Like many of the other schools out there, the iAnimate curriculum includes the weekly “Q&A” session, where student questions are meant to fuel a lively discussion on all things animation. While it is sometimes hard to coax a peep out of this notoriously shy and introspective bunch, there do tend to be certain questions that come up regularly. One such question goes like this: “If I have a shot I am working on, and I work through the notes, changes and suggestions given to me by one instructor – then I show it to another instructor and I get a completely different, if not contradictory set of notes – who am I am to listen to?” A confusing and frustrating conundrum, for sure.
And my answer is, “Welcome to animation.”
Art is, of course, subjective. And animation, being an art, is no doubt the same. Student animators are often looking for rules to follow and formulas to fulfill in order to produce the elusive feature quality shot. Well, I’m pretty certain you will never truly find them. The rules and formulas, that is. The lack of rules is what’s so entertaining and magical about the art of animation, in my opinion – the ability to create the hyper-real, the hyper-cartoony, and everything in-between, and find a way to be entertaining inside of that chosen style. But it is very very rare that the style is chosen by you, the animator. You are hired to realize someone else’s vision. Hopefully that vision is clear and strong, and your job can be much easier.
But more often than not the vision becomes shared between multiple people. Any production team, whether it be feature film, television, or advertising, is a collaboration – often times between competing visions. It can become frustrating, like being on a little raft tossed about in a raging river. It is definitely the norm rather than the exception. But, again, your job as the animator, the hired gun, is to listen carefully to the overall vision described, find the sum of all parts, and produce something that brings a smile to the face(s) of the people who are paying you. Deluding yourself in to thinking otherwise only causes you heartache. Finding joy and taking pride in the challenge of helping someone realize their vision (possibly even a little better than they had imagined) will get you much farther, and with lots less therapy bills.
Even in the biggest most successful studios there are directors, leads and supervisors with entirely different ideas on what your animation should be doing in order to get to that final vision. The potential of constant contradiction is always present, and usually in full force no matter where you work (or go to school). Personally, I try to decide who it is that really needs to be the most pleased with the end result (the director? the client? the creative lead?), navigate between the rocks, and get as close as I can to their vision, while making sure I include a nugget or two of the other leaders’ ideas. And if I can’t make it work for some reason beyond my control, I better have a really good explanation for why. Saying “no” or “I don’t think” or “I don’t like” is not an option. In my mind, at least.
I may be an outlier, but I’ve never really had the desire to be a filmmaker. That is to say, those very typical and tremendously inspiring aspirations of most animators to want create their own stories and produce their own work has never really been one of my pillars of motivation. What I most enjoy, and what I feel is my strength, is to be given the challenge to interpret a vision and to turn around and really nail it. I find that very rewarding. And what that forces me to do is be as flexible and nimble as possible, as well as try to amass a vast collection of “styles” that I am able to work in. I still feel like I have a very narrow scope, and I am in continuous pursuit of new inspiration and instruction. So, when I get conflicting feedback from project leadership, I try my best not to take it as a dismissal of my ideas. Rather, I try to accept the challenge of navigating through the momentary confusion to find something that fits the direction best. And if that has to compromise and sit in the middle of conflicting visions, then so be it. I’m going to produce the best work I can with the input given. And yes, it sometimes takes a bit of diplomacy, but if you communicate yourself well, without defensiveness or dismissiveness, and do your best work in the meantime, it can often turn out well. Not always, but often 😉
This is why the competing or conflicting critiques you may receive in your relationship with your animation instructors is something to be valued rather than a reason to pull your hair out. It can teach you that while all of their individual visions may have merit, you can practice and employ the proper diplomacy needed to find your way to a great looking shot. And, in the end, learn to please the person you need to please most at the moment – which should be that one particular instructor you are working for (sort of like they are your client or director.)
But, of course, it is always and ultimately the audience that needs to be pleased. So an animator needs to make someone else’s idea as entertaining to that audience as possible. I like this challenge quite a bit. And I always learn something new from it every time. That’s no exaggeration – always.
Different studios do different films that require different styles. Being able to do many styles is an asset – meaning you can get more work. And I think it is the forces pulling you in uncomfortable directions that make you stretch your abilities, and become better at more ways of animating. So ride those rapids. Because between those moments of rushing currents where you feel like you are the shittiest and most frustrated animator to ever have lived, there are also pools of calm waters where you get to reflect on how much better you’ve become.
Then go pour a scotch.