Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Vital Connection

There's no reason to believe that [computer animated] characters will ever live on the screen as the characters do in the best hand-drawn films; given the way that computer-animated films must be made, the vital connection between artist and character simply can't be strong enough.
Working off of the above quote, I'd like to talk a little about "the vital connection." Mainly, I want to talk about the technical side of how animators work in various media. There's no question that different forms of animation have different strengths and weaknesses, but, if anything, computer animators have a level of control over characters that easily rivals other forms and in some ways exceeds them.

In stop motion, the animator is limited by the puppet itself. If the puppet's movement is physically restricted by its construction, the animator must adapt to that. There are also limitations imposed by the recording technique. Ray Harryhausen's animation tends to be jittery due to his technology. Because his work was being photographed onto film, he was stuck waiting for it to be developed and wasn't able to relate his current frame to previous ones. On more recent stop motion projects, such as The Corpse Bride, the frames were digitally captured, allowing for playback of previous frames on the set. As a result, modern stop motion animation is generally smoother.

Even with digital recording, though, a stop motion shot still needs to be thoroughly visualized before animation begins. The animation is still being done straight ahead, so timing and paths of action must be worked out in advance and they're not easily changed without re-animating a character.

In drawn animation, an animators drawing ability is roughly equivalent to the limitations of a puppet. With drawings, it is definitely easier to revise shapes and the overall timing of a character than it is in stop motion. Visualization doesn't need to be as thorough as the animator can add or subtract drawings at any time. While it is easier to revise timing or the path of the overall motion, it remains difficult to revise timing on only a portion of a character. Assuming that all parts of a character are drawn on a single level, altering timing for an arm or a leg requires erasing and redrawing before a test can be shot.

In cgi, the limitations of the rig are equivalent to the limitations of a puppet. While I'm sure that cgi animators all have their pet peeves about the flexibility and controls of rigs, the rigging at studios doing high budget features is very impressive. There is quite a bit of flexibility of a character's shapes, though not as much as pencil animators whose work is heavily graphic, like Eric Goldberg or Fred Moore.

Timing in cgi is far more flexible than in stop motion or drawn animation. In cgi, it is trivial to alter the timing on the arms of a walking character. It literally takes seconds to select the relevant arm controls in the dope sheet and slide them forwards or backwards in time. Timing can also be globally or locally compressed or stretched in the dope sheet. This makes trying variations more practical than they are in other forms of animation. Paths of action for an entire character or just a part can also be altered with far less effort. If anything, from a technical standpoint, the level of animator control in cgi is equal to or greater than stop motion or drawn animation.

Yet Michael Barrier and others somehow feel that cgi character animation is lacking. Why? One possible answer is the need for pre-visualization of a character's actions before starting to animate. A stop motion animator must do this more than a pencil animator and a pencil animator must do it more than a cgi animator. If this was what was bothering people, then stop motion animation would be the gold standard and that doesn't seem to be the case.

Perhaps it is the animator's interface for creating motion. Stop motion animators put their hands on the puppet to manipulate it. That makes for an intimate relationship. Drawn animation is done with a pencil, something animators have used for 15 years before entering the industry, giving them a greater familiarity with that tool than with a computer mouse. A pencil certainly expresses individuality better than a mouse does. An artist's line is a form of a signature, though in drawn animation the animator's lines are often homogenized by assistants for the sake of consistency. A cgi character will automatically look consistent, though nothing stops cgi animators from having as individual a sense of posing and timing as any other type of animator.

Another possible answer is that the ease of revising cgi leads to over refinement. It's sort of the difference between whole wheat and white bread or molasses and white sugar. In both cases, the refinement leads to blandness. While cgi animators can revise more quickly, the footage quota on cgi features is not higher than in drawn features of a similar budget. The time saved goes towards refining the surface. There are few imperfections in the movement, which may lead to a kind of sterility.

While cgi lends itself to this level of refinement, it is not a necessity. As I've said, artists make decisions and some of them are bad ones. This is why I think that blaming a form of animation for the weaknesses in a film is wrong. The bigger problem is not the technique, but how the characters are conceived. I'll take up this issue in a future entry.


J. J. Hunsecker said...

Great and informative article! I hope to hear more on the subject from you soon.

Jason Scott said...

