Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Things Not To Do In Animation

Oh there are a lot of things that piss me off in animation. But this is high up there on the list.

If you know a scene is not good enough, why would you possibly think it would get through the system? More than that, why would you want it to get through the system?

Bizarrely, this is a fairly common occurance in animation. Perhaps all jobs. But I would have thought in animation, people would be striving to do the best work they can. Individual animators can make or break a show and delivering a really nice end product would seem to be a fairly admirable goal. But even on a more basic mercenary level, the quality of your work will dictate your position in the industry. How well you impress your director will count for a lot in animation's small circle where word of mouth is so important. It can directly affect how much money you make, or even if you can find employment at all.

Still, this happens.

Oh well. In an industry so small, that tends to shrink more than it grows, I guess it's better for the rest of us that there are people like this. It's probably why I'm the one standing over the desk rather than the one trying to explain why my scene isn't good enough.

I'm listening to the new VNV Nation album a lot right now. I love it. Here's a track. I'd love to do a children's book with those guys. Yeah, a book and audio CD. That would be very cool.


Andy Latham said...

I'm extremely ashamed to say I have done something like this. I haven't shown a scene that's not good enough, but I have done less than I could have done.

The reason in my case is that I don't know what the lead animators want. And even though I ask, I get no real answers. So if I really break my back to animate something wonderful, it gets pulled to pieces. If I rattle off a run-of-the-mill scene, it seems to get criticised less. I get rewarded with less hassle if I try less.

It makes me feel like crap to do that, but what choice do I have when my best work gets ripped out of the end product?

Unknown said...

On the other hand, if I keep trying to get something perfect, I won't get it done. So I could see someone, especially someone inexperienced enough that they don't trust their own judgment, or someone like Andy, frustrated that his own judgment doesn't correspond with what he is asked to produce, might start doing this sort of thing as a way of testing what he can get away with.

Bitter Animator said...

That's interesting, Andy. And something that's not easy to give advice on.

One way or another, you should be getting answers. I can't say anything about the people you work with - I don't know them. But, in my mind, someone who is a 'lead' anything, in order to lead, needs to be able to articulate what they need from those they are supposed to be leading.

What often happens is that lead animator is a position that is given to the best animator. Whereas it should be given to the best leader.

So not knowing exactly what you're supposed to deliver is a very real problem.

But, with that, observation becomes a huge factor. Learning what is getting approved and what isn't getting approved and aiming to do the best within the parameters.

And there are two other things to consider with this. Two possibilities that could be happening -

a) You have already outgrown your projects or those involved in shaping the project.


b) You haven't yet figured out exactly what you could offer or should be learning from the project or people above you.

Option A is actually quite common. Unfortunately, more often it's actually Option B that is the reality but we think we're on A at the time.

Every job is different. And believe me when I say they aren't always good. But some are better than we think they are. We just have to find the limits.

If animations are being rejected, it's entirely possible they just aren't right for that project. You could be pushing in a different direction. You may see scenes that aren't getting rejected as being dull. And maybe they are.

But, if that's the case, the question I'd be asking in your position is this - how can I deliver the most entertaining scene I can make in the style of the project and within the limits that I know exist?

And that doesn't mean pushing in the direction you want to go until you hit that limit. Then, you'll only end up with a watered down version of what you want. It's truly accepting the direction and limits of the project.

Like beer and wine, I guess. If you feel you want to make wine but you're working in a company that makes beer, adding grapes to the beer to make it more like wine isn't going to make for better beer.

Accept you're making beer and aim to make the best damn beer you can.

Man, I'd love a beer right now.

Red Pill Junkie said...

All 3 comments are very good.

And of course, there's also the apathy than comes from the realization that, since most of the other people involved in a project don't give a shit, why should I?

This is something I have almost never done; but a recent project tested my limits. I gave it my best effort, and it was ruined by the incompetence of others; so when the time came to see the results, I was so frustrated by it that I told my boss "I don't care about this anymore"; like Pillatus I washed my hands, because I was annoyed that I seemed the only one trying to give his 100% to the project, while the rest were performing subpar. I felt that I was back in Highschool, where you're stuck with a bunch of lazy underachievers and despite your best efforts you get a C, when you should deserve an A and the rest a D :(

Andy Latham said...

Thanks Bitter, you raise some interesting points, and I love your beer/wine analogy :)

There are a number of factors that cause problems where I work. There seems to be no clear idea between the leads of what they are aiming for with the scenes. There are two lead animators that I deal with, and above them is the head animator who has overriding say over every aspect of all animation output by the company. Now one of the leads seems to encourage us to spend time putting some life into our characters, giving them personality. The other lead is more concerned with keeping the scenes as short and snappy as humanly possible, which usually means stripping out any character-related animation. So right from the word 'go' with each scene, the goalposts are different depending on which lead is supervising. Once the scene is approved by the lead in question, it then goes off to the head animator, who often fundamentally changes scenes. These changes really should be picked up at the storyboard phase or at the very latest the key-posing phase. Storyboards are often not studied enough by the leads. Huge errors get through to the animators who go ahead and animate the scene, even though it's wrong and will have to be changed.

