Friday, January 30, 2009

The Shit Filter

Anybody who thinks being a supervisor is an easy job has never been one. You answer to way too many people and you are responsible for the work of way too many others. The difference in pay is negligible or less than what a good, fast artist can make. I say FAST because commercial animation art is all about volume. As a Layout Supervisor I was responsible for turning out 300 scenes of layouts in two weeks time. This required being able to do the layouts that my crew was unable to do or did incorrectly. Why not hand the bad layouts back to be done over or corrected? I did, if there was time. If not, I found it faster to do them myself. This made for a lot of late nights.

It was also essential that I know the strengths and weaknesses of every artist on my staff. Not all artists are born equal. Some are very good at landscapes but weak at character drawing. Some can produce great poses but have no idea how to draw architecture. Animal drawings are no problem to some artists but automobiles or bicycles are beyond them. Casting the artist to his strength was a mark of a good supervisor. Of course, background layouts are often more difficult and time consuming to draw then a simple close-up of a character. In order to keep on schedule and prevent rioting, I would have to balance out how many background heavy scenes I gave to everyone. The scenes that demanded a good background went to good background artists and when excellent character acting was required, I'd cast a great character artist. That meant, I'd have to correct character posing in the scenes that the background artist had to draw and adjust the background in the scenes that the character artist couldn't do.

Once I had my crew running smoothly and our quotas were being met, they gave me another show to run at the same time! Oh, I got more people, of course. Instead of doing one show with a mere staff of six artists, I now had ten artists to do two shows! By the standards of the day, this seemed management. This challenge required a division of work. The solid background artists were pulled off into a separate unit to draw nothing but backgrounds for the two productions. I had to hire outside "free-lancers" to make up the difference in personnel. Their work was competent but I had less time to require I did them. I had little time to train new people, least of all a new assistant supervisor I was required to take on. I was issued an ultimatum; either I choose an assistant or the department head would. I picked a solid, if unimaginative, artist with good work habits for the job. He thought it was an advancement until he started to make repairs and excuses for his crew. I felt vindicated when this former worker came to me and said; "Until I started doing this job, I never realized what jerks my co-workers were!" Supervisors aren't born they're made.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Anime Eyes

Asian animation has arrived in full force in the U.S. As a boy I remembered it as Kimba, the White Lion and Speed Racer. I hated it. I was raised on Disney feature animation with the mastery of the "Nine Old Men". I loved the fast paced humor of the Warners and MGM theatrical shorts and the droll characterization of the early Hanna-Barbera television cartoons. I found this imported look to be uninspiring. No more. Anime and Manga are here and are as popular as sugar cereal.

I had my first "flirt" with Asian animation many years ago on a feature unit. It was after my introduction to independent feature production at Vinnie's underground comic book venture. Many of the animators on Vinnie's show went over to work on a Japanese funded product based on Greek tragedies. I'm not sure why someone thought tragedy would be a good venue for an American audience but the money was good and the quality was high. I started as an assistant animator and got involved in story sketch as time progressed but progress was slow. There was plenty of time for partying but no one in the art staff truly believed they were working on a hit film.

This was the only time I worked on a show where the lead character had Anime eyes. He also had Mickey mouse ears and proportions three heads high. A character's proportion is always judged on how many heads high a typical human stands. On the average, Five heads is a good "norm". Tall, long legged women can be six heads high. Mickey Mouse and all those old characters were three heads high. Our character looked like that with huge ears even though he was human. The logic behind the story selection was that the Greek fables and stories were universal in scope so a large audience could be reached. This was Japanese money and the financier wanted it to be popular around the world NOT just in Asia. He chose an artist that was born in Japan but worked at his craft for many years in America. A young man who personified the goth artist look. A good designer he was but not a good producer. All projects demand a return on their investment and progress must be made. I can't remember when I received the realization that there was no chance of turning this picture around. Another example of good money gone to make a bad picture. I didn't wait for the luxury liner to hit the iceberg. I jumped ship and started my own small shop. Better a happy pauper than a miserable king!

Monday, January 5, 2009

In Charge...At Large

After a very disappointing second attempt at running my own company, I wondered if there was any need for a small operator in a time big industry? As it turned out, there was! The layouts I did as a Free Trapper were in demand and a spot opened up as a Crew Chief for the Company. An ol' employer of mine remembered the level of quality I turned in on a regular basis and hired me on. I was back working at the HB company but this time running a crew of layout artists.

Most of the guys I learned from were now retired or had moved up the ladder. This left a spot open in management. My reputation as an artist with a functional left brain recommended me to this task. More importantly, I had the ability to communicate specific information clear enough to expect an accurate product in return. So, my job as a Layout Supervisor began. This position is rather an antique one by today's digital production system. In the days of 35mm film production and paper animation the process demanded that scripts be converted into storyboards. These were small panels of shot by shot action and compositional drawings of background elements that visualize the whole cartoon in a form similar to comic books. They were done quickly in those days and were often very sketchy. The details of the actual compositions, background designs, incidental characters and prop designs as well as all initial animation posing was done by the Layout Department.

The Layout Department was the first directorial step in the film making process. Each panel of the storyboard was broken down into sequences based, usually, on background elements.; Ext. Schoolyard, Int. Classroom, Int. Soda Shop. Ext. Athletic Field, etc. Obviously, if the episode took place mostly in a lifeboat at sea, where the background was the same, this system didn't work. In that circumstance, the show was broken down into Night and Day, Storm, Ship Sighting, Shark Sequence, etc. This was my job. I had a staff of artists that needed a week's worth of work each Monday and I had to break the show down into chewable/doable sizes that could be done in a 40 hour week. There were approximately 300 layouts in a typical half-hour show. Each artist was expected to do 30 layouts a week. Therefore using simple math, the only kind I know, I'd need 10 artists to do a half-hour show each week. I didn't have 10 artists on my team. I had between 4 and 6 artists of varying levels of speed, talent and competency. I needed two weeks to produce a half-hour episode. My job required that I meet that schedule. How I did it, Young Artist, is the subject of another blog.