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From Pencils to Pixels: Making the Transition

Greg Singer speaks with The Animation Guild, Rhythm & Hues and DreamWorks to see how 2D traditional artists are training for the new 3D/CG economy.

Ten years ago, Lion King ushered in a new era for animation. Now we stand on the precipice of a new digital frontier. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

Ten years ago, hand-drawn animation was king. The Lion King was wowing audiences all over the world, and making a pretty penny in the process. Other studios, smelling the success of a fresh kill, decided to get in on the game.

As with all things in the circle of life, circumstances change and systems adapt. Here we are, now, on the threshold of a new era in animation history. The rise of the machines has sent traditional animated movies to the fishes in the U.S. What began as a small service technology has blossomed into a full-blown, billion-dollar business. Computer-generated movies are not just carving out their ecological niche, they are bulldozing one. They are the mice-become-wooly-mammoths of our time.

Emeryville and Redwood City, California. Irving, Texas. Lombard, Illinois. White Plains, New York. Honolulu, Hawaii. With CGI films having been pioneered in such far-flung places, the trend continues with feature studios setting roots in Toronto, London, Barcelona, San Rafael, California and Atlanta, Georgia.

As the Hollywood studios make their own transition from pencils to pixels, there is much to look forward to. It is less of a revolution than a renaissance literally, the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. It is the cyclic renewal story of the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail. Out of destruction comes creation; out of death comes life.

Negotiating Change: The Animation Guild

There is understandably going to be some resistance to change, especially when people get into business to do one thing, and then, halfway through their career, it ostensibly becomes something else.

The Animation Guild membership, according to its rep Steve Hulett, has accepted the new reality that the hand-drawn animation market has shrunk while CGI has grown.

Steve Hulett, who was part of Disneys story staff during the late 70s and early 80s, is the business representative for The Animation Guild. He observes, Most traditional animators recognize that CGI is the wave of the immediate future and that 2D (lets call it hand-drawn) is not going to hold the kind of sway it did in the early 90s.

To that end, The Animation Guild (Local 839 IATSE) has set up a computer training lab in its building. The Guild has been assiduously pursuing grants with the state of California, and elsewhere, to help its members gain the skills they need to find work.

Many still wish they were animating with a pencil, Hulett explains. Nevertheless, a lot of folks have been transitioning into the brave new world of CGI. DreamWorks has retrained more of its traditional crew than any other studio, but Disney has certainly retrained many of its lead traditional animators.

Hulett recalls, The experience of artists who transition to CGI has been all over the map. Initially, there was a lot of unhappiness and mourning for an art form that seemed to be going away. I would walk through Disney in 2002 and the anger and despair were palpable.

I guess I feel a little more optimistic than some people, Hulett continues, because I think that hand-drawn animation will come back at some point. There will be a studio out there that will produce a traditional animated feature that gets the public excited, and at that point hand-drawn animation will make a resurgence.

Over the past four years, The Animation Guild has facilitated substantial retraining. The first classes were offered at Abram Friedman Occupational Center, a computer lab affiliated with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Hulett says, We were heavily involved with training under an H1-B Federal Training Grant and trained 800 of our members in Photoshop, Maya and Shake. The training was extensive, and we offered classes to literally hundreds of traditional artists who were ultimately laid off when the studios went to all-CGI production.

DreamWorks offers four kinds of training classes: new-hire training, retraining, cross training, and career path training. Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

In talking with a wide variety of animators, there is a bell-shaped curve of people who like working with computers. Some people find the transition is frustrating, because they miss the tactile feeling of drawing and the ability to control the line and look of their characters. In creating movement one frame at a time, they miss being able to draw anything they wanted. Yet, for this reason, others find working with a computer is very freeing. Without having to struggle with drawing, they can concentrate more on performance.

There is always going to be the challenge of changing technology. A No. 2 pencil is a No. 2 pencil; it hasnt changed much. Software changes every time we turn around. As with any continuing education, notably with those who have been long in the business, it is important for people to feel comfortable that theyre going to learn the technology and theyre not going to fail.

Huelett says, Most are adapting. Most are learning to enjoy CGI for what it is.

Of a Different Color: Rhythm & Hues

The objective in all successful training is to allow artists to transfer their prior skills and experience into the computer. The learning curve for 2D animators making the transition to CGI depends on the individual and the learning environment.

