We talked to animator Lauren Brown, a self-proclaimed animation nerd, about her work. Brown presently works as an animation supervisor. She recently earned a Masters in Animation and Digital Arts from USC. Brown’s skills include animating, stop motion, editing, image manipulation and production. You can see her reel here.
Let’s start with the story. Is story just as critical in animation as it is in live film? Are there different themes or different approaches required for an animated story?
The importance of story really depends on who you ask. Animation has the ability to tell a complex story as well as act as an emotional conduit and a moving painting. Story is only one element of filmmaking and a filmmaker can choose which elements he or she wishes to focus on. Perhaps visual beauty is more important, or emotional arc or capturing one moment in time.
It is important to note that in general, people look for stories in their media, so even if you do not provide a clear narrative that most of your audience will understand in the same way, people may interpret one from your film.
Can a filmmaker show off his/her skill in a piece as short as :30 or :60?
You can absolutely tell a story or show your skill in a short piece. Commercials are usually under a minute and can be very wonderful visual experiments and can tell very impactful, simple stories. Many animation exercises are only a few seconds in length. An animator can look at a few seconds of animation to determine your technical skill level in that method.
However, showing your story chops usually requires more than a few seconds. Short form films require different approaches to story than feature length ones because you have to hold the audience for different lengths of time and different elements are required to keep people involved.
In the age of YouTube, a short piece is a great way to share your ideas and talent and experiment with animation and visual effects. Use online animation forums and groups to get honest feedback on your work.
Is storyboarding more important in an animated film? If so, why?
In general, storyboarding is an important part of commercial animated filmmaking. Because animation is as visually driven as it is story driven (and sometimes more so) and you have to create your world from scratch, it is important to visualize the film before you get to work. Also, making animation is labor intensive and while it might seem like it takes a lot of time to storyboard, you will actually save time overall if you do.
Some animators do not storyboard, and animate free form. Generally though, even people doing abstract work or straight ahead animation create a plan. That plan can be an emotional arc map or previsualization artwork of key moments.
Life action filmmakers have begun to storyboard more extensively because of the prevalence of visual effects. It also helps them sell their idea, provide a proof of concept to executives, and help guide their team during production. New 3D previsualization studios have begun to open to meet the demands.
Does one need to be an artist to do an animated film? Do directors often partner with artists? What are the levels/aspects of animation art: sketching, painting, coloring, modeling, puppet making?
You do not have to consider yourself an artist to make an animated film or know how to draw. It does help you express the vision you have in your mind, but you should not be afraid to create at any level of technical proficiency. I have made films with Masters students and third graders and both groups made entertaining films that expressed their chosen message. There are so many ways to create animation and every animator has his or her favorite.
It is really funny to me how people outside of animation often want to hire an animator while people in animation want to hire someone with an extremely specific skill, like texturing 3D cartoon characters.
Animation has more specialties than live action film because it encompasses so many art forms. Not only are there many types of animation, but many specialties within it. For instance, a traditional 2D animation crew will have many of the same crew members as a live action production, as well as storyboard artists, matte painters, character designers, set designers, character animators, effects animators, colorists, and a camera operator.
Other forms such as stop-motion, Flash, motion graphics, 3D, and visual effects (vfx) require other specialties. However, mastering all of these specialties requires basic underlying traditional artistic skills such as figure drawing and you will find that if you go to school for animation, you will be taking fine art classes.
If you are a live action director who wants to do animation, I suggest trying your hand at it. It will give you a respect and understanding of the skill and time it takes to create animation. In general, a good director or leader will have some level of understanding and respect for each person and specialty on their crew. Many live action directors and cinematographers are being brought on to big budget animated films because they bring unique experience and perspective.
If Disney’s animated features are the ultimate paradigm, does everyone else need to do three layers of action/animation in order to do a good animated film?
