Moving in to Animation

Animation is a filmmaking form with endless dimension. Here is a venue that allows a storyteller to weave a tale in any direction that one’s imagination will lead. Animators are storytellers that stretch our imaginations through stories, visuals and sound. The rules in the world of an animated film are defined, if done successfully, by the individual animated film and it exists as a world unto itself. As humans, we have a tendency to grab on to the real world of our own physical and psychological existence and animation can challenge that reality in a very healthy way. Animation allows us to expand our thinking and perception of the world. Yet, there needs to be some “hook” that allows us to easily make the leap into another dimension. That “hook” should be something that we, as viewers, relate to in a very primal way. This connection can come in the form of psychological and physiological identification. Animation is wonderful because it stretches our reality. In the last ten years the world has seen a strong surge in animated films.**

There is so much involved in the art of animation that it is most often a collaborative art form at its highest level. It requires talent in many different areas and those talents create a synergy that is greater than the parts. At the same time, many individuals can work on their own to create an animated film, but this takes a multitalented individual. I believe that good and effective animation artists have had the experience of the solo production so that when they work with others on larger animated productions these individuals are more effective because they understand what the needs and requirements are of their fellow artists. This is the approach that we teach in the School of Film and Animation at RIT.

The first place to start in an animated learning experience is in the area of film language. After all, animators are filmmakers. They communicate through the moving image in narrative and experimental modes. Storytelling is central to this communication. Scriptwriting, cinematography, character and set design, composition, character development, performance, compositing, sound, editing and effects are all common elements of all filmmaking and the animator needs to understand this language. Once this is accomplished then moving into movement analysis can be the next step. What is the language of animation? How do weight, force, momentum, squash and stretch, and emotion work in animated language and what are the variations on these elements of movement? These fundamentals on movement need to be understood before the animator can move forward to the crucial area of pre-production. What is it that you want to say and how do you say it? Clarifying your idea and translating it into visual language along with the use of dialog can be the goal for the “roadmap” of pre-production. Creating a message and a clear and elegant way of visually communicating that message is the purpose of pre-production and this is a pivotal step in the production of storytelling and animation.

Students can often be obsessed about becoming great at one particular area of animation. For example, 3-D animators may want to be specialists in “modeling” or “rigging” or one of a number of different areas in the 3-D computer technique. This is because novice animators want to get work and they search for jobs at large studios that encourage this sort of approach. The larger studios need specialists because they have such large teams and they can afford to break down the various aspects of their process into individual specialized jobs. Those specialists become quite good at their particular skill but often find themselves trapped or “type-cast” in their area of expertise. This can work for some individuals but for others that want to grow and continue to be challenged in their work this specialization can be limiting. It is important to have good specialized skills but not at the expense of limiting your ability and knowledge of the bigger picture. After 5 years of exclusively building models, a creative person may want to try animation or become more involved in pre-production and going down a singular road will limit the ability to transfer and grow in other areas in a studio. This is why it is important to have a well-rounded background in animation.

There can be specialized areas in animation that have plenty of range within them. The field of film and animation has a need for a deeper understanding in the science of visual image making. There are areas in programming, color theory, compression, and a whole slew of subjects in animation and there are careers in these areas that continue to expand because of the rapid growth of technology. The program in the School of Film and Animation has a BS program that covers this area but we still encourage those students to take artistic classes so they can apply the science in a meaningful way to the art form.

Finally, producing films in animation can become the best way to start to refine an individual’s approach or voice. It’s critical to have the language, formulate a roadmap in pre-production and to pursue an animated technique, but without the actual experience of production it all falls fallow. The opportunity to make a film and learn from successes and mistakes is the best approach to entering this field. Like all art-forms animation has some established approaches that have proven to be successful and they should be understood through study but it’s the “hands-on” experience that develops an individual voice and style and ultimately that is what can bring success to a young filmmaker.

It should be understood that the learning does not stop upon completion of an animation degree. In many ways the real learning begins but animation students will be armed with the right tools to adapt readily to this new phase in their career. Often animation students limit their horizon by exclusively thinking about themselves in the entertainment industry. This is a common goal but one that is very competitive. It’s important to remember that we are increasingly a visual communication based society. There are countless opportunities to apply animation skills. For example there is informational visualization for journalism, legal work, educational work, medicine and the list goes on. Often these careers, which utilize the narrative and informational aspects of animation, are more stable careers than entertainment. Students should be open to these opportunities and should seek them out since the entertainment industry is erratic and highly competitive. I encourage all students of animation to pursue their dreams but to be grounded and realistic about their expectations. They also have the opportunity to start something completely new by opening their own businesses and remaining in a local and regional market. This is an age of countless venues from broadcast commercials to the internet and from independent films to feature efforts. The opportunities are vast.

** Opening paragraph from “Imperfection in Animation”, an article written by Tom Gasek for Indian Television’s Animation ‘xpress online publishing, April 26, 2004.