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Breaking Through Animator’s Block

By Pell Osborn

M:A studio colored pencilsWe speak often of writer’s block, of facing the blank sheet of paper, or the blank computer screen, and feeling overwhelmed to the point of inaction, at the thought of trying to produce something worthy for others to spend their time reading.

Just as severe as writer’s block for the writer, is animator’s block for the animation artist; maybe, in its own way, it’s more severe.

During the so-called “classical” period of hand-drawn animation (1936–1949), the restrictions imposed on animators were daunting, to say the least. Uniform character shapes and volumes, strict storylines, consistent shading, and, at the end of the creative process, adding color and nuanced effects – these all formed an imposing barricade of hurdles to leap.

As would a waiter in a busy restaurant, you’d be overcome if you thought for a second about the myriad things you must do to bring forth a nice meal for clients (and then prepare the table for the FOLLOWING clients!) Likewise, the animator, rather than think about how far he or she has to go to complete a sequence, has to keep cool under pressure, producing frame-by-frame visuals in an incremental fashion, never losing sight of the finish line or the prize. (Yes! People actually get prizes for animation projects!!)

To break through animator’s block, to start on an animation sequence, the animator must know exactly what to show. Storyboards and layouts help with that, but how does one get to the point of figuring out what – and how – to show something in the first place?

Draw! Draw! Draw! Draw! Draw! Draw! Draw! Draw! Draw! Draw!

Representation – even a thumbnail sketch on a napkin — is the major first step toward understanding a problem, wrestling with it, figuring out how to animate it coherently…!

It’s officially 65 years since the end of “the classical period of hand-drawn animation” (that is, 1949), and animators are still at it, still trying to represent and understand things. Only the tools have changed. It may seem that the computer is a fleeter, more companionable personable assistant than a pencil, but the problems animators are trying to solve, they’re still solving in the same fashion – applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, unleashing brain power and focus.

To break though writer’s (or animator’s) block may take a stroke of genius, a visit from the Muse, a change of scene, a relaxed Friday afternoon session when you’re off the clock and away from the drawing board, on a walking trail or in the middle of traffic. Who knows when an idea will strike?

So, keep the mind open and alert. Snag an idea as it passes by, whether as a whimsical sketch only you can interpret, or in a full-fledged rendering that’s taken hours to produce, to present for the entire Board of Trade.

It’s a major challenge, staying organized, as an animator, breaking through animator’s block is just one encounters on the way to a hard-won and fulfilling conclusion.

So warmest wishes of the season and good luck in the battle! This day, December 21, 2014, being the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, is a great day to be at the lightbox, if one has no other obligations, of course…



Animation and Emergence

By Pell Osborn

Animation is a perfect example of Emergence — the notion that complex systems arise from the interaction of fundamental elements. From the simplest beginnings, intricate animation projects flourish.

Animators, essentially visual engineers, are, first and foremost, problem-solvers. And in our LineStorm Animation workshops, we use the most basic materials — index cards, fiber point pens, and simple lightboxes — to solve major visual problems, to visualize abstract concepts and ideas. Always, the action must be pre-figured in the brain: how we love the thrill of watching in motion something we designed. And nothing is more gratifying to an animator than using elemental building blocks — in LineStorm’s case, the humble flipbook — to startling effect.

Like the game of Checkers, animation is an art form of relentless, incremental forward movement. What is intellectually challenging is wonderfully stimulating. And nothing’s better than a job well done: the satisfaction of seeing an animation sequence working out the way we intended it to.

So, here’s to doing things bit by bit, to building every project up into something visually grand and commanding — to the Emergence of it all!


Howard Sturges works on "Terraplasm tests and cycles"

Focusing on “Terraplasm Tests and Cycles”