Thursday, May 25, 2006

An Animated Future

The following article was inspired by a forum discussion about the future direction of animation. These types of discussions can become very emotional probably because some people feel that 3D CGI is threatening to replace traditional 2D drawn animation. I will only try to add some perspective here and save the strong opinions for others.

Animated content has for the most part divided into segments much as it did in the 1950's. At that time the division was between "full" animation and "limited" animation. It was primarily economically motivated. TV was an emerging market and there was a major shift toward "limited" animation. "Full" animation was abandoned except for theatrical features and high end TV commercials.

Today the split is between 3D CGI animation and 2D animation. 3D CGI is primarily for theatrical features and high end TV commercials. 2D, mostly "limited" animation is dominant on TV and other media.

There are new factors involved in this latest split. The biggest of which is the technological explosion that has brought animation production to millions who previously could not participate. 3D CGI is a costly, people intensive production environment. 2D is now readily available to the individual creator. For the feature film world, 3D CGI is now dominant partly because it is relatively new and therefore has a “fresh” appeal and partly because it is more difficult to produce and provides some barriers to smaller studios and thus affords a unique strategic advantage for the larger studios. After all, media production is highly competitive. Both areas will continue to exist, evolve and thrive. The driving force will be the unquenchable thirst of the world for more and more content delivered through more and more media channels.

For many creators it will be a choice of one or the other based on their personal taste and situation. 2D will certainly be the choice of most independent small creators and they will never have to worry about a lack of interest in their creations because there will never be enough content to suit all the different emerging avenues of demand. The future of animation is today brighter than ever and the need for entertaining content is and will continue to be the driving force. Part of the entertainment equation is diversification and therefore styles will expand not contract. Creators only need to focus on being entertaining.

There is now and will be for a long time into the future a huge worldwide demand for content of all kinds. There are new and emerging media channels that all require content to flourish. Who will make that content? I don't know, but someone will. There is plenty of opportunity to go around for those who choose to participate.

Many people complain that mass access to animation production has eroded quality. What is acceptable quality? If it is entertaining to someone, they will watch it. Will the same thing be entertaining to everyone? No, it never has been and never will be.

There are different aspects to creating content. By the way all animated works fall under my definition of content. So there is no implication of quality in the term content. All animated works can be and are viewed as content and their quality is totally a matter of how they are perceived and received by their viewers.

Content can be produced as work for hire or it can be produced independently. In the case of work for hire the content and its production is subject to the requirements and standards of the entity that pays for the work, the buyer. If a creator chooses to participate then they must adapt to these conditions. You can present your views and opinions but in the end the buyer of the production services makes the rules. The customer / client may not always be right but they will always be the customer / client. There is no sale without them.

If a creator chooses to produce independent work then the viewer becomes the customer. If they find the content entertaining then they will want to continue as your customer and if not then they won't. If you self publish and self distribute there is no "middle man". But in most cases there is a content provider in the middle and they are driven by viewer’s opinions. The bigger the audience a work receives the better.

The sad facts of life for any content creator revolve around their creation being accepted by others. Beyond that there is the personal joy of creation. But much like gravity there are some things that exist and must be accepted.

Please don’t confuse quality of animation with your aesthetics of art. One man's aesthetic view may differ from another man's view but that doesn't mean that what you find aesthetically pleasing is of a greater quality. If you notice when you read what I write I stay away from discussing quality because it is such a difficult term to define. I always try to talk in terms of content being entertaining.

To be entertaining is a much broader term than just to be aesthetically pleasing. A picture may be pleasing to look at and still not capable of entertaining or engaging a viewer. And content may not be aesthetically all that outstanding and yet it can be very entertaining. To entertain is to communicate experiences, to make a connection, to generate a response. You can create a totally realistic animation of a man walking down a road and it can be of the highest aesthetic quality totally life like as if it were photo-real. And it can also be a complete bore to 99.9% of all viewers. Or you can create a totally silly, jerky unrealistic cartoon that connects with your audience and produces a response and therefore entertains and engages them.

