Skip to content

Posts by Chris

25
Mar

Keep It At Home: Balancing Professionalism and Pain

I started this site to share the experiences I’ve had throughout my life and how they’ve applied to my animation career. The past 15 years or so since I decided to pursue this art form have been eventful, to say the least. Many experiences have been good, and some bad. They have all have added up to the person I am today, so I truly wouldn’t change a thing. I’m a firm believer that if you live honestly and do your best, then the best possible long-term outcome will occur. You could obviously point out examples to the contrary, but as a general life rule I think it holds up.

It’s been a while since my last post, and that’s because I’ve been dealing with a brand new life experience, and one that I never saw coming. My marriage ended.

This is not a comfortable thing to reveal publicly, and to anyone who knows me that is hearing this for the first time, I apologize.  The past few months have been incredibly hard, and honestly I don’t want to repeat it any more than I have to. My family has been unbelievably supportive, and I decided to keep it between us until I was on the other side of it. Thankfully, I’ve been able to keep my spirits high and remain physically and mentally healthy. Not everyone who goes through this is as fortunate, so all things considered, I’m doing alright.

One of the main themes on this site is that everyone, no matter how successful, is human. Some students might look at me and only see the high points. Sure, I spent some time at Pixar, did a lot of cool stuff at Telltale, and am blessed with the best job I could ask for at Blizzard. But I also come home to an empty house. My closest friend for the past 13 years decided to leave, and now it’s just me. I still love every day when I’m active and working, but the silence is waiting for me when I walk in my front door. I don’t get to avoid that just because it says “Animator” on my business card. We all suffer from time to time, and you should never think that you’re alone in that.

With that out of the way, I want to explore how to handle personal turmoil while remaining a functioning professional. This really is an exploration, because I don’t have all the answers. I feel like I’m past the worst of it, but it’s going to take time to heal and I’m sure I’ll still have bad days. Being realistic about that is important to avoid beating myself up over moments of weakness, and to not expect myself to bounce back without missing a beat. My guiding principle right now is to be kind to myself. Extra self-imposed pressure on remaining active on this website, doing personal work, or taking on new responsibilities was only going to make things harder, so I gave myself some slack. If you’re going through something difficult right now, that’s the best advice I can give. Be kind to yourself. It’s okay, and the people who care will understand.

I made a commitment early on to keep this out of the studio. No matter how I was feeling, I knew that my job was the one thing I could count on, and it had to be protected. I also teach a beginner animation class for my alma mater, and those students count on me to show up and deliver. Trust me, there were many days where it would have been easy to shirk my responsibilities and call in sick. Or I could go in anyway and bring all of my confusion and anger with me. What would that accomplish, other than to endanger my career and reputation?

Some days I have to stop before I walk in the door and remind myself to leave my problems outside. It’s not always easy to switch gears and play the part of productive team member when there’s a storm of emotions raging just under the surface. Luckily, those coworkers who I’ve told about all this had no idea that anything was wrong, and that was good to hear. For my personality, the last thing I wanted was sympathy or pity. I needed as much of my life as possible to be normal. Work was my sanctuary, and the one place I could go to feel like I was okay again. I understand that some people might not be able to handle it this way, and that’s fine. I can only speak to my experience and what’s helped me. If you have coworkers who you can talk to and need their support, then more power to you. If you need to talk to a psychologist, like I did a few times, please do. It’s not weakness to ask for help. It can get problematic, though, if it starts to interfere with your work and the work of those around you. At the risk of sounding callous, you still have to do your job. The same goes for your studies if you’re a student. Life may feel like it’s falling apart around you, but it will only be worse if you let the good things fall apart, too. I couldn’t control what was happening at home, but I seized tight to the things I could.

I’m extremely lucky to have the most understanding supervisors imaginable, and I felt comfortable confiding in them early on. I figured in case I failed to keep it under control, they should know why. Like I said, there was (and still is) always the possibility that I’ll have a bad day. Not every studio or job has such a supportive culture, but it’s been invaluable to me to have that comfort. I really can’t thank them enough.

Anyone reading this will no doubt have some kind of tragedy in their life. Nobody gets to avoid it, and that’s just the way it is. Loss, sickness, betrayal, and death are just some of the awful things that are part of being human. The thing that I have to keep reminding myself of, though, is that they are also great opportunities. They are opportunities to test how well we can overcome adversity and push ahead. For now I’m keeping myself busy and taking each day one at a time, and taking stock of all the positive things I still have to be thankful for.

