Later this fall, I’ll be speaking at an animation festival in England. Canterbury Anifest is the weekend of October 5-6, and my talk will be Saturday morning at 9am. If you’re in the UK and yearning for nerdy discussion and pretty pictures, stop by!
My talk will be a variation of the “Animator as Designer” talk I gave at Animasyros last year. If you’ve already seen that talk, you should probably just sleep late and have a long breakfast. You look so tired, so skinny! But do come after lunch to see the other presenters from Aardman, Double Negative, and Pixar. Or watch a great selection of animated shorts. Or do one of the hands-on animation workshops. Really, it’s hard to go wrong. The whole event should be a lot of fun.
I like to play word games. Scrabble and Boggle are two of my childhood favorites, and nowadays I play Zynga’s “With Friends” versions of both games on my phone. (If you want to play me, look for “cassidyjcurtis” or “otherthings”!)
Both games are about scrambling letters up into words, and both make heavy use of the anagram-loving part of me. But I’ve noticed that the two games produce very different mental states. The reason has to do with how they make use of time.
In Scrabble, there’s no time limit. You’re free to take as long as you want to play a word, but you can’t take it back once you’ve played it. The effect that has, on me anyway, is to make me an optimizer. I try to find the best possible word for the given moment, taking everything into account: the score, the state of the board, the consonant-to-vowel balance of my rack, how many letters are left, and so on. It’s a complex mix of concerns, and sometimes I just can’t see any option that’s clearly the best. But because I know my vocabulary is limited, I always suspect that a better word is out there that I’m just not seeing. When this happens, I get stuck, unable to play, effectively paralyzed. So Scrabble as a game makes me happy when I’m doing well, and miserable when I’m not. It’s not so much about the score of the game, as whether I’m measuring up to some abstract ideal of the perfect player. What a headache!
In Boggle, there’s a hard time limit, and the goal is to find as many words as you can in that time. Some words are worth more than others, of course, but it’s usually better to find lots of small words than a handful of huge ones. So when the clock starts ticking, I just start finding words as fast as I can, with no time wasted on judging good from better. And what I find tends to happen is that small words lead to bigger words, in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way that’s energetic but not stressful, and just a lot of fun. I only pop up to look at the big picture when the vein I’m mining runs dry. And before I know it, time is up, and I’ve finished my turn exhilarated by the effort. Sometimes I win, and sometimes I lose, but I always enjoy the game. And enjoying the game, feeling that state of flow and fun, directly impacts my ability to play it well.
What this has to do with animation, or any complex creative work, should be pretty clear. You can approach a new shot in either way: give yourself all the time in the world to find the best possible idea, or give yourself a hard time limit (to accomplish some part of the job) and just start exploring, and then see what you’ve got when your time runs out.
I’ve experimented with the size of the task and the length of the time limit. And what I’ve noticed surprised me: the shorter the time limit, the more fun I have. And more fun leads to better quality work. I do still feel the urge to optimize sometimes. But on my best days, I’m too busy playing to notice.
We were taking a stroll through Rio de Janeiro’s gorgeous botanical gardens, when we ran into two big groups of kids on field trips from schools in the area. My lovely wife (and now, apparently, publicist) struck up a conversation with some of the boys, and let slip what I do for a living, and that I knew how to draw Alex the Lion. Next thing I knew, everyone had their cell phones out to take pictures, and I spent about a half hour talking with the kids, and drawing Alex, Marty, Skipper and other characters. They all were apparently big fans of the Madagascar series. Everyone was super excited. I even got one of the boys to draw something in my sketchbook. He drew a lovely princess.
When you’re in the movie business it’s so easy to get swept up in crtitical reviews and statistics, and obsess over the opportunities you’ve missed where you could have made this scene or that one work just a little better. It can make you pretty grumpy. So it’s pretty nice to get a reality check once in a while, and realize that there are kids, all over the world, who simply love what we do.
Any professional animator can tell you that animating well is only half of the job. The other half is being able to work well with others: directors, supervisors, your fellow animators, other departments that depend on you, etc.
One of the biggest struggles I see animators face is how to handle changes. Because animation is so time-consuming, it’s easy to think of your work like it’s a kind of architecture: first you must lay down a strong foundation, and then you can start building walls, etc., and finally put on that sweet paint job that makes it look awesome.
