Sunday, December 17, 2006

Animators as Fashion Victims

A few years ago, bell-bottom pants came back. While I'm certainly no expert on fashion and don't follow the business, I was surprised to see them return. In my daily life, nobody was talking about bell-bottoms. I never heard anybody say that they missed them and wished they could buy a pair. I never read any articles or saw anything on television that led me to believe that there was a pent-up demand for bell-bottoms that was reaching critical mass.

The fashion business is like many other businesses in this consumer culture. They sell things to satisfy wants, not needs. In most cases, people have enough clothing to suit the seasons. Therefore, the fashion industry has to goose demand by constantly changing the look of what they sell, making the clothes you already own look old and tempting you with whatever they've decided is the latest look.

The auto industry operates the same way. A car will last for longer than a year, but every year the models are tweaked with new headlights, side mirrors, dashboards, etc. to automatically make your car look out of date.

Movies tend to work the same way. Genres come and go. Horror flicks are big for a while, then they're replaced by teen comedies. Science fiction films are hot and get pushed aside by thrillers. However, there's something of a difference. No matter what the design of a pair of pants, there will still be designers, pattern makers, cutters and sewing machine operators making the pants. The specialized nature of movies (the fact that each one is a unique product) often means that people in the industry are employed or not based on trends. Dancers and choreographers work when musicals are in production and stay home when they're not. Horse wranglers work when westerns are popular and don't when they're not. A Hollywood trend can have a significant impact on whether a person connected with film production is employed.

Fashion has affected animation the same as it has other genres. (I know, I know. It's a medium, not a genre, but whether we like it or not, Hollywood thinks of it as a genre.) There have been periods like the 1930's and the 1990's when animation and animators were in demand, and there have been other periods like the 1970's and early '80's when they were not.

What's worrisome now is that animation is healthy, but fashion may still hurt animators due to the existence of motion capture and procedural animation. I'm not interested in vilifying mocap or the people who work on it, but I'm acutely aware of the power of fashion (i.e. what everybody is perceived to want) and how, if we're not careful, keyframing may be put on the shelf.

It's unfortunate that throughout its history, the discourse regarding animation has been full of statistics on how many drawings or how many bodies it takes to make a film. This was no different than advertising a live action epic as having "a cast of thousands," in an attempt to impress the audience with the size of the accomplishment. I'm afraid, though, that the impression the audience was left with was the size of the effort.

Now there are techniques such as mocap and procedural animation (used for crowd shots in The Lord of the Rings and other films) where the amount of effort can be reduced. Just as we've been trained to respond to changing fashion trends, we've also been trained to expect increased efficiency and improved technology. These techniques promise (whether they deliver or not) faster, cheaper animation. The fact that the results on screen are subtly different does not seem to bother audiences.

I can easily see how directors familiar with live action productions would feel more comfortable with mocap than they would with keyframing. With mocap, they get an actor in front of them who can perform an action repeatedly until the director is satisfied. Contrast that with a director forced to describe what's in his head to an animator who goes off and (slowly) produces the animation. It takes the animator a certain amount of time to bring the performance to a state where it can be judged, and if there's been a miscommunication between director and animator, it's back to square one and time and money have been wasted.

Just as audiences will not demand musicals simply so that dancers can stay employed, they won't demand keyframing. Nobody really understands what animators bring to the screen except other animators, and these days, with TV animation dominated by design, many animators don't understand it either. Animators will possibly be discarded, just as this year's fashion gives way to whatever's next.

Animators have got to work harder to set the terms of the debate. Attacking motion capture is not the way to go as audiences already accept it. Nobody is going to stay away from a movie because animators tell them to. Families with children are looking for a place to go on the weekend, and anything that's suitable content will attract their attention, regardless of how it was made.

What animators have to do is become a lot more vocal about what they contribute to entertaining audiences.

In the '90's, animators were in demand and they hired agents and lawyers, making them resemble real, live actors in terms of how they did business. What they failed to do was hire publicists. Since the '90's, various studios have used their animation talent for publicity purposes (these days most commonly in behind-the-scenes documentaries on DVDs), but studios only let things go so far. After all, if a person becomes too important in the minds of the audience, that person has the leverage to negotiate a fatter paycheque, which is not in a studio's best interest.

However, that's exactly what animators need to do. The most well-known animators right now gained their major publicity in the '90's: Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, etc. In the computer animation era, can you name half a dozen animators and major scenes they've done? Perhaps you can if you've memorized your DVD commentaries, but I'm guessing the average audience member couldn't name even one. Except for John Lasseter and Brad Bird as directors, could anyone in the general public name someone who directed a cgi feature? Next time you're at the movies, ask people who directed Shark Tale or Ice Age 2. I'm betting that nobody knows.