It doesn’t exactly feel like a “Rocky” movie montage while you’re in the thick of it, but if you live with the right mindset, you’ll be able to cut together a pretty epic one in the end. The trick is, you have to decide what its message will be! Will it show the fall of your story’s hero, or their rise back to the top? Imagine today as a clip in that montage. Try to make it a positive one.

Take care of yourselves, and thanks for reading.

23
Jan

What We Do Matters!

Life is hard. Sadness, pain, and grief are inescapable facts of life for every single one of us. Getting out from under these emotions and the circumstances that cause them can seem almost impossible, and there is usually another calamity just around the corner.

“Hey, I thought this blog was about animation!”

Stay with me.

When the real world gets to be too much, one of the places we can turn to is art. Art has a way of touching us in a place that can compete, at least momentarily, with the worst emotions we face. This is why we turn to art that fits our particular mood. If we’re feeling heartbroken, we may search for upbeat songs that mask the pain, or sad ones that help us face it. If we’re doing something physically challenging, we might turn on something uplifting and energetic to power us through. The same can be true of painting, books, theater, film, etc.

Animation shares this power. Through the entertainment we put on screen, we can add some glimmer of light and levity to someone’s otherwise dreadful day. For the brief time that we can arrest them with our work, they can feel less suffering. For a couple of hours, a few minutes, or even just handful of seconds, all that other shit can take a rest. It’s difficult to feel afraid or sad while smiling, and the weight of the world’s problems can be lifted when one is in the grips of a good story. This is why animation matters to me. This is my way of making the world a slightly better place to live in, and I take it very seriously.

Just like anyone else, I don’t always want to work. Animation is damn hard and I go through a fair amount of discomfort to do it. But because I know why my work matters to me, I will always put in 100%. I haven’t gotten this far by just wanting to make cool stuff. That just isn’t a good enough reason to go through everything it takes to become a professional. Unless your reasons are more meaningful than that, you will find that your motivation eventually disappears. So I challenge you to do some soul searching and come up with the deepest “why” that drives you, and let that carry you forward.

When you’re having a bad day, or the shot you’re working on isn’t very interesting, please remember that what you’re doing matters. The world needs artists and storytellers to make the hard times bearable. We all need to remember that someday, someone we’ll never meet just might see what we’ve made and feel a little bit better. They might lift their mood enough to make a positive decision that day. They might learn a lesson or feel an emotion that makes a real impact in their life. They might even decide that they want to pay if forward by telling their own stories and putting their own art into the world. Think about it. What made you want to become an artist in the first place? You likely became inspired by those who came before you, and wanted to do that. Well, now you have the power to do that for someone else. Use it wisely, and make something great today.

9
Dec

Imposter Syndrome

Most artists know about a thing called “imposter syndrome.” It’s a little voice in your head that suggests in no uncertain terms that you’re a failure, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else knows it (and is possibly embodied by @A_Graph_Editor on Twitter). The more pressure you’re under, whether it’s to find a job or to perform well in one, the louder that voice gets. Like a spiritual possession, sometimes that voice comes out of our own mouths as feigned humility, thinly concealing deeper self-loathing. I think humility is a positive trait, but it’s very easy to cross the line into a destructive attitude towards yourself and your work.

This starts to get at the mission of this website: To normalize the playing field and show that everyone, no matter how experienced or inexperienced, is in the same struggle together. Art is subjective in nature, and its limits my never be achieved. There is always a new level to reach, and there is always someone who gets there first. It’s your choice if you decide to let that excite and inspire you, or to let it overwhelm you. It’s a matter of perspective which I think can be learned and changed.

“It always came to that point of, well, [I’ll] get fired. They realize that ‘Glen’s always been faking it all along anyway.’ Basically I know that’s true for me. ‘He’s been faking it all along anyway, and here it is and he’s really screwed up. We’ve given him this big responsibility and it’s not going to get done, and [he’s] gonna have to get fired.'” – Glen Keane

I’ve heard it said that it is possible to be “happy,” but not “satisfied” with where you are, and I think that’s a good way to look at it. This requires a type of perspective and self-awareness that doesn’t always come naturally. What it means is that you can enjoy the work that you’re doing, knowing that it is the best you are capable of right now. All of the effort you’ve put in up to this point has gotten you here, and it’s exactly where you should be. At the same time, you can look at the long game and be motivated to improve. This healthy, productive dissatisfaction is what drives human beings to evolve and grow! If you have put maximum effort into your work, it’s okay to be happy with how it turned out, but not satisfied that it’s the best you’ll ever do.

