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The Animated Scene: Surviving the Grind

In this month's "The Animated Scene," Joseph Gilland talking about how to pace yourself and still make the deadline.

Joseph Gilland.

Whether you are relatively new to the animation industry, or if you've been at it a long time, the rigors of animation production can be brutal on an artist. Bear with me as I first take a look at the phenomenon of overwork in the animation studio, and then we'll take a look at some of the ways to make an intolerable situation survivable.

I see it happen over and over, especially with the fresh new animation talent, newly graduated out of one of the countless animation puppy mills offering an "animation education" these days, working late into the night at his or her first real job, trying so hard to make the grade. And then you see them dragging themselves in the next day, dark circles under their eyes, hair frazzled, clothes crumpled, chugging coffee or some kind of "energy" drink, desperately trying to please the new employer, but running on inadequate sleep and nutrition. Their social life suffers, of course, and if they have a husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, or even children or pets at home, that relationship is soon feeling the strain, as the overextended artist so rarely even makes an appearance at home, and then only to fall comatose into their beds and die a dramatic animation death. The same thing happens to artists with decades of experience; when the schedule is unrealistic, the hours become unrealistic. And when that happens, if we're not careful, everybody loses.

animation is a work-intensive medium. When I remember back to the old-school hand-drawn days of enormous crews working around the clock, drawing and drawing and drawing, it is hard to believe we ever made animation that way, so impractical, so labor-intensive, so insane! Surely we will evolve, surely we are smart enough to "improve" the process, aren't we?

Now that our tools have changed completely, for the most part, and we are engaged primarily in a digital medium, so much has helped us supposedly streamline the process that we can now crank out animation a helluva lot faster than we ever did drawing on paper. But has this made the art of animation any less labor-intensive? Well, the producers and managers I have worked for in the last few years certainly seem to think so. Schedules have become so incredibly compressed, looking at the expectations going into most projects, it is really scary. Having based my animation time estimates on the hand-drawn process for so many years, I look at a modern-day schedule, and... holy crap, do they really think we can do it in that short a time? Be it feature films, games, or a TV series, the expectation of how long it takes to produce a foot, or a second, or a show, or a series of animation, has gotten insanely short, small and compressed. As the tools help us streamline the process, and things speed up, the schedules speed up too. Not proportionately, however. I think we may have streamlined the process up to 50% or so, but the schedules have speeded up more like 100%. It is out of whack, to be sure. Expectations are high, and the pressure is on, to produce animation fast!

And so it goes. The business can be brutally demanding of an artist's time and energy, and I am frequently witnessing fresh young talent, and seasoned old talent, burning out, practically killing themselves trying to make deadlines and please their employers. But what kind of support are they getting? What kind of guidance? What kind of game plan going into the industry, to protect themselves against the inevitable burnout that comes from working too many hours, and not taking care of one's mental and physical health as well as one should?

Put deadline and schedules in perspective. Productivity drops with sustained work for too many hours straight.

I spent some years in the animation education biz, and I did my best to prepare each and every student for the onslaught. Where I was teaching animation, we intentionally made the course brutally demanding, with the logic being that if they can survive this course, they might have a shot at surviving the industry. But a lot of schools don't prepare young artists adequately, and once the poor things are actually in the industry, I am not seeing much empathy towards them from the studios that hire them, with 60 hours a week or more routinely expected, regardless of whether proper overtime pay is available. The work is expected, the pressure is applied, and predictably, quite a few young artists suffer, as they try to rise to the occasion. Some of them become bitter and resentful, the art form they love so much is beating them up, and all the fun is drained from the process of making cartoons. They see that much of the way they were taught how to make cartoons is being stripped down and disrespected in the modern-day studio setting. Proper planning is being pushed aside; "we'll fix it in post!" is the fast-food-animation battle cry. Proper storyboard, layout and scene planning are being largely forgotten in many studios, as the compressed schedules allot very little time for the time-tested classical stages of preproduction planning. So, not only are our fresh new animation artists being asked to work ridiculously long hours, they are also being asked to fix everything as they go, "Make it work, because we sure as hell haven't done the proper planning beforehand!" Thus an animator, or a background artist, effects artist, or compositor, is spending a great deal of his/her time fixing the array of problems that arise in the continuity of an animated film. This adds a level of stress to a job that is already hard enough, and demanding enough.

So, here are some ways that I can think of to survive the madness of silly deadlines. Some are obvious, some not so obvious.

First and foremost, do your best not to take the schedule personally. You didn't create it, you are just a hired gun. The mental stress that comes with taking on the responsibility of the deadline can wipe us out. To stay mentally sharp, continually remind yourself that you can only do your best within reasonable human limitations. Ultimately, when deadlines are missed, it's not necessarily the artist's fault, it is usually fallout from the extremely unreasonable expectations on the part of the folks who set up the project schedule in the first place. Do your absolute best, of course, and give it your all, but don't take it personally!

Watch out for the drop-off in productivity that comes with working for too many hours straight. I have watched so many artists pull great big 16- to 48- hour stretches of working straight through, only to see them crawling in extremely late the next day, thus starting a vicious cycle of having to work late into the night. If you need to get the extra work done, why not go home at 9:00 or 10:00 pm, and come in fresh at 6 or 7 the next morning? After 12 hours straight, the average person's real productivity tends to drop off pretty drastically anyway. Go home. Get your sleep. Break the workday down into the smallest chunks you possibly can. Take naps if you have to, but don't work straight through for too many hours. It just ain't worth it.

