Monday, February 27, 2006

Pose to Pose Tutorial: Now in Dutch!

It started out as such a cute litte tutorial. Sweet and innocent, homebound and happy with being just a good ol’ American boy. Then he got ideas in his head. Wanted to see the world, he said. Wanted to expand his horizons, he said. Wanted to visit new lands, learn new languages, he said. Well, the cute little tutorial has grown up now and it just keeps learning new languages.

Thanks go out to Lars Johanson van Schagen for his fine work in translating the Pose to Pose tutorial into Dutch. As far as I can tell he did an excellent job. But then I admit that my dutch is a bit rusty. So all you dutchmen, flying or not, go check out the Pose to Pose toot in your native tongue and sing and dance and drink grog. Or something like that.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Goodbye, Blogger

Well, I finally did it. I’ve made the switch to Wordpress. I just wasn’t ever comfortable with the idea that half the content on my site was on Blogger’s servers and not my own. Plus WP just has some nifty features that I’ve been looking to add to my blog. So you know what this means….

Time to update your RSS feeds for my blog/site.

Yes, I know, it seems I do an RSS switch every 3 months. But this time it’s for good. I think. So point your aggregators and feeders to this new RSS link…

I hope you guys find the new-ish look suitable to your tastes. I kinda like the brighter, more airy feel of it.

Thanks for playing along. Upward and inward!

It feels good to move again..

Thanks to the urgings of fellow DNA animator and Animation Mentor Scott Lemmer, I've been playing hockey again (I play goalie. Yes, I like to get in front of objects moving at high velocity). Scott has been bugging me to get back out on the ice again For a good while I begged off, being woefully out of shape and probably 20lbs too heavy. Thankfully I eventually gave in and went out for a little shoot around (thanks, Scott!).
So far it's just been a few weeks of pick up games at the rink, but I can feel my game coming back a bit. I played tonight and I didn't utterly stink. I only mostly stunk. Heh. The last time I had played was over 3 years ago back in Chicago. That was 4 studios ago! I stopped playing when I got a deep bone bruise on my elbow from a wicked slapshot that this Czech player unloaded on me. After 3 years off the ice I'm a bit rusty (to say the least!). And at age 37 I know my best years are well behind me. But it's been great to move around again. Animation is a bad career to be in if you're genetically inclined to wear some extra pounds like I am. So the exercise is great and it's good to be playing again. I know there are a lot of hockey playing animators out there. It'd be cool if we could all have a pick up game during Siggraph or something. You know up in Boston (where Siggraph is being held this year) there will be plenty of rinks to choose from.

ps: No, that's not a picture of me. It's just a pic of my hometown team's goalie and I thought it looked good. I don't have any pics of me in my goalie gear. Plus I couldn't stretch out like that without breaking something anyhow.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hosting Switch

Just a head's up... This site, my RSS feed and my email for might behave a bit flakey over the next couple days. For a variety of reasons I'll be switching my site host to a different service that has better pricing and more storage. Based on my previous experience that means that for some folks the site/email/RSS might come up as not valid until all the name servers around the globe are all updated with the new DNS addresses. The DNS name servers should be all updated in the next 3-4 days, so no worries. Everything should be all groovy by early next week.

I hope. *gulp*

After that's done I'll be working on my conversion to Word Press as my new blog service. Blogger is OK, but WP offers a bit more flexibility and does a better job of remote FTP blog hosting (a consistent problem for me while using Blogger). So hopefully that all goes smoothly as well. My goal is to be done with all the technical mumbo jumbo for my site by March 1st. We'll see how it goes.

Monday, February 20, 2006

"Life After Pose to Pose", Now in French!!

Thanks to Florent Perrin for his graceful translation of my article "Life After Pose to Pose" into French. Yay! So if you are of the French persuasion, or if you are a resident of Quebec, go and read the article in your native language and rejoice!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


This stuff is too good to pass up! A gallery of 1950's uber-saturated advertising utilizing deranged children. Oh my.