I’m guilty of occasionally slipping a toe over the line between humility and abasement. My family and coworkers do a lot to help pull be back over, and I’m always grateful for it. Our self-worth is so tied to the art we create that it’s very hard to detach them from each other. Bashing yourself with negative talk can strangely feel good in the moment, and I think that’s because it takes away the responsibility to get better. If I say that I’m no good and never will be, then all of a sudden I don’t feel the pressure to be good. I’ve already admitted that it won’t get better, so that’s that. For me, it’s self-indulgence. It’s like a warm bed that entices me to stay in and not face the day. Motivation is like the alarm clock that yells at me to get up and move. Boy, does it feel good to hit that snooze button.

I don’t think my imposter syndrome will ever go away. That voice will always be there, and I just have to deal with it. Knowing the difference between happiness and satisfaction has been the best way I’ve found to keep it at bay, and I hope that it gives you some comfort as well. You’re as good as you are now, and that’s okay. You’re not as good as you’ll be next year, and that’s what you want. When feelings of doubt creep in, step back and take a look from this new perspective. Realize that those feelings are natural and don’t necessarily go away at will; it takes time to pull yourself out. Go ahead and get into that warm bed, but don’t hit the snooze tomorrow.

2
Dec

New Demo Video Available!

Oh, man that was a lot of work!

I’m excited to announce that my first full-length animation demo is available today on CGCircuit.com. With over 5 hours of content, I show my entire process, from how I use reference, to blocking out my shots, and all the way through to polish.

There are a ton of workflow demos out there, but I’ve never seen one that demonstrates how to take feedback and actually implement it, so that’s why I wanted to make my own. In production, nailing a shot on the first try is about as common as a hole-in-one on the PGA Tour, but many demos and progression reels give the impression that it’s that simple. So I decided to solicit feedback from my coworkers as I went along, giving them free reign to make changes, just like a real director! I hope the result gives you some insight into how to handle notes, while keeping a positive, collaborative attitude.

If you decide to give it a look, thank you! In the spirit of this demo, I’m always open to feedback so that I can make future content the best it can be.

I hope you like it!

9
Nov

CTN For The Introvert

CTN is an exciting event for students, artists and professionals. Students get to mingle with the industry and make connections, artists get exposure and sell their art, and professionals share what they’ve learned and even recruit talent. There’s a lot of opportunity to be taken advantage of if you’re prepared and handle yourself correctly. There are also the chance to make negative first impressions and fade into the sea of hopefuls filling the convention. I remember my first time and how overwhelming it is, and want to help guide you through how to present yourself in a way that will make it a positive experience for you and those you meet. If you’re a confident, self-assured person who can command attention in a room, I’m sorry but today’s article isn’t for you. This is for everyone else who, like me, struggles in high-pressure social situations. You’re not alone.

I went to my first CTN in 2013. It was right after my internship at Pixar, and I really, really needed a job. I walked in hoping that the second a studio saw the Woody and Sully characters on my reel, I’d have a job offer and things would be back on track for me. But this expectation only added to the pressure, and I started to fall into the trap that I most want to warn you against here. The LAST thing you should do is shove your tablet at someone for their opinion along with a business card and resume. Literally, this should come last in the interaction. I look back and realize that this is exactly what I was doing, because I just wanted them to see those characters and that line on my resume that would surely grab their attention. What I didn’t do, though, was introduce myself properly as a person, or treat them like they were one too. I naively thought that what mattered was the video I was peddling, instead of me.

When I’m nervous, I tend to close off and get very quiet. This can give the wrong impression real quick. Now that I’m a bit older, I can recognize it when it happens and compensate somewhat, but it’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t help that I suffer from a condition commonly called “resting bitch face” which when combined with a bald head, goatee, and strong build, can make me look less than approachable. Internally I’m just a kid that’s trying to do good and be nice to people, but I have to be very conscious of the vibe that I give off. I’m not being self-deprecating, just observant and realistic about how I come off in initial impressions. This awareness reminds me to smile, have an upbeat tone of voice, and make eye contact. Anyone who really knows me probably knows exactly what I’m talking about.

