Monday, September 28, 2009

The Limitations Of Contemporary TV Animation.

There's certainly an interesting discussion going on currently over at John K's blog regarding all of this contemporary trend in (mostly TV) animated characters where the designs are deliberately flat and graphic, with the limitations in movement and personality that are inherent in such design. Needless to say, I agree with John's stance on this and share his criticisms of this unfortunate trend. I believe that there is a real detriment to animation design when one is a slave to the computer software being used today. The examples that John cites from TV shows are all of the Flash cutout (or "symbol" as they call it) variety, where each character is created from an assortment of pre-drawn parts that exist in the computer, with no additional drawing being allowed by the animators working on the show. Instead of actually creating a pose or expression, today's TV animators must contrive it as best they can from the library of character parts they have to work with. Can you imagine - animators being discouraged from actually drawing something!

Additionally, the fact that these characters are all being drawn digitally on the computer to begin with, utilizing a vector-based program like Flash or other likeminded software, means that all of the designs consist of perfect geometric shapes: perfect straight edges and perfect curves. Likewise, the outlines are all vector lines, usually of an unvarying line weight, or occasionally with a contrived thick and thin. All of this unyielding control that the computer has been given is killing all of the potential for fluid animation and, ultimately, personality. It's like trying to draw a character using nothing but a ruler, circle/oval template, and maybe some French curves. Why would any artist want to be given such strict limitations? I'm not saying that the resulting images are totally lacking visual appeal, but they are certainly not designed for animation in the truest sense.

John talks of the functionality of a good character design, and that it must be explored through movement to arrive at a final design that's conducive to animation, rather than just be a series of graphic shapes that only work in static poses. I agree with this assessment, as I also prefer that a character design be "organic" - pliable and capable of fluid movement and full rotations when called for. Even the Hanna-Barbera designs of the early 1960s, though more simple shape based for the TV cartoons of that era than their theatrical predecessors, were still solid in form and designed for pliable movement. Just compare the animation of Yogi Bear or Fred Flintstone to anything of today and you'll hopefully understand what I mean.

One of the most compelling comments following this topic on John's site comes from a commenter by the name Tilcheff, who offers this bluntly honest and heartbreaking assessment of his recent experience in the animation studios:

"It's funny and sad at the same time that every single studio I have worked at makes the same mistakes in the name of efficiency. Business arrogance dominates this industry and people with no love for cartoons produce them. The self-censorship and political correctness strangle every fresh idea before it's even born. Young enthusiastic animators are very quickly disillusioned by a system, which treats them as computer operators and has no mechanism to get feedback, ideas or allow them even the slightest creativity to do visual gags, a system which shows no recognition for their work and appreciation of their skill or talent, a system that kicks them out in the street upon a successful completion of the job. Very quickly they become cynical, trapped in the world of stock actions and expressions, knocking frames day after day, quickly learning how to do things in order to avoid problems. They also very quickly learn to lie that they like the crap shows they work on, that they enjoy the terrible work atmosphere in the studios. There is usually a culture of hypocrisy and backstabbing, generated by the mediocrity, contemporary political correctness and 'post-modern' cool-ness which dominates these studios. The values behind contemporary cartoons have nothing to do with those during the Termite Terrace years. Everything seems to be extremely superficial, hollow and lacking internal logic, reasonable values and weight."

I think Tilcheff sums it up well, and his entire commentary is well worth reading, as this is only an excerpt.

Anyway, that's all I'm saying on this matter, as I've learned from recent experience that stating my opinion on anything animation related is akin to swimming in shark infested waters...


JohnK said...

I would say the same thing about contemporary feature animation.

They are designed just as lifeless as TV animation; they just have more shadows and textures.

Boy, your Flintstone still really points out the flaws in today's "style".Cheapness is no excuse for lifeless design.

Bob Flynn said...

Flash gets a bad rep, and I'll admit I'm not a huge fan of library-based tweened animation. But Flash in and of itself isn't responsible for the trend. I draw in Flash, rarely smoothing or optimizing my line. And I key out my animation whenever time affords it, drawing a frame at a time. On ones, twos, or threes—as traditional as you'd like. There are a number of people who use Flash in this way.

Per character design and the flat style that has been prevalent for at least 2 decades, it can work when designed well. There are good flat character designs and bad ones. I'm equally turned off by lazy "generic" cartooning. Again, blame the artists (or producers), not the tools or the movement.

