Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What is content and what is its value? -- Part 2

First, a big thumbs up thanks to my friend, the brilliant Hamish McKenzie (if you're a Maya animator/rigger and you're not using Hamish's fantastic ZooTools then you are living a life of needless pain and woe) for sending me some links to TechDirt, a blog that covers a lot of things about content, copyright, new age and social media based business models, etc. 

In my last post I noted that I have drawn the conclusion that content (music, photographs, art, film, video, stories, etc.) is of no direct economic value outside of it's physical storage/delivery mechanism or the exclusive group experience of it (concerts, cinema, plays, etc.). This is a conclusion that a brief inspection of history itself seems to support. And as if that weren't enough, now in the digital internet age that limited value has become even less valuable- the point of direct economic worthlessness. The reason is simple- in the digital era there is no scarcity of digital files. The copy of a file does not diminish the existence of the source file. It is, literally, an infinite element. And anything that is (practically) infinite in availability is by nature economically worthless in a direct sense. Fair value for labor and all other "moral" constructs have no bearing. It's not a moral issue, it's a simple gravitational one. Let go of something, it falls. Whether that's right or wrong is irrelevant. Make an infinite supply of something, its value drops to zero. Scarcity is what creates value. Any efforts to impose scarcity on digital content in today's world is a Quixotic quest, doomed to only increase the sales of Maalox to those who tip at these infinite windmills. Kids, the genie's out of the bottle and we cannot put it back in. Reality dictates we learn to function in this new paradigm. (for a much more thorough dissertation on the impact of infinite supply on the economic value of a work of content, read this excellent TechDirt post. Read the linked posts that preceded it as well. For some this will be old hat, but many of us are still arriving at this dinner party.)

Commenter Ian asked a good question on my previous post: Is this depressing or liberating? (and by "this" he means the understanding that digital content is without inherent direct economic value)

The answer, I suppose, lies in how you see the world. I've been in both camps- depressed and liberated. For the last 4+ years I've been fortunate enough to be able to make a living as an independent content creator with my VTS animation tutorial videos. There have been good times, but for the last 2 years or so there's been a steady erosion as unauthorized copies of my videos have become more available on the internet. I won't lie:  unauthorized file sharing has put a sizable dent in my business, forcing me to consider alternative ways to feed la familia. However this is NOT a post whining about how people are stealing from my kids, etc. etc. etc. I knew 4 years ago when I started the VTS that file sharing would ultimately result. It's why I never bothered with copy protection or any of that stuff from the very start. I knew it was a waste of my most precious & limited resource- my time.  While I'd certainly prefer that people pay for the valuable (I think) info on how to be a better animator contained in my VTS videos, I won't waste energy complaining about those who don't. Nor will I waste energy trying to stop them, either. Instead I'd rather focus my energy on adapting and moving forward.

In the spirit of embracing things as they are and not as I wish them to be, I've begun to make some new animation tutorial videos and putting them up on my YouTube channel for free. (some direct links here, here, here and here). A few folks have stumbled across them, but I haven't promoted or mentioned them here on my blog yet. I figured this is a good time to introduce them. I think they offer some good info- and they're free. Share 'em as you see fit. I hope they help folks out. I'm still producing new VTS videos each month for those who want something more (we're currently working on a very complex James Brown inspired dance sequence utilizing video reference). And you can still purchase over four years' worth of back issue VTS videos for even more in depth info on being a better animator. But I'm going to mix in more of these free videos, too. I'll make more as I get the time- but my time is going to become even more scarce in the coming days and weeks.

More on that in a bit.

What is content and what is its value?

Friend and colleague Thom Falter (see his site here) sent me this article lately and I've been mulling it over. It's written by a software developer turned venture capitalist named Paul Graham. It's on the nature of publishing, content and physical delivery media. It's really a great read and his logical assessment of the history of publishing and content strikes a true note to me. A few excerpts...

In fact consumers never really were paying for content, and publishers weren't really selling it either. If the content was what they were selling, why has the price of books or music or movies always depended mostly on the format? Why didn't better content cost more?

Almost every form of publishing has been organized as if the medium was what they were selling, and the content was irrelevant. Book publishers, for example, set prices based on the cost of producing and distributing books. They treat the words printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics.

People will pay for information they think they can make money from. That's why they paid for those stock tip newsletters, and why companies pay now for Bloomberg terminals and Economist Intelligence Unit reports. But will people pay for information otherwise? History offers little encouragement.

What about iTunes? Doesn't that show people will pay for content? Well, not really. iTunes is more of a tollbooth than a store. Apple controls the default path onto the iPod. They offer a convenient list of songs, and whenever you choose one they ding your credit card for a small amount, just below the threshold of attention. Basically, iTunes makes money by taxing people, not selling them stuff. You can only do that if you own the channel, and even then you don't make much from it, because a toll has to be ignorable to work. Once a toll becomes painful, people start to find ways around it, and that's pretty easy with digital content.

