Thursday, October 15, 2009

Learning to animate 'too late'?

Perhaps some of you saw this on deviantArt or NewGrounds lately.
Well, I saw it about two years ago. And I saw it again about ten times before it was uploaded *anywhere* on the web.

It's the brainchild of a fellow called James Lee who is currently helping me with my own final film, The Rise Of Kaiser Fate (working title).
I am prefacing this post with that link so that you know that both members of this party know their shit when it comes to Flash.

At the beginning of the year I made a solemn promise that I was going to make something better than Tarboy but thanks to good old laziness and procrastination, that won't be happening - at least not until next year.
That said, don't make the mistake of thinking that James Lee and I are rivals (though at first that's kind of what I wanted us to be for some reason). Rather, we are friends, and he is one of the only people in Australia (or anywhere for that matter) who I can talk to at my own level about Flash.

Which brings us to the point of this post.

Why can't I use this stupid program?! I couldn't learn how to use this confounded thing if I had a billion years!!!

Well incidentally, I bumped into James Lee at South Bank yesterday and we got talking about my film and, eventually, why I was behind in it. He wasn't actually aware that I was doing a fifty credit point semester - which means I'm doing one more subject than everyone else.
This led to me explaining how I had to do some monster compositions in a nodal compositing program called Shake. If you don't have someone to guide you and try to learn the program in a vacuum of isolation, getting anything done is not only impossible, it's actually infuriating. I recalled having the exact same problem with Maya while I was at QUT and said, "it helps me understand why so many people find Flash difficult."

See, James and I are both at a point where using Flash is not an obstacle. We don't spend 50% of our time animating trying to figure out how to do this or that little effect in the program or struggling with the timeline controls. We spend zero percent of our time doing that, in fact. This is because we have both been using the program for a very long time - in my case, about ten years. That's more than most of my lecturors who teach the program.
I lamented that so many people give up at the drop of a hat these days not realising how much work is actually involved learning the project. It was then that James Lee suddenly distilled the problem so clearly. It magically made sense.

He casually said, "Well see, when you're a kid, anything you make in Flash is cool. You're quite content to make stickmen run around the room and fight each other-" (which is precisely what I started off doing) "-and the sense of satisfaction is there. But if you're an artist who's just gotten into uni and you've never used the program before, everyone is biting off more than they can chew and they are frustrated that they cannot make animations that have taken other flash animators five years to get to the point of doing".

This is such a perfect way of explaining it. Why the hell would you naturally assume your first animation (or second, or third, or hundredth) will look like one of Adam Phillips' Brackenwood cartoons?
When I first started using Flash, it was version four (before it was popular or useful in any concievable way) and I got a huge rush from making the crappiest animations. What was my alternative? Flipbooks in my excercise books! By those standards, Flash 4 was a godsend! What were the greatest flash animations on the web at the time? Stickdeath. Does anyone remember that?
Not exactly a whole lot to compete with.
Just take a look at some of my earliest animations, the ones I made before I knew what NewGrounds existed:

While I was growing with Flash, so was the world of online animation around me.
Newer, better animations began to surface - more complex ones that I suddenly felt the need to catch up to. If I was going to be in this game, I had to play to win. Every time I saw an animation that blew me away, I'd save it to my hard drive (a lot easier in the olden days) and study the fuck out of it until I could figure out exactly how it was done.
Suddenly I had to step up to the plate and really push myself. Every single animation I made was slightly more advanced than the previous one.

Suddenly I was actually winning fans! Mid high school, I was getting literally hundreds of emails from fans congratulating me on giving them some really good entertainment and great animation. It's funny really because I look back at what they were talking about and frankly it looks like shit. But it was pretty good at the time, as the Flash community was still growing, and me with it. I kept trying new things and pushing the boundaries of Flash. Before you knew it I was nesting things inside each other about fourteen layers deep! I still find it rare to come across other animators who work like this and it came purely from me trying to stay in the forward ranks of the crowd.
Before you knew it, I was in university and more people knew me as "the Flash guy" than my real name. Suddenly I felt a pressure to perform unlike anything I'd experienced prior.

"Engineered" was thus made for a university assignment, and it was a first for me in many respects. It was the first five minute animation I ever made - the first animation where I had ever done such a quantity of work in less than half a year - the first time I shaded absolutely everything from beginning to end with gradients - and the first time I regularly drew characters and scenes from different angles instead of flatly reusing them from previous scenes. And even then it looks pretty flat to my eyes these days.
This Flash was also a breakthrough for me as it was the first time someone challenged me to do something well outside what I thought Flash was capable of and I was actually able to do it.
My Canadian friend Jay, a gentle giant of a man who deceptively looked like someone who beat up five year olds for fun, saw that I was working on a scene where the robot and the aliens walked behind liquid-filled glass jars preserving various alien foetuses.