Kathleen OReilly of Rhythm & Hues encourages mentoring of newcomers by senior animators. The new artists must learn R&Hs propriety tools. Courtesy of Rhythm & Hues.

Rhythm & Hues is a studio committed to finding and nurturing strong artistic talent. Kathleen OReilly, education manager of Rhythm & Hues, says, Our department has been able to provide a supportive learning community, and I have had the privilege to work with some incredibly gifted artists. Our senior animators lead workshops and demonstrate the technical aspects of workflow and project delivery. They help to mentor the junior animators. Obviously, all artists continue to learn and grow when faced with new challenges and problem-solving while working on shows.

Rhythm & Hues maintains a suite of proprietary production tools. This necessitates educational programs to teach newly hired artists the procedures of the software, in addition to the methodology of the departments that come before and after them.

It is important for the artists to conceptually understand what happens upstream and downstream with regards to their position in the pipeline, says OReilly. We do teach for each discipline modeling, rigging, set data gathering, camera tracking, animating, texture painting, lighting and compositing. But its important for artists and production personnel to understand what is being discussed, the special lingo and its context. Therefore, our training includes an overview of the entire pipeline before we concentrate on specific tasks. We do the broad strokes first and then get into the minutiae.

One of the challenges for artists is learning to translate their traditional 2D workflow into a CG environment. OReilly says, We start with concepts they already know. We then make sense of how they relate to that information in regards to this new 3D pipeline. For example, I was working with an extremely talented 2D animator; it was his first time working on a keyboard. All the files how they were organized, with directory paths and commands to access them didnt make much sense to him.

However, once he explained how his drawings were organized in the 2D world, with a scene stacker, voila! We had a reference point he was familiar with, and some common ground, to compare 2D and 3D. This type of dialogue worked out well, and he went on to accomplish some lovely 3D animation.

Historically, with hand-drawn animation, scene planners would plot camera moves and work with the layout department to conceive the landscape of the film. With CGI, an animatic dress rehearsal using mannequin-type stand-ins helps to determine the paths of action, as well as refine the editorial and cinematic approaches of the final movie.

OReilly says, One of the first big concepts for traditional 2D artists to get their arms around and truly embrace is that of the third dimension, z-depth. Traditional cel animators are used to working on images where characters and objects spatial relationships are described in a drawing from one camera perspective. Transition out of the world of flat, 2D imagery and into the world of 3D, and now artists have to concentrate on the physicality of characters, objects and their 3D volumes.

The spatial relationships have to be correct from multiple camera angles, not just one. It is possible for a performance to look absolutely fantastic from a front camera angle and, at the same time, be a complete disaster when viewed from a side camera angle. The animator has to check the 3D animation and geometry for interpenetration, something completely new and different for a traditional 2D artist.

Another challenge that animators may have, as they are assigned shots piecemeal, is to maintain the continuity of performance and action for a particular character. Many times in CGI, an animator needs to learn tens of different characters, which can be a lot of personalities and character models to understand. A character model has certain parameters that force an animator to move the character in very specific ways. The best character rig is one that solves a lot of the technical challenges of animating the character, in enabling the animator to get the character into any pose possible and to give it the kind of expressiveness that is called for by the story. The computer will work for an artist 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But it cannot know what an artist intends for it to do, without the proper instructions.

Michael Sehgal, digital training manager at DreamWorks, offers short- and long-term classes. He finds that artists truly passionate about 3D CG will jump at the chance to learn new skills.

The Left Brain: DreamWorks

At DreamWorks feature animation, the training has been divided into two initiatives: artistic and technical. The department was designed to be flexible and adaptable enough to meet the evolving needs of production as part of a larger, ongoing culture of learning.

Currently, DreamWorks offers some 200 to 250 individually scheduled classes and tutorials, and its program is constantly expanding to add new courses to the curriculum. The training system is very specialized, department specific and task-oriented.

Michael Sehgal, digital training manager of DreamWorks, explains, We offer four main types of training. Although none are mutually exclusive, they can broadly be defined as new-hire training, retraining, cross training, and career path training.

New-hire training is the most commonly recognized program that we offer. This training exposes new employees to the core tools, procedures and policies of our digital production environment. In 2003, roughly 30% of our training efforts involved new-hire training.

