The Podcast: Episode 1 with Rusty Gray

After some time in development, I’m proud to announce that today marks the beginning of monthly podcasts here on the Animation Anomaly blog.

This month, my guest is accomplished world-travelling animator Rusty Gray. Currently based in Vancouver, Rusty has studied at Full Sail university and Animation Mentor. He has also launched a website of his own (RustyAnimator.com) that provides plenty of tips and advice to aspiring students and animators.

Although the focus is on education within the animation industry, we discuss a wide range of topics surrounding it from what skills degrees actually provide, to where the future of animation education lies.

Some relevant links from the discussion:

I’m a bit jittery in this first episode so feel free to provide some feedback either in the comment form below, or via email to charles [at] animationanomaly [dot] com.

The theme music is ‘Big Band Swing (Messin’)’ by Simon Wallace

[soundcloud]http://soundcloud.com/charleskenny/animation-anomaly-podcast-episode-1-rusty-gray[/soundcloud]

Is There an Impending Apocalypse in Animation Studies?

Over on the Society for Animation Studies blog, Lauren Carr writes about what she perceives as a crisis in animation studies stemming mainly from a desire by students to simply learn the software tools rather than the technique and theory behind animation. If that’s true, then we are heading for an impending apocalypse in the field from which it will be very difficult to recover.

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The Disconnect That Leads to Industry Breakdown

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Any industry is a complicated beast and animation is no exception. The skills in demand are constantly changing and nobody really knows where things are heading in that regard. Many still pine for the days when traditional animation was either hand-drawn or stop-motion. Today, CGI comes in a dizzying, vast array of forms and associated skillsets. How these skills are taught is something that has been discussed here before with this blogger advocating a return to apprenticeships in animation as opposed to undergraduate degree programs that teach skills that may be obsolete by the time students graduate. On a recent post on a related topic, commentator johnV posted a comment excerpted below:

I personally feel that the reason there are more CG films than Traditional Animation is because the lack of talent and the colleges that only teach CG animation. Before, the majority of animators were artists. They went to art school, not to an animation school. They knew how to draw, paint, sculpt, and create art. They learned animation from other animators while working in the animation studio. They knew the fundamentals of ART. John Lasseter said it himself, that all animators should know the fundamentals of art.

Today, most animation students don’t bother learning the necessary principles to creating art. Thus, they become button pushers. There’s not enough people who can do Traditional Animation anymore, because it’s not being taught. Animators who want to animate traditionally, have to teach themselves, watch Youtube videos, and read books. But there are no colleges for that anymore. There are a few that will teach a class or two, but not one that will have it as a degree.

And that’s perfectly fine for the colleges. Colleges are nothing more than a business, they use the technology and computer animation aspect to attract new students. They don’t care about the industry or what is the viable form of animation. They care that they fill seats in their class rooms, sell books and supplies, and charge an insane amount of tuition that the students will be paying back for a very long time.

And speaking of business, the major studios love button pushers… they’re easy to replace. Do you think that a computer animator has the pull and power of a traditional animator…. computer animators are a dime a dozen. A traditional animator is hard to come by. They can demand from their employers. So the studio prefers the control over the computer animators.

I’ve broken the original comment up for clarity, but let’s discuss all the very good points raised.

Learning the Art

Animation is grounded in art. It’s where the inspiration comes from and where it’s influence is felt. It is nigh-on impossible to completely appreciate animation if one does not have at least some appreciation or understanding of art in general.

So the question arises: should students be forced to have a solid grounding in art before undertaking a study in animation?

I would hazard that they should, animation can be taught, but appreciation requires coaching of the kind that education is supposed to provide in an ideal scenario. While many artists employed in studio’s today undoubtedly have artistic talent, we must consider those coming behind us as well.

Skillset Supply and Demand

johnV is right about a shortage of colleges not teaching traditional animation, but it comes back to the notion that a bachelors degree is something that affords the holder the ability to produce animation. That isn’t true, and plenty of the best animators managed to get by without any sort of formal qualification when it came to their animation talents.

