Saturday, December 30, 2006

Animators and Publicity

Some animators are in a tizzy because the NY Times, Washington Post and LA Times all wrote about the mo-capped dancer, Savion Glover, who performed for Happy Feet. It seems more and more articles are being written interviewing the performers who wear the ping pong balls than the guys and girls who work their slow magic to turn that into something worth watching. But it’s the way the system work. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Mark Mayerson points out Happy Feet director George Miller’s disparaging remarks about the insufficiency of animators to handle all the subtleties of a professional dancer’s body in motion. (Mark chimes in that he’s none too pleased about the cooments, too) To quote our good director…

“I knew even the greatest animators in the world would take a lifetime to pull off the nuances of dancing that a gifted dancer is able to pull off,” says “Happy Feet” director George Miller, speaking by phone the other day from Sydney, in his native Australia.

Ouch. Dude, it’s bad enough we’re the lowly hired oarsmen rowing the galley of your success, but don’t throw your poop bucket on the crew while you’re at it. Mark thinks the problem is that animators are not in the habit of blatant self promotion. And he’s right. Performers, dancers, actors, comedians- all are adept at the game of grabbing headlines and getting their name out there. They hire publicists, do press junkets, etc. But by and large, animators are a quiet, reclusive lot. Some time during the 90’s some Disney animators got a fair amount of press and as a result got some pub- Glen Keane & Andreas Dejas being the two that come immediately to mind. James Baxter has a big following, but mainly only among animators. The rest of the Disney crew? While some managed to get paid well because of their abilities and the demand for their services, outside of the chosen few you don’t hear zip. Some of it is the natural timidness of animators under the spotlight. Some of it was the studio wised up and realized that when they promote animators and make ’stars’ out of them then they have to pay them accordingly. By the time Cg got rolling the studios had pretty well figured that out and as a result there aren’t any public Cg animation ’stars’. Seriously. How many people on the street can name one single CG animator? Not many I tell you. When it comes to film animators, anonymity is the fate of just about all. (except for those few who can carve out a little in-house industry notoriety due to their prolonged internet presence. Ahem).

Feature animators are the great anonymous mass. In the current animated film market it’s about subjugating your own tastes and desires to meld into the great collective borg of the film. Your fame and worth is borrowed from your employer or the film. Your individual contribution is practically indistinguishable from everybody else’s. CG is even better (worse?) at this because it eliminates the variable of personal drawing style, further driving individual animator contributions into obscurity. No wonder the articles are about dancers or comedians in ping pong suits. They’re actually interesting! No wonder why directors and producers slam the skills and contributions of animators. They’re all just interchangeable parts- like oil filters or light bulbs. Like I said, most animators tend to be laid back, quiet folks who don’t like to make waves. We’re team players usually, so we keep our ideas to ourselves. Plus there are political realities involved: this is a small business and we’re always living under the shadow of searching for that next gig. So anything that might possibly jumble that (like, say, ohhh.. an opinion?) gets put away. Most animators would rather not offend anybody so they keep their opinions unpublished and keep picking up the anonymous paycheck as the migrant farmer of the digital age. Which is cool. Each to his own. But with that comes some kind of a price, and that price is you’ll NEVER get the kind of credit and or respect that you think animators (or you) deserve. So if you’re gonna work in the bowels of the machine as an interchangeable motion creation cog, then yeah, you’re gonna get passed over by the NY Times when the time comes to spit out a 1000 word write up on the creative forces that went into the latest CG animated movie. And a dancer, Tom Hanks or Andy Serkis in a mo-cap suit makes for a better story than some pasty, slightly over-weight slub in a dark room staring at a monitor moving a mouse for 9 hours a day to create an astonishing 5 seconds of motion each week.

