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Juggling and the Art of Team-Based Animation

Mine! Mine! Mine? Studying collaborative filmmaking dynamics at the heart of Hothouse 11, the NFB's English Animation Studio Apprenticeship Program.

The NFB’s English Animation Studio Apprenticeship Program.

"I quit!" (David Shayne, playwright and director, after listening to criticism during rehearsal)

"Oh, don't be so egotistical." (Ellen, his girlfriend)

"I'm outta here." (Cheech, small-time hitman and, ironically, the most talented one in the house)

"Egotistical? Why? Because I protect my play?" (David)

"Protect it against what? A good idea?" (Ellen)

Woody Allen, Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

The NFB/ONF (National Film Board of Canada/ Office national du film du Canada) is Canada’s acclaimed national filmmaking studio. It has garnered more than 5,000 awards, including 11 Oscars, 73 Academy Award nominations, and an honorary Oscar for a prodigious output rivaling Hollywood’s. Its award-winning English and French animation studios have had a tremendous impact on generations of filmmakers in Canada and abroad.

From a cognitive researcher’s perspective, the NFB/ONF provides a best-case scenario for researching the kinds of complex thinking processes involved in doing studio animation. My research is based on real-world, frequently messy cognitive activities. I study “cognition in the wild,” rather than doing experiments in a laboratory, so being able to observe studio animation in its “natural” setting is a must.

Michael Fukushima and Julie Roy, Executive Producers of the English and French Animation Studios respectively, were intrigued by what I might find, and graciously permitted me access to the artists and productions. I began my stint at the NFB on the first day of English Animation’s eleventh edition of the Hothouse program.

“Hothouse” is the NFB’s apprenticeship program, where emerging animators are invited to create a short (1-minute) work with the support of the NFB’s production pipeline and prodigious talent pool. This year’s Hothouse, “Found Sound,” is based on sound found in the NFB’s archives and from the Internet. Animators chose a sound track to stimulate a theme they wanted to animate, basing their audio on the selected track. Six artists from across Canada were inducted into this year’s program.

Hothouse 11 Filmmakers and Crew. Photo by Angel Tresgallo Carpio, NFB

The good news is that these artists had access to the tools and talents of a pre-eminent animation studio to help them turn ideas into reality. But, like any wish-come-true story, it came with a price. The Hothouse criteria stipulated a 1-minute film, produced within 12 weeks, using only the sound, sound effects or Foley created at the NFB (no music). Also, the animators were required to participate in frequent on-site and virtual conferences with both the Hothouse team and each other.

In other words, the good news is that these new-to-the-NFB animators had the complete cooperation and mentoring of some of the most talented animation wizards on the planet. The bad news is that some of the animators brought limited experience in “cooperative” or “collaborative” filmmaking, and none of them had experience in working within the NFB culture of “teamwork.” 

I was curious how the selected animators experienced their intense immersion in the Hothouse process.

The first team meeting required the artists to pitch their ideas to the other artists and the rest of the NFB production crew. Some ideas were worked out in storyboards, other more experimental or conceptual works were portrayed in general sketches. It was clear that while all these artists had already been accepted into the program, they were starting from scratch in terms of now having to present their ideas and early drawings to others. What began with their written statements and a degree of certainty in their original proposals now became shared drawings with tentative directions. 

Almost every comment in the meeting started out with “I loved how…” before segueing into “I wonder if you do this instead…” And as each pitch progressed, the comments were less about what the artists wanted their works to mean, and more about what was actually being presented. As Maral Mohammadian, one of the English Animation producers and the head of this year’s Hothouse in Montreal, remarked, “You have to eventually go from reacting to what you think is someone’s intention [in their animation] to reacting to what’s actually there.” 

She added, “Ultimately, it’s your film and you are the best judge of what input to take and what to leave behind. This is not design by committee; it is about working with a dedicated crew.”

Maral’s instruction is easier said than done. Moving back and forth between interpretation and perception, between ideas and actual visualization, and most importantly, between the positive and negative evaluations artists bring to their work-in-progress, is indeed the kind of thinking that all animators have to manage. Doing this with input from other animators, producers, sound engineers, editors and technicians adds a significant level of complexity.

At its core, team-based animation invariably requires juggling conflicting goals, ideas and feelings. What makes it even more difficult is that these contradictions may not lie just between different team-members but within each person, too.  

