Thursday, February 15, 2007

are you an Actor, or a Technician?

(I add this pic because it's guys like this that have inspired
the thought to this post)


This is something I feel that within the last year I've really had to come to grips with myself as an animator. If you're like me and known you wanted to be an animator since you were 9 you've been hearing for most of your life "animators are actors". You would have heard that if you could focus on one thing it should be performance. You've been hearing that animators are actors with pencils and all the other cliche things to be said. WHY then do so few of us really understand or impliment this? No doubt I include myself in this list.
We all have to come to a point in our artistic lives where we sit down with ourselves and have a very brutally honest heart to heart. We have to ask ourselves "Am I REALLY an actor/artist, or am I just a good technician?"
It's painful... growth, however necessary can be extremely painful at times. Growth shows us where we were/are weak, and sometimes it's embarrasing that we didn't see how weak we really were/are at the time. I bring this up because i feel like being vulnerable is a key elemant to personal growth but also the growth of others around you. We have to be honest with ourselves: are we really good actors, or can we just convincingly move stuff around. Understanding good weight, spacing, drawing things well or even convincingly ISN'T ENOUGH. It's something i feel like exists a lot today unfortunately (animation that is merely technically pleasing)... I wish i could say i have not contributed to it. There are so many animators out there (and I am talking specifically hand drawn although this does not solely apply to the hand drawn animation) that are very technically sound animators who blow you away with there tech. prowess. They understand drawing, and spacing, control their volumes well, blah blah blah. But they don't tell you jack squat about the characters they are performing. They don't THINK about their characters, instead they overindulge in squash and stretch, through in fancy smear drawings, flaunt their beautiful arcs... all at the price of a better pose that could have told you something important.
I think this can be partially attributed to the fact that we as a generation stand on a lot of brilliant work from the past guys to look at and be inspired by. And if you're like me you could sit around all day staring at Milt or Frank drawings/animation. It's our blessing and our curse-- we subconciously revert to what we know will work, we play it safe. That's how acting patterns begin, and cold sterile art is born. Ironically the old guys had NOTHING to look at (animation wise) and found their inspiration from life or other areas of art.
This is a tough thing to do (not copy the past)-- I am not just talking to students, I am talking to every animator: Pro, amateur, retired vet, whoever... no once escapes this question. But here's the GOOD news, no one has to create only technically pleasing art. You absolutely can create a moving performance. YOU have something special to say in a way that only YOU can say it. That is what will set you apart... the challenge is can you call a spade a spade and realize that maybe you've just been a good technician all these years/months/whatever! I know I had too and still daily ask myself why i am doing what i am doing.
The real turning point or inspiration for me was actually being rejected. I applied and was rejected from Pixar. No pity party here man, it's what woke me up! It hurt my pride a little, but that isn't necessarily bad. More importantly it showed me that I wasn't focusing on what really makes animation work, I was a technician who was fascinated with charts, solid drawing, interesting design, fun timing... so what man. So what... if none of that has something personal behind it, it's just mechanical. It set me straight--
I share all these thoughts not to discourage and get down on anyone, but to encourage everyone that they can be amazing! The trick is are you willing to look at yourself in the harsh light of day and really ask yourself this horribly honest question? I know if i want to do something special with my art, I have to every single day. NOW GO KICK SOME BUTT!

24 comments:

Victor Ens said...

This is a question I was asking myself a long time ago. And unfortunately I have to say: "Damn, I'm just another technician."
Very often I was just focused on trying to animate like somone else and I think many others do this aswell. Looking at animation from others is very inspiring sometimes but one should watch the real life more often and close. Sometimes when I watch a movie on a DVD I switch off the sound, turn down the colour and just concentrate on the performance of the actors (like the charly chapplin movies) And suddenly you start to see things you maybe didn't realize before.
That's how I am trying to handle it now. I don't watch animation anymore. But how long can I stand it ;o))) ???

St John Street said...