So is animator really a position of notoriety? Or is it something else? Being a great animator does not translate into publicity. If anything it’s almost an antidote to it! The trick is to make something that is the opposite of the film system- to create something that has your personal mark on it. Something with your style, your voice, your ideas, your tastes- your name. Bill Plympton comes immediately to mind. Others follow quickly. Until you take that bold step and get out there and release something with your name on the front of it you are way down the foodchain in a publicity sense. For me I hope 2007 is the year we see more of us (myself included) step out of the anonymous fog and do something bright, fun and different.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

APT Session #1 Student feedback

As some of you may recall back in August of this year I initiated my Animation Personal Trainer program. This is an 8 week intensive study program with a specialization on personalized training for animation. In the initial session each student was given their own personally structured animation training curriculum, designed to address their specific areas of need or interest. Now while I had a lot of faith in the power of personalized instruction, the truth is that in 8 weeks it’s impossible to create the perfect animator. But I gotta say, the level of improvement I saw in each student was surprising and inspiring! I had students who were working professional animators and some who had only tinkered with animation for a few months. Basically I had everything from newbies to working pros and I was really jazzed to see how much they all improved in their own way. Overall the first session was a real success story, both for me as a teacher and they as students and animators. So I asked them for their feedback and opinions to share with the rest of the world- a kind of testimonial. So in anticipation for APT session #2 (interested students can sign up beginning January 17th!), I want to share some excerpts of the things my great students had to say about their experience with the Animation Personal Trainer program. In a post soon to follow I’ll have a short clip of “before & after” animation for some of the students. As you’ll see, they made some great strides. But first, some words from a few of my students….

“Although many books have been written about animation, they dont compare with having an animator sit through the excersizes. Having industry talk, having animation talk, advice of “the animators perspective of the world” along with weekly chat sessions and excersize walkthroughs, makes APT an invaluable addition to the industry of animation education. The fact that its 8 weeks of training and that I get to do it at my own pace and with my own curriculum taught by a pro himself is a great way to step into stride with my animation. I could work on my weaknesses and work on those aspects of animation that I always felt weak about. This is the real advantage of APT in my view.”
- DJ Ekkirala, student

“I learnt a great deal through the session and more specifically how to put good animation principles into practice. Keith was very honest at picking the weaknesses in my work and developing exercises to help in that area, which is just what is needed in a good learning environment. There is a massive difference between understanding the principles of animation and actually applying them to your work. Keith trained my eye to be able to critique my work in these key areas as I go along to achieve a good result.”
- Anonymous by request

“I immediately jumped on board hoping and praying for the best, AKA… learn animation. 2 months or so later, I had finished APT with all my expectations meet, even exceeded. My work flow dramatically improved and now I don’t guess how I should animate, I have a plan, and yes, I’m sure I will continue to refine the way I work, but now I have the confidence to do so and move forward boldly. Also I feel I have a better grasp on body mechanics, timing, phrasing, spacing, etc. which was another goal of mine to improve on. The best thing about APT is that YOU decide the things you want to work on, and it’s custom designed for a specific goal you are trying to meet. … Keith was always very professional and concerned about how we felt about the program and that we were getting our moneys worth, which I felt I definitely was. If this isn’t enough he showered us with links, private tutorials, and scripts that still help incredibly. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in beefing up their animation skills.”
- Nathan Engelhardt, animation student @ SCAD

“For me APT was an excellent way to improve my skills, learn more about “how animation should work” and start to think more of how to approach a scene professionally. … The most value stuff in APT for me was that I changed my way of how to blocking the scenes. I am sure that already helped me to get better poses and timing and this will start a new age for my animation.”
- Marcelo Ricardo Ortiz, teacher

“I thought it was great! And you were really great at listning and analyzing what I needed training on. My skills were more than quadruppled over the 8 weeks, and if that’s not worth the money, I don’t know what is!”
- Erlend Sakshaug, student

“In general, my experience with APT has significantly improved my understanding of animation. I feel that just in 2 months I have been introduced to a certain structure in the way I think, and the way I work when animating a scene. Starting with an individual drawing and how it is so important to have all the principles of animation build into it so that you can convey the scene to someone with clarity, and with just minimal amount of information. Also I have reached this level of understanding that helps me see patterns that appear in simpler and complex movements, and how to break down complex or simple movement into individual drawings within a particular timing. I don’t fear as much when looking at those cool professional animation scenes that appear complex, and with practice I’m ready to reach that level.”
- Adam Jaskieweicz, student

