Digital Distractions...searching for peace, quiet, and a way to stay creatively focused in the digital workplace

Multi-tasking on the computer these days is enough to spread anyone's brain cells out pretty thin. Throw in our so-called 'smart' phones, iPods, etc, and what are our chances of getting any work done?

This here is a RE-post of a column I wrote for AWN way back in November of 2007. I am reposting it for several reasons. 1.) Since returning from the amazing and wonderful FMX conference in Stuttgart, my brains have felt like well-done scrambled eggs, and writing anything coherent has been an unsurmountable challenge. 2.) I think it was and still is an excellent and extremely necessary topic to address, and 3.) The very digital distraction that I am writing about, threatens to derail my own workflow almost every day, and I needed a reminder! 

Digital distraction. Is it dragging us down, kicking and screaming into the matrix, the very bowels of cyberspace?

I will never forget the first time I picked up Richard Williams’ epic animation book The Animation Survival Kit, and read that hilarious little bit where Richard innocently asks the Disney master animator Milt Kahl if he ever listened to music while he was animating. Mr. Kahl responded by almost tearing his head off, exclaiming that he was “not smart enough to do more than one thing at a time,” and that when he was animating, he needed all of his concentration in order to do the best possible job. The following page shows Richard Williams huddled over a desk, with “Animation is concentration” written across the back of his shirt.

Well, today a young up-and-coming animation artist might ask one of the old-time animators (like me), “Hey, do you ever animate while you are text messaging someone, downloading music to your iPod, updating your Facebook, checking your e-mail, reading an article on the AWN web site, and watching a movie at the same time?” Hey, I am not exaggerating, this is something I see every day in the animation workplace and, quite frankly, I think it is something that is costing the animation industry untold millions of hours and dollars of lost productivity, not to mention the loss of creative talent that is being diluted by this relentless barrage of digital input.

Is all this desktop clutter good for our creative juices? How many things can we do WELL, at the same time. Sure, we can multi-task digitally, but what is the price we really pay?

I first began to really notice the phenomenon of digital distraction back in 1998, when we first moved into the state-of-the-art four-story Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida building at the Disney-MGM Studios. I was amazed to learn at the time that every single workstation in our new building came with full cable television, broadband radio and Internet connections. It seemed like a really nice perk, and I certainly didn’t complain, but I couldn’t help thinking, weren’t we supposed to be working? Was cable TV really necessary? Would this complete connectivity with every available form of media entertainment be a good thing for productivity? As the head of the special effects department there in the subsequent years, I certainly found out the hard way how all of that media availability affected the productivity of my crew. Within a week of moving into the new space, the majority of artists had brought in small televisions, as well as DVD players, and of course the standard small stereo systems and ghetto blasters were already at everyone’s desk.

First thing every morning, a substantial number of artists in our crew would watch the morning news on television, as they had their coffee and morning snack. And then, I watched aghast as a surprising number of artists began to watch TV throughout their workday. The television was always on, whether playing network programs, or films on DVD, and I immediately began to see the difference in day-to-day productivity between the artists who had their televisions on all day and the artists who didn’t. A subtle difference at first, but it was undeniable. Being entertained while supposedly working was not good for productivity, and I addressed it with my crew, suggesting that we have a certain amount of time during the workday designated as “no TV” time. There was a little bit of grumbling, but for the most part, it did not seem like a big deal at the time. But then I began to notice an increasing number of artists were spending a great deal of time on the Internet, answering e-mails, checking their stocks, chatting, and/or just plain surfing the Net. Unbelievably, I actually came upon artists who had their music playing, the television on, and were surfing the Internet, all at the same time as they were supposedly drawing and animating, working towards our department’s weekly quota of over 100 feet of beautifully polished, high-end special-effects animation.

