Sunday, April 23, 2006

More Donut Crumbs

Loosen Up and Have More Fun

One thing that seems very common in artists who learn their animation skills using computer animation applications is their almost impatient urge to rush to a finished product. Perhaps it is just the desire to be gratified quicker, perhaps it is the lack of patients of youth, and perhaps it is the way many software applications are implemented. Youthful enthusiasm and the desire to be gratified quickly are eventually tempered by experience and confidence. The structural problems presented by software just must be recognized and accounted for in the workflow. Specifically, I am referring to the aspect of many animation applications which discourage rough sketching. In most applications, like Flash for example, any rough sketching or layout drawing work must be deleted and discarded if produced, otherwise it would be incorporated in the rendered output. This is unfortunate as it tends to prompt the sense that these steps are wasted and therefore should be avoided. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Not only are rough drawings and layouts important steps in producing animated content, they are essential to producing loose and dynamic movement. Perhaps it seems that animation leaps to a finish state automatically but it doesn’t. And most skilled animators begin with highly fluid gestures as a means of visualizing their poses and action. Gesture is mostly about capturing the essence or feeling of the action. One of the real problems in the creation of animated content is maintaining the “energy” that usually is captured in the rough gesture stage all the way through the “clean up” stages. One reason we like Toon Boom Studio as production software is the fact that it doesn’t require you to discard your rough gesture work. You can just check or uncheck an “include /exclude” check box to add or remove any scene or element from your rendered movie.

Being Spontaneously Organized

Most creative people would like to view their efforts as spontaneous expressions of their passion and vision. Yet for all but the simplest of creations there is less that is spontaneous and more that is planned and executed through many phases of work. There are two important and often dreaded concepts that every artist has to embrace sooner or later. They are the concepts of collaboration and project management.

I have written before about collaborations. (You can read about them HERE.)
Collaborations don’t have to be viewed as limitations, in fact from my own personal experience, they can be energizing and liberating. I’ll have more to say on that in a future article.

But my next few articles will be oriented toward the other dreaded concept, projects and project management. I am mainly focused here in a discussion of creating animated content, commercials and cartoons specifically. You might be asking “what does project management have to do with that?” If so, please stick around because this is going to be enlightening.

The creation and production of any animated content is most definitely a project. And even if you are a one person production unit, you still will have to organize and manage your projects if you want to have a chance to be successful. In fact because you have chosen animation as your medium of expression you had better embrace planning and organization as your friends or become prepared to suffer a horrible fate in the land of, dare I say it, “Cartoonist’s Hell”. You have surely heard the old expression “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”. Well that must have been coined by someone making animated cartoons because it is so totally true.

I guess I also should point you to a previous article on the value of using story boards for planning. (You can read about them HERE.)

One of the biggest hurtles to overcome in producing an animated cartoon is time. But probably not time as you might expect it, as most people think in terms of time as in “how much time do we have before our deadline?” Certainly deadlines are important parts of project planning and execution. But the time hurtle I’m referring to here is different. It is the very long beginning to end time required to create animated content. Why is it a significant obstacle? Because the longer something takes to complete the more it usually leads to serious project fatigue.

Actually what I am describing is a very common feeling that occurs during extended projects particularly creative projects. We all start out fresh and excited and the concepts are new and interesting. Then over time the newness wears off and it becomes very familiar, then some more time passes and what was a once fresh and new starts to appear really old and tired and we seriously feel that we could and should be doing something fresh and new. It is called being too close to your work. We all go thru this stage in our long projects. For many people this is a great excuse to quit and the project never gets finished. Some people put the project away and let some time pass and then return to it later when they can have a fresh outlook. You just have a case of long project fatigue which is totally natural, but can be dangerous. Surprisingly although this is a common occurrence in long projects very few people plan for it or plan on how to deal with it. They just experience it and very often project fatigue ruins an otherwise good project. Be sure to check back for more on projects and project management in a future article.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Donut Crumbs and Other Small Things

Today article is small and mostly little donut crumbs of thoughts that came up in conversations over the past few days. You know the kind of shop talk that collaborating artists have when they interact. So I thought I'd share them with you.

Stretch Your Boundaries
Cartoons are supposed to be extreme caricatures. You want to loosen up and exaggerate past the boundaries you have in mind. Stretching actions and your ideas past their practical limits adds more interest to your work and makes it more “readable” on the screen. I think that you have to go beyond what you would normally think an action needs. Otherwise most people are too rigid and will understate things and that's too subtle to read well in a fast moving cartoon.