Those are just a few highlights. Go read the whole post- it's an extremely lucid read. My take away from this is pretty clear- content has little to no inherent monetary value. The monetary value is in any delivery mechanism that allows people to distract themselves in a manner that fits their personal experiential tastes and preferences. What they actually distract themselves with is, as the author puts it, "undifferentiated slurry".

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Odosketch is going to swallow my free time

Just saw this on the Drawn blog. Odosketch is a free online sketching tool that's fast, fun and pretty capable. I whipped this up...

Why bother with something like this when I have Painter- a far more capable program which I spent hundreds f dollars on? Well, it's the light, limited and online nature of it that I like. When I have to do anything by hand I tend to freeze up. It's too daunting. Art becomes serious and I get timid. But Odosketch is inviting. It's online. You do it in your browser. It's the ultimate in throw away ethereal media. You can't take seriously anything you draw online in a web browser for free. You just can't. That's very freeing. For me at least. The interface is butt-simple, too.

Monday, September 21, 2009


An old trick in the world of limited budget 2d animation is to cycle through two to four drawings for a hold. This way you can chew up the scene footage with as few drawings as possible. The result is animation that kinda squiggles as it holds, maintaining the illusion of life more by an expression of energy than literal movement. This is very cost effective and the image stays alive due to the cycling. Since the animation stays so rough the audience accepts it for what it is- as well as whatever other limitations of the animation that come along for the ride. It's surprising what an audience will take in and filter through once they perceive the internal rules of an animated universe- a task that takes perhaps all of two seconds of viewing. Certainly I think this attitude of getting by with the least possible effort can be way overdone, but in the right balance I think there's real potential for cost savings without surrendering richness. The richness just comes in a different form, that's all. Nina Paley used this technique in Flash while making her solo feature film Sita Sings the Blues. You can see what I mean in the very first scenes in the following segment of the film....

It's rough as heck, but it totally works. In fact, it more than works. It thrives on a level that is completely different than if it were tied down tight, tightly polished and had the holds all animated in like a typical big budget Disney 2d film. The rough look has a kind of vibrancy to it that actually adds to the film. I don't have a fancy explanation for how it works- I just know it does.

Since I have these little stories I want to make, but I don't have a huge budget (natch: I don't have any budget) to hire an expensive team of animators and CG technicians, I keep looking for creative ways to leverage lessons and tricks from other mediums of animation into my little CG toolbox. I've lost years of effort trying to be a one man band making short films employing the big-studio CG film style. Those were lessons learned the hard way. So I've been messing with this squiggly thing for a few years now (off and on). It's taken that long to find something that works. Due to the rigidity of the meshes and well established visual norms CG just doesn't like to do this sort of thing. And nothing looks worse in CG than a cycle- of any kind. So I'd try something, but it'd look like crud- like some kind of mechanical or technical error rather than a purposeful artistic style. So I'd leave it for a while and then come back and try something different after thinking of something in the shower. More failures each time, each coming closer to what I wanted but couldn't see in my head because it just wasn't being done anywhere else. CG is so picky when it comes to the imagery it makes. There's so little margin for error it seems. It's too demanding, too rigid an artform at times. But like Edison and his silly light bulb, I kept at it. I finally feel like I got it. Here's my version (watch it in HD for a better look. Or best yet- here's a link to a full res QT)....

This is really fast to animate because I'm using flat out 'dead holds' on the controls and letting the squiggly part keep the scene alive. I hit a pose and that's it. I hold it. No 'moving holds' or overdone overlapping business. This 4 second scene took maybe 15 or 20 minutes to animate (compare that to 4 sec. per week doing it the "right" way in feature films). In fact I over-animated it at first out of habit, so I had to go back and rip out the moving holds I had started to build in. I tell you, the hardest part is de-programming myself from doing CG the "right" way. It's not as easy as it sounds to embrace simplicity and then trust it. Anyhow, here's a screen grab of my f-curves to show the dead holds on the major controllers... (click to see it larger).

This is what it looks like without the squigglies....

You can see that it's super dry and just goes dead without the squiggles. The squiggling really keeps it feeling vibrant. So yeah. I'm really, really happy with where I've ended up with this.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Laika no longer a CG feature film studio

This is an interesting twist.

Last December Laika whacked about half of its CG film studio staff as their second animated feature hit development issues. Now 10 months later they decided that CG isn't their cup-o-tea at all. So they gutted the rest of their CG film crew, only keeping a few CG folks around for FX and for their commercials division. For better or worse, Laika decided that they didn't want to be a CG feature film studio, focusing on stop-motion instead.