In a way, we are seeing the flipside of what CGI went through 25 years ago. Back then, if you wanted to learn CG animation, you had to suss out the information for yourself; hardly anyone was going to teach it in a formal setting aside from a computer science degree.

Do we strictly need a traditional animation degree? Maybe not, but it is the lack of one that indicates how the skill faces a decline as old masters retire and their skills are lost to the ether.

College as A Business

Is college a business? Undoubtedly (at least in the US), it is, and we’re talking about more than the “for profit” colleges of the kind highlighted on Cartoon Brew a while back. Therein lies the disconnect between the education and the industry. Cathal Gaffney of Brown Bag Films has long bemoaned the skills taught by Irish animation programmes that are out of date compared to the ones he needs for the studio. The result is that he must source (more expensive) animators from abroad.

Do universities and colleges strictly care about whether or not what they teach matches what the industry needs? Well, why should they? Employment after graduation is the student’s concern, right? Whose to blame if they learned the wrong skills. Again, it comes back to schools teaching “animation”, a skill that, theoretically, should be universally applicable. Software is software after all and it can be learned or taught separate from the academic program.

We have long ago lost the close connection between studios and schools wherein there was co-ordination and cross-pollination between employees and students. CalArts is the utopian example, but others exist too. Today, employees, as disposable as they are, do not have the long-term relationship with studios that encouraged the notion of investing in oneself for the betterment of the whole. This leads to employees (to the delight of employers) acquiring a set of narrowly defined skills and relying upon them. Not only does this make them more disposable, it also tends to make them cheaper since they now compete against each other rather than everyone. Which leads us to…

Skillset Supply and Demand

Even a basic course in economics can highlight just what it is about supply and demand that vexes most people. They know that as supply increases, the price you have to pay for something decreases, but what if the supply is people, and the price paid is your salary?

In a purely economical situation, your salary will fall relative to the increase in demand. Any time salaries for animators falls, it isn’t so much because studios are trying to squeeze the extra buck (they are), but they can also get away with it because they can still find the labour they require.

CG animators are currently in demand, but there are also a lot of them. As johnV points out, they’re a dime a dozen, and unless you have something over and above what everyone else has, you’re expendable!

That said….a traditional animator may have a large skillset but not be in high demand. How much can they earn? Well, while price goes up with decreasing supply, it can also go down with decreasing supply if demand similarly drops. A traditional animator can hope to earn near nothing if there is no demand for their skills.

Where This Leads to Industry Breakdown

Where all the points discussed in this post tie together is that without sufficient co-ordination of skills, the industry from an employment standpoint starts to break down. We see studios close, artists laid off and production shifted elsewhere.

Colleges continually push students without any consideration for actual demand, that pushes salaries for existing employees down thanks to a larger than necessary supply of talent. We won’t even mention what unpaid internships do for the industry as a whole, but you get the picture.

On the other end, studios continually alter the skillsets they require leaving vast swathes of artists to either get with the program or get out altogether.

In the end, what results is an industry that doesn’t know what it needs and is incapable or producing it when it does.

The end result is breakdown.

Animation Skills: Supply and Demand

Mark Mayerson recently published a blog post entitled ‘The Don’t Want You’. A short but compelling declaration that studios see aniamtors and artists as more a tool than at any time in the past. The paragraph below is the kicker:

They don’t want you.  They want your skills because they can profit from them.  But if they can get your skills from software or find somebody with your skills (or almost your skills) who will work cheaper, they’d prefer that.

That’s the absolute truth. Animators are expensive to hire, maintain and run. They’re also cranky, have off days and are not near 100% productive like they could be. That said, they’re also people, and people tend to be like that no matter where you go or what you do.

What Mark touches on is the fact that animators aren’t hired because they are people, they’re hired because they have skills, valuable skills. The relative scarcity of such skills, and the fact that they are not easily replicable on an computer means that real people continue to produce animation.

