Animation Artist Steven Subotnick Cooks a Fine Repast in a Modest Volume

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: NSPCC Cartoon by Russell Brooke, A Pesar de Todo (In Spite of Everything) by Walter Tournier, Mickeys Buddy by Pete Paquette, Line of Life by Serge Avedikian, and Show and Tell by Mark Gravas. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

The Perspective of Artist and Teacher

I participated in several panels at the 2001 Ottawa Student Animation festival, where groups of earnest educators wrestled with issues such as art versus Commerce in animation education and the cultural place for the independent animator, subjects such as that. A truckload of rich ideas were tossed around that day, which ranged from generous and freewheeling idealism to narrow pedantry, from speakers that came from every stop on the trail from earnest to self-serving. It was in Ottawa that I first heard animation filmmaker and educator Steven Subotnick talk about the book he was preparing on animation production for those who were working primarily the way he was doing it: on desktop digital equipment, primarily in their own homes. I heard Subotnick speak at length at SAFO that year, and I came away impressed by the breadth of his ideas about teaching animation, about the art form itself and the clarity with which he was able to express those ideas.

What a pleasure, therefore, to review Steven Subotnicks new book, Animation in the Home Digital Studio Creation to Distribution. Subotnick brings to bear the same breadth of ideas and his normal clarity on a potentially overwhelming subject, wrestles with it lays it out in a manner that manages to be engaging both technically and educationally.

Id met Steven Subotnick before, in the late 90s, when I had organized a show for ASIFA-East in New York City around independent filmmakers who were making independently produced films using computer-based animation, and was able to show two of his films. But I hadnt had a chance to speak with him in any meaningful or significant way other than to get some background on his production methods at the time. The times have changed since then, in significant ways for such a relatively short period of time, and digital tools of great power and flexibility have become infinitely more available to a much wider range of artists and can be applied to the whole range of animation styles and techniques. The timing for the appearance of a book like the one Subotnick had described preparing when I finally had a chance to speak with him at greater length in Ottawa is opportune, and, with the arrival of Animation in the Home Digital Studio, its here now.

The book is misleadingly slim: how can all that it purports to tell actually be in there? you might think when first opening it. Subotnick has managed to wedge a wealth of useful practical advice and information between these covers, sometimes with such subtlety that a novice may come away with a deeper and more nuanced grasp of the content than they realize.

Appetizers

Subotnick begins with an introduction that firmly places the reader in the technological present after a brief historical overview of how we got there. Notably, he takes a moment to describe whom he sees as his ideal reader. The Amateur, as he puts it, qualified to mean anyone who works for love rather than money, whose main motivation is a drive for personal satisfaction and artistic fulfillment this book is for anyone the non-artist, the student, as well as the professional artist who wants to make animation. This definition flavors all that follows it, and if a reader can embrace this definition without professional or artistic prejudice, Subotnicks book can be an inspiration.

Given the wealth of books written on animation, any book on the subject is confronted by the troubling chance that enterprising students can surround themselves with any number of those books and get a useful grounding in the craft. Certainly any book that firmly states This is a book about making animation with the aid of a computer, as Subotnicks does, faces that prospect from the sheer metric tonnage alone of software manuals for the programs running on that computer.

Where then, does this book fit? While a book can say a great deal, it is often the presence and perspective of a dynamic and perceptive teacher or mentor than can elevate the efforts of a driven student. Sometimes, that teachers motivation can help a motivated student approach art. Those sections of Subotnicks book that speak clearest with a teaching voice are often most effective. He opens with what he describes as a personal approach and begins broad, endeavoring to set a working definition of terms from which his discussions of technique can be grounded. This task is daunting enough for a whole book, let alone the four pages Subotnick devotes to it at the start, and there is unfortunately some of the safety of generality to a few of his introductory definitions. Nevertheless, the definitions are lucid and useful enough for any beginner. He also includes a series of short biographical notes on the artists whove contributed to the text and short excerpts of their films are on the CD-ROM that comes with the book.