Hey Matt sorry first off but it's just exprience you had to learn from and you did which puts you ahead of the game.
Your words are so true life is the best teaching that is something I firmly believe in also.
So many of what you have said I myself I thought about and that's why I look to the masters that painted,drew, did science, and invented for life is the only and only true teacher.
So many of us ignore it's listen or don't try hard enough to list and truly see all that is has to offer. I always try to place a bit of real in my work maybe a childhood memoery. Juat remember the only limitation we have in life are the one's we set but I think you know that keep pressing forward an all the best!!!

Linton

messytimbo said...

i think your right. i'm just starting to learn drawn animation this year, but two years ago i was lucky enough to listen to brad bird talk at londons NFT. all he talked about was taking your inspiration from life. and not just for when your animating, for your story telling, art work, the works.

there's also a link from the character design blog to a lecture by the pixar dudes, and again thats all they're talk about.

for me i have to think about learning the technical side, because with out it i wouldn't be able to communicate more personal acting.
i'm lucky because on my course i have a acting class once a week.

but whats so positive about your position is that you have already got all these technical aspects in your back pocket, and now you can truly explore the performance your giving without feeling restricted.

and personally i think your animation is great, and the bear animation displayed wonderful acting.

that my humble opinion

Eric said...

For true, thanks for the great post. S'gettin the home fires burnin again. I like what you said about being vulnerable, seems like in most avenues of personal development loss is more of an investment.

Reminds me of hearing about how the most powerful communication is done on an emotional level, not an intellectual one. Empathy comes from something deeper than precise arcs, smoothe motion, snappy dialog and fart jokes.

I was shopping in a giant Chapters book store the other day, trying to hunt down a couple Animation books within the Arts section. Couldn't find anything other than a couple anatmony books, and ones on how to draw Manga and Hero Comics. I went and asked a clerk if they had any of the books I was looking for, and she directed me to the other floor. The Animation books were kept in the Performance Art section! Right next to the books on acting, directing, and film theory.

Was wearing a little smile for the rest of the day.

There's hope for us all yet, thanks again.

Alex said...

This is the only thing that keeps my going in animation. I know many guys who can animate characters perfectly in space, but their worked so hard on that ability that they lost the focus about the reason of animation itself. Even Richard Williams admits it in his book.
I think you realize that you are a good animator when you are handed over a "boring" scene and you have to make it entertaining and at the same time retain the character.
Looking back, I think I lost something of my individuality from back then, because I strived for animators like Kahl, Tony Fucile or Russ Edmonds too much. It is very dangerous when you only walk in the "paths of animation" and being ignorant to other cultural influences that could shape you. From what I read here makes me hope that traditional animation will come back and once again stand for honestly story-telling.

Adam said...

This is a really inspiring post.... I can't say that I have animated enough in my lifetime to even be considered more than a "technician".
It's funny I was at a Dan Haskett lecture a few nights ago, and he was mentioning the same things!
That being said i really can't even grasp animation on the same level as you or him - but one day i hope to be more than a technician.
Thanks for the inspiration.

Guillaume said...

Very interesting post! I've been meditating on this idea for quite a while myself (well relatively, I'm still just a student) and in the end I wonder if the whole question doesn't have a lot to do with pride, in a way. I know for me what's drawn me to drawing (lame pun not intended) from childhood was mainly the plastic aspect of it, like getting a nice appealing drawing, the good feeling of nailing a nice solid line, getting solid, dynamic drawings, etc etc. It was never as much the creation of characters with personnality/stories or gags or stuff like that.

However, since becoming a student at Sheridan and being exposed to the whole animation culture, I've been made aware of the unmeasurable value of acting, personnality, attitude, etc in drawings. That's what interests an audience, not amazing technique. So then I started thinking: good actors(animators) have more value as artists than good technicians. As far as I know, no student or young artist dreams of becoming a good assistant or clean-up artist, we all want to be the animator (or director in some cases), right?

