Is frame based animation a tedious, painstaking process, made by nerds who clearly have nothing better to do?
First some clarity. By frame based animation I mean it’s made frame by frame, like stop motion or some drawn animation. Other forms of animation use software to make the frames ‘in-between’ your keyframes, or poses. Then there is motion capture. We all want to know what the quickest way to make animation is, but this post is here to give us some food for thought. The Hare and the Tortoise have different methods for the race.
I sometimes hear or read comments about the process of animation along the lines of “….but unfortunately its frame based animation…”, “…animation is a laborious process…”, “…animators painstakingly working away…”, “…unbelievably slow process…”. It all sounds too negative. It sounds like someone who doesn’t enjoy making animation.
I know animation has come along way since I started, but for me this description of animation still seems odd. I started with frame based stop motion plasticine and a super-8 camera back in 1985, and it never occurred to me that this was a tedious process. Once you get into the flow, it feels great.
Reading and writing – is it tedious?
I liken it to reading. We have to read one word at a time. Is this tedious? We live in a world of speed, we are fed information without any apparent effort, we are bringing up a video based generation. Children like to find out about something on YouTube, reading is more difficult. Reading takes practice, lots of practice, and then it is so easy we don’t even know we are doing it.
The same goes for writing. Really, do we have to actually write each word out, one at a time? Of course not, we use a keyboard with predictive text. Or maybe we can just use Dragon Diction or the like and chatter through our ideas, without even taking the time to read it through afterwards. But do people describe writing a book in the same way as they describe the process of making animation?
So what is it with frame by frame animation? People who don’t animate, throughout the entire history of animation, have been shocked at the idea that someone might make a film one frame at a time. But why? Are they equally shocked that a book is written one word at a time?
Computers do it faster?
As soon as computers were widely used in the making of animation, in the late 1990’s, non animators were suddenly experts in the process. “…of course computers do all that now don’t they…”. How many times have I been told that! Yes of course, we ask the computer to go make a feature film and we potter off to have a cup of tea whilst it’s being done for us. Computers are so clever aren’t they! Back in the 1990’s that may have been a more humorous statement, but still, even now, they are not that clever.
In a recent introduction to the Visual Effects field, I got to experience the vast amount of work that goes into altering a shot. For example to fully extract a character from a background using Rotoscoping in Nuke or Silhouette might take two weeks for a 5 second clip, depending of course what the content is. VFX is labour intensive. Animation is labour intensive. Watch the credits.
Of course with the advent of computers we can make our keyframes and have the computer do the inbetweening for us. That does save time. But as we all know the more time you save the worse it looks. More importantly the more we can do with computers the more we want to do, because we can. Meaning the more possibilities we are offered the more we do with the techniques. Computers don’t necessarily save time they just offer us more possibilities. We just make more complex techniques and processes. Instead of spending time in front of a puppet or paper, we spend our time in front of a computer, endlessly tweaking, because we can.
Is animation tedious, or is the schedule tedious?
But to be fair, what people really mean when they berate the animation process, is that there is pressure on their time, they want results without the work. We all do. We want to make money fast, we don’t want to know how much time we’ll have to commit before getting results in a business. We want to lose weight over night, so we search for pills or operations that will do it for us. I’m being cynical here, but there is certainly a large element of that which, thanks to the web we can now see clearly.
The main point here is that clients want results without having to pay the price for it. They want a film tomorrow, because that’s when it’s needed. We live in a fast paced world where everything is measured by profit not quality. Animation suddenly becomes tedious when you aren’t given the time to do it. Suddenly it looks like hard work. A five minute film in a week? Ugh! Suddenly we are very interested in any shortcuts software can offer us.
Of course there are software programmes that are designed to save time. The are many template based software that are extremely quick to use. But they are designed to give everyone else the same result. So what do you really want? If you want speed, then you have to accept that you will not have so much control over the results. If you want control over the results, you’ll have to put in the time.
Its good to be lazy
Before I come across as someone who likes to overwork for the sheer fun of it, I’m actually as lazy as I can get away with. There are intelligent ways to work that get good results and save significant amounts of time. There is software that can save time on certain activities and give good results, of course. Working at speed is fun, and often you can get just what is needed, in a short amount of time.
Its about finding the right way to make something. Rather than get stuck in the mud with “…but this is how I’ve always done it…” or “…this is the right way to make…”, its important to be flexible. There may be many pieces of software that can be called upon, each to do a different task. There maybe a way of adapting a technique to save time and reduce your workload, without compromising quality. A good animator will always be checking their process to find the best way. New software comes out offering alternative ways of achieving something and new animators appear, exploring new approaches to animation.
The point here is that there is a difference between making an intelligent decision about how to achieve a result as efficiently as possible, and thinking that making quality should not take any time or effort at all. Its the quality triad. You have to choose between quality, cost and time. But if you are wasting time doing something that could be done more efficiently, then you will be loosing quality because your time has been compromised. Use time wisely, look for the best ways, put your time where its needed most, and don’t assume every shortcut is a good one.
So what’s the verdict?
If we want results without work, then the results won’t be that good. Take animation software for example. You can use frame by frame software, and the work is in making each frame. You can use software that will tween for you, the work is in preparing your assets and setting up the keyframes, checking and perfecting them. You can use software that will use motion capture to animate the artwork, the work is in preparing the puppet for use and setting up the motion capture. All in all, the more the software can do, the more time you will need to spend to achieve that potential and get the best results. Complex software is not developed to save time, it’s developed to get better results, if you can put the time in.
I don’t think it’s the type of animation that determines how long it takes, it’s what you do with it that takes time. Frame by frame animation can be done very quickly, if you are making something simple. In these cases it can quicker than trying to get tweening software to make that specific result. You need to know how to work in different ways so that you can choose the best technique for the job. Choose the right way, and you will get the best results in the most efficient way. It’s the quality and type of animation that determines the effort and time needed. It’s all down to how much time you can put into it. Your frame based animation could take exactly the same time and effort as your CG options.
So in conclusion – frame based animation may be no more or less tedious than any other form of animation. The point is that animating is only tedious if you don’t like it. Don’t berate the process of animation. If you want good results, then it needs time. Animation is an art form like any other, and there will be people prepared to spend the time needed to perfect it. There are efficient ways to work now that were not there 20 years ago. Of course we take advantage of these, but that doesn’t mean that its now all so automated that anyone who is doing something frame by frame is mad. It might be like the story of the Hare and the Tortoise, only either can win.
Different processes give different results. What is the result you are after?
Choose the right technique for the result you are after, and you will be using your time efficiently.
Do you think that computers always make a process quicker? Should they? Please leave your response below.
Thanks for your time.