We’ve been chatting with Ellen Besen, an accomplished animator and author of the great new book, Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writers, Filmmakers, Video Artist, and Game Developer Should Know.
Last time, we talked about creative principles of animation. Today, we’ll learn the rules of breaking into the industry as a young animator…
ME: LET’S TALK ABOUT BREAKING INTO ANIMATION. IF I WANTED WRITE FOR TV OR FILM, I’D WRITE A SCRIPT. IF I WANTED TO BE A DIRECTOR, I’D DIRECT A SHORT. AS AN ANIMATOR, WHAT PRACTICAL TOOLS DO I NEED TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? JUST SAMPLE DRAWINGS? ANYTHING ELSE?
ELLEN: Certainly, if you want to be an animated script-writer, you come up with sample scripts. Fortunately—even more so in some ways than live action—the festival circuit; if you can put a film together, it’s an open door to enter, regardless of whether you’re a first-timer or have been animating for forty years.
The field is in flux in some ways; there was a fairly long stage before the full advent of the Internet where if you wanted to be in the industry, you had to get into a school. It’s very hard now to get a full-scale industry job. If you want to be a Disney animator [or anything commercial], it’s very hard now without getting into a decent school. The key, of course, is to know a decent school from a fly-by-night school.
Animation is a grunt business in that there is no getting away from having to work very hard. I’m saying this because there are quite a few schools that cater to the person who says, “If I can just get my hands on the equipment, I can fool around, figure it out, and put something together.” The person like that is never going to do well. You have to be willing to take direction. It’s an attitude.
I’ve done workshops that are a mix of actors and animators. [With the] actors you had to coach everything, and be careful… they’re delicate in how they feel about stuff. But with animators, you can be blunt, dump it on the table. It’s never meant personally… it’s about the work. That’s the first thing. You have to have the right attitude, love the field, be willing to work incredibly hard.
It still doesn’t hurt to know how to draw, even if you’re working digitally. In another generation, that may change, but at this point, knowledge of the feeling of pencil on paper, and being able to translate from the real, three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional drawing [is important]. There’s some primary learning that happens in there. The ability to do good quality life drawing… how the body looks, how it functions, not just for structure, but how structure translates into movement… those are all foundational skills people still find helpful and [employers] are still looking for.
So get into life drawing classes… not just drawing from photographs. That’s a different skill altogether because the photograph does the translation for you, which is why it’s so much easier to copy. You have to build up the ability to see the three-dimensional and how it translates onto a piece of paper.
The studying of action [and] learning the nature of good character design are important skills. I see a lot of bad design these days—overly busy.
You have to understand, for example, that when you’re… designing an illustration or a comic book, that frame you’re drawing is the final piece and how you are arranging it on the page is the final thing. That’s why comic book artists can do such wonderful things with their page layouts… in terms of how they ask readers to trace their thoughts around the page and follow the story. In animation, you have very little choice. It WILL be one frame replacing another on the screen; it’s the nature of the medium. So you have to build things for movement. You have to build things for that one frame they’ll see at any given moment. If you can’t make that leap into that understanding, you’ll get very confused when you try to figure what you should be doing in preparation. So the way characters are designed directly affects how they moved.
When they first were doing TV specials with the Peanuts characters… they were initially trying to make them like three-dimensional characters. When their head would turn from right to left, they tried to give it full rotation like a real head, with three-quarter angles… and it looked awful, freakish. The animators realized if you treated the head like a ball, with full three dimensions, you lost the sense of the characters; they changed too much. You couldn’t do a three-quarter angle on a character’s face; it didn’t look like a character anymore. There was something key to the nature of this environment that wouldn’t allow it to go there. So they had treat [the Peanuts’ heads] like coins, so they were flat. They could go from the front view, to the profile, to the front view and the head would flip around… and that actually looked like the characters. That was a design element; they worked better as if they were made of paper… if they were thin, rather than a three-dimensional character. So [you have to have] awareness of designing the character, knowing how they’d have to perform in the story, and knowing what kind of feeling you want.
Do you want realism, a Disney style of classical feeling? Or do you want something that deliberately looks abstract?
Did you ever see The Simpsons
special where they suddenly threw them into the three-dimensional world? It was hilarious. It was one of their early ones from ‘93, ‘94, something like that. A couple guys who had worked on the CG part of it came to the Ottawa Animation Festival a couple years later and showed footage; they said it was really, really hard to make Homer three-dimensional. The characters didn’t translate that easily. He’s a crazy looking character anyway, but in three dimensions he was hideous.
Well, those are design problems you must anticipate in how you design the character. Learning to have that awareness is critical. Everything affects your final outcome, down to that final detail.
Animators tend to be extreme detail people with that kind of analysis. It’s a great place for disassociated people. You’re an actor who has to be able to act something spontaneously, then step back into someone who watches the action, then break it down into it’s tiniest component parts and anticipate all the problems. Then the artist kicks in to take that analysis and recreate it as drawings of what might not even be a human; your character [might be] an animal or a chair. So you have to translate the performance onto this other object! Great animators have three or four skills going on—it’s amazing to me.