Keep in mind that this was still a traditional hand-drawn-effects animation department for the most part, with the exception of two 3D-effects animators and TDs who worked exclusively on computers around the clock. Although we primarily worked on a traditional animation desk with light table and disk, each animator now had a computer as well, in the form of a Disney “Scene Machine” -- a digital pencil test shooting machine, built around a Mac computer. All of these were set up with complete Internet access. It was all the rage to check out the latest web sites, and there was supposedly a lot of “research” that could be done, to assist us in doing our jobs well. It was like having a vast library of resources at your fingertips. Of course the Disney studio actually had a terrific resource library -- you know, the kind with actual books in it -- as well as an incredible collection of movies and cartoons, but the immediacy of the Internet was seductive, and fast, and readily available, without having to take the trek up to the library, or going to the bother of actually cracking open a book.

Today, of course, the vast majority of us in the animation business rarely ever touch a piece of paper. We spend our entire days in front of a computer, and from the moment we log on, we are faced with the infinite digital world of the Internet. This is of course assuming that the studio we are working in permits such a thing. Many studios have decided that enough is enough, and either severely limit their artists’ access to the Internet, or remove it altogether. Then of course there are those of us working from home, as I am at this very moment, who have no restrictions whatsoever. And I can tell you that if my son on the other side of Canada logs on to MSN messenger right now, I probably won’t get this column written in time, because we have a lot to talk about! And if Marilyn logs on, well, forget about it! AWN will just have to wait!

 But, on most days, I drive into the city and go up to the eighth floor of a beautiful old office building, where I, and a relatively young crew of animation artists, crank out endless episodes of television animation. And from where I sit in that studio, I can see clearly that this business of “multi-tasking” while on the computer is costing our studio countless hours and dollars of lost productivity, and that the average young animation artist today has almost no conception of what really being focused and getting a job done is all about.

Talk to one of these young artists and, for the most part, they will tell you that watching the Transformers DVD, and messaging friends on MSN while they work, has little, if any, effect on the amount of work they get done. Never mind the 30 or 40 minutes automatically eaten up while they check their e-mail before even thinking about getting any work done. And YouTube? Well, don’t get me started. The endless stream of utterly useless entertainment being offered up from that web site has truly become a time waster of monumental proportions! Of course there is a lot of stuff worth watching, but tell me, are we at work? Or are we being entertained? And when did the lines between the two get so blurred?

I challenge one of these digitally distracted artists to try putting in an entire day of work without any of these distractions. I know a lot of them will go crazy in about 10 minutes, because of what they think they might be missing! I have had many young artists and colleagues tell me that they actually believe they can’t work without something else going on. Their attention span is so severely impaired that without some sort of additional “entertainment” being constantly provided, they feel a slight gap in their consciousness. And this makes them feel a kind of instant anxiety, because they believe this is a space which has to be continually filled in. And that, my friends, is a sad state of affairs. Because they don’t know any differently. They don’t know about that incredible Zen state of complete and utter creative animation absorption that can only happen when you are 100% focused on a single task, with as little outside information getting through as possible. Tragically, I think, it is a state of creative bliss which many young people today have never even experienced so far in their short lives, so relentless is the constant barrage of media being thrown at them from every possible angle.

Being as interested in this phenomenon as I am, I decided to do a little research, and find out if science has a take on what is happening in our gray matter when we constantly expose ourselves to several different forms of visual and informational input at once. Sure enough, there are several experiments and studies underway at this very moment and, in particular, one study at UCLA that has come up with some very interesting observations and conclusions.

Multitasking taxes the brain. That much is obvious. By using magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain’s activity, scientific experts can ascertain which parts of the brain are being used, and how much. It appears that when our brain is receiving a barrage of information from different sources simultaneously, the necessary constant switching of circuits activates the parts of our brain that deal with repetitive visual processing and physical coordination. As a result, the brain shuts down the areas responsible for retaining information, learning, and memory while it struggles to keep up. More specifically, when our brain is given too many tasks to pay attention to at the same time, it switches its activity from the hippocampus, which deals with memory and recall, to the striatum, which deals with repetitive, mundane activities. As a result, we are able to deal with the overload of information, and may be able to perform our main tasks at hand very efficiently, but we are not retaining nearly as much information, and we are not learning nearly as much, since the part of our brain responsible for doing so has been largely shut down in order to bounce around wildly from one source of input to another.

