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.