Also highly recognized, 60% of our training is related to retraining our current employees. Retraining involves transitioning specific types of artists from one production directly over to another. In this instance, although their discipline does not change, the artists may need to sharpen their artistic and/or technical skills in order to meet the needs of their new show.

For example, a lighting team may have been working with third-party applications, like Maya and RenderMan, for one show. Their next production, however, may require them to use our proprietary lighting and rendering tools. If this is the case, we are responsible for ensuring they remain proficient lighters when changing tools. Another example of retraining is when we work directly with a character animator (or effects animator) to transition from 2D animation to 3D CG.

At less than 10%, cross training is the least discussed kind of training, but a type that really flourishes within the unique training atmosphere here. Cross training in CG animation involves exposing artists and engineers to target areas of production. For example, we may need to train a technical director on the current principles and techniques practiced in CG animation. They would use this knowledge to work on the latest advancements in tools and rigs the character animators will need.

Although not a prevalent type of training (3%), we also offer career path training at DreamWorks. This is usually a very long term, more non-invasive type of training. Its the I wish I could do that type of training that employees can handle while still performing their regular job duties. In career path training, we may offer classes for senior level artists who want to learn entirely new disciplines or software developers that want to learn production artistry.

The duration of the training programs ranges anywhere from one to two weeks to 10-12 weeks. Sehgal continues, One to two weeks may be appropriate for a 3D CG savvy artist who has come to our studio directly from another feature film studio. A typical one-to-two week program may involve a brilliant senior level effects animator who is already exceptionally adept at creating 3D CG effects. Their need from our group may just lie in a set of training classes that provides exposure on exactly how to use the effects tools developed specifically for their show.

At the other end of the spectrum, we could have a phenomenally talented cel or stop-motion character animator who may have no prior experience on a computer. Under a circumstance like this, we could easily invest over 10 weeks of intense, animation-focused training to ensure they are production ready.

It is extremely difficult to provide rigorous, accelerated training courses that separate the tools from the techniques. In the end, the computer is just another tool that one can use to create art. In our training, we strategically include study times for the animator to really experiment with the concepts, tools and techniques at their own pace. This is an especially important aspect of the training as it allows time for the artist to develop his or her own workflow (i.e., their way of working in 3D CG). Developing an efficient workflow thats also dynamic enough to transfer to the next show is a very valuable quality to have in a production environment.

I often think that embracing the ever-changing craft of 3D CG is the key to ones success, Sehgal says. I have come to believe that if you dont really have the passion for the art of 3D CG, its going to be extremely difficult to convince yourself that you should devote the amount of time and effort thats required of it. Its the passion for the art and the ongoing determination to master the craft that lays the foundation for the successful career in 3D CG. The bottom line is that if you are truly excited by the art, you will learn the new tools of the trade. Its just a matter of time. When personal motivation is present, our training team typically finds that most artists can break any technology barrier and achieve any artistic goal.

Frank Gladstone, head of artistic development at DreamWorks wants to make sure that 3D savvy artists dont forget the artistic forest for the digital trees.

The Right Brain: DreamWorks

While the initial training to learn the computer interface may not take long, it often requires a year or more of work before the new tools feel second nature to the transitioning artist.

Frank Gladstone, head of artistic development at DreamWorks, says, As we discovered that we had all this digital training to do, a huge amount, the studio also realized that when you have that kind of effort and expense, its entirely possible that people forget the artistic forest for the digital trees. Suddenly someone is an animator because they know a program, rather than because they can bring a certain kind of performance to that program; or someone is a lighter because they understand the lighting program, not because they have the artistic eye necessary to light well. Our job is to support and inspire the artists, to keep the art at the forefront, so that whatever electronic pencil we are using now, people can continue to grow and experiment and approach their tasks not only technically oh yeah, I know this technology now but also artistically.

Gladstone continues, The fundamental skills that you learn, as a 2D animator or a 2D background artist or a 2D layout artist, always cross over. Squash and stretch, weight and volume, overlapping action and secondary action all those things are still there. We find that the people who have trained as traditional artists, when they successfully maneuver the 3D program, they bring to their new tasks in 3D a great deal of maturity and a sensitive approach. So, even though theyre using new technology, theyre still using their traditional training, such that their animation, generally speaking, is very nuanced. The same applies to layout, lighting, texturing people who come from a traditional background tend to bring those thought processes into 3D. Its very valuable, and very subjective.

