Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Distractions and Expectations

After a recent conversation with an aspiring animator friend, I am prompted to write a brief posting related to the subject of expectations and the learning process in general with a particular slant toward animation. When I started in animation in 1969, the learning process was infinitely more difficult than it is today due to the fact that animation was all photographic and equipment was hard to get and really expensive if you could get it. So I had to find a job in a small local studio doing all the grunt jobs, basically for free, just to get some exposure to the work.

We all have it so amazingly great today in comparison. These are very exciting times for people who love animation and want to learn and practice the craft. But these can also be very confusing times too. When I started there were not a lot of choices and even fewer opportunities. Now there are way too many choices and almost limitless opportunities. It can be exciting and frustration at the same time because things can be so overwhelming with so much out there and so many choices flying around. It can be too much of a good thing, which can actually be a bad thing. It is so easy to be distracted or to feel pressured by unrealistic expectations.

The availability of so many really powerful software applications as animation production tools is a great example of the two edged sword of today’s learning environment. Someone is always “in your face” touting the latest and greatest new software product. It is a perpetual feature and functionality candy store and you are guaranteed to get a whopping belly ache if you try to digest all the available goodies. Seriously, almost every significant software application that is marketed to aid in animation production covers the basic fundamentals needed and you really only need one to learn and develop your skills. So my advice to anyone starting out is “to pick your poison and put blinders on to the rest of the techno hype” and just stay focused on learning and practicing your chosen craft.

Concentrate on learning and practicing skills pertaining to animating and creating content and not on mastering software tools. Focus on learning the fundamentals of the craft using only those minimal tools or software features absolutely required for facilitating your learning. Your goal should be to reach the point where you can create something entertaining within reasonable expectations.

This brings up the subject of reasonable expectations. If you are a single student, particularly a person who is trying to learn through a self directed process and not specifically attending an art school or university, then not only do you have to be very disciplined to avoid the massive number of distractions being flung before you, but you also have to be practical in your expectations as to what you can reasonably produce and how long it can take you to achieve certain levels of results. I often have looked at artists whose work I admired and wanted to jump right in and do similar stuff. But every time I would research their work, I found that what I usually was looking at and admiring was the results of a significant evolution over time. If you want to test this, spend a little time researching Warner Bros. Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd. You will be shocked and amazed at how crude and different these characters, the stories, and the animation was when they started and it took a lot of talented people a pretty long time, 10 -15 years, to evolve them to the level we usually attribute to that style of cartoons. That realization will help you to appreciate what you should realistically be expecting from your brief beginnings to do this type of work. You aren’t going to be a Chuck Jones or a Ken Harris or a Ben Washam in a matter of months or even years. Realistically you may never come close to doing anything near the quality of work done by these legends. You should definitely strive to be as great as these guys were, but you need to set your sites slightly lower in the beginning. The real danger in self directed learning is the loss of momentum and enthusiasm. Most people just plain quit. So I always recommend that a self learner set themselves some realistic goals that they can achieve and celebrate. Lots of little and frequent successes are critical to sustaining momentum in learning anything.

Here are some suggestions to help make sense of it all. First, set reasonable realistic goals and milestones for your progress. Second, try to be realistic in your expectations and more importantly try not to get distracted by all the noise created by all the choices and hype. None of this animation stuff is all that difficult if you just focus on learning the essentials, it isn’t rocket science. Drawing skills and a good handle on anatomy and life drawing is essential. Learning to relate what you draw to the forces involved, internal and external is essential. Recognizing that what you say is more important than how it is said is also essential. Find a cartooning or animation style that is comfortable to you and work with that and try not to be drawn into a lot of distraction trying to be everything all at once. You can't become "super artist" over night or even in a few short years, skills take time to develop. Give yourself lots of opportunities for small frequent successes and celebrations of what you are doing so that you stay highly motivated. And last but not least, reach out to mentors and collaborators to get advice and assistance, they are out there and easier to reach than ever before in human history. All you have to do is communicate and interact with them.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boy, you're really asking for it with that last sentence...

How about 1 question (related to your post) to start:

I totally understand the need for "reasonable expectations", but in terms of learning animation, what is reasonable?

10/31/2006 9:06 PM  
Blogger JK said...

Reasonable is a relative term, so there isn't a hard and fast definition. To my way of thinking each artist has to determine what they believe is reasonable for themselves based on how long they have been working and where they are in terms of their progress. In my experience most novice artists set their expectations too high and they become discouraged too easily. But in fairness to your question reasonable is totally up to each individual to decide for themselves. The key is to make the decision based on your own self assessment and not by trying to benchmark yourself against others because in the long run if you set your expectations too high too soon you only act to discourage yourself. If each effort is an improvement on the previous efforts then that is progress and that should be your objective.

10/31/2006 11:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fair enough...

Good advice on avoiding distractions, too! I get caught by that one a lot. Even now I find my time split between working in Flash and 3D. And I still want to learn classical (hand drawn). Ooh, and maybe some stop motion! *sigh*

Thanks for your blog, by the way. I'm really enjoying it.

11/01/2006 3:57 PM  

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