The Supply of Animators

People are a finite resource. There are only so many animators out there and only so many new ones coming into the field every year. However, if more enter than leave, then that creates a larger supply of talent from which to pull from, and the result is that studios can (and do) pay lower prices than they would have to if supply was tight.

Consider Brown Bag Films; they consistently have to look overseas to find artists with the skillsets required, and the result is that they have to pay more than if they could source local talent in Ireland.

A topic that is brought up in the comments is the fact that new animators are being produced at a high rate; more so than what the industry is increasing by every year. This is a problem that stems from a couple of reasons but the main ones are the fact that tuition = money and universities always want more of that. Secondly, there is no (or very little) co-ordination between studios and schools in regards to training, skills and potential demand.

If both camps co-ordinated, then students with the correct skills would be graduating and prepared for future careers. As it stands, plenty of 2D animation is being taught despite the fact that CGI has rapidly rendered (no pun intended) the style obsolete as far as mainstream productions go.

The Animation Skills Needed

The key here are skills. Creativity is a small aspect of labour, and studios, while ostensibly looking for creative minds, are also looking for skills. Skills drive their businesses; the very entity that animators and artists depend on for a livelihood.

As with any industry, more does not necessarily equal better. Specialisation does not necessarily equal higher pay. Rather on both counts, variety and scarcity matter more than anything.

Put simply, the greater variety of animation skills you can have, the better your chances are. The downside is that you may be a jack of all trades but a master of none.

If you are a specialist, you will be scarce, and companies like to (and have to) pay more. The risk is that you may be specialised in the one area that may be scarce, but for which their is no demand; e.g. 2D animators in southern California.

So what’s the secret to skills? Well, the secret is to specialise, but to constantly and continually improve and develop them. Always be hungry to learn something new. You may not be a specialist immediately, but you can at least put those skills on your resume in the meantime.

The Determining Factors Are Far Outside Your Control

What angers a lot of people is that they see jobs going abroad when there are perfectly capable people available locally. While this is an understandable situation, you, the person reading this, have to realise that globalisation has enabled not only work to go abroad easily, but also vastly increased the number of people you must compete with for jobs. You cannot control it and more importantly, you cannot stop it.

If an Indian animator can produce the same work as you can for a tenth of the price, there is little you can do about it save bringing him to the States. What you can do, is be a better animator than him, be a faster animator than him or produce animation that he can’t. Those are the kinds of aspects that you can (and should) do something about.

The Life Lesson

The takeaway lesson is that there is no such thing as a job for life any more. Similarly lifelong learning is now a mandatory part of any career, animated or not. Only by staying one step ahead of the competition can you hope for steady employment.

Yes, Animation Still Has A Stigma Once You Reach A Certain Age

Fred Seibert re-blogged a post by Megan, a.k.a. animationbits over on tumblr in which she goes into detail about how much she loves animation and how she’s hard at work on becoming a fully-fledged animator.

As inspirational as that post is (and you should definitely read it), what struck me was that while she drew and doodled from a very young age, something happened:

Then, like some of you, I hit an age where suddenly it wasn’t appropriate anymore. At this point I was living with my father and stepmother and suddenly im in a world where it was weird for me to create fantasy worlds and draw cartoons.

She was 18 at that point, and as she mentions, at one point, her father had something taped to the table which read the following:

THIS , this is whats keeping you from growing up – all these cartoons

Thankfully, Megan overcame all of this, but the fact remains that moreso than being a professional stigma for a lot of people; the old “all artists are starving” and “you’re not famous till you’re dead” notions continue to proliferate among society unfortunately. As Megan herself says:

Most of the time this talk comes from people who don’t KNOW of the art industry but base things on very surface conversations or stigmas like ‘starving artist’ .

The fact that this seemed to happen when she reached a certain age is exemplary of the continued stigma that grown-up animation fans continue to encounter here and there. Oh sure, it is much more acceptable now than in the past, but you could say that outside of conventions and industry circles, my Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends T-shirt is not nearly as appreciated.

