Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The rules are the frigin rules!

Teachers who work in creative fields have an interesting time working with rules. Traditionally there has been part of the artistic movement that is about challenging the statuesque, especially in the last 70 years or so it has often placed its self at odds with the establishment. People teaching (or who have taught like myself) “art” are a product of that same culture, which can put us in a tricky situation because education is to a degree about learning the rules.

So I think what happens, and what I had a tendency to do was to have a bet each way. In front of the class I would explain the rule and then go on to spend almost as long trying to justify why you should use the rule while always using language that accommodates the occasional breaking of the rule. At the very least we choose words that don't remove the possibility of breaking the rule (I am generalising here I know).

You see as teachers in creative fields tend to be creative themselves they have usually devoted some of their time to “sticking it to da man”, and now they don't want to become “da man”, and often with good cause. Your teachers were young themselves at some point and they know that when people tended to force rules upon them at a students age their natural reaction was to resist or push back ( I.e. sticking it to da man). We have special, almost cliché ways of trying to get the the rules across without seeming like “da man”, the most often used being that old chestnut that, “you have to know the rules before you break them.” Note that its not about IF you break them but WHEN.

My concern is that this leaves the door open, it creates an expectation that there will be a time when you can choose to break the rules as you wish, or that there is flexibility in how diligently you should apply the rules. Often after I had explained a new animation principle to my class they would be sent off to do an animation exercise designed to get them implementing the new information. Then when I came to look at the animation for the first time they would hit me with a, “Yeah but I wanted it to be like this so I didn't think feel like using the principle there.” Or even worse some would hit me with some kind of ultimatum, “I can't apply the rule and do this at the same time.” This is on their very first scene since being taught the rule, doing an exercise designed so that they can practice the rule, and they think they have stumbled across the exception to the rule already. I suspect that I as the teacher have unintentionally pointed them in that direction, the door has been left open. I've been working in and around animation for over a decade and I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times I have intentionally broken an animation principle for commercial work, and when it did happen I didn't plan for it, it only happened after I had explored every other avenue and possibility that involved using the rules.

Now I want to make it clear that I am not talking about experimental work, obviously that is about testing the rules and assumptions we make when thinking about animation. Even as I typed that last sentence however I realise I'm providing you with another cop out avenue. If you set out from the beginning to make an experimental piece then that's great, but be honest with yourself, did you plan to break the rules or did it just kind of happen? If you are a student, let your teacher know its experimental before you start so everyone knows where they stand. If you are going to flip flop between the two depending on weather you can be bothered applying the rules then you are not going to end up with a very good experimental piece or a very good commercial piece, what's the good in that?

I think a good animation course (like the one I was a part of) will have specific time set aside to experiment with the medium. It helps students to see beyond the mainstream commercial animation they probably spent most of their childhood immersed in. The lessons learned there may not make for great show reel content, but add to the texture and resourcefulness a student can take with them into the workforce. Believe it or not, once they are assured you have a strong understanding of the principles of animation and can apply them at will, employers are looking for staff who can bring new and different perspectives to the workplace. But you will never get past the front door and have a chance to impress with your creativity if you don't know the rules and have proof that you can apply them.

Aside from not understanding yet I can think of two motivations that might be affecting the student when they are trying to dodge the rule. One might be that they just don't feel that they could be bothered implementing the rule. If this is happening to you consistently then its a real bad sign I'm afraid. People who don't dot their I's and cross their T's don't succeed in animation, its as simple as that. Its consider a different career time.

The second and more common reason (I hope) that I suspect is more just a youthful or new perspective on the craft, a willingness to test the limits of these “so called” rules (as I have sugested, perhaps encouraged by the teacher). If this is the case then I suppose it is inevitable to a degree, but maybe I can give you some food for thought that will help you to refocus that energy.

Lets consider a parallel career, that of an Author. There are books that have literally changed the world, and yet all of these books are based on an underlying language, the language is mostly set and inflexible, and yet the writers use it to communicate every possible kind of idea and emotion, even rebellious ones.