I too, am bored by most of what I see, though. People are recognizing it, so I suspect "generic" flat is on its way out.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

I think certain computer tools like Flipbook may help good independent artists. We have gotten to the point were you can make a cartoon without a studio. Unfortunately, no one really has found a way to make online cartoons profitable.

tilcheff said...

It's an honor to get quoted here, Pete!

Funny, the Flintstones image you have chosen illustrates something that is nearly unseen in modern Flash cartoons - contact between characters, characters touching each other.

Flash can be flexible in the hands of someone who has traditional animating skill and spacial thinking. The sense of flatness comes from the fact that inexperienced animators, or Flash animators, get lead by Flash to only rotate Symbols in the flat plane of the screen.
It's an interface problem as well - forcing the animator to animate in a linear fashion, rather than solving the whole shot in passes. And it usually comes on top of totally skipping the layout stage.

Unknown said...

Mr. Pete, where can I find the rest of that note from Tilcheff?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mitchel Kennedy said...

Flash isn't the problem! I've seen some coworkers do beautiful animation in Flash, and heck even I've done some fully drawn stuff in Flash. It's just a tool! The real problem is how the work flow is set up, and how maintaining "style style style" is drilled into the animator's heads.

There's certain "design" restrictions places on shows, which don't allow animators to do anything.

The only major problem that this whole Flash thing causes is that the folks in charge think "Flash is easy!" so deadlines are super tight with crazy amounts of work.

Combinations of the bad ideas and the lack of time lead to what's seen on TV.

Mitchel Kennedy said...

Tilcheff! How right you are about characters never having physical contact in Flash cartoons! When two different characters are in two different symbols, and you have to worry about layering things a million different ways based on a simple movement, it's damn near impossible to have two characters touch each other. I don't know how many times I've slammed my keyboard and said "Dammit! If I could draw this instead then it would be easy!"

And animating to layouts is often a privilege rather than a right.

Again, these are all work flow issues, and not necessarily Flash issues.

I have to say though, to Pete too, that I've spent the last year working at studio that encourages us to draw... a LOT. The shows look a heck of a lot better when we add custom-drawn poses to scenes, instead of moving flat shapes around. I damn near cried one day when I heard my boss say, "Push your line of action and try drawing a smear."

tilcheff said...

Hi Mitch!

I know how hard it is to have physical contact between characters in Flash, when everything is nested within symbols, within symbols and you have a million timelines to deal with. Not to mention Barney's squashed a bit nose...

Regarding Flash I will both agree and disagree with you.

All sorts of nice things can be done in Flash. But they are usually done by people who can do these great things using any medium. In fact, they are using Flash as if it is not Flash. And in most cases these people have already developed their skill and way of thinking using different mediums. And now they know what they want to achieve and will wrestle and overcome the Flash logic to get the result they have in their mind. That is why it is good.
I doubt, though, that doing it in Flash and making it look as if it is not Flash is easier, faster or cheaper than doing it traditionally.

Workflow can be optimized a lot. Many things can be improved and structured in a way which facilitates easy access to bits and pieces, symbol swapping, etc.

But there is a fundamental difference between the level of freedom that a blank sheet of paper and a 2B pencil give the skilled animator and the posed and rigged fully colored flash cutout character.

You know, Mitch, if you pick up a 0.5 clutch pencil you start to draw small. It may be good for tiny details, but it isn't good for loose rough concept sketches. And you always want to start with the big volumes, the line of action, the feel of the pose. Buttons come later.
Flash doesn't allow animators to animate in passes. They animate the whole fully drawn, fully colored pic with all its fiddly details. Details that distract them just because they are there all the time.

Mentioning interface and structural problems in all timeline based programs, I mean the simple fact that a traditional animator animating on paper can at any given time put any number of drawings in any order on the lightbox to check them and flip through them. Can work back to forth, from the middle to the end, in any direction and has total full control over any moment of the animation in relation to any other. There is no interface. It is real and simple.
I have been trying to find a visual metaphor for timeline based programs. They are something like having to draw animation on joined sheets of paper, like the toilet roll. You can slide them, maybe even tear and glue them in a different order, but it's sticky and you need to deal with the whole roll at all times. You don't really work at a frame level. And you never really have the blank sheet.

