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The Animated Scene: How To Make an Animated Film 101 (version 20.08)

In this month's "The Animated Scene," Joseph Gilland explores the sea change that's come about in the animation process.

Joseph Gilland.

Well, let's see. First you need an idea. Maybe a story. A script. Some character and location designs. A storyboard. Cut it together into a story reel of some kind. Call it whatever you like. Then do some careful planning, layouts, and away you go. Start animating... it's a straightforward, linear, well-thought-out process with a long history. It really is a relatively simple process. Right?

Having studied and started a career in animation back in the '70s, when the same animation methodology that was developed in the '20s and '30s was still being used, it has been really interesting, and sometimes extremely challenging, to stick around through the '90s and into the 21st century and see the incredibly fast-paced changes that have radically changed the way we make animated films. Sometimes it has been a fluid dream-like experience, suddenly being able to do things that were previously impossible to achieve. Sometimes it has been a difficult and abrasive experience, seemingly trying to fit round pegs into square holes.

Today while I was working away at my job as director of special effects for Bardel Animation in Vancouver, Canada, I was suddenly jolted by the realization of just how many completely different animation filmmaking processes I was simultaneously engaged in, in just one day, not to mention over the past two or three weeks. As I sit in front of my computer screen, pen in hand, I barely think twice as I open and close all the various software packages necessary for me to do my job. But in reality, each one of them drastically alters the way we make animated films, and how we think about the creative animation process.

In the last 24 hours, at my place of work, I have used Maya, ToonBoom Harmony, Flash, Adobe AfterEffects, Alias Sketchbook, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator -- oh, and a pencil and paper too -- all in some way related to the creative animation process. And I know that's not even all that extensive a list. There are many people in the business today who find themselves in the same boat, and in far deeper water than I am in! But the point I am making is how completely fragmented our "method" of making animated films has become, entailing the use of so many software packages, and different skill sets at various stages of production. How, I ask myself, would I explain the animation process to a layperson who was just curious about how I make a living?

We all know that, to a certain degree, the most important ingredients haven't changed. And I always hear myself saying it is only the tools that have changed. That the basic process has remained the same. But today I am feeling and thinking that something really has changed, or is at least in the process of changing, at a very fundamental level, the way we think about making animated films. And somehow, a part of me wants to get my head around it and explain it in a straightforward and logical manner, the same way animation was first explained to me way back when in the mid-'70s. As a smooth, linear process with a beginning, a middle and an end. My head spins with the looping, roundabout way that I see the animation process unfolding, as we squeeze our visions through one software package after another. The pipeline is twisting its way through a minefield of file formats and dimensions, modeling here, rigging there, setting up here, animating there, painting here, lighting there, compositing here, cleaning up there, uploading to here, FTPing there, fetching here, spewing out over there, back to animation, texturing here, formatting there, touching up here, tweaking it there... Round and round and round we go, where it stops, nobody knows!

What emerges from all this brain fuzz is the fact that the animation process really has changed, and the conventional ways of explaining it are simply not cutting the mustard any more. Conversations about 2D and 3D are moot, we are moving into the fourth dimension, into strange, uncharted territory. We are heading into a completely new creative energy, where change, and flux, and chaos, and backward cycling pipelines are a necessity, not an anomaly or a bad mistake. The creative process is in the grips of something completely novel and frequently misunderstood, and the more we fight it, the more frustrating producing an animated film of complexity and detail becomes, as we try to fit everything into neat little boxes and lists for our producers and clients.

Back when I was at the Vancouver Film School for a spell, one of the tasks continually demanded of me was to explain the animation process, clearly, succinctly, and in an easy-to-grasp, linear fashion. And so I did my best, with the help of many of my colleagues there, professionals with decades of experience in the trenches. And, oh, we came up with some very pretty pipeline diagrams. We've all seen them; they march up and down and across Excel and Word documents with sublime symmetry, clearly delineating each step with grace and ease. But I always sat back and thought to myself, "Hmmmm, there's something we aren't putting in there. This document is a lie!"

