Saturday, March 8, 2008

Anime Vs Western Animation Teachers

In any context where I have been around teachers and students of animation, wether it be as a student myself, working in the industry where senior staff are instructing junior or as a teacher, there has been this struggle. Over and over I’ve seen teachers roll their eyes at a students insistence at copying the Anime look and just as often I’ve seen students shoulders slump as they are discouraged from producing work in a style they dearly love. This year a large percentage of our new students at Southbank are obviously into Anime, so I thought it might be an issue worth visiting.

Before we go too far lets just take a moment to acknowledge that no one kind of animation can claim to be better than another, there are examples of great and horrible work in both Anime and Western animation and I’m not interested in opening the “this kind is better than that” can of worms. Lets try to focus on why students do what they do and why teachers do what they do so that we can perhaps better understand each other .

click to see large version

I can’t help but feel that at the heart of this conflict is a bit of a misunderstanding on both sides.

Lets start with the position from which I can speak with the greatest insight, a teachers point of view. I often get the impression that students think teachers just hate Anime on principle and are imposing their will upon them. There is no disputing that as a teacher I wear my heart on my sleave, and I will let you know how I feel about things one way or another, but I can assure you that we (teachers) don’t hate any animation just because of where it comes from.

The reason we don’t let you spend your study time sitting around continuing to draw Anime characters in every class is because we are trying to help you understand the fundamental principles that apply to all styles of animation and eventually discover a style of your own. The truth of the matter is that trying to adhere to any style in particular is a distraction when your are at a stage in your development where you are trying understand the limitless intricacies of movement and it implications. This means there is a period towards the beginning of the course where I’m not anti Anime, I’m just anti “style” in general. That’s why we start the course with activities using simple objects, I’m robbing you as best I can from any opportunity to insert a style into your work that will potentially (or probably) serve as a distraction from the main game, MOVEMENT! (that’s the actual animating part). If you're lucky and work hard you may encounter situations in your future life that enable you to work in your favourite style, but to be prepared you have to understand the basic principles that apply to all animation (or its stacking shelves at the supermarket for you).

So hopefully you can see that we don’t have anything in particular against Anime. BUT! That having been said there are one or two particular things about Anime that can be a hindrance when you’re first learning about animation. Not that they are exclusive to Anime, but they are perhaps most commonly encountered by a teacher hiding within the Anime style.

Firstly so much of the look of Anime comes from detail, the characters featured in Japanese animation are consistently far more covered in . . . . well stuff, than in animation from other parts of the world. 15 hair spikes, shoulder pads, ribbons and waist bands, sailor uniforms and plaid school girl outfits, 3 bladed magical swords, shoulder mounted 16 barrel mortar cannons, 3 highlights in the eyes and so on. At best these things slow you down compared to someone who is willing to learn how to animate using a simple design so they get to practice animating 5 times more than you. At worst they can become totally absorbing and draw your eye away from the things we teach like the Line Of Action, the movement from this pose to the next, or how the placement of the next drawing will be affected by the weight of an object.

Secondly Japanese animators are the masters at cheating in animation, and good on them for being that way. They have managed to maintain a thriving traditional feature film industry while everywhere else in the world the hand drawn stuff has faded away to near insignificance. To a large degree this is because they are very good at knowing where they can cut corners and get away with it. Using holds, shooting less important scenes on 4’s (6 frames a sec), creating character with rigid styles of movement (often wearing mechanical outfits that can stop dead without looking odd and talking from behind a mask), and using a rich illustrative style that keeps us engaged when there isn’t much actually happening. That’s amazing. I love them for that. In fact thank god they do that, or else Traditional animation might just kick the bucket all together. But, surely its not wise to start out your animation education by copying a style that cuts corners (all be it very cleverly). Once you have explored all of the subtle nuances of something it is easy to pick and choose from the tools at your disposal to save time or achieve a particular effect (looking Anime-ish), but if you only learn the quickest and cheapest way to do something you are limiting your knowledge. That’s nuts. This corner cutting is most obvious in Japanese TV animation, when my daughter is watching Yugioh in the morning I sometimes stop to count how many seconds they can pass without anything actually being animated at all as two character gaze at each other across the battlefield thinking deep thoughts. What are you going to learn about animation by copying that?

