In early 2009 I was fortunate to meet Alexis Victor who started an animation industry site and promotional organization for the Toronto region. Popular sponsored events like the “Industry Night” that always pushed the capacity limits of the venues in which they were held. Alexis remains an exceptional media marketing and production figure in the city and one of the best natural promoters I know.
“Things can turn on a dime. You live long enough you’ll have to agree; markets change, fashions change, people change (evidently more in Hollywood then elsewhere). And not many things change faster than technology, which is why I have told people in the past that if you went to school to learn a single package to make a career out of it then you picked the wrong business! Honestly, I’ve heard it said that some people have gone to school to be Maya Animators or Photoshop Artists, which makes me wince a little since I know how often I had to learn new packages over the years – again, because things are always evolving. Which is why I’d rather hear that people are going to school to learn to simply be animators or artists first, then worry about which tools they want to focus on after that.But they got one thing right, they are smart enough to know about industry standards. Boy, even the best of them can get that part wrong but I can see why. It may not seem like it but the CG business is a relatively very young one. It can’t compare to the history of the film business, or the auto business or even the computer business itself. The first “mice” peripherals for computers only made their first appearance about 20 years ago – along with some very rudimentary GUI (graphic user interface) technology to go along with them. People saw a 3D wire-frame box rotate in REAL-TIME (!) on very expensive new workstations about the same time. SGI, Wavefront, and a host of other earlier packages and hardware equipment ruled the day (how many of you know Pixar manufactured rendering machines once upon a time?). Anyway point being, things change – none of these things are standard anymore. But the qualities and requirements have remained.
Case in point: “Tron”. Nerd Alert? Now now, I know a thing or two about cool so bear with me. I picked up an old ’67 Camaro SS when I was younger because I thought those cars had some sweet looking lines and a subtle mean look – and it always made an impact on me to see old images of design teams at GM with such… normal… looking guys wearing thin ties and suits. Any one of them could have been my dad but somehow they knew cool. So I get it, age has nothing to do with it. And same for the movie Tron. Sure it featured some of the earliest CG Animation with few bells and whistles, but what makes those shots and sequences really hold up is because the technology had so little to do with it. Sure, it offered a unique look and production approach in its day, but when you watch those shots over and over it dawns on you that the senior people directing the camera angles and pacing probably didn’t have a clue how to do CG, but they sure as hell recognized a camera view when they saw it and could instruct the artists how to make it do what real cameras should. Worth checking it out again if you have not for that reason, and it illustrates my point – that the tools did not ensure the quality. The knowledge and talent did.
These are important things to remember. They call them “fundamentals”. Today’s financial markets lost the critical importance of that term and we are now all sweating because of it. And over and over I see people with great skills and systems knowledge who side-stepped the fundamentals and struggle later. It’s for that reason I like it when I see schools offer “Art Fundamentals” courses that introduce people to the wide spectrum of art and design. It gives students such a head start without focusing on one particular tool or job. Same for animation of course, or any media art, or acting, sport, …or relationships for that matter. Fundamentals are timeless and essential. Don’t rush a nice shot, don’t linger on boring ones, don’t start with too many lights, and don’t talk about yourself too much on a date. An old VFX colleague of mine was always quick to point out how often he met new CG artists who wanted to be lighters, yet how rarely it had occurred to them to take a basic studio set-lighting class, or read a live-action film and television industry manual on the subject! It all relates back.
Let me offer a little story (I can’t resist analogies). When I was in LA years ago I wanted to say I learned to surf. I knew a girl who was raised there and insisted she could show me how and did. There were some key things to focus on like learning to read the waves and see the “sets” coming in; how to catch one at the right time, and how to maintain a balanced posture from kneeling through to a full surfing stance. She also told me what to do when things go wrong and you wipe out. Mainly, don’t let the board get you. She mentioned a kid from her school who hadn’t respected that and ended up with the board’s back fin up his ass. Right up there apparently – a serious injury. She said there is a plaque mounted somewhere in his memory. I suspect the story had amplified over time, but believe me it stuck in my mind and I took it very seriously. When I eventually wiped out I made sure to tackle and hug that surf-board in front of me like it was a living thing trying to mount me! In all that time on the water, and even in the midst of wipe-out panic, the brand of the board or the label of my clothes did not matter, but the fundamentals sure did.
