That’s a question I just got from Rob, one of the interns I mentored during the production of Terra, after he went back to Australia and got a couple of paying jobs. Both jobs required exceptional footage, on the order of 5 to 10 seconds of animation a day, which is a massive change from the pace of any feature film. So how, he asks, do you do good animation at that rate?
The simple answer: you can’t.
Good animation takes time. There’s no way around it, and no work-flow tips or MEL scripts or burnt offerings can change that. The animation gods are cruel that way. Animators do tend to get faster as they gain experience, so a shot that four years ago would have taken me a week might take me a day or two now. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be satisfied doing that same shot the same way, because it probably wasn’t nearly as good as it should have been. I’d add layers of nuance and detail, making it a better shot, but also making it a more complex shot. Experienced animators tend to gain not just technical skills, they also develop a more critical eye. They see and understand more of what makes a satisfying performance. Incorporating that into one’s animation adds time. Few of us are satisfied keeping the quality of our work the same as we improve our speed. Ultimately there’s a trade off between quality and speed. So getting better means getting somewhat faster, but not five or ten times faster.
If 5-10 seconds a day of great, or even good, animation is out of the question, how does one do ‘adequate‘ animation really fast (adequate enough to get you paid, or adequate enough to make you not want to stab a pencil into your eyes)? I’ve never had to do ten seconds of animation a day, so maybe I’m not the one to ask, but I have gone from the glacial big studio pace of 2-3 seconds of animation per week to 10-15 seconds a week at a smaller studio, without wanting to commit suicide.
So here’s the huge insight, the key:
Know what you want to do before you start animating
Disappointing, huh? Even though you hear this again and again from the great vets, it’s the one area I consistently see inexperienced animators struggle with. I know it’s hard to resist diving in and starting to set keys. You know, just to see if your basic idea will work. You kind of start blocking it loosely (‘kind of‘ being the operative phrase), feeling good that you’re getting something done. Except you’re not, you’re slowing yourself down. You tell yourself that you can always buff it up later, add more detail, build on it, clarify things, etc. I’ve done this many times, and still do on days when I’m not mentally sharp and my discipline is weak.
There’s an old saying, Don’t just sit there, do something. And that’s fine, as long as you realize that ‘doing something’ doesn’t mean animating, it means mentally inhabiting your scene, playing it out in your mind’s eye, in continuity, planning, thumbnailing, jotting notes, reviewing reference, discussing with your director and supervisor, thinking. But not animating right away. In this case the saying should be, Don’t just do something, sit there (and think). Because animating without careful planning is a deadly trap for several reasons.
First, it’ll probably never be very good. Forget about the speed issue, think about quality. Once you’ve done a first pass, whether it’s drawings or CG keys, it’s always hard to break away from that approach. There’s some kind of mental magnetic pull, drawing you back towards that initial mediocrity. You look at it, see that it’s flat and uninspired and not sufficiently interesting, and you push those arcs out there, you add little cool bits on top of the main action, you think you’re amping up all the action dramatically . Then you show it to someone, and they tell you . . . it still looks flat. So you give it another pass, pulling out all the stops, and . . . it still, somehow, sucks. By now there’s all kinds of little wonkiness that’s crept in, too, since you’ve made dozens of compromises in the interest of saving all that work you’ve put in. You officially have a mess, and now you’re really behind schedule, and the urge to salvage all that work is stronger than ever.
The best thing that can happen in this situation is a computer crash that corrupts all your animation files! Seriously. I used to marvel at the discipline of good 2D animators, who would spend days on a difficult shot and, when it wasn’t working, toss a whole stack of drawing right in the trash. Just like that. It was appalling and amazing (and in my assistant animator days I used to fish some of those scenes out of the trash and study them, because even their crap was better than my good stuff).
Yet somehow, it’s harder to toss out a CG scene. It’s just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s, yet we hold on and hold on and keep tweaking till it’s a puddle of mush. When you get stuck, just blow the garbage away. I can safely say you’ll be amazed at how quickly, once you start over with a clear idea of what you want, you can recreate that whole scene — except it’ll be so much better.
But let’s get back to the speed issue. Every hour of planning probably saves several hours, and sometimes several days, of animating. Marc Davis was not only one of the best animators who ever lived, but over a very long career at Disney he put out one of the highest footage counts of any of the animators. He never worked long hours, not like we do today. His routine was to come in early, animate till lunch, get out of the studio for a decent meal (and a martini), and return to the studio to plan his next morning’s work. Then he’d head home at a reasonable hour, and spend his evenings painting, drawing, and reading. Next morning, he would animate what he had carefully planned the afternoon before, go to lunch, and so on. It was a recipe for a long, productive career full of high quality work.