From a business standpoint I can see the logic. The CG film side of things is a pretty crowded racket. You have the big boys in Pixar/Disney, Blue Sky, Dreamworks, Sony-- and you have a bevy of independent efforts released under various monikers like WB, Universal, Focus, etc. Laika faced an uphill battle establishing a brand for themselves as another one of the third wave CG studios releasing films like Tale of Despereaux, 9, Planet 51, etc. In my view I'm sure that the leadership at Laika views brand recognition as a key goal. These are the same people who brought you one of the most successful global brands in Nike. They know the power of brand and they know how a strong brand buys you a good bit of wiggle room. (see: Cars. ahem). With the success of Coraline Laika was positioned in an interesting place. In business when your brand is not the leader of the pack you have two choices. You can work like a mule and with deep pockets, persistence and some luck find your place among the best in your field (a track that Sony Pictures Animation is hoping to find traction with on their 4th film). Or you go find something you do that is a bit different, but you do it better than anybody else and focus on making a go of it with that. It's hard to imagine Laika "out-Pixar-ing" Pixar, but it's completely reasonable to see them carving out a viable, successful place in stop-motion- which is their heritage. But even better- it's hard to imagine a place like Pixar "out-Laika-ing" Laika. That's nothing to sneeze at.

I wouldn't be surprised if there was a cultural aspect, too. In speaking with some folks who worked at Laika before the lay offs it appears there was a less than subtle rivalry between the stop-motion crew and the CG crew. This isn't surprising, many "old media" artists and techs look down on CG. Not all of them, but it's not a rarity that's for sure. We all know there's no shortage of 2d animators who will bend your ear for hours over a coffee (or fill blogs) about the inherent limitations/failings of CG. Some of the complaints are valid, some are misguided efforts to make a square peg serve in a round hole and some are merely the jealous grumblings of those threatened or displaced by the popularity of CG films. It's a culture war that simmers barely under the surface of the animation film business and it will for decades to come. At its soul Laika is a stop-mo shop since it came from the Will Vinton studio. It's not too surprising to see the leadership there decide to embrace that going forward once they found they didn't need to fall back on the popularity of CG to make a viable go of it as a feature film studio. With the benefit of hindsight I get the sense that perhaps Laika looked at developing their CG film slate almost as a hedge against their stop-motion titles not doing so well. It's reasonable to think that the success of Coraline emboldened them enough to drop that hedge and go full press for stop-motion. So now we can add Laika to the short list of Aardman that is a proven feature film stop-motion studio. Certainly a less crowded arena in which to stand.

Then there's the human side of it all. It's a bummer for the folks who got laid off. I had a good number of friends affected by the first Laika whack-job and I know of others who probably got the axe this time, too. Getting laid off in a one-horse animation town like Portland is rough. There's not much else for you to do there, so you gotta sell the house, move the family and shamble on down the road to the next gig- provided you can find it. If these folks bought homes in Portland in mid/late 2006 (when Laika did a bit of ramping up in CG staff), then they're double trapped because home prices in the Portland area have taken a pretty big hit. The animated film biz is very, very transient and being on "permanent staff" is no guarantee of stability. Big Idea, DNA, Blue Sky, Laika, Disney- they've all either gone out of business or had major, major staff reductions of permanent full time workers who thought they were above the rough and tumble world of ramped up/down contract hires. I find it ironic that at the time when there are more animation jobs in film, fewer and fewer of them are attractive to the aging CG workforce. In the end this skews the workforce to younger, more mobile people with less experience and a willingness to work lots of hours- much of it unpaid OT. As people age, grow families and desire stability the experience is getting squeezed out of the labor pool. In the end this only hurts the studios and the films as well. The medium doesn't have a chance to capitalize on past experiences and lessons learned- technically, productively or creatively. So the same ground gets re-hashed and the same mistakes get made year after year, just the faces change. It's a cruel business and here's hoping folks can find a place to land that works well for them not only creatively, but for their families as well.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Cartoon CG fun

A former APT student of mine, Sunny Kharbanda, has really been diving into the whole 'cartoons in CG' experimenting. It's a lot of fun seeing him find new things. Since we're both tinkering in this area we communicate a lot, sharing what we find works, what doesn't, etc. Sunny just posted on his blog about his process for developing the backgrounds to work with his animation tests (you can see those here and here). Cool stuff. Check it out.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"9" = not a bad little money maker

Shane Acker's "9" had its brief stand as the only animated feature in theaters last week. This week Sony's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs lands at your local cine-plex. "9" opened on an odd day (a Wednesday), but take away the few extra days and it's first weekend did a tidy little $10mil. So the film will probably yield in the $35-40mil range domestically, probably another $30-40 over seas. Add in home video and such and I think the producers have a nice little return on investment brewing. It's not an empire making block buster like Shrek or Ice Age, but it'll be a decent little money maker. Which is not a bad thing. "9" is not your typical animated film. Whether you like the film or not (and it has had some mixed reviews) the fact that it hasn't been an absolute bomb like Delgo or Battle for Terra is a good thing. Like those other films, "9" veers from some pretty well established patterns for success in animated fare. This will hopefully embolden other producers to be willing to green light projects that stretch the boundaries of the animated feature film market. The world will always make room for the big boys' stuff (well, until they don't), but I think as time goes by the broad viability of the feature marketplace will rest more and more with the second and third tier offerings.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Facebook is.... profitable??!

