I was sitting with some of the other animators at lunch the other day and the topic of “speed” came up. Not the drug, but the eternal challenge animators face between “quality” and “quantity”.
Most artists feel that it’s a see-saw.. we all want quality, which means it’s going to take time. If you want it faster, then the quality will have to drop.
This seems to make sense, as one of the trademark features of really great animation is attention to detail. Massaging those arcs, making sure there are no pops in the knees, double-checking eyelines, finger contacts, pushing the spacing until it feels just .. perfect.
I don’t think there’s a single animator out there who wants anything less. We all will take exactly as much time as we have to work on the shot until it’s literally wrestled from our hands and sent on to the departments down-stream.
There are obviously a lot more variables that go into the amount of time it takes to get a shot out the door.. there is the clarity of direction, whether or not the shot is ready, the software speed, bugs in the rigs, camera changes, dialogue adjustment, etc.. all of which are natural parts of the movie-making process. However, all of that stuff is out of our control. What we own.. what we work with day in and day out are the poses, the frames, the keys, the rhythm of the shot.
This passion for perfection.. that desire to make each and every frame the best possible frame it can be is what gets my blood pumping when I animate a shot I love. It’s what drives me when I see another animator produce something that just blows my mind. It’s what makes leaving on a friday night difficult because I can’t think of anything except what that next pose is going to be, and how would it look if I just broke the elbow for a frame as I cushioned into the next pose?
But the realities of production set in and we have to keep the shot moving, to get it going further down the pipeline. Those downstream artists are chomping at the bit to make the shot even sweeter, and that next shot is just sitting right over your shoulder, whispering into your ear, pulling at you..
When I became a supervising animator, one of my biggest fears was the fact that I knew I would have less time to animate. I was excited about working with the other animators, and knew I wanted to spend time focusing on that aspect of the job.. but I sure as hell didn’t want to make my shots worse. I still wanted to produce good work, and I still wanted to do a lot of work.
I found that I had only 4 or 5 hours a day to animate vs my usual 8 or 9. Literally half my time was devoted to dailies, reviews, meetings, rounds, and more. Some days I would only have an hour or two to animate. To top it all off, this was not a solid chunk of time, but sometimes only 30 minutes here and there spread throughout the day.
For those of you who animate on a day to day basis, you know that it can take 10 to 20 minutes of warming up each time you sit down to really get into the swing of things when you’re animating–especially when you’re dealing with a some complicated acting, or a technically challenging movement. If I had 30 minutes to animate, and 15 minutes was taken up getting back into the proper head space.. well, you can guess how much I’d be able to do.
I quickly found that I had to learn some way of handling this situation, otherwise I would never get any animation into the film.
I talked to a few animators to see what their tricks and techniques were. One of our Heads of Character Animation said that even though he only had an hour or two per day to animate, he thought about his animation all the time. He would be sitting in meetings and would be working out his shots in his head, so that when he got to his desk he knew exactly what he was going to try and accomplish the moment he touched the keyboard.
That made sense to me, so I tried that. I would picture my shot and try and get the whole thing in my head. Unfortunately, I found that focusing on my shot like that caused me to have trouble paying attention to the meetings I was in. I was distracted, because I couldn’t hold all that information and focus on the questions people were asking me.
So I tried something different. As I was getting up from my desk to head to a meeting I would think about the very next thing I wanted to accomplish in the shot. If it was a pose, a simple movement, a rhythm, whatever it was I would decide on a small chunk of animation that I felt I could accomplish in about 20 minutes. In-between meetings (and while the meetings were covering things that weren’t important to me), I would try and get that next idea clear. Because it was such a small chunk, I could “pause” my brain very easily when I had to focus on outside things, and then hop right back into working out my shot in my brain as soon as I could.
When I then got back to my desk I had a pretty clear sense of direction. Not only did I have a good idea of what I wanted to do, but I also found that I was able to jump back into my shot really quickly! I would sit down and within minutes would be back where I was when I left!
I then started experimenting with other techniques to keep me focused.. I stopped listening to music so nothing else was distracting me. I used my noise canceling headphones to keep out other distractions. I kept my thumbnails right next to my monitor and made checklists of things I wanted to do before my next meeting. I analyzed my workflow and tried to remove any other distractions that would take me away from my work (email, web surfing, etc). I found all of this really helped!
There’s one more thing that I tried that helped more than anything else…
and I’ll discuss that in my next blog post! 🙂