Thursday, February 25, 2016

Animated Thoughts: The Power of Repetition

Cherry blossoms at R.I.T.
Back in 1996 when I was working on my Master of Fine Arts thesis at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I found myself facing some major artistic roadblocks with regards to drawing my characters--mainly because I was not the most experienced artist in the program. Having an undergrad degree in English Writing with a minor in Computer Science, as you'd imagine, my strengths were in story and the background technology for computer animation, not in traditional hand-drawn animation. However, even though I could barely draw stick figures when I entered grad school two years prior, I had made some great artistic gains in the figure drawing and 2d hand drawn animation classes that I had taken in those first two years at R.I.T. and had committed to producing a film that mimicked the C.A.P.S. system that Disney was currently using: at its core, 2d hand drawn animation scanned into the computer then colored and composited digitally. Well, my thesis advisor Jack Slutzky had some simple advice to solve my problem: draw fifty copies of each of my characters in different poses EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. And he was right. At first I struggled mightily and found myself staying up until all hours of the night just to get those one-hundred drawings completed. I'd sit there at my desk and leave late night television playing in the background--unexpectedly, those infomercials spawned my affection for '40's and '50's rock-and-roll that persists to this day. It was incredibly slow going at first, but the more I threw myself into the task, the more I progressed. And, more importantly, the faster I was able to draw those two characters. By the time my storyboards and animatic were approved by my thesis committee, I was ready to sit down and animate my film, shot-by-shot. I graduated on time with a completed thesis film.

Shot from "Zero", my MFA thesis film
In 2011, I was invited to return to R.I.T. by my former professor Stephanie Maxwell to give a presentation on Forensic Animation in both the legal and historical fields of study. The thought of public speaking filled me with dread as most of my time since graduation had been spent behind a computer (except for a short diversion where I took a Dale Carnegie class). And I really didn't want to show up there with a bunch of slides and 'wing it'--those presentations usually sound half-assed to me. So, I wrote my presentation, assembled my slides in PowerPoint, then grabbed a timer to see how long it took me to talk through my entire presentation. That first run was an unmitigated disaster. But, Jack's advice held true, so I mercilessly cut slides from my presentation and talked through it a second time. By the time the presentation was completed and ready for public consumption, I had stood there in front of my laptop and spoke through the entire lecture slide-by-slide over ten times (including one time at my hotel the night before I was to speak at R.I.T.). Since it was a two-hour lecture, that put my preparation time at twenty hours--not including the time it took to compile my research, proof the videos, and write the slides. The time spent in preparation was invaluable as it showed me every place where I needed more information or was at risk for meandering off topic. And the practice helped me keep my voice at an appropriate volume level throughout the presentation. Afterwards, I received two compliments that have stuck with me all this time: one professor said that he had three students who he wished had heard my lecture, and Stephanie said that she completely forgot to attend a scheduled meeting because of how engrossing she found my presentation.

Samantha Inoue-Harte and I at AlmaCon 2016
This past month at AlmaCon, animator and producer Samantha Inoue-Harte presented a lecture titled "Animation 101". Am not sure what the other attendees got from her talk, but the one story she told that resonated with me personally was about the power of repetition. Sami spoke about how, at the time, she was working for Powerhouse Animation Studios in Texas on the short film 'the Origin of Stitch' (from Disney's 'Lilo and Stitch'). When they received the assignment from Disney to animate their short film, she said that the animators got together and laid out copies of the characters that they would be animating. Then, they took tracing paper and traced the characters over and over until their muscle memory had been trained to the point where they could reproduce the characters rapidly and fluidly in different poses and without the initial references.

Isn't it funny how many of those basic lessons become some of the most important tools in our animators toolkit and keep showing up when we need them the most?