Re: A Different Approach

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Posted by Matthew Sullivan on March 28, 1999 at 01:21:40:

In Reply to: A Different Approach posted by James Hull on March 12, 1999 at 10:37:02:


: I had originally written a four-page rage against the animation industry. But after getting that all out of my system I thought a different approach might be in orderÖ

: Twelve years ago I had a dream. Not an Earth-shattering socially important one, but nevertheless one that was very close to my heart. I wanted to be an animator for Walt Disney Feature Animation.

: I could not draw very well and I had no idea where to start. But something within me was telling me that this was for me. The Illusion of Life cemented that belief. I even wrote a letter to Frank and Ollie telling them how inspired I was.

: Through some stroke of luck, and with the help of some good friends, I managed to get into the CalArts Character Animation program. I was instantly intimidated by everyone there. In one of our classes, an artist was drawing a photo-realistic drawing of his girlfriendÖin penÖby memory. No mistakes. Insecurity hit me.

: Instead of animation, I veered towards story. Something I always had a passion for also. But still, in the back of my head, was that love for animation.

: The next year found me back in school with some of the most inspiring teachers I have ever had. My animation teacher was one of the best in the industry (still is) and my passion for animating kicked in again.

: In 1994 after a year and a half of working at other studios, I was offered a Rough Inbetweening Test at Disney. I passed and was hired in September of 1994.

: I was on my way to realizing my dream. After three years spent working 6 to 7 days, eating countless catered meals, and doing more tests than I should have, I was promoted to Animating Assistant.

: One step away from my dream.

: Life was wonderful. The guy who was drawing that photo realistic drawing in class was now my supervisor. My animation teacher from school was now my director. I worked and pushed myself to do my very best, and as a result I was promoted to Animator in April of last year.

: My dream had finally come true.

: Now Iím sure to some it may seem laughable. Big deal, so youíre at Disney. But to me it was a very big deal and assumed my new position with great pride.

: Unfortunately for me, the character I was put on was extremely complicated. Not the easiest of characters to start drawing on. Four legs, a trunk, floppy ears, a tail, hair sticking out all over his head. I was completely overwhelmed. This was the first character I had ever animated in a feature production.

: To make matters worse, my supervisor was a perfectionist. Every drawing, and I donít just mean the keys, but EVERY single drawing had to be Milt Kahl perfect. This perfectionism was not misguided. He could simply see things that I could not. I had to raise my standards.

: And I did so lovingly. As a result, my animation skills increased at a dramatic rate. Nothing was ever good enough for me. Every thing could be improved. Comparing a test that I had done the year before with my last scene on that film is a joke. There is no comparison. I have my supervisor to thank for that.

: Being new, I was given all the technical scenes (translation: boring). My first scene had five elephants all walking through a lake. Not too difficult. Until you add 3-D computer animated camera rotation. Every character had to be registered to the moving ground plane as the camera rotated around them. And not just on 2s, but every single individual frame.

: I was at the bottom of the footage chart. For those who donít work at Disney, this chart is a ranking of all the animators based on the amount of footage they get done each week. Some call it the ďShameĒ sheet.

: I didnít see it that way. I didnít give it much thought. Surely anyone who knew my situation would not count low footage against me.

: I was wrong.

: Even though my footage steadily increased, I had too big a hole to climb out of. Reassurances that my work looked great and that I had nothing to worry about eased my stress.

: Until that one fateful day, when I walked down the wrong hallway.

: There I ran into an executive who wanted to talk to me. I had never talked to him before in my life. I was surprised he knew my name. Instantly I knew why.

: My heart dropped and the world began spinning.

: In a daze I walked into his office and was told that my contract was not being picked up. All I could do was smile. I couldnít believe it.

: To this day I still donít believe it. (And Iím still smiling!) Something tells me that tomorrow some producer will call me up and say that they made a big mistake. Theyíll give me my dream job back.

: But thatís not going to happen.

: Iím told that it wasnít a decision based on footage output. Simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So was the rest of my crew. All of us were let go.

: How do the remaining animators feel?

: Those who were lucky and stayed on are trying their hardest to get on ďeasyĒ characters. Can you believe that? Instead of picking a character that you can really bring something too, one that you really love, you have to pick one that is easy to draw.

: Everyone loves the work I did. Other directors on different projects really like my work. Other studios canít believe that I was let go.

: I canít explain how strange it feels to have your dream shattered by such a completely arbitrary decision.

: 30% had to be cut and I was at the very bottom of the list. Apparently, it was a very simple decision to make.

: My dream lasted seven months.

: I blame it on misinformation and lack of efficient communication.