Sunday, February 12, 2006

Confidence in blocking

Lately at work when I've been given a more acting oriented scene (ie: one that isn't a big action sequence with a dozen characters in it) I've been experimenting with really filling out my blocking. And I mean just throwing caution to the wind and packing it with info. It's been a lot of fun to start to see just how much I can put into the scene right from the start. Earlier on in the project I'd only block the major key pose hits, unsure of my process (since I hadn't been a fulltime animator in a number of years). Then after I got comfortable with what the director wanted and I figured out how to accomplish in my work what I wanted to do in my head I started adding in major breakdowns and other info. As time has gone by and I've gotten more comfortable with my process and what they're looking for, and as I know who the characters are more I find my first pass blocking is just packed to the rim. I'm thinking through the way I'm handling the scene and I'm putting what I know is needed in there. Major keys, major breakdowns, sub-breakdowns, ease in, ease out, overshoots, settles, anticipations, end of moving holds, facial expressions, even lipsync- it's all there, all in stepped/held tangents. For a simple 2 second dialog scene I'll put out a blocking pass that has 15-25 held frames for each character (I think of them as 'drawings', even though they're just renders of the puppet on the 'puter). And the best part is that it's been just about the most fun I've ever had animating. And from the standpoint of getting things bought off byu the director it's been working out really well, too.

While it sounds like a huge risk to do so much work in first pass blocking before ever showing it to the director, I have found that if anything it makes for less work in the end. I think it has a lot to do with confidence. The more time I put into that blocking the better my shots are overall. My buy off from the director comes far more frequently, too. I feel like I'm giving him the clearest possible insight into what I want to do with the scene. He doesn't have to guess and I don't have to explain with words what my blocking isn't showing (a fairly common thing that happens. "Yeah, I'm gonna add a head shake right there and he'll be swinging under for that move."). I research the scene, then I animate the shot in my head. I'll do a fair amount of sketching to break it down, to understand how to get through each part of the action. Then in the computer I simply seek to express these found ideas in held 'drawings'. For me it's all about finding something strong inside me that I can put into the scene. I have bannished the old wishy washy "I hope he likes this" kind of thinking when I block. Because I'm doing my homework before I show it to the director I go in believing that what I am showing is the best possible way to do the scene. I have the confidence to put this much work into it up front believing the director will see my vision for the scene and will buy into it. And you know, more often than not he does. Maybe it's just because I'm a cocky son-of-a-gun. I dunno. But to me this whole idea of having confidence in your choices, in believing that you are putting forward the best possible way to do the scene, it has a lot to do with it. If you come to dailies with a half baked blocking and you're kinda having to explain what you want to do with the scene with this sort of apologetic tone, man... it's no wonder why you would get notes like crazy!

Like many folks I've been digging through the history of other great animators. The notes and recordings from guys like Milt Kahl are a real inspiration,. Now if you want to talk about a confident fella you need look no further than Milt. I get the sense that Milt was pretty well convinced that he was the best animator on God's green earth. When it came to a scene Milt was persistent in thinking it through from all angles. And once he knew what he wanted to do, well dangit if he didn't believe down to the core of his soul that when he settled on a way to do a scene that was the best way on earth to do that scene. Period. And you know what? He was usually right. And he wasn't the only one who thought that way about his work. Sure he denegrated his own draughtsmanship, but that just shows he knew what his weaknesses were. Knowing your weaknesses and acknowledging them isn't a lack of confidence. If anything it allows you more confidence because you're dealing from a position of understanding rather than ignorance. Read notes and quotes from other great animators from the past as well. Thomas, Johnson, Jones, Avery, Clmapett... they almost all seem to have this innate confidence that the way they decided to do something was the best way possible at the time. They spend half their time thinking how to do it, then they did it, rarely looking back and wondering pensively "Gee, should I have done this here?"

