Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What should I animate? - pt.1 demo reel

What should you animate? What is a unique and creative animation shot? What will be the next big piece that everybody talks about and which will get you a job? Tough questions. To be honest, I don't have a clear answer, but I have a few ideas.

An important aspect to me is that you really need to have FUN with it.

I know, that doesn't really tell you what to do, but it makes a huge difference. You can smell an exercise shot a mile away. But you can also tell when the animator just had fun, despite the "exercise" guidelines. So let's say you're into pantomime, superhero stuff, deep sad acting shots or crazy creature action, then go for it and have fun.

But wait, let's say you love robots, why would you spend weeks slaving away on a robot shot when "Robots" and "Wall-e" already came out and you're running the risk of being labeled "unoriginal" because of that? After all, you want your demo reel piece to be unique and creative?

Ah... but that to me is exactly the problem. Not every shot you animate has to be demo reel material. "Wait, WHAT? Time is money, I can't waste either of it on a stupid exercise!" Well, to me it's not a waste. First of all, practice makes perfect, so anything you animate is good for you. But think about it this way. Hopefully, while you're slaving away on a shot, you are learning tons. Even if the shot didn't turn out the way you wanted it to, you can still take everything you learned and apply it to your next shot. And because of all that knowledge it won't take you four weeks for a shot, but only two. And that one is a demo reel piece. Don't they say that you need to get 1000 crappy drawings out of your system in order to end up with one good one? I doubt it's that much different in animation.

Don't get overwhelmed by the looming graduation deadlines and/or fellow students who seem to be much more advanced than you. You're still working on a bouncing ball while someone else is doing complex acting shots? Who cares? Everybody has their own pace and rhythm. A waste of time for me is someone hurrying to get a shot done within the semester, looking left and right and trying to keep up with the other students and at the end of the day the shot is just okay. Yeah, he/she finished it, just like everybody else, but did it get all the love it needed? Was it a chore or was it fun?

Ok, you can counter this by saying: real life has deadlines, if you can't keep up with other people, then you're not the right person for the job. It's a competitive field, get used to it. And if "You don't like it, leave." - Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross (Watch it, it's a great movie!)

True. But the reality is, you are a STUDENT, and with that comes the freedom of being able to make mistakes, to take your time and to focus on learning. That cut-throat mentality is a bit premature. Sure, keep an eye out and observe your fellow students and use their "superior" work as motivation, but don't get too worked up over it. And just because your semester is over, or you graduate, doesn't mean that your time is up and you have to stop working on your clips. Life is not over once you graduate. It keeps on going and so should you, keep animating.

But again, try to pick something that's going to be fun to animate, because you will be spending a lot of time on and putting a lot of effort into your clip.

I know, that still doesn't really tell you WHAT to animate though. This is obviously just my opinion and feel free to disagree, but consider the following guidelines:

- for what studio do you want to work for? Is it going to be cartoony or realistic? Feature or game? It could also be for medical companies, automotive companies, architecture, etc. etc. Be sure about the style, because you don't want to do crazy over the top cartoony stuff for a company that focuses on photoreal animation.

- is it an exercise or demo reel piece? I like to impose two different standards and work ethics depending on your choice. If you've never done a walk cycle before, chances are that your first clip might not be the best one you're really able to do. So take it on as an exercise, go through the mechanics, learn as much as you can. THEN do another one, but this time put everything you learned into it and make it a demo reel piece.

If you choose the exercise:

- don't worry too much about modifying your character, adding a set, detail work outside of the main character, story, composition, etc. I say "not too much", not "not at all". You should still think about it for future clips, keep learning, but if you're showing me a walk cycle in class and you're treating it as an exercise, then I won't torture you about adding a proper camera, set, story structure, all that good stuff that makes your shot look more like a piece out of a movie sequence as opposed to an exercise. If you need time to learn the mechanics, then focus on that and don't worry about the rest.

If you choose the demo reel piece:

- then it's the exact opposite of the above outline. Now you have to do a lot more homework.

- First of all, being a demo reel piece, it needs to stand out from the crowd in order to get noticed. But how do you get to know the crowd? Look at what the current top animators are doing. Check who has online portfolios. Then check if they have links to other animator friends, check their portfolio. Go to the 11secondclub, study their work. Look at the Animation Mentor Showreel and all the other online school showcases. That is your competition, that is the crowd. Take a week-end and study as many reels as you can. You'll get a feel of what a portfolio reviewer goes through. You'll also see which acting choices are being used over and over, what sound clips are overused, etc. basically you'll get a feeling of what NOT to do. For instance, my favorite: the lower eye twitch during a moment where a character freezes and realizes that something bad is going to happen. It's everywhere and really old.

(sidenote, yesterday I saw "Eagle Eye"
and even though it was very entertaining,
it featured THE overused action shot:
camera inside the car,
profile view of the driver or passenger
and the car gets t-boned by another vehicle,
but you're still inside the car during the crash,
kinda like this pic on the left
- first time I saw that in "Adaptation" it was awesome,
now it's overused).






Do the research so that you know what the level of competition and skill set is and you'll realize that you can't take Generi or default Norman and have him lift a box in an empty room. That unfortunately just doesn't cut it anymore.

- don't make your shot look like an exercise. That's what you do in school, that's what everybody does (for a good reason), but it gets repetitive and not everybody wants to see that on a reel. Make your shot look like it was taken out of a movie, out of a sequence. That means you really have to think about story and character motivation. Who is the character, where, what is the character doing, has he/she done it before? An actor (don't remember who it was) on "Inside the Actor's studio" mentioned something really interesting. The actual story is very likely totally different, I really don't remember, but the essence is:

There is a difference in behavior when you get ready to go to bed at home compared to doing the same thing in a hotel.

