Steven Spielberg talks about animators

On August 6, 2009 at Southbank Institute of Technology, film maker and award winning animator Steve Baker was a guest speaker. Steve gave an excellent 2 hour interactive lecture and Q&A.

Part of the presentation reminded me of a comment made by feature film animator and director Kyle Balda in a recent masterclass about acting and animators. Kyle understands the common idea that animators are another form of actor. Or, as Ed Hooks may have said in his "Acting for Animators" masterclass, "Animators are frustrated actors". Kyle rekindled that idea by describing animators, not as actors, but as film directors. And yesterday Steve spoke from a similar point of view.

Neither point is mutually exclusive and looking around class at first year and second year animators I see actors, film makers, people asleep, directors and, hopefully, eventually, animators.

I had a short and very interesting chat about these ideas with Jane Harty (Head of the Animation Course at SBIT), and Jane's concept of what an 'animator' is, is a vast vision that could fill a wall of the Louvre compared to the postage stamp concept that I emerged with when I graduated. Just as it takes many masterpieces to fill le Louvre, it takes many different types of people to populate all the niches on Planet Animation.

A lot of paintings hang in le Louvre
Anyhow, all that being said, and meaningfully pondered, I found a clip on the Mayerson on Animation blog that gives another point of view.


Kristi said...

Please explain, frank, because without understanding the reasoning behind this idea my instant response is NO NO NO @#$ing WAY would you encourage animators to believe they are directors while on a big project. If the actual director wants you to do something that you don't like, you can offer alternatives (usually) but if they are not accepted then you bloody well do what you are told, if you want to keep working. This is no different to any other industry.

Frank said...

Hi Kristi. My understanding of who, or I guess 'what', an animator is, is the person who creates the motion. That is to say, I came from the Ian Lacey school of thought (not without some struggle and yells of "film maker!" in the discussion).

When Ian and I discussed animation, and the way it is perceived by young people who want to craft or study it, we found many opinions.

In teaching animation the course covers a lot of things from fine art, design, storyboarding etc. What feeds the mind of a potentail animator is vast and complex and equates pretty much to life.

(When I translated the Japanese for animation it is the same as life.)

But as the core of the animation teaching maelstrom the focus is on crafting motion, thankfully not on some Frankenseinian notion of creating life. Animation renders out as applying the fundamental priciples of animation.

And yet the perception persists within the creative minds of the creative people in the course about crafting larger things. Creating narratives, telling stories and designing master pieces.

Boom! There is the reality thunderclap as Ian enters the room. And the discussion turns to getting a job as an animator. Working in studios. If in contemporary Brisbane, it may be games or advertising, if one is lucky.

In the studio the animator's lot is all about taking direction rather than directing. Yes, absolutely. But there are tiny stories in every movemen, every blink, every heart beat.

Students should use the time they have to be creative and craft their ideas into something that can be devoured visually, as they learn how to animate.

For, if or when they get a studio job, the animation, like the junior animator is directed.

And then there is the siren call of France and Steve Baker. People who have been, or are, animators but also film makers and story tellers. There are dreams graffiti painted inside young minds of short films and festival circuits.

It is quite intoxicating.

Studio animators probably have a different perception and point of view to express about what is animation and who animators are than, say, animation artists and motionographers.

That is the conversation that has been set up here for a bit of an exploration.

And I hope Ian will bring along the microstory theory and plonk it down on the Lazy Susan.

Ian said...

Ha ha

Rarely before have I seen the contrast between the theoretical world of teaching the the commercial world of animation so clearly put.

We have points here from two different ends of the spectrum and I'm gona try walking the middle ground. Yes Frank I am putting you at that other end of the spectrum, I know your an expert at placating me with understanding, but I know your true colours, you got just what you wanted when Kristi took the bait :P

Firstly I feel I have to address a misrepresentation I feel Frank has made of my teachings (Not offended or anything Elfranko, I luv ya to bits, I know you're fostering debate and thought among our readers).

So I never “yelled” at Frank that he was a film maker, and would never use that as a derogatory term. I was simply observing that I had noticed Franks high level of enthusiasm for the subjects and classes that involved film making techniques, while I had always felt more like a studio creature (yes the truth is reviled, I was talking about myself again). I have bucket loads of respect for film makes, I post their work on the ARC all the time :)

Sooooo. Here is the thing. Its important for an animator to know all about Art, Film Making and to live a full well rounded life full of experiences. Why? Well firstly just because it healthy, challenging and fun. Secondly you might just be one of the talented and or lucky ones (both probably) who get to make their own animated films in life. Thirdly if you do end up working in a studio you need to be able to understand the context for your little individual part of the project and you need to understand the language used to describe the specifics of the work.

