Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I can animate, now what? - pt. 1

My first character animation class was in Fall 2002 at the AAC (before it was the AAU) with Lisa Mullins and she told me early on to think beyond the animation, to really understand and think about why the character is doing something as opposed to how.

I'm mentioning this for multiple reasons (which might not be important, I'm just mentioning it anyway):

Looking back at that first class and then fast forwarding to where I'm at now, I can see specific changes in my attitude towards animation and this job as a whole.

First, in school, it's all about the demo reel. You're spending tons of time in the lab or at home (or wherever your work computer is), with your fellow students and everybody is concentrated on their reel. You live for those shots and it's awesome.
Then, once you get the job, it's all about the first show and your shots. You're spending tons of time at work with your fellow co-workers and everybody is concentrated on their shots. You live for those shots and this time it's even more awesome, because those shots will be seen by tons of people, you'll have your name in the credits, your parents and friends will be proud of you and all that hard work is paying off.
After a while, you realize that the shots you're working on are not meant to be on your reel, they are for the client. And slowly but surely you're detaching yourself completely from the shots, in order to give 100% regardless of the complexity or the difficulty of a project or shot. You truly learn how to kill your babies (or whatever the saying is).

Now, with my first show as a lead animator, I'm getting a fascinating insight into how team work really has to play out. You're always aware of how each discipline depends on each other from the moment you start your first job, but obviously there is much more to it and it's really interesting to go through that experience. Personally, I'm surprised to see myself being ok to animate less and to help out more. Not that I don't want to help, far from it, but I love animating and I expected myself to really miss the animation workload. But the new responsibilities are a lot of fun and I'm learning a lot, so there's definitely no room for complaints.

Now, what does that have to do with "I can animate, now what?"?. Well, it relates to your learning process as an animator. Just like a job path is structured and goes through phases, you will realize that your learning experience goes through phases as well.

First, you start your first class/semester/learning session and you're discovering what is needed to animate your character. You're spending tons of time reading everything related to animation in order to get a grasp of the principles (and software, unless you use another tool). You live for animation and it's awesome. :)

So at first it's about the technique, the tools, the principles, etc. etc. but there will be a moment where you'll have mastered the technique. You'll obviously keep learning and perfecting that technique, but once you reach that phase, you're free to think about performance only. To me it's like where the major feature companies currently are. Every studio has insanely talented animators. I haven't seen Monster vs. Aliens yet, Bolt was the last one and the opening shot with the puppies was just AMAZING! So now that the animation quality is the same, it's all about the story.

It's really exciting to reach that level where you really have to think about performance only. It's also really cool to see how my students reach that level. It's so liberating for everybody when "all" you have to say is "Give this head turn a bit more intensity." and you don't have to explain how to go about that. It's all about the why, not the how. And that's what's what, once you know how to animate. :)

Now your primary question is: What is my character thinking?

It's easy to be lazy at this point and just care about arcs and polish. Push yourself to go beyond movement! Always think about who your character is, what happened before and what will happen after your shot, why is your character doing what he/she/it is doing, etc.

This really applies to every move you animate. If a guy is grabbing a glass, that animation will be different if the guy is drunk, nervous, angry, tired, etc. etc. Don't just animate a head turn, think about the timing of it, how it will change the feel. Again, what is the character thinking during that moment?

- pic source


Bernie said...

As always... thanks for posting :D

I am waiting for pt 2.

David Bernal said...

oh, soooo Awesome!!!! inspiring and educational! thanks JD!! thanks!! cant wait for p2!

Herman G said...

Very informative.

Hammy said...

Love it. :)

Yavuz said...

thank you very much. waiting for part2.

Alonso said...

very true.

I'd just like to throw in that until you know you have the skill to animate anything convincingly, then I think it's faster to not even think about your reel and just keep working on exercises whose value lies in the learning and not the final product.