I think it would help anyone going to a networking event to take a step outside themselves and do an honest assessment like this. This is not to beat yourself up, but to identify your weaknesses and focus on your strengths. Say it’s finally your turn in line to talk to an animator that you admire and you’re shaking. I’ve been there. Holy shit have I been there! You think that you’re meeting a deity that knows it all, and is going to see right through you immediately. Please try to remember that imposter syndrome holds a place in all our hearts, and chances are this person doesn’t think of themselves as being “above” you at all. And also remember that this is what they’re there for, and they were once in your shoes! You likely have common experiences, believe it or not. Greet them with a smile and a handshake, and just say hello. Start with a personal connection before you ask them for anything! They want to know you. They want to know what you’re passionate about. They want to help you. What they don’t want is for you to be shivering while you talk to them, afraid that they won’t like you. If you find this happening to you, just confide in them that you’re nervous and having a hard time with this. I’d bet real money that they will immediately drop their guard and do their best to make you comfortable. This is far better than to fight it and tighten up, becoming silent and awkward. Trust me, this can mistakenly come off as arrogance, and at that point no demo reel is going to help the situation.

Overcoming shyness is extremely hard, because it’s closely tied to who you are. Being an introvert, I’m happiest alone or hanging out with my wife because of the level of comfort and trust we have with each other. Anything beyond that can take real effort to get through, and I have a finite amount of crowd tolerance that I have to deliberately manage. Socializing can be really fun in small amounts, but leaves me exhausted. I’m not getting at any real lesson here, just reduntantly stressing that it’s not just you.

When you do hand your tablet, laptop, or phone to them, don’t look to be lavished with praise. Hopefully they are kind and constructive, but what you’re really there for is honest feedback. My reel isn’t perfect, and neither is yours. There is always something to improve, and this is your chance to hear what it is. Take both their praise and criticism humbly and with a smile. Even if they’re tearing it to shreds and recommending that you scrap your 3-character, 5000-frame masterpiece and go back to bouncing balls, you should be thankful for their honesty. And if they tell you that your work is wonderful and they have no notes for you, don’t let them off that easy. Ask specific questions about things that you want to improve, and show them that you really want to get better. Showing that you can handle feedback enthusiastically is incredibly important demonstrate that you can work as part of a team. Even if your work isn’t ready yet, they’ll at least see that you have the desire and potential to get there one day.

Just as difficult as starting a conversation is ending it. You want to take advantage of your time with professionals, but not overstay your welcome. There are a lot of people in line, and we’ve all been in a conversation that’s gone on too long and gets awkward. If you feel like you’ve made a good connection with them personally, exchanged some pleasantries, and gratefully taken their feedback, you should thank them for their time and end it with another smile and handshake. Just like demo reels, short and sweet is better than drawn out and uncomfortable. Once you’ve left your best first impression, get out. If your reel is good and they had an enjoyable few minutes with you, that’s the best you can reasonably hope for. Don’t ask an animator for a job, because that’s not their call. You can follow up with a recruiter if one is present, because answering questions about jobs and how to stay in touch is why they’re there.

My best experience at CTN was in 2016, when I went there for fun and not to find a job. I was working at Telltale, so the extra burden of job hunting wasn’t weighing me down. I still submitted my reel to the recruiting thing, almost for fun. Feedback is always good to get, so why not give it a shot? To my surprise, a couple studios wanted to talk with me, including Blizzard. While I definitely felt some nerves talking to them, I was able to come into it infinitely more calm and relaxed, and the interview went so much better than any I had in the past, and resulted in a job offer later in the month. I remember being in the waiting room and seeing the other applicants sweat it out, and I felt grateful that I did not have the same pressure and empathized with what they were feeling. Now, this is great if you already have a job, I know. But if you can detach yourself a little bit and focus on relaxing and enjoying the experience, you’ll do better. I think that a friendly, casual confidence is the key to a good interview, even if you have to fake it and then have a breakdown once you leave the room. Speaking from experience there, too.