So whether you are an artist or studio manager I encourage you to keep looking for emerging tools, changes, and innovative solutions, but at the same time keep going back to the principles of your craft when you can – through the animation community, or schools, or through senior artists you work with. It can serve you well in a pinch when you find yourself facing a deadline, or after someone has handed you the reins to lead a project. On a related note, be sure to check out Pixar’s Ed Catmull’s lectures on-line, as well as an excellent article in September’s Harvard Business Review (How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity). In one lecture, he clarifies a point about Pixar’s reputation for extensive in-house software development. Namely, that they only resorted to it so often because back in the day, good industry standard packages and tools didn’t exist yet. If they did, Pixar would have happily embraced them. But he is quick to point out that good talent, creativity, and management remained the essential backbone. Opportunities to innovate within that will always present themselves (its a technical industry after all).
You learn something cool from each package or piece of hardware you work on – Your value and adaptability climbs every time you learn another – but always remember that they are all just tools, and as obviously important as they are, it’s the underlying fundamentals which will make each one of them work best for you. That awareness will protect you as much as anything else when you find yourself surfing on the wrong side of a wave.
Posted by Alexis Victor at Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Experience counts. This is not just a plug for myself, or anyone else who may have done their time in the business for as many years. Experience is the great underlying thread that companies and managers look for and respect. Its also that line on a job ad that causes new artists to gnash their teeth. “Professional experience required”, “5+ years experience as a senior artist or director”, “experience on one or more features”, and on. An old story – how to get that experience if no one will hire you without it?! Its like some esoteric, Star Trek time-parallax trap. An impossible sort of logical problem Kirk might throw at the ship’s computer to cause it to go into an infinite loop and start having fits – which is I guess exactly the sort of feeling the new artists who are trying to enter the business must experience. If there is not an official word for the that trap (like the “Von Neumann Bottleneck” in CPUs) there should be (I believe “Graveyard Spin” is already taken by the airline industry).
Anyhow I know it sucks, but you have to look at it as a test – as much as successfully graduating from a course or solving a problem on the job. The rest of us can’t (won’t) help if you can’t get past the first of those guarded gates on your career path. It’s one of those Scout badges you need to earn. But I am not here to go into detail about that process. Just… get good – and be prepared to offer some services for free if you have to (sorry, no angry mail please). Experience counts on a lot of levels. It helps us learn and adapt and, most importantly, avoid disaster. In my last entry, I mentioned the importance of fundamentals. Those are the things you need when you don’t necessarily have experience. They’ll help you survive. But to really do well, without the same risk, scrambling, sheer luck. or shameless charm, you need experience.
I remember when I first started in the business, I got a REAL PAYING gig working nights and weekends doing 2D CG work. Actually thinking back, after driving two hours each way in an old Honda civic that liked to drop it’s transmission and other stray parts along the way, I am not sure I made any money at all. Some companies today would accept such a loss as helpful cash flow. Which is again why you should note ignore the prospect of working for free if it will help! Anyhow, I had previously been frustrated with the cursor locking up on the system in question (I can’t even recall it now; Genigraphics??), but some very good training helped me recall that a simple tap of the escape key would release the cursor. On the day when I showed up for my first shift, there were four people in suits struggling and swearing in front of the system trying to get a correction completed on an image. I could see of course that the cursor was locked and so glided past coolly to hit the escape key without asking any questions or introducing myself. A little dramatic I know but it can sell. The people there saw the system unlock and a guy (one of those execs with some experience of his own) said, “well, what say we get the hell out of here and let the expert take over”. Ahh, small glories. The real success however was all the energy and frustration that was avoided by my action had value. Now flash-forward, and multiply that by a hundred, or a thousand. What does it save a project or company to have someone coolly walk in and demonstrate an alternative solution that will avoid the loss of serious time and money -and potentially a pissed off client who may never come back?