Without the language, the whole thing falls to pieces. Imagine if this blog post had been random gibberish up until this point (hopefully it hasn't really been :), do you think you would still be patiently reading through the lines of text by this stage. What if I followed most of the rules of the language, but ignored the ones I thought were too much trouble. Lets say the sounds that made by combining two letters like “th”, “ch” and “sh”. What if I just put what ever I felt like in those spaces and left it up to you to work out how the word should be said? It might be novel for a little while, but it sure would get tired fast. Now imagine if everyone writing in the world picked and chose from the rules as they wrote for their own personal reasons, every new thing you had to read from street signs to Harry Potter would become a new riddle. A riddle that stands between you and an understanding of what meaning the artist is trying to communicate.

What I'm getting at is that the rules are your friends, they empower you to reach and connect with your audience. As a student or junior animator, your passion and obsession should be about leaning, applying and practising the rules, not looking for ways around them. The rules or principles were not made up by some oppressive dude, they are based on observations of nature, is that really where you want to focus your rebellion? I'm not asking you to become a robot, I've never met an animator who's work doesn't communicate something about their personality, it just happens that way. Have some faith in yourself, use the rules and bend them to your will, your work can still be unique.

If you are willing to sacrifice your knowledge of the rules in order to express yourself then you may just be throwing away a whole lifetime of creativity ans self expression. Think of the audience you might reach through a whole career of animating, the thousands of people you might be able to connect with, to share your message with. Consider how you might use the craft to draw the viewers in, make them feel something about your subject matter. It could be something silly or serious, the principle is the same. Now compare that to the amount of impact you might make in the world with a few years of student animation (that doesn't even successfully apply the principles of animation) followed by a lifetime of flipping burgers or stacking shelves.

No contest

So the question is simple, why are you studying? For a short term experience or a life time of creativity? Obviously the answer can not be black and white (although I know students who try to make it so), but maybe its worth a little reflective time asking yourself where you want to fit in there, and how you can amend your behaviour as a student to make it happen.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Getting your head right

Here are some thoughts on getting into a good mind set for job hunting. It can be very scary, and I remember that I used to go to pieces leading up to an interview when I was starting out, even dropping off my reel somewhere would get me shaking at the knees. Hopefully these points will help.

Having Anxiety for Tomorrow" by Brymo
  • You are as good as you are. Stating the obvious, yeah that will help. But just think how silly it is to spend years of your life working towards something only to balk at the final hurdle because you decide you are not good enough. The bottom line is that you don't know, they do, and there is only one way to find out what they know. Apply! If you are still studying at the time of reading this then you have more control over the standard of your work when applying than any other person or thing. Work harder, be more productive and you will get better. Practice makes perfect.
  • There is no limit to how many times you can apply. If you don't get a job that teaches you something too and helps you prepare for the next assault. If it helps, don't think of it as a one off thing, plan for a long term assault over several reels and applications, it takes the immediate pressure off and then its a nice surprise if you get a job sooner than later.

  • Its not personal. I know its hard to believe, but it really doesn't reflect personally on you if you don't get the job. There are so many other reasons why they might not give you a go, especially with the economy going like it is (Jan 2009). You can have everything they need in a staff member, but so much can be going on inside and affecting a studio that you just have to time it right.

  • They are just nerds like you and me. The HR guy at a recent job interview I had was in his 20's, turned up to the interview in faded board shorts, unshaven and sun burnt. The studio animator who came along was in his late 20's or early 30's and wore all black and glasses. We sat at a daggy old plastic table on the deck and talked about animating and games. These are the kinds of thing we do all the time, chances are you can just be yourself and it will be exactly what they are looking for. Hooray for nerds!
Mario Kart Nerds by Adam "Slice" Kuban
  • You only get to go through this once, ENJOY IT! My beginnings in the industry are now a long distant memory, learning so much about animating and who the hell I was, boy it was fun. I'd jump back there to go through it all again in a heart beat.