Thirdly there is the nature of your typical Anime fan. I’m venturing into dangerous territory here, there will be some generalisations, and if you don’t feel this applies to you then I’m perfectly happy to accept that. I’m just reflecting on my experiences as a teacher, and mean no offence. Young Anime fans have a tendency to be . . . well . . obsessed. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the way its marketed, maybe its because Anime connects to audiences in a way that is less commercial, maybe its because Anime is less patronising towards older viewers, or something else I haven’t considered. The fact is that Anime has the ability to penetrate the psyche of young adults and steer their thoughts towards it at all times. If you’re a big Anime fan, ask yourself when was the last time you drew something that didn’t look Anime. I’ve seen Disney fans and Comic book fans with similar levels of obsession (which is just as unhealthy), but it just seems to be more common with Anime. I guess it must be really good to connect so strongly with so many. To start with, this “obsession” heightens the likelihood of the style distracting from the issue at hand, but there is a big picture issue to consider as well. Part of becoming a well rounded individual with people skills and a broad range of abilities is drawing upon many of the rich and varied influences that life has to offer. If you are to a degree obsessed with Anime, we are not doing you any favours by letting you burrow down further into the exclusive world of Anime fan art. If you are a big Anime fan think about your life, you probably chat with other Anime fans (in person or online) about your work, when you're looking for ideas you probably look at other Anime or Manga art, if you are trying to get feedback on your work you probably seek that feedback from other Anime fans. You must know in your heart that that’s not healthy for you in the long term (I have to stress the same thing applies with any single influence, its just that with students here that influence often seems to be Anime). I found a great quote from the master of Anime, if not the best animation director of all time Hayao Miyazaki, “Don't watch animation! You're surrounded by enough virtual things already.” Why would he say something like that I wonder? Could it be that he is trying to get students to broaden their horizons? Could it be that when he reflects on his long and amazing career in animation he can see that it has been life outside of Anime that has been his greatest inspiration? Are you really going to harbor resentment against a teacher for trying to push you outside of you comfortable little shell of influences, it could be the greatest thing a teacher ever does for you.

So that’s the gist of how I feel about Anime as a teacher, but I was a student once too. When I studied for a short time at QCA our class was told point blank that there would be no animating in Anime style (that teacher has since retired), and you could feel the ripple through the class (some happy some not). For me it wasn’t the end of the earth, I liked Anime, but also other animation. If I had to pick out a major childhood influence it would be Warner Brothers shorts. I could see however one or two of my class mates were shattered, and I was disappointed, one of the first things I can ever remember animating was a flip book in high school of one of those cool transforming motorbike suits from Robotech and I would have enjoyed doing more animation like that. For those I knew who were really into Anime it was more than a shame, it nearly made the whole 3 year course seem pointless. And here is the thing I think I as a teacher need to try and bare in mind. Anime is possibly the whole reason you are interested in learning how to animate at all. If it weren’t for your love of Anime you might be studying photography, baking or carpentry. How ridiculous would it be to attack the thing that brought you to animation in the first place on principle.

So how do we make it work. Well a compromise is needed. The teacher needs to be mindful of the students inspiration and try to steer that towards positive outcomes. The students need to accept that to some degree, even a large degree, it’s a positive thing to be challenged to look at and tackle something from a different perspective. Being out of your comfort zone means you’re learning, that’s where you should aim to be most of the time while your in the low risk position of student. We are here to help if you screw something up :).

I don’t ever want to be like that QCA teacher, banning a particular kind of animation in my class, but I can imaging how he might have felt that he had been forced into that position by uncompromising students. So I need my students to meet me half way.

Embracing change is what being a student is all about, if you were completely satisfied with your life you wouldn’t end up in a class room. If you think about it, you became a student because some kind of change is necessary for you to achieve your goals. Its amazing to me how many students then arrive and resist changing because it isn’t what they thought it would be, if you already knew what you needed to change then you wouldn’t need a teacher at all.

If you can be flexible enough to ensure you are focusing on the animation principle or technique being taught then your teacher won’t have to make Anime the pariah of the class room, banishing it completely. We can live together in harmony Awwwwwwh. This is all about empowering you, the more you learn about animating, the better you become, then the better the career you can have and the more creative influence you can have in that career. Who knows, maybe you can be a part of the first Anime film ever made in Australia. It may be far fetched, but you never know, individuals have influenced massive changes in the history of animation. The point is that nothing even close to that is ever going to happen while students structure their priorities in a way that limits their learning. Have you thought about your priorities?

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Ian said...

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