For many of us who started off animating in CG we were kinda spoiled a bit. CG animation allows us to kinda 'find things along the way'. Since the whole thing is always right there and you can go anywhere in time and add things we didn't need to develop the disciplines of thinking things through first before we drew them. I knew I didn't and I see this discipline lacking in just about every young animator I've ever known. Traditional animation did not exist until the animator drew a few drawings first and then rolled them. And you can't draw anything useful for animation without first thinking and knowing what it is you want to draw. But the computer always had an endless supply of drawings for us, displayed in all its OpenGL glory. So we got used to working with sloppy ideas, ill defined concepts and we got used to making it up as we went along since we never were required to think about the image before it appeared. A far too common approach is to rough some really weak poses in, let the curves ride as splines, scrub and see how it looks, adjust, react, finesse. That kind of approach can be very comforting. If a scene's not working in blocking, well, no worries, I have 4 more days and I can fix it "in animation". Sometimes the results are inspired, amazing, loose and fresh. And sometimes the results are a half baked mish mash of a dozen different ideas which don't work well together. Often I'll see talented young animators get sucked down a rabbit's hole that just kills them when they come at things like this. With no confidence in the idea from the start, they're open to every shifting of the breeze. A bad night's sleep and they're doubting their approach to a scene. A few minor notes from the director and they think the whole thing needs to be trashed and started over. A co-worker's well intentioned (but not thought through) suggestion can send them off on a tangent for hours. With no solid foundation to build on the door for major changes stays open almost until the deadline for the shot- or beyond. Not having a plan they take perfectly good motion, actions, timing or poses and muddle them up with layered in fluff that waters down the original impact of the moment. Perfectly good choices that have been established early on are thrown out because they're not used to having success with a scene so early in the process. I know at one time or another I've struggled with this. In all of this waffling I see a certain lack of confidence.

Confidence best comes from a solid mixture of past success, open minded inquisitiveness, present effort and diligent forethought/planning. Look at your past success and know that you have the ability to make good stuff. Keep an open mind to see as many potentialities as you can. Put in the effort on your current assignment and don't cut corners when thinking about how to do a thing. And when you have settled on an approach, think it through, work out the details, understand how it can be done and how you will do it right down to the core. Putting all of this together allows you the ability to move forward with confidence. If you can honestly say you put in the effort and seriously thought through as many potential possibilities as you could think of, that you settled on the one approach that you believe to be the single best one and then dug down deep into how that one approach will will work from beginning to end then you are free to go and enjoy your work, walking with confidence. And when you bring that work to someone to get their buy off it's almost like they can sense your confidence and they trust that you're gonna bring it on home with flying colors.

And hey, why not?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Hoodwinked Effect: Part II

In my last post I ran down some of the deleterious side effects of the arrival and success of the cheap CG feature film. The most noteworthy of these effects is the inevitable downward drag on production budgets for larger feature films. Many folks believe the result of that will likely be job cuts, wage losses, declining space for creativity & craftmanship and heightened work quotas. All things that would basically make this job not as fulfilling as it could be. The current lightning rod for this new breed of cheap CG animated film is the successful (and still rolling along) Hoodwinked from Weinstein Studio.

Some folks think it's a horrible travesty that the film is doing well. Others are pleased. Personally I'm more interested in the ancillary effects than the actual film itself. As a film, a story and as a piece of theatrical artistry Hoodwinked doesn't have much to offer me for my $8 movie ticket. But that's just me and my taste. I have felt the same way about a lot of films that others think are great. I certainly don't begrudge Hoodwink's success. And even though I personally am not interested in it, it's continued success in theaters is evidence that a strong audience exists for the film. And I think that's a good thing. A very good thing.

Let's face it. Aside from the occasional Incredibles or Wallace & Gromit, the big budget animated film business is stuck in a bit of a rut. To a certain degree it has been for 50 years. Due to the astronomical costs of making these films the investors demand a sizeable return on their money (and rightly so). To get a bigger return, you need a bigger audience. Thus you aim right down the middle of the road. The tried and true. The easiest way to get a bigger audience is to do what big audiences have responded to before. This editorial on Slate puts this reality in stark light. The economics of big budget animated films is a double edged sword. On one edge you have the money to pursue a higher level of craftsmanship in the final product. Good for those of us in the trenches making the thing. The other edge is more often than not you can't do anything even remotely capable of being misunderstood by a large audience made up of mainly suburban children and their parents. Dull for those of us in the trenches. Thus sophisticated storytelling, or premises, or themes or artistic styles that aren't as middle of the road & homogenized as a McDonald's Happy Meal rarely stand much of a chance of getting made with any kind of a budget.