  • No matter what KEEP ANIMATING! This is soooooo important, the first thing I ask when I see ex-students of mine is, "Are you still animating?" If the answer is no or not really then I know things are grim for that students future. I know its not the image schools try to sell, but the bottom line is that not many actually finish their study ready to start their first job. For most of us (including how it was for me) there are still things to learn and practicing to be done before you are ready. Animate! Animate! Animate!!!!!!
If you have spent your time in study or since finishing study working as hard as you can then you are as good as you can be right now. I believe that pretty much anyone can reach an employable standard if they are willing to work hard enough for long enough, that bit is up to you. When and how you get into the industry is where things get random, but there is nothing you can do about it so do your best and enjoy the ride. What a waist it will be if you can't even find the courage to climb on board. Good luck!

Job interview by hartboy

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Animating A Walk Cycle

"Why hasn't anyone made a good video tutorial about animating a walk cycle?" I asked.

Well a few minutes into recording myself animating one it became obvious to me that there is just so much to cover that it is hard to make sure you fit everything in. But that didn't stop me from trying. I may have had to move quickly through some things, but I hope I still covered most of my process. At the very least it should compliment the other information on walks available on the ARC.

Making a video tutorial is quite an exercise in self awareness. As I started to talk and was realising that this would be out there on the net for all to see I realised just how much I know of animating walks is self taught. At the time of posting this I am about to start my first job at a games studio where I imagine walks will become a big part of my work, it will be interesting to see how my perspective changes after working in this new field for a while. I'll keep you posted :)

Anyway, I hope you find this useful and interesting.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Office Myth.

So if you have half a brain you should be finding and listening to any posdacts or interviews with experienced animators on the net (you can find links to some in the Interviews section of the ARC resource page).

But there is one little piece of information that often pops up in these interviews that I think can be very misleading for young animators. It happens when the person being interviewed is asked to talk about their process and often goes something like this......

CC image -Today's topology problem by Frank Wales

Interviewer – “So could you step us through your process?”

Interviewee - “Well I get the scene, talk it through with the director, then its time to get into the character so I go into my office, close the door and....” (insert scratching record sound FX here)


I'm sorry, but I've worked in and around animation for a long time now, across different product types, and animators DON'T get their own office. It is a privilege offered only to a select few at the very peek of the craft.

So why would I bring this up for any reason other than to depress you? Well because understanding the environment in which you will be working can help you to focus your studies. In my time as a teacher it has been interesting to observe how students cope with a communal working environment, especially those coming straight out of school where the workplace behaviour has been more regulated. I have 4 basic categories, that relate to classroom or workplace work ethic only.

CC image - Morning surprise by frostbitten*

THE DISTRACTOR – These guys are so blown away by the fact that they get to hang out with a whole room full of people with similar interests that they just can't contain there excitement. For them the class becomes like an animation appreciation society, its like a pressure valve has been released and now they can share all their thoughts without fear of social ostracism. They tend to roam the class looking for opportunities to relive a favourite animation experience (often with sound FX), discuss the latest hot on-line topics, and show others their favourite Youtube clips.

THE DISTRACTEE – These guys come in herds and seem to turn up with the best of intentions, but are too easily turned away from their work by other events around the room. A noisy group in a class is often made up of a distractor and a bunch of distractee's.

THE FRINGER – Every class I have ever taught has had a hand full of quiet guys who for whatever personal reasons refuse to engage and bond with the rest of the class, I think sometimes its a case of the damage that was done in school (lets face it, animation nerds are rarely the popular kids) having been so bad that they can't even bring themselves to mix with a class of similarly minded folk. The fringer often gets more work done because they stay quiet, but they also miss out on lots of opportunities to learn from classmates, don't develop the ability to articulate about their works, and miss opportunities to get feedback from teachers.

THE AVOIDER – These are people who want to focus through the day (or at least that's what they tell me, maybe they just want to go to the beach) but find it too distracting in class so they just don't turn up and do their work elsewhere. This is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, without regular communication as you come across problems or even pointing out problems you don't even know are there, you are not going to learn to be an animator. I suspect sometimes its not just the distracting class but also confrontation of personal artistic shortcomings (scary for anyone) that keeps the avoider away. At every end of year screening while I was a teacher, there were a few pieces that made me cringe and that I would rather not be associated with as a teacher. I think in every case it was the work of an avoider.

So where do you fit? And what should you do about it?