: These footage charts donít reflect the complexity of character design or the scene itself. Iím not really sure if those who make these kinds of decisions even know the level of difficulty involved in animating these characters.

: But I donít think this is necessarily due to ďstupidĒ executives either. Sure there are some. But there are also some really bad supervising animators. There are also some really fantastic executives. Who do you think was the catalyst for that beautiful animation studio at the end of Flower St.? It wasnít an animator.

: I remember one time going in on a Sunday and noticing that a producer had signed in at 7am in the morning. On a Sunday! And when I left around 9 that night, he was still there. This producer is really a great manager and a great person. I know he was doing something important that day.

: But you see, I have no idea what that is.

: I love animating. There is no greater feeling in the world than seeing your drawings move and act on a 50 foot screen. I am completely hooked.

: I donít want to deal with production schedules or budgets or spending time looking for scenes that no one can find. But there are others who do and do it well. Just remember that for every ten high-school mentality producers there are out there, there is one who is dedicated to the job and wants to establish a great working environment.

: And that is the big problem in feature animation today.

: There is this unspeakable wall between the production staff and the artists. They donít like us and refer to us as simpletons (Iíve actually overheard this being said too). We canít understand their decisions and talk about them behind closed doors.

: How is this productive?

: For those of you who donít know, that big blue hat at the front of the building has an office in it. Supposedly it was built for an executive who ended up leaving. Do you know what it is now? A virtual museum. It looks like something out of the Walt Disney Story at Disneyland.

: And it is a shining example of the gap between management and artists.

: We feel that executives are unapproachable. In four years, I didnít meet one of my producers. No one stopped by to see how things were going or how things can be improved. Then again, I didnít make an effort to meet them either.

: There simply isnít enough time.

: And this is the reason why the gap will continue to bigger and bigger. Why animosity between the two will grow and grow and why working relationships will suffer.

: Animators donít know what it takes to be a producer and producers donít know whatís involved in animation. A lot of what is posted on this website is in fact true. It resonates so clearly because of the reality of the painful situation we are all in. We all want to create great films or great cartoons. We all want to be creative and to increase the quality of our lives and our familyís lives.

: But the systems and the relationships to do this are not there.

: I salute those who have started their own studios. That is really inspiring. That kind of proactive thinking is usually not reserved for artists.

: I admit that I donít know enough about the TV process to really comment on it. My impression is that the feature animation process is such a grand undertaking that it requires a great and complex production staff.

: It is so much easier to confess the sins of the other and go right along doing your own thing. What is more difficult, but much more productive, is getting together and creating something better.

: And Iím not talking compromise. That is what has been going on for the last ten years. The footage quotas on the next films are highly unrealistic. Every animator knows this. But do any of them get together with the production personnel and find out why they are asking for so much? Do we take the opportunity to meet with these people and describe to them how incredibly difficult it would be to maintain the level of quality they want in that short amount of time?

: No. Itís much easier to go to lunch and complain about how stupid the other side is.

: We need leaders who can help bring the two together.

: There should be someone in that hat whose job it is to serve the needs of the artists and the producers. Someone who understands the artistic process and the production process. Someone who can bridge the gap and come up with solutions to create better working environments and therefore higher quality animation.

: What would it be like if you knew there was someone in there excited about animation, who loved it as much as you did, who took the time to listen to your concerns and your new solutions to animation problems?

: Mutual respect is the answer.

: There is absolutely no reason why we all shouldnít be making more money than we are. Producers and artists together. Can our films have better stories? Certainly. Are there better ways to get these films done more efficiently and on time? Most definitely.

: It has to come from working together for a common goal. We all want the same thing: To create great films and cartoons that will entertain the entire world (and consequently earn us a considerable amount of coin). But the only way this will ever occur is if everyone works together.

: And animators already know this. Your animation is only as good as the input and criticism you get from your fellow artists. I canít tell you how much better my scenes were because of the input from my officemate and my fellow artists. No one should be an island.

: Teamwork and cooperation should be the ideals.

: This may seem like a sweet and naÔve attitude. ďWho is ever going to do this?Ē

: I guarantee if you tell them that there would be more money involved they would certainly listen. If you told them there was a way these scenes could get done a month ahead of schedule. And if you listened to them, you might learn a thing or two also.

: We need to value the differences between executives and ourselves.

: Only together can we fulfill everyoneís dreams.

: James Hull

You're not alone James. There are lots of hard working ambitious artists out there who feel unappreciated. Several I know have left the industry in frustration. I cannot say for sure what the future of animation will be but if things continue as they are now we may not have an industry left to stand on. One other thing, reading your post was quite moving. It reminds me of the reason we all go into this business in the first place.

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