As Clay Kaytis puts it, If you can imagine what you want to see, half your work is done.
By careful planning, you’re far more likely to do things right the first time. You’re more likely to actually be animating your characters from the inside out, building an interesting, watchable performance from the start. Technically, you’ll be able to anticipate problems and integrate solutions — you won’t be half way through the shot and realize the hands should have been in IK.
I suspect many beginning animators have long ago scanned ahead, looking for any useful technical tips and tricks. I’ve left those out (maybe for another post), because I find that the less experienced someone is, the less able they are to fully accept the crucial advice to carefully plan and know where you want to go before you start. I’ve seen their eyes glaze over when I tell them. It was one of the most frustrating parts of teaching the beginning classes on Animation Mentor. I’d go on and on about thumbnailing, about knowing in great detail who your character is and exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I’d push and push for specificity and clarity in their intentions . . . and it usually didn’t seem to make much difference. They just wanted to animate, dammit, and figure out all that other stuff later.
On the other hand, towards the end of class 4, when everyone had gone through the pain of animating their first multi-shot, two-character dialog test, and certainly by the end of class six, when their short film is supposed to be wrapped up (‘supposed’ because, well, who can animate a short film in 12 weeks?), they really get it. Weeks of struggling to refine and polish shots that were superficially planned and blocked will get your attention that way. Again and again I hear, “If I were starting my blocking over, this time I’d . . .,” following by a bunch of insights that, often, should have been predicted.
That, in a nutshell, is the goal of good planning: to think through your shot so carefully and fully that, when you’re done animating, you’re comparing how close you came to your original intentions, not seeing what you discovered along the way. If you don’t envision coolness at the outset, and plan for it, you’re unlikely to have enough happy accidents along the way to justify the effort.
By the way, there are an infinite number of ways to do this planning. For me, it involves a lot of visualizing the sequence in my head, acting things out at my desk, and jotting illegible notes as the performance solidifies in my imagination. I tend to use words and phrases and stick figure hieroglyphics more than thumbnail drawings, because that’s usually the fastest, clearest way for me to communicate with myself. I find a few well-chosen words on a post-it note stuck to the side of my monitor can often serve as a guiding light during the animation process, keeping me focused on the intent and not the details. But that’s just me — you need to find your own way.
On a production, communication is also crucial to planning — communication with your director, your supervisor, and your fellow animators. With directors, sometimes things seem clear and obvious when they’re not. Your job isn’t to do just do what the director says, your job is to give the director what they want. There’s a distinction, and you have to understand the project and the director (and here’s a tip — if you ever find yourself in dailies snarling “Just tell me what you want” to your director, it means you really need to step back, take a deep breath, and clear your mind — because that’s a sure sign you and your director aren’t on the same page, or even in the same book).
Communication with your fellow animators is crucial so that your performance works within the flow of shots in that sequence, and so you don’t end up constantly reanimating the beginning or ends of your shots so they hook up properly. It’s often up to the animation crew to keep performances consistent and progressive, and too few animators work towards that consistency. Which means a lot of scenes are unnecessarily redone later, slowing everything down.
Let me end with a story to drive the importance of planning home. For Shrek 2, DreamWorks send 16 traditional animators up to PDI for two months to learn both CG animation techniques and the PDI software. Some of us (me included) had already trained in Maya the year before, some had no experience with CG at all. I ended up sitting next to James Baxter, who I think is probably the best animator working today. James was a complete computer novice. Didn’t even know how to do e-mail, I kid you not. I’d assisted James for a couple of traditional pictures, and I was eager to have a bit of role reversal.
As we worked on our first CG test, a classic ball bounce, I enjoyed the occasional interruption from James asking some technical question. And I’d see him out of the corner of my eye, hunting and pecking away at the keyboard, taking long pauses between mouse clicks. I was trying not to be a bit of a show-off, since my computer skills were about a hundred times better than his. I was going out of my way to make sure my ball bounce had a bit of extra panache, and I was about a third of the way done with the test when I glanced over at James’ screen. My jaw hit the floor. There was this amazing shot of a ball bouncing all over this cleverly conceived set, ricocheting and bouncing this way and that, finally rolling to a satisfying stop. I squealed “How did you do that?! I mean, so fast? It’s perfect.” James, in his calm, even way, said “I knew what I wanted the ball to do, I just needed to figure out how to get the computer to do it.” Those words ring in my head even today, especially when I’m on my 20th playblast and still not quite sure what I’m going for.
You can’t animate it if you can’t see it, clearly, in your mind’s eye. Storytelling precedes technique.