“I had been studying animation for a year before Animation Personal Trainer. I was at a point where I had read several books and almost everything on the web. Even though practicing everyday, I could not figure out why my character was still doing a handspring, when I wanted him to do a simple head turn. There is so much animation information out there that I was trying to do everything at once. This had me chasing my tail and wishing for happy accidents. … Keith built on my existing understanding of animation with some basic principles to assist me. … He instilled confidence in me to get the basic animation muscles built first. By focusing first on what’s important in the blocking phase, I built a foundation that made things easier as I moved on to later stages. Keith’s techniques helped me control the most detailed movements in my animation. Finally I understood what I was doing. “
- David Woods, student

“I thought APT was good for me. I want to do another session so that’s pretty good. I liked how we could make the course focused on what I wanted. I enjoyed getting the hour of one on one time. This was great to go over stuff in detail. One the best parts of APT is the ‘under the hood’ aspect: looking right in my animation file with me, going over what’s working and what’s not working, seeing how you would shift keys and tweak curves was really helpful. “
- Jason Thielen, professional animator

“Now that I’ve been working in an actual production environment for almost 2 months, I’ve come to appreciate the workflow knowledge that you taught me more than anything else. I have been above my footage quota every week since I started working… This would not have been possible without the new workflow that I developed while working with you Keith. I’ve also found that after speaking with you about my work each week, I have a better understanding of what “most” directors are looking for in my shots. This has made it much easier to communicate with my supervisors and meet their expectations for each individual shot as quickly as possible.”
- Nate Zufelt, professional animator (he was hired at the very end of his APT session!)

So that’s the feedback on APT Session #1. The progress clips will be coming later this week. Keep your eyes here for that.

APT Session #2 will be opening the doors for enrollment on January 17th. On the technical side we will feature some significant improvements over APT #1, as well as some adjustments to the way I interact with the students. I’m excited to get going with the next session! Space for APT#2 will be VERY limited. As you saw from the student feedback the APT is a highly personalized training regimen and I am proud to put lots of time and work into teaching each student. But as you may imagine this is a demanding thing, so like I said, space will be very, very limited. So if you’re interested be sure to stay tuned to the website and be ready to sign up on January 17th!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas everybody!!

I must have been a very good boy this year because Santa (Papai Noel here in Brazil) brought me a nice little stocking stuffer.


A Cintiq 21 UX tablet/monitor doo-dad. Hmm. Tasty. Here’s my first really cruddy doodle I did with it. And I do mean really cruddy. Kinda a ‘Pictures for Patrick” in technicolor. (I miss Patrick. *sniff*)

I gotta get used to drawing big now. I was a little too precious with the line at points. That and it will take me a while to settle into drawing on a monitor thingamabob. I did this doodle with the Cintiq kinda upright in the stand. I discovered that I don’t like that, so for doodles and such now I kinda plop it in my lap like a sketchbook. Much better. Not that the results will be any good. I can’t draw to save my skin. But I enjoy my doodles.

I got the Cintiq to help me create richer feedback sessions for my APT students. This Cintiq 21UX combined with Anotate Pro screen doodling software and Techsmith’s Camtasia Pro screen recording software will allow me to doodle right on student’s work, even in their CG or Maya files, and capture all of that as a feedback movie. Tres chic, no? And I gotta say that animating in Maya with this thing is fun and intuitive. For years I’ve wished that animating on the computer could be as direct and simple as animating stop motion. Grab and pose the puppet kind of simple. At last I feel like I’m getting close to that.

Speaking of the APT, the next session starts taking enrollment in a few weeks. Keep your eye on the countdown mcbobby thing on the side bar. And in a day or so I’ll post a recap on APT session #1 that will feature some student feedback and a few before & after clips from some students. But first I’ll be spending some much needed time off with the family.
May you all have a joyous, peaceful and safe Christmas. God bless & all the best for you in this special season!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

no excuse to be ignorant (re-post)

Seems this one post had a problem that was messing up the format of my blog. So I had to delete it and re-post. Sorry for those of you who commented, but your comments are lost to the world forever. But they lived good, full, rich comment lives right to the very end. They’re smiling down on us from comment heaven now and I know they would want you to continue on with life and be happy.

re-post to follow….

