Animation and Technology - A Renegade Approach
Author - Darrell Van Citters
We’ve all heard it when walking out of blockbuster movies: “Aren’t computers amazing!”
Or this little gem when an acquaintance finds out you work in animation: “Don’t computers do all the animation these days?” Yes, what computers can do is truly amazing and yes, animation is more often than not done on a computer these days. BUT…where do you think those wonderful visuals and emotionally involving moments originated? Not in a computer. In every single case it came from the mind of an artist. Computers are a great tool in the hands of those who use them well and disservice to all when used poorly. My emphasis here will be on performance animation, whether it’s executed in Flash, Toon Boom or any CG software package.
There are two things that will separate your work from the common and both of them involve thinking. The first kind of thinking refers to the artist’s thought processes-how one conceives of a scene or project and how it’s going to be conveyed to an audience. A well thought out scene not only makes it easier to execute, it communicates clearly with the viewer. The second kind of thinking refers to what your characters do-characters who simply hit their marks are far less interesting than ones who appear to think and act accordingly. A character’s thought processes inform his actions; every action should feel like it's motivated by an internal source (the brain) rather than an external force (you, the animator). It’s been said that the eyes are the window to the soul and it holds true for animation-that’s where the thinking is most evident. It’s what brings characters to life, makes them entertaining and what hooks your audience.
Know the Basics
When I speak at seminars or in classes, the main point I stress is to learn the fundamentals of your craft. This not only means learning the software, it also means learning about the arts; depending on your role in the production process that could include any or all of these and this list is by no means complete: acting, music, painting, sculpture, film, anatomy and drawing-even if you’re doing CG. Drawing helps one to know the possibilities and keeps the computer from limiting you. Without a solid foundation in anatomical drawing and action analysis, you will be at the mercy of the rigger and whatever exaggeration or statement you do put in your animation will be based on whim rather than knowledge. It’s the difference between being an animator and a puppeteer. Drawing also helps one to pre-visualize; seeing something concrete usually makes final execution much easier. I’ve found that most of the problems in animation today aren’t time or schedule related, but are due to lack of knowledge.
The Role of Technology
Where technology often fails artists is in reliance on the machine to do the work. Never let the computer take over your job, use it to take the drudgery out of your work. You still need to know what it is you’re trying to say, the computer merely makes it easier to say it. Don’t let the software’s limitations become your limitations. Find a way to make the software do what you want it to do, rather than being defined by its boundaries. A lot of animation suffers from this lack of courage by the animator. Too often, animators will rely on the machine to fill in the inbetween motions, which makes it painfully obvious a computer was involved. Machine timing makes the characters look robotic, like they’re not thinking and weightless. An animator still needs to understand timing and how to compose or design time for maximum effect. In the abstract, what’s more interesting to look at-a canvas divided into symmetrical proportions or a Mondrian?
As with drawing, illustration, painting and even filmmaking, your task isn’t to duplicate reality but to find the truth in a moment. It could be as simple as indicating weight in a character or something as complex as revealing emotion. An action or emotion rings true to an audience because they recognize it and it strikes an emotional chord in the viewer. Often something feels right although it may be technically inaccurate; exaggeration often seems more real than slavish representation. And, as with any art, know what to leave out-it’s what separates you from the amateur. New animators, particularly in CG, often look down their noses at traditional 2D animation and consequently, its principles. The techniques appear primitive and not nearly as sophisticated as what can be achieved with off-the-shelf CG rendering programs these days. Like most things, one needs to look beneath the surface. Those principles were discovered and continually refined over decades by dedicated artists-how foolish it is to ignore them simply because of technique. Isn’t it easier to build your career standing on the shoulders of giants than having to build a platform from scratch?
About the Author
Darrell Van Citters
co-founded Renegade Animation 18 years ago with partner Ashley Postlewaite and serves as its supervising director. Last year, he wrote and published a book on the making of the first animated Christmas special, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which will see it’s second printing this fall.