Next comes a vast pantheon of what Subotnick describes as an idiosyncratic list of significant contributors to animation which also includes biographical information. It is a varied and stylistically wide ranging list, and is an indication of the approach to animated filmmaking that is foremost in Subotnicks thinking: Cohl, McCay, Starewicz, Richter, Reineger, Alexieff & Parker, Len Lye, Trnka, McLaren, the Hubleys, Jules Engel, the Whitneys, Breer, Gianini and Luzatti, Yoji Kuri, Lenica, Servais, Yvonne Andersen, Svankmajer, Paul Fierlinger, Paul Driessen, George Griffin, Suzan Pitt, Carline Leaf, Priit Parn, Bill Plympton, the Quays, Michael Dudok De Wit, Janet Perlman, Wm. Kentridge, Piotr Dumala, Nick Park, Amy Kravitz, Mark Baker, Baerbel Neubauer, Wendy Tilby, FilmTeknarna, Michaela Pavlatova, Joanna Quinn, Koji Yamamura and others.

Largely absent are those animation artists whose work is primarily commercially oriented, and whatever profile these artists above might have made for themselves and their work, they are known first for work that is more often personal, both in style and mode of expression. Subotnick usefully includes lists of a few titles by each artist that might prove a starting point for readers wishing to pursue further research on the work of some of these artists.

The Meat

Subotnick then dives into much of the technical meat of the book, beginning with his overview of the digital studio in the home. Again, Subotnick is unafraid to introduce a sometimes-dizzying array of tech information, managing at the same time to keep clear the essential principles of how the processes work. Particularly refreshing is the admission Subotnick makes that specifics (such as prices, or software features & functionality) change and become outdated and that he is instead trying to embrace basic concepts so as to try to keep the information useful without becoming outdated. Somewhat more daunting is the prospect that, in order to really keep this book up-to-date, Subotnick will have to do periodic (if not frequent) updates and rewrites with tiring regularity.

The most glaring example of an attempt to do this that went woefully wrong would be Kit Laybournes The Animation Book, once a classic text on the same order of interest as what Subotnick is endeavoring to do with his new book. Laybournes bloated update, less written than assembled with extensive contributions from his students, seemed outdated almost immediately upon its release and the jarring swings from those passages that were in the original edition (exemplified by the heroic photo of George Griffin standing before his massive animation stand) to the updated current sections dealing with After Effects and other recent digital tools which seemed as if they were stitched on, Frankenstein-like, and might serve as a caution to anyone interested in maintaining updates to a text that posits itself as current.

Potatoes

Subotnick deals comfortably with the necessary technical aspects of production in his Digital Studio and Technical Examples sections especially, without being alienating, embracing the neophyte with simple explanations and still managing to engage the jaded professional by throwing in a new way of thinking about some technical process, a new shortcut or a new way to think about the craft. Parts of the book may seem so bullet-pointed as to be mistaken for a sales brochure to some tastes. In the same way, the occasional instructional walk-through may come across as basic to some, but his techs are of course not meant to substitute for a specific programs manual.

Subotnick does offer brief but practical technical exercises in the context of animation production which, while simple, are creditably direct and much more apropos to the work of the animator than many techs in a variety of overpriced-and-application specific books at twice the weight of this one (how many readers have, for example, despaired of finding an AfterEffects book that directly addresses creating cartoon animation?). It is the concision and clarity with which he deals with the often-burdensome technical load that must be borne, which makes it as accessible, as easily digestible, as it is.

Subotnick has produced several short animations that illustrate the exercises and principles he discusses, and these are also included on the attached CD-ROM along with detailed descriptions of how each was executed. With a short paragraph on the importance of defining goals, Subotnick jumps seamlessly from hard technical information to a short note on the questions a filmmaker might want to ask as a project begins and how to apply those questions to style and approach. And then were back to technical considerations, and the seed of those questions got slipped in with such subtlety we barely noticed it, but it got there. The CDs interface is simple and uncluttered, works equally well on the Mac and on the PC, but requires QuickTime.

Dessert

The variety and scope of what Subotnick covers makes the book seem much larger than it is: The author offers a fine accounting of why he uses digital tools that manages to be both explanatory and inspiring. There are insightful analyses of how an animator might make their best use of money and time, a subject rarely discussed even in school environments that purport to be offering students a well-rounded education in animation. A practical discussion considering the choices of production and release format leads to a veritable shopping list of options for digital animators to get their work seen. He provides a crystal clear an explanation of digital aspect ratio as Ive yet seen. A concise overview of options for soundtrack production, which manages to slip in a plug for a useful product made by the authors father, composer Milton Subotnick, among many others. Subotnick also shows illustrations from animation Websites, both by independent artists and by some of those lingering vestiges of the Internet bubble, applies them to some very useful advice on building a first Website designed to support the exhibition of animation.