The audience likes certain live performers and sees their films. Because these performers command an audience, they have clout. They're able to establish media profiles that enable them to be well compensated for their work and makes producers anxious to work with them. Within animation, the business has always been dominated by studios more than individuals. Since the development of computer animation, we've been faced with techological changes that have the advantage of novelty for audiences and ease of use for producers. If animators don't stand up for what they contribute and convince audiences and producers of their value, they're going to be tossed aside like a pair of bell-bottoms. Sure, maybe they'll come back in style in another 35 years, but can we afford to wait that long?


Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
Perhaps we need to learn how to put in a zipper as well as sew on a button.

Michael Sporn said...

Well written and stated.

However, I think making good films will keep real animation alive better than publicity will. Of course, all publicity is urgent to keep the message alive. Therein lies the immediate value of blogs and websites.

Anonymous said...

So far I think, the audience has spoken their choice through box office numbers, just compare Polar Express and Monster House with Cars and other keyframed animated features, they pretty much speak for themselves. With the exception of Happy Feet which from what I understand is about 50 percent mocap and 50 percent keyframe.

bclark said...

"so far I think, the audience has spoken their choice through box office numbers, just compare Polar Express and Monster House with Cars and other keyframed animated features, they pretty much speak for themselves."

I think you might be off target a bit thinking that the audience cared about it being mocap or keyframed (most don't know the difference) and just did not like the stories of polar or monster house.. polar was just a bad movie and monster house was a large mix of key frame and mocap ...just like all " motion capture movies" there really are not any 3d movies or games using motioncapture where skilled animators did not have to adjust/rekey or touch up the shot data in order to get what ends up on screen...

I think we have to keep separate the technique from the story when looking at box office numbers as the only sign of what people want.

Anonymous said...

That's true, nobody cares about mocap vs keyframe except us animators. It's also true that a film with a bad story would probably fail no matter how it's animated but the fact is there hasn't been a good movie with a good story that's been done with mocap todate, so we have no means of comparison. The only sure thing is that good story and good keyframe results in profitable numbers, and as far as investors understand that, we'll hopefully be fine!

Fränk Spalteholz said...

interessting blog! as an 2D/3D-animator i think that mocap could give us great posibilities by using mocap as an great "pre-key-framing". we just have to improve our life-acting-skills. at the moment the most character-animators capture themself by video and take that as an reference. to have that as keys would be great! the only problem is handling the amount of keys on the rig. every frame a key on every body-part is a problem. but i'm sure the industry will fix that. and the end i want to add that animation from the beginning to now made such big steps. but one thing never changed: you always need animators for animation ... :)

Anonymous said...

2 things WILL happen.

First, the studios will recognize the need for people who are knowledgeable about keyframe animation in order to have superior products.

Secondly, keyframe animators will have to become more open to the idea of working with mocap data, and motion creation software on atleast a part-time basis. Every graphic or web designer knows to avoid Photoshop filters as a goto move, but sometimes they are the right choice, and do help. If you use filters and drop shadows alone you will expose yourself as a hack, similarly if you do good design no matter the process, your work will stand out.

So the animators won't become extinct, but they will get to use more robust animation and motion software that will extend their innate talents. Actually, most of the software will have its own motion library that it can improvise on and create fresh computer generated motions that the artist can judge, edit, and enhance. There will still be motion capture, but ultimately it will be the animator capturing himself acting out the performance. The animator will begin to use himself as a mouse or tablet pen.

Anonymous said...

As merely a fan of animation I read this blog with much interest. This post ends with the point that animators need to gain more publicity. How is an animator to do this? Are we talking about raising the profile of individual animators in the public's eye or in the eyes of the studio heads? Or are we talking about raising the profile of animators as a whole? How does one do this?

Audiences like personalities. They are drawn to actors. But the actor is always recognizable and can be latched onto by an audience from picture to picture. The problem as I see it is that the animated artists strive to bring someone else to the fore - the character. So naturally the animator is not lauded but the character is (or in the worst of all trends the voice actor).

How does one change this paradigm? Isn't it the nature of animated film?


Mark Mayerson said...

Just as there are different drawing styles or different styles of art direction, there are different styles of movement. Obviously, there is a realistic approach and mocap has its uses for that. However, there are all kinds of stylized movements, even in live action. If you look at the silent comedians, they have very stylized ways of moving.

Within animation, some of my favorite work is by animators who are very stylized. The way they bend the body, distort forms and compress time is what makes their work fun to watch.

We're surrounded by reality. I can stand on a busy street and see hundreds of realistically moving people walk by. What tends to be entertaining, though, is someone whose motion deviates from what one might expect. People like that are living caricatures of realistic motion.

I take pleasure from looking at photographic portraits and caricatures. My fear is that cost or fashion will tilt animation towards its version of photographic portraits and that caricature will disappear.

Mark Mayerson said...