Animation is potentially a big broad wonderful process, and is also part of the big broad beautiful world of art, why wouldn't you want to immerse yourself in all that? But here is the thing I worry about in education, if someone only wants to concern themselves with the actual specific craft of learning how to control movement, that's OK too! Also for those who start out thinking film maker, but then as they learn about how involved the process is or perhaps have to consider the likelihood of finding a steady income discover they may need to be a cog in a studio, ITS NOT THAT BAD!

In fact is very rewarding and you continue to learn more than you ever would working on your own. I've made films and had studio jobs, and I'm afraid the time when I was working in a studio to bring someone ideas to life were easily the most engaging, challenging and rewarding. If I am perceived as being pro industry at the expense of the indipendant film maker rout, it is only because I am keen to share that rewarding experience with others and hope they can have the same or more opportunities as I have had (woops talking about myself again :P).

I think this all comes down to expectations. There is no argument that its good and rewarding for an animator to have a well rounded and creative experience in life and work. There is also no argument that a career in animation can take you to many different work environments and that in the vast majority of those places the animators role is to understand the needs of their director and produce a product that fits the market on budget. Perhaps Frank what you are struggling with is the fact that your career might take you to places you haven't anticipated, and perhaps sometimes you may be required to produce things you may not have chosen if left to your own devices. Having been in and around the industry for many years now I tell you its the journey that defines me, not any one particular piece of work or the conditions under which it was produced.

Instead of expecting a career that happens this way or that, involves working with X amount of creative freedom, working on specific kinds of projects. Why not expect an adventure, a journey of exploration and education? Expect and enjoy that as you move through your career, everything that can change will. Its what your going get anyway ;)

Alonso said...

Kevin Koch has another perspective.

I haven't seen Jeff Gabor's IceAge 3 evolution reel mentioned yet here. But I think it speaks to the director's end of things. I assume he was given a brief like "we want a fight over the nut that's like a dance" and Jeff "directed" his two characters where to be, which moves to make, how to stay in camera, etc. (I could be totally wrong, he could have gotten super specific notes and boards to work from.)

Animator=Actor, Animator=Director, Animator=Cog, Animator=Storyteller. Personally it's never been very important to me to make the distinction. I had the impression that the animator's are actors drum really started getting beat when mo-cap started making the scene and animators realiized that the public thinks the computer does all the work. Truthfully, animating is unique, we do need to be able to create a performance that evokes emotions as an actor does but we have to sometimes work with an actor's vocal contribution, and we do have to consider the graphical message on screen from the shapes we make like a director does, but we also must have an intense knowledge of movement and how to manipulate things to make them believable which no one else does. So in the end I think Animator=Animator, a unique thing, with similarities to other disciplines but a unique profession. (puppeteers are pretty similar, especially when they team up on 1 character)

Anyway, I think it is valuable to have some knowledge of storytelling and film making, just as it's useful to have an understanding of modeling and rigging. The more you understand the tasks of your team mates the more you can help foresee and troubleshoot problems. In the end though, you are a tool of the director's, you use the frames to make a scene, they use the animators to make the movie. But the smart Captain's are the ones who recognize that as a group the team is more creative then any one individual, and are open to ideas from anywhere, and if you have some knowledge of film arts your ideas will have more potential to be useful. (That's how Miyazaki got his start, writing better endings to shows he was inbetweening on (check the wiki on him)).

But on it's own film arts can be an interesting thing. Especially if you are interested in working in that industry, so worthy of study for it's own sake. And seems like everyone wants to be a director, which I think is the modern version of a universal truth (I think) that we all want to tell stories. An interesting analogy from Enrico Casarosa, or maybe Seinfeld (from this interview)

"it’s as if you absolutely love water ok? Adore it. Now, would you rather be the captain of huge ship or a surfer? Pretty obvious right? I thought that was a great way of putting it. You could apply the same analogy to Pixar and Ghibli. They’d probably be respectively a biiig ship and a small ship and while their captains have the same worthy goals, they would be ships run quite differently. Anyway, ultimately the great and important thing is that, whatever the means, both studios care about telling personal, heartfelt and meaningful stories. That I feel very fortunate about.

Oh wait, actually I have one last tangent! Many storyboard artists in this business seem to seek different forums to tell their own personal stories (I certainly do), like comics or short films. I think it totally has to do with wanting to be the surfer … right in the water … and not just a captain’s helper on a big ship.”

hope everyone's having a good weekend (hope my links work)

Frank said...

