Today’s post was written by JK Riki: animator, blogger, and creator of Fred the Monkey, who is probably a bad influence on my typewriter monkeys. All the same, Typewriter Monkey Task Force is honored to share JK’s reflections on what he’s learned from ten years as an animator. For more great stuff from JK, check out his blog and Twitter. You may also want to swing by Animator Island, for which he writes.
After I sent my first guest post to Adam, he responded positively: “It’s good stuff.” Two sentences later came a spirit-crushing qualification: he was more interested in my creative process, particularly from the class of “animator” in which I dwell.
“Surely you can do better than this last, terrible post,” he noted in his email, though it may have actually been written, “I think your thoughts on the creative process may be even more valuable.” (I can read between the lines, you see. I know what he meant.)
[Editor’s note: What I, Adam, really meant was, “I think your thoughts on the creative process may be even more valuable, and I could really use a cup of coffee.” That last part is subtext to nearly everything I say or write, so I left it out.]
So fine, I’ll set aside my deeper thoughts on philosophy and the universe and give the audience what it wants. Plus I’ll do it in a time-honored tradition of TMTF: a top ten list!
That said, please consider…
The Top Ten Things I’ve Learned From Ten Years as an Animator!
10. Mediocre entertainment > unrealized genius
I can’t tell you the amount of time I’ve wasted waiting to get “good enough” to do certain projects. “This is a brilliant idea,” I’ve thought, “but I really need to up my skill level to pull it off properly. Back you go into the Sack of Potential Greatness!”
Poor Sack. It’s been bursting at the seams for years now.
The truth is, a brilliant idea unrealized is pointless. Isn’t an inferior version that exists better than a wasted concept that, let’s face it, will never be made? Honestly, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be “good enough.” You’ll never reach that standard. It’s not worth the wait; go do it now. Save perfection for the next life!
That said, 10b. Always strive to do better!
9. Enthusiasm fades
Animation is a brilliant form of art for one unique reason: It takes forever. Because it takes forever, you have millions of opportunities to tweak things or change directions or quit and become an accountant. When you work on a single piece of art that takes weeks, months, or years for what seems like very little return, at some point you question what you’re doing.
The thing that divides the people who have done great animation (or really, anything at all) from those who only wish they could is pushing past this doldrum and pressing on, enthusiasm or no enthusiasm. Those days happen, and it’s up to you to not let them string together day after day, week after week.
8. Animation is hard
It does not take much physical effort to drag a wooden stick affixed with graphite across compressed tree pulp. It doesn’t even take much physical effort to do that billions of times so you can photograph them in sequence and watch the lines dance across a screen.
Despite the lack of physical energy required, animation is so, so hard.
People are used to watching movement. When you’re attempting to mimic that movement they know so well with pencil or 3D model, your audience are all experts. If you make a mistake, they’ll know about it, because it doesn’t match the decades of real-world experience they have with movement.
At the same time…
7. People are forgiving
In animation, you cheat. A lot. One of my favorite descriptions of animation is from Pixar director Peter Docter, who said “Animation is life with the volume turned up.”
As animators, we’re called to go beyond reality and create things that “look right.” Sometimes, in order to get something to look right, you have to throw all the rules out the window and make things up. The wonderful thing about this process is that people will accept your made up nonsense if it looks right. They’ll forgive your strange motion blurs and broken joints just as long as it feels the way it should. It’s because of this that…
6. Mistakes aren’t as huge as you think
One of the greatest moments in animation is when you finish roughing out a shot and you hate it with every fiber of your being. You look at the individual drawings and think “This is garbage. I should quit and become an accountant!” Then you play it in real time and oh! The beauty! The majesty! The countless hours were worth it, and for reasons unknown it works. There is reason to live again!
Life is long, and it’s a process. The mistakes of a “single frame” that seem overwhelming at the time may just work in unison with the images around it and turn out beautifully. Then the key becomes remembering that even the close-up errors really aren’t as dooming as they seem.
5. Things change
If you aren’t growing as a person, you’re doing life wrong. We’re here to grow, to learn, and to become better every day. Knowing this, one should expect to change over time. When we expect this change to happen, we can better deal with the feelings of “failure” when it arrives. I once kicked myself for failing to keep FredtheMonkey.com updated consistently. Wait, to be fair, I kicked myself for that dozens of times.
