Monday, April 09, 2007

Worshipping at the altar of innefficiency

Have you ever had your entire concept of the craft of animation shattered? About 3 or 4 years ago I did and it blew my mind. I’d been talking with some older hand drawn animators, listening to their stories, as well as reading some interviews and such. When I found out about how much footage old school Disney animators and Warner Bros animators used to do back in the golden age of animation and I just couldn’t believe what I heard. They were absolutely smoking what we do now- and they were making work that was magnitudes better looking than what we do now. This so ruptured my concept of what it means to do quality animation that I then went on to try and understand what it is that I had gotten so wrong all these years.

I got to thinking about this again when Hans Perk posted a 1938 Disney memo on his blog the other day. The memo details the footage accomplishments of various animators in the Disney studio at that time. The numbers are mind blowing. The average animator at the Disney studio in 1938 was producing 3.75 feet of animation per day, 18.75 feet per week or roughly 14 seconds per week.

I’ll let that settle in for a moment.

For many years I labored in CG animation under the illusion that if only I had a lower footage quota- then I could do top notch work. I recall wistful conversations with younger animators in lower tier studios about the low footage quotas of 4 seconds per week at places like Pixar, Blue Sky, Dreamworks, etc. It was like some holy grail for those of us laboring away in the 12-18 seconds per week world of direct to video. If only we didn’t have such cheap bosses then we too could make really high quality animation. Today I’m not convinced that this is necessarily true.

Of course footage quotas are always sliding depending on shot complexity, etc. But in general your typical feature film CG animation studio has an average per animator footage quota of roughly 4-6 seconds per week. 4 in the beginning of production, 6 towards the end. Some studios do more, some less, but these are the typical numbers for your “high end” feature shops. I was under the misguided notion for many years that if only I could have such luxury then I’d be a good animator.

I’m of the opinion now that I was wrong. How else can we explain that Ollie Johnson, considered a slow animator at Disney in 1938, did almost TWICE that? Are we making animation that is 2x better than Ollie Johnson did on Snow White or Pinocchio? I’m not convinced of of that. And what about guys like Norm Ferguson who kicked out a staggering 23 seconds per week? I read recently on Michael Sporn’s blog that during the 70’s on the Doonesbury film that animator Tissa David was doing 100 feet per week of nearly full animation. That’s over a minute per week!! What did they have in the water back then? Clearly there must be something else - or a combination of somethings- at work here.

I used to have a number of arguments to excuse away my own inefficiency and poor results. “Yeah, but those guys didn’t have to clean up their work. They had assistants do that.” True. They usually had just one assistant. So even if you cut the footage in half the numbers are still impressive by modern film standards. That means Norm Ferguson and his assistant combined were doing 12 seconds per week of final polished animation on Snow White. Frank Thomas and his assistant were doing 10 seconds per week of final polished animation combined. Milt Kahl & assistant over 7 seconds per week. Same for Art Babbit, Grim Natwick and Ward Kimball. But I think perhaps even this is too simplistic a point. The assistants drew everything based on the keys, breakdowns, extreme drawings and timing charts invented by these animators. Meaning the animators defined every single creative aspect of the performance and the assistant drew the inbetweens and did clean ups based on those decisions. Every single creative performance decision - all created, drawn, noted and communicated to another person- without the benefit of instant video feedback at the push of a button! Think of it. How many of us could do 10 seconds per week of final animation at a level that Frank Thomas did in 1938 without making 20 playblast previews a day?

“Yeah, but these guys are legends. They’re not like us. Give us 40 years in the business and I bet we could do the same.”. Not quite. The footage numbers on Hans’ blog are from 1938. Long, long, long before these guys were the 9 Old Men or whatever. They were young guys. Probably not a gray hair in the entire crew except for maybe Grim Natwick. They even had the added burden of inventing the entire medium while hitting these numbers.

“Well, they were animating on 2’s. They didn’t need to clean up 24 drawings per second like we do.” Kinda. Often they worked on 2’s, but in full feature animation back then more often than not they worked in a mixed 1’s and 2’s format. A lot of CG animators wouldn’t even begin to know how to handle that. I know I didn’t until I took the time to learn how to do it- from an old school animator, of course. Mixed timing in many respects is more complex than fixed timing on 1’s.

One by one I learned that my excuses were just that. Sooner or later I had to face the fact that the reason I was slower and made poorer results was that I really did not know how to animate. I could make fine enough animation results, get work. I had an eye and a talent for motion and performance, but that’s a different thing altogether than knowing how to animate. It’s the difference between being a food critic and being Emeril Legasse. The critic knows food and definitely knows what he’s talking about- and if given the opportunity probably could plunk about in the kitchen and whip up a nice meal from a recipe in an hour or so. But the chef is the one who could make the dish from scratch in under 20 minutes and give you 10 variations on the theme. Both know food- but only one really knows how to cook. In the same way I had to admit that I knew animation, but I didn’t know how to animate.
More to come…

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