CC image - The Next Row by Steel Wool*

For starters come to terms with the fact..... In spite of the impression you might get from a Glen Keane or James Baxter interview you are not going to get an office where you can remove yourself from distractions. The sooner you can find a way to be creative and productive within a distracting context the sooner you can fast track your education and future development as an animator. Being a big fan of animation wont be enough on its own.

Next you need a plan of action.... I encourage students to categorise their work ethic along side their animation skills. If the person sitting next to you is doing a better and more consistent job of applying Line of Action to their poses, you would work harder at applying it yourself. The same kind of philosophy should be applied to how long you spend focused on your work, if you practice it you will get better. Its a skill, simple as that.

Understand that it is not black and white... One of the reasons this is hard for a teacher to regulate is because not all talking in the classroom or workplace is bad. Silliness, shared imaginings, humour and play are a big part of our craft, and are often the most enjoyable part. The trick is learning to manage a conversation so that it stays productive and moves things forward. This can be hard to do without killing the fun, but if you keep your eyes open you will see there are people around who can do it. Often the assumption is that its natural for that person, but further discussion or investigation will often reveal that it is very deliberately applied. Its no wonder students find this hard, we are taking something personal (nerding it up with some friend about animation) and twisting it into something that has to be managed, what a brain bender.

One example of this is getting up and acting things out, doing silly pantomime like actions in front of other people is something most people are not used to doing, our natural social instinct is to avoid it, but in this context we have to be more objective and manage it as a work skill. Gen Y's are highly socially tuned in creatures, generally its totally counter intuitive to get up and prance around like a goose in front of peers. Even when I stand up to act out an action for a student (saving them of the embarrassment) I often see a smirk in the corner of their mouth as they watch, this tells me they are making a social judgement (a distraction from the task at hand) and that they would never get up to act it out themselves while other people were around to see. But I know that the fact I can see past the social fear (I do feel it, just ignore it) gives me an edge over that other person. Would you like an edge?

CC Image - Just another day at work by Mark Allanson*

Set aside time for and monitor your non work related chat... It may come as a surprise that your supervisor or teacher wont actually want to spend time telling you to get back to work. He or she would much rather be your friend, but if you are going to spend too much of your time distracting, being distracted, hiding on the fringe, or avoiding them you will leave them with no choice but to confront you. Most employers will tolerate a certain amount of chat time and we are only human. So think about it, set yourself a certain amount of time for distractions and limit the amount of distraction you will indulge in a day. It sounds so simple, but its just a case of making it an objectively managed work skill and following through with the plan instead of winging it every day. If you are a finger or avoider and tend to under communicate, then you have the opposite problem, I think it would be healthy to make yourself have one or two short casual conversations with your co-workers or classmates every day. The benefits of this are harder to quantify, but there are many benefits to having friends in this industry, and opportunities to learn usually come form communicating.

Headphones?... When I saw Richard Williams master class he went to great pains to explain how evil it was to listen to music while you animate. His underlying philosophy is sound, but the context in which you are working has to be taken into account. If you have a friend in class or at work who just won't leave you alone and you want to avoid the social awkwardness telling someone to shut up, then maybe headphones can help. One little trick I have found works is wearing headphones without anything playing. At one job I had a big set of over the head padded headphones, I discovered that sometimes a CD would finish (this was before Ipods) and I would be too engrossed in a scene to load a new one, because I still had the headphones on people would assume I was still listening to something and leave me alone, the headphone would also numb the noise from those working around me. Nice.

CC Image - Work Station, Visto de Arriba by VicLic*

So how you apply yourself to your animation is a skill as much as animating itself, and the bottom line is that you are not going to turn up to your first animation job and get your own office. Working from within a busy and distracting environment is something you will have to come to terms with. If you can find a quiet spot to get into character that's great, but you can't count on it. You need to find that right balance, being able to engage with your co-workers when and how its required without it leading to a reduction in the quality and quantity of your work. Because it is a skill, then you can practice it and get better at it over time, so if you are a student you can give yourself an edge by tackling it sooner rather than later.

* Please note the images are not of actual animation studios, but in terms of personal space for each employee closely resemble animation studios I have seen and where I have worked.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Thursday, August 21, 2008