So our brains are equipped to deal with it, but only at the expense of higher learning. It is ironic that while we think we are getting more done -- answering e-mails, chatting, watching and listening to several things at the same time -- we are actually slowing down the part of our brain that enables us to deal with high-end informational processing. By fragmenting our brain’s activity to process a bunch of “stuff,” we are destroying its ability to focus on one activity with any real efficiency. And animation requires as much of our focus as we can possibly give it. At least really good animation does. I am not talking about simply moving things around, as so much digital animation we see these days seems to do. Watching things move without grace, without poetry, without finesse and subtlety, taxes my brain worse than trying to do ten things at once!

Our brains are not computers, as much as some people would like to think that they are. Our brains possess powerful creative connections with a cosmic creative force, far, far beyond simply processing information. That is what has brought to life truly great works of art, like classical music, and classical animation. Inspired art that touches something deep inside all of us requires all of our attention. Using our brain like a multi-tasking computer cuts us off from that divine inspiration, the source of pure energy that can raise us up, out of the squalor of mass-produced culture, and into the realm of greatness, and the potential creation of the masterpiece. Does this all sound rather snooty and lofty? Not relevant to the animation job at hand? Especially when we are, after all, cranking out mass-produced animation for the masses? I think not. Not at all.

I have seen moments of mastery, in even the lowest forms of animation. Yes, even Flash animation (not my favorite program for animation, although I have been forced to use it) can transcend the average, and an animation performance can spark our imagination, no matter how simple it is on the surface. A little piece of special-effects animation that works perfectly, and harnesses a little bit of pure energy, catches our attention. A subtle animation acting performance that portrays real emotion reaches us through all the repetitive visual hooks. But I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that, without learning how to really focus on what we are doing, without allowing ourselves to get into a truly connected state with our creative process, we will not find ourselves creating these sublime works of art. Keeping ourselves inundated with information from all sides at all times is robbing us of receiving a higher form of information. Imagine sitting down at a desk, without a computer, and filtering out all outside information. Turn off the cell phone, don’t open an Internet browser, don’t open the messenger, power down the iPod. Do not open any programs whatsoever but the one being used for the task at hand. And actually immerse yourself in that medium, fully and wholly. Imagine the potential.

Of course, many of us in our day-to-day animation jobs are expected to multi-task constantly. We have to or we will miss the boat! Our e-mail is to be checked every few minutes while at work, lest we miss an important message, and instant messaging is now a preferred method of communication in many studios. I am constantly instant messaged by artists on my crew, who are sitting no more than a few paces away. What is up with that? Are they uncomfortable with personal interaction on an actual physical level? Or do they actually think it is more “efficient” to always use these helpful little digital devices? I actually try to communicate directly as often as possible -- you know, by actually talking to people? But of course I often have to tap them on the shoulder to penetrate the headphones that they have on from the moment they sit down to the moment they leave at the end of the day.

Is all this digital multitasking making us more efficient? Well, considering all the miscommunication I see in the studio every day, I think not -- at least not entirely. However, I am not by any stretch suggesting that multitasking is not to a certain degree absolutely necessary, or without some merit. Without a doubt, there is amazing streamlining potential in using countless digital tools, like online tracking systems, for what they are good for: storing, and sharing information. But storing and sharing information is only a part of what we, as animation artists, do. What of the creative and learning process? What of the process of creative collaboration? How well does the creative process fare when it is squeezed into a line of text on an instant messenger? What is happening to the visual and emotional part of the creative process? It is becoming more and more rare, in the digital studio of today, for artists to spend time physically together, explaining, describing, drawing, brainstorming, gesturing, and emoting together, in that sublime process of artistic collaboration that is responsible for great animation filmmaking.

This is my call, for us all to pay attention to where our attention is going. Use the tools we have for what they are good for, but let us not forget, this is a visual, creative medium based on communication, and, if we are chained to our computers, our iTunes, our messengers, our e-mails, our YouTube, our Facebook, a seemingly endless barrage of digital information, we are robbing ourselves of the gift of our creative legacy. Our humanness. Our warmth and our emotional lives, which in turn feed the warmth and emotion that is the essential ingredient of truly great animation. Whether it is a toilet paper commercial, an independent short film, an adult television series, a children’s cartoon, or a big-budget feature film, we owe it to ourselves and to each other to pay more attention.