This is especially bad for young animators as it leads them in a fruitless direction. They don't get a sense of time, a real sense of how different spacing between images affect the dynamics of the motion. In-betweens become so cheap, they cost nothing, and no one cares to notice how important they actually are for the timing. You can space them unevenly in Flash, but it creates a whole lot of extra problems that most people don't bother to do it. Even if they want to, they have to struggle to animate in a plane different from the screen plane, they have to struggle to get curved arches, as the program always finds the shortest distance to tween objects and it usually is a straight line...

I've done a lot of both, hand drawn frame by frame and Flash cutouts, I am an expert Flash character rigger. I also know ToonBoom and many of the older Ink&Paint programs, like Animo, Retas Pro, CTP... Cutouts are not a bad thing. They are just cutouts and can never become organic characters. Results with Flash depend very much on what people have done before starting to use Flash.

There is a potential for a huge discussion here, I know. I'm just a bit reluctant to go into this as it wouldn't change anything.
Good luck, Mitch! Glad to know you're getting chances to draw over there.

And a big 'Thank you!' to Pete for hosting this chat.

Pete Emslie said...

Just to clarify, I have nothing against Flash animation that is still done with traditional keys and inbetweens, but as we all know, that is more the choice of independent animators and not the norm at studios. It's specifically the symbol based, "cutout" style animation that I can't stand, as I don't appreciate any attempt to stifle the drawing talent of the animator. Incidentally, I don't dislike the character designs of shows like "Total Drama Island" completely, either, as they do show some very good design principles evident in the pencil concept art I've seen (flat skulls notwithstanding). But it's the software's reducing them to stark geometric shapes and vector lines that ultimately kills the humanity and robs them of any potential for true animated performance. If TV animation is ever again going to allow for real enduring personalities, then we have to let animators really DRAW!

Patrick Dizon said...

Before I started training in Flash animation, I was naive to think that I was going to draw all the time. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that I was going to be animating characters like puppets.

:: smo :: said...

great post pete!

i just saw this in the comments:

"Flash doesn't allow animators to animate in passes. They animate the whole fully drawn, fully colored pic with all its fiddly details."

and though this is kind of true, i just wanted to point out that a lot of us in order to maintain sanity will make a layer to use the brush tool and rough out poses along the timeline then match the puppet to it. not necessarily just straight ahead on the puppet.

one of the things i think i leave in john's comments a lot and that pete reflects here is that coming into animation and having nigh every situation be like this is particularly soul crushing. i've NEVER had a desire to draw shapey graphic cartoons and if i wanted to do puppetry i'd be using clay or real puppets.

a lot of the corners cut include layouts and x-sheets which makes learning timing [outside of puppety poppy formula] difficult and makes the system, to quote a friend, feel very "ready, GO, set..." and we end up fixing lots of things after the fact.

the bonus about flash is that it helps keep shows from getting outsourced and actually gives us work.

though i think if there was more of a traditional directorial/planning setup going on there could be better quality without too much scheduling fluctuation.

i've been working/animating in new york city for about three years, but i'm always on the fence on just leaving, getting some menial job, and then trying to focus on making shorts just so i can animate traditionally. instead, just keep hoping a project will come along where i can draw and learn stuff.

i keep trying to do bits on my own to phase out the shapey stuff on my demo reel. but it's going to take a while and it would be nice to have something from actual projects to put on there [right now i only have the pink panther spot i could really use.]

David said...

Nickolay Tilcheff you articulated the limitations inherent in Flash (and other timeline-based paperless animation systems) better than anyone else I've ever read on the subject. I'm saving that post.

The other classic post on the subject that sums it up from an animator's perspective is BitterAnimator's theory on the "missing 7,000 drawings a year" problem of working in symbol-based vector animation in his series of posts on "The Bleak Future of Animation".

Flash (and other paperless systems) have given a lot of options to contemporary animators ... and they taken away a lot of things too.

David said...

>smo: "i've NEVER had a desire to draw shapey graphic cartoons and if i wanted to do puppetry i'd be using clay or real puppets."


That's the same reason I still prefer to hand-draw my animation and not use CG puppets. I'm not knocking CG . Everyone's got to do what they've got to do to earn a living , but no one has yet convinced me that "hey, it's ALL just animation right ? Whether you're working with pencil on paper or in CG or with symbol-based Flash it's all 'animation' ."