I believe most studios have an animation bible that gives at least some detail on how to animate their characters. Ours has no such thing, despite the head animator's agreement with my repeated requests for one.

The most we have got is a list of the scenes from previous projects that are considered 'good'. However on studying these, I see the same mistakes that I have been pulled up on in my own work.

Continuing what I said in my first comment, this all got so annoying that I did a complete rush-job on one of my recent scenes. I had to rush really because of a tight deadline, and so I was really unhappy with the result. I showed it to my lead, apologising for it not being very good. I believe it holds my record for the least changes requested! It's sad because I really don't want to get into the situation where I'm just rattling out scenes and not enjoying it, particularly because I love the characters we are animating and want so desperately to make them as good as they can be.

Ultimately I need to answer your question of how to make the best beer I can.

Red Pill Junkie said...

Andy, have you considered the possibility of writing a memo to the lead animator stating your viewpoints regarding these problems? Maybe even volunteering to do that needed Animation Bible? That would be a way to say that you're not only complaining, but also offering solutions.

Things are pretty bad around here. Work is at an all-time low, and my boss is decided to almost blame ME for not having something to do —after finishing my list of obligations of course— It it were not for the fact that he had to sell his car, I'm sure he would demand that I go wash it if I have nothing better to do! This is so deteriorating because it has the pernicious double outcome of feeling guilty for receiving a paycheck —even though I haven't received a salary raise in 2 years, in part to show solidarity to this idiot's current predicament!

"So why don't you look for something better?" would be the obvious question, right? Well, the thing is, once I start looking at the ads, I always arrive to the same impasse: the jobs to which I feel qualified pay peanuts, and the handsomely paid positions are off my league or have to deal with sales, and I couldn't sell a glass of water in the desert! I'm a designer for Fuck sakes, a designer is meant to design.

It's so frustrating because I end up feeling I don't know anything, and that my job is worthless :(

PS: To end my long whining, I do feel that I need a vacation —just staying home playing videogames and reading would be so nice— but obviously under the current conditions, asking for a holiday could be the last straw... and I'm not so brave as to quit and then go find something better after taking a couple of weeks off, I have payments to make.

Andy Latham said...

Good point about the memo, Red Pill. I have expressed a number of my views both to lead animators and the head animator. I am usually met with the response of "we don't have time" when I request things like an animation bible. They fail to see the amount of time wasted with all the fixes we end up making.

To be fair, a page has been set up on our intranet system for animation tips, but so far it goes no further than to tell us not to let joints appear to be popping out. I'd doesn't take a rocket scientist to work that one out. I'm assured they will be adding to it, but then it has taken the best part of a year of requests for them to put up what they have.

I understand of course, that they will be under pressure from higher rungs on the company ladder, so I try not to get too frustrated with them. I have no idea what it's like to have their jobs, but this being the industry that it is, it's safe to assume they are being crapped on by bigger birds and I try to keep that in mind. It does make me wish that they might try to consider what it's like for us doing our jobs too. Maybe they do, but it doesn't show.

By the way, I don't think you should be thinking what you do is worthless. In monetary terms, it might seem like that, but if you are doing something that you enjoy and/or are developing yourself, then it does have value to you.

David said...

The times I've done work I know is subpar have been when I'm working for a studio that's doing outsourced work for ANOTHER studio who blew out their schedule. The work needed to be done fast. I picked and chose a few A scenes to take some care with, then blew through the others quickly.

Sometimes there's been some animation notes to follow, often none. Usually the boards were "to be ignored".

In the worst case, suggestions I made which would have avoided major revisions down the line were ignored, I think because my employer wanted to seem on top of things by not calling the director with "questions about every little thing". This, of course, led to tears.

Even when I'm being paid badly or I feel I'm being "mistreated", I try to do good work, for my ego if for no other reason.

But there are definitely times when you need to wash your hands and give the director/lead/whoever what they think they want, even when you consider that subpar. You can still get a tiny, tiny bit of personality in there, usually.

And then they redo all your animation after you're gone...

Red Pill Junkie said...

"By the way, I don't think you should be thinking what you do is worthless. In monetary terms, it might seem like that, but if you are doing something that you enjoy and/or are developing yourself, then it does have value to you."

Thanks; and yeah, as I wrote on some other occasion, one of the main reasons I decided to stay here is because a)I have loads of creative liberty, which is like sniffing Cocaine out of a $500 hooker's bum crack for the types like us (pardon the rather vivid imagery) and b)Because here I'm presented with projects that continuously challenge me; it's not like spending every day of the year doing exactly the same thing, one day I'm designing a table, the other a staircase and maybe tomorrow I'll even have to make a marketing poster of something. Sometimes I question if that level of flexibility has hurt me professionally instead of rather focusing on one smaller and more specific area... but one thing is sure: doing the same thing over and over would be boring as hell.