At the time of this writing, CTN is in one week. I hope that I get to meet you there, and that this post at least helps you feel comfortable chatting with me. I don’t go there for any benefit of my own, other than that I love meeting students and offering whatever advice I can. I’ve heard it referred to as “sending the elevator back down,” which I think is the responsibility of anyone who’s reached where they are thanks to the support of others. Many great people have helped me along the way, and my goal is to pay that forward every chance I get. So head over to the About page to see what I look like, and PLEASE stop me if you see me. That’s literally what I’m there for, so if I don’t get to talk to anyone it will be a wasted trip. Safe travels to everyone coming out, and I hope you have a great time!

-Chris

5
Nov

Consistency

One of my coworkers recently told me a story that really resonated with me. His family owned a beach house that they would visit a few times a year (must be nice, I know). For years there had never been any issues whenever they came to stay. Since no one had been there, there was never any reason to expect anything out of the ordinary. One time, though, they forgot to turn off the water main, and one of the faucets upstairs was accidentally left on a very slow drip. This happens all the time, and is usually harmless to anything but your utility bill. Months later, though, they returned to find the entire second floor sagging down and standing water everywhere. The house looked like it had been through a hurricane! Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of damage, caused by a drop of water every few seconds.

This is the power of consistency.

When I look back on my path to becoming an animator, this is the thing that has been the most responsible for everything good that’s happened. I don’t have an abundance of natural talent, but I kept my head in the game more days than I didn’t, and slowly those drips turned into a flood. It really is that simple. Not every day was a win, and breakthroughs didn’t come often. But I kept showing up.

The life you have is a result of the decisions you make and the habits you keep. I’m always trying to identify my own and weed out the ones that don’t serve me. I pay attention to successful people and try to adopt the habits that will fit into my own day-to-day. The more good habits I have, the more consistently I can have a day that pushes me forward instead of holding me back. They don’t have to be big things. For example, I start my day early before the sun comes up. I take a cold shower to wake me up and get my daily hygiene out of the way. I have oatmeal in the pressure cooker on a timer and ready to go for breakfast. My clothes have already been laid out the night before, and the food I’ll take to work is prepped and packaged. Starting every day this way frees up so much time and takes all the guesswork out of my morning. Then I can focus on writing, teaching, or whatever I need to get done before work. Then I’ll go to the gym, and finally head to the studio by 9:30. Whatever life wants to throw at me after that, I’m ready for it because I’ve already won the morning. These routines will change as my life evolves, but I’ll always make it a point to control the start of my day as much as I can because I’ve seen the benefits.

You can apply good habits to your animation practice, too. Just imagine what would happen if every morning you performed a one-hour, throwaway animation test. Every morning. One hour. That’s seven tests in a week. Thirty tests in a month. If you did thirty pendulum swings by this time next month, I bet you won’t be intimidated by quadruped tails anymore, would you? That skill would be with you forever, improving how you think about momentum, speed, spacing, overlap, and everything else that’s involved. Do that for bouncing balls, arm swings, foot rolls, facial transitions, and weight shifts, just to name a few. JUST IMAGINE how far you could come in a year with just one hour every morning! Or you could to two or three massive “dialog tests” a year like I used to. With the benefit of hindsight, I know which one I’d pick.

Habits don’t depend on motivation. They become second-nature, done as a matter of course. You brush your teeth every day, not out of an ever-present fear of gum disease, but because that’s just a thing you do because you should. If there’s something you know you should be doing, practice it until it’s as engrained into your day as brushing your teeth. This way when motivation fails, you’re still showing up and putting in work. Keep that faucet dripping and cause some damage.

See you in the morning?

-Chris

26
Oct

Tell No Tales

I had to give this one a little time before I wrote it. It was important to let those involved grieve and process what happened without one more person adding their opinion. I want to send my best wishes to all of the incredibly talented and dedicated people who lost their livelihoods from yet another sudden studio closure. In a situation that has become far too common, hundreds of families went from the security of full-time employment at a famous company to complete uncertainty. Though I’ve never experienced those exact circumstances, I will never forget the harrowing feeling of losing a job and not knowing how I would provide for my loved ones. I hope you all are doing okay.

