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October 4, 2018

Check Your Ego

by Chris

Feedback, in my opinion, is one of the most crucial components of success in animation. The desire to seek, accept, and implement feedback is directly proportional to how well you will do in the long run. There can be a lot of emotional resistance to showing peers and supervisors unfinished work. Our identity and self worth tend to get wrapped up in our art. This is perfectly natural, but has to be out in check so that we can be open to outside opinions and direction.

Here’s an image I’d like to shatter right now: none of us are perfect. None of us can do it all on our own. The worst thing you can do is get the idea that your taste is flawless and no one else can offer anything useful. Animation always benefits from second opinions, even if it’s just to reinforce what you’re already doing. If you refuse to ask the person next to you for their critique because you think they don’t know as much as you, that’s your ego talking. And if you refuse to ask because you don’t want to put the effort in to make changes, that’s your ego making you weak.

When I was a student I was very resistant to critique. I think this comes from my experience in college, where I felt like I knew more than most others around me. I still didn’t know shit, so that was an unhealthy attitude to begin with. I rarely got useful feedback from my teacher, so I began to close off and stop accepting it. This carried into my classes at iAnimate, made worse by the fact that I was doing it remotely without anyone physically around me. I was in a self-imposed bubble, though I was consciously unaware of it at the time. Ironically, the main benefit from going to school and having a good mentor is the critique, but I wasn’t getting the full benefit because my ego always had its guard up.

It was only when I interned at Pixar that I got humbled. Hard. I’ll never forget the first time that we showed our work to the entire department in one of the animation common areas. It turns out that showing your blocking in a room full of the most talented people you’ve ever met is a good way to find out how little you know. As terrifying as that was, it inoculated me to every being scared to show my work again, which has been invaluable. Sure, I still get nervous to show things that aren’t “ready,” and it doesn’t feel great to hear that my idea was wrong. But that doesn’t stop me from willingly opening myself up to it. I’ve seen the benefits time and again, and learned to love the process of collaboration.

I’ve talked about the invisible resume, and it certainly applies here. If you’re known as someone who resists help and gets defensive in dailies, that reflects poorly on you. Animation production is a team effort, and it takes the whole team to make something great. We need to support our teammates, and accept their support in return. Over time it becomes obvious when someone has closed off from the opinions of others, because their work tends to suffer in the same areas over and over. If someone’s getting the same notes in their last shot on a show as they did on their first shot, that means that they didn’t listen and absorb the feedback. This hinders their ability to be a useful member of the crew, and is noticed by peers and supervisors.

If you don’t already, start actively seeking feedback any way you can. Good resources include teachers, classmates, your partner, and even random people that happen to be in the building. If you ask them the right questions, you’d be surprised at the insight that a “non-animator” can have. My wife has a surprisingly good eye for things I tend to get blind to, so I always show her my personal work. Your parents and Facebook don’t count, because the response will always be “looks great!” We’re trying to keep the ego under control, not to feed it.

Don’t provide 20 caveats before showing, because you want honest first impressions. You can give a quick summary of what state the shot is in, but don’t tell them exactly what to look at. Even if they give you a note that is already on your list or that you can’t have reasonably gotten to yet, it’s still a note that you’ll have to remember to hit later. It might feel like they’re just pointing out all of your failings, but everyone who does this recognizes in progress work for what it is. They’re trying to help you get it where it needs to be, not degrade you, so don’t take it personally. Participate in the process and make it a collaboration. Ask questions, discuss solutions, and remember to thank them.

If there’s one thing that I teach anyone with this blog, I hope this is the one that sticks. It will come into play every day for the rest of your career, and it will make you a far better animator than you ever could be on your own. I’ll be going to dailies today and using these same lessons myself. And if I ever get to work with you, I’ll expect the same.


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