This view is certainly true at a technical level: once the idea of the shot is clear in your mind, the process of blocking, breaking down, and polishing does have a kind of one-directional feel to it. It can be hard to go back and adjust your blocking after you’re well along in the polishing process. So, if for any reason you get notes from your director that change your blocking significantly, it can feel pretty bad.
But if you think this technical process is what your work is about, you’re completely missing the big picture.
Your real job as an animator is to find and execute the best possible performance. The performance is not made of keyframes and curves, any more than it’s made of bricks and concrete. It’s made of ideas. That is what you’re here to find. The part of animation that’s like building a house? That’s just the execution of the ideas. If you’re executing the wrong ideas, it’s like building your house in the middle of the road. No matter how good it looks, it’s not going to be a nice place to live.
So here’s a trick to help you deal with changes: learn to love destroying your own work. Genuinely enjoy it. Relish it. Specifically: you have to enjoy the process of destroying as much as you enjoy creating. Make it fun. Make it something you’ll look forward to, if you’re given the chance to do it.
Remember when you were a little kid? Did you ever make a huge tower of blocks, just so you could knock it down and make a huge crash? Remember how you wanted to do it over and over again? Destruction can be delicious fun.
So before you bring your shot in for review, take a moment to contemplate its utter demolition. Step back and take a hard look at your shot, and ask yourself: if I had to smash this to bits, how would I do it? Which parts would I smash at first? If I had to start again, what would I do differently? Savor that idea for a moment. And bring it with you to your review.
This is your wrecking ball. If the director asks you to make a major change, it just means you’ve got permission to use it. And when you do, you can do it with gusto.
Sometimes, when you’ve worked on one shot for too long, you can go a bit blind. It’s a very specific kind of blindness, one that prevents you from seeing mistakes you’ve made and opportunities you may have missed. It seems to happen to every animator at some point, and it is deadly to the creative process.
There are tricks you can use to get around it. You can hold a mirror up to the screen to see the shot from a fresh point of view. You can step away for a few minutes, or a few days, or longer. (One time I was able to step away from a shot for a full year: boy did I see it with fresh eyes at that point!) And of course you can show other people. But once the effect has set in, your own perceptive powers are severely diminished.
I have a hunch that the main cause of this is the simple act of watching your shot over and over again. In psychology there’s a concept called habituation: any stimulus repeated long enough reduces your sensitivity to that stimulus. It’s the reason why you notice the sound of the dishwasher when you first walk into the kitchen, but eventually it fades into the background.
In the early days of animation, watching a shot in progress play back at full speed was a luxury animators didn’t have. To do that required shooting key drawings onto film, developing the film, threading it into a projector, and so on: an expensive and time consuming process. And yet, great animation still got made: animators planned very carefully and learned to do most of the work in their heads. In the early days of computer animation, it was much the same, though for different reasons: we’d have to wait for an overnight render to see our work at speed.
Nowadays, animators have digital tools that allow for instant, real-time feedback, which for the most part is a tremendous aid. But it also makes it very easy to hypnotize yourself with all those looping stimuli.
If you want to stay sharp, it’s critical that you delay the onset of animation hypnosis as long as you possibly can. So what I try to do is avoid watching my shot while I’m working on it. I’ll watch it once, twice, maybe three times, and then jot down my thoughts about what needs doing. Then I go to work, keeping narrowly focused on each detail as I go. If I have to play some part of the shot at speed to judge some nuance of weight or gesture, I’ll hide everything but the body part I’m working on, so as not to get distracted. Once I’ve addressed all of my notes, only then will I watch the shot as a whole again. It takes a kind of discipline that I can’t always muster. But when I succeed, it feels great. And as a side benefit, I find I get more real work done in less time: after all, time spent looking at your shot is not time spent working on it.
I’d love to have some way of counting how many times I’ve looped my shot, to see if there’s a certain magic number where hypnosis sets in. What would that number be? 500? 5,000? You could make a game of it, a la “Name That Tune”: challenge yourself to finish a shot with the absolute minimum of viewings. How low could you go? Ten loops? Three loops? Zero?
Following up on yesterday’s post about higher frame rates in movies, there’s another question looming. If high frame rates catch on industry-wide, what will it mean for animators?