I left Telltale in early 2017 after nearly three years, and it was my first real job in the industry. In the time I was there, I worked on some really cool projects and grew tremendously, both personally and professionally. The pace of production was extremely fast, which has been recounted in several recent interviews and articles, which had its positives and negatives. While I was rarely proud of the quality of animation that I was able to produce at such a speed, I got a tremendous amount of practice through repetition. And though I ultimately had little control over the final look of the games, I chose to instead appreciate the parts of the process that I was in control of, and detach from it once my job was done. This is in no way meant to disparage any other artists, but the system just was not designed in a way that was conducive to a high level of polish. As long as the games were great, that’s what mattered.

The fundamental problem came when making great games began to take a back seat to making more games at an unsustainable pace. The fact that so many games got finished and released at all is a testament to the dedication of every artist there. Overworked and under-paid, the troops on the ground got the company out of many self-inflicted crises, routinely working late into the night all week long. The cinematic artists who came last in the process were hit especially hard when crunch inevitably came, and due to the cadence of release schedules, crunch was nearly constant. As it tried to compensate, I witnessed the studio grow three times in size in less than a year. I saw many of the same signs from when I was at a company who aggressively expanded only to have everything fall apart due to near-sightedness and greed, and decided it was probably a good time to leave. I had hoped I was wrong.

It’s important to remember that nothing, in this industry especially, is permanent. Through no fault of their own, artists can find themselves inheriting the problems of their employers and paying the price. No matter how great your company may be, don’t make the mistake of trusting it to have your best interests at heart. Those in charge may well have, but leaving yourself without a backup plan if things change is risky. We’ve seen time and time again studios that were thought to be stable and thriving disappear in an instant. Their employees likely saw a long future that included stability, advancement and even retirement. Instead they found a locked door and no explanation. So while your coworkers, supervisors, and executives may be wonderful people with all the right intentions, the shareholders are ultimately in charge of the fate of the company and its payroll. Never forget that. Keep a “rainy day” fund and your eyes open.

Before we go, I want to express the love I still have for the people I worked with at Telltale. It really did feel like a family, and being around them was the real joy of working there. We played together, ate together, shared thousands of GIFs (totally work-related), and helped each other become better artists. I still miss them. There was just something about the atmosphere, and when things got hard, we banded together tighter. In contrast to what I said about companies, I think the opposite is true when it comes to your peers. Lean into those relationships and make them last. Be there for each other and celebrate your time together. I’ve seen a wonderful camaraderie emerge since the closing of Telltale. Because they all became friends, they have been helping each other get back on their feet, and it’s inspiring to witness. This industry is small, and those lifelong connections are invaluable. I hope that each one of them finds this situation to be a blessing in disguise. The journey takes many twists and turns, but it has a funny way of working out for the best. Good luck to all of you.

Chris

22
Oct

The List

There are all kinds of fancy animation tools, plugins, scripts and tricks that I use to enhance my animation workflow. Though in my opinion, none of them are as valuable as a pen and paper. Physically writing things down is the foundation of everything that I do in my work. It’s the most basic tool you can use, but in my opinion there’s no better way to organize your thoughts and come up with new ones than by making lists. Here I’ll explain how I use lists in every phase of a shot.

Phase one: Planning

Starting a scene with a blank page or viewport is generally accepted to be the most terrifying thing in the world next to clowns. And just like you wouldn’t enter a dark house with a clown on the loose, you shouldn’t jump right into a blank scene without planning. Writing down the purpose, beats and intent of the scene is the most effective way I’ve found to ease in and flip on the figurative light switch. If you’ve gotten a kickoff from a director or teacher, make sure you write down everything they said to make sure you don’t forget. Make note of the shot’s place in the sequence, what’s happening before and after, the framing, the desired emotional content, etc. Write out the dialog to make sure you know every word, pause, and breath. Think about the actions and gestures that you want to hit, and make note of them with simple scribble sketches. If you get through all this and you’ve written three pages, you probably have too many ideas. Seeing it all written out can be a great first indicator of whether you’re picking the simplest and most clear way to get the job done, or if you’re overcomplicating things.

What if you’re doing a school assignment or personal shot where there’s no director, script or storyboard? No direction at all and all the possibilities in the world? This is where that list becomes even more important! To successfully complete an animation, you have to set limitations. You need to make the big decisions first to have any hope of making good small decisions. If you don’t know what you want the shot to say, how can you decide how to say it? Spend some time up front coming up with the context and purpose, and then narrow in on things like staging, acting and props. Writing it all down will keep your ambition in check and help ensure that you don’t stray too far. And it’ll make that black void a lot less intimidating.