I’m not entirely sure what you mean by this. Many production designers encourage students to create black, gray and white drawings of fore, middle and background before finalizing their designs to create realistic depth. As far as layers used to draw animation, you are now unlimited in how you design thanks to digital tools. I have used 50 or more layers, some nesting even more work inside. In the past, artists were limited, because the more layers you added, the foggier the lower drawings became and the less true the color.
Can you describe the difference between the processes for hand-drawn cel animated features (Cinderella) and the CGI features (The Incredibles)? Which process is longer to develop, more cost-effective? Which is preferred?
Hand-drawn animated (2D) features and computer animated (3D) features only differ now in how they are produced in the animation pipeline, but preproduction is almost the same. In both, story, previsualization and storyboarding are almost identical.
The difference is that in 3D characters will be mocked up in the computer after they have been designed, while 2D characters may spend more time in model sheets searching out their dimensionality. Storyboards and animatics in a 2D feature will be made of layers of drawings, while in 3D they might be rough placement in the digital world. With hand-drawn projects, you do just that – you make drawings, and a lot of them. In CG you are world building not with the pencil, but with models in the computer. This means you are modeling, texturing, lighting, rigging, and placing a camera. It is more like live-action in this way.
However, they both strive for the same cinematic effects and you will find that today’s hand-drawn films have more cinematic qualities, such as dynamic camera moves, in response to the new language of digital film making that 3D has brought about. Both methods cost more than I will ever have and require armies of artists. These days, both require computers. It is a matter of what programs you put on them and how you divide your team based on the specific skill sets you need. As far as preference, many films use a combination of traditional and digital arts, even as far back as Beauty and the Beast. From my experience, the audience cares little for the method of animation as long as the story is entertaining and the characters relatable. Many people cannot tell the difference between 2D and 3D.
To develop a strong portfolio, does a filmmaker need to have one animated film along with live films?
This really depends on what you want to accomplish. It never hurts to have a variety of work, since many people will only hire you if they see that you have done something similar to what they want. The production, and thus directing, of animation is very different from live-action films. Having experience with both kinds of film making shows that you are versatile. Also, many live-action films use animation and visual effects, so it does not hurt to have experience in these areas. Films such as Avatar and Tron are blurring the boundaries of technique.
At minimum, someone pursuing live-action should have an understanding of basic visual effects, such as lighting and compositing a green screen and adding practical effects to shots just as animators should understand how to light a scene and direct actors.
How can a beginning filmmaker – a teen or college student (not in film school) – produce a good animated film? What cameras are needed? What software? What is the basic production/development process?
You really do not need a lot of fancy equipment to learn to animate. Your set up can be as simple as a tape or a plastic peg bar for paper registration and a scanner. As new generations grow up with computers many people are learning to animate using Flash. It is a great way to practice frame by frame animation and has the capability to provide many shortcuts.
I have seen young visual effects artists experiment with After Effects to great success. There are many books available on the Adobe Suite and a plethora of online tutorials. For puppet films or under the camera work, you can use a point and shoot with a tripod or copy stand. There is capture software for both Mac and PC that is free or cheap. The top of the line set-up would be Dragon Stop Motion with a camera that can “talk” to the software. However, a beginner is better off with something simpler and cheaper. I find that people learn faster when they can see their work as they go, so it is good to have a computer program that allows you to walk through your work or “onion-skin” while animating. I personally find flipping back and forth to be much more effective in seeing the motion than onion-skinning.
What inspires you in your own work? Where do you go for ideas/concepts/the magic?
My films are usually a based in something I am trying to work out in my own life translated into a more universal message. It is important to me that I express myself and try to connect with a wider audience. I believe that because film is made to be seen by audiences, it is important to make works that try to reach out to viewers to connect, change, and challenge. Visually, I draw on the cartoon modern aesthetic, printmaking and handmade crafts.
