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A baker is done with a cake when he takes it out of the oven and decorates it. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Tasty cake goodness in two simple steps: oven and icing. For many people the concept of being done in their day-to-day jobs is almost a non-thought. I mean, either the thing is done or it’s not. With animation though, you eventually get to a point where you ask yourself, “Am I done?”. You sit and stare at your screen while your mind races. “Does the face need to compress just a little bit more? Have I really polished that foot roll? Is the arc perfect? What is perfect, anyway? If I pushed that just 3 more frames, would it be funnier?” It’s so easy to dive into the weeds and get stuck, constantly just tweaking and pushing and tweaking. Getting your animation to that “done” state isn’t so simple.
Or is it?
Being “done” means your goal has been achieved. You have a task you need to accomplish (i.e. bake a cake) and the same holds true for animation. Even though it is fun, challenging, and wonderfully creative, you must always remember:
Are you trying to convey an emotion? Highlight an action? Make a transition? Whatever the goal of the shot is, first and foremost, you need to make sure your animation meets the needs of the shot. If you know the goal of the shot, you are that much closer to knowing if you are done. Before the baker starts, he knows what sort of cake he is making: a simple cake, a decorative cake, an extravagant wedding cake. The goal is set and the end result is visualized in his mind.
Identifying your goal and meeting it is especially important if you are working for a studio or work on a time-table. Eventually your shot needs to move onto the next stage of production (lighting, compositing, editing, etc.) and usually someone else will determine if you are done or not. As long as you have nailed the goal of the shot, you can feel confident passing it along, even if it isn’t quite as tweaked and perfect as you’d like. After all, animators are notorious for working and re-working and noodling a shot with seemingly endless series of “final” passes. At some point a supervisor or project coordinator has to wrestle it away, even as the animator follows them down the hallway adjusting splines and tweaking arcs.
Being able to take a list of ingredients and combine them properly into a pleasing final product is an art and takes a certain amount of skill. The baker can mix the ingredients together, bake it all up, add the icing, and he is done: a cake has been made … but it tastes … terrible. It’s the same with animation. You have a goal, you have the tools, and know (technically) how to get from beginning to end, but sometimes the end result just doesn’t seem … “right”.
You might be done because the shot needs to move on down the production pipeline even though you aren’t quite satisfied with it. Sometimes you are done because you have reached your limits as an animator and just can’t achieve the goal you have in your mind. Perhaps your vision exceeds your skill level. The trick is to be done, but not defeated.
Were the goals of the shot clearly defined? Does the shot match what you imagined in your head? Are you over thinking the shot, or adding too much “stuff” that distracts from the essence of the scene? Being able to identify your shortcomings and learn from your mistakes are the hallmarks of an (eventually) great animator. In those cases where it’s just not coming together you can start over and evaluate your goals and the goals of the shot, or you just move on to the next project and treat it all as a learning experience.
Until you have a good eye for shots you can borrow someone else’s eye (just don’t put it in your pocket and get lint all over it). You can turn to fellow animators, classmates, mentors, supervisors, and people whose opinion you value to help you determine if a shot meets its goals. Over time, with more shots under your belt and with the guiding advice of more experienced animators, you will eventually train your eye and get more comfortable determining yourself if a shot is done to your satisfaction. Someday you might be the one people come to for advice.
Not all goals are the same though. Animating a background character has vastly different goals than animating a main character or something the camera is focused on. The background character has weight, moves naturally, and isn’t distracting. Done! Move on to the next shot.
For more complex shots though, you can have a number of goals you need to meet. You may need to convey a funny scene that makes the audience laugh, but with a Pixar/Disney level of quality. Getting that comedic timing, the expressions, the physical humor nailed down AND of the highest quality is what the very best animators strive for. It’s here, in the final polish stages that a majority of the work takes place.
Set yourself up for success early on and give yourself the time to really bring the shot home.
Our baker doesn’t just grab things out of the pantry and dump them in a bowl. All the ingredients are measured, the recipe is at hand, and all the cooking tools are laid out. With proper preparation and forethought the baker can ensure he isn’t scrambling at the last-minute to hastily slap some icing on a wedding cake, furiously throwing rosettes and sprinkles at it as they drive it off to the reception. If he can bake a delicious cake, he’s met the goal. Now it’s just a matter of giving himself enough time to make it pretty.
As long as you meet the goal of the shot and it “reads” properly (elicits the right reaction from the audience) then you can take the time to really nail the performance. You have the animation basics covered, the set strong key poses, the character has weight and life, and the scene conveys its story points with conviction. Now it’s time to finesse the eyelines, check the arcs, massage those splines. The Devil is in the details and a master animator can elicit laughs, anger, sympathy, or tears with just the manipulation of some pixels.
Ultimately, you’re done when you say you are, but as you get comfortable identifying the essence of the scene you will find it easier meeting your goals early on and leaving you ample time to push and tweak your shot. The ultimate result will be animation that is truly a pleasure for you and the audience because you know the shot just works.
And now, this blog post is done. Who want’s cake?
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