Monday, September 10, 2007

Schism

I was talking to a friend about the state of the industry and I realized that the gap between TV and features is growing wider on several fronts.

Not too long ago, both features and TV were done using the same technology: drawings on paper. Features have moved heavily in the direction of cgi and TV has moved heavily in the direction of Flash or Toonboom. The reasons for this are economic.

While budgets have generally gone up for animated features, budgets have gone down for TV. Theatrical box office has continued to rise (though most, if not all of it, has been due to ticket price increases rather than increased attendance) but ad revenues for TV have dropped due to the proliferation of channels. The TV audience is constantly being eroded by more choice on TV as well as choices elsewhere (the internet, video games, etc.)

Both features and TV have their problems in terms of content, but the one thing that's undeniable about features is that they operate at a higher level of craft. There is time to revise and to polish. In TV, a minority of shots get revised.

This has repercussions for the animation workforce. In the past, while features were always seen as the top of the industry, there was a certain amount of mobility between TV and features. Today, I'm guessing that there's a lot less. Besides the fact that the software is entirely different, those working in TV have less opportunity than they did in the past to do work that aspires to feature quality (even if TV budgets and schedules guarantee that the work will fall short).

While I believe that any working artist should be as versatile as possible in order to stay employed, I wonder if for the time being we've reached a point where anyone aspiring to work in features has got to stay completely focused on that goal. In the past, opportunities would arise (especially in studios doing their first features) for people to move in from TV. I'm not so sure those opportunities will be as plentiful in the immediate future. Long term, though, all bets are off as the field keeps evolving in ways that nobody can predict.

16 comments:

warren said...

I don't think it's necessarily that divisive. With the proliferation of straight-to-video projects (often based on existing TV properties or original OVAs), or various feature-length cable specials the 'gap' might be narrower than at first glance.

Plus, there's video games, which are getting more and more advanced and becoming closer to movies with the cinematics used on the 'cut scenes' between levels and such. I'd bet with enough of those scenes under your belt, you theoretically could get 'Hollywood' attention as a potential animation hire, provided that they were scenes which had some requirements a big studio was looking for.

And don't forget that peoples' careers are constantly in flux - few people have the option to stay in one mode of animation for an entire career. I've met some artists who have hopped in & out of TV & feature for various reasons...

Mark Mayerson said...

Warren, I agree with what you're saying. It's possible that games, not TV, will become the feeder industry for features.

I know that careers are always in flux. I have my own career as an example. My concern, though, is that coming out of school or first entering the business, people will have to be much more focused on a particular technology than they used to be. And as they develop expertise in that technology, the other technologies will keep advancing, making the gap that much bigger.

Matt Ferguson said...

Interesting article. Personally I'm much more interested in watching stories that are well told whether they're "polished" or not. Given the choice between great TV like South Park, Fosters, Robot Chicken and vacant $100 million features that happen to be fussed over for years... I know where my attention is going.

Ward Jenkins said...

Ahh, least we forget the wonderful world of commercials! The last resort for tried and true hand drawn animation. There is always the issue of quality vs. time involved, but most agency work allows a nice turnaround time for us directors to crank out some decent quality product. At least, we try. And there's always a rotating roster of freelance help that walks through our doors. I'm sure the same can be said for other production companies.

Video games, ehhh...i dunno. I keep hearing that that industry is the "New Hollywood", but it's pretty much an insular industry. Most of what looks good is on the conceptual and pre-production side. Not the final product. (My opinion, of course.) I don't see it becoming as part of the animation zeitgeist as features or tv has for the most part of, oh, say, 80+ years.

Pete Emslie said...

I agree with Ward that there are some great looking animated commercials on TV. In fact, there is currently a spot for strawberry Mini Wheats with 60's retro characters that makes me smile every time I see it, as it's just so appealing in design and beautifully animated. But, quite honestly, isn't that a rather sad commentary on the state of the art - that a lowly TV ad is so vastly superior to any of the animated TV shows on the air these days?

Personally, I bemoan the day that Flash made the jump from the internet to broadcast TV. Whereas it was originally intended in a pragmatic way to allow for some limited animation on websites without using up much memory, now it is being used as a device to create bargain basement mediocrity throughout the TV animation industry. This computerized equivalent of paper cutouts leaves me cold.

