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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Time and effort

Here's a comment I got from the "Sounds simple, doesn't it?" post and instead of adding another comment I wanted to post my thoughts here.

I think the cruxs of the problem is that most people get into animation because they think its easy. Spend a few hours hitting some buttons on the computer and you too can have Pixar [or even ILM ;)] quality animation.

But anyone who has seriously attempted to aspire to that level knows that animation is one of the most demanding art forms to learn nevermind master. Its an old joke but there is no 'Make Great Animation' button. It requires hours and hours of consistent practice and study.

Most schools won't tell you this, but in my estimation I believe 95% of people who get into animation will not make a career at feature film level. Not because they couldn't but because they are not prepared to put in the time and effort required.

I don't know about 95% but I think too that the number is more above 50% than below.

There is certainly no magic button. To me the problem is about being lazy. And not lazy in a negative way, as in "Ahhh, I don't care." but more a "Yeah, I think that looks good enough, that should work." type of thing. Good enough is not what you should strive for. You really have to push yourself and be honest to yourself when you look at your clip. Does it move the way I really want it to move. If I compare this to other work that inspires me, is it of the same quality? If not, why not? What can I do to make it better? Did I really spend hours on each body part, making sure that it is the best it can be?

Probably not. There can be many reasons for it. Time is obviously a big factor. That's why I wouldn't recommend doing Animation Mentor and the AAU at the same time for instance. It's also hard to go to either one of the schools and have a full time job, but that's just how it is, you have to pay the bills. If possible, at least plan out your schedule so that you give yourself enough time for your animation class.

But everybody that I know who has or is working at ILM, Pixar, Sony, Weta, etc. spent long hours in the school lab or at home polishing their shots. You have to be prepared to spend long nights, sleepless nights even. Sure you will have exceptions, people that are so talented that it takes them less time. But I think the majority is working really hard and investing a lot of time in their work and you have to do the same in order to stand out from the masses.

But it doesn't end once you get out of school, it's not a walk in the park either once you're hired. I can't talk for Pixar or any other studio which has in-house productions and of course they have a butt load of problems they have to fight with as well, but what I can do is give you a rundown of how live-action feature animation can work. And I'm going to use the worst case scenario because why sugarcoat the whole thing.

You get your shot and you can just animate the hell out of it until it looks awesome, right? Nope. In live-action animation - and again I'm piling on all the bad things that can happen - you're stuck with the length of the shot due to the live-action plate, so you can't add a few frames that you need, which means that your animation can end up too fast because you still have to cram everything that the client wants into that shot.
You're also stuck with the camera move. So if you have a creature that jumps and the arc needs to go a certain way in order for the timing and realism to be right, what could happen? The creature jumps out of frame. The client is paying top dollars so you can't "hide" the $$ out of frame. This means you need to adjust the arc so that the creature is always in frame. But that means the timing is off and it looks fake. So shot length and camera, coupled with the client's requests can really screw up your animation.
But you still need to work as hard as you can to make it look the best it can be. Remember, it's not your portfolio you're working on, it's the client's portfolio.
And what if there is audio in your scene? Chances are you get a client who doesn't understand or care about our process of animating. We'd like to have a final piece of audio or at least very close to final. But what can happen is that you animate to a certain sentence and when you see the movie in theaters, the dialogue is totally different and your lipsync and body gestures don't work at all anymore. Or what if you have no dialogue at all and you're being told to just animate away and that the dialogue will get added later?
So you worked your butt off to make it look halfway decent given the above mentioned restrictions. Now it has to go through the review process. Your lead might have some comments because the animation director is juggling other things. No problem. The animation director has comments and you think that's it. They know what they're doing, the client should be happy. Nope. Let's take the worst case scenario again. Your clip is now being reviewed by the CG supervisor, another set of eyes. But what if multiple shops are working on one movie? Well then you need an overall CG supervisor who looks at the work of all the companies that are involved. So another pair of eyes is looking at your shot. Now, what if you have a first time director and the studio is not really confident in him/her? Then you might have one or two producers that will look at your shot and leave comments. After that the CEO of the studio might have a request or two. Then maybe the director. Now bear in mind that a lot of those people will have very strong opinions and give you directions which contradict everything you've learned in animation school and really doesn't pay any attention to physics and real life behaviour. But you still have to make it look real because your animation is part of a live-action movie with real physics and an audience who will probably not know but feel that something looks and moves wrong.

So imagine all those notes trickling back to you (hopefully undistorted, but probably not). So you fix your shot and this process goes on and on. Once the shot is finalled, you think you're done. Oh no. What if the character needs a lot of simulation (cloth, hair, etc.) or the action of the surrounding environment is interfering with your animation (it's always an eye opener to see your animation rendered and composited)? You need to go back and adjust your animation so that everything fits. But sometimes it's more work to fix the surrounding problems than the animation, so it gets changed in order to get what is needed, which again can screw up your animation.
Now take all those problems and add the following constraint that everybody in every company has to work with. Time. There is a deadline after all. So what if you have a shot with tons of creatures and your scene is so heavy that everything crawls? You will run out of time and won't be able to put all the love in the shot that you wanted.

And this is just for one shot.

So just like "anonymous" said, there is a lot of time and effort required, because a project is probably around 6 months long, some are shorter, some are much longer. There is also a lot of wasted effort involved because clients can suddenly change their minds and a whole sequence is gone and you have to start from scratch.

And don't forget overtime. Chances are you won't have a 9 to 5 schedule, so your girlfriend, partner, wife, husband, kid(s) and/or family won't always see you as much as they (and you) would like to. That's another "time and effort" part of being in the animation/film industry.

Are you really ready to go through all that?

Is it really worth it?



Now even though I just described what an actual show could be for months (some people for over a year depending on their position), it's certainly not always like that. A lot of times a shot can contain so many cg elements that you could extend the shot because you can replicate the plate, the camera movement can get modified to work with the extension. Your creature is moving out of frame? Well, the digital matte painting department could extend the set and you can add a second camera which follows your creature. You're given tools that make your scene butter smooth. The client is in full control and no studio will dictate what has to be done. And sometimes you actually have enough time to really polish your shot. :)

So you're sitting in your work area, surrounded by toys, maquettes, posters, fellow animators and nerds and you laugh all day. And guess what? You're being paid to do so.

Yes, it's hard work and the hard work never ends but it's so worth it. We are very lucky to be able to do what we love all day and be able to call it a job. It's a fantastic feeling.

So if you are in an animation school right now, take the time and work hard on your portfolio. If that means not going out to parties, spending a bit less time with your friends and family, being holed up in the lab or at home in front of the monitor for 18 hours a day, then so be it. Your family and true friends will still love you and understand because they will see the passion in your eyes. And when you sit in the theater, waiting for your name to appear in the credits of the first movie you've worked on and there it comes and you hear your family and friends erupt in cheers and applause, you will know it was worth it.



Bobby Pontillas said...

Great post Jean, thanks for your candor. The part about constantly comparing the quality level of your work to the stuff that inspires you , has countless benefits!

Anonymous said...

It was very inspiring and exactly how I feel sometimes; that all my excessive work will pay off!

Anonymous said...

Very insightful post but damn those spell checkers!

Just to clarify I meant 'demanding'.

There is nothing 'demeaning' about learning animation that I am aware of. Though feel free to argue against me on that point if you like :)

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Hahahaha, I'll fix it. :)

wat said...

I agree what your said, JD.

My arm's hair stood up when I red this article.

Andrej Jagar said...

This just brought me back to life.
Thank you.

Jean-Denis Haas said...

You're very welcome!