Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Killing scenes is tougher on the younger guys

There are many ways to kill a scene. So many ways.

There always have been. Even in the frame-by-frame drawn 2D days, it was a fight to keep the life from the storyboard panel to the layout drawing, to key poses, to clean-up. By the time the finished image made it to screen, if each artist along the chain wasn't exceptionally talented and on top form that day, the result could often be so watered down it had no life left in it.

That's one recurring theme over at John K's blog, seen recently in this post. Those storyboard panels look like the drawings of just one particular storyboard artist. They are full of personal idiosyncrasies that I would imagine would have a very hard time translating to the final image. And Mr.K is more encouraging than most about individual 'handwriting' making it to the screen. On most productions, that wouldn't be tolerated at all. You'd have to drag those rough sketches kicking and screaming to model.

Cartoonbrew had a post last week on some storyboard to CG comparison images from Bolt. Whether 3D has anything to do with it or not, it's hard to deny the decay from that initial image.

So it can happen anywhere and always could.

But, right now, I'm seeing this happen every day in such a scale and with such a drop in life that it's frightening. I'm seeing great board panels, great sketches by the animators themselves, in my own scenes (okay, not so great sketches by me) and others, turn to completely dead, lifeless pieces of, well, nothing.

And Flash, or the Flash system, is to blame.

Now you can argue that Flash can be made to do wonderful things and it's something I won't deny. I've seen some really great and surprising Flash shorts. And I love that it can give the means to express artistically when, before, making cartoons was expensive and required a huge team. But, when it comes to broadcast television, Flash is not being used as a tool because it can lead to artistic shorts, or because it can improve the quality of animation (it can't) or for any artistic reason. It's being used because it is quick, plain and simple. It makes animation production much quicker, requires far fewer people, works in finished colours, can utilise banks of animation from previous scenes and so on. It's cheap.

I've said it before but I'll say it again - Flash is a tool for producers.

So what's happening here in the studio? Well, all the characters were built in Flash during preproduction from design drawings done by a rather talented character designer. They were constructed in their main angles - front, side, three-quarter and back. They were given libraries of eye shapes, mouth shapes, arm shapes and so on. This is all to speed up production, and it works. Making a character move is incredibly quick. And we're expected to do it quickly, of course - otherwise, there would be no point in using Flash, would there?

But this system is killing the scenes. When an animator wants to get across an expression or a pose, here is what is happening -

a) Animator sketches quick doodle of pose or expression (many animators skip this step).

b) Animator browses library for similar poses, usually can't find one and pull default pieces.

c) Animator shifts these around, replacing some symbols, moving an eyebrow here and there, like a photofit image until -

d) They end up with a really poor variation on a dead default pose that was probably meant for little more than size reference at one point.

Rarely does 'd' resemble 'a' and those that skipped 'a' end up with even more crap results. Dead.

And if by some miracle they find a similar pose in step b, it had been made with this a-d process so is already dead.

And then they go to animate them. This isn't about getting good movement. No, this is Flash animation - this is about finishing the scene. But it usually doesn't matter at this stage because the scene has already been killed. This photofit method of animation is based on tweaking, not creating or bringing to life. Thing is, I find myself part of the problem and not the solution and it's the same for so many animators, even directors - if you don't get with it and just get on with it, the shows wouldn't be made. The budgets are just too low and, if they went higher, the financing wouldn't happen.

It's a shame really.

But even if the poses and expressions were good, you'd likely find one of the default Flash animating methods applied to them. Actually, that's one for another post - how to animate in Flash: the only method you'll ever need.


Toole said...

Are you not allowed to draw new symbols? I heard that at a studio around here they are pretty much forbidden from drawing new symbols.

Bitter Animator said...

On our current show, yes, we can draw symbols. But they have to fit perfectly of course. But because there is so little variation in the main animation, new symbols have an awful habit of standing out as being completely separate to everything else.

The director encourages new pieces and his main comment on almost every scene is that he wants to see the expressions pushed much more. Which is great.

But the unfortunate reality is that our expected quotas are so high that actually getting those new symbols right and approved can cause a serious production backlog.

So, in a way, I can understand it from a numbers point of view that some studios would ban new symbols from the animators.

It's all a bit messy with it and nobody, animators and director alike, is happy with the results.

Jeaux Janovsky said...

looking forward to yr next post bitter.
I am trying to teach myself flash presently, and something is preventing me from wrapping my head around it.

Andy Latham said...

I was having a conversation with another animator today about why movie studios like Pixar bother to make good animation when it's quite possible that kids don't care whether it's good or not. You only have to look back to the crap you used to like as a kid to know that.

The only reason we could think of is that the studios do it more out of competition with other studios. The "look at what we can do" idea.

If that is indeed the reason, why don't TV animation studios do it too? Is it purely a budget thing?

Also, why are the budgets so limited? Surely animation in TV shows is popular amongst viewers. Is it a case of the company getting a large amount of money for the show but keeping most of it in the pockets of the big cheeses so there's none left for any kind of budget? Or do animated TV shows just not generate much money?

Bitter Animator said...

There are a lot of answers to that, Andy, and probably a load more that I don't know of. Some animated shows make a ton of money. A huge amount of them make absolutely nothing and are left with debts.

A large part of the reason budgets are so low in television is that everybody tried to undercut everyone else. Korea and places like that could do animation much cheaper (not better but, hey, money is money). Then Flash came along and studios could compete with the outsourcing budgetwise but I just see that as more undercutting.

It all devalues the craft and makes it ultimately harder for animators to live. Flash is already being outsourced, just like staurday morning 2D was, and that will continue.

And, yes, a lot of kids don't care what certain things look like if it has ingredients they like. Part of the reason that it matters more at the movies is that parents do care and, for movies, parents have to take the kids and put up with the movie themselves. With television, the children usually end up watching on their own or with a parent who is doing something else.

But there are so many things you bring up here! Too many for one comment but maybe I'll throw my two cents in with a post on some of your points.

Andy Latham said...

Yeah I'd be interested to read a post about it all. I find the contrast between movies and TV quite odd. I would have thought, for instance, that by now there would have been some movies made entirely with Flash for a fraction of the cost of a traditional or 3D film.

I hate Flash. Yet I feel I need at some point to devote a fair bit of my valuable animation time to learning it. That's time that should be used learning to animate properly. It's a shame.