Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Credit Crunch & Animation

The Animator's Guild blog (TAG Blog authored by Steve Hulett) keeps a pretty good eye on the wheelings and dealings of finances in animation. They recently posted a note about the independent Imagi Animation Studio. They're the folks who brought you The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie a year ago. Their creative efforts are run out of LA, while production is based in Hong Kong (as well as outsourced to other vendors, like ReelFX). Turns out they're in a bit of a cash pinch. They need 'additional funding' just to get through production on their latest film. At their current levels my guess is they run out of money by March and they'll need to get some loans to carry them through. Well, in the old halcyon days of 2007 that'd be an easy thing to pull off. Credit was cheap and plentiful. Now? Uh.. not so much. Credit across the world has ground to a halt. Seems that offering super easy and cheap credit wasn't exactly a great idea to begin with. Who could have known that giving loans to people without the ability to repay them would result in significant financial losses? Heh. Gotta love hubris. It provides entertainment (even if in this case it's not 'cheap' entertainment).

Anyhow, I expect to see fewer and fewer independent animated films getting made in the next few years. Film projects from folks like Imagi, Vanguard, Weinstein, etc. will have a very difficult time getting funding. These films live and breathe on outside money. I don't know what Laika's finances are like, but they recently shut down their second film and laid off a number of folks. My guess is they're waiting to see if Coraline pays off. Reminds me of what happened at Blue Sky after production wrapped on Ice Age. Fox pretty much went skeleton crew while they waited to see if Ice Age would make enough money to justify keeping the studio going. I don't know if that's the case at Laika, but from this corner of the internet that's what it looks like. Phil Knight has deep pockets, yes- but he keeps those pockets deep by not spending his own money if he can help it. Which is standard operating procedure in Hollywood. Use other people's money as much as possible. That plan works when people's investments are doing well and they're looking for more. It doesn;t work so well if they've lost almost half their money in the last year and they're focused on avoiding further losses. Investors want nothing to do with risk right now, and there are few investments riskier than films. Last year I wrote that hedge funds were going to get beat up and as a result you'll see fewer films getting funded that way. Well now hedge funds aren't getting beat up, they're getting murdered. Losing tens of billions of dollars by investing in a giant Ponzi scheme (ie: Madoff- a more appropriate name never existed) has a tendency to put a pinch on the purse. Investors asking for their money back magnifies that.

The good news is that so far Disney, Fox/Blue Sky, and Dreamworks are mostly self funding enterprises. Not so sure about Sony, though. They've been wishy-wahsy on their animation studio the last year or so already. A lacklustre result for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs might convince them to throw in the towel. But the other big animation studios- as long as their overall film businesses make money they'll be able to make animated movies.

What does this mean for us lumpen down here on the bottom of the foodchain? Animation jobs will still exist, but competition for those jobs will heat up even more. But even if you have a larger studio gig, don't get complacent. Being in a larger studio is no guarantee, either (ask the Bolt crew). The indy film market has been a real blessing over the last 4 years to a lot of animators looking to get into film. Screen credits, experience, nice shots on the reel, opportunity, paychecks, etc. I'm guessing as the next year unfolds it will be a little tougher to get work as projects wither for lack of financing. 2010 will be worse. There's a 9-12 month lag between funding greenlight and production.

While I don't follow the games side of the biz that much, it seems to me that it will probably be the same over there. Big AAA+ titles made by the giant producers will still hum along, but smaller, less well capitalized efforts will hit a dry patch.

If you have work now, do yourself a favor. Start saving. A lot. You're gonna need it. And if you have any other employable skill, keep that sharp. You might end up doing something other than animation for a while. And keep animating- even (especially?) on your own time. Atrophy can happen pretty quickly if you're not staying in practice and you can fall behind before you know it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Wither the cartoon?

I've been thinking a lot about how the classic short cartoon has disappeared from the modern animation world. How do I define "classic cartoon"? Criteria for inclusion would be:
  • Full animation (not limited 4 fps TV stuff, but not super fluid animation on 1's, either)
  • Over the top 1940's cartoon animation style of motion and expression
  • Zany characters who are capable of existing outside of a larger character development "background"
  • Primary platform is short material (not feature films or TV shows)
  • Backgrounds designed to build a stage for action, not build a world for believability
  • Writing is gag centric, not long complex narratives requiring acts
  • Primary focus on visual presentation, not dialogue.
  • Action and music are joined at the hip. Music is not "stuck on" in post.
Examples: Woody the Woodpecker, Droopy, Bugs Bunny, Foghorn Leghorn, Goofy, Donald Duck, Roadrunner, etc.

In general most animation today is "talky". Lots of dialog. TV animation consists of 5 stock poses and a lot of talking. Kids TV is pretty much the same, but with a lot of screaming (seriously, they scream a lot). Feature films are big money showcases that focus on longer narratives that demand more character development. Not as much screaming, though. For quick giggles or a 60 second bit of diversionary amusement we have Flash animation on the internet, but nobody will confuse that with a classic cartoon. Independent animation often focuses on heavy topics that, while meaningful, usually aren't very fun (JibJab takes on politics, normally not fun, but they make it fun). The studio shorts are mini versions of their big film brethren, and they share the high "per second" budgets and manpower needs of features, too. Now, I'm not saying that all of these are worthless crap. I actually like a lot of stuff. I'm just asking- where is the cartoon?