People like that are not always the smartest ones in the room. I’m not that big a fan of clever; I’m always more impressed with experience and wisdom. I know that when experienced people offer solutions, its not because they just figured it out in a flash of genius. But they still deserve credit for having been through “the shit” in the past and have earned their own set of shoulder stripes. So never begrudge someone older and possibly slower than you who might be senior to you. You may be missing an important point, and believe me there will come a day when you will understand it.
Which brings me to another dilemma in the animation industry (or any other for that matter) – that beats the inexperience death-loop I mentioned earlier hands-down. It’s one that increases with seniority and responsibility. Mainly, that people won’t always listen. That you become what’s known as “a voice in the wilderness”. Those are those old coots or yahoos who sit there saying mad things like the credit market is poised to crash, that viewers will increasingly abandon standard sources of media and entertainment, or that people will use Apple platforms more for games. Sadly, they are often the first to be ignored during the heady days of success or when the big challenges arise. And it particularly sucks when you find yourself in such a position and you happen to be on the same ship as everyone else cruising through dangerous reef-filled waters. But I can see their point – that the experience and wisdom has to be demonstrated first, then they will listen. I guess it’s really not all that different from the experience trap that you bump into at the beginning, except that’s it’s like try to passing through the “9th Gate”.
So in the end, the process never really ends, which you have to admit is kinda cool. As I often say, the entertainment business is a lot of things, but it is rarely boring. Especially true for the animation side of the same business with its constant demands, young talent, and technical evolutions. If you want boring, stable, and predictable, you may want to look elsewhere. But as long as you stick to some strong fundamentals, and listen more than you talk, and try to avoid burning bridges (it happens, but it is rarely worth it), and put in a string of solid days, you will naturally accumulate knowledge and experience. And so you will be worth more. And people will want to hire you to help them avoid costly mistakes. Just be sure not to act like you know something when you are not totally positive; that you have made it work before. Like using dynamics on a quick turn-around job instead of just animating hair or something. That’s what we call clever, and when it goes wrong, it can cost a lot of money and sleep – and gnashing of teeth. So as you tread through all the guarded gates, try to remember: there’s never any harm in saying “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”. The rest will come later.
Quality is King. Or so I’ve heard, at least in the production business. But like most things, it’s not always so simple. Case in point: ‘XMen Origins: Wolverine’. By now everyone is fully aware of the dramatic (if not terrifying to some) news that a working copy of the latest flick somehow found its way into circulation. I won’t go into the various implications or indeed broader threats to the animation industry, but certainly there is a lot at stake. The reason I mention it though is that the people who may be seeking to acquire the movie by whatever means don’t seem to care that in large part it is not yet complete! Unfinished or missing FX, uncorrected colour, placeholder music and sound – likely whole shots that have as yet not been added or may be removed in final edit. So why do it? Who knows for sure. To me it seems a little bit like a child peeking at a their presents before its time to open them (our first experience with spoilers). I am pulling for you Wolverine, but I suspect in spite of such information, lots of people would be content to view it regardless. Which raises an interesting question…
How much do people really care about quality. There are the “Blu-ray’er” types who you meet at parties who are always happy to describe the quality difference from regular DVD’s with almost religious zeal, and there are plenty of other tech-minded aficionados that demand better color range or resoluiton in the material they watch (and are in large part prepared to pay for it …imagine). However, these remind me of the old stereo/hi-fi buffs of yesteryear who would refuse to listen to an inferior version of good music or was played back on sub-standard equipment. In other words, a minority (though Glod bless them). So why care? Why spend all that time and money adding so much polish to content for the mass market? It still matters, and I think I can explain why.