Yes and no. The basic principles carry over to various forms of animation. But CG or symbol-based 2D is not the kind of animation I want to do. Those who do want to do CG (or puppet stop-motion, or sand-on-glass experimental stuff, whatever ) well then God bless 'em . I like to watch good stop-motion a lot . Ditto good CG. Heck, I love a good puppet show. (with real puppets) I just didn't get into this business to manipulate puppets, digital or real . There are not many places left to practice the craft of traditional hand-drawn animation.

Mick said...

generic kids taking generic college courses to land generic production line jobs utilising generic computer programmes producing generic shows... did I miss anything?

Amanda said...

I hate thinking that I might end up doing flash animation once I'm out of school, just the thought scares me.
Not to mention I'm bad with remembering how to use programs.

tilcheff said...

Hi again, Pete!
I will round the number of my posts to 3 and will shut up after this one :)
I will try to stay on-topic, even though it's quite hard as factors, pointed by other commenters are very much interconnected and there are many levels of the problem. (The problem being, we don't like how shows look, how characters move, how they are not interesting, funny, etc. Many problems indeed.)

Hi Smo,
I can see I didn't articulate well what I meant by saying “Flash doesn't allow animators to animate in passes.” It's mostly because English is not my first language and many times I am not precise or nuanced enough. I'll try to cover that in the post below.

Thanks David Nethery!
I've been thinking about these problems for many years and talking to colleagues who have experience in both production methods.
I have come across Bitter Animator's comments under John K's posts many times and have noticed his deep understanding of the matter, and his very good ability to analyze. The post that you link to is very good indeed.


please note: This whole post is about the technical, not the artistic side of things. Sorry it's such a long one. I couldn't figure out how to articulate it with fewer words.

Character design for animation, obviously, has to be functional. Functional meaning, being animatable and expressive, and a million other things. Both Pete and John K, and other colleagues have written a lot about this and the precious information is easily available online.
Any medium has its specifics. If you work with stone or clay, volumes would come more naturally than flat designs, if you cut paper with a pair of scissors, without drawing anything on it beforehand, it is very likely it will be a flat silhouette, a stylized symbol. If you write, as in my case, in a foreign language, you are limited within the boundaries of your vocabulary, you can only express what you have words for, and in the native language, you can only think of what you have words for.

Now, drawing with a pencil on a blank sheet of paper defines the ultimate freedom in drawing. The white sheet is neutral. Even though it is white, it isn't bright. Cover a big part of it with the pencil, leaving only a small circular spot untouched and you have the brightest sun or light source in the world. Still the same white color, but compared to the dark that surrounds it.
You can do everything, anything. But you need to be able to form at least a vague idea about your goal in your brain first. Then you start 'sculpting with the pencil' (and my preference is the art eraser) keeping your drawing as loose as possible for as long as possible, adding and subtracting volume until it gets closer to the vague idea you had in your head. I'm sure there are many variations of this process. This is more or less how I tend to work.

But designing for any medium and having previous experience of the scecifics of this medium makes us consciously or subconsciously try to predict and avoid problems, use the strengths of the medium and hide its weaknesses.
Drawing on paper has very few limitations – they are, more or less, personal – the skill of the drawer. So designs for traditional animation from technical point of view should reflect the lowest common denominator of people working on a project in terms of complexity (here I mean amount of detail, anatomical complexity, etc, and by no means I talk about style and what is appealing, tasteful or kitsch). In fact, traditionally animated shows, usually look as good (or as bad) as the lowest qualified people in the production chain can draw. These are most often the clean-up artists. Animators, who have persisted to stay in this industry for about ten or more years are usually quite flexible and good drawers. Studios that can afford good clean-up artists produce technically better looking shows.


tilcheff said...

... continued

Flash has its strengths, but it also has many weaknesses. The biggest being the fact that there is an extra layer of limitation on top of the personal drawing skill of the drawer/designer. It's the technical layer of pressure sensitivity, resolution, lack of shades of grey when using the paintbrush. Sculpting with a pencil means that you draw soft, with the side of the lead first, then you solidify the drawing. It's very unlikely that you can sculpt with, say, a black benzene marker. It is too graphical. Flash tools are somewhere in the middle. I don't think that any interface translated medium could ever match the direct brain to paper interaction that one has using a 25 cent pencil.