I'm talking about the unapologetically gag driven, musically integrated, over the top classic 1940's style cartoon? With animation that's not bound by earthly physics? With backgrounds that aren't focused on realistic detail & shadows? With characters that are flatly rendered but expressively drawn? It's gone, isn't it? Other than an occasional try here or there, that form of the craft has faded into the past. Not only is the form gone, but all the guys who made it are gone- and with them the knowledge of how to pull off that style of cartoon. Will it ever come back? Or is it a style of animation whose time has passed?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Merry Christmas to One and All

From our family to yours, may you enjoy the very best of God's blessings this holiday season.

Monday, December 22, 2008

More Tutorial Translations

OK, I've got a few free moments, so I'm adding some translations of my free tutorials.

With special thanks to Ariel Núñez Morera we have two new Spanish translations. The first is for Life After Pose to Pose: Taking it to the Next Level. The next is for Breakdowns Can be Such a Drag (building better overlaps in breakdowns).

We also have a Turkish translation for the Principles for LipSync Animation Article. This was lovingly provided by  Rıdvan Çevik.

Big thanks again to these fine gentlement for their efforts. I'm always humbled when folks feel inspired to translate my writings into other languages. Deixa me pra sinto tau internacional! 

UPDATE:  It seems that I have messed up some links and forgot to mention another translation. The link for the Life After Pose-to-Pose in Spanish is now fixed. I have also added The Principles of LipSync article in Spanish, also done by  Ariel Núñez Morera. Thanks to Jerzy Perez Gonzalez for catching the error. My apologies for the mix up. I'm a doofus.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Two pieces of foam, a few sticks, some rulers, a ladder made out of pencils, a bowl of water, two kazoos, a guitar and a whole lot of imagination and skill. Who needs fancy visuals or technical sophistication- or even technically perfect movement? This is an inspiringly simple reminder that character and motivation are the keys to bringing something to life. Astounding stuff.

Hat tip to David Beer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

JoJo in the Stars

Marc Craste is genius and I envy his creativity.

 This is the final play out of his creepy and thoroughly envelope pushing Pica Towers vignettes circa 2001. (watch them here, here and here). You gotta remember back then nobody was doing anything like this. Everybody was too busy aping Pixar (myself included). When I first saw the Pica Towers shorts it was an epiphany for me. I just love how immediate the animation is in this. There's not a bunch of built up polish to arrive at the final. A lot of these scenes could be animated start to finish in a day- maybe in an afternoon even. This style allows a rough "in the moment" vibe to shine through. Some may pan it as crude and limited, but to me it feels alive as opposed to constructed. Craste's other commercial work at Studio AKA is neat, too- though not as individually bold as the Pica stuff.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Charlie Brown- proof of concept test

Last year around this time a small team of folks at Big Idea were given the task of trying to come up with a way to do Charlie Brown in CG. We were one of a group of studios pitching to get the Peanuts animated comic strips project headed up by Warner Bros.. Since the general expertise of Big Idea is in developing shows for CG, the decision was made to try and make this in CG. My old friend and former colleague Brian Roberts was assigned as the director.  He had been following my non-realistic rendering tests on this blog, so he asked if I'd like to lend a hand at driving the CG art direction. I was in the US at the time on other business so I decided to join the project. The team was small and the schedule was smaller- just two weeks. We started with nothing but an idea. Brian's goal was to try to express the original cartoon strip look and feel without resorting to the 'typical' CG approach of literalism- especially of form. With that, we set off.

Brian was the director. Chuck Vollmer was the production designer did the background painting along with some beautiful painted textures. Joe Spadaford was a 2d concept artist and he painted a number of the flats and textures as well. Steve Fuller was responsible for the CG set- including modeling, texturing and lighting. I did everything with Charlie Brown, modeling, rigging, texturing, animating. I also took the lead on getting the CG style to look the way we wanted it to.

We wanted to keep things feeling as 'analog' as possible. All the textures on the set and flats were hand painted with gouche on board and scanned in. We found that a nice painting of a texture got dumbed down once it was applied as a texture-map and rendered. So Chuck went back and "sloppified" the paintings a bit. It looked kinda rough when you held the painting in your hands, but that roughness was needed if even half of it was going to show up in the render. Where this was most evident was the dog house.

The other challenge was getting Charlie Brown's facial animation, as well as the scratchy ink lines on his shorts and shoes. Once I solved that I felt really confident that we could hit the style. The animation is on 2's, another nod to the original Melendez approach. I also tried cycling a non-uniform procedural texure to the solid areas of color to avoid that computery perfection of color. I wasn't too happy with how that turned out. Given time I would have used Prismacolor markers to make 4 or 5 versions of the colors and cycled them as an animated texture on 4's, but the deadline intervened. Anyhow, watch the test and see what you think. There's no post process here-- everything you see is rendered straight out of Maya.