I remember listening to the commentary of the CGI movie "Antz" and the co-director pointed out how one of his animators added a little hop to the character; it's during a scene where the character is negotiating to switch places with his friend, and as he looks around, he excitedly describes the girl he wants to meet. I hadn't noticed it before, and it'd just blended into natural action.

Michael Sporn said...

Very elucidating piece, Mark. Thank you.

Those "Antz" were ugly and their movement was ugly. Too much seemed to be left to the computer and a shadow was created on the screen pretending to be motion. To me, a hint of this remains in even the best of cgi. I'm sorry I can't articulate it more than that. The motion isn't organic - a computer is involved in creating part of that motion. (When you say you can reshape the timing of the arms on the walk easily, it's obvious a computer is doing a part of the work that you finally will approve.) It seems to me that humans and animated drawings don't work that way. There is a fallibility built in that makes it more alive than the not-very-real cgi puppets on the screen.

Certainly, this is a bias I have, but I also see moments in ALL cgi films where lingering motions tell me that the machine created that motion or added to it. It's annoying, at the least.

I'm sorry, I didn't want to write a dissertation here, but I do trust a lot of what you say. Certainly, about animated acting. Can you say you've seen a perfect bit of acting in cgi that you felt was organic to the character?

Mark Mayerson said...

Michael, can you point to a specific shot in Antz or a newer film that has the problems that you're reacting to? I'd be curious to take a closer look.

I could point to numerous examples in The Incredibles that I think are very well acted. There is a scene where Bob is about to leave on a mission and his wife thinks he's leaving to meet a lover. Both of them are distracted by things that aren't there yet they're trying to make their parting as routine as any other morning. On the surface, there's not much going on but the subtext is very powerful and the acting is totally believable.

The success of that scene is not due just to movement, but also how the scene and the characters are conceived. I'm going to write more about that, but in the meantime I'd love an example or two from you as to where you see the computer overwhelming the animator.

Mark Mayerson said...

And a P.S. In the case where the arm action is being shifted in time relative to the leg action in a cgi walk, the computer is merely repositioning, not adding or subtracting anything from the animator's work.

There are reasons that a cgi animator might let the computer do too much of the lifting: deadline pressure, ignorance or laziness come to mind. But again, the fact that a problem can arise is not a reason to condemn a technique as much as it is a reason to condemn the crew or their working conditions. Animators struggle against limitations in every form of animation, which is why I don't see a blanket condemnation of cgi as valid.

p spector said...

Nicely done, Mark.

Re the exchange:
Michael: - The motion isn't organic - a computer is involved in creating part of that motion.
Mark: - In the case where the arm action is being shifted in time relative to the leg action in a cgi walk, the computer is merely repositioning, not adding or subtracting anything from the animator's work.

I think if Michael were doing it using his own methods he would get it just the way he wanted it portrayed. I think the computer is making a mathematical guess/approximation of what the creator orginally wants.

To me, organic or inorganic goes beyond just the example of movement in creating motion. it is the difference between the organic of the natural world, and IO, the binary language that computers use and is an mathematical language.

Setting aside Philosophy 101, Michael inhabits an organic world where he perceives and interprets things through his own organic senses. He then takes that information and will use it to help make a film. His processes includes the use of materials found in that natural world, lead for pencils, trees for paper, oil for film, etc.

Conversely, with CGI, at any point in a film process CGI strips anything really organic because it converts and renders it as a series of binary ones and zeroes. The more points in that path that binary is used, the further away you get from anything organic (some might argue and I'd agree that the first point in the path is the most crucial.) Any middle-schooler will tell you that binary, the base functioning that computers use, is a mathematical way of explaining something that occurs, or theoretically might occur, as a natural process. It's just easier to solve a particular situations that way, it's not the situation itself, and is intentionally simplistic.. The world of numbers is a way of explaining something, not that "something" itself.

So, re Michael's example of arm and leg movement: Since he is a skilled artist animator who works organically, we would get the best interpretation of what is occuring, of what it is he wants to convey. In his spoken English we would get a just a pretty good idea. If he spoke binary, we would have no idea. At the end of the CGI process, a computer speaking binary is only translating binary into pixels onto a monitor for our eyes. Anything organic is just not part of that system.

BTW - this this same type of debate that has been raging in the music recording field for over 20 years.

Jonathan Coit said...