"Hey, y'know what'd be cool? They should like, wrap around the jars as they go behind it. Like they warp and stretch through the glass as it refracts them."
I looked at him like he had an arm growing out of his neck.
"Jay, do you have any idea how long that would take? In any case I don't even think it's possible in Flash."
"Are you kidding, man? You can do anything in Flash, you're a fuckin' wizard! I bet you could come up with some clever way of doing it."
I nearly exploded. "Jay, don't do this to me, the film is due in like four weeks, and what you're suggesting can only be done with Frame By Frame. It would take ages, it'd look like shit and it would just be a waste of time. You can't do it with some special trick in Flash. The only thing I can even think of that might come close is if I were to go into the panning graphic, copy and paste the shape of the jars, use them as masks, mask out the robot and aliens... stretch an additional graphic from left to right... hang on, wait."
He laughed and went back to his own animation. When he came back to check up on me, I had beaten the challenge.

These stills don't really do it justice, but it became one of the most popular shots of the film, and everyone who saw it dropped their jaw with shock. It looked great, and I would never had done it if Jay hadn't made me.
Suddenly, I realised that Flash is nothing but problem solving.
There's nothing the program can't do. Only the animator.
This led to a veritable avalanche of future work that was a lot more dynamic than anything I had done previously, because I knew that I could handle any shot, no matter how complex, given enough time and patience. The challenge is figuring out how to do it.

From here on in, the one big thing that has improved with my animation is speed.

Did anyone see Ill Fate: Ep. 2?

This film contains many of my best shots ever and it also contains a lot of crap that was stretched to meet the deadline. That said, I think it's still a pretty big achievement to animate five and a half minutes of complete animation in as many days.

Lately I have discovered my big challenge is to mix it all with Frame By Frame. FBF is a lot harder (like, a LOT harder) and more time consuming (like, a LOT more time consuming) than tweening, but it looks more impressive, plain and simple. I have virtually made a career off tweening but I don't want to be known as the best tweener around, because that's like saying you are the best high-jump athlete at an aero club. There was a bit of pretty adventurous FBF in Ill Fate 2, particularly the Kaiser running up the Collossus' arm (top picture), but I endeavoured to include more FBF whenever I could from that point on. Usually, however, I still end up balancing the scales to tweens simply because of time restraints. If you can make them look good, then hey, you have just spent a tenth of the time and the effort. It just won't look as good.

These days I tend to go for a mix. For some reason, the marriage between tween dynamics and the raw beauty of frame by frame is totally underused. Well hey, all the more for me, because I think it's a quirky and pretty unique look. It's simultaneously taking advantages of the restraints of Flash and giving them the 'fuck you'.

THE POINT OF ALL THIS is that I didn't just wake up one morning able to use Flash. Same goes for drawing, I spent several years learning to do both.
If you want to make it sound hard and brutal, I have been using Flash for one decade and I have been drawing for two. Do the math.
Don't be disheartened if Flash is giving you the shits. Don't worry about your animation looking like it fell out of a tree.
It's all about practice, and that's all there is to it. The only difference between you and me is that I got a headstart.


  1. That was a very interesting read. When I started Flash, I first learned how to use the tools, and I learned about tweening, character building, and other methods to create things with Flash. Then I worked more on the FBF.

    I would have probably never become interested in animation if I did not see other people's animations online, including your work. Keeps me working on Flash and animation, no matter how tiring it gets sometimes. This is what I got so far. "Subway" I've worked with Flash for at least four years, and this animation and another are the only 'front page' animations that got some attention. Many times, I always considered stopping because my movies never received front page or any attention.

    I guess my point is that even with the knowledge of Flash, it's up to the animator to create a great movie. Even if a well-done animation is not popular, the drive to make something is what counts.

  2. Hi Peter,

    Enjoyed reading your post about Flash.

    I find it very interesting to hear colleagues' personal stories and thoughts about their experiences in the animation industry, Flash, time to acquire certain skill level, stay motivated, etc.

    I recently wrote some rather lengthy comments on Pete Emslie's blog about Flash and related problems. Thought you might find them interesting.

    Enjoyed reading some of your reviews too.

  3. Yes, I witnessed firsthand your earlier works. Laphrid & Sam (BLOCKSHTAD!!!), What the (CAN I HELP YOU?) and of course the deliberately horrible boy meets girl short you did at david's one afternoon. Ahh, those were the days.

    It's both inspiring and depressing to read that last paragraph. The former because you're saying anyone could get as good as you with enough time and effort, the latter because it requires SHITLOADS of time and effort.

  4. Hey guys, sorry for the late response, I didn't realise anyone had commented! Thanks for the comments, I look back on this post and it seems a little big-headed. I want to emphasise that I don't know everything, I still have a long way to go as an animator, but I wanted to inspire some people who are promising animators but so ready to give up because they aren't where they want to be after a year or two, I see it happen so often.

  5. Even though that Meshuggah photo is taken out of context, nothing brings me delight like the Jens Kidman (the guy in the photo) expression.