So far so gloomy, right? That's where lower budgets can give animated filmmakers some freedom. A major studio backing an animated film that costs them $15-20mil isn't likely to nitpick the thing into downtown Dullsville. About the most they'll push for is which big name voice talent to enlist so they can promote the film in the US. A director can have a larger, freer creative voice. You can touch on themes that would be downright un-doable at higher budgets. You can explore different styles a bit. In other words, lower budgets can mean a degree of freedom that just doesn't exist in the world of films costing $80mil and up. There is such great leveling of the playing field with regard to the technology needed to accomplish a film production now that very good looking films can be made for a fraction of what they used to cost. And anybody who's worked on a big budget film knows that sometimes tens of millions of dollars are wasted on sheer stupidity, fickleness and hubris. Cut the layer of waste and you can shave 10, 20, sometimes 30 million dollars off of some films. The fact that Hoodwinked isn't much of a film to look at artistically (even by the director's own admission) doesn't negate the fact that a handsome looking film can be made on a low budget. I can cite successes. For $15-20mil Big Idea made a respectable looking Jonah. For $28mil DNA made Jimmy Neutron. Neither were earth shattering technical or artistic achievements, but both very solid, decent looking films with a degree of craftsmanship that belied their reduced budgets. More recently for $15-20mil Disney/Blur/Sparx made a nice looking Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas. And most of Miyazaki's films cost no more than $30mil to make. Sylvain Chromet reportedly made The Triplettes of Belleville for under $15mil. The Weinstein's are bringing the quite decent looking Magical Roundabout over to the US market as Doogal. While the numbers haven't been released for this film, a typical European co-produced animated film is often made for well under $20mil.

Will you wow the world with spectacular new technological achievements like fluid dynamics, fancy cloth sims, giant crowd battle scenes or new hair shaders that are boffo realistic for that kind of money? No, not likely. But you can make a good looking animated film- one that is designed and executed to fit the budget and the story- for $15-20million. The key is to write and design within the budget constraints. Good character design is not much more expensive than poor character design. You just have to have an eye for what is good and what is junk- steer toward the good, avoid the junk. And be willing to pay a tiny bit extra for a good designer. It's such a small price to pay. And your designer will need to have some experience on how best to create a good 2d design that will play nice with the Cg world, should you go that direction. The same is true of good production design. With lower budgets you can't 'explore' as much 'inspirational' art as you might want to. So if your budget is tight you can't stroke your vanity as much as you'd like. So what? If you have a clear, unique vision (and that's the kicker: the director will need a vision) you can make an animated film look really quite good for your $20million. Al this assumes the story is decent and entertaining. Again, as a director you'll need to pull your weight here and not let an army of scriptwriters do the heavy lifting. But it is do-able. I have been convinced of this for years and I believe it's been proven. The question has always been “When will the studios & distributors realize there can be a sizeable market for these kinds of films?” Well, thanks to the Weinsteins and the success of Hoodwinked, I think they're starting to realize the market exists. And that's the very good side of the success of Hoodwinked.

For those of us who have the desire to take advantage of the open door the burden rests on our shoulders. It'll be incumbent upon the practitioners of the lower budget animated film to tell good stories and to work smartly (in design and execution) to function well within the parameters of these lower budgets. If you can do that, and you have a story that can appeal to enough of an audience (and remember, with the lower production numbers you don't have to pull in the masses like a Disney flick does) you can be in business. So all you directors in waiting out there, guys with unique stories, themes and styles that don't fit the bland brand that big budgets demand, it's time to pull a Shane Acker. Or a Nick Park. Get cracking on your short film, make it artistically solid, make it accessible to an audience, make it entertaining, get it into festivals like Sundance and see what shakes out. You know that producers are going to be scouring the world for projects like this to fill out the lower cost/lower risk niche's in the marketplace. Especially as we see the theater reign crumble under the weight of low cost “long tail” distribution models (Do yourself a favor and read up about the long tail. It is the future of media distribution). Will we animators and artists and storytellers just grouse about bad looking super low budget films like Hoodwinked and their impact on our jobs at big budget studios? Or will we see the opportunities here and make a move to do something more?