For example, Hothouse stipulates: “Apart from their technical knowledge, the participants had to…”

“…have sufficient know-how and confidence in your chosen animation technique to begin working right away while remaining flexible and willing to adapt to the processes of creative and technological exchange within the team.” They had to “be prepared to work with the NFB creative team, which includes Mentoring Director, Producers, Digital Imaging Specialists, Sound Designer, Editor and the rest of the NFB animation filmmaking community.”

In other words, if you are fortunate enough to be selected in Hothouse, you’re going to have to skirt between certainty and flexibility, being able to chart a course of action yet adaptable to the currents proposed by others. In other words, be adept at juggling contradictions.

I interviewed some of this year’s Hothouse animators about their experiences on “working with” members of the NFB/Hothouse community. This is their take on the contradictions inherent in the team-based animation.

Pascaline Lefebvre explained, “I found the collaborative process both scary and comfortable. I learned the ethics and respect involved in sharing our creativity. You have to be delicate in how you present your ideas when you comment on someone’s work. You’re commenting to people you care about. This whole process is very personal. In the first sound editing I felt both anxious and excited; the whole process opened up possibilities I hadn’t thought of before.”

Catherine Dubeau described, “I never worked this way before. There was a blurred line between other people having input vs. their taking control. I liked getting the feedback, though, eventually getting me to realize that my work would be better if it were more conceptual and less narrative.”

Lorna Kirk underlined the fact that, “Apart from the short time frame, I wouldn’t have passed up this process at all. It helped me focus on the way I want to animate for the rest of my career. I come from the broadcast world where there is no collaboration, no asking questions, and if you admit that you need collaboration they think that you’re weak. You can’t say, “I don’t know.” I think that it would have taken me a lot longer to figure things out even about my own process on my own. I learned how to tell stories in different ways. I love not being judged, just bouncing ideas, being supported by other artists. For the first time I feel like an artist.”

Curtis Horsburgh revealed that he began with a clear idea of the process needed to do his mixed media (3D puppet stop-motion against a 2D background) film. But during the actual crafting, he ran into a snag with the main character’s armature. “Maral suggested I put the stop-motion on the backburner and focus more on the story… I liked getting comments, even if my first reaction was negative. But they all make me think, and that makes the work stronger. Ultimately it’s the audience that “owns” the work.” Curtis concluded with a dual-meaning phrase that summarizes the process: “You have to know how to give and take.” As Curtis experienced, directorial control can also mean letting go of the reins.

One problem confronting animators is the murky concept of “ownership” that is at the core of creative production. In film, the notion of “auteur” pushes against the reality of production division. And whoever legally “owns” a completed animation is not necessarily the person who “conceived it,” or the person who executed it, or the people who “nurtured” it into reality. At its core, being an artist or animator requires mediating between self-identity and being part of a community of practice.

Experimental cognitive research links the idea of “ownership” to self-efficacy (one’s ability to engage in and impact one’s environment), control and security. There are some interesting studies on how people accept or reject someone else’s comments based on whether the criticism is positive or negative, or whether it adds to the original idea or subtracted from it. (Short version: if you feel high on ownership, you’re more likely to accept an additive comment than a subtractive one).

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447539/

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597812000192

But tweaking one’s ownership profile in a lab is one thing. Doing - and studying – it in the real world is something else. Basically, within the short but intense production cycle in the NFB’s Hothouse, everyone had to be prepared to deal with evaluating input from others, deciding whose ideas were going to become absorbed or discarded, and critically evaluate one’s ideas or work regardless of feelings about “ownership.” This was true both for the animators and their support team.

While “collaboration” is often touted as a panacea for industrial malaise, pedagogic mediocrity and creative bottlenecks, it is much more complicated. A business or classroom can’t just scratch off its participatory activities from a checklist. The “rules” of team-based design are mere guidelines that have to get applied and re-interpreted through the production life cycle, the talents and technologies at hand, and the very history of the institution. Any studio claiming to encourage “collaboration” has to nurture the animators and the rest of the team in dealing with contradictions in the frequently nerve-wrecking growth from seed to fruition... like the Hothouse 11 community “gardeners” did.

The films are scheduled for release in the beginning of summer, 2016.

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