Well ok, fair enough, but is it always an honnest desire? If I think about it, I really enjoy making a good drawing, period. I might not get as much audience reaction or even any sort of recognition from it, but for myself, at least for now, it satisfies me. That doesn't mean I don't want to push myself and try and become the best artist/communicator I can be in every way, but, I don't think anyone should feel "lower" or whatever because they're "just" good technicians. The world and the industry needs a bunch of different specialists after all. Like if you look at an orchestra, the 10th violonist or whichever other musician is as important as the conductor or composer. Easier to replace, perhaps, but still just as essential.

Some people might view this sort of thinking as letting yourself down or lacking ambition, but I'm not so sure about that, after all. Food for thought.

Oh and btw, I love your blog, keep it up and thanks for all the amazing material!

libra bear said...

Hey Matt. I came across your blog a while ago, but it's only recently I've had a chance to read some of it. I definately want to go through from start to finish. It's sincere, informative, and inspirational. The fact that your so willing to give this information for free definately says a lot about your personality. I feel a lot of people like to sell or keep imformation. So not only do I commend you as an amazing animator, but as a decent human being. I'm gonna pop in more often because I think your someone I can definately learn a lot from. Thanx again.
Wesley Louis (baby animator)

Matt Williames said...

Vic: Yeah man, studying live action can sometimes open up a whole new world!
St. John: You're right man, real life is infinitely inspiring!
MessyTimbo: Yeah, it's a 2 way street. You HAVE to learn the technical side before you can act convincingly, no matter what mr. big shot animator says. If your technical prowess isn't convincing, the you won't be able to communicate your acting ideas. What's tougher is GETTING your acting ideas... ones that are fresh, and truthful to the character. thank you for all your kind words as well!
Eric: Thanks man! I am glad it served as inspiration! And that's really neat about the animation books being in the performing arts section. Someones got it right at least!
Alex: I know what yo mean man... you can learn technical stuff, but finding the actor in you takes something more intangible. I think hand drawn will come back in a special way if all I've heard about "frog princess" is true...
Adam: thanks man! Dan is a super draftsmen and knows his stuff--
Guillaume: I can see what you're saying, one body with many different functions and all equally important to use a biblical term. But, i feel like if you are an animator you key function is to be an actor, not a technician. So, i guess to say that some are great actors and others are great technicians and none are lesser for it seems to be a bit too unambitious to me. I of course can be wrong, but i guess it's like saying an actor who hits his marks and always has his lines of dialogue nailed but does it with know emotion or thought is just as valuable as the actor who gives an amazing emotional performance.
Libra Bear: Thanks man! I really appreciate it-- animation is an artform and artforms typically are learned best through mentorship. I have met one too many ego maniacs in this business who think they are kings of the industry because they've worked with "so and so" (even though their work is just "so so"). They aren't giving and truely are insecure people. The best artists are secure people and thus freely give information-- they care about community. This may be blasphemy to some people but i believe that the artists are partly to blame in the bad movies of the 90's at Disney. Yes, I've seen executive interference and it sucks but there were some massive egos too and the never helps your process of working as a team. Brad Bird's big thing is the team mentallity, no one is the best animator but all together you can be. I certainly hope that is implemented at the "new" Disney--

Adam Sacks said...

Just out of curiosity, what animations did you show Pixar?

Matt Williames said...

Adam: You have to coolest avatar thing I've ever seen! Ummmm, what did i send to Pixar? A lot of personal work (with a character from a short I was working on), some stuff from Curious George and Looney Tunes: BIA I did. The problem is that on the films I've worked on unless you were one of the top guys you didn't get very good shots. So, there were a lot technically complex shots I had, but not a lot of acting stuff. That's were the personal work came in, but it wasn't enough for them I think.

Kaveh R said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ricardo Silva said...

Great blog and great post!!
Thanks!

TotalD said...