I do enjoy quite a few CG movies, but am more partial to the hand drawn productions.
After seeing a few CG movies this summer, I do not a few small things that make the characters seem lifeless, dull and uninspired. This is not so much due to the animation, and could be mainly design choices.
When watching Kung Fu Panda I noticed an issue I notice in a lot of Dreamworks stuff, it has something to do with the eyes. I I do not see the characters processing the information, it doesn't really look like they are thinking, more like they are trying to show the audience that they are thinking.
Nice read!
Thanks Mark

Anonymous said...


You mention that "the computer is making a mathematical guess/approximation of what the creator orginally wants." I find that statement to be inaccurate. Yes, the computer fills in the inbetweens for you, but the animator can control those inbetweens very precisely. How is that any different from having an assistant and an inbetweener to finish the rest of the drawings?

I think it's important to understand that people animate on the computer in very different ways. Some treat it like traditional hand-drawn stuff, and so they put in key poses, breakdowns, and more breakdowns until everything is defined. Then they tell the computer to fill in the remaining keyframes, and finally they'll look at those inbetweens and tweak them to get exactly what they want.

Others treat it more like sculpting. They layer in basic poses and timing and see what the computer gives them (inevitably it will be a floaty mess). Then they chip away, defining stronger poses, better timing, consistent spacing, arcs, etc... until in the end, the animator has defined everything he/she wants and 'tamed' the computer's blind inbetweening.

In both methods, the artist is imposing intentionality upon the scene. There is nothing "random" or "approximate" about it. If anything, as Mark argues, there's too much massaging going on.

As for your argument about "organic" — it seems like nothing more than semantics. I find it interesting that you see the "first point in the path" for CG animation as being the computer... whereas others would argue that it's the *organic* person operating the computer. There are countless numbers of expensive, non-organic computers around the world that have completed 0 feet of animation. But the common element between animators, whether they use a pencil or a mouse, is that they're all living, breathing, thinking beings.

Anonymous said...

My quote "the computer is making a mathematical guess/approximation of what the creator orginally wants" could probably have been worded better. A better choice would have been about a "mathematical representation" of what the...
Still, that adheres to my argument that binary is not a 100% translation of the creative work.

Organic vs. inorganic, who can dispute that in relation to the examples I gave -- people and the hand-drawn medium, and computers and how they function, that they are exactly that.

To clarify the "first point in the path..." part. I was referring to the fact that the first time a particular organic creation undergoes change into binary. In other words, it could be late in the change as well, well after much of a production is produced. It's that first transformation that arguably is the widest fork in the path.

I like a decent amount of CGI, I was merely glomming onto the exchange I referenced at the top o my post, not the whole of Mark's piece.

Re your taking me task about, As for your argument about "organic" — it seems like nothing more than semantics." Well heck, aren't all comments?


Anonymous said...

Paul, thanks for clarifying. I understand where you're coming from now, but I'm not convinced that the tool makes something inherently organic or inorganic.

Lest I come across as some kind of CG zealot, let me just say that there is a lot of "meh" CG animation going on right now. I'm right there with Michael and his complaints about Antz. I'm just not a big fan of pointing the finger at the medium itself... it seems too easy, and it downplays the acting and stylistic choices that animators, supervisors, directors, etc. are making right now. I look forward to Mark's next post as he seems interested in pushing the discussion that direction.

Jenny Lerew said...

Very interesting and well discussed on all sides.

I sit through Ratatouille and Kung Fu Panda and am charmed and delighted with many of the characters' acting choices and "life"--than I'll go onto one blog or another-often enough written by people whose opinions I respect--and read that they see none of the life--courtesy of the skill of the animator--that I saw. I feel a little sad and definitely puzzled about it.

I could give chapter and verse examples of some wonderful, relatable acting--I've even seen it in truly lousy films overall(where The Story) is the key failure). For me those moments are usually part of a greater whole, though--moments where the character is suddenly thinking. Except of course s/he isn't.
I find that when that happens it's usually when the character is doing something--reacting, gesturing, thinking--in a way that surprises me visually. Not "showy" stuff but just something suddenly, obviously unique to that character.

That's where I feel the skill of the character animator, and so I do get it from CG. Not all the time, but it's certainly there--for me. At those times when I was able to inquire who did the scene it invariably turns out to be someone whose 2D work I know, and know to be excellent.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Sporn,

Can you please animate a 2d example for us that contains SO much life and amazing acting while applying the great tehnical aspects of animation in which you describe?