Phase two: Blocking

Once you’re drawing or posing the rig, you should have a clear idea of the specific actions that you need to perform. Writing out each beat gives you a roadmap to follow, and each pose in your blocking should represent one of those list items. Pose blocking for me is nothing more than finding the visual representation of the ideas that I’ve written down. I’m not concerned with how they transition between each other or how the timing plays (often I do it on consecutive frames to be timed later). I’m only concentrating on laying down the clearest visual of each pre-defined beat. This ensures that when I show my director for the first time, there’s no ambiguity or fluff – just the necessary information to get their buy-off.

Phase three: Dailies

Daily reviews are a crucial part of animation production. For a student, it’s class reviews and peer feedback. Actively listening to and implementing feedback is as much a part of what we do as setting the keys in the first place. Make sure to write down everything that they say so that you don’t forget about it later. Just the act of writing them down will imprint them on your brain and get the problem solving process started immediately. An animator that repeatedly fails to address feedback won’t last long, so be thorough in your note taking and cross each thing off as it’s completed.

Phase four: Polish

Polish can feel like it takes forever. There are always endless little things to fix and it can get overwhelming. If you just watch it loop and get swamped by the enormity of what still isn’t done, you’ll start to panic. You need to detach and take it one step at a time. Start your list by writing down three major issues that you can see. Note the frame number/range, and a few bullet points that will lead to the desired fix. Now do them and cross them off. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat again. Take it to reviews and repeat Phase Three. That’s how we do it! The shots you see in the movies aren’t done by some perfect robot that goes straight from blocking to spline to final in three easy steps. They’re done using this process of repeatedly executing personal and outside notes until the due date arrives.

I hope that you give this a try if you don’t already. It’s drastically reduced my stress level and kept me on track where I otherwise might have gotten lost. If any of this is unclear or if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

Now I can cross this post of the list.

-Chris

15
Oct

Software Vs Skill

Whenever some great piece of animation or visual effects is posted online, invariably the most repeated questions is “What software did you use?” CGI has been around for decades, yet the impression that software is responsible for the art still persists. Schools tout their cutting-edge computer labs and 3D packages, claiming to teach what studios want to see. Students are forced to buy software books with horrendous-looking CG characters on the cover, and follow tutorials that don’t result in anything even resembling industry standard art.

Let me make this clear: Software does nothing without the artistic skills necessary to use it creatively. In the case of character animation, software is often a hindrance to the results you want to achieve. For every useful feature in Maya, there’s another one you have to work around or compensate for (this goes for any program, but since Maya’s caused me more headaches than I can count, I don’t feel too bad about singling it out). I have an entire skill set devoted to forcing Maya to do what I need, just so that I can get to actual animation techniques. Hundreds of third-party scripts and plugins exist out of necessity because, after all these years, fundamental animation tools are not included out of the box.

The is no “animate” button. No amount of button pushing will result in a good character performance unless one knows the principles that were around long before computers even existed. Students have to focus first on artistic study and then learn how to achieve it with modern tools. There is a reason why in every medium, be it CG, stop motion, hand-drawn, cut-out, etc., the first lesson is the bouncing ball. Not how to set a key on a timeline. Not how to build an armature. Not how to render a face. The bouncing ball is universal, and contains most of the lessons needed to move on to more advanced assignments. Each medium has different methods to get it done, but the goal is the same – a two-dimensional visual representation of a sphere moving through space with believable physics and, in some cases, personality. Software doesn’t make that happen; artists do.

You’ll notice that none of the links I’ve included in my “Resources” page have anything to do with learning Maya. Every one of them is devoted to learning the craft and not the tools. And the tools that I’ve linked are only there because they force Maya to better serve the craft. It’s important to know enough buttons to actually make the software function, but then you can move on!

The first skill that students should start developing is an understanding of posing, staging, timing and spacing. Not how to achieve them technically, but what they mean and how they can be applied to any movement. Just like there can be no physical life without oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, there can’t be animated life without posing, staging, timing and spacing. A good eye for these things is of paramount importance in the day-to-day work of an animator. This takes time and practice to truly understand, and I’ll probably keep refining these skills for the rest of my life.