I ALWAYS TELL PEOPLE THAT THE BEST WAY TO BEGIN A CAREER IN ENTERTAINMENT—AND YOU TOUCHED ON THIS– IS TO START AT THE BOTTOM AND WORK YOUR WAY UP. HOW DO YOU DO THAT IN ANIMATION? HOW DO YOU TAKE THE FIRST STEPS IN AN ANIMATION CAREER?
You can come up through the production line, which is where most people are going to get work. It’s hard work, but if you love it, you love it… and it’s more stable than it used to be. It can be up and down, but the advent of specialty stations has been wonderful for animation.
The other way you go is totally as an individual, independent filmmaker with their own style. As long as you can make the thing move, there are a million ways to make the stuff work. There’s no limit on how many designs, as long as you come up with something that integrates properly. The nature of [“Animation Unleashed” is that the principles can be applied to any style of animation, it doesn’t matter what technique you’re using. If you can get a coherent piece together, make a film. Animation, especially with digital stuff, is so cheap now. You can get an application and do the whole thing from beginning to end, and if it’s good enough, if it looks good on the screen, put it on the Internet or send it to a festival. You can break in that way as well… and go to a commercial career.
The main thing is: get into a school, get your portfolio, and gather those commercial skills. [Or] if you feel you don’t fit—if you don’t like to follow those rules, if you hate being a team player, if you hate hearing blunt instruction on how to do things—then it’s not the field for you.
[Or if you have a genuinely] quirky drawing style, point of view… make a film. If you need to take courses to understand how to make a film, do that. If you can throw it together out of your own abilities, do that, too. But make a statement and get it out there.
Either of those routes, depending on your talents, can get you into the field these days.
IN THE WORLD OF TELEVISION, THERE’S A VERY SPECIFIC, STEP-BY-STEP PROCESS TO BECOMING A WRITER. YOU BEGIN AS A P.A., MAKING COPIES… THEN YOU BECOME THE P.A. FOR A WRITING STAFF… THEN A WRITER’S ASSISTANT… THEN, HOPEFULLY, AN ACTUAL WRITER ON THE STAFF.
HOW DOES THAT PATH WORK IN ANIMATION? IMAGINE I’VE JUST GRADUATED FROM ANIMATION SCHOOL AND STEPPED INTO THE REAL WORLD. WHAT’S MY FIRST JOB… AND THE NEXT STEPS AFTER THAT?
Basically, we’re talking about the person who wants to go into commercial production, probably at a studio, big or small. The first thing: you’ve got a great portfolio. You’ve used your time in school to get a great reel. You can show you can animate. You have a great portfolio that shows a variety of other skills you can do.
There are two different [pieces of knowledge] that are useful to have. One is where your initial skills are, an awareness of where they fit with the industry; and the other is where you WANT to be. Sometimes those things are quite different.
In the old days it was easy. You could go in and be a cell painter. Many people started as cell painters and got the animators to look over their shoulders. [Then, they would take] home a few drawings, become the animators’ assistant, et cetera. It’s tougher these days.
One thing people have to realize is—for better or worse—quite a lot of animation is done overseas.
More has come home with digital stuff, which has been good… but… there was a long period—certainly through the 80’s and much of the 90’s (pre-digital)—where what was happening with a lot of TV work and feature work [was they] would do all the pre-production here, but actual animating, coloring, shooting, even final background work was done in places like Korea, India, China. There are actually giant factory-like studios in the Far East and various countries where they churn this stuff out. [They] can do a three-week turnaround on a half-hour film, which is otherwise unthinkable. That’s allowed certain things to happen, but for many years it meant you couldn’t really animate here; you’d do pre- or post-production, but you couldn’t actually do production. Digital has shifted that and a lot of people are getting to animate again, which is a good thing, but… it may go overseas again.
So if you’re a CG animator here, you can actually be animating. But a lot of the work is pre-production, so the kinds of jobs that are possible are: you could start as an assistant animator, which means you’re working down the line, maybe directly with an animator. It might be with more of a breakdown team, depending on the level of animation you’re doing. You could be working as a colorist. You could be in the layout department, helping to design elements, or doing cleanup of someone else’s designs. You could be in production, working with whoever is managing the whole project, filing, keeping track of numbers. Or you are working in a smaller studio, assisting with flash animation.
[Also very important:] storyboarding. Storyboarding is an art and there’s always a shortage of people who can do it. If you’re a person who can lay down ideas… storyboard in animation is much more structured than in live action. It is literally the whole structure of the film; it’s every shot, every action in that shot, any indication to what the key sounds will be, editing decisions, camera moves. In real, full-scale animation storyboards, everything is indicated, everything is pre-planned. They may make changes as they go along, but this is a starting point. You look for a very tight shooting ratio at the other end, so basically you’ve pre-edited the film to a large extent. And people who can churn out small accurate drawings, getting the camera angle right, are very valuable.