Three Ways Of Avoiding Animation
By Richard O'Connor
The art of animation deserves no exceptional affection and I offer it none. Every lecture to undergraduates exhorting them to obsessively devote themselves to the form marks another little black check on the soul. In college I studied history -and loved it. I worked in theatre -and loved it. I'm writing this standing on a crowded subway - and I love it. Cursed intellectual polygamy. History, theatre, moving pictures, the morning F train: records and instruments of change.
Few essential elements distinguish live action from animation production. Live action is early morning. Often a battle against nature, the producer squeezes the most from a day that typically begins before dawn. For me, the shoot really begins the night before in the single-digit hours of darkness at the all night supermarket. Proper food is the backbone of a live shoot: baby carrots and hummus, wheat thins, tortilla chips, small containers of bottled water. After a short nap, pack and triple check the gear. Make sure the batteries are charged. Make sure you've got enough oatmeal.
production usually employs the skills of numerous specialists -actors,
cameramen, lighting designers, editors, and on and on. Depending on the
project, my studio will work with a number of artists in ever-changing
capacities. My associate, Brian O'Connell, and myself are always involved
in the creative development and management of a film, very often executing
much of the detail work too. Some pieces we execute almost exclusively
ourselves -this is generally out of financial consideration. In animation
production, we prefer to work with a small pool of animators -the people
who create the dozens of pieces of art that appear to move across the
screen. To credit the superlative, we most often call on Tissa David,
Ed Smith, and Compton for drawn animation. An animator works in unlimited
illustration styles. They'll draw something like Superman as easily as
they'll draw Mickey Mouse or a New Yorker cartoon. While we like to work
with the same animators, we also like to work with different illustrators,
or character designers as much as possible. These artists typically create
the foundation of a film -the look and the movement. They are supported
by a varying number of assistants and production artists who will fill
in details, redraw the animation cleaner and in ink, color hundreds of
drawings and sequence them all so they playback in time.
production team often gets called to incorporate frame-by-frame
filmmaking with live action. Many artists get paralyzed by technique.
They master a particular style and approach every problem from that perspective.
This tendency is reinforced by commercial demands. A director known for
comedy, for example, is rarely asked to lead a production of Hamlet. Although
it may be commercial suicide, I prefer to allow each script to dictate
it's own cinematic form. Sometimes the technique is animation- three dimensional,
collage, illustrated -sometimes it's live action. Sometimes is an amalgam
of both. Paramount Pictures called us to make an
"educational film" to explain all the secrets in The Stepford
Wives (Frank Oz, 2004) because of our fluency with live action as
well as animation and because we offered narrative and comedic solutions
not just technical tricks.
initial problem -and for a time the only problem -was the look. The goal
was to create a piece inspired by the "duck
and cover" films of the 1950s without directly mimicking them.
In a subtle übertext, our film was meant to be the product of men
whose last encounter with art was in their teen years and who thought
their goofy middlebrow creation was film in its highest form. That said,
it still needed to be well done.
jobs are typically "triple bid". Contractors ask three production
companies to come up with their own approach to the project and their
own budgets and schedules. When this is an open process, it's fair. Jobs
are awarded based on the best solutions. Sometimes the client already
has their mind made up, yet they still make people go through the motions.
In this case we were in competition with one other company.
I was in London when Brian called to say we had landed the contract. I happened to buy a disco "Cookie Monster" LP that day in what may have been a celebratory precognition.
Since the sequence involved compositing our animation into a live action set and basing the animation on the live actor , the scene was shot before the animator could begin. One of the great benefits (and sometime curse) of being in animation is that people don't really understand what you do. They know it's technical and they know it's creative. On a live set that gets respect. I've been on shoots where the live director will ask my opinion on shots that have nothing to do with animation, the cinematographer will ask about framing, if you think something should be firmly secured to the ground they will stop shooting for half an hour to build a rig. On The Stepford Wives, Frank Oz was exceedingly gracious. I had to get my own coffee, but he respected our opinions, incorporated and expanded on our ideas, and let us down easy when bits of our work couldn't be used.
animation is all process, and the process is simple to understand. When
the process if followed, regardless of one's talent or experience, what
emerges on film will "work". Time is quantified, the smallest
measurable piece is a frame. An animator takes this as the starting point.
Film allows 24 glimpses of motion in a single second. A step, a bouncing
ball, a rabbit outfoxing a duck -actions that exist in time for 1/60th
of a minute are seen by the animator at 1/24th of a second. Each drawing
represents frozen time, a fleeting picture that leads only to the next
and the next and the next until the end.
are two important elements to drawn animation. The drawings, and the drawings
that aren't there. An image is created, the following image by necessity
creates a "space" between the two. That space dictates the speed
and character of the motion between the two drawings. A child animator
will make infinitesimal variations on an arm reaching across a table,
the experienced animator knows to use as few drawings as possible.
was done in four fairly easy months was undone in one short phone call
and re-done in a well planned span of ten days in order to make it for
the film's premiere.
Doug Compton once said when handing me a package of re-done animation
(the first go 'round gone missing in transit), "If FedEx shows up,
just use this. Itturned
out better the second time."
The firm that hired us, TMG Public Relations, was drawn to two previous ads we had done in wildly different styles. One was a monochromatic computer generated animation for Kirin Coffee; the other was a busy photo-collage for the U. S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. We used stylistic elements from both creating a photographic character and putting him into an iconic background.
As always we started with the storyboard. In most performing arts, animation - and even going back to the Attic Tragedy as described in Poetics - narrative is the primary element. There are cases when this is not true, but in television and in advertising it holds in nearly every instance. In work for hire the production company is usually given the script. In this case we were given a script that timed to two and a half minutes for a piece that was supposed to be sixty seconds. We cut the script as much as possible. Brian did a rough storyboard, which Doug made pretty for presentation and we edited the storyboard against our scratch reading of the script to get it close to length.
shoot took a short day with a lot of sitting around. We captured the images
with a digital camera and loaded them into a laptop so we could be sure
we were getting what we wanted. Everything was photographed scene by scene,
the way one shoots a live-action film, but with the actor moving in tiny
increments with the duration of each gesture timed beforehand. The process
of single frame object animation, or pixilation served as the starting
point. Collage animation uses photographs in much the same way cel animation
uses drawings. Each individual piece is numbered, held for a number of
frames, and sometimes reused or taken out of order. The typical pixilation
process creates a continuous sequence which is cohesive in its original
form as live action camera negative.
Alex Reshanov did most of the work on the Citibank PSA. She designed it and animated most of it. Part of the fun of making animated films is working with brilliant and talented people. Part of the fun of animated filmmaking is moving from style to style and exploring new and varied techniques. In narrative cinema, the means of production should propel the point of the story; sometimes animation is the best method, sometimes live action, sometimes a combination of the two.