I can understand a critic, someone who doesn't actually animate, making these ridiculous statements but from someone who actually animates and is trying to, or hopefully, continue to learn is intriguing. You can talk and compare images and films as much as you want but until you actually join in and actually try to create something to actually improve or change these things you speak of then you are of no benefit to the artform.

"but I also see moments in ALL cgi films where lingering motions tell me that the machine created that motion or added to it"

I'm assuming that most of your assumptions here are due to the fact that it isn't hand drawn rather than the motion itself. The character is "perfectly drawn" on every frame in the computer. If you were to take some of the 101 Damatian's motions while they're watching tv and do the exact same moves in the computer you would probable come to that same thought just because it doesn't contain the variation in line from frame to frame. I agree that this adds charm to it and even makes it a bit more organic but it would be the same motion regardless of medium.

Like Mark has mentioned, it comes down the choices made by the animators and not medium which brings the characters to life. There has been some great acting done with the use of the computer and I have honestly felt sad, happy, excitement, hatred, and much more for computer animated characters. I feel the acting choices are getting better at some of the studios and I do believe that they will continue to push character specific acting and actions making them that much more unique, believable, and sincere.

Mark Mayerson said...

I would remind everybody that debating ideas and points of view is fine, but I would caution everyone not to get personal.

The fact that someone disagrees with you, no matter how wrongheaded you think they are, is no reason to denigrate them as individuals.

Everyone commenting here loves animation. We would all like to see better films. Insulting people on the home team is not the way to get them made.

Jamaal Bradley said...

This is a good topic. I just wanted to comment on the part of playing with timing in CG Animation. I am firm believer in planning and one thing that the computer gives some animators is the freedom to play around. Some may look at this as positive or negative, but the planning process in my opinion is the biggest part of being an animator (study your part). Studying your subject, understanding the character, knowing what you want the character to do before you make him, her, or it move is one of the great things about being a "character" animator. You are building something that hopefully will be memorable. It is great to play at home with CG (and even then you are mentally planning what you are going to play with) and experiment on new ways to achieve your goals and then apply what you learned to your personal process.

As Mark also pointed out, there are so many levels of CG animation that you begin to feel like your organizing gravel by color in a gravel pit. As computer animation continues to advance I am sure there will be even more anal work to do (animating pores opening and closing). With these levels there are some amazing things being done in CG animation and within the performances, but we all know it will never have the texture of hand drawn or stop motion, it is its own entity.

but all three have "texture"

Michael Sporn said...

Dear "Anonymous,"
I have a body of work of over 40 hours of 2D animation. More than half of it is still available on dvd. I'm sure you might find a scene or two in there that brims with life. If you can't find it or don't like it, that is your opinion, I'd guess.

You might try screwing up the courage to use your name next time you're ready to get angry or hostile.

Thad said...

Michael: I was going to write something to the anonymous dweeb who wrote that, but I decided he wasn't worth anyone's time. Certainly not from someone like yourself, an active practitioner of personal and quality films.

I can't think of anything to add because the subject is so unappealing and depressing. Like the Bush Family, I'd rather just pretend CGI doesn't exist, even if it means not being able to bash it.

Let me just say that the kind of system, where animation along the lines of Rod Scribner, Jim Tyer, or Emery Hawkins is impossible, becoming the norm is really scary.

Michael Sporn said...

I'm not sure animation like Scribner's and Tyer's is impossible in cgi, but I don't think anyone will ever try to get there. (They'd have to get to master the animation thing first, know the rules and then break them.) That's what I don't think can happen in cgi - there's no one to fund that education and experimentation.

The subject IS interesting to me; it's the sense that I'm always fighting that isn't.

Thanks, Mark, for hosting this useful discussion.

laughingwolf said...

good points mark, but to me, cgi still looks too 'clean' = clinical

i'm all for 'flaws', too, even deliberate ones...

Ignacio Ochoa said...

Hi Mark. I´m from Argentina and i work like animator since eight years ago (seven on hand draw animation an the last one on CGI).
To me is practically impossible to be connected with the character behind the monitor, manipulating their handles and their curves. The result of the animation can be successful, but the artist loses the great experience to be one with the animated form, loses to discover as the drawing appears, like the animation appears.