Michael Sporn said...

I agree with your original premise, Mark. Looking down the road ten years or so, I don't see much of a future for 2D animation other than Flash-i-mation. A dozen commercials aren't going to change much.

Things are dead in my world of non-flash. I can't see it continuing too much longer (other than through die-hard individuals.) There's just no place to learn how to animate anymore, so there aren't too many people out there who understand anything other than the new world of Flash.

It's no longer a grievance I'm registering, but it certainly is the only future that I can see.

Matt Ferguson said...

It seems to me that these criticisms of Flash are misplaced. It's a little like blaming Rocket Robin Hood on the Oxberry Camera. Flash is not evil; I think what you have a problem with is the way Flash is typically used. It doesn't have to be that way -- take a look at this Flash animation from Sheridan student Jamie Gallant:

Youtube Clip

David Nethery said...

"It seems to me that these criticisms of Flash are misplaced. It's a little like blaming Rocket Robin Hood on the Oxberry Camera."

I agree with you on that , Matt . Same as blaming cel animation for Rocket Robin Hood , or Scooby-Doo, or The Care Bears . It doesn't have to be that way.

Here's what confuses me : I understand how symbol-based limited animation done in Flash can be a major time/money saver , but how is the sort of frame-by-frame animation done in Flash , with real hand-drawn (albeit via a Wacom tablet) Keys and hand-drawn Inbetweens , like what Jamie Gallant is doing , a time and/or money saver ? Other than saving some time on not having to scan the drawings (and , sure , I guess some money saved on not having to buy dozens of pencils and reams of paper) how is frame-by-frame drawn animation in Flash less time consuming or expensive than frame-by-frame drawn animation on paper ?

Mitch K said...

This summer I worked with some Sheridan 3D students who adapted quite easily to using Flash for TV production. I can't say that I would be able to do the same going, from TV to 3D.

However, what I observed was that the 3D people who were most successful in making the transition were the ones who had more solid animation fundamentals.

Nancy said...

There was never that much to-ing and fro-ing between feature animation and television at Disney.There was a stigma attached to the television work, even though the artists were just as talented as the ones at Features.
This might not have been the case elsewhere.
I agree that Flash is not the problem. Although I dislike a 'Flash-y' look that has become quite a cliche, an imaginitive artist can do great things with this program. I'm even more excited about AFter Effects, which allows you to animate rendered, illustrative artwork.
The key word is: IMAGINITIVE. Most Flash animation series are quick and dirty with poor concepts. All the production value in the world would not save a bad idea.
The great thing about Flash is that you can now make your own films at minimal cost.
Games animators now criscross to features with some regularity. I have two students who have done this to date. One who was lead animator on the "House" in MONSTER HOUSE, just returned to gaming. He wrote me that the work was more fulfilling and 'students should carefully consider their career choices.'

JCasual said...

If one can call animation an art like the art of drawing or painting, we have to acknowledge that the way of producing that art evolves. At one time the only way to draw was with silverpoint- a silver wire marking a prepared surface- and fresco was the only style to paint in. There was a evolution to charcoal and oil paint that I sure outraged the pointillists and frescoists. I see the current technological change as just such an evolution.

Animation as drawing on paper process has evolved from Winsor McCay’s crudeness to the fluid illusion of life in Disney’s features in the ‘40s and then beyond. As the process changes, the application of the principals do not. Oil painters still had to use the knowledge of structure, texture, light, etc. the frescoists had.

The schism between the feature and television arms of animation is less based on the process applied than the money and time used to produce each. (Feature more, TV less.) And the arrogance of feature animation as opposed to their other counterparts. Features are perceived as a higher form of the art. I disagree. There are great works of animation produced in each and that which is produced well within limitations speaks more to me.

The basic principals that produce good animation are and will continue to transfer between the areas of the art. I’ve seen puppeteers rough out their animation on paper and those ubiquitous Pixar art books have loads of thumbnails of animators working out their ideas.

The processes evolves. I’m currently using a Cintiq for the last 3 months after 25 years of storyboarding with pencil and paper. The thinking used is the same, the application is different. As these applications advance, animation will evolve with them. Flash now is leaps away from Flash two years ago. Drawing into Flash reminds me of drawing with silverpoint. The limitations of process force one to be stiff and deliberate. But Google Michangelo’s silverpoints and be amazed.