Cheap almost always means a short life-span and lesser experience. You know it’s throw-away or second best (I never knew what “white-metal” meant until I bought a cheap discount tool). I’m not talking about a genuine deal you might score for a good sale item of course, and nor am I referring to otherwise expensive products being sold out of trunks of cars in a parking lot. Actually, to be fair, there is something that adds to the quality of the experience when you save up to afford the genuine article and can’t wait to get home and crack it open (unless it was something like ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ remake). ANYWAY, point is, cheap things tend not to last and often look or work like crap. So you don’t get much out of them.
Lack of quality is also linked heavily to the perception that you don’t care. Like it or not, the person with the ironed, stain-free outfit, fresh breath, buttons all done up and shoes polished will inevitably pull off a better interview. I know, I know – shouldn’t matter, but it does. I am no fool, and I have interviewed plenty of artists and managers in my time. I know talent when I see it, but something in each of us can’t quite ignore that the person who seems to have their personal life in order may just care more than others – and vis a vis are more likely to take better care in their work as well. It doesn’t have to be fair to be real.
This is why when I see really really good work, especially in the film and games business, I can appreciate the quiet message that is being spoken behind it by the creators; that they honestly care and hope you notice and enjoy what you see. They care so much in fact that they want you to believe for the rest of your life that you experienced something that was unforgettable – that had “quality”. That message is actually being delivered from the writers and directors on down to the last artist tweaking final shots late into the night. Again, that they actually give a crap, and we could all use much more of that in today’s crazy, disposable-minded world. The message rings out loud to me every time the movie ‘Jaws’ plays that’s for sure, and it almost killed a young Spielberg to make sure we heard it. Which is the reason why I would watch it again in higher def, wider screen, or restored color – so I could squeeze every last bit of quality out of it whenever I experience it again. And if there is a personal message for any artists and directors out there, it’s that you should strive to be just as detail and quality minded. Remember that this sort of work is more of a craft than an assembly line job or free flowing art piece. You need to learn to be m-e-t-i-c-u-l-o-u-s. Do that, and you should be all set.
For the same reason I think the current interest in the Wolverine WIP (work in progress) cut is just a temporary thing. The finished stuff is what will really last and therefore be worth seeing/experiencing. Quality sticks with us and impresses. Something in us registers it, just like when you meet someone that has their act “wired-tight” as they say (in Platoon at least). You don’t immediately notice why they made such a good impression. Often it’s in the details that are felt as much as seen, and it makes you remember the person – or the artwork in this case – and want to see more.
I had an early career lesson from a friend and colleague when I was starting out. I was coming in more junior and had completed what I thought was a careful, professional job – a tedious build of some complex model – but it wouldn’t render right for some mysterious reason. I was confident the work was sound, but he took a moment to sit down and started checking it out more closely. Remember, this is an important senior person taking time out to review my work. I noticed him zooming in on some geometry where the artifacting was happening. I recall that I blathered out (cuz, you know, I knew sooo damn much) that I had already done that, but he ignored me and kept zooming in. Zooming…, zooming… It felt like we were heading down some insane level of a mine shaft. I could feel the heat rise. An uncomfortable drip ran down to the small of my back, and beyond. And then…there it was – a set of points at some crazy, microscopic level that had not welded. All I got from him was a passing sympathetic look (if I read it right) and a shrug before he walked away. I NEVER forgot that moment. Precision is a skill. So be as thorough, careful, and polished as you can. It’s takes patience and effort to train yourself to operate at that level; to strive to be impeccable. The speed can come later. Hell, it’s what I call “smart-speed” anyways because this mindset often helps avoid bigger problems later, as I have experienced time and again. There are enough people out there creating mediocre or unpolished content, and making decent money doing it, sadly, but it is usually forgettable. It’s missing the magic. People like to see or own things they can’t dream of being able to create themselves because they can feel it’s value. Which brings me back to Wolverine…
I have a feeling the official release and follow-up products will likely do well in the end. This is new ground for everyone, another test for the emerging digital world, so it will be interesting to witness the results. It is possible that the average Joe will have no desire (or opportunity) to see the unfinished bootleg version. They’ll go see it when officially released. I know the Blu-ray types will want to wait to see it on the big screen, and/or will purchase the official disc release after that. And then there may be a whack of people that have perhaps seen the unfinished version and can’t help wanting to see what the final version looks like in comparison – especially on the big screen – so they can feel the great sound hit them, see the true depth of color, quality of simulation, or subtle sound effects that all help to create a more imersive, believable experience. No. I don’t have a sense it will be a disaster in the end, and if not it will all be due to good ol’ dependable quality.