Occasionally I would even utter words to such an effect. Words like, "Hey, uh, I hate to rain on this lovely little parade, but on the last seven features I worked on, there was a great big squiggly mess in the middle of the pipeline, where everything went awry, and chaos took over, and the snake came back and swallowed its tail, over and over again! It wasn't anything like this neat, tidy, geometrically pleasing diagram at all. Shots had to continually go back where they came from and get massaged around through several backward-bending processes and departments..." I was usually greeted with a cold, steely silence. I was glared at. How dare I throw a wrench into this beautiful Excel document? How dare I challenge these great animation minds and suggest that the process was anything but logical and linear, and neat, and predictable? Some folks agreed with me, sort of, but then they felt compelled to explain that we were really engaged in creating a kind of "best case scenario" pipeline diagram... the kind that you show producers at the beginning of a show, about a year before it runs millions over budget, and months behind schedule. The kind you show to a potential animation student about a year before he or she is pulling his/her hair out, desperate, scared, confused and sleep-deprived, halfway through trying to create a piddling little five-minute animated epic.

But what use are these pretty pipeline diagrams if they don't tell the truth? Why do we keep turning our backs on the incredibly beautiful truth? That animation, like life itself, is a messy, organic, unpredictable changeling of a beast, made ever so much more so, now that we have such a cornucopia of dazzling software to help us complicate matters. The animation process as I see it today has completely lost any kind of a standard way of doing things. And that has to be reflected in the way we explain it, the way we teach it, and the way we pitch our projects to the powers that be, because that is the way that it really is.

Try this little experiment with your friends and colleagues. Let's say you are working on a particularly gnarly problem with rigging some rigid-body special-effects elements in Maya, elements that must work closely with live-action elements, 2D background matte paintings, real-life special effects elements and 3D particle simulation elements. Try approaching three or four "experts" and asking each one of them how it should be approached. You will get, I assure you, three or four completely different answers.

Or, try something much simpler. Suppose you are building a simple cartoon character in Flash. Ask a few Flash "experts" what's the best way to go about it. Guaranteed, you will get several completely different answers. No two people use Flash the same way, that is certain.

There are no standards any more. There are simply too many people using too many different kinds of software, in completely unique and different ways. And this happens more and more often, because unlike animation studios in days of old, where people worked shoulder to shoulder in an open social environment, filled with conversation and communication and collaboration, more and more animation artists today spend hundreds, and thousands, of hours alone, in front of a computer, figuring out how to make the damned thing do what they want it to do. And they will only take off their headphones and actually communicate with other human beings as an absolute last resort. Try as we might to guide, direct, teach, and control our students, our crews, and our colleagues, standardizing the way we all create is becoming increasingly difficult and futile.

So, what is the new "How To Make an Animated Film 101"?

It seems to me, we try really hard to put it all in a box, or a chart, or a diagram, but it just doesn't really fit inside one. I have rallied around trying to create new standard creative procedures, and enforce them diligently. It even works sometimes in some production scenarios, when there are smaller numbers of people on the crew, or when a show goes on long enough to iron out the bumps and get it rolling along relatively smoothly. But at the creative level, something needs to be allowed to break, or it becomes painful and frustrating.

I have watched countless educators put together a flawless curriculum that explains everything in tidy and straightforward linear terms. Too bad that the reality is left out of the curriculum, and unsuspecting students and program directors have to find out the hard way how things really work in this day and age of learning alone, in a void, in front of a computer screen.

But how about this? Let us embrace the chaos! Let's roll with it! Don't leave it out of the diagrams, allow it space to breathe and live. Make exciting new diagrams that have looping cycles and spiraling designs of exquisite beauty! Let the artificial intelligence run amok with the isolated artist's inner workings. Let it meld with the pure creative energy that we learned to harness in a series of rough pencil drawings and hand-scribbled timing charts.

Let us bow to the left- and right-brained digital domain of the fourth and fifth dimensions, as we tumble forward, back into the unknowable future of the creative animation process.

In his 30-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with studios as diverse as Walt Disney Feature Animation and the National Film Board of Canada. He has worked on all styles of animation, experimental films, television series, commercials, theatrical feature films, stop motion, title sequences, live-action films and documentaries. He is writing a passionate book about the art of animation.

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