July 22, 2005

Shut-Up and Animate

I started a reply to this blog entry at: The Business of Animation. And I felt like my reply got a bit too long. So I thought I'd post it here instead. You should probably read his post first, but to sum it up, in his post, Staloren talks about the kind of CG animators who used to do traditional animation and now belly ache about the fact that they're not drawing their animation anymore. This is a familiar story to me. I've talked with a lot former traditional animators, not all of them hate working on the computer, some even learned to like it, some have even preferred it. But some tend to put on airs about how it's not a "true artistic way to animate." To those people I just want to tell them to drop the mouse and go back to the stick. But there's another side to all of this. I think I have a fairly unique perspective, I feel like I can agree with both animators. Rather then come off as a hypocrite I should explain.

When I was in High School I knew I wanted to be an animator but didn't know how to go about doing it. My mother was eager to encourage my interests. At the time we were living in New Jersey, and there wasn't a lot of animation schools or studios around. She looked in all the community collages that were in driving distance from our house and found a public school named: Mercer County Community Collage that offered a class in Computer Graphics and Animation. This was in 1989, so computer animated logos had just started to annoy people who watched television. My mother signed me up for that class and a class in Life Drawing.

At the time I didn't know anything about animation, I had never heard of the 9 old men, or "The Illusion of Life." I had never heard of Squash and Stretch or any of the principles of animation. So the class didn't teach me any of that, it basically showed you how to use the computer and how to create graphics that moved.

The computer graphics class was in an odd political battle at the school. The computer science lab wanted to do away with the program. They saw computer graphics as a waist of processing power. They wanted the classes to be canceled and all the computers given to them. The Art department hated them as well. They saw computes as a threat, and computer graphics as not a "real artform." (sound familiar?) I took a lot of flack in my life drawing class for taking computer graphics classes.

In the long run it was one one of the smartest things I did. CalArts had just received a donation of computers, and my combination of life drawing and computer graphics was just what they wanted to see. They really wanted someone who was going to work with their new donation of computers, little did they know that my experience at Mercer had turned me off of computer animation and I had no intention of ever touching a computer again. But it helped me get into CalArts, and that's where really learned about animation.

Now the argument of art vs computer didn't stop at Mercer, it got bigger at CalArts. I didn't want to do computer animation but because I had become friends with the people in the Mercer CG lab, I felt inclined to defend computer animation. This didn't win me any friends at CalArts.*

(Now days the argument at CalArts are different. I hear that the teachers have to drag the students into Life Drawing classes. They all want to become computer animators not traditional animators. Oh the irony...)

A few months ago, a good friend of mine put together a demo tape. She cut together a bunch of traditional animation. Stuff that was animated by the old masters, shots from Disney and Warner Brothers along with computer animation from Pixar, Dremworks and Blue Sky. She did something really clever. She tried to find shots that were similar. You couldn't find shots that were exactly the same, but you could find two shots where the characters were doing the same kind of action. For example, two characters arguing, or reacting in fear, running, walking, a big dumb character and a fast smart-aleck, you name it. She then cut them together in order to compare apples to apples as best as she could. The results were eye opening. The traditional animation has so much life to it, next to it, computer animation was down right robotic. Even the best Pixar work was nothing compared to the masterful work of people like Milt Kahl. That's not to say the computer animation was bad or no good, it was really good, amazing in fact. But the animator could only work with the controls that were given to him, and that was nothing compared to the true mastery of form, volume and line control that the traditional animators had.

Computer animation is slowly getting better. And it's not really a fair comparison, traditional animation had around over 100 years of experience by the time my friend dug up the clips and cut them together. Cut together with CG animation which has, what, like 30-40 years on it? But as I said, Computer animation is getting better and one day it might become better then the traditional animation of the great masters, maybe not. But that tape proved to me that we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do! The one thing that traditional animation has over computer animation is that you can naturally come up with the poses you need. The flow is better. Computers are still way to clunky to be that natural. Maybe I'm just too old. I was trained classically, I didn't touch a computer for most of my CalArts education, my 11 month old daughter won't have the same kind of apprehension that I had towards the computer when she's my age. So maybe that clunkyness will go away with my generation.

