Look, I know you much you want this, kid, but you don't have it yet
but I've got to be close, right? RIGHT?!
I’ve never particularly cared for super hero shows or movies. With very few exceptionsthe genre doesn’t resonate with me, but I remain obsessed with Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse. It’s not THE movie that made me want to get into animation, but it’s one of several that made me start to seriously consider animation as a career simply because it looked like it was incredibly fun to work on.
Animation is only a small part of what makes Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse great. It took a team of 800 people— only 140 of whom were animators — to bring this movie into the world. What continually blows my mind about things like this are that you can’t tell that 140 different people animated the film. If each animator were allowed to do their own thing, you’d likely see expressions, movements, and personal characteristics become chaotic and inconsistent, and left looking at something resembling a puzzle where all of the pieces have been jammed together without any thought for the final product.
But instead the movement, characteristics, and expressions flow flawlessly from shot to shot, even though they’ve been animated be separate individuals. And right now that’s what I’m super curious about: what is it like to work on a team where my contribution is a necessary and integral part of the final product, where I’m engaging in creative collaboration with peers, and where my work doesn’t stand out as distinctly mine.
Part of your world
My career in data science (and more recently developer advocacy) has always been highly individualized, as I’ve always been a team of one responsible for setting my own projects and goals. Even when I’ve technically been embedded within a larger team, each of us had own individual projects, with little to no crossover or collaboration. For the longest time I thrived in this kind of environment, but as time has passed, I find that working this way doesn’t challenge me to grow in the ways that I both need and want to.
It did at first, though! Being a team of one opens you up to an overwhelming array of opportunities to make massive impacts on an organization, and I strongly recommend it if you’re looking to push yourself to see what you can accomplish. I’ve done things that I’m immensely proud of, and built skills — all of which boil down to learning on the fly — that I wouldn’t have gotten any other way. When you’re a team of one you have to both be the expert and be willing to become the expert in just about anything that comes your way. In fact it was being a team of one that led me to video editing, motion design, and stop-motion animation, setting off a cascade of events that led to discovering just how deeply I enjoy animating.
For a bit of context, the bulk of my work involves video content creation, which means that any given project could entail:
Developing the topic and learning enough about it to outline an 8—15 minute video
Writing the script and determining what on-screen assets would be helpful
Recording footage either or myself or a peer
Creating any animations and motion design elements, as well as static images and various thumbnails
Editing the video footage, adding on-screen elements and overlays as well as any sound design needed
Publishing and promoting the video on social media and tracking analytics
I genuinely enjoy what I do, and I recognize how fortunate I am do be doing this kind of work in-house. I’m also incredibly lucky in that on top of all of this I do have collaborators who handle most (if not all) of the programming. Very few people are brought in to a data science//machine learning organization to do this kind of work (I don’t know of anyone else, to be honest, but if you’re out there please say hello!), with most people instead working as freelancers focused on a subset of these skills.
But these days I’m finding myself wanting to push myself to be a better writer//producer//editor//motion designer, because I think there's a massive world of data science and machine learning content to be explored, where instead of doing my best on each component I’m collaborating with a team of people who are better at any given component of this than I am. I want to work collaboratively and learn from the best to create videos where my work is inextricably linked to the work of those around me, not dissimilar to how Satoshi Kon describes a film’s parts vs its whole:
I know this isn’t quite the right way to say it, but I believe that every element should have the goal of being “nothing special” — script and character design, storyboards, layout and animation, background art and color design, shooting and editing, voice acting performance and sound, and so on.
By “seeming like nothing special,” I suppose I mean “how much it seems like the overall work.” It’s fair to call this the most basic and difficult thing to achieve. Therefore, when an amateur has thoughts like “this layout is good,” it means that “this layout is not good.” Each production process is just one part of the whole work, no more than an ingredient, and the work is larger than the sum of its parts. It can only be called a whole work because of this.
Anyway, if a single part stands out so much that it preoccupies you, it can be appealing, but the whole isn’t good, in the sense that it’s out of balance. Of course, there are also cases where balance is lost and elements stand out intentionally — such imbalance is itself part of the balance.
Release the drafts!
The first week of the quarter has kicked off, and they’ve wasted no time throwing us into a project. One noticeable difference is that last quarter we had to submit a polished animation almost every week, whereas this quarter most animations are submitted over the course of three weeks, using the following cadence:
— Week 1: rough blocking pass, emphasis on key poses
— Week 2: refined blocking pass, incorporate in-betweens (can be splined)
— Week 3: splined (and final) pass
The video above is supposed to be my rough blocking pass for the week, where the character holds major poses for a series of frames before moving into the next pose, with a noticeable difference between the two poses. The blocking pass is supposed to have few, if any, transitional poses — but my anxiety around turning in the first assignment with a new instructor got the best of me and I went way overboard.
The assignment was to block out a simple lateral side step, but I’ve added in the left hook and duck in an effort to push myself, as this is a more complex move involving weight transfer in all directions instead of one. The gambit partially paid off — I was complimented on my choice of movement, and then given heaps of feedback about how I set too many keys instead of pushing each pose, creating too much movement and an animation that lacked powerful poses.
What threw me off this time around was how fast I got through the rough blocking pass. Normally it takes me all week and at least eight hours on Saturday to complete an assignment, and with this one I was done on Wednesday. This was so out of the ordinary (and unbelievably uncomfortable) that I panicked and kept poking at the assignment.
I don’t know if I’ve simply gotten faster at animating or if this was a freak occurrence, but to make life easier for future me I’ve set up a list of animation drills as well as a more complex personal shot to play around with in case I ever find myself with too much time on my hands again.
Batman: The Animated Series, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnarok being the notable exceptions here.
I originally came across this quote on Animation Obsessive: