions that bring your character to life as a breathing, thinking, feeling "person" whom we can care about.

Anyhow, all good stuff that you don't see talked about everywhere and a great reminder of the importance of taking your time to get in deep. His notes on patterns was interesting. It's a term I'd not heard, but the principle was basic and solid from the core. From my understanding patterns can be summed up as the cumulative whole of your character's motion arcs & paths. The gyst being that you can use the idea of patterns of motion paths and arcs to "design" your motion to keep it interesting and pleasing to watch. Neat stuff. (and if I got that wrong, if any of you whiz kids over at Pixar wanna set the record straight, that'd be MOST appreciated. :o)

I think the entire DNA animation department was there and there were a good number of ReelFXanimators present as well. I'm sure there were other pro animators from the many game shops on hand, although I don't know any of them by face. I just like to see the community here expand. It'd be great to see Dallas (and Texas in general) become a flourishing alternative to living and working in uber-expensive California. Money goes further here and experienced talent is making its way here as artists mature and have families, etc. DNA's working their second film with others in the mix, ReelFX is moving into national commercial work as well as owned video properties and they have a feature in early development, Janimation is starting to make strides forward, plus there's Id Software (Doom franchise) among other game shops. In July Bobby Beck (formerly of Pixar, now of Animation Mentor) will be giving an all day master class here in Dallas.
Yeah, good to see the scene here start to blossom a bit.

Friday, May 27, 2005

It's a very small business indeed

I got to thinking about just how cool it is that I get to do what I do for a living. It got me to thinking just how small this niche really is. Check this out…

Based on various conversations and public data this is my very rough estimate of the number of professional character animators working in feature film animation/service studios in North America:

Disney Feature: 60
Dreamworks-Glendale: 40
Dreamworks-PDI: 40
Pixar: 80
Sony Imageworks/Animation: 60
ILM: 50
Digital Domain: 20
O-mation: 30
Blue Sky: 35
DNA: 30
CORE: 30
Rhythm & Hues: 20
Other feature film service shops (Tippett, Wildbrain, Orphanage, Hydraulix, Blur, Vinton, Warner Bros., ReelFX, etc.) approx 150.

Rough Est. Total: 650
Of course I'm not right on the money with these estimates, but as a ballpark number, I think this is a pretty good first whack. If I were to include other animation film studios outside North America like WETA, Animal Logic, Aardman and more my guess is the worldwide total of character animators working on top end film projects is less than 1,000 max.

Compare that to...

Number of professional football players on NFL team rosters: 1,696
Number of professional baseball players on MLB team rosters: 750
Number of professional basketball players on NBA rosters: 450
Number of air traffic controllers in the US: 675

On the other side of the coin, consider this:

2,000 Secret Service "special agents" in the US
7,250 jobs at sound recording studios in the US
15,600 locksmiths in the US
22,200 winery jobs in the US
28,600 taxi drivers in the US
35,000 jobs at nuclear power facilities in the US
69,900 graphic design service jobs in the US
71,000 museum jobs in the US
115,000 jobs in broadcast radio in the US
127,000 jobs in broadcast TV in the US
530,000 mining jobs in the US
593,000 insurance agents in the US
1mil law firm jobs in the US
2.58mil grocery store jobs in the US
2.9mil fast food jobs in the US


The numbers don't lie. I'm sure there are millions in this land who would love to be film animators. Only a few hundred are. Our work will be judged in the crucible of the market and under the unflinching review of our peers. We need to be at the top of our game, collectively and individually. Just like being a professional athlete is a special privilege and honor it's an equally high honor to work at this level in this field. It takes commitment, serious effort and a driving desire (on top of your God given talent) to be the best you can be. The ones who make it are among a special group. We should take that honor seriously, consider what it takes to not only get to this level, but to stay at it, succeed at it and excel at it. We are the very, very, very few who can say that we make animated films for a living. Take pride in that and work hard to maintain that honor.

OK, that oughta get your engine revving!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Nice to see...

Stumbled across this fun interview with Don Hertzfeld of Bitterfilms. When asked about his particular style of working on his films he replied..

yeah i just prefer working on stuff with my hands instead of a mouse.. for me its kinda like a choice between painting with a real brush versus a simulated one that you hold with chopsticks.. it's just a weird barrier between me and the piece. i don't think one set of tools is necessarily better than the other, you should just use what you're most comfortable with, and what serves your piece the best. i think computer animators sort of get the short end of the stick to some degree, since they work just as hard as traditional animators do yet there's so little understanding of how computers work that i think a lot of the awe is lost on most audiences today. years ago it seems like people used to go, "wow, how'd they do that?" a lot more, and have this great sense of wonder when they saw stuff like star wars. nowadays audiences all just seem to shrug and say, "i guess they just used a computer".. as though there's no reason to wonder anymore "how they did that"... as though computers have a "make art" button on them or something.

I think Don's one of the new geniuses of animated storytelling of this generation. That he uses (very) old school techniques is part of that style. But I just found it refreshing to see that here's this award winning animator who prefers to use techniques abandoned for decades and he doesn't have some kind of Holier-Than-Thou attitude toward Cg animators. Too many "old school" types like to spend all their time grousing about the evils of Cg animation. Nice to see that point of view isn't universal. Anyhow, check out the rest of the interview here. It's a fun read.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Not Too Shabby...

Since my last blog post was about my trepidation over what lay in wait for me when I went to see Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, I figured I'd drop a quick report on the experience.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Sure there were a few spots that made me kinda chuckle. "Nooooo!" Heh.
But overall I liked it. Certainly more than any of the other prequels. My two daughters and I chowed down a huge bag of pop corn and had a fun ride. And in the end, isn't that what this stuff's about? I was happy to let go and have fun. (I think most folks in movie theaters are.)
The VFX were excellent, the animated bits were pretty strong. The plot moved well, the tapestry of the story seemed to move a little better than the other prequels. So I'm glad my misgivings were misplaced. I think the series managed to get back onto its feet and finish strong. Not too shabby, indeed.

Sidenote: when it's 98 degrees and humid on a mid-May day in Texas, there's nothing better than a big jug of diet soda in an air conditioned movie theater with your kids. Well, except maybe a giant tub of diet soda sitting neck deep in the pool with your kids.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Mad Siths

Star Wars is out tonite. Across the world people are lining up to see midnight viewings of the last of George Lucas' episodes. I recall them fondly as a kid. Well, the first two, anyhow. By the time Jedi came out I was a teenager and I was starting to see the series as the kind of goofy space opera with cheesy dialog that it is. Still, the first 3 had a bit of style to them. But the recent flicks... ehh... whatever. I saw them, but never more than once or twice. Never bought the DVD's. Just kinda there. This one? Same verdict. I'll go see it, just cuz. But I'm not really jazzed to go see it. I'll wait a week to let all the Star Wars geeks get it out of their system. (Star Wars geeks, save your venom for somebody who cares. :o)

Now Madagascar... there's a film I'm actually pretty jazzed about seeing. Some of the animation in it looks really fun. After watching the clips recently released online I'm of the mind that I'm gonna like this one. Previous Dreamworks animated offerings haven't been my cup-o-tea. I've got plenty of friends who work for DW, so I hold no animosity toward the studio. It's just their flavor of animated film usually doesn't scratch my itch. They're obviously good projects that make them a ton of money and people like 'em. They don't "suck" like some people like to say. But I dunno.. they just never grabbed me. But here I think Madagascar's showing something that may have been missing from previous DW offerings: a consistent stylistic vision. This looks to be their most cohesively designed film yet. Compared to Sharktale it feels like it's coming from a different studio. I like design- it means something to me. I like to see characters living in an environment that feels like the two belong together. But I really like it when they design scenes to work well as images. Staging, lighting, drawing the viewer's eye to where it needs to go, not overwhelming it with clutter or colors that look like digital fake vomit all splattered on the screen. The clips of Madagascar I've seen feel really well constructed, scene upon scene of solid design, solid staging, clean visual animated filmmaking. It tells me the directors) have a vision for their world, the characters- it gives me hope for the story.
So count me as So-So on Sith. Sure I'll spend my money on it and take my older kids, we'll eat popcorn and enjoy it and then forget about it. But color me optimistically enthused to head out and see Madagascar the first day it's out. Something tells me this one's got something I'm gonna really like.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Heading to DNA

Never one to sit still, I've decided it's time for me to make a change in my life.

Again. :)

Starting the 31st of May I'll begin animating at DNA on their second feature film The Ant Bully.

My time at ReelFX was a fruitful one and I had a lot of opportunities to stretch and do many things there. I'm thankful for those opportunities and for the friendships I've made and the contributions I have had to the chance to offer the studio at a great time in it's growth. But after a while it became clear to me that I'm at a point in my life where I need to take a step back from supervising and directing so that I can better focus on my wife and 3 kids. In other words, I'm a bit crispy.
So when the opportunity came along to animate- and just animate- on a feature while staying here in Dallas, the timing was right for me. ReelFX is a wonderful place to work with great people. They're gonna be a player on the scene, you just know it. You can bet that they'll have their own feature film in a bit. But for now I'll need to root for them from the sidelines.

Meanwhile I'll be re-united with some old colleagues and friends from my Big Idea days. Mark Behm, Michael Comet, Joe & Michelle Gorski, Tom Danen and others (many others!). And I look forward to working with some other cool cats whose work I've followed through the years. There's plenty of talent over at DNA working on this film and that talent is gonna show up on the screen. It's been a while since I had the chance to take the time to animate at the top of my game without trying to keep a dozen plates spinning or putting out fires or sitting in meetings half the day. I'm excited to get started and I'm looking forward to coming home with some gas left in my tank for my family.

Anyhow, thankfully we don't have to move again! Even my commute time will be the same. It's cool to see that one can stay involved in great projects without having to try and find a way to make a living for a family of 5 in LA or San Fran. Pretty cool indeed.