It’s good to know your limits. I heard someone use a phrase while talking about fighter pilots once, that they all have some measure of “spare capacity”. I never forgot that term. Apparently, during exercises and engagements, there is such an intense accumulation of data and tension that the brain just starts missing things (and I guess you only have to miss an incoming missile once to end the lesson). I’m sure this must be true for jet pilots, and I will argue it is likely almost the same for many people working in the animation business. The technical knowledge required to perform a wide variety of tasks, with any decent degree of depth and professional finish, must be comparable – and so must be the pressure, because most projects don’t afford any breathing room, aside from the odd well funded, well staffed projects with cushy deadlines. They do happen! Many old hands will tell you, with eyes glazed over with visions of palm trees and free meals, of some past beautiful job as if they had once found the fabled Shangri-la. But in reality, critical deadlines loom constantly. It’s that dark, Lord of the Rings-like presence over your right shoulder – your mouse-arm – waiting to give you the shiv.
Time was the industry was filled with artists who knew more than many Technical Directors do today. However, there were never enough of these animals to fill seats as projects grew in scale and as technology really started to gallop. So they broke things down into pipelines, so that animators and other artists and TDs could handle more realistic, digestible quantities of tasks, and learn a fraction of what is actually required to make a series (or VFX shot, game, or feature). Is it better that way? On a lifestyle and business level, yeah I guess. Companies are bringing bigger and better products to market, and artists are enjoying relatively decent work hours, but there’s a little hidden trap built into it. That is, people aren’t necessarily being pushed to learn more than they can currently handle. Sometimes you need to though, because you really didn’t get into this to continue to fly little flight trainers or simulators, or to fill gas tanks. Most of you wanted to be jet pilots. You may not end up in top gun school, but the dream should stay alive. You may also find out you are an ace in other unexpected ways. It doesn’t matter as long as you get pushed to some new limits. Just remember that it’s easier when you’re young, while you still have all your brain cells and energy, and are still too naive to know when you’ve gotten in over your head. When you thought less and just did. When you floundered and kicked until you figured it all out, like when you were learning to ride a bike or swim, or trying to figure out Call of Duty for the first time.
No, my worry isn’t so much about knowing limits, but NOT knowing them. You’ll definitely know it when you do, after you’ve chewed some nails, lost some sleep, and when you have slammed your head into a wall with a million attempts at solving a problem from hell. Maybe it’s a new package or scripting language, or new management approach, or some higher profile animation sequence you want to take a stab at. People will let you try. They may not always use your completed shots as if they don’t like them, but they’ll be interested to see what you can do – especially if you make it clear you are prepared to keep plugging away till you get it right. If you don’t happen to be at a company yet, you might set a deadline for yourself and dive into some new package, or ask a company if you can submit a specific test for free on something. Maybe link up with someone you know to attempt something bigger together. I’d certainly be willing to give my two cents worth on it if you needed some feedback – as many would.
Again, do it most when you are young, because you don’t see many jet fighter candidates showing up in their 40?s and 50?s. Those guys did their time earlier and are often pretty damn savvy about approaches at a macro level. You’ll meet them, and will probably remember it, because they’ll be the ones who don’t tend to scare easy, or quit. They also might just be the ones pushing you to some new limits, to a place where you can finally tackle the impossible and still have some spare capacity to see the next challenge before it nails you – and that you realize you are actually enjoying doing it. That usually means you made it.