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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…



Prefiguring Animation Action at the MIT Media Lab

By Pell Osborn

PEM Lightbox SetUp 9:2010When MotionArt designers presented a LineStorm Animation seminar at the MIT Media Lab recently, the Media Lab students, accustomed to their rarified, cutting-edge, high tech environment, set aside their apps, bells and whistles. They took a moment to examine, with the simplest materials, how animation actually works on our perceptions. With engaging, hand-drawn exercises, they rekindled the thrill of discovery in the basics of animation. What’s more, they discovered, anew, that one of animation’s great strengths is its ability to visualize — clearly — abstract concepts.

The structure of our work-in-progress, “A Certain Grandeur, animated” was the inspiring quotation from Aristotle, “The search for truth is in one way hard and in another way easy, for it is evident that no one can master it fully or miss it wholly. But each adds a little to our knowledge of nature, and from all the facts assembled, there arises a certain grandeur.”

Using only pens, paper and lightboxes (with which to register their artwork), participants worked in teams to illustrate Aristotle’s dictum, phrase by phrase. For each team, the most important step was to prefigure how much one could actually accomplish, given the limited time and space constraints of the seminar. Professional animators call this prefiguring the visualization or “layout” of a scene — how the scene will actually appear. Animators organize their layouts with storyboards, visual cues to help them decide just what to animate, where it’s going and what it’s showing. Prefiguring animation action is one of the most exhilarating parts of any animation project, when one tries to keep all the pieces in line to work through what could easily become, according to the designers of the videogame “Bioshock Infinite,”…a harrowing technical endeavor…” in the control of time and space.

As a engaging example of project-based learning, LineStorm has few peers. Participants experience all three stages of an animation project, whatever the scale, from a humble flipbook to a full-length Pixar feature. Stage one is the wide-open, blue-sky stage, when one imagines the range of possibilities a sequence might occupy. Stage two involves the actual production of the artwork, cranking it out so that (in the case of LineStorm) it streams at the rate of ten images for every second of screen time. Stage three hurdles the timelines, deadlines and pipelines to reach the finish line of a project. Of course, “A Certain Grandeur, animated” remarkable though it is, isn’t finished. If there was ever a case of the journey being more important than the destination, “A Certain Grandeur, animated” is it.

Just by considering the vast number of ways to visualize each of Aristotle’s abstract phrases, Media Lab participants learned a profound truth known to more than a few esteemed teachers: that thinking about how to express an abstract idea is the first compelling step toward representing that idea. When you have a moment, please watch “A Certain Grandeur, animated:”  Many thanks to Taya Leary, seminar host, and to the LineStorm Media Lab students for their focus and great humor.