The point is that unless your total goal is just to entertain yourself, as a creator you must focus on connecting with your audience. If you can do that with scribbles and squiggles then you are just as successful as if you did it with fine art. The goal is to entertain. The style is not relevant unless it is relevant to your client. And never should you confuse effort with results. If it took you an hour or a year that is not important to the viewer they only care if it is entertaining to them. If you entertain them they will enjoy and appreciate your work and if not they will look elsewhere.

A statement which is often used in discussions of creating content is one where successful creators have said "we just did what entertained us or made us laugh". Chuck Jones is often quoted as having made such a statement and others have repeated it in their own words as well. Unfortunately I think that this statement is all too often repeated and misunderstood. It is taken to mean that as a content creator you should create to satisfy yourself and not worry about what others think.

It really doesn't mean that at all. It means, in my opinion, that a creator must have a strong sense of what is entertaining and be true to that sense. But to have a strong sense of what entertains people means to understand how to engage and connect with your audience. It is another way of saying that a creator must understand showmanship.

Steven Spielberg is often credited with understanding his audience better than it understands itself. He has a strong sense of entertainment. Any successful creator must develop and refine this sense and then be true to it. But it isn't an introspective thing or a self gratification thing. It is a statement that a creator needs to have an intuitive feel for the art and craft of entertainment. That's why Disney faltered and now has turned to John Lassiter to lead their animation efforts. They lost that connection to their audience and they needed a visionary showman to apply his intuition and talent for entertaining to show them how to regain their lost connection with audiences. It isn't a 2D or 3D thing, it is a “how to relate and connect” thing.

In truth, audiences are diverse and there are many ways in which to engage and entertain them.

In a simple recap:
(1) There is and will be a significant growing demand for entertaining animation content.
(2) There is and will be a significant growing demand for diversified styles of animation.
(3) A successful creator must develop a strong sense of showmanship and be true to their intuition.
(4) There are significant opportunities for creative collaborations.

Historically creating animated content required significant organizations and were beyond the reach of small independent groups. Today a small group perhaps not more than two or three collaborators can be successful.

Finally, there is room for any style and type of animation content. There is no need to compromise your artistic vision. If the result is entertaining it will be accepted and embraced. If it is dull and boring it will be rejected. Each creator must be willing to take that risk.

The only pitfall that a "would-be" creator should avoid is having a rigid, narrow minded, arrogant, self indulgent and inflexible view of the world. Because the only thing that limits our own creativity is us.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Perspective Is More Than An Optical Illusion

A reader recently wrote to me that sometimes they found it difficult to read some of my blog articles. To which I inquired “what aspect of my writing causes you problems?” Their reply was that my frequent use of many references to cartoon history and early cartoons was difficult for them to follow because they were not familiar with the artists and had not watched most of these older cartoons.

It is hard for me to write or talk about any subject without referencing its history. There is so much to be learned and understood from the work done by others previously, both in terms of how people approached and solved problems and in discovering how cartooning styles and techniques evolved and in what context. If you are planning to grow and improve your skills in any subject area it is very useful to become acquainted with its history. I try to reference important cartoons and creators often in my writing, and hopefully, when one of those references shows up that is new to you, the reader, you will be inspired to research it further. Context and perspective are two benefits that are to be gained by the effort. Because as the title of this article alludes, the perspective to which I am referring is not optical perspective it is contextual perspective which is an equally important tool of the cartoonist.

One of the benefits of historical context is to gain a better understanding of the ways in which creators of the past dealt with constraints and limitations. Actually, I have written previously here in our studio's blog about the importance of constraints in shaping the creative process. It is a topic that is often missed by would-be creators and students when they decide to engage in a personal cartoon making project. All design, and ultimately creativity, flows from addressing constraints. All kinds of constraints, things like time and personal skills and collaborative relationships and yes, even finances. It is so important to understand and address all of these constraints in approaching any creative effort.