While sketching, painting and sculpting are still very much a part of the process in realizing CG animation in the U.S., the possibility of continuing in traditional artistic roles remains pretty rarified. When DreamWorks transitioned more fully towards CG features, they offered their artists opportunities to learn other kinds of production skills.

Saying I was a great animator makes me a great story artist or character designer is not necessarily true, Gladstone explains. The journey from one position to another, whether its a 2D to another 2D position, or 2D to 3D position, its a hard journey. There are probably people who are thinking, I dont want to use a computer, but theres still a refuge in visual development or storyboarding. Theyre making as hard a decision as, Hey, Ill learn the computer. The fact is both visual development and storyboarding will eventually, in some fashion or another, also go at least some way in that computerized direction. The visual development guys use Photoshop all the time now. For storyboard, it hasnt happened yet, but I wouldnt be surprised, at some point sooner than later, that there will be some applications. Its inevitable.

In recalling the transition of artists from 2D to CG, Gladstone says, Interestingly, some people in cleanup perhaps because of their approach to drawing were not on the road to becoming an animator, but they did have all those fundamental skills. Now that they are working with computers, some of the things about their drawing that may have held them back they were too careful, or whatever have gone away, and they are finding jobs in animation. Some of the 2D effects animators went to story and some of them learned particle systems. Though, its a much harder road for a 2D effects animator to learn 3D effects, because 3D effects involve a lot of programming. Theyre not spontaneously drawing flames or rain, or things like that. Its a lot more of a right to left-brain jump. In character animation, youre still animating a character its more like a puppet, but its still the same idea.

We also found that a lot of our background painters have moved very well into lighting, because thats what they did they lit scenes. Before it was with paint on illustration board, now it is with a software package, but the lighting aesthetic doesnt change. Theres a little more freedom in the computer to make a few mistakes, and try something out without having to repaint backgrounds just because we decided to move the light source. In fact, we can now light a scene as a cinematographer would even better, we can do anything we want. Last year, we took all our layout and story folks to the Cinematographers Guild and had famous and well-respected cinematographers light a set for us. They each lit the set differently, and they talked about the choices they made; how they approached lighting scenes and the fortunate accidents that happened on set. In todays 3D world, where we can move camera and lights in nearly the same way that a live-action director of photography can, it was a valuable lesson.

Gladstone says, Like most disciplines in our business, some people have managed to stay in animation, others have moved on. We cant sugarcoat this. Some people have taken the opportunity to learn a new technology, and thats allowing them to move into new production areas. Others have had to change careers. Thats what happens when a business changes.

The elephant in the room is, will there be 2D animation coming down the pike? Will there be an explicit need for 2D skills? I do think that, eventually, when people become used to this cycle of 3D, there may be again a resurgence of 2D. Also, there are so many people who just love 2D, that theyll find a way to do it. Just like people continue to do stop-motion.

In one of its earlier short films, Fishing, PDI/DreamWorks had created a two-dimensional, watercolor aesthetic even though it was done entirely in 3D. Gladstone says, All of us are just scratching the surface of what we can do not in terms of technology, but in terms of the art of things. I dont worry so much about the technology. Just because everyone works on the word processor now, does that mean they write a better novel? Theyre still writing novels. The fact that some people write on a yellow tablet, and some use a computer, and some dictate into a tape machine who cares?

In a way, the computer has allowed us to do a lot more of certain things, and thats great. Hooray! The other thing that I think 3D does is allow more people to do this work, and it allows fewer people to be able to do bigger projects. Its not at all inconceivable now to do an animated feature with 50 or 60 people. What the future brings, Im happy to see.

Perhaps what is going to distinguish the studios in the marketplace is the extent they will push the envelope of performance and aesthetic style. Yet, while there is quite a bit of innovation going on at DreamWorks, the driving force behind any movie remains the story. In thinking about new looks and approaches, the question is whether a specific style will contribute or detract from the intent of telling a story.

Gladstone says, People always want to see something new. But the visuals, and all the tricks that we can do, it has to service the story, not become the story. The story thats always the most important thing.

Editors Note: The Walt Disney Co., which has been retraining many 2D animators to work on its CGI features, was contacted to be part of this story, but declined to participate at this time.

Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.