So don’t waste time learning program after program, and stressing that you don’t have the latest version of this or that. Masterful performances have been created for decades with much more primitive tools than what you have access to now. Technology will continue to evolve, and who knows what we’ll be using twenty years from now. The fundamentals will never change. If you really know the basics, you’ll be able to have a career no matter what tools are put into your hands.

-Chris

11
Oct

Take Care of Yourself!

Working at a computer all day is bad for you. Sitting in a chair all day, staring at a bright screen, contorting your wrists around a mouse and keyboard, and hunching your shoulders forward for hours will take a toll on your health eventually. It doesn’t help that for the rest of the day we’re sitting down driving, slouched over our phones, and loafing in front of the TV. If you want a long career in animation, it’s absolutely essential that you learn how to take care of yourself and fight the effects of sedentary life. Gravity punishes laziness, and you can see examples all around you.

I consider it mandatory for myself to exercise every day. I love getting in the gym and moving heavy stuff, showing gravity that I won’t go down so easily. This doesn’t mean I’m always pushing myself to the limit, but every day I need to do something. Some days I’m just going for a couple quick strolls around the building or making it a point to stretch once in a while at my desk. You don’t need to train like an athlete to stave off RSI and back pain, but the more fit you are, the less susceptible you’ll be. A great place to start is FoundationTraining.com, which has been a mainstay of my routine for years, and can be done easily and safely by just about anyone. Start slow, find a trainer, coworker, or good article online that can point you in the right direction, and get out of that damn chair once in a while.

Another element that’s been crucial to my health is a good ergonomic setup at work. Step one is a standing desk. The single best thing you can do to relieve the stress of sitting is to stand up! It takes a while to get used to, but it makes a world of difference once you’re conditioned to it. If your employer won’t provide one, I have made due in the past by building a large box out of plywood and putting it on top of my existing desk. If you need one at home, I’ve had one for years that I made on the cheap from IKEA parts. It should be set to elbow-height so that your forearms are around a 90-degree angle with your shoulders relaxed. Get a stool to sit on when you’re tired and you’re well on your way to living healthier.

endearing-standing-desk-ergonomics-fabulous-keyboard-height-for

Second priority is switching from a mouse to a pen stylus. Twisting your wrist over a mouse is terrible for your joint and tendons, and if you blow out your wrist, it becomes very hard to do your job. Like a standing desk, computing with a stylus takes a while to get used to, but after a few days it will feel completely natural and pain-free.

Setting up your monitors at eye-level will prevent neck pain from looking up or down for long periods, and putting them at arm’s length will save strain on your eyes. Consider lowering the brightness, wearing tinted computer glasses or using a software like f.lux to tint the screen.

Hotkeys are another crucial component of fending off RSI. Setting all of your most-used commands to easily-reached keys reduces repetitive arm motion and contortion of the fingers. Years ago I was introduced to programmable key pads (X-Keys and Genovation work great) and I literally can’t work without them anymore. If I take mine home for some reason and forget it, I’m headed back home. The benefits to speed, productivity, and comfort are undeniable in my experience.

Other “nice to haves” include desk-mounted elbow rests (I use Ergo Rests), a soft lamp if your room is dimly lit, and good shoe insoles or an anti-fatigue mat.

Finally, here’s the thing that no one likes to hear: eat better. Literally nothing you can do will counteract the negative effects of a poor diet in the long term. I won’t go into a long lecture about what to eat and which diet is healthiest, since I’m no expert and that can be different for everyone. That said, you know what you shouldn’t be eating! You know that the chips in the vending machine don’t do you any favors. You know that the office donuts don’t “fuel” your animation. You know that soda … ah hell, you get the point. If you’re really honest with yourself, you know these things already. Take responsibility for your health, and figure out the specifics as you go along. A healthy animator takes less sick days, has more energy to put into their work, and has a more adventurous life outside the studio.

I hope that this helps someone out there turn their health around, or prevents bad things from ever happening. Going through life in self-inflicted pain is unnecessary. I should say, however, that I am no medical professional. I highly recommend consulting your doctor about diet and exercise, having your workspace reviewed by an ergonomic professional, and getting started in the gym with a qualified trainer. Use common sense and go at your own pace. Just remember that something is better than nothing!

Now stand up!

-Chris