Animation Quality vs. Quantity – Learning to Focus



In my previous post I talked a little about the challenge we all face when trying to decide whether to focus our energy on quantity of animation or quality.  The conventional wisdom says that you can’t have both.  Given a set time period, you can either get a few shots great, or a great number of shots good.

I mentioned a few techniques I used once I became a supervising animator to help me focus and get more quality animation done in a shorter amount of time.  I wanted to get a little bit more into the details of this technique.

Think about the very next task I want to complete before I leave my desk.

Before getting up to go to a meeting, to lunch, to a tea break, or to the bathroom I would take a moment to think about the very next thing I wanted to do with my shot when I sat back down.  I would try and make sure it was something that I could complete in 20 minutes or less like a really nice face pose, or a quick arm move, or map out the rhythm of the next 15 frames, or draw some thumbnails for the brow movement.  Then I’d think about that thing and work out my plan while away from my desk so that when I sat back down I could jump right back into the swing of things.

The key to this is making sure that the task I’m thinking about is small. There are a few reasons for this.

First, it’s easier to focus on something if it’s contained.

Second, because I was forcing myself to think of a quick task, it would essentially be a simple task.  This means I could sit down, complete it quickly, and then by the time I was ready to tackle a more complicated animation task I would already be in the flow of working on the shot.

Finally, the most important reason to do this was a psychological one.  Knowing that I didn’t have a lot of time to work on my shots, I was already stressed out about getting them done on time.  This stress, combined with the short time period to do the work and the knowledge that I wanted to produce work at the quality I did when I had double the time caused a mini mental crisis.  I would look at all the work I had in front of me and freeze.  Where could I start?  By choosing a small and simple thing to do that I could check off  I was giving myself a little mental “attaboy, @shhlife!  you did it!”.

Post It NoteSimply marking one thing off my list made me feel less overwhelmed and I could tell that I was making progress.

This feeling was incredibly addictive.  Every time I completed one task I felt more confident and more sure that I could actually get this shot done.

It was stupidly simple, but it really worked!

If you think about it from a GTD (Getting Things Done by David Allen) perspective, every task we have to do in life is like a little agreement you’re making with yourself.  If you break that agreement, then you feel guilty and it pulls you down a little bit.  It adds a bit of stress.  Stress sucks.

For example, if you make an agreement with your friend that you’re going to meet them at the coffee shop and you’re on time, you feel good.  If you’re 5 minutes late, maybe you feel embarrassed.  30 minutes late and you start to feel bad.  You forget to show up.. and oh man, do YOU feel crappy.  You are a horrible friend.  You don’t deserve nice people in your life.  You feel like you totally let your friend down, and you wouldn’t be surprised if she never wanted to talk to you again.

All of these feelings are because you just broke your agreement.

When you’re animating a shot, in the back of your mind you’re making a little agreement with yourself that you’re going to get this shot done on time.  If you look at the whole shot as a “I have to get this done!!” it can be quite stressful.  However, if you break the shot down into small little tasks, spend 5 minutes thumbnailing ideas, create 3 key storytelling poses, make a great hand pose, pose the start and end frame of this segment, then think about how the body movement should feel … these tasks are all small and can take only a few minutes.  Finish them, and you’ve successfully completed an agreement with yourself.

It’s a very satisfying feeling knowing that you’re meeting your own agreements and promises.

The important thing here is not the time that I had to work on the shots, it’s the planning I was doing before I started working so I knew exactly what my task was.  By making this plan, I always felt like I was making progress.. and feeling like I was making progress caused me to make even more progress.

When I had more than 20 minutes to work, I felt like I could really get a TON of work done.  I mean, if I could complete one task in 20 minutes.. imagine what I could do in an hour!  What if I had 2 hours to animate?

Holy crap, imagine all the meetings in a day are canceled and I can work all day. I could FLY through my shots!

I know what some of you are thinking: you’re thinking, “That’s great if you know what to do, but what if you’re exploring?  I don’t KNOW what kind of pose I want to do, or what my shot is supposed to be! ”

And that’s totally fine!  Here’s the agreement you can make with yourself that will reduce your stress 10-fold.  Agree that you will give yourself 3 hours at the start of every shot to explore ideas.  Give yourself 10 minutes to write down the emotion that you want the character and the audience to feel.  Give yourself 20 minutes to talk to another animator about it.  Give yourself 1 hour to thumbnail (do you know how many thumbnails you can do in an hour?) .  Give yourself 20 minutes to look at other shots of the character that other animators have done.

Those are incredibly small tasks that will really improve the quality of your shot because they will help you focus on what’s important.

and that is something I’ll get to in my next post.

Jason Schleifer
Jason Schleifer
Jason and his mad scientist eyebrows have been pushing the boundaries of CG animation and sharing his knowledge for nearly 20 years. Widely recognized as an industry leader and mentor to hundreds of animators, Schleifer, formerly of Weta Digital and Head of Character Animation at DreamWorks, now works as Head of Content and is a co-founder of Nimble Collective.

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