Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Fool’s Errand, Part 1

Seeing as I just made a call for animators to get in the game and make some indy short films I thought I’d offer up some thoughts gleaned from my experiences in such ventures (both good and bad). Oddly enough I think I learned more from the failures than the successes, but life’s funny that way. First up, the painfully obvious (which somehow seems to not be painful enough to keep us from trying it)…

If you are going to make a short film all by yourself then don’t even try and match this!



This being just one set from Pixar’s latest film Ratatouille. As other blogs have noted, Disney has decided to put a QuicktimeVR of the environment up online for you to poke around in. What can I say? This stuff is more than impressive. The level of detail and craftmanship is astounding. Every surface holds up regardless of how close you get to it, everything is maxed out. It’s a technical marvel of an accomplishment.

Which is exactly why it would be all wrong to try and do anything even remotely close to it in a personal short film.

But why not? Doncha wanna compete with the best of the best? Are you being a chicken, Lango? Gonna back down from the challenge, give up without a fight? Heh. You’ll learn in a little bit that’s not the case. No, simply put- it’s just not feasible. The answer can be found in two words: Man Days. What is a ‘man day’? Easy– How much work can a single person do in a normal 8 hour day of work? That is a man day. How many man days does a task cost? Add up all the people that are working on it and mutliply that by the number of days they spend on the task. That’s your man day cost. All tasks in the creation of a CG film are estimated, budgeted, assigned, tracked, measured and paid for in man-days. This one set- a major set in the film- required many artists and technicans working many weeks and months to make it to this level of detail and quality. In other words, it has a ton of man days in it.

Well, duh. So what does all that have to do with you and your short film? You’re not out to make a 100 minute feature but a 4 or 5 minute short? Why can’t you do this? I’ll tell you why- Unless you are independently wealthy or super human you have very, very few man-days to work with. A person who is working to pay the bills, live life and is making a short film on the side has at best maybe 3 man days a week to give to a personal project. And that’s hammering. Typically you’ll have 2 man days spread out over a week. Two. Not twenty. Not ten. Not even five. Just two. At two man-days per week it would literally take you 10 years to faithfully recreate just this one set from Ratatouille. That’s not hyperbole.

It has been pointed out in comments here and elsewhere that it’s a ton of work for not a lot of pay off to make a short film. There is absolutely no disputing that. Mark Mayerson astutely points out that the real gold in a short film is the end result. All techniques regarding the visual presentation are merely servants to this end goal. The trouble comes when we make the technique the goal.

Many indy animators filmmakers (especially those who opt for CG as their weapon of choice) have been victim of being too focused on trying to recreate what we see on the big screen. Those films are the result of huge budgets and crews of hundreds and hundreds of artists and technicians working for years. But our pride says “I want my film to look that good!” Of course we do. We love what we do. Many of us are good at it. Many of us who have done this stuff professionally for years know that we can make something that good- we don’t lack the skill, experience or talent. And we certainly wouldn’t want to degrade our good name by making something crappy. But that’s a dangerous place to be. Pride is one thing (and bad enough). But the ability to back it up, though- that is the critical ingredient to hubris. To try and match blow for blow against the big boys is pure madness- even if only for 3 or 4 minutes of screen time. The effort involved doesn’t scale down linearly and we’re fools to believe otherwise. So what do we do? We don’t want to make our personal stuff look like a Nasonex Bee commercial, but we can’t make it as good as we know how because the workload is insane. There’s a 22 here, go try and catch it.

To get an indy animated film done then a complete paradigm shift of what we perceive as “good” animated filmmaking is needed. In short- we need to step back from the edge of the abyss and open our eyes to the possibilities that various style and design choices afford us. In other words, stop making the technique the prize. Think outside of the box that everybody tells you you need to live in. Don’t buy the hype that there is only one kind of “good” animation and that anything that isn’t that style is somehow a lesser thing. Don’t believe this tripe– especially if you’re a CG animator/artist. There’s more out there than trying to duplicate the results of the big studios. If you want to finish your short film you need to kill your little fantasy of single handedly creating a film as fully animated, technically sophisticated and visually detailed as No Time for Nuts or any 4 minutes of Ratatouille. Kill it, then put it in a simple pine box and bury it in the backyard of your mind with fresh flowers on the grave. If you don’t you will set yourself up to fail. I’ve already taken this tragic journey once. The results were predictable. I’ll share my thoughts from my own fool’s errand here in the coming days.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Keith,
Never a wiser word spoken. I wish I knew this 5 years ago when I started my own "mini" projects. Here I an 5 years later exhausted, disappointed and the creater of two mediocre pieces of work that do my skills no justice.
Anyway, it's good to know that I'm not alone.