Seriously, the treasure trove of learning material about art and animation that is freely available online today is an embarrassment of riches. Every day I open my RSS feed reader and go to school. Today’s lesson piled in from the invaluable resource the ASIFA - Hollywood Animation Archive blog. The topic is composition, For a schmuck like me who never went to art or film school this stuff is gold. This stuff is especially useful to me due to some recent projects I’ve been developing. Anyhow, go check out the ASIFA Archive. It’s an amazing resource and it’s free. And the real trick is this: after you read and learn, then try the concepts and ideas until you get your head around them. That’s my 2007 goal- more doing.ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive Project Blog

Monday, December 18, 2006


Remember how joyous everybody as Walt Disney Feature Animation was at the news that John Lassetter and Ed Catmull were being put in charge over the WDFA universe? I do. Well, it’s been a rough few weeks for folks in Burbank. First was the sizeable layoff following the wrap of the Robinson’s film. Then last week Jim Hill Media reports that directors Ron Clements and John Musker’s favorite composer Alan Menken has been pulled off of their Frog Princess 2d animated film and replaced with old Pixar favorite Randy Newman. And then this week Cartoon Brew reports that Chris Sanders has been fired as director from his own pet project film American Dog. And it appears he’s none too happy about it either. Let’s see, layoffs, executive meddling over director’s creative decisions…. is it just me or are Mssrs. Lassetter and Catmull behaving in a way that is eerily similar to previous animation executives at WDFA?

Whither keyframe animators?

Mark Mayerson does a better job explaining what I’m thinking than I do. He lays out some interesting points about the current trend in animated films toward a production paradigm that may not have as much room on the bus for animators. Basically the idea is that as technology for directing performers becomes friendlier and as audiences don’t much care about the difference between a hand keyed film and a motion edited one he sees a potential for keyframe animation to go out of the mainstream fashion. His observation about the giant wall of anonymity surrounding CG animators (even the very best of the best) is spot on. Go check out his recent post about what he sees as a potential point of concern down the road for those who enjoy animating for a living (as opposed to those who enjoy working on motion. And yes, there is a difference.) Do I think he’s right on the mark with this? Not sure yet, but I can see it happening.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

blog template problems

for reasons that are a complete mystery to me, my site/blog is having trouble displaying properly (ie: the right hand sidebar is showing up on the bottom of the page for some reason). This change occurred without me doing anything at all. Really weird. Thing is I am working on getting VTS22 wrapped up for delivery this week so I don’t know if I’ll have time to do a proper fix til later in the week. Til then folks will need to bear with the goofy layout. Sorry for the mess.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ehh, it was fun while it lasted

Excuse me while I channel Mark Cuban for a bit and offer an opinion on YouTube…

Reports are that YouTube are now changing the face of it’s system to accommodate the desires and wishes of it’s new content partners. (and here ‘content partners’ really means ‘plaintiffs in waiting’). The idea is to make the folks at CBS all nice and comfy with a sanitized version of the voice that is collectively known as the “YouTube user community”- a community that is often cited as YT’s most critical asset. So let’s see, you quash the voice of your greatest asset to please the sharks who don’t like how your greatest asset use or communicate about their assets. Hrmm. article here.

In other words, they’re selling out. I give YT less than a year to become exactly like every other media/content gatekeeper. They’ll still allow the posting of ‘user generated content’, but I am guessing that the halcyon days of an anonymous YT user posting a fun little clip or short film only to be discovered and feted are numbered. (man that’s an awkward sentence but i don’t know another way to say it.). OK, here’s another way to say it: if you have a short film and you want to ride the success wave of an arbitrary front page listing on YT then you better get crackin’. As time goes by you’ll see more and more corporate content and less and less user content on that front page. And with that will also go the most viewed, most favorites, etc. In other words, the chances of making a ‘hit’ are gonna go down for the average joe schmoe. YT will turn into your typical glitzy corporate storefront, just with a huge stockroom of mismatched sizes in the back.

Or maybe not. I’ve been wrong before.

Friday, December 08, 2006

SIGGRPAH ‘07 Student Volunteers

Here’s a public service announcement:

I got this little blurb from Alex Lehmann. You students interested in volunteering for SIGGRAPH in 2007 check this out and get a hold of Alex. Most student volunteers I’ve ever talked to said it was a great experience. Anyhow, here’s what was passed along to me…

The SIGGRAPH 2007 Student Volunteers Committee would like to take this
opportunity to share our enthusiasm about the SIGGRAPH 2007 Student Volunteers
program with you and everyone visiting your website! The exciting news is that
we are already accepting applications at We want to
give as many students from all around the world the chance to apply for the
amazing opportunity of joining our team as Student Volunteers!