Ahhh, this is like being itchy in the brain with wanting to discuss something and then taking a bath in warm milk (as animators are wont to do from time-to-time).

Alonso, the links work and I am devouring them.

Kristi, I wasn't actually fishing as Ian may suggest but now we have some opinions happening I may look at tossing out some word burley to see what stirs in the usually placid animation sea.

Ian claims to walk middle ground but I can wave to him on the otherside of the see-saw.

I think reading more widely there are just as many different types of directors as their are animator types?

Are most animation directors animators?

Terry said...

Hi Kristi. I think that if Frank had been referring exclusively to studio animators, you'd be absolutely correct. But as we SBIT folk saw at Steve Baker's recent guest lecture, not every animator works in the studio system... there are a lucky few like Steve who work more-or-less solo, tell their own stories, and make a good living out of it (although obviously Steve is in the minority there!).

Steve made the point several times that he sees himself as a filmmaker who animates, rather than an animator who makes films.

Steve is the anti-Ian! Those two represent two opposite poles as far as I can see, they're both brilliant at what they do, and I love both of 'em to death.

Terry said...

If anyone has six minutes to kill, here's a short (and sadly amateurish) doco I just made featuring both Steve and Ian (as well as Frank and stopmo guru Jason Lynch):

(Sorry I can't recall how to make the clickable link!)

Ian said...

Saying your both right isn't walking the middle ground?


Ian said...

I’m feeling a little uncomfortable here, being painted into a corner where I don’t want to be.

There is no way in the world I think of myself as the “Anti Steve” and hope he doesn’t think of me as such. I have oodles of respect for him and what he does.

I’ve found thousands (literally thousands!) of short independent film to post on this blog over the past 4 years. I think I’ve done my fair share of promoting animators as independent thinking film makes and as a teacher always pushed my students to be as creative as possible within the class. I do not accept that just because I’m willing to also say, “and by the way, if you want a career in the local industry these are the things you need to cover” or “it’s also ok (I’ve never even hinted at preferred or compulsory) if you choose to focus more on specifics of the craft rather than being a complete renascence animator,” it makes me anti film, or that I object to an animator thinking like or practicing direction, storytelling and so on.

If I am perceived as some kind of dumber down of animators, a rampant commercialist, an advocate for animation battery hens, or counterweight for independent animation film makers then I’m afraid that is a perception completely fabricated in the minds of those who hold those beliefs. (I’m not being blunt because I’m angry or anything, it just seems that people only want to hear half of what I say.)

El Franko, I wonder what teacher it was in your first year of study that worked the most towards bending the course so as to empower you and your classmates to be able to make an independent film? To be storytellers! To think like writers and directors! I have to say that after all that I’m mystified that you see me as being at the far end of the “seesaw”.

Just because I’m willing to also concede that there are certain things an animator needs to adjust to in order to get a job in this town (be willing to accept that you will need to work in varying kinds of products under varying circumstances), and am aware that there is only so much that can be achieved in the time one has for study does not mean I have to completely sacrifice my personal tendencies and creative ambitions, it is a balancing act. These black and white perspectives are I’m afraid the luxuries of those who don’t have to face facts like supporting a family or other significant responsibilities through their craft. Moving around in that grey area, and the beautiful learning and growing opportunities that provides, are inevitable factors for those who last as professional animators.

So I stand defiantly with one foot in each camp, and refuse to be budged by anyone wanting to cast me as their (or someone else’s) nemesis or ally. What matters is that you give a toss! That you are passionate, hard working and determined, willing to stick your neck out and take the consequences. I’ve only met Steve a couple of times, but I would bet it is something I have in common with him and every other “successful” animator.

Rant over :P

Frank said...

Yup, burley works.

I love this communication see-saw ride with Ian. In amongst the ranting there is so much insight.

I wonder if one really needs to be insightful to get resultant insight?

It's great that when I try to paint Ian into a corner he sees that it is only paint and comes stomping out leaving his mark.

It's great to see Terry jumping in to the overlapping action. I'm sure Terry will have some clarifying remarks.

Ian the practical, Terry the clear-sighted... sounds like knights of the round table.

Animation learning as well as teaching is a balancing act like the see-saw. Dreams on one side, practicalities on the other. When the seesaw is balanced they can all be mixed together without the whole thing tipping over.

Like, allowing students their creative ambitions and imagination on one side and trying to balance it with the "animation takes time", "you need to be able to master the basics to find a job" grind of theory and practical application of principles on the other.

Like Kristi, Alonso and Kevin Koch discuss; being directed balanced by being creative (within those directions). Some speakers focussing on the importance of being able to take direction, others on finding creativity within the directed tasks. That is where Ian taught us about micro stories.