When you move around in your home, you know where what is, you've been there, you've done that routine many times. So when you open up the door to the bathroom in order to brush your teeth, you'll probably grab things without really looking at them because you've done it over and over. But when you do the same thing in a hotel, you don't know where things are located, so you are more focused, you will move differently, your behavior will change. Think about that when you animate your character. Where is he/she? Familiar or unfamiliar place? Why is he/she there? etc. All those answers will influence your acting choices. Refer to these acting reference posts for some ideas and suggestions (which include the "Illusionist", "Disturbia" and "Die Hard" clips that we went through in class).

Then think about composition, staging, camera. I'd have a widescreen aspect ratio, because that's what you have in feature movies (if that's what you're going for) and you want think in cinematic terms across the board.

- keep your shot short. Why? It's very time consuming to polish a long shot. Stay away from 15 to 20 second long shots. If, for whatever reason, your shot is that long, think about cutting it up into separate shots, make a sequence out of it. Look at Matt's Force Unleashed demo. When Palpatine grabs and throws the apprentice away, you could show all of this in one shot. But it's more exciting the way it's cut on Matt's reel (and you don't want to bore a recruiter looking at your reel). It also forces you to think about shot flow, animating across a cut, timing and contrast within a sequence, etc. things you need to be aware of when working professionally.

- pick the right audio clip. Refer to this post for all the guidelines. In short, pick clips that people won't recognize. You don't want people to think about the movie and actors while watching your clip. Your clip has to stand on its own, without any distracting associations.

Speaking of audio clips. I think a common misconception nowadays is the idea of a dialogue shot being the ultimate goal for a student. But I think that a good pantomime shot goes a long way. You're not bound to the audio, it's all about expressing feelings and thoughts through the body and the face without the help of sound.

Something else to think about when starting a shot is: what is my current skill set?If you barely finished a bouncing ball, it might not be a good idea to dive right into a two person dialogue shot. So when you ask yourself "What should I animate?", also ask "What have I animated before?". Do you need more practice with mechanics or are you ready to start something more complex? I always like to point to Cameron Miyasaki's site, because it shows a great progression from bouncing ball to physical action, into pantomime and acting.

That's all I got right now, but the moment I can think of more, I'll add it to this post.

If you want to concentrate on just exercises, then read the post "What should I animate? - pt.2 exercises"


- pic source


Bobby Pontillas said...

Thanks for the sweet writeup Jean , always great to hear what you have to say.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure, just I guess the movie you shown us is...
not "Eagle Eye" but "Vantage Point"

Jean-Denis Haas said...

hongcool: you mean the pic in the post? Yeah, that's "Vantage Point". "Eagle Eye" is coming out this week, I can't really get screen grabs off of that yet. :)
But the principle is the same. Same shot is in the Bourne movies, National Treasure 2, etc. etc.

Thanks Bobby! Glad it's of help!

Anonymous said...

oh, I misunderstood. lol
anyway your posts always really helps for me. :)

Bernie Warman said...

I couldn't agree more!!!
You gave us the same speech in our class in the Summer, and you are totally right!

That is why I am doing a short movie full of Naked Normans right now!

Skellybobbly said...

Hi Jean-Denis,

A great post, I can't agree more.
In fact I was saying most of what you've written just the other day when discussing what to animation to do for a reel.



Alonso said...

I think it's especially true that not everything is going to wind up on your reel. If you've only been animating in school for 1 or 2 years, you will SAVE lots of time by only focusing on fundamentals and putting off show piece animations until you have the skills to really control animated movement. Once you can do that then you can start focusing on acting and not have to worry about things moving funny. Great Post!

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Thanks guys!

Bernie!! Don't you dare!!! :)

ERQ said...

Great post, and even though we heard most of this in class, its still really valuable to me. Awesome =]

Chan Ghee Leow said...

Hi. This is a fantastic post! Thanks for this. It's very educational.

Jeffrey Lee said...

good post JD. =]

Hammy said...

Thank you JD! :D I can't thank you enough for choosing to teach in AAU in the first place, despite you had so many other priorities.

I'm glad I found my way into your class, and I am glad that AAU still has great instructors like you around, for being so inspiring and passionate with sharing.

PS: Sorry about my other post that I deleted, I used the wrong gmail account. :|

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Great, thanks guys!

Next week I'll be off the current show, so my goal is to finish the workflow demo and other stuff. Maybe.

Joey said...

Great stuff to read! Thanks JD

Daniel Huertas said...

Man... I was searchig for some inspiration and asking myself "What should i animate for my reel.." and of course spungella is one of my first places to stop.. what a surprise!! here it was...

awesome thoughts and tips on this post..

thanx so much! it really helped me :)

Jean-Denis Haas said...

That's awesome Daniel, I'm glad it did!

minomiyabi (ミノミヤビ) said...

great words. thanks.
yah many typhoon...graduation, other better dudes.
but i still believe that rabbits can be turtles to make it for our goals.

The rabbit woke up. >:-)

Anirudh said...

fantastic post...its one of those classic posts which i am sure i will revisit in times to come !


Jean-Denis Haas said...


InsideAnimator said...

thanks !its wonderful stuff .i was very much frustrated to my animation skill now after reading this my mind got totally relax and things start going smooth and steady.Thank you.

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Awesome! Glad to hear it was of help!

Sunita Moka said...

Super helpful post :)

I too am under pressure to make every assignment into a demo reel piece, but your article is giving me the confidence to just learn and have fun and not worry about demo reel.

Thanks a lot!!