This is actually kinda big news. It's been the very (very) rare online social networking site that has actually made money from it's core business (as opposed to getting bought out by a larger firm). Maybe YouTube won't be far behind? I wouldn't hold my breath- the capital infrastructure costs for serving up all that video is orders of magnitude larger than FB's bandwidth needs. Still, if the independent content creator is to have any shot at making a serious go of it they'll need these online communities to actually make money-- for themselves first, then share the love with the content creators.
Baby steps.

Monday, September 14, 2009

New APT Session for October 2009

It's time for a new Animation Personal Trainer session.

This next APT will start the week of October 12th and run through November 13th. I am accepting student registration now on my Animation Clinic online store. As always spaces are limited and students are taken first come-first served. Registration will close on Friday October 2nd.

Important Note: This will be the last APT for quite a while.  At this time I don't plan on having any APT sessions before the summer of 2010 due to my work schedule. So if you've been wanting to get in on an APT session, then this next class starting in October will be your last chance for perhaps a year. 

I have a dandy FAQ if you are filled with questions about the APT. If after reading the FAQ you still have questions regarding the APT, then you can always feel free to email me.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Another painted CG short

This one is a little more cohesive than the previous one I posted.

There's some neat use of projections that I think is very clever. The end result is the geometry is free to move, but the painter's control over what part of the whole image has which color, tone, value, etc remains. For an example of what I'm talking about, watch the top of the merry go round as it spins in that first shot. The geometry is passing through the painting as the top spins, but the painting is not stuck to the geometry. If you watch carefully you'll see this technique is the very foundation for this style of look through out the short- even on the characters. This is a great way of getting a consistent sense of the painting being alive without it feeling like it's just a painting plastered onto a puppet. The normal 'rule' in CG is to avoid having geometry swim through a texture, but for this kind of stuff it's a great trick.

Schmitty Walk cycle

Watch it in HD if you like. It's extra tasty at full rez.
This is just a generic walk for Schmitty. Walks are like chicken broth. You don't ever eat plain chicken broth, but it's the basis for a lot of tasty recipes. Walks should be adjusted for moment, character, emotion, physical limitations, etc.
On a technical note I'm exploring some new techniques for mixing up the shading texture as well as distressing the mesh silhouette in order to make a more "hand crafted" feel. I'm working on some other tests that will show that better which I hope to share soon.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

More painterly CG

Another Gobelins effort. I like the shading, especially the active line within the objects defining light and shadow on the form. The clouds & FX are cool. The backgrounds are handled very well, but in the darker moments the characters get lost against them- something typically avoided when one employs an emotional palette as opposed to a literal one. The stark shadows work well. I think the animation, while good at points, could have benefitted from being dialed back into limited frame rates and not full on 1's the whole way through. It's that same bugaboo that has plagued NPR CG for the last decade. Looks like a nice painting until it moves. It's that visual harmony/cohesion thing again.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Monetizing online media

There's a good read over on the CinemaTech blog if you're geeky about how the business will remain viable in 20 years. A snippet observation....

Picking up the theme of targeting, Miller suggested that advertisers will pay more for online ads as behavioral targeting increases (targeting ads based on what you do online and interests you express), though he admitted that online ads may never achieve the same prices that network television commands.

Miller touched on the idea that the costs of content creation may need to go down in this new world, if advertisers aren't paying the prices they once did. (That's a point we discuss pretty frequently here at CinemaTech.)

Mind you TV ad revenues have been dropping steadily in recent years. This budget squeeze on content creation has been one of the big driving factors behind the rise of the reality show. They're cheap to make. Aside from privacy concerns, the notion that even targeted ad revenues online won't fetch the same bid that TV spots go for should be troubling for mid-sized (or smaller) content creators. TV animation has seen production budgets for 22 minute shows drop to less than half what they were 10 years ago. If the online world won't even pay that much for ad space, then the reality is that as a whole (with some notable giant exceptions) this industry is going to have to learn how to make stuff for a lot less money than they currently spend. I'll let the intellectually intrepid among you deduce what that means for the hoi polloi in the trenches/cubicles.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cartoon games

I love where games are headed with these more toony looking projects.

This game play trailer made me smile....