Search form

How To Succeed in Animation

Chapter 5: The Great Footage Fallacy

Here is something that few animators seem to think about, but which has bugged me for years: Are we animating foot-long strips of film, or are we animating increments of time? If we are all into globalization, let’s work to a global standard. I would like to foment an animation revolution in the dimension of time!

Footage. We were all weaned on it. Every American filmmaker, certainly every American animator, was trained to think in terms of feet of film. How many feet of film an animator can turn out per week was often his measure of productivity and measure of pay.*

When I first arrived in Prague, with the initial purpose of developing co-production with my New York studio, I ran into an immediate snag. Czech animators measure their output in meters! One meter of film equals 3.2808 feet. But what the hell does that really mean? I saw the threat of endless complications and calculations in the process of co-production. I began to realize that the whole idea of measuring animation in terms of the length of a strip of film was meaningless and madness, and I wondered why we in America had never realized this before?

Look. Movie film goes through a theater projector at the rate of 24 frames per second. So how many frames of film are there in a foot? 16! 16 frames equals two-thirds of a second! No one watching a movie is at all aware of feet of film whizzing by. If one is interested in the length of a movie, or the length of a scene, and wants to measure it, they will use a stopwatch. They will measure, minutes, seconds, and increments thereof. As I constantly point out in lecturing about filmmaking, we have a medium that exists in the dimension of time. Footage is especially nonsense in digital computer animation, where there is no such thing as a reel of film or even spool of tape. There is not a physical length of anything! The only length is time. Nearly everyone these days has a video player at home. Once it was a VHS tape player, and later, a DVD player. Did anyone know how many feet of the tape inside the VHS cassette, or how long was the spiral groove on a DVD, or how long a segment of either was needed to record one minute of action? How many are aware that the tape in the same VHS cassette spooled out 30% faster when recorded in the American NTSC system, than in the European PAL system? But who cared? The important thing is that the action produced on the TV screen played at the exact same speed, and that is what counted!  As I write this, neither tape nor disc is dominant. Movies are down-loaded onto the computer’s memory, and what matters is the length of time needed to play them!

Time in Your Hands

In most of the world outside of North America measure of film lengths are not in feet but in meters. But what is it that every filmmaker on the entire planet has in common? Seconds, minutes, and hours! - TIME! Movies exists in the dimension of time.

So I had printed up a new type of animation exposure sheets. The traditional exposure sheets have horizontal ruled lines down their length, each line representing a frame of film. The numbered animation drawings for the various levels are entered on the lines representing the frames of film they are to be photographed upon. Every 16th line, representing a foot-length of film, is usually a heavy line. This is an arbitrary measurement, as it actually represents just two-thirds of a second. We certainly don't measure our work in two-third seconds. Of course not. We measure our scenes in whole seconds, and increments thereof.

So my new, GDA, inc. exposure sheets had every twenty-fourth line be a heavy line; a heavy line for every second of running time!  Thus, my New York studio and the Prague studio could work in synchronization, with no need for elaborate calculations. It only took a short while for each side to adjust to this, because it was entirely logical. I never attempted to patent my seconds-measured exposure sheets. I'm sure that the original, footage-type exposure sheets design are in the public domain. They were most likely developed at the Disney studio in the thirties, and spread throughout the industry. But of course in those days international co-production didn't exist, and so no one ever questioned the logic of the system. I suppose that my idea of 1960 must have surely occurred to everyone else by this time. My type of exposure sheets were in use here, but I actually haven't seen second-oriented sheets anywhere else. I must admit that in the ensuing 40 years, the subject never came up in any of my discussions with fellow-American animators... but if they have come around to the idea on their own, I propose an "anti-footage" crusade as of now!  Who will "second" the motion?

Here illustrated are the two types of exposure sheets, side by side.

The traditional, "footage" type sheet accommodated three and one-third seconds of running time. In order to get four complete seconds onto one page of my new sheets, I had to have them printed on somewhat longer sheets of paper, but that was never a problem.

One of the arguments, I suppose, for the footage-type sheets was that 8 and 16-frame increments they were marked with were convenient musical beats or tempos. In traditional animation, it was common to animate to one of those arbitrary beats, and then force the composer of the music to strictly follow the mechanically precise tempo. They often made a "click-track," so the orchestra conductor could hear the tempo in his earphones and hold the orchestra tightly to it. To my mind, this "mechanized" the music, and disallowed any flexibility. I much preferred to allow the composer to work freely, and have the animators follow the music.

