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  • Writer's pictureZAP!

Supervising animation

Hey guys!

I got a really great email from someone who has been checking out the new posts on this blog... considering I haven't done any advertising that it is back up and running, I am super exciting that ANYONE is reading! This email was awesome though and he asked a question about what it is like to supervise animation, how is casting determined, how do supervisors find the balance between challenging artists and making sure they can complete their work. Great questions!

I wanted to take a quick break from the trips down memory lane to answer these questions as I would much rather take direction as to what to write on this blog from you guys than ramble on and on uselessly!! So let's dig in!

Now I have only been a Supervisor and a Head of Animation at Disney Animation, so I am not sure if this is a universal approach.. and, in fact, it may not be the same approach with every Supervisor and Head of Animation AT Disney. My view on the Head of Animation position is that it is the role responsible for making sure the performance of the characters and the stylistic choices of the show are maintained at the highest level possible to facilitate the story the Director(s) is trying to tell. I think your role as a HOA is to support your Supervisors in running their sequences (the Disney Animation approach) and to connect the higher level decisions made on a film back to the animation department for direction and context. This includes story changes, art direction, other department feedback, bids, scheduling, deadlines and quota. Finally, the HOA is responsible for the health and growth of the crew (this responsibility is shared by the Animation Supervisors as well). Now that is a lot and there is a ton packed into all of those sentences... maybe we won't go into all of that today, but let's jump to that end bit that the Supes and HOAs share.

There are a million approaches to this particular problem, and it is probably safe to say that no one solution is better than any other. It depends on the film you are working on, your crew, your deadline, your production management partners, all kinds of things. On Big Hero 6, my production management partner (we call them production supervisors) and myself met with every artist as they rolled onto the show. We decided it was worth taking the time to have a chat with each person individually about how they were feeling coming off of Frozen or from another studio, what they were excited about on the show, what kinds of shots they wanted and where they felt like they had room to grow. It was an incredibly helpful meeting for Karen (PS) and I to give us context as to where we could help each artist on their trajectory. However, it is a tricky conversation as people might feel like they are being pre-judged or tested. We were earnest in our desire to help people and tried to call back to these roll-on conversations when we were discussing casting or feedback later on in the show.

We also sat with the Animation Supervisors and went through every artists on the crew and discussed what their previous show feedback was, what they wanted to get out of the show, and how we wanted to start the show for them casting-wise. This was all just prep work before the show got going full steam. When the show is really running at full speed, it becomes far more difficult. The best intentions get sanded off to what might seem like a random choice to the artist. This is especially true if there isn't the time to give the artist the feedback necessary as to why they are getting the shots they are getting.

Sometimes, the conversation in the room is, "Wow! They really nailed that last shot! Let's throw something big at them and see what they can do with it!" So the artist is cast a super complicated physical action shot that I might find to be amazingly fun to do! This can go a lot of ways on the artists side if there is no conversation around that casting... "They hate me. They are giving me this shot as a punishment. Look at all these constraints and things. I said I wanted complicated acting shots... not complicated... this! I must have messed up my acting shot" or "Sweet! This is scary, but could be fun!" or "whatever."

Usually, the animation supervisors, the HOAs and the Production Management are trying very hard to balance a few things: what they have in inventory, how long before they have more in inventory, what the artist excels at (which usually equals "gets done faster and better"), what the artist needs to get better at (a balance of risk in deadline and support of growth), and what they just worked on (if they just worked on something they struggle with, then it might be best to give them something they excel at, or the reverse). The challenge for the supervisors is not all of these things are easily satisfied at the same time. Sometimes, you only have walking and talking shots... and this animator who is running out of work is just finishing walking and talking shots and excels at action shots. You are kinda screwed.

The main take-away from all of this is that the communication about the casting choice is key. I failed at this 90 percent of the time because of the time constraints, but it would probably would have solved a lot of problems or confusion later. I recently talked to an animator who was telling me about how terrible a time he had during a particular part of Big Hero 6. I was crushed. I remember specifically trying to give him the best possible shots as he said he had felt overworked in subtle emotional acting shots on Frozen. He really wanted to do non-subtle acting, so I thought "Alright!! Let's give him this Baymax exploration!" He would get to define the main character who was definitely not going to give subtle/emotional acting. In my head, this was the coolest assignment I had and I was doing a good job of making sure that I was giving him what he asked for. Years later, I found out he HATED those shots. He felt like it was the most subtle acting he had ever had to do and he didn't want to go through the mental hurdles of trying to define a new character. He just wanted some fun animation! The thing we realized in that conversation was... we failed at the communication. I never explained to him at the time my intention behind giving him those shots. He didn't feel it was his place to complain about the shots he had been given, and I walked away all proud of myself like a moron. He of course nailed the shots, but that isn't the point.

The point on all of this is, if you are supe, make sure you are giving constant and honest feedback as to how the artists are progressing in relation to the goal you have agreed on together. Then, explain your intention behind the casting of the work you are giving them. It doesn't have to be a long conversation, but enough to let them know that you thought about it and give them an opportunity to respond. For the artist, don't be afraid to tell your supervisor what your goals are. If you want to get better at a particular type of animation, or you have never gotten to do a particular type of shot... tell them! But be prepared to be told no or to not get your way. The unfortunate reality is, EVERYONE wants that crucial crying shot or the iconic, epic fight sequence climax. Only one lucky person gets that shot. It could be you. Your chances of getting it are always better if you are clear with your leadership about what you think you excel at, where you think you could be better, and how you want to challenge yourself. Final thought... if you don't know where you stand with your supervisor, just ask. When I have supervised, I have had so many different things spinning in my head that sometimes the most important thing (the people) gets lost in the mix. Sometimes supes just need a little knock-knock on the head to remind them that that is their role. Rarely is a supe just a total jerk. They are probably just going a million miles an hour.

That was a total stream of consciousness.... so... if it made no sense, drop a comment and lemme know and I will try to clarify. Lemme know anything you want to know about! Conversation is key, so let's start one.


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