Having said this, let's go back to design. An experienced Flash animator getting in the position to design characters for a new show keeps in mind all the problems an organic design would cause when chopped into pieces and split in many individual layers. Organic design is not a functional design in the the medium of Flash. The designer faces the problems of how to hide broken joints, how to to organize hand and feet libraries (symbols) for quickest access, how to nest facial elements within the head symbol to allow both control of the whole and syncing all the independent timelines somehow to get to the lips, blinks, smiles, etc, etc. It is a techincal nightmare that takes its toll. He has to cover the joint of the pony tail, for example, with a flower...
When drawing (actually drafting) with the straight line tool, end points snap togethr, and using miter makes edges sharp. It's cool, fast and easy. That's how square fingers come into being. Organic fingers, nicely curved hands are much harder to do. So the medium suggests and you can either surrender or go mad, struggling to make it look organic. The more you look at it, the more you get used to it, you start refining it and even liking it. You get trapped in a narrow corner of design, dictated by the limited tools you use and output variations on the theme that to you look very different, but to someone outside the system will just look the same. You can very easily loose the big picture if you stay in there, into Flash I mean, and don't step back and look around into the real world or art history for inspiration and reference.

And the Flash community consolidates and solidifies and reacts as being attacked by outsiders. There is a psychological dimension of the problem, as well as the economical, personal, technological, life style, if you want. It's just extremely complex.
Things that happen in studios today could have never happened 10-15 years ago. And what was happening then was the last phase of the decline in the traditional TV animation system. It's a huge theme about sinful practices and workflow setup that I will not write about here...

So at design level any person designing for Flash is:
-- a victim of the limitations of the technology
-- is influenced by the current trends of Flash design
-- is to a very big extent confined within a community of Flash animators and designers who haven't done much else
-- is pushing a program designed for Web sites and banners to be used as a professional TV (and film) animation tool
-- is getting his inspiration, competing with and comparing to others who do exactly the same, just, say, a bit softer, so he has to go for more formal edgy extremes
-- is racing against time to meet absolutely idiotic deadlines and has no time to even look at his own creations with fresh eyes on the next morning
-- has to keep in mind a million restrictions about political correctness: anything different from the average, could be potentially offensive. (A pigeon-toed character offends pigeon-toed people, a goof-looking character with glasses says all kids who wear glasses are silly, a fat character makes fat kids feel bad all day. Etc, etc, etc)


tilcheff said...

... continued

These bland, unlikeable, all-the-same, short-lived (or born dead) animation characters don't come for no reason. On the contrary, they are a logical consequence of many, many factors which lead to this. I have the understanding that no art form or human activity is isolated from the others – past and present. So if we try to have an even wider view we will see how music, industrial design, marketing, politics, medicine (plastic surgery), transport, globalization, modern philosophy, ecology, anything really, affect animation. Life is fast-paced, plastic, made in china, superficial, harder, stressful, quickly worn-out, hard to focus.
And, of course, there are some variations, some designers are more talented, some teams have more time, better work atmosphere and produce better shows within the canon. I personally like Clone Wars, Samurai Jack and Foster's Home a lot.

If a person can draw on paper, he/she can draw on anything, incl. Wacom, airbrush, stick on sand. (Bluebeard by Vonnegut is a good book.) I very much doubt, though, that a person can perfect drawing skill by drawing in Flash. Even the stupid fact that on paper people don't have the multiple UNDOs make them scared to explore this most flexible medium.

A few words about the process and practices of animating in Flash.
Again we start with the blank sheet of paper, the ultimate symbol of freedom in traditional animation.
You don't have this in Flash. You have a character rig standing there lifeless, fully drawn to the last detail, colored and ready to me moved around.