We would be excited to see a news item about the program on your site, since it
is an important resource for many aspiring students. A mention of our committee
“now accepting applications for the Student Volunteers Program for SIGGRAPH
2007 in San Diego” would be much appreciated. If applicable, you can download a
logo ( that you can put on your
webpage (please resize if needed). Interested students can find the application
form at The deadline for applications is 11:59 pm PT,
February 25, 2007. Student Volunteer positions are open students from all
disciplines and universities/faculties, including some online schools such as
Animation Mentor.

Should you have any questions, please send us an e-mail at
or visit our website at The FAQs
( and
( ) pages
offer additional information. The online application is available now
( and will remain
open until 11:59 pm PT, February 25, 2007. Please encourage students from all
around the world to apply by posting a news item on your page - with the help
of the community, SIGGRAPH 2007 will truly be an insightful experience. Thank
you for your support!


Alex M. Lehmann
Student Volunteers Program
Outreach Program Director

Something is very wrong with this…..

Here’s an article in the Guardian. An excerpt…

The richest 1% of adults in the world own 40% of the planet’s wealth, according to the largest study yet of wealth distribution. … The report found the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total of global assets. Half the world’s adult population, however, owned barely 1% of global wealth.

Once you get past the cold econo-speak, somewhere down on a gut level this strikes me as injustice. I’m no bleeding heart libby, but this stuff makes me feel ill when I read it. I don’t know what to do to fix this. I’m not big on collective guilt trips- I don’t think they accomplish much and the efforts that result from them are often more demeaning to the dignity of the “helped” than anything else. Still, who can read this and not feel that something is totally out of whack? Who can’t feel the urge to do something personally? I’m not in the top 1% (not even close), but I’m not willing to just shrug it off as “not my problem” either. When you meet and talk to one of those lower 50% who own 1% and you see how much they appreciate even little things we take for granted (clean water anyone?) you can’t just walk away. At least I can’t. Some day I know that God will ask for an accounting of this- He has to. What will we say?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

More is better?

The Long Tail blog by Chris Anderson has an interesting quiz on Pixar’s investment in technology, specifically their rendering power.

Go here to try the quiz.

To see the answer you will need to highlight some text on the blog on the page below some pictures. Go and try the quiz first and then come back. I’ll have some quiz spoilers and a thought after the jump.

The “answer” text in the Long Tail blog entry stood out to me as a kind of sideways expression of some things I’ve been saying for a little bit here.

The average Cars frame took 15 hours, despite a 300x overall increase in compute power. The artists have an essentially infinite appetite for detail and realism, and Pixar’s resources have grown over the decade so it can afford to allocate more computers to the task…

In particular the comment “artists have an essentially infinite appetite for detail and realism” stood out to me. CG artists obsessed with detail and realism? Hmm. Where have we heard this before? This observation comes from a Wired editor and author, not an animator or filmmaker. Looking at the numbers, a typical frame from Cars took 15 hours to render instead of 2 hours for Toy Story (representing an increase of 7.5x). And this in light of a 300x improvement in the raw computing power of the technology at hand. So mathematically speaking Cars was 2250x (7.5 * 300) more technically complex to create than Toy Story. Now I didn’t do great at math in school so you folks tell me if I’m making some basic error here. But any way you slice it that’s quite an accomplishment, technologically speaking. You get the sense that Mr. Anderson was left quite impressed by this. It certainly does sound impressive on the surface.
But I’m left with this question: Eliminating the variable of increased audience expectation for technical sophistication in CG visuals- was the core metric for film quality (the artistic, visual, social and emotional result) of Cars superior to that of Toy Story by such an expansive order of magnitude? In other words, was Cars hundreds of times better than Toy Story? Does technological expenditure and accomplishment have a direct and predictable correlation to a film’s overall quality as perceived by audiences? The answers to these kinds of questions perhaps introduce some interesting choices, don’t you think?