Ultimately the powers that be went with another studio using Flash animation. Back in early November Cartoon Brew had a short note about it. You can buy them for your very own on iTunes. While I suppose I'm a bit disappointed that our approach didn't win the day, from the objective standpoint of maintaining the look and feel of the property I think it was a wise choice to go with using Flash. They did a very good job of faithfully continuing the visual style of the Peanuts cartoons, whereas using CG we could only re-interpret it and try to be faithful to the original intent. I don't think our approach was necessarily inferior- it was just different. And for this project that probably wasn't the best choice. I recall a similar experience back when I was at Blur. Blur did a test of Mike Kunkel's Hero Bear in CG. For CG it looked quite good. Blur does great work, so that's no surprise. Yet it just didn't seem to "fit" the property. Some things are just better done 2d, I think.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


It snowed about 3 inches this evening in our little section of middle Tennessee. We hadn't seen snow in a long time. For the last 5 years we've been living in places like Los Angeles, Dallas TX and Brazil- none of which are what you'd call cold weather environs- we just didn't get a good dose of snow. Of course I grew up in Buffalo NY, so I know all about snow. These last 5 years I didn't think that I missed it at all. Turns out I had.

So my son and I got down to the serious business of snowman making.
I present to you Mr. Sammy McSlush. A finer snowman never was.


Do you remember the magic of snow at Christmas-time when you were little?

Why do we forget when we get older and we get all bogged down in work and being serious and all that? Especially those of us who work in animation. When did we become so... grown up? I pondered these things as the full moon came out and the whole world seemed to glow like a story book.


Monday, December 08, 2008

2008 Gobelins student animation

Another year of very pretty short films from the talented Fenchmen.

I liked Apres le Pluie. I don't get it, but I liked it. It has a nice mystical quality to it. No, it's not Miyazaki good, but you can certainly taste the influence.

To me the most intriguing was Underground Psycho. It's a really striking piece visually, and the story, while strange, was really compelling. I love the circular nature of the narrative. That's a difficult story telling style to pull off well and they handle it nicely. The animation is excellent - fantastic, really- even though it's not Hollywood CG feature film polished. I love how the characters all are alive and show some measure of thought and motivation beyond the surface. It's mostly CG, but the artists don't fall for the same old visual trap in CG, nor do they fall for the 'Gobelins pastel style' of CG. For that you can watch California Love, highlighted on Cartoon Brew).

Speaking of California Love, I thought it was the least interesting of all the student pieces. It felt like they were trying to just ride the coattails of previous attention getting Gobelins shorts. And I suppose getting a mention on the Brew means they succeeded. But to me it's just a repeat on the same old visual meme: the crazy chase through a handsomely painted CG world. Le Building from 2005 kinda had some flavor of that and it was fun and fresh. Then Burning Safari from 2006 took it to the next level and that was really fun to watch. Then there was the Annecy 2007 opening film- where the Raggedy Andy looking dude whips through the world so fast that everything loses structure at times. That was the best of the lot, I think. The chase idea had been maxed. Last year's Oktapodi was another take on this idea and while not as hectic a chase, the addition of the love story made it worthwhile. California Love just seems like another Gobelins run on the concept. OK, we get it. Crazy high speed chases through painterly worlds are cool. We can put that one down now. Let's allow that ground to lie fallow for the next few years.

The other ones are cool in their own way, too. Check 'em out. It's always fun to see the new stuff each year.

Friday, December 05, 2008

APT Student Animation: Anthony Bennett

Here's another student profile from my Animation Personal Trainer classes. Today we'll take a look at Tony Bennett's work. Tony has been through the APT twice now, the first time being the summer of 2007. Back then he had just graduated from another animation school and was looking to further improve his skills. We spent a good amount of time back then developing a good workflow for Tony, as well as improving his body mechanics and polish.

Every student- regardless of experience- brings some innate talent to the table. Tony has a good sensibility for performance, but his ability had not matured to the point where those ideas could show through clearly. Here's an example of Tony's work before his second session....

There are some neat ideas there, but they're downed out. Everything is too big- a problem I see with many inexperienced animators. Everything is set to the max- poses, timing, screen movement, accents- they're all as big as possible. There's no variation. What's missing is a sense of texture. So we spent a lot of time developing his eye for texture in his animation.

Here's what his work looked like after the session...

Now we're seeing those ideas come through. There's more here than a pretty render (though it's always nice to dress things up if you can). No, the real quality here comes from knowing when to go big, when to go small and when to save a little something for the biggest impact. And you'll note that the polish has improved as well. There's still some need for more development regarding arcs and drag/overlap, but Tony knows about those things and he's well on his way to improving them on his own. That's the goal, really. Help the student get past the big hurdles, give them things they can keep working on and send them on their way with skills that will serve them well for the rest of their careers.

At this time Tony is animating for the Mass Animation Project on Facebook, and he's doing some nice work.