In traditional animation you would have a sketch of the bg and probably a few layout sheets, which are there to guide you. Dialog/lipsync on the side of the x-sheet. A stack of paper and those little boxes that you fill in as you number the drawings.
After a while all these things start to make sense. After some practice you, like a musician looking at notes, start developing a sense how things will look on the screen, if this will be a quick or a slow action. You look at the x-sheet, you look at the drawings and you have an idea what will be going on. The more you do it, the more predictable the timing and acting is. Every drawing is in context with the others, nothing is there just by chance, it's all on purpose. You draw extremes, you want the action to happen with a certain speed, you draw an in-between chart, you skip those, you number the keys and keep on going. Then you flip them, you decide that you need extra definition on some arch or movement, you draw one more drawing, you re-number or just change the in-between chart.
Every single element in this simple process is valuable. Every line in this in-between chart means that someone will have to draw a picture.
You, as an animator are responsible for all this. And you have control over each individual frame.
In-betweens can be treated as filler, but in terms of production cost they are nearly the same as the extremes.
So you draw first pass rough loose drawings, you are happy with the acting, you go over them and add some details. But you solve the problems in passes. You don't have the details to distract you when animating the masses.
The fact that you can't play back the animation on screen all the time at any stage of completion is very important for developing sense of time. You know what you want to do, then when you play back the pencil test, you know exactly what is not right and where/how to fix it. It is a fundamental difference. This workflow teaches you to value good in-betweeners and clean-up artists, good layout artists, everyone's input and be truly responsible.


tilcheff said...

... continued

In Flash a character is split into million pieces, has its own symbol and within this symbol most pieces occupy individual layers. Rotating and scaling these bits is very easy, fast and cost effective.
Also, people who can't draw too well can be hired to do it, as they don't need to draw at all. The off-model problems typical for traditional animation are completely non-existent.
It is also resolution independent and can be output as anything, published online, for the big screen, magazine cover, HD tv, whatever.
Because of this, it is cheaper to produce than traditional animation.

The problems start appearing the moment you try to actually animate in (imaginary) space. If a hand is at first in front of the face but then the character has to scratch the back of its head, this simple task presents the animator with a lot of problems to re-layer elements, insert blank keyframes, duplicate others and so on.
You have control over million individual pieces, but not over the whole character. It is not organic, it is a robot, a puppet.
People draw on a top layer rough poses to guide them when posing the puppets. If they have a lot of past experience in traditional animation, they do quite well and achieve as good as possible results. If they don't have this experience, unfortunately, it is very hard to get it from this task, as in flash animation it is a side activity and the medium is not suitable for teaching them sense of timing, the value of the individual frame I talked about earlier. I'm not saying that those young people are not improving. I'm only saying that this is not the best way to do so.

The second big problem is the fully colored, fully drawn image. New elements need to be added all the time. Each of them goes into its own container (symbol) without affecting the whole body. That is why many poses look unnatural, freaky, not fluent. Dealing with so many elements is overwhelming for the brain. It is very hard to control. It is fiddly and at a certain point you just give up, even though you wanted to do better. “It will pass.”

The third problem is that each character lives in its own time and space bubble. That is why it is nearly impossible to have them touch each other or physically interact with each other in any other way than a quick punch, covered by a 4 frame splat. Bang! And that's it.

I can go on with this list forever.

Many people involved in the contemporary animation industry don't even realize how limited they are by Flash, because it is kind of cool and presents problems of its own, which they solve in most remarkable ways. So this is like swapping values and getting pride in beating the stupid program, rather than buying a box of pencils.
I can't imagine a discussion between sculptors working with marble about whether it's better to chisel it using plastic or iron tools.

As a conclusion: In the hands of people with traditional animation experience, Flash with all its flaws, is a tool that can produce predictable and even pleasing results.
In the hands of people with no traditional animation experience the same program is a medium that makes them loose focus, prevents them from developing necessary skills (fast enough) to stay motivated, leads them in a direction where characters become less and less humane and also puts them in a delicate psychological situation to start being aggressive to defend the 'new' from the 'old'.

Thinking about how multidimensional the problems in the contemporary animation are, makes me feel dizzy :( It's a very complex matter and there are too many causes for these outside the animation industry, and outside my area of competence obviously.
I once wrote to a friend: “Talking to my bosses about efficiency, no matter what I say, I can never be more convincing than Adobe's multi-million marketing machine.”
That's why, I guess, I have stayed away from blogging about it and focus on my wildlife photography, which brings me joy, contact with nature and some satisfaction.

Thanks, guys. Thanks for reading all this!

Pete Emslie said...

Nickolay, for a guy who apologizes that English is not his first language, I'd say you are as articulate an individual as I have ever come across on an internet discussion board. I love everything that you've said, as your arguments are so well reasoned. Please know that you are a very welcome visitor here with your impassioned posts!

