Recently, I received an email from a new animator who asked:
when you are animating, what is your strategy? (in other words, where do you start and how do you go from there?)
I’ve thought about this question for a long time before. Of course the easy answer is short; I pick an idea and then I execute it. But choosing the best idea is actually a long, multi-step process that I go through at the beginning of every project.
This is my response to Ben (with supplemental images added):
1. Executable. The idea must be feasible to do well.
When I start a project, I make sure I have the skills to execute the idea well and proper. What is execution? It is basically the entire act of creating the animation. Drawing, timing, getting a good performance out of the characters, presenting a good story, etc. And I have to believe in my ability that I will create something good and polished. I will often have awesome ideas about super complicated fight scenes, but I rarely pursue them because I know I cannot execute them (yet!). This requires a strong understanding of yourself, so reflect! Know what you can and can’t do. Another part of execution is finishing the dang thing. It isn’t a good idea to start projects that you cannot finish. If I can’t see myself finishing the project, chances are I won’t. I have to have both the skills and the time for the idea.
What happens to un-executable ideas:
- The work is technically weak.
- You may not finish the animation because a scene was too difficult to draw.
- The work looks amateur-ish and overstepped its bounds. It looks “try hard”.
- The work may come out decent, or even good! But you underestimated how long it would take and you will wish you had stuck with something easier.
What happens to executable ideas:
- The work is technically good, and it does what it set out to do well.
- You finished the project in about the time you expected to.
- The work is something you are proud to share.
- At worst, people will disagree with your style choice but can appreciate the animation itself.
- At best, people will love both the idea AND the execution.
Walt Disney said, “What ever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it they will want to come back and see you do it again and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”
2. Novel. The idea must present something new.
This is my own personal restriction. It is fine to create something everyone has seen before, but I find it much more fun to mix things up. Note that I want to present only some thing new. The entire animation doesn’t have to be super unique, but it must present at least one aspect that is new. This could be an unconventional music choice, combining genres, a different art-style or a weird combo we haven’t seen before. In entertainment, they say “deliver what the audience wants in an unexpected way”. Also, I’ve found that there are no truly original ideas. Everyone borrows from everyone else. But we can always present something we borrowed from our own life, to an audience who hasn’t experienced it before. For example, the Stick Fight community has seen many parodies inspired by video games, but we don’t often see stick anims about sports or exercise. It’s important to be inspired by many things. Doing so lets you pull ideas from your inspirations and share them with others through animation. In turn, this helps the animation community evolve and become more diverse.
What happens to used ideas:
- The work is predictable.
- The animation’s entertainment value relies on technical merit.
- People will compare your work to better animations with more scrutiny.
- People will not be inspired, since you didn’t share anything new.
What happens to new ideas:
- The work is pleasantly surprising.
- The animation’s entertainment value is improved; It feels fresh.
- Even if your work looks worse, people will enjoy what was new about it.
- People may copy these new ideas from you, since you inspired them.
Dave Chappelle said, “The mark of greatness is when everything before you is obsolete, and everything after you bears your mark.”
3. Worthy. The idea must be something I can care about.
Animation, like most art forms, is a form of expression. Potentially the most powerful form of expression of all. With animation, I can plant an idea that came from my head, straight into yours. By watching another artist’s creation, they have effectively allowed me to see an idea that they visualized in their head. Therefore, I find it most fulfilling to express ideas that are worthy. What counts as worthy ideas are dependent on who you are. An awesome feeling you experienced watching a movie might be just as worthy as a really good joke that needs to be told. Either way, it is always worth it to share worthy ideas. There is satisfaction to be gained in knowing that you left an impression on the viewer. If done successfully, the work will have a timeless charm that exists independently from execution and novelty.
What happens to un-worthy ideas:
- The work lacks heart.
- No one will remember how the animation made them feel.
- Over time, people who change their taste in style will not appreciate your work as much (including you).
- If the work is good, jealous artists will bitterly envy the work.
What happens to worthy ideas:
- The work has heart.
- The animation has a lingering emotional effect (sad, empowering, funny) on everyone.
- Over time, even if people shift away from your style (e.g. stick figures), they will still be nostalgic about your work (including you).
- If the work is good, jealous artists cannot help admiring it because they care about the ideas behind the work.
According to a podcast I listened to, Disney animators would criticize some story ideas by saying “WHERE’S THE DAMN WARMTH?”.