Many people say, "I could do so much more if I had unlimited _____________ " (you can fill in the blank). In truth they are missing an important reality. It is by the addressing of those limits, those constraints, that you focus your creative efforts. If you don't have constraints like time frames, self imposed deadlines, milestones and goals for your projects, then you need to create some. Because without them you will wander through the creative desert aimlessly and probably die of thirst.

So much of the really great cartoon making work of the past was inspired and shaped by situations and limitations. And there is much to be learned from how prior creators addressed those “roadblocks” and “hurtles”. I’m not telling you to go off and plant your nose in a bunch of books or to sit around all day and watch old cartoons until your brain is numb. But I do and will continue to encourage other cartoon makers to study and learn from our rich history. You have some great shoulders to stand on as you reach for your goals.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Frantically Going From Here to There Slowly

A recent discussion about producing a cartoon series for the web inspired this article.

As creators of cartoons we often have to make lots of decisions about form and format. One basic decision is to whether to produce “one shot” cartoons or to produce a series of related cartoons. Another decision is “if we decide to produce a series of related cartoons are we going to have story arcs or just have the series as a loose collection of adventures for our cast of characters?”

In general we can say that there are three basic elements involved in each episode of a cartoon series. First and foremost there is the primary action of the episode, which if we are talking funny cartoons that means the humor. Next if we are trying to develop a series that will entertain and sustain an audience, we need to have interesting characters with whom the audience will identify or about whom they will at least want to learn more. And finally we may have a longer theme of a storyline which we will want to weave throughout our episodes. Storylines can be serial in nature as in a story arc or they can just be more contextual as in a series of miscellaneous adventures. Classic cartoon series examples like Rocky and Bullwinkle were highly serialized while Dexter’s Laboratory was just miscellaneous adventures. You could even do a mixture.

Another important decision has to do with the length of our episodes. If we are producing for a regulated distribution medium like television than there are restrictions that tend to dictate the desired length of an episode. Theatrical cartoons were historically 6 - 7 minutes long. TV cartoons followed that format as it seemed to fit the standard 30 minute time slot with its important commercial breaks. Some TV cartoons were shortened to 5 minutes and extra space was filled with short entertaining “bumpers”. Breaking a cartoon up with commercials in the middle is usually not desirable although South Park and The Simpsons are notable exceptions.

For web production, cartoons tend to be shorter for several reasons. Bandwidth limitations make shorter productions more attractive. Also, web audiences are notoriously short on patience and their attention spans are shorter so it is usually better to be brief. Also in the competitively noisy world of the Internet, frequency and regularity of content production is a benefit as it helps to keep your work fresh and constantly in front of your target audience. So fast turn around dictates the need for short production cycles and therefore it is easier to produce shorter episodes more often. Ideally a one minute to a minute and a half long episode is the maximum desired. This of course limits what can be accomplished in a single episode. Gags require time to be set up and to be delivered so that has to be the major focus and then characterization takes the next most important consideration with storytelling in third place. This by its nature means that web cartoon stories develop slower and take more episodes to tell then if they were TV based episodes. Now don’t confuse the slow pace of story development with slow moving cartoons. The pace of the individual episodes can be varied and frantic with lots of energy, you just can’t advance the storyline too much in any one episode.

In creating animated content we think a great deal about timing. We focus on the timing of individual movements and actions and the rhythm and pacing of the episode itself. So now we have an additional consideration which is the rhythm and pacing of our episode to episode storytelling. Now just like the rhythm and pacing within an episode you want to vary your story exposition rhythm and pacing. Some episodes will advance the story more than others and some episodes will create more questions than answers. And some episodes will not move the story forward at all. So now you have a whole new area of control in your cartoon planning. Just ask yourself, these questions as you write each new episode. (1) Is this really as funny as it could be? (2) Am I letting the audience get to know the characters? (3) Am I letting story telling push things too much? And (4) how does this episode fit my desired rhythm and pacing for story exposition?