Jazz musicians in the 1920's and early '30's were pretty anonymous. They didn't get their names printed on records and they didn't get a lot of individual publicity. However, jazz musicians valued individual styles and worked hard to develop their own.

As the 1930's progressed, more musicians started to get recognized for their styles and the most popular and/or entrepreneurial would start their own bands. Bands would make announcements when a noted soloist would join up.

Animators have to take responsibility for publicizing themselves. Why aren't feature animators telling the world which scenes they animated? Is there a contract provision that prevents this? If so, why are they agreeing to it?

When a studio trumpets the fact that they've signed a particular artist or animator, the same way a sports team would, then we've reached the point where animators have some profile. Until then, how does the media know who to go to for information and how would the public ever know that a film was keyframed?

Anonymous said...

One way for animators to attain more publicity is to band together to create more of their own short films, and then try to get noticed so that a feature length film of theirs will get noticed.

This means that animators have to learn how to write or to be close friends with good writers. As compared to classically great writers John Lasseter is not as good, but he is really good for what he does. He has studied writing, and it shows.

You can't expect for animators to have the same billing as a voice actor in a Shrek type of movie. You cannot expect this unless the animator IS the voice talent as well. Projects need to be taken back into the hands of animators. Look at how Steve Box and Nick Park launched themselves. They created their own stuff. This is the only way. WORK ON YOUR OWN STUFF.

Now back to the other stuff that amazingly nobody has commented on. I see the one comment related to motion software to be an interesting piece of forecasting. I agree, it totally makes sense that people will be able to use software that makes a motion/animation suggestion for you and your 3D character. Heck yeah, I can see that! The computer could totally make an offer of a caricatured motion/animation for the animator to then enhance or discard and get a new suggestion. That could totally happen, and yeah it wouldn't rule out the animator - it would call for the animator even more to be in charge. Oh, and I like the idea of animator using himself/herself as a mouse, but it's more like the animator becoming the rig or the armature.

Coolest comment in the bunch.

Ah person said...

mark, as a student going into the industry soon this kind of thinking rattles around in my head constantly. but the hard part of it is figuring out what exactly one can do about it.

Right now im simply trying to improve my art skills so that i might have enough of an artistic range to do not only animation but perhaps comics and illustration for other purposes.

But of course that DOES boil down to marketing your work and getting noticed. Eitherway the points raised in this article are all quite true and simultaneously frightening to one in my position. but one thing is for sure, its making me work harder and harder.

thanks for making all the students who read this blog think carefully about why they are pursuing this as a career.

Mark Mayerson said...

Rob, I'm not trying to frighten anybody. I'm just trying to see through the fog so we don't run off the road.

Ah person said...

please dont take my comment as sarcasam. A bit of fear certainly helps clear your thinking as to what your goals are and why you are pursuing them, instead of blindly chasing the end of rainbows.

i come to this blog becasue, i think you'll agree that paying attention also stops us from running off the road just as well.


i hope your holidays are going well!

Anonymous said...

"but the fact is there hasn't been a good movie with a good story that's been done with mocap todate, so we have no means of comparison."

I disagree, I think Monster House was one of the best animated films this year. It helps that it wasn't another animal movie, but the visual style was cool, the story was original (for animated films at least), it had some good acting and funny lines. It's a shame it didn't do better financially, it's just going to make it harder for the next writer/director who wants to make an animated film without talking animals and pop music montages.

Anonymous said...

People do know what movies are keyframe animated and what are mocaped. They know this subconsciously. They know because the previews of keyframed movies have amazing shots of character animation. Whereas the previews of mocaped movies don’t show shots of great character animation because there aren’t any! Monster House previews were all shots of the house because it was keyframed and it looked great. Polar Express had shots of character animation but it looked lifeless which is an argument for why it tanked. Happy Feet had a mix of Mocap and Keframe in they’re preview and they pulled it off. Though I thought the shot of the kid penguin dancing was floaty and lacked energy. While the shots of Robin Williams character looked great. Look at any Pixar preview and you will find amazing shots of character animation. Pixar has dominated the box office. I think mocap has a long way to go. And the only way it is going to get there is by skilled animators manipulating the mocap data.

Anonymous said...

I have posted 3 times and people still sit and wonder about mocap and then about keyframing and what will happen. I spelled it out for you, and you keep wondering. Please, read the "2 things WILL happen" comment. I'm not joking I have no way of proving this, but it's pretty easy to see that you must keep bettering your keyframing skills, because that will never go away. At the same time there will be better software that generates SUGGESTIONS for you to enhance or discard. No doubt about it. This is the subject that needs to be mulled over and digested by all animators. We need to be open to the fact that we won't be 100 percent keyframers in the future and yet everything will be checked against the standard of keyframing and the principles of animation. Any takers finally?