Sorry about my english.

If you want, you can see some of my works on my blog.


Anonymous said...

I do apologise for the previous comment and agree that it was uncalled for. I guess I should definitely wait a few days before posting a comment about something I've just read that I am passionate about. Like Mark has said, we all want to improve the artform and see better films. I have seen clips of your work before and I don't feel it holds the amount of life that a lot of cg animation does(in my opinion) which is what confused me about your post on this subject. I don't mean this as an insult by any means, I think your work can definitely tell a story, which is why we all animate in the first place, but it's tough to really even judge your taste in acting from the work that I have seen. Work aside, you still have the right to your opinion about this and should be able to post your thoughts freely without being attacked by idiots like myself. Again, I do apoligise.

You have some very well written posts and contribute a lot to the animation community on your blog so I definitely appreciate that! Thank you very much for the amount of time you spend doing that!(Same goes for Mark and his blog) Even though I disagree with your views on this particular subject it will definitely make me think about how I can improve the quality of my work whether that's in animation technique, acting, appeal in poses and design, etc.

I also have a VERY high appreciation for 2d animation and complete respect for those that do it and feel that the stuff that was done in the old Disney films is some of the best animation done but I also think there is some VERY serious and amazing acting applied through great animation in cg films. On the flip side I also see certain things that aren't quite appealing or the acting choices aren't the best in all three feature animated mediums.

Anonymous said...

Mark, it was great to read your post, written by a hand-drawn animator who actually UNDERSTANDS how CG animation is done. I think that's practically a first. It gets tiresome to read critiques of CG animation by people who have no idea how it is created.

I also think you're on to something in your "over-refinement" argument.


Mark Mayerson said...

For the record,while I started out animating with a pencil, I spent more time animating with a mouse. My career roughly works out to one third drawn and two thirds cgi animation.

There are things I love about both techniques and while they're different, I don't consider either one to be superior.

Unknown said...

My understanding is that the "Vital Connection" is the animator's familiarity with the character.
In stop-motion character familiarity mostly boils down to knowing the possible contortions of rig, and furthermore how they can balance mid-frame, which is very good at bringing out a personality but generally a mechanical one unless good writing can pick up the slack.
In hand-drawn animation the animator will have to familiarize himself very thoroughly with the character, drawing her perhaps hundreds of times daily and learning her from top to bottom. The animator's limit to depth is of course in his own skill, but the sheer effort of the craft demands some emotional involvement and the sheer involvement makes knowing and understanding the character inevitable. No matter what, though, it will always be the animator's own contours on the cel and that will always shine through (if the animator gives a rat's ass)
CGI is very iffy. It's simple to manipulate, unrestricted by mechanical quirks and gravity, and since the animator doesn't necessarily need to thoroughly know the character it leaves a lot of slack for laziness and truly bad animation. It's not so much that it's impossible to achieve the "Vital Connection," it's just that it takes more, seemingly unnecessary extra work. Still, that "unnecessary extra work" makes the difference between "Hoodwinked" and "Presto."

Yeldarb86 said...

This is an excellent read, especially since we just started learning about CGI History.

Apparently, a lot of work went into developing and advancing computer graphics, more than most traditional animators care to know, before they were ever used in mainstream entertainment. I think the REAL reason why there's so much hostility against the medium, instead of the individuals behind each effort is because people are still hurting from 2003, when Disney, Warner Bros, and DreamWorks all gave up traditional animation, falsely assuming it was no longer marketable.

Since then, however, I have seen a lot of veritable attempts to bring more flexibility to the CGI realm, which is what many traditional animators push for, right? Some good examples are Disney's Chicken Little and Sony's Horton Hears a Who. Some of the spontaneity used in those films were never once attempted in Hoodwinked or Shrek, especially since with Hoodwinked, they appeared to be using software that was already 15 years out-of-date. Then there's the caricatured work of The Incredibles. The animators were allowed to experiment with contortionism, particularly with Elastigirl while keeping everything together. Of course, Pixar has always used traditional principles for their films, and are still the best at it.

There may be some present-day limitations to the CGI field that can still only be achieved convincingly thru paper and pencil. That's all good, since paper and pencil is my primary preference. But CGI is not as far behind as people want to believe.