Ian did bend the animation course to allow us to be creative and direct our own short film project. That's true. We learnt a lot about the whole process and the hard work and what happens when animators do not produce under the direction they are given.

But he also, an maybe more-so, held that key position of pragmatist teacher in the course. A practical, matter-of-fact teacher in approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems. And we (the teachers, students, animation in Brisbane, the whole dang upturned pyramid of the craft) miss this, his influence through teaching at SBIT greatly.

Luckily the ARC is still here shooting out bolts of wisdom and "kick in the pants" practical advice for animators who want to find the doorways into a career.

I did say I was tossing some burley on the waters. :)

Frank said...

Steven Spielbergs comments from 1978 seem to have been lost in the discussion.

Frank said...

Ian:Perhaps Frank what you are struggling with is the fact that your career might take you to places you haven't anticipated, and perhaps sometimes you may be required to produce things you may not have chosen if left to your own devices.

Definitely. I was hoping to step out of studying animation and create animation, hopefully in a studio. Instead I am helping create animators, collaborating with two experienced, excellent animation teachers, and being directed by the head of the school and the course curriculum.

I guess it is all there: the creativity, the working under direction, and having to realise that, as an animator, you can't have everything you think you want given to you, just because you made a showreel.

It definitely is rewarding teaching animation. My understanding is growing expotentially in the multiple discussions I have every day.

Not a path that I mapped out and it is taking me places I hadn't anticipated. I have to agree that the building blocks of animation principles, some software skills and most definitely working in teams (as a leader and as a cog), have held me in good stead when I stepped into the deep end.

Is there a shallow end at which to start an animation career?

I've been encouraging the second years to look seriously at the entry level positions that have been advertised for Happy Feet 2 going into production in 2010.

Terry said...

Sorry I-man.. although my post did not make this clear at all, I didn't mean that you and Steve were ideologically opposed.

I guess I was thinking more of the contrast between your day-to-day animation practice at Krome, collaborating with scores of other creative and programming types, and Steve's daily routine as a guy working out of his home.

Ian said...

No apologies needed Big T, just trying to be clear. :)

Frank I'm afraid I'm still not happy with this seesaw thing with, "Dreams on one side, practicalities on the other".

What I am consistantly trying to get at is that these things are only at odds with each other if you choose to place them so.

What was that Oscar Wild quote about limitations?

Kristi said...

I still believe that film directors are film directors, and animators are actors.

An immensely talented and focussed individual can, very very occasionally, succeed magnificently at both. Those are the blessed few who really are "film makers".

Naturally, students chock full o' dreams hope that they are one of those stellar creative geniuses, and all power to them in making a whole short! Maybe they will produce something amazing - and if not, then they are at least likely to have a better idea, by the end of their course, about whether they have the mindset of a director or an actor... or just a dreamer.

I'm just sayin'. Most of us mere mortals are far more likely to succeed if we figure out which single aspect of film making we like best, and pour everything we have into excelling at that one thing.

frank said...

Kristi, I agree.

I would like to use your last paragraph in class, if I may?

Students have to decide to be an animator and then focus on it.

It is interesting and natural to observe that pretty much all the students that enter the animation course don't know what animation really is, or how much work is involved in crafting good animation at the movement manipulation level. They (me included as a student) like(d) the "idea" of animation and find many of the results appealing. Their curiosity brings them to find out.

An 'animation' course ends up being a "try before you buy" career test or a filter for many potential career options.

The students that find their interest being fulfilled and then the focus to pursue it turn out to be animators. They come to that decision point as they explore the wide range of inputs that feed into making animation (illustration, film making, storyboarding etc).

Others who end up with an animation qualification (actually a screen and media qualification with animation in brackets ~ even the title of the Advanced Diploma is not laser focused), still carry the title "animator" into their film making, illustrating, cartooning... career attempts.

I think Ian is correct in saying their is the contrast between those who make animation (commercial animators) and those who try to make animators out of the raw material of interested parties (theoretical teachers).

So the encouragement to consider film making, as one example of options from the web that links to animation, is not so much directed at animators but at students who have tried animating and find it may not be for them (for whatever reason).

Having visited Gobelins in Paris and experienced a taste of the character animation course and culture in that course, I can appreciate the difference in that situation. There they select animators to enter the course. The course isn't a filter to find animators from among the film makers and illustrators etc. That being said, a few of the best, then push on from their animation careers to step into director shoes.

I think working within the filter is where I'm looking from. Your point of view from industry is so important in this discussion. Thanks.