I am heartened by the evolution in 2D animation processes lately and see the application of its principals will continue to infinity and beyond.

Matt Ferguson said...

"How is frame-by-frame drawn animation in Flash less time consuming or expensive than frame-by-frame drawn animation on paper?"

I had the privilege of visiting House of Cool animation a number of months ago, and they were employing that frame-by-frame "full" animation in flash. The animation wizards there were producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 feet a week (including inbetweening and clean-up).

There seemed to be a real benefit to rough out, clean-up and colour on the same drawing by the same artist. Not to mention the fact that as soon as you make your first drawing, you're staring at a pencil test. No more periodic shooting of drawings -- you can adjust timing and test animation as you go. There's also no need for dope sheets when you can scrub dialog. The animators can also animate on the final BG's -- no need for re-pegged photocopies or potentially inaccurate layouts. And if you are in a trace-back situation, symbols can be your friend.

Small improvements? Maybe. But I was really impressed with what those folks could do, and it sold me.

Ward Jenkins said...

Michael -- I don't see the same future as you see, apparently. The same goes for the company who has just hired me to direct hand drawn 2D commercials. We've got several commerical campaigns going on that feature real pencils doin' their thang -- not Flash. While it's true that Flash is the choice for TV show production, you don't see it used for agency work -- it's hardly used, if at all.

David Nethery said...

Thanks, Matt Ferguson. I hadn't heard about House of Cool before.

I appreciate your explanation of how it's working for them.

I've barely touched a piece of animation paper in the past year since I've been working on a Cintiq, so I totally understand the time savings and the immediacy of not having to pencil test the work or scan it in to the computer. I'm sold on working on the tablet . There are definitely things that go faster , but the actual drawing part can't be faked , I think that's what I was getting at . If it's full, frame-by-frame animation it takes the same thought and effort to draw it on a tablet as to draw it on paper (in some cases more thought and effort to do it on the tablet... There are times it would be easier to draw on paper) I admit I have an uneasy relationship with Flash . I try to like it , but I just can't get into it. I don't like an application that grabs my line and "tweaks" it for me , even just a little bit. I love drawing on the Cintiq, but I don't want the software dictating how I draw. But that's just me ... end of rant.

One thing you said did make the light bulb go off in my head... you wrote "a real benefit to rough out, clean-up and colour on the same drawing by the same artist."

Well, no kidding! Now I see why the studios like that method. Where once upon a time a studio would have hired an animator, a clean up artist, and a cel painter now they get all three for the price of one.

David Nethery said...

Oh, man, I wish I could edit these posts... I just re-read what I wrote above and that last remark comes off as sort of snide, like I'm implying the studio is exploiting the artists by having the animator do the rough animation, the clean up , and the coloring (whereas once upon a time that work would have employed three different artists). I didn't intend it as a slam against the owners of House of Cool (I'm really enjoying looking at their work on the HOC web site).

Actually, from an independent filmmaker, artistic integrity point-of-view that system appeals to me (i.e. one artist taking responsibility for several elements within a scene: rough , clean up, coloring) and I can see how that can lead to increased efficiency , without the work getting watered down by being processed through too many hands. When the old studio unit system worked it really worked well --- Rough Animator, Assistant , Inbetweener ---another group handling the inking & painting ,etc.-- but when it didn't work so well it could lead to major waste and mediocre, watered-down work.
It's the latter that more or less killed off classical 2D animation production.

warren said...

Hmm. I don't know. All this focus on programs used...I see your point(s), though. Technology seems to distract from what we all know the real issue is - fundamental skills are crucial. You can use them with any platform at hand.

I've seen that all of us people have more-or-less equal opportunity for a feature gig if the skills are there along with contacts and lucky timing. Intensely focussing on feature animation as the be-all and end-all isn't really necessary.

Some of the biggest names in pre-prod feature work (Brad Bird, Lou Romano, Mark Andrews, Ronnie Del Carmen, Carrie Yost, etc) have all come up from TV. Nancy just stated video games folks have just begun hopping to and fro too....so...never fear, if that's your goal.

Plenty of ways to get the ball in the hoop.