When our music was recorded and copied onto a 35mm worktrack, we would simply let the track run at normal speed, and then tap the tempo directly onto the soundtrack with a grease pencil, tapping as close to the moviola's sound head as possible. If I did this two or three times, I could be sure I had the beats on the proper frames of film. Then the sound editor moved the film slowly through a frame counter, and noted the exact frame numbers of each mark. When this information was written onto the exposure sheets, the animator knew exactly how to move his characters to the beats. In this way, the rhythm was natural, and so was the animation! As I progressed in my work, I recorded more and more of the soundtrack in advance of animation, ultimately giving the animators the entire mixed track in advance, so that they would be aware of the entire atmosphere of the soundtrack. Dialog, of course, was nearly always recorded in advance, as a guide to lip-sync, but I felt that also the background music, and the sound effects were also important for the animator to feel.

Along with my emphasis that animation exists in the dimension of time, I wanted it to follow the entire soundtrack, which obviously exists in the time dimension. But trying to create an entire mixed soundtrack in advance of animation was hazardous, and required a great deal of discipline and ability to imagine all of the action and effects, at a stage of production when the film only existed in the director's head! For me, the answer to the problem was the stopwatch. I would act out the film in my head, and with a certain amount of pantomiming, timing each fragment of the action over and over, breaking it down and noting the timing of each fragment. This was noted first on our Bar Sheets, which are analogous to an orchestra conductor’s score, showing all of the elements together - in our case, action, dialog, music cues, and sound effects.

By working in this way, constructing the entire soundtrack in advance of animation, I was assured that my film would truly work in the time dimension, and I never gave the slightest thought to "footage."

Partial page of "footage" type exposure sheet. Note that the heavy lines are every 8 and 16 frame lines. 16 frames = 1 foot of film, or 2/3 second of running time.

Partial page of "Seconds" type exposure sheet. Note that the heavy lines are every 24th frame-line. (1 second of time.)

A few years ago I was invited by the film institute of the southern Czech town of České Budějovice ("Budweis"), home of the true original and infinitely superior Budweiser Beer), to do a talk, and to show an evening of my films. They did a good job of promoting it, and had posters all over town, but only a few diehard fans showed up. My spirits were buoyed when an excited young fellow rushed up to me and pleaded for my autograph, telling me how much he liked my films, etc. Flattered, I expressed my wish that he would enjoy my presentation. "Oh, I can't stay," he said, breathlessly, "Tonight is a big hockey game!"

The blindest and most dedicated fans of all were those local Film Institute freaks who were totally oblivious to hockey, and had booked me on the one night when no one would be likely to be diverted from hockey, to “waste the evening” on me! As I have pointed out in this book: timing is everything! 

A philosophical note: In this digital age, we are up against a Creator of The Cosmos who perhaps doesn't have ten fingers and toes. He/She/It made our solar system impossible to digitalize. Working backwards from the fact that our planet circles the sun in approximately 365 days, and that the days are approximately 24 hours long, and there are 7 of them in a week, and we need a clumsy poem to remind us of how many days there are in each month, and 12 of those in a year, with hours at 60 minutes and minutes at 60 seconds... well, just try dividing any of those numbers by 10! We can only get digitalized at the decade and century level. And in this new century, everything is digitalized!

Time Flies

* Whatever I may think as being logical, readers of this chapter when my book was first posted, immediately blasted me for only briefly acknowledging (in my second paragraph) what was most important to animators: THEIR PAY!

As a director, I was paid by the film, but our animators were paid per scene.

Obviously, some scenes were more difficult than others.  Zdenka and I had the responsibility of pay-grading each scene in advance, on a scale of 1 to 5.

We reviewed the grading when the scene was finished, when we could determine its final level of difficulty.  So our animators were not paid by the foot or the meter, but by the scene. This could never be done with perfect accuracy. We tried to give each animator a chance to even out during the course of the production.  We were not assembling machines or sewing shirts. In creative work, there are no indisputable measurements of difficulty or results. It’s inevitably debatable. So another method we used was to award bonuses at the end of production for exceptional work.  There were arguments, of course, but it was open discussion.  We never had a strike, or call for revolution.

Footage, metrage, minutes or seconds, each animator wanted a fair share of the animation pie!  LOL with this problem!

© 2001-2015 AWN, Inc.