Creating is Evolutionary
I think it is important to let your unconscious mind work for you when you are between drawing and brainstorming sessions. A lot of people make it seem like decisions are made at a single sitting, but my experience is that significant background processing really takes place and you have to account for it in how you work and what you expect from each session. Drawing like any skill takes practice which instills confidence and creating is also about confidence. You want to develop the confidence not to force your work but to let it evolve.

Software is a Blessing and a Curse

We all tend to let our software take way too important a role in our work. Yes, without the software, producing animated content would be out of reach for most people so that is the blessing provided by the software. But the curse is that so often we let our software monopolize our thinking and we miss our real objective which is to produce entertaining and interesting content. We all fall victim to this distraction, just do your best to remember why you are making content and what your trying to say. Tools are just that, tools.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Your Dog is Way Too Friendly with My Leg!

In my last article I made some observations about the nature of something being funny. I suppose that one lesson to learn from the fact that being funny wasn’t really something you can formulate, is that most humor is naturally observable and all you have to do is be open to capturing those observations.

Just so I don’t get letters from dog lovers who felt my use of cats as the object of my humorous observations was biased, I’m presenting some dog inspired humor to show that dogs are equally capable of being funny.

When Marty and I are writing a cartoon we try to bounce observations around and just kind of riff along and have a lot of fun. I can’t imagine that writing funny situations or developing gags for cartoons could be done seriously. Part of being open to capturing humor is to be in the right mood. We certainly do our best to get in that mood as often as possible. Now I’m not talking about being silly, I’m just taking about being relaxed and comfortable and not trying to force things. We often don’t start out with any special writing goals in mind. We just start talking about anything, usually about one of our characters and perhaps what we think that character might do in a certain situation. We are thankfully very childlike in our openness to accepting them as “real” people. We even find ourselves discussing them as if we are just talking about some mutual friends we have in common. They are pretty funny people so when we begin to discuss them we just naturally observe what they have been doing and how they are behaving and before long we are laughing out loud. It is a little like being six years old and discussing your imaginary best friends.

I suppose that if we were being observed by an outsider they might think we are completely nuts. Our best friends are bugs. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. I guess the fact that I am writing about our friends who are bugs and describing them as pretty funny people is difficult for some of you to appreciate. It is just all about letting yourself have the freedom to go to an imaginary place.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Cat Skeletons in the Tree Tops

I’m not sure what actually causes something to be funny. I certainly have spent time trying to understand the source of humor. And yes, I suppose that there are some aspects of creating humorous situations that can be categorized and followed as guidelines to creating funny cartoons. But in the end, being funny isn’t something that flows from guidelines or structure. It is just something that happens naturally and instinctively. You just intuitively know that something is funny. And that just means that it just is, and you probably don’t know the reason why. In fact that is the intuitive part of creating funny things, you just “know” when something is funny.

Writing humor is mostly spontaneous. That is not to say that you have to sit around and wait for lightning to strike. It just means that you have to be open to the moment and be ready to capture whatever you can.

I suspect that a lot of humor flows from associations and past experience. It is also different based on social and cultural experiences. What is funny to some people many not seem as funny to others. But we all relate back to funny thoughts triggered by something that reminds us of the past. In general people remember their good experiences and block out their unhappy times.

I think I must have many happy thoughts associated with cats, because cats just naturally trigger my sense of humor. It is difficult for me to look at a cat or at a drawing of a cat and not start to riff off a series of humorous thoughts. Think of a cat sitting on a man’s shoe. I challenge you not to start laughing. What is that cat doing sitting on that shoe? Or in that shoe? What is the owner of that shoe going to do when they try to put it on their foot and discover the "presents" left inside.

Yes, just give me a cat and almost any object and I start laughing. Have you ever watched a cat try to eat a whole grapefruit that has been sliced in half? Just the visual image that conjures in your mind of those two things has you laughing. I don’t know why, but some stuff is just naturally funny. And that’s a lot of how cartoons are created. Funny is everywhere you look, that is if you are open to it.

The title of this article comes from a story we have all heard about the little old lady getting upset when her cat climbs up into a tall tree. She runs around like crazy, and calls the fire department to "please come rescue this poor misguided cat." The fireman tries to reassure the lady by telling her “cats always get down just fine on their own, because I have never seen a cat’s skeleton up in a tree.” Yes, that starts me off laughing every time I look up in a tree trying to find a cat’s skeleton.