The longer I live, the more I see that the goals I set at twenty-two are not the goals I have today. As the Bible says in Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: A time to make Flash cartoons about monkeys, and a time to focus on family life and remodeling a house.” (Paraphrasing here a bit, so go look up the full non-cartoon-including list in Ecc. 3.)
Things change; it’s part of life. When we know this, we can…
4. Manage expectations to find happiness
Consider this scenario. You decide to go see a film this weekend. You’ve seen a trailer, and it looks absolutely terrible, but a friend/family/cute member of the opposite sex really wants to go, so you oblige. After two hours in the theater, the film turns out to be pretty average, but certainly not completely awful, and you realize, “Hey, that wasn’t as bad as I thought!”
Using the power of hypothetical situations, let’s go back in time. (Time travel is fun!) This time, a friend has told you about the film and how it’s the most incredible work of movie making ever crafted by human hands. Your heart beats quicker as the previews rush by and finally the film begins. Your hands grip the plastic theater chair arms in anticipation. Your knees tremble in spite of your feet being glued to the floor by soda and popcorn grease. This is it!
And… it’s decidedly average.
Now what? Chances are you’re going to walk out of the theater this time grumbling, “That wasn’t amazing at all, what were they thinking? I counted a dozen plot holes and the main character was an idiot. What a waste of two hours….”
What’s the difference here? Spoiler alert: It’s not the film, it’s your expectations.
Over ten years of animating, I’ve had many expectations. Some cartoons I knew were great, and would do so well on Newgrounds.com. They flopped. Some animations were rushed and I almost didn’t release them because they weren’t ready (see point #10, though). Reviews were glowing, and they made front page. Lol, what?
I’ve learned (and continue to learn) to manage expectations. There’s nothing wrong with hope, or wanting things to be wonderful. There’s a big difference between hoping for good things and expecting them. If you manage the expectation part, life goes so, so much better.
3. Edit well
Cut out all things you don’t need in order to make your point or tell your story.
[Author’s note: I’m still learning this one, because Adam had to edit this post for clarity and to remove most of my ramblings. The original was 518 words longer in total. Clearly there’s still work for me to do regarding Lesson #3.]
2. There is nothing like doing what you love
I have held several jobs in my life, ranging from things I’ve enjoyed to “I’d really rather be having teeth pulled, thank you.” For me, animation is a passion. It goes beyond enjoyment to a very strange place that shares borders with the lands of “Obsession” and “Madness.”
Someone once asked me if animation was fun. I thought about it for a moment and then said “No, not at all.” At the time I was surprised by my response, but if I could go back in time, I’d add, “I can’t imagine not doing it, though.”
I love animation. It is one of the things I think I was put on this Earth to do. As a result, no matter how difficult it becomes (see #8), I am filled with joy when I’m engrossed in it. It’s not about “having fun” as much as it is “bathing in the joy of purpose and meaning.” Do what you love and life becomes awe-inspiring every dang day.
1. Understanding the why is the most important thing
We devalue the why in our world today. We’ve gotten so caught up in the who, what, when, and where that we’ve forgotten all about the final W of the Big 5. It’s rather ironic, actually, because when something big (often tragic) happens our first reaction is “Why is this happening?!”
In animation, you must understand the why. Why is this character doing what he’s doing? Why is this prop in the scene? Why didn’t I go to school to become an accountant?
Life is the same way.
When I started FredtheMonkey.com more than a decade ago, I had conflicting dreams for it. On the one hand, I wanted to make the world a better place by producing funny cartoons that brightened someone’s day.
At the same time, I wanted HomestarRunner-level success. If I could just reach that level of popularity, boy, I could sure make this planet a better place. I could change people, convince them of things, and have influence. No doubt the money I’d make could help millions as well. Yes, that would be the day it all came together!
The further I unconsciously veered towards the second why during those ten years of animating poor-quality Flash cartoons, the more miserable I was. The more it was work, instead of joy. The more I didn’t want to keep doing it. I had lost the purpose that drove my initial creative process. I burned out a lot.
Each time I remembered my mantra of “If I make one person’s life better with this cartoon, it will have been worth it,” the peace and love of what I was doing came rushing back. I had to constantly stave off the allure of fame and wealth so I could be content with whatever came from my efforts.
And that contentment was far better than anything I’ve ever gained materialistically. Know the why of what you do, and remind yourself of it always.
I hope that these lessons I’ve learned can be of some help to someone out there. If it gives hope or inspiration to a single person, the decade of struggles will be worth every effort.