There's so much in what you've said here that reflects my own feelings on the medium. In fact, I'd actually ranted about the limitations (that I perceive) in Flash some time before, and of course did not exactly score any points among the Flash community for my critical views. Still, I don't believe that anything in animation should be exempt from critical discussion and so I reserve the right to occasionally raise such issues here on my blog. As an instructor in a college animation program, I don't believe that I'm doing my students any disservice by crusading for an animation industry that will appreciate the skills that they have to offer upon graduation, and that will utilize those skills to the betterment of future animated entertainment. As it is, I hate to see such talented young people going off to work in computerized "factory" jobs, without ever getting a chance to create through real drawing. They deserve so much better than that.

Duncan Beedie said...

In sum, animation has simply lost its 'charm.' And Cartoon Network is largely to blame for this (and the braindead kids that sit in fornt of those shows for hours on end, unwittingly justifying the crass studio methods that these shows are a product of...viewers = $ after all!)

Bob Flynn said...

Just thought I'd pop back in for a second, as I think your offerings in particular, Nickolay, are interestingly considered. There is the so-called Flash machine that exists at many studios I'm sure, which I would equate more to the 2D version of CG animation. Where there's not a lot of drawing going on, and your job is essentially to figure out how to make a stiff model look fluid.

But that system is purely a matter of choice and habit. It was invented as one way to animate in Flash. Aside from the symbol-based structure inherent to the software, nothing about Flash makes you do it this way. There is the library stock approach, but there is also the layout approach. As long as you design characters simple enough to make layout (and redraw) feasible, it is a workable solution—and we use it all the time at my studio. Granted, we are not animating for television, so maybe it's not the most efficient approach over the course of a series. But it works.

I try to encourage folks to think outside the library model—to design characters that are easy and fun to redraw. Instead of starting with 2 or 3 poses and trying to engineer animation around that, I persuade artists to take the time to create unique drawings when it is warranted, to make the animation as expressive as possible.

There's a middle ground (a hybrid approach) of reusing elements when applicable that produces reasonably good results.

tilcheff said...

Bob, I agree with you that there are other ways of using Flash than the cutouts/symbol methods.
All of them, though, are what I call using Flash as if it is not Flash, while cutouts are the native way of using it, its strongest, most efficient side.

1. If you use it as just a cel replacement, but you draw your animation on paper and scan it already clean, you'd better use any professional ink&paint program. They are all superior in terms of flexibility. Toon Boom Studio, for example, has a very good vectorizing tool, x-sheet and a nice 3d camera...

2. If you do the clean-up in Flash, but you draw it on paper, it is also very likely that other programs will give you better flexibility and line/stroke control.

3. If you want to draw frame by frame digitally, you have the choice of vector or raster. Some programs have better more flexible ligtboxes or respond better to the Wacom (Painter, Toon Boom, etc)

Over the past 15 years I have used many (and tested many more) programs that claim to beat paper and pencil. I was very enthusiastic at the beginning, and grew more and more skeptical later. At this point of time I, for myself, am 100% convinced that it is a total waste of time to try to substitute something extremely efficient and intuitive, which gives full control (pencil and paper, lighbox), with something artificial, unintuitive and limited, translated by an interface.

Computers are good at aiding ink&paint process, reusing, re-scaling, re-positioning characters, compositing and special effects, but even the best of programs are not good enough in creating animation drawing environment. Virtual lightboxes, virtual paper, virtual pressure sensitivity, virtual desktops, virtual magnifiers have one thing in common - they are virtual and can never be as good as the real things they try to mimic.

There is one thing about these that is even worse. All these cheat that people using them can draw better than they actually can. They are not only cheating the viewers, they are cheating the artists that use them. They quickly find out that somehow things they draw in Flash look better than those on paper and the stop touching the paper. By doing this they voluntarily limit themselves from developing their drawing skill and also, as you say, have to design characters simple enough, which can be fluidly animated in Flash (or Painter, or Toon Boom).

One last thing I'd like to make clear. I don't personally mind Flash. I know it very well and have been using it for over ten years now. What I have found out for myself, based on hundreds of tests, is that it is not good for drawing anything but simple objects and is not good for animating anything but simple characters. All attempts to draw or animate whole organic characters that lack certain level of crudeness, need more passes done in Flash and take more time to achieve inferior results than if the same is done on paper and then scanned.

