Friday, November 19, 2010

Directing Animation

David Levy's books have consistent strengths. His tone is friendly and conversational. He is willing to admit mistakes he's made in his career, which gives him credibility. He interviews a wide selection of other animation professionals, so the books are not limited to Levy's own viewpoint.

His greatest strength is his concern for the people side of the animation business. Levy always focuses on behaving professionally, communicating clearly and being organized so as not to sabotage a project or one's own career.

All of these strengths are present in his latest book, Directing Animation. It includes chapters on directing indie films, commercials, TV series, features and for the web. Interview subjects include Bill Plympton, Tatiana Rosenthal, Nina Paley, Michael Sporn, PES, Xeth Feinberg, Tom Warburton, Yvette Kaplan and many others. Each of these people relate good and bad experiences they've had directing, giving a rounded view of the job and a host of things to avoid.

However, there is a hole at the center of this book in that Levy says very little about the actual craft of directing. The job of the director is to decide how the story will be told. Depending on the medium and the director, that might entail boarding, designing, cutting an animatic, directing voice talent, drawing character layouts, supervising layouts and backgrounds, timing animation, spotting music and sound effects, mixing sound and doing colour correction. Each of the above has the potential to enhance or detract from a film's effect on the audience, but you won't find any advice as to how these tasks can be used for greater or lesser results. The ultimate value of a director isn't people skills or organization, it's aesthetic. The viewers don't know (or care) if the crew got along or the production ran smoothly. Their only concern is what is on the screen.

Levy chooses not to make aesthetic distinctions. Even without getting specific about certain projects, there is still a wealth of material that could have been written about ways to communicate to an audience.

It is true that the role of the director in animation has been systematically devalued since the dawn of television. The huge amounts of footage that have to be produced for TV force directors to be little more than traffic cops, making sure that the work flows smoothly to the screen. Live action TV is dominated more by writers and producers than directors, and in animation, it's writers, designers and producers who rule the roost. Feature animation, with the exception of independent films, has mostly succumbed to the same disease. Where directors were once hired to realize their own vision, these days they're often executing another person's, lucky to insert a bit of themselves when no one is looking.

What's in this book is important and worth reading, as are Levy's other books. However, anyone interested in the craft of directing animation will find this book incomplete. The nuts and bolts of directing aren't here, let alone the distinction between what produces good and bad results.


Steven Hartley said...

Animation must be just more than a drawing, but there is probably a lot of understanding to know, I'd probably get confused with the timing and all that.

Eric Noble said...

Very interesting and thoughtful review. I would like to see an author break down one of the classic cartoon to see how the director made the picture work. That way future animators and directors know what is involved and how to handle aesthetic decisions. I love reading your posts Mr. Mayerson. You give me a lot to think about.

David B. Levy said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review, Mark!

I'm of the feeling that no one book can do it all, so my focus was on the aspect of directing animation that had never been discussed before. If you're going to bother writing a book, you might as well fill it with information no other book contains. My feeling is that the "hole" you speak of, is covered in just about every other animation book to different degrees. Similarly, "making of" features on DVDs show the entire creative process of directing animation projects. So why go where everyone has gone before?

Yet, I also cover what creative skills are required of the animation director, as well as how to develop those skills.

The people skills and relationship building I write on is not only important to growing into a career as a director, but also critical to scoring a first opportunity to direct. You and I can name many brilliant animation creators/directors who ignored people skills and relationship building only to lose their shows or studios. This is serious stuff and there's so little training available in these areas. That's the "hole" I saw and tried to fill.

Thanks again for the review. I visit your blog several times a week. There's always insightful observations and great information here.

Michael Sporn said...

I'm not sure I can think of ANY book that actually talks about the directing aspect of animtion regarding, specifically, the craft of filmmaking. There are a lot of animation books, but none that talks directly to Directors. You have to go to books on directing live action for most of the meat.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Michael and Mark,
To back up my point, check out Tony White's second book "Animation from Pencils to Pixels" from several years back. It covered the ENTIRE process (from the director's point of view) of making a modern day animated short from concept to final render. Eric Goldberg's Animation Crash Course has a ton of stuff on how to break layout and stage a scene. Often that's the first step of directing where you break down a script and begin to make little thumbnail planning sketches. More directing nuts and bolts is found in Kit Laybourne's "The Animation Book" and Howard Beckerman's "Animation, The Whole Story." Add to that the amount of directing from script to screen info that you see on just one Pixar DVD chock full of extras and you have a lot of information already out there. My book honed in on what was NOT out there at all.