Stay hydrated! Coffee, Coke, Red Bull and the like can do an excellent job to fuel you, but water keeps you alive. Drink as much water as you can; it's worth the extra trips to the restroom. And if you have to have drinks at the local pub during break time, well then, you might as well just go home and sleep it off. Work after drinking gets us seriously dehydrated, and real productivity drops off dramatically. Stay sharp! Save the drinking for a break in the schedule!

Stay away from the Internet while working. This goes for all of us poor stiffs who are now forced to sit in front of these infernal computers day in and day out. It's no news that Internet browsing, chatting, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc. can be a serious detriment to a business's productivity. But in animation, I am seeing a very disturbing trend with regard to this. I see more and more people wasting incredible amounts of time online every day. A new funny video on YouTube has half the studio transfixed for a half hour or so. I see young artists who have headphones on, a video streaming, and are gabbing on their cell phone at the same time. They may not think they are missing out on getting any work done, because, after all, they sit in front of their computer for 12 hours a day. But their numbers tell a different story. Vast amounts of time are wasted away online. On the other hand, I see that people who work for me who have no inclination to dabble online tend to get twice the work done in half the time. And so they also get to go home a lot earlier, get more sleep, and stay sharper, generally. If you are getting paid by the hour, well, you are not only ripping off the company by spending too much time online, ultimately, you are ripping yourself off. Work takes longer to do, and you may be earning more in the short term, but in the long term, you burn yourself out, and you are far less likely to be hired back when the jobs are more scarce. Leave it alone! Email does not need to be checked every 10 minutes, your friend on MSN in Lebanon can chat with you at home, and that funny video on YouTube isn't really that funny!

Pace yourself with work of varying complexities. Break up your time wisely between the simpler work, and the more difficult work.

Get up and go for a walk. Get outside, breathe, get your focus off the work for a few minutes. Reasonable breaks need to be taken. Even when the schedule is fierce, and time is limited, it is the very best thing you can do to increase you productivity. Stretch, walk, look at something far away, let your eyes focus on a distant horizon, let your mind wander a bit. Shake it out. Run, jump around, get the blood moving. Sitting at a desk hunched over a computer is a lot like flying nonstop to Europe. Our blood stops moving, we breathe too shallowly, our muscles contract and stiffen up, our eyes get tired of staring at something 18 inches away. Break the routine. If your boss frowns on your doing that, explain exactly what you are doing and why. If they have a lick of sense, they'll respect it. If they don't, do your darnedest to do it anyway.

Of course a good diet is always smart, but I don't want this to turn into a "mothering" column, and hopefully that's a life skill you've picked up along the way. But still, I am amazed how many people I see eating junk food when they are trying to get a lot of work done. The two almost go hand in hand, the excuse often being that when you are working such crazy hours, you don't have the time for anything but junk food. Balderdash! It is not all that difficult to get healthy stuff -- that's not filled with sugar -- into you on a regular basis. Nuts, carrots, fruits, veggies, can be crunched on constantly, and you'd be amazed how well they keep the cravings at bay, and your energy levels healthy.

Don't work when you are genuinely sick! That's just sick! And you'll make everybody else sick too. Stay home, get better.

Pace yourself with work of varying complexity. In most animation jobs, we get a variety of things to work on, some far more difficult and time-consuming than others. For example, for an animator there are scenes that are simple -- talking heads for instance -- and other scenes that are difficult, like wild action scenes with multiple characters, or those with subtle acting that demands great finesse. Break up your time wisely between the simpler work and the more difficult work. Find out what time of day best suits which kind of work, and work accordingly. If you get stuck on a task that is extremely difficult, sometimes just being able to put it down and work on something much simpler can be just the thing you need. So think about that always, and divide your time for maximum productivity. I frequently see younger artists who will get obsessed with a difficult scene and almost kill themselves trying to get it out in one big push. Whoah! Take a break, walk away from it, and get three or four simple scenes done. It'll boost your morale, make you feel like you've accomplished something (which you have), and it may very well give you a fresh new perspective on the scene that was killing you.

To some degree, stand up for yourself. I see too many people in the business (myself once upon a time included) with some kind of victim/martyr complex who let themselves get treated like absolute slaves. If you let them get away with it, they will use you all up, believe me. But there is a fine line between really working your ass off, and letting yourself be abused. Recognize that line. When you are overtired, and need some rest, be clear about it. Leave when you need to, and don't let people guilt-trip you. If you work hard and do good work, it will be recognized and you will be respected. You don't have to kill yourself. So don't!

Don't lose your sense of humor!

We are making cartoons boys, and girls. It is supposed to be fun. We got into it because we love it (hopefully). Keep smiling, keep it light. Yes, the deadline is important, and we always do our best to make it. But at the end of the day, our health, our peace of mind, our sanity, and our good nature is more important. Remember, one day we'll look back on these stress-filled days and laugh (once again... hopefully). We might even refer to them as "the good old days!" I know a lot of the most difficult jobs I have ever worked on are remembered just that way. So keep your perspective, take care of yourself, and just do the best you can.

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.