Let me be a little zen:

"There is only thought and drawing is what you use to describe it"

Your experiences are no different than any other animators experience in films. It is not the shot but what you do with it. Companies want you not just because you can do just the "money" shots but because you can do anything you are given with the same effort . James Baxter doing a smaller shot will put no less effort into performance.

A quote from Gary Goldmen , ex Disney animator and one of the producers at Bluth:

"There are no small scenes, just small animators".

Now about being a technician. You are both an actor and a technician so what makes the difference in a purely technical performance and one that fleshes a scene to where it lives ? It's simple, thought. If not through your own research through being given the character motivation by your director because they are the ones that are determining the character. Character is the sum result collectively of what you know about the character and not just a single brilliant performance. The film must support that character or it just becomes one good performance within a weak film.

So take for example Brad Bird (since you have he and John up there ) . What do you know about him and how he works ? If you have read anything about his approach as a director then you know that the one thing that stands out about his directing is that he is incredibly specific about performance. In his own words painfully so. He makes all the animators work to that standard and not just his stars. That is where you learn, that is where you grow.

Matt Williames said...

Dave: Good to hear from you man! And good to hear your thoughts on the subject-- I was hoping someone far more experienced that me would chime in on their thoughts and maybe even share some things from their journeys as well.
I agree with you completely...

R.Dress said...

Well said.

César Sáez said...

Great Blog and great post, thanks for the inspiration!

Matt Williames said...

R.Dress and Ceasar: Thanks guys!

shiyoon said...

hey matt~ this is sean.. I just wanted to add that "good" acting is in the eye of the beholder sometimes.. Different animators react differently to the same animation test.. and is evident in the movies that they enjoy~ I discovered this a lot at the animation internship at pixar last summer~

which brings me to the point of the validity of short animation tests..

what I question is how can you know how well your acting is when it's in the context of a 5 second test? it's already generic~ usually a quick read, a simple gag, a short dialogue clip~ its already set up to be VERY generic by it's limitations..

so what are these tests really testing?

my guess is mostly is on the technical side.

just because you do something totally original in your performance doesn't mean that's called for in the context of a film.. sometimes it's actually distracting..

so how do u know whether its good acting or not? When you see it in the context of a film! It's all about CONTEXT!

that's why I think its faulty for studios like pixar to give u a judgement on your performance if its not given in a context of a short film or feature.

the only person to tell you whether your acting was good or not is the director

Matt Williames said...

Hey Shiyoon! You'll probably never see this comment as I have no idea how long ago you left it... i've kinda been absent from the blogging scene for a while.

but i think you make some great points... I know i feel the same way at times about shots out of context. I guess the goal I have always had for myself is to "tempt" the viewers with my performance and make them want to see more. Unless you show your short film or a massive chunk at a time, it can be tough to give context. I like doing longer vingettes (sp?), sorta one shot gags that contain all the context you need. They work much better than really short shots.
Anyway, have been keeping up on your amazing designs man. they look stunning!

Myranimation said...

Hey I'm new to this blog. I definitely don't consider myself a good animator.. yet. I am doing a bunch of traditional 2-D shorts in effort to get better. Please tell me what works and doesn't work in my reel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kufLLcYt2GA .

William L. Cuna said...

hey, Matt! good to see you here. I like your post. I can totally relate to that whole being rejected part in this animation career and I'm sure so does everyone else. Your a good animator and an inspiration to all. Remember me? We worked together at July Films.(well we sort of did, since you only stop by to pick up scenes). - I will add you on my Blogspot- visit my site >> willcuna.blogspot.com

Nikhita said...

Dear Matt,

thanks for this wonderful post. I am neither a technician, not a actor - I am just a student, struggling to be a better technician, and a good actor. but you're right, the core lies in making things meaningful, and in the end, that is what we all stand for.

I'm sorry it took you so long to know this, but your words are inspiring many, and answering a lot of questions that we all ask ourselves. :) thanks for that.

With warmest regards,
Nikhita
(India)

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