Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Doug Masters has been a CG artist, director, and senior manager in the CG/animation business over the last 20 years, working in software development, games, commercial production, VFX, and most recently TV animation. He is active within the Toronto animation community and is currently focusing on next generation content development and production.

Things can turn on a dime. You live long enough you'll have to agree; markets change, fashions change, people change (evidently more in Hollywood then elsewhere). And not many things change faster than technology, which is why I have told people in the past that if you went to school to learn a single package to make a career out of it then you picked the wrong business! Honestly, I've heard it said that some people have gone to school to be Maya Animators or Photoshop Artists, which makes me wince a little since I know how often I had to learn new packages over the years - again, because things are always evolving. Which is why I'd rather hear that people are going to school to learn to simply be animators or artists first, then worry about which tools they want to focus on after that.

But they got one thing right, they are smart enough to know about industry standards. Boy, even the best of them can get that part wrong but I can see why. It may not seem like it but the CG business is a relatively very young one. It can't compare to the history of the film business, or the auto business or even the computer business itself. The first "mice" peripherals for computers only made their first appearance about 20 years ago - along with some very rudimentary GUI (graphic user interface) technology to go along with them. People saw a 3D wire-frame box rotate in REAL-TIME (!) on very expensive new workstations about the same time. SGI, Wavefront, and a host of other earlier packages and hardware equipment ruled the day (how many of you know Pixar manufactured rendering machines once upon a time?). Anyway point being, things change - none of these things are standard anymore. But the qualities and requirements have remained.

Case in point: "Tron". Nerd Alert? Now now, I know a thing or two about cool so bear with me. I picked up an old '67 Camaro SS when I was younger because I thought those cars had some sweet looking lines and a subtle mean look - and it always made an impact on me to see old images of design teams at GM with such... normal... looking guys wearing thin ties and suits. Any one of them could have been my dad but somehow they knew cool. So I get it, age has nothing to do with it. And same for the movie Tron. Sure it featured some of the earliest CG Animation with few bells and whistles, but what makes those shots and sequences really hold up is because the technology had so little to do with it. Sure, it offered a unique look and production approach in its day, but when you watch those shots over and over it dawns on you that the senior people directing the camera angles and pacing probably didn't have a clue how to do CG, but they sure as hell recognized a camera view when they saw it and could instruct the artists how to make it do what real cameras should. Worth checking it out again if you have not for that reason, and it illustrates my point - that the tools did not ensure the quality. The knowledge and talent did.

These are important things to remember. They call them "fundamentals". Today's financial markets lost the critical importance of that term and we are now all sweating because of it. And over and over I see people with great skills and systems knowledge who side-stepped the fundamentals and struggle later. It's for that reason I like it when I see schools offer "Art Fundamentals" courses that introduce people to the wide spectrum of art and design. It gives students such a head start without focusing on one particular tool or job. Same for animation of course, or any media art, or acting, sport, ...or relationships for that matter. Fundamentals are timeless and essential. Don't rush a nice shot, don't linger on boring ones, don't start with too many lights, and don't talk about yourself too much on a date. An old VFX colleague of mine was always quick to point out how often he met new CG artists who wanted to be lighters, yet how rarely it had occurred to them to take a basic studio set-lighting class, or read a live-action film and television industry manual on the subject! It all relates back.

Let me offer a little story (I can't resist analogies). When I was in LA years ago I wanted to say I learned to surf. I knew a girl who was raised there and insisted she could show me how and did. There were some key things to focus on like learning to read the waves and see the "sets" coming in; how to catch one at the right time, and how to maintain a balanced posture from kneeling through to a full surfing stance. She also told me what to do when things go wrong and you wipe out. Mainly, don't let the board get you. She mentioned a kid from her school who hadn't respected that and ended up with the board's back fin up his ass. Right up there apparently - a serious injury. She said there is a plaque mounted somewhere in his memory. I suspect the story had amplified over time, but believe me it stuck in my mind and I took it very seriously. When I eventually wiped out I made sure to tackle and hug that surf-board in front of me like it was a living thing trying to mount me! In all that time on the water, and even in the midst of wipe-out panic, the brand of the board or the label of my clothes did not matter, but the fundamentals sure did.

So whether you are an artist or studio manager I encourage you to keep looking for emerging tools, changes, and innovative solutions, but at the same time keep going back to the principles of your craft when you can - through the animation community, or schools, or through senior artists you work with. It can serve you well in a pinch when you find yourself facing a deadline, or after someone has handed you the reins to lead a project. On a related note, be sure to check out Pixar's Ed Catmull's lectures on-line, as well as an excellent article in September's Harvard Business Review (How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity). In one lecture, he clarifies a point about Pixar's reputation for extensive in-house software development. Namely, that they only resorted to it so often because back in the day, good industry standard packages and tools didn't exist yet. If they did, Pixar would have happily embraced them. But he is quick to point out that good talent, creativity, and management remained the essential backbone. Opportunities to innovate within that will always present themselves (its a technical industry after all).

You learn something cool from each package or piece of hardware you work on - Your value and adaptability climbs every time you learn another - but always remember that they are all just tools, and as obviously important as they are, it's the underlying fundamentals which will make each one of them work best for you. That awareness will protect you as much as anything else when you find yourself surfing on the wrong side of a wave.

1 comment:

Marc Lougee- Producer/Director said...

Great post, Doug-
...and thanks for the heads up on Ed's terrific article in the Harvard Bus. Review. Can't agree with you more on the fundamentals being, well, fundamental from start to finish in one's creative career. Like a an armature, rig or skeleton, character's can't stand without a solid structure (fundamentally) with which to stand.
Marc Lougee
Director/ Creative Producer