Thursday, January 25, 2007

Yes, but are you animating?

Some fun and lively discussion in the comments of my previous few posts. I really don’t mean to be quotable or controversial when I write this stuff. I’m just out here in the boonies of Brazil and this blog is my replacement for the lunch table shop talk I used to enjoy at the various studios I’ve worked at. Of course I do have a tendency for calling it as I see it. I suppose that’s always been a controversial approach to life, especially in a community as politically sensitive as modern film animation. I’m sure this post will be no different.
Anyhow, on with the career suicide. ;o)
In one comment about things here Mark Mayerson writes….

Yes, you need animators to clean up mocap. But they’re not working as animators when they do it, they’re working as assistant animators. Their job isn’t to define the action, merely to do clean-ups.

I have enormous respect for the skills of assistant animators, but those skills are different from what an animator does.

That’s exactly what I mean when I mumble about a “re-definition of terms”. There was a time when none of this was fuzzy. Now? Folks don’t seem to really know what’s what or something. I dunno.

To me the act of animating is an act of raw creation first, refinement second. Historically the entire industry has held this same view. This is why you had a delineation of tasks. An animator animates. An assistant inbetweens. A clean up artist cleans up the drawings, etc. To have an animator doing inbetweens and clean up was considered a misuse of their core talent and time. The animator is the one who starts with the blank page and an idea and from that gives birth to the visual performance for the scene. The rest are performing derivative tasks- following orders about timing, intention and such from the animator. For the better part of 80+ years anybody who worked on a scene after that initial visual performance has been created has NOT been called an “animator”. Nor have they been credited or compensated as animators. By every measure of the established meaning of the term if you are tweaking, refining and re-working another person’s performance you are not the “animator”. You are something else. Mark is correct when he says that is more of an assistant animator role. You may have a hundred teachers, coaches, mentors and influencers in your life that mold you and help shape you- but you only have one Mom. The same is true of every scene in an animated film. This is not meant to be demeaning of those tasks or those artists who aren’t animating. Just as my point about mo-cap clean up not being animation isn’t a slam on those who do that task, either. Look, I’ve done mo-cap clean-up/adjustment. I don’t say it’s easy or of no value. It requires skill, talent, professionalism- all the things we value in a professional film artist. To me it’s just not animating, that’s all. I don’t mind saying so. It is what it is, which means it isn’t what it isn’t, even if we wish it were.

To me the amount that mo-cap data is ‘cleaned up’ is nearly irrelevant. Is there a tipping point where the performance switches ownership from the motion capture performer to the clean up/alteration person? One may exist, but we’ll be here til the moon falls from the sky trying to define where that tipping point is. So I go back to the birth of the visual performance. In my way of thinking the core responsibility of the animator is to create the initial visual performance for a given scene. The prime creative force in any scene/shot that uses capture data as its starting point lies in the motion capture performer’s hands, not the “animator’s”. The amount of cleaning and altering doesn’t ever really undo this prime force of original performance creation. The moment it does then the capture data crosses over into reference, and that’s another thing completely.

And what about the term ‘reference’? There are the ubiquitous questions “Well, how is mo-cap any different than rotoscope? They’ve been using live action reference or Muybridge for decades.” All animators great and small look to live action and life for reference. It’s an absolute must. But the moment you cross into the realm of specificity you surrender your creative claim and the thing you use is no longer merely reference, but something much more. In other words, when you choose to use a specific piece of motion data, or a specific drawing or specific pose or a specific piece of live action footage (all created by someone else first) to create a specific performance then you are engaging in a slippery slope approach to animation. I draw this stance from none other than the inimitable Milt Kahl. His infamous “lazy bastards” rant about what he obviously considered to be lesser animators using live reference for their performances is the stuff of bold legend. According to Milt he believed that if you used a specific piece of live action acted out by someone else to create a performance then you are using a ‘crutch’. He said that you will never become a top animator, a prime value animator, if you continue to use the ‘live action crutch’. Now Milt accomplished way more in his career as an animator than 10 of us combined will ever hope to accomplish. So who am I to argue with him? Personally I like the boldness of that stance. It appeals to me. It makes no apologies. If you want to hear what I’m talking about go fetch this MP3 and this one from Jim Hull’s excellent sewardstreet blog and hear it for yourself.

Getting back to the mo-cap/roto reference connection, again it all comes down to that point of specificity. Hey, I won’t lie to you. I’ve studied motion capture data to gain a better understanding of what’s going on. What does this or that look like? How is the motion constructed? What’s going on here? But that’s the extent of the use. Reference. In the world of academics you cannot copy & paste and then slightly alter reference material for your final writing. That’s called plagerism. No, reference is where you go to gain understanding and information. The thesis paper/animation is where you express this understanding in your own voice, in your own way, with your own words, thoughts, motions, gestures, poses. I hope you’ll excuse the metaphor mixture there.

Mind this one very important caveat:

None of this is a qualitative statement for or against the artistic merit and validity of motion capture. I’ve used it, I’ve professionally recommended its use in the past. In many instances it is the absolute right tool/method for the project. And in many instances the results are of solid quality and are entertaining. Nor am I saying that mo-cap will ruin the movie business. The point I’ve been working on lately is the re-definition of the terms “animation” and “animator” (and in subtext- what the result of this re-definition means for those of us who want to animate for a living).

1 comment:

Keith Lango said...

original comments here...