"And then they redo all your animation after you're gone..."

Oh, man! that's usually the worse. When you make what you think is an excellent work, and then some time passes and you find out that your boss decided to make some dumb changes, AND without telling you. Oi...

Bitter Animator said...

RPJ - That feeling of being in a place where nobody gives a shit can be soul destroying. I read an article about workplace gripes a while back and the number one complaint, over salaries, bosses, whatever, was co-workers not pulling their weight.

And I've seen that happen a lot. I have no idea what to do in those situations either other than to recommend to those in charge to dump them and hire someone new. And doing that can often sour relationships that weren't good to begin with so that's not good advice either.

In many cases (unfortunately not all), eventually those who do jack shit will be found out. Those who do good work will survive in their industry and move on and up.

I know well that feeling of wanting more but not being willing to jack it in and take a chance on something new. Something like that is a major risk and could seriously backfire. I don't think I've had the balls for that. It's frustrating.

In ways, I really wish I was willing to take more risks. I don't. But what I try to do (and can't always) is ask myself how I can make my current situation better.

There isn't always an answer to that.

Andy, what you're dealing with is a too many chiefs scenario. You should not have two superiors telling you different things. That simply should not happen. If there are many people calling for different things, that should be filtered through a director or whoever so that you get one voice. One set of instructions leading to one vision.

I was in a place with two directors with totally different visions once. It was a nightmare and the morale of everyone working there was in tatters. Eventually, the situation blew up, one of the directors stormed out never to be seen again. He was probably the more talented of the two.

But once he left, a sense of calm came over the whole place and, within weeks, it was a whole different studio. And the quality of the work shot up.

I believe ultimately there can only be one definitive creative voice in any project.

And the thing is, if you had that consistency in the direction, you wouldn't need an animation bible because you'd all be going in the same direction naturally. I've worked on many projects without bibles that have been great because there has been one person shaping everything as we went along. But to deal with two creatives on that, each contradicting the other? Recipe for disaster.

And, yes, in that scenario, a bible would make a hell of a difference.

RPJ's idea of the memo is a good one but you need to be damn sure you know what you're doing. My biggest career jump came from a letter I wrote to the owner of a studio outlining what I thought were the problems in the studio and what he should be doing to fix them. It went as far as to call the owner blind to what's happening in his own studio. I also criticised the director and brought up any and all personality clashes.

When I did that, I knew one of two things would happen - I'd get fired, or I'd get promoted. And I was prepared to take either.

I got promoted.

But, it could just as easily have gone the other way. And it could have turned nasty. If you're going to do something like that, get it to the right person and be sure that you mean everything you say and that you're prepared for any and all consequences.

David, you've been in one of the worst situations of all - outsourcing upon outsourcing on a project already in trouble. The first animation I ever did was on a project like that. Aside from just cacking myself because I was way out of my depth, I felt totally alone because I was so far removed from the creative process. I was just doing scenes. Unconnected scenes.

There are times when you just have to hold on and hope the next job is better.

David said...

A project I worked on suffered from many problems, unchanged after months of production.

I told the producer what I thought was wrong with it, in as constructive and calm a way as I could. I'd thought about it for ages. Ages.

I hesitated at first because the leads (I was a lowly animator) had already made much the same complaints to him, with no result. The only reason I went to him myself is because I was shortly to leave the production. I also hesitated for this reason; I didn't want it to seem like a spit in his face as I left.

In retrospect, I probably should have gone directly to the owner of the studio, but at the time I felt it would be unwise to "jump the ladder". I don't know if things would have been different had I done this.

I regret leaving a talented crew, and in the process closing a door for myself, but I don't regret being out of that toxic atmosphere.

I absolutely agree with Bitter Animator's statement:

"If you're going to do something like that, get it to the right person and be sure that you mean everything you say and that you're prepared for any and all consequences."

I was just lucky that my first experience in animation production, years before, was with a great group of guys who were organised, dedicated and made the job fun (even at deadline time)... so I knew that not ALL productions were like this.

Andy Latham said...

I have often thought of voicing my opinions to someone higher up the ladder, if not the guy at the very top. I'm terrified of doing that though. Firstly, I'm scared of getting fired. Secondly, I'm scared of souring the relationships I have with the lead animators. I get on with both pretty well, which is one reason why I don't hate coming to work every day. I'd hate to feel awkward around the people I work with, especially if they have the power to make my life hell! I get the impression that the relationships you make with people in this industry can follow you around long after you change jobs. Everyone knows everyone else. I'd guess it's probably a case of two degrees of separation.

So, as per your advice Bitter, I think I shall keep quiet until such a time comes when I can accept any eventuality. Once I have got enough experience with the company to be confident of getting a job elsewhere, I may voice my concerns more and see where it gets me, but until then, I'll just keep trying to make that beer better. Well I'll do that once I work out whether it's lager or bitter that they want!

By the way thanks for the comments from everyone, they are a big help to me :)