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Hoodwinked Effect: Part I

As of this writing, in 2006 there are well over a dozen animated CG feature films scheduled to be released in theaters. It is no surprise that the CG animated feature film market in the US is going to get very crowded in the next 2 years. And if you consider that we also have studios like Wild Brain, Blur, Laika and the Orphanage also gearing up to produce their first CG animated films, then things get even tighter. The big names are also working to crank up the animated engines- you have Sony Animation ramping up, Dreamworks hitting 2 per year, Pisnar (or is it Dixey?) with their 2 per year, Fox/Blue Sky with their one per year (plus Fox's outsourced efforts from IDT) and Warner Bros with their one or two per year (done by outsource studios). Now I'm not implying that any of these studios will make such cynically uber-low budget products like Hoodwinked. Most of these larger studios seem fairly committed to doing a decent job with their films. They're not shy about spending some money to make their films better. Now what they think actually makes a film "better" can be misguided and derivative at times, you still gotta give 'em credit for trying. But the fact remains, it's gonna get crowded. It feels like San Francisico in 1849 around here.

And if that wasn't enough, now the bottom end is open for business.

On to our topic: the recently released Hoodwinked. To the chagrin of many folks Hoodwinked didn't die a horrible "Valiant-like"death at the box office (more on Valiant later). In fact, this VERY cheaply made outsourced film has hit a resonant tone with movie going audiences. Like it or not, people are going to see this film and they are enjoying it. To the tune of over $40million in domestic box office so far. Granted those are not Shrek numbers, but for a film that reputedly cost well under $5million to make, them's very, very good numbers. It has what they call in the biz "legs". Say what you will about the artistic or story merit of the thing or the quality of the craftsmanship (or as many insist, the lack thereof), Hoodwinked has made it's mark on the business- a mark that is not going to go away. HW will turn a handsome profit for its masters, the Weinstein Studio. The true "C-cheap-I" (instead of "CGI") movie has been born. We can know this: more are coming. Today we see a report over at Cg-Char that the Weinsteins are ramping up their slate of low budget animated offerings. And why not? There's gold in them thar hills!

Here is the deflating reality facing feature film animation (all animation, not just CG or 2d): Typical American audiences can indeed distinguish the difference between poorly crafted animated fare and highly crafted animated fare. They just don't seem to value that difference.

Many artists and technicians in the business are experiencing a vaguely reminiscent uneasiness. I think we've seen this story before. The cat is indeed out of the bag- producers now know that a ridiculously low budget film made by an undeniably amateur crew in the far East can (if sufficently pop-culture in humor/nature) rake in enough box office success to justify doing more of the same. This will inevitably create a downward drag on higher budget CG animated films. Will the big name studios approve budgets that are above $40 or 50mil for feature films if they know in the back of their minds that audiences really don't value that added artistry? Even if the rumors prove true and we see the shut down of sequel factories like DisneyToon and Circle 7, there will be no shortage of other producers to jump in the water. With the Indian studios improving in capability & capacity and with Singapore getting into the act I don't think it's a stretch to see the number of animated feature films available for the American public approaching 20 films per year by 2008. The obvious question is whether the market can support that kind of saturation. It's hard to know. I don't think there's ever been anything close to that amount of feature film animation on the menu in theaters before. And this in a climate where overall theater attendance is dropping steadily. I think it's fairly safe to assume that more producers will split the same movie audience dollars. To a certain extent movie going is a zero sum game. That means the winners will be those willing to make their films for the least amount of money- given those cheapo films can garner an audience. And even box office failure is not guarantee of financial loss. For weeks now my local suburban Blockbuster has been sold out of copies of Disney's Valiant. Did you even know it was out on DVD? I didn't before I noticed it's space on the shelf. And yet it seems to be doing a fairly brisk business in DVD with next to zero marketing effort. It has the Disney name, that's enough aparently. So in the end, given that it was a fairly inexpensive film to make, it's conceivable that Valiant will be a money maker for Disney, despite its very lackluster box office. All of the various factors taken into consideration, we're not exactly looking at a recipe for prodcuing great, classic animated films. And for those of us who make a living doing this stuff it doesn't sound like a very fun job. How does 20-30 seconds of approved animation per week sound? For a feature? *gulp*

That's the bad side. But there's another side to this coin, one of opportunity. We'll discuss that next.