Note: Lauren Brown is active with an organization called ImMEDIAte Justice (IMJ).
imMEDIAte Justice’s mission: a summer program that empowers young women from Los Angeles to share their experience of reproductive justice through film. With film mentors, young women write & direct films that offer a fresh take on sexual health education.
Can you talk about the work you did with ImMEDIAte Justice? Can some of those tools/ideas apply elsewhere?
I started with ImMEDIAte Justice this year, their third year, as an animation mentor. The idea of the group is to educate teenage girls on gender and sexuality and to guide them in creating a film where they can express their own feelings and messages. The founders of the group chose pixellation animation (animating people) as a way to physically involve the girls in their own work and to display a diverse group of people in film.
Most of the participants did not know much about animation, so it was our job to teach them about it while helping guide them in brainstorming a film. I found that physical and hands-on activities work best for teaching people who are new to animation so that they can see results immediately. It is always exciting to see the first time you bring something to life in animation and it gets people hooked. It is also fun to do collaborative projects. You can pixelate a whole room of people or have students take turns animating an object so that they can see the differences.
One of the best things about working with people who are not animators is that they let their imaginations go wild without the fear of practical limitations. When you know more about what you are doing it is all too easy to stop yourself before you get started because of the fear that something will be too hard to make. Also, the enthusiasm of first time and young filmmakers is infectious.
Another important lesson from my experience with IMJ is that students should have the opportunity to work with professional grade and consumer grade tools. It is wonderful to acquaint students with professional equipment so that they have the confidence to use it. However, since most of them will not have access to it later, it is important to show them tools they can use after they leave so that they can continue exploring animated film making.
Please add any other thoughts or comments.
Like most things in life, success in animation comes from a passion, dedication and lots and lots of practice. Innate talent is nice, but it will only take you so far. If you pour yourself into what you love you will find happiness and you will end up where you need to be.
Here is an extensive list of resources suggested by Brown:
Cartoon Colour, a traditional animation supply store: http://www.cartooncolour.com/
Frame Thief, capture software for Mac: http://www.framethief.com/
Animator DV, capture software for Mac and PC: http://www.animatordv.com/
Clay Animator, capture software for Windows: http://www.clayanimator.com/english/stop_motion_animator.html
Helium Frog, capture software for Windows: http://www.heliumfrog.net63.net/heliumfrogindex.html
Dragon Frame: http://www.dragonframe.com/
Blender, open source 3D software: http://www.blender.org/
Maya, trial: http://usa.autodesk.com/maya/trial/
Houdini, learning version: http://www.sidefx.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=589&Itemid=221
Mudbox, free trial: http://usa.autodesk.com/adsk/servlet/download/item?id=13571415&siteID=123112
Z Brush, trial for Mac and PC: http://www.pixologic.com/zbrush/trial/
2D / 2.5D Software
Adobe (Flash, After Effects, Photoshop, Premiere) software trial downloads: http://www.adobe.com/downloads/
Toon Boom: http://toonboom.com
Major Animation Schools in the United States (in no particular order)
University of Southern California (USC)
California Institute for the Arts (CalArts)
University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)
Ringling School of Art and Design
School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)
New York University Tisch School or the Arts (NYU)
School of Visual Arts (SVA)
Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)
Otis College of Art and Design
The Art Institutes
Academy of Art
any studio sites
Brown’s Favorite Books
Cartoon Animation by Preston Blair
Your Career in Animation by David Levy
Animation Development by David Levy
Before Mickey by Donald Crafton
Talking Animals and Other People by Shamus Culhane
Drawing the Line by Tom Sito
Prepare to Board! by Nancy Beiman
The Animation Book by Kit Laybourne
The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston
Muybridge’s photo books
Facial Expressions by Mark Simon
Any “making of” books
Character Animation Crash Course! by Eric Goldberg
Tezuka School of Animation series
Cartoon Modern by Amid Amidi
The Animation Bible by Maureen Furniss
The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams
Timing for Animation by John Halas