A remarkable (and again, remarkably free of excess) chapter on developing ideas, veers perhaps sharpest into the theoretical, along with a section on how an idea develops, describing the minutia of Subotnicks sometimes circuitous, intellectual gymnastics that culminate in a film. He describes the conceptual genesis of his work in progress tentatively titled The Angel. Whether a reader is fascinated by or even cares to follow Subotnicks linking the intellectual strands of the Biblical fall from heaven, an obscure event from the Thirty Years War, and the work of Rembrandt, Subotnick offers a vivid and amusing look into the complexity of a creative mind at work. He brings it back around at the end to make his point effectively, keeping us abreast of the linkages that brought the idea to fruition.

A Stiff After-Dinner Drink

I do want to address some of the issues I find problematic about Subotnick s book. First and foremost: Whats with the illustrations? I can understand Subotnicks desire to keep certain images general so as not to seem to be linking any specific product with the general ideas he outlines. However the wiggly-line funkiness of the Tim Miller illustrations extends to hand-done drawings of the interfaces of Premiere and Flash. Pretty specific stuff, and, while an example illustrating the idea of metamorphosis is clear and useful, the overall softness and vagueness of some other examples, like the drawing of a walk cycle, can hurt the usefulness of the illustration.

Subotnick has also fully embraced timing of all animation at 30 fps, a nod to the 29.97 fps speed of NTSC video, but he barely addresses the reasons why someone might want to explore creating their work at 24fps, and explore what the results and advantages of that approach might be. Also, though the animation excerpts on the CDROM are clear and attractive, limiting most to around 10 seconds is woefully unsatisfying. Rights issues no doubt were a consideration, but nevertheless the reader sometimes gets no feeling for even the aesthetic choices of a filmmakers work from a snippet of less than 10 seconds. This may be a point of criticism more usefully directed at the various copyright licensors of these works, whose often exclusive contracts can mean less rather than more exposure for the filmmakers whose work they purport to be advancing.

A criticism that might well arise among animator-wannabes is Subotnicks addressing of The Home Digital Studio as one that does not include 3D Computer Graphics. A casual look through AWNs current events any given month or a look at the flavor of the majority of feature animation in the contemporary market reveals a world where, to many, animation has become synonymous with 3D CGI. And yet I applaud Subotnicks keeping his focus as it stands in his book. Subotnick embraces stop-motion, and he deals with staging and lighting when doing stop-motion animation, offering the basic conceptual foundations that will extend into the world of the animation artist using 3D CG tools.

Still, those vehement CG advocates might dismiss the book as not being useful. This is a shame, since that mindset willfully avoids the conceptual foundation that underlies all animation, regardless of technique, and an examination of Subotnicks book reveals useful and valid information for all artists working in animation. Nevertheless, Subotnick and publisher Focal Press do face the unavoidable fact that, while there is indeed a tremendous amount of useful information in the book, a great deal of it might be out of date very quickly.

The world of howto books devoted to the animated arts has grown geometrically, dutifully following the expansion of the animation market. A selective lineage of such books weaves a trail from the seminal early volumes from Preston Blair, John Halas, Yvonne Andersen, Eli Levitan, Roy Madsen, and others, to the generalist work of Kit Laybourne, Kodak, Howard Beckerman and the craft-specific tomes of Thomas and Johnston, Tony White, Richard Williams to todays crop of expensive niche volumes tailored to very specific tasks in the digital realm. Focal Press has long been at the forefront of the effort to tailor specific books of practical use to media creators of all persuasions. With the publication of Animation in the Home Digital Studio Creation to Distribution, Subotnick has offered a wonderfully useful general volume, of practical use for animation production in the world of desktop digital production as well as of inspirational and conceptual use for any animator, no matter their media. Grab it now.

Animation in the Home Digital Studio Creation to Distribution by Steven Subotnick. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2003. 208 pages, includes Mac/PC CD ROM. ISBB: 0-240-80474-0 ($34.99)

Steven Dovas is an animation director and educator who makes his living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is represented for commercials by Class~Key Chew~Po Commercials in Los Angeles and his film Call Me Fishmael was an international award winner. He is working on a documentary about forgotten animation producer Mars Yotnick. He is the animation coordinator in the Department of Media Arts at the Pratt Institute and also teaches at NYU. His last article for AWN, about independent animation in New York appeared in May 1999. He is disappointed that the best ideas for animation books have now pretty much all been taken.

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