Saturday, May 07, 2005


Clay over at Animation Podcast informs us of the passing of animaton legend Joe Grant. I feel terrible for Clay and for everybody who ever personally knew the man. I wish I would have had the opportunity to meet this extraodinary gentleman. His was a life so well lived that generations have been blessed by his influence.
If you don't know who he is, then you should take some time to learn. This link is a great place to start.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Alligators & Meteors

I think in terms of allegories and metaphors. Anybody who knows me knows I'm just always spouting off these things. When I worked at Big Idea, Dan Philips, our VP of production used to laugh whenever I brought something up in a meeting that used an allegory to make a point. He called it "Lango-Lingo". Heh.

Anyhow we were going over some scene planning the other day at work. One of the questions that came up was staging and how many different ways you can use the screen space in a single scene to stage a character and not belabor the point. I am usually of the mind that simpler is better. Stay with concise statements and limit the amount of things you're trying to say in any given scene. Now much of that is in the hands of the director or the story team, but as animators it's our jobs to be sure that we can make things better. Sometimes it's a good idea to suggest a break up to the director when a scene is feeling like it's trying to be too much. Anyhoo, the conversation turned to "Well, when is it too much to put into a scene?" And then I rattled off my allegory.

I like to think of animation as a visual language. We're trying to say something. It's the director's job to say something meaningful. It's our job to be his "speechwriters". Anyhow, I started to break down the idea of animation as a language this way. I drew parallels between spoken/written language and animation.

First up is "What do I have to say?" Whatever it is, it had better have some kind of meaning. Ed Hooks thinks of this as the shaman speaking to the clan. Don't draw the circle in the dust next to the campfire unless what you have to say brings meaning to those who gather to listen.
After that, we get into the particulars of how to say it. In literature you have these basic break outs, from global to granular:


Thinking in terms of animation, I came up with this connection:

Book= Film/Movie
Chapter = Act
Paragraph = Sequence
Sentence = Scene/shot
Word= Pose

I think it holds up. Think about a writer. Sometimes the difference between sublime and ordinary writing is the choice of words. Same with animation. The choice of poses, really working for the best ones to clearly connect the idea, is often the difference between so-so and OhmygoshHowDidTheyDoThat?! And a great scene is the combination of just the right poses, arranged in just the right order, to move you through the story. In that way I liken somebody like James Baxter to Ernest Hemingway. The beauty in both their work is they give you the right notes and nothing more. The perfect words/poses. The perfect combination with out fluff or chaff. Pure gold. And that's where this metaphor started to apply to our discussion about how much is too much for a given scene. A sentence is best when it says one thing clearly- or at the very least one thing at a time with clear markers between thoughts (parentheses). Same with a scene. I think it's best to get one idea across and do it well, or if multiple ideas are presented then be clear about the markers between them (animation parentheses?)
Now a scene may have mutliple sentences in the script, but those sentences are still just saying one thing from the character's POV. The subtext is singular, though the text may be convoluted. If you try to cram an entire paragraph into a single sentence it's a labor to read. If you try to cram too much into one scene you force your audience to endure a bit of a beating. Now, there are ways to move across multiple exchanges in a single shot/scene, but these have to be handled carefully. You must be able to clearly delineate the switch over to a new idea or point of subtext- most often by switching to a different character speaking as the scene turns on its narrative axis to move the story along. (animation commas? animation semi-colons?) If we aren't mindful of keeping the delineation from one idea to the next very clear then it ends up being a bit of a muggle- a run on sentence in animation if you will.
What do you think? Does this notion hold water or am I just all wet? I'd love to hear some other folks' thoughts on this concept.


Monday, May 02, 2005

Animation Meat Update!

I got a note from the guys over at telling me they've updated their site. Go by and check it out. It's a great update. Especially take a look at their Practice Section. They've got X sheet breakdowns of some dialog clips from various movies there for folks to practice with. I love their site. I think it's currently the coolest repository of animation stuff online for folks who are really into this. The Walt Stanchfield notes alone are worth the price of admission. So give Jon & Steve a holler and head on over for a heaping plate of AnimationMeat!

Animation Podcast

Now this is very, very cool.
The Animation Podcast blog site has it's first podcast out. It's a fun little 19 minute visit with renowned Disney animator Andreas Dejas and he talks about how he got into animation. It's really interesting to hear how he went through a lot of effort to learn how to animate in a day and age where resources for learning animation were few and far between and how he just studied the artform to learn what it takes. Kinda reminds me a bit of when I started.

The list of future guests sounds like it should be a great resource. These will no doubt become the de facto audio resources of animation illuminati today. Much like the old Milt Kahl recordings have been feeding studying animator's minds and imaginations since they were recorded over 20 years ago, my bet is that these podcasts will feed a new generation of animators who desire to hear and learn from the top of the field. Man, blogs, podcasts, forums, Animation Mentor- dude, is this is a great time to be a student of animation or what?!