Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Fool’s Errand, Part 3


In my previous post in this series I related how I’d gotten stuck in my own quagmire of a short film production. The source of this Slough of Despond was the amount of work I had set up for myself- a noble if somewhat Quixotic venture. You see, way back when I started this thing, I had fallen for a false value statement. I believed the myopic industry hype that there is really only one way for great CG animation to look- namely the uber polished, highly detailed and technically impressive big budget feature film style. Anything that wasn’t that style was “good for what it is”, but it wasn’t really good. It was good* (with an asterisk). To rise above such a terrible fate I determined that the drive for my project was to show a mastery of a technique or a style. As a result I got caught trying to craft a short film that could stand up to the visual style and standards of larger CG feature film projects.

But why did I believe this in the first place? I suppose the answer to that is found in why any of us would believe it. Clearly many folks in the business (or who would love desperately to be in the business) believe this. Some in the film biz have a self interest in perpetuating the myth. It keeps them on top of the mountain with all the wannabes looking up, drooling, clambering to climb that same hill. Perhaps we believe this hype out of a misguided need for affirmation, to be considered part of something exclusive, something with meaning. Too many labor under the pretense that until they work at Pixar (or insert name of your favorite studio here) their animation careers and efforts are invalid, inferior and without full expression. If we’re honest most of us would have to admit that we all believe this same thing at some point in our animation walk. Many of us still do. Thus the need to do something “on that level”. To prove something to the demo reel watchers in the ivory towers of film studios. My previous short films didn’t show this- they weren’t made to be demo reels but were intended to be films. Thus the animation in them wasn’t the most polished stuff in the world. Fine for a short, but it wasn’t going to do the trick in convincing people that I could animate “at the highest level”- whatever the heck that meant.

I determined that I had to show that I could do feature film quality animation. So I would pull out all the stops. As to why I chose a short film to do this I haven’t the faintest idea. Perhaps because down inside I really enjoy making short films more than doing “just” animation. Whatever the reason I decided that this project was going to be the one that showed that I could pull off that high polish style. Of course at that moment the Fool’s Errand was in full stride and almost four years of lunacy have since transpired.

Of course I eventually did end up doing film animation, but the short film project that I thought would serve that end didn’t get me there. Instead what got me doing film work was a demo reel of solid, professional work. In effect my career had eventually spoken for itself and I didn’t need to prove anything with a short film.
But a funny thing happened on the way to my career goal- or rather in obtaining it. I found the highly polished film style of work was –I hesitate to say it for fear of offending– boring. What I mean is that the actual making of that style of animation doesn’t get me all excited. It’s just not as much fun as putting out something fun and energetic that has a few rough edges to it. This isn’t to say that the highly polished CG film style is bad. It’s clearly not. It’s just not my favorite style of animation to actually sit down and animate. But even with personal style preferences aside, I’ve come to see that the highly polished CG film style of animation is not any more the “best” than anything else. To return the charge: It’s good for what it is. Like all styles it has its place where it works well. But I don’t believe that there is one single “best” style of CG animation. Just lots of different good styles. The key (for me at least) is to be about doing the one that works for me, the one I enjoy. I remember when I used to smile at the stuff I made while I was making it. I’d like to do that again.

Which is why I doubt I’ll ever finish the space man short. It’s too much like the boring work I don’t like to do. If I’m going to animate in my free time I’m gonna have fun. I’m not going to do a style of animation that bores me just to prove a point that I no longer believe is valid. Maybe some day I’ll do something with all those assets. Who knows? But for now I’d rather do something fast and fun.
What are the lessons that I learned from this story?
First, don’t make a short film to try and get a job as an animator in feature film. That’s what demo reels are for. I’m not saying that a short film will never get you a job. Enough people have gotten work from their student films to prove that this isn’t true. I’m just saying that I believe that making a short film should be about the experience of making a film, not getting a job as an animator. If you happen to get work from the short- fantastic! But don’t make a short just to get a job.

Second, don’t allow the narrow-mindedness of others to narrow your own mind. Open your eyes to what is possible. There’s more than one style or design that is “good” or “great”. Don’t let the style hegemony of the current feature film market dominate your thinking. Somebody very bright and very confident decided that Pocoyo was going to have a different, fun style of CG animation. We’re all the better for it. Who will make the next Pocoyo?

Third, don’t make your film to impress industry types. Make it to entertain audiences. Or entertain yourself at the very least.

But most of all have fun or don’t do it. In the end I think that fun shows through in the work. Let the high brow types pan your short film for its animation “flaws”. Audiences can tell when you had fun. That often more than makes up for the rest.

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