Search form

Everyday Producing: Coding and Creativity

One Animation studio head John McKenna continues his series exploring the inner workings of the animation industry.

John McKenna, studio head at global award-winning studio One Animation, continues his series exploring the inner workings of the animation industry. In this article, he tackles the following question: “Coding and Creativity” – is it binary numbers or creative storytelling that turns an idea into animation magic? 

This is the guy I would have been in history:

Director: I want to make cartoon drawings that move.

Me: Not possible. You could never get all the drawings to align…and forget about camera moves, parallax, depth of field!

Another director: ...and then he drops his brother into a stampede of hundreds of wildebeest!

Me: Cool idea. Could he be run over by a single wildebeest? Any more than five would kill the animators. Or just have him pour poison in his brother’s ear, that always works.

Yet Another director: I want to make an animated film using computer graphics.

Me: Why? Animation requires acting, warmth, personality. Computer imagery has none of that.

Fortunately for history, I wasn’t there for those conversations, and all those challenges were solved by technology; aka, a bunch of smart people sitting down and working out how it can be done.

No doubt you’re ahead of me when I tell you, I’m not a techie; I’m a producer who constantly has to guard against letting the way things are done today limit my view of what could be done tomorrow.

But not so tech teams, they’re awesome.  For them everything is possible. When storytellers are knocking on a closed door, people like me point out that it’s locked; technology people set about making a key.

The question is whether this always happens to the benefit of animation, or if sometimes it can actually take away from the storytelling?

Technology as the co-pilot of creativity

When it’s “good,” technology can open up how and where a story is told. In the right production environment, it can also help drive narrative choices by being part of the development discovery/feedback loop.  

Riding on a dragon high above the earth, for example, if it feels real, becomes a movie moment that the audience can revel in, and not just a mode of travel -- cloth and hair simulation, cloud interaction, swooping camera moves, and clever sound design, working together to give us a sense of what it might be like to fly. This experience, enabled by technology’s successes, can serve as a sensory treat for the audience at this point in the film and allow the plot to breathe a little.

So, yeah, I’d say it’s pretty good. In fact, animation owes its very existence to mechanical and optical invention, and the unprecedented explosion of worldwide content to advances in digital computing.

So…it feels almost sacrilegious to wonder: can it also be “bad?”

All you need for a better story is a pencil and paper

Well, there’s the obvious sin: the “look-at-me” VFX scattered throughout a movie solely to show them off; technology for its own sake that can overwhelm the story, or in the worst cases, replace it. All icing and no cake.

But apart from those types of drawbacks, there may also be something more systemic that can lead us astray.

I met Ed Catmull once (Just wanted to say that). And here’s a really weird irony: I came away with an insight that had nothing to do with the technology he so famously pioneered.

The founding father of CG animation was exercised not by the myriad complexities of that field, but rather by how to write better stories, which needs nothing more than a pencil and paper. Kind of like meeting Einstein and scoring an insight into bicycle repair, I imagine.

He was always struck, he told me, that everyone in the industry was of a single mind that the most important elements of any project were story, story, story.  Why then, if we all recognized this as true, was it often the weakest part, even in the most generously budgeted projects?

I’ve developed a sneaking suspicion what that might be, and it’s informed by my own experiences of reaching the finish line exhausted and triumphant, only to discover that the audience didn’t share my positive view of the result.

Don’t start the CG before the story is ready

The thing is, animation is just so hard. In all its diverse forms, it is founded on a process of technology: layering images together in a very specific way to create the “illusion of life.” Never mind the entertainment value, just getting to the project’s end gives us a colossal sense of achievement, and can seduce us into believing that all the blood, sweat and tears along the way must have value, and consequently the audience must appreciate all that effort.

Plus, it takes a really long time; long enough to lead us into the trap of thinking we have oceans of time to get the story right while we go about dressing it up with cool CG.

But you know what? We don’t, and if we start CG production before the story’s ready, even on that one sequence we all agree is “completely safe,” it never does come right. Not in the independent world anyway.

In major studios, maybe, where creating multiple reels hand-in-hand with technology development is their production model. They’re prepared to pay for that, and it’s been hugely successful for them. But I’ve never seen an independent budget that could allow for it.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier to get the story right in animation if we could just make it, without having to worry about technology, process and wrangling all those different elements?

Well we can. In fact, we do it on every project. It’s the storyboard animatic: minimal technology, quick and cheap creative changes, just turning words into the simplest form of images, and cutting them together.

The magic of animation starts with the storyboard

And the critical lesson I’ve learned? This is where you make your movie - not just as a first production step, to provide visual information for later departments, but as a stand-alone, complete work of entertainment in itself.

If it’s in the animatic it will be in your final masters, whatever you do with the CG. And if it isn’t, it won’t, whatever you do with the CG.

As much as storyboarding may feel like a tentative toe in the water during the scramble to get production going, we producers have to force ourselves to be as demanding of the animatic as we are of a movie we paid to watch.  It has to move audiences to laugh and cry, to hiss the villain and cheer the heroine. And they should come away at the end saying, “I had a great time!” If not, re-work the boards. CG is not going to fill that gap.

Code to create, not create to code

You can’t fix a weak story outline with dialogue, and you can never ever fix an unsatisfactory animatic with stunning CG.

That’s exactly what Ed Catmull, the very person who made that stunning CG possible, was alluding to.

The technology can give you the means to make wonderful images and never-before-seen effects, but before you use them, you need to find your movie.

When you do, technology has a wonderful role to play, an essential role, its proper role, in making your movie great.