There are myths about Flash that are mindlessly repeated by thousands of people, and these myths are strong and persistent, probably because there aren't many animators who had enough time, chances and open minds to experiment unbiased with it and compare with the traditional methods.
Anything done in Flash looks cheap, but in terms of production time (and respectively cost) it is not always faster to do it in Flash (some things are, some are not). It's just the wrong perception, the myths and the very strong marketing that promotes paperless animation that make executives choose it as dominant tool. And the choice of it as such reflects the look of the TV shows as I have explained in my previous post.

Dave Ensign said...

Flash ain't all bad. I still draw and ink my shit on paper and only use Flash as a way to animate my drawings. I use auto trace so my lines stay imperfect and hand done. Then, I wash my socks in fresh Grandma urine and dry them on the line. I then mash the socks to retrieve the crunchy flakes!

pat said...

Hi Pete E! (I once had a 1 class workshop with you at sheridan).

I want to print out this post and all the comments so I can carry it around and show it to flash animators, instead of banging my head against a wall in trying to explain why flash is NOT the same as drawing on paper (it only approximates it sometimes, in the hands of people who are expert with both.)

I'm currently making an independent cartoon. Wish I was drawing on paper but I am better at doing that with a team and it's just me so I'm using still developing paperless animation skills instead.

Anonymous said...

I'd agree today's tv animation library is pretty limited(*mostly for time and money's sake) but not all "flash" shows look alike.

Take Wibbly Pig on TVO Kids. The designs are made in flash(*symbols) but because our overseas boss wants it to look traditional, the animators are allowed to draw in more poses, as see fit.

I guess this is a rare exception in n. american kids tv these days(*Quicker and cheaper please)

Paige T. said...

I am probably repeating what has been said a few times but as a Flash animator myself, I am going to emphasise here and now that Flash is not the issue, it's the producers who force this workflow.
My big breakout in the quality of my Flash animations came when I made the decision that if a shot called for a character to be drawn from a new angle and a new pose, I'd damn well draw it. A lot of people avoid this in Flash, but that's a limitation of the animator, not the tool.

I implore you to investigate the works of Adam Phillips. He made the "Bitey of Brackenwood" series, and I frequently cite him as an example of how to use Flash properly. I suggest looking at one of his more recent works such as The Yuyu. It contains dynamic character angles, vibrant, broad character animation (full animation on ones) and superb frame-by-frame special effects animation. Adam Phillips utterly bullies the limitations of Flash and will frequently take the opportunity to demonstrate his ability at animating water, and it has to be seen to be believed. This is how Flash should be used.

Pete Emslie said...

Hi Kaiser,

Believe me, I've had numerous Flash animators asking me to check out Adam Philip's work and I am quite familiar with his "Bitey" series. Fact is, I don't much like the look of that either. I'll grant you that Adam is trying for more keyframe animation than just merely the Flash cutout style, but there's still that choppy Flash outline that I can't stand. also, it seems to me that the digital painting style of Flash is inherently unappealing, with a silvery metallic look to all of the colours. Nope, I just don't like it, sorry!

kurtwil said...

Thanks to JohnK for posting link to this site...a fascinating discussion!

When I first started electronically ink/painting (1987) it became obvious that one of the computer's greatest limitations is spontaneous interaction. John, Peter and even this inferior artist can whip up a pencil sketch on paper that would totally flummox the fastest Wacom and computer today.

FLASH has morphed into a programming script environment with a few drawing tool enhancements. It's designed for web animation, and its developers have been surprised by its use for TV and features. However, keep in mind the FLASH programmers' focus is script and web enhancements, not animation. For now, Toon Boom's the best digital environment for classic animation.

You still have to be able to __draw__ to get really good results out of FLASH or Toon Boom, especially for the poses or designs used for cutout animation, which can work ___if___ the artist draws the basic shapes well, knows when to enhance with additional drawings, _and_ knows/applies animation theory espoused by John, Peter, Preston, and others

Digital is just another tool, to be an aid or a monkey wrench.

Example: In the 90's Unlimited Energee in Australia was using computers to scan/ink/paint/camera and add effects including 3D backgrounds. Prime goal of digital was to offload stuff from animators that computers could do well/ fast, giving animators more time to focus on character animation. However, management decided the time saved by digital would be used to speed up production. Half hour Disney-class shows getting 2 weeks to be completed now had 1 week or less. Animators got even less time to draw. Result: half the staff burned out and quit.