If you're working on your second animation ever, it's not gonna go on your reel, so don't set yourself up with some crazy acting exercise when you're going to have your hands full just making good arcs. Until you've mastered the craft of animation, the acting stuff is kind of beyond your reach, it's useful to learn about it and think about it but you probably aren't ready to start applying it yet, and if you just focus on learning the craft of moving things first you'll be progressing towards acting faster.

in total geek speak ;) you don't start unlocking your acting abilities until you've leveled up your basic movement, and body mechanics skills and become at least a level 5 animator :D

(at least that's what I've learned from my personal experience)

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Very true Alonso. No one should dive into a performance shot too early. Hopefully your self assessment is healthy and realistic enough that you won't start an acting shot after two exercises. :)

Anonymous said...

Jean-Denis Haas said... "It's really exciting to reach that level where you really have to think about performance only"

Can you give a rough estimate of how many hours sat behind a computer animating it would take to get to this stage?

I know thats like asking how longs a piece of string and probably varys from person to person, but if you can give me an approximate ball park figure [yes.. I'm coming out with all the cliched metaphors today to try and explain myself :)] that would really help me.

I would really like to get to this stage you describe where your animation skills don't interfere with your performance and ability to communicate the story you want to share. After all, if something is badly animated its stands out like a sore thumb and really distracts but if its great animation no one (except us animators of course) really notices.

Also, if you can give a basic structure of how you would effectively go about attaining this level of skill (i.e a list of exercises to master in a hierarchical order of difficulty) that would be really great. Do you simply recommend more practice,practice,practice and study? Would you say some people may just not reach a point where there animation is that good?

I know this is perhaps alot to ask but I would really value your input on this as I struggled for a while to reach the point where I can 'animate without animating' (to bastardise a quote from bruce-lee.. i think) and it is very frustrating!


Jean-Denis Haas said...

Hey anonymous,

Those are really great questions! I was planning a part 1 and 2 but you gave me lots of ideas for a part 3! (or 1.5 :) inbetween).

I think I'm going to do a monster post about my work flow and techniques. I have a lot of stuff I never finished, but I might just start posting it and break it up into parts (like now).

Stand by!

Thanks again for all the questions! Quick answer though. It's impossible to give you a ballpark time frame. Some people "get it" after a semester, others need years. Practice, practice, practice is definitely a good idea. Practice never hurts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I'm glad you liked them!

Its something I have been thinking about for quite a while now and I was just in one of those articulate-asking-questions-kind-of-zones so I just sat and typed. NO thinking required! Wish I could say the same for my animation :)

I realised after posting that feedback is also probably very important to your development as an animator. Otherwise,I sense that you can keep making the same mistakes over and over and not really figure out what your doing wrong without ALOT of observation.

Much easier I reckon to have someone else say 'yeah.. this isn't working because of this' or 'it would be much better if so and so moved this way' etc.

Your probably going to tell me 'Hey, animationmentor offer just that kind of critique!' but I've already been through there entire program once and certainly can't afford to do it again! I thought it was a great school but being a complete novice when I started it wasn't until I was someway through the course that I started to 'get-it' in regards to the principles, workflow and even a firm handle on the software etc that my animation started to improve.

By that point it was really too late to get the valuable kind of feedback from an expert that can really help catapult your animation into a proffessional league!

Unfortuantely, AM doesnt seem to have a continuing education program where you can go back and improve somemore [unless maybe its in regard to improving your 'self' since the founder seems to be quite big on all that kind of stuff!.. sorry Bobby :)] After the intial burst of learning the program offers your left somewhat out in the cold imho.

Anyway, im thinking,talking and typing too much today but i'm in the zone man!

Thanks again for your information and posts so far. Really look forward to more!

[Also sorry for using your thread to hijack it with my animation related frustrations :)]

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Sorry it took me so long, but I'm writing up the answers to your questions "anonymous".

Anonymous said...

Just found this article..maybe coincidence, or because I feel like the opposite.
I am still waiting for this"Think about performance" moment...and it wont really come up.

Then, whats this thing called talent, do I lack it?

Or is it just a matter of time, practice and patience??

I am quite desperate these times, and I am doing animation since 3 years now, and I see 20 year olds, doing this extreme good stuff!

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Everybody has their own schedule. Some people are just really good at it early on. It doesn't matter what you do, there will always be "20 year olds" who will be better than you. Doesn't matter what job. It's dangerous to compare yourself to other people all the time. Like I said, everybody has their own schedule.