We won’t really know for sure until the movies start coming out. But we can guess. There are televisions on the market that will play movies at 120fps regardless of how the movie was shot. They do this by creating the inbetween frames automatically, in real time. (How exactly it’s done, I’m not sure, but it’s probably some sort of optical flow technique, like Twixtor.) When you see this done to a live action movie shot at 24fps, the effect is impressive: movement really does feel incredibly smooth, and the strobing/juddering problem is minimal. But if you watch an animated movie on one of these TVs, the results are not good. Timing that felt snappy at 24fps feels mushy at 120. Eyes look bizarre during blinks. And don’t get me started on smear frames.
Of course, this is just a machine trying its best to interpolate frames according to some fixed set of rules. Animators will be able to make more intelligent choices, which of course it’s our job to do. But that’s where it gets interesting. How many frames should a blink take at 120fps? What’s the upper limit on how snappy a move can be, if you can potentially get from one pose to another in a mere 8 milliseconds? It could open up new creative possibilities too. Take staggers for example: at 24fps, if you want something to vibrate really quickly, your only option is to do it “on ones” (that is, alternating single frames). But at 120fps, you could potentially have staggers vibrating on anything from ones to fives. How will those different speeds feel to the audience?
One thing seems pretty certain: animating at 120fps would be a lot more work. For animators who agonize over every frame, it will mean five times the agony. It will certainly mean more reliance on computer assistance: more spline interpolation, fewer hand-crafted inbetweens, and forget about hand-drawing every frame! I look forward to hearing animators’ stories from the trenches on Hobbit. Will they find 48fps twice as hard, or more, or less? What tricks will they have to invent to make their job manageable?
There’s been some discussion brewing among certain filmmakers about the impact of making movies that play faster than the current standard of 24 frames per second. Peter Jackson is shooting The Hobbit at 48fps, and others are reportedly experimenting with rates like 60 or even 120.
Mixed into the discussion are some really deep misconceptions about how vision and perception actually work. People are saying things like “the human eye perceives at 60fps”. This is simply not true. You can’t quantify the “frame rate” of the human eye, because perception doesn’t work that way. It’s not discrete, it’s continuous. There is, literally, no frame rate that is fast enough to match our experience of reality. All we can do, in frame-by-frame media, is to try to get closer.
The problem is that our eyes, unlike cameras, don’t stay put. They’re active, not passive. They move around in direct response to what they are seeing. If you watch an object moving past you, your eyes will rotate smoothly to match the speed of the thing you’re looking at. If what you’re looking at is real, you will perceive a sharp, clear image of that thing. But if it’s a movie made of a series of discrete frames, you will perceive a stuttering, ghosted mess. This is because, while your eyes move smoothly, each frame of what you’re watching is standing still, leaving a blurry streak across your retina as your eyes move past it, which is then replaced by another blurry streak in a slightly different spot, and so on. This vibrating effect is known as “strobing” or “judder”.
Applying camera-based effects like motion blur only makes the mess look worse. Now, your stuttering ghosted multiple image becomes a stuttering, ghosted blurry multiple image. (The emphasis on motion blur is particularly bad in VFX-heavy action movies, which is why I try to sit near the back.)
Filmmakers tend to work around this problem by using the camera itself as a surrogate for our wandering eye: tracking what’s important so that it effectively stays put (and therefore sharp) in screen space. But you can’t track everything at once, and a movie where nothing ever moves would be very dull indeed.
I am pretty sure there is no frame rate fast enough to completely solve this problem. However, the faster the frame rate, the less blurring and strobing you’ll experience as your eyes track moving objects across the screen. So I am extremely curious to see what Jackson’s Hobbit looks like at 48fps.
There’s a second problem here, which is cultural. My entire generation was raised on high quality feature films at 24 frames, and poorer-quality television (soap operas, local news) at 60 fields per second. As a result, we tend to associate the slower frame rate with quality. Commercial and TV directors caught on to this decades ago, and started shooting at 24fps to try to get the “film look”. How will we perceive a movie that’s shot at 48fps? Will it still feel “cheap” to us? And what about the next generation, raised on video games that play at much higher frame rates? What cultural baggage will they bring into the theater with them?
Two Saturdays from now, on September 17th, I’ll be giving a talk at Animasyros 4.0, an animation festival on the island of Syros, Greece. The festival will also be screening How to Train Your Dragon, as well as our short film How to Make a Baby. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and say hi!
Many thanks to my friend Gesine Krätzner for connecting us with the festival organizers!
This was fun! I was interviewed by the National Science Foundation for a short video about the physics of animation. A bunch of my colleagues are in there too, including Alejandro Garcia, who teaches physics to animators at SJSU.