The thing is though, the whole reason my passion for animation was re-ignited was because I realised that it is grown-ups who are making it and that they are people with real jobs, a real education and life-goals. Until that point I’d always thought of animated studios like Bart thought of the offices of MAD Magazine; a fun-house kind of scenario. Of course that was partly me being, like my father says, a stupid kid. A dose of the real world changed that mindset substantially.

Far from peer-pressure being the enemy of teenage animation fans, it is people who think it’s a profession for perpetual children. Nothing could be farther from the truth and here’s hoping that the stigma will someday be a footnote in history.

 

Animation: Knowledge or Trade?

In lieu of the usual Monday list post, I thought it would be interesting to debate whether or not animation is a knowledge or trade-based form of education.

What I mean is, in life you generally have two forms of education: knowledge-based and the more vocational trade-based. The difference between the two is that one is taught primarily in a classroom and based on theory whereas the other one favours a more hands-on approach and acquiring knowledge through practice.

  • Does animation fall primarily into one or the other?
  • Do different types of animation fall into either one?
  • Is there an emphasis on one to the detriment of the other?
  • Would animation education improve if things were changed?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below! 🙂

 

5 Great Sources Of Inspiration

This morning as I sat down to write the usual Monday list post, I immediately drew a blank. Normally, I would search around for some inspiration (and in reality, I should have it lined-up and ready to go) but unfortunately this morning, I was beaten by the clock and had to rush off to work.

Where does inspiration come from? Well, it can come from just about anywhere. It’s a topic I’ve covered before (not un-coincidentally after I drew a similar blank when attempting to write a post) so I won’t go into it again, but here are a few good sources that you can use when searching for inspiration.

1. The Great Outdoors

Not to be blatantly obvious, but a lot of what I write about is surprisingly enough, influenced by my surroundings. Seeing a sticker on a car or a T-shirt in a shop can turn on the lightbulb in the old noggin’. You’ll surprise yourself; I certainly have.

2. Blogs

I don’t think I can emphasise this one enough. You don’t have to follow a lot, but you should follow a few regular ones at least. There’s nothing worse than finding a great blog and to learnt that it’s only updated once a year, or even worse! Great blogs will do more than give you something to think about, they will cause you to build on the original topic, and hopefully come to some new and excting conclusions yourself. At the very least, they will give your mind a rest from thinking of something on its own.

3. Books

Books, books, books. Yes, if you aren’t a regular reader, you certainly are missing out. They don’t have to be boring books either. They can be fiction or fact. I prefer fact most of the time, but that’s just because I simply don’t have the time to read much anyways (although my claim to fame is reading all the Harry Potter books in  days. Let’s jsut say I haven’t really put 18 hours a day into anything much since).

Books are much like blogs, but they tend to operate at a much slower pace, and they generally afford the mind more time to muse over ideas and thoughts. This can be good too, as you will tend to linger on what you read in a book for longer than you would a blog post.

4. TV

Yes, further down the list is the good ol’ tube. TV can be a good place for inspiration, but only if you vary things a bit. Sure, you could watch Nicktoons all the time, but you would be neglecting a whole host of others. The same could be said for Disney films. Yes, they’re all mostly excellent, but they do tend to stay within a fairly well-defined set of limits. Use TV for inspiration in small doses and you can get some god inpiration from it.

5. Education

Some may consider this a dirty word with no place in the arts, but truth be told, a little education here and there can do you wonders. I’m not strictly talking about formal education, but more the kind that teach specific skills and techniques. Things like photography, live-drawing, HTML, etc. All these are not absolutely necessary for your job or life in general, but they can help enhance it. Say you take a photography class, the practice and techniques you learn could come in handy in other areas, or you may learn about something that you previously did not. At the very least, you’ll mix with a group of people with similar interests to yourself, and that can only result in a cross-pollination of ideas.