But let's get to the real hart of the agreement for traditional over computer. I do agree with the traditional animators on one fact. I do feel that the education of the animators are being cast aside. Without someone with deep pockets to support traditional animation, the techniques of the masters that were passed down from Frank and Ollie to Glenn and Andreas are going to go away. Some of the techniques these guys taught can be traslated directly to CG animation, but not all of them. And for me, that's a sad thing. Unless we can find someone to fund traditional animation the way Disney funded it in the 90s, this skill will go away and will have to be re-invented.**

At the same time If traditional animators are true to their craft, they shouldn't let it die off. I'm much more impressed with James Baxter for setting up his own studio then I am with the people who use a computer "because they have to." No one is going to hand you a traditional project to work on, so get off your ass and create one. John Lassiter fought tremendous odds to get Toy Story on the screen. He stuck with what he new, story and Character, he saw that new tools could be created for the computer.

I was classically trained but I decided to go into computer animation mostly because I wasn't that good at drawing. CalArts was good at teaching me how to be a good draftsman, but they couldn't teach me how to draw. That's not to say I can't draw at all, I can draw and I have a lot of fun drawing. I draw as often as I can. But I can't draw as well as I needed to in order to work on feature films. In the end I discovered that I liked to animate more then I liked to draw, so for me, computers saved my ass.

I've run into a lot of people all the time who want to work on feature films (live action and animated). My first question I always ask is: "What do you want to do?" If they say: "Anything" I tell them to go find another line of work. Film and television in itself is not inherently fun to work on. If you like to draw or paint, then find a job drawing or painting. That could mean a job in pre-production, mat painting but it could also mean something outside of film/tv. Basically if you like to draw, draw. If you like to act, act. If you like to build things, build things. Basically, first and foremost you have to like doing what you do, not just like the idea that you work on films. That only leads to misery and there are easer jobs that pay much better.

So for me that's what it boils down to, if you like to draw, find a job drawing. If you like to work on the computer, find a job working on the computer. Just shut up and animate already.

*ironically, a lot of students from my class are now working at Pixar. I feel that Pixar brought art to the computer, so I don't think these people lost their arguments, but it did shut them up.

**Not that re-invention is all that bad mind you.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Great post.

I hope Glen Keane succeeds in getting that robotic stuff out of it with Rapunzel Unbraided. I've heard they've shown software at Siggraph last year that let the animators draw force lines, silhouettes, etc. on a tablet in their animation desk. Let's hope there's some more news about it at Siggraph this year :)

- Benjamin

Ethan said...

Hi Bejamin, I've heard about Glen Keane's new software, but I have not seen it. I'm interested, but extremely skeptical. I used to work with a great animator named Dave Burgess. He's a Disney animator who's made the trasition to the computer. He made the transition from pencil to mouse quite well, his work on Madagascar was some of the best work in the movie. He said: in order to become a good computer animator you have to want to work on the computer. I have huge respect for Glen Keane as an animator, but his new technique seems to be routed in the desire to draw and to not work on the computer. It sounds like a bad mix to me, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt until he shows his work. I could be wrong. It's happened before:)

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Aah, Dave Burgess, one of the few Animation Mentors of the 2D era :)

You've got a good point. But maybe working like that isn't being a "computer animator". Okay, it's on a computer, but its workflow is nothing like what we know now. And that needed desire to work on a computer, isn't that mostly needed to overcome the current computer obstacles? If this new workflow works out, who wouldn't want to work on a computer? Having more flow then "3D", and more depth and more subtlety then "2D"?

Of course, the whole thing might not work out at all, but I think it's dangerous looking at it like that. Instead of looking at result (2D <-> 3D), maybe it's best to look at the process (skeleton-based <-> drawing-based).


- Benjamin

twin turbohed said...

This dilemma has also swallowed many a stop motion animator. I think it is also worth mentioning this "traditional" form of animation, hell it's been around the longest. Although being skeleton-based, it is intuitive and tactile like drawing can be. I think all the various forms of animation are somehow cross-pollinating and combining. Thanks to computers I (stop mo guy) am getting to work more with drawn, 3D and puppets, and the gumbo pot needs stirrin' though.
I like your comment about creating the work that is out there. More animators need to make their own films and create there own companies.

jerrie said...

An excellently written arguement!!

tweedledeetweedledum said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ethan said...

There is nothing more evil then spam on a blog.

Anonymous said...


Awhile back, or about a year ago, Twin-Turbohed (Misha) gave me advice: "shut-up and animate". He called it tough love, but I see now that he was referring to this post (consciously or otherwise).

This is a good read, and I think that as long as you are thinking and doing as though you are working with and creating ART, the fact of whatever you use to create it kind of burns off in a haze. I hated to use computers for stopmotion until I bought Stopmotion Pro; now I am feverishly working on my second film since I bought the program a month ago. (It's even a Windows app, which surprised me how stable it was, given Microsoft's bad reputation for freezing up third-party software.)

As far as computers go, if the software is good, the experience ROCKS and can only speed and feed your creativity.


Don C.