Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Worshipping at the altar of innefficiency: part 2

Read the previous installment to catch up. Some good comment action going there as well.
I think there are other contributing factors that attribute to why current day animators are significantly slower (and arguably make poorer animation) than those of a bygone era.

First- The tools define how we do the job. In the infancy of Cg animation programmers invented new ways of doing things that weren’t even close to being based on the way animation had been done for decades. Language was borrowed and bastardized to mean something else. Techniques and tools had some loose association with old established methods, but in practice were completely different. As a result for a long time CG animators couldn’t see any parallels in how animation was made “back then” and now. To this day a huge number of CG animators can’t read a timing chart. It’s so foreign to them as to be unusable and irrelevant. But if you can read a timing chart then you have the ability to understand timing in a very practical and useful way- something which is of great value to all animators in any era regardless of medium. And that’s just one example. The result is that we have lost out on generations of “back then” know how. It kinda happened by default, but it was like there was this new tool and all the old ways don’t even apply. We could read the right books, but the practical “how to” parts seemed like a long lost craft- like wooden ship building or clovis point arrowhead making.

Some folks in the comments for the previous post mentioned rigs as being a problem. I used to think rigs were a major problem- and I do think the general craft of rigging is in need of fresh ideas and new solutions. But I don’t know just how much a rig has to do with animator speed. An experienced animator can make even a slow rig work for them. Rig limitations for obtaining a certain shape is one thing- but that’s more of a qualitative complaint, and a valid one at that. It does have a bearing on getting things qualitatively and that reflects itself quantitatively as well. But in my eyes the primary way a bad rig can slow down productivity is if it is too cumbersome in how it utilizes the computing power. Meaning- if the animator has to wait 10 or 15 seconds to see the puppet being moved into place on screen, then we have a valid speed issue. Thankfully most rigs aren’t quite that slow (but I’ve worked with some that were. Pure pain.). So unless your rigging folks are making a rig that is agonizingly slow to update, redraw and deform in the given buffer memory space for the frame you’re on I don’t think it has a lot of bearing. Now if you’re a timeline scrub monkey, well then the problem isn’t the rig. The problem is you and the way you animate. After all pencil animators can’t scrub in realtime either and they’ve been animating for a long time with good result. So I don’t buy timeline scrub speed of a rig as a major problem because I think a workflow that relies heavily on timeline scrubbing is a flawed workflow. Allegorically I liken it to a cabinet maker who instead of measuring twice and cutting once instead puts his saw away and decides to sand the piece of wood down to the proper length, constantly stopping to see if it fits yet.
The visual style of CG is generally pedantic. All those details, all that versimilitude to reality pushes our efforts into the little things that used to be exaggerated out. What old masters used to distill down into an illusion of life we spend lionizing in replicating life. This is true from design down to motion and then on to rendering. Smooth trumps strong nearly every time. The realism of Cg has always been a siren song and all that fine twiddling makes the entire process achingly slow.

It doesn’t help either that we fill out the ranks of our studios with younger animators who have never benefited from apprenticing under an experienced animator as an assistant. Economics dictates that we need to fill out a good chunk of the staff with young animators right out of school or with less than 2 years working experience. The quick rise to full film animator status adds a kind of legitimacy to the workflow of the young animator, thus cutting short many advances in their development. After all, why should we bother learning to do things a better way? We’ve got our job at (insert big name studio here) already- seems good enough for us. But there’s a danger in this- the stagnation of learning only cements bad methodologies and as time passes these weaker methodologies become the new defacto “right way”. Youth by nature has a dismissive hubris toward age and experience. Sometimes this is good. Often times it is bad. Old knowledge is devalued or lost. I am convinced that if I had spent 2 or 3 years apprenticing under an experienced traditional animator that I’d be much further along in my skill than I am today. But these opportunities don’t even exist in CG and they are increasingly scarce anywhere in the world now.

Then there’s the endless noodling of CG animation. The “easiness” of change in CG is a trap. Animators noodle. Supervisors noodle. Directors noodle. Producers noodle. Executives noodle. In an effort for everybody to take part in the decision process nobody is decisive- so the work constantly gets reworked. There does come a point where continual tweaking makes a scene worse- not better. Sometimes a thing really is better the first or second time instead of the 8th, 9th or 20th time. Of course for that to be true you do kinda have to know what you’re doing. And just as often after a scene is noodled it’s not really any better- it’s just different. When I was a supervisor I always asked myself The note that I want to give to this animator about this scene- will it really make the scene better/clearer/funnier/stronger? Or will it just make it different in a way that is more like the way I would have done it? The former is a valid supervisory note. The latter is ego stroking and frustrating to the animator. We have far too much of the latter in the business these days.

Whatever the cause, the reality is that it takes us a lot longer to get the job done than it used to take this other bygone generation of animators. But I don’t think the task is beyond us if the current marketplace was different. I think experienced professional animators of this CG generation could match the old 1938 numbers if we cut out the noodling and decided to use a more exaggerated style of motion. But even then fixing those two conditions isn’t enough if you really don’t know how to animate and you have to rely on brute force to get things looking good. Brute force doesn’t scale well.

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