Action is his reward


So by now I bet every single person who reads this blog has already seen the Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse trailer, but here it is just in case:

I have nothing whatsoever to do with this production, but I am very, very happy to see this trailer, and I’m even happier to see it’s reception, which has seemed very positive. I’m happy to see it because it means that something I really want to see--bolder, more striking style in both visuals and motion in animated films--is now something that is exciting to mainstream filmgoers with no specific investment in animation as an artform.

It wasn’t that long ago that the conventional wisdom was that anything with a more stylized look would be rejected by the American filmgoing public at large, with the implication that the success of Pixar and CG features in general was because the fully rendered look gave adults “permission” to enjoy something as fundamentally kiddy as animation, and that the same audience wouldn’t show up for a “cartoon.” At one time I think there was actually some truth to this. But that time was something like fifteen years ago now, which is plenty of time for a new generation with an entirely different set of aesthetic prejudices to come into their own as a demographic. I hope that this is the first example of a major sea change in how animation is marketed and consumed.

This isn’t the first time someone’s made an CG animated superhero film, of course, but even The Incredibles was marketed as a Pixar film first and foremost, which is practically its own genre. It’s trailers lead with Mr. Incredible’s dad bod and the family/superhero dichotomy, emphasizing the film’s comedy elements ahead of its action-adventure elements. This trailer is all about how cool it would be to be a Spider-person who can dive from skyscrapers and bounce off cars, and it seems marketed to the same audience who would watch any live-action Marvel movie.

How it’s stylized is exciting too. It has a variable pose rate*, and what I understand from talking to people from SPI is that it’s largely interpolationless! It’s not by any means the first CG feature to use those techniques--much of the animation in the Peanuts and Lego movies has been interpolationless, and as I understand it, previous features done by SPI have had so much frame-by-frame tweaking that some shots might as well have been. But I think it may be the first to use them in quite this way, married to nonphotorealistic rendering and used to depict more human characters in a non-comedic context.

This is as good a time as any to talk about my ultimate goals with the tools and processes I’m discussing on this blog. Certainly, I’d like to promote better rigging and animation tools overall, but my long-term goal is to help create a cheaper, much more direct process for creating high production value animated content. The idea is to be able to create low-budget productions in the $10-$15 million dollar range without sacrificing the things that are actually important about animation--the sense of irrepressible life that the best animation has, and it’s ability to depict almost any setting or narrative with beauty and economy. A lot of my ideas about the inefficiency of CG production were inspired by Keith Lango’s old blog (I can’t seem to find the posts anymore, though), and refined in collaboration with Chris Perry, who directed The New Pioneers.

I don’t think it makes sense to rely the same processes for low-budget production as you’d use for a high-budget feature, or even a mid-budget CG feature like the Lego or Despicable Me films. I don’t think I’ve seen an example of low-budget CG film--a film under 20 million--that manages to capture the things I care about in animation. I think a lot of this is attributable to the production process, because CG production, as traditionally constituted, is highly indirect. Exerting artistic control through that process takes a lot of time and effort. You can create well, but you can’t create well and quickly. And while I’m not aiming for truncated schedules at all--more on that below--the ability for individual artists to create finished work quickly is a cornerstone of the small team size I do envision.

So if low-budget, high production value CG is going to be possible, it’s going to mean coming up with a different production process, and finding a way to shear away everything that isn’t the essential artistic work of the process (which is more-or-less irreducible). To me, that essential artistic work comes down to design and performance. Design in the sense of character design, art direction, shot composition--all the things that make an image beautiful. And performance in the sense of character expression and the graphical qualities of movement, all the things that make animation meaningful and engaging.

Neither of these qualities necessarily relies on the CG production process, and in fact the process works against both of them. A concept artist can create a beautiful image extraordinarily quickly, and in fact concept art (in my experience) is frequently much more beautiful then the full-rendered CG it is meant to inspire. A drawn animator can rough in a great character performance very quickly as well (although to get that animation into a finished state will require a great deal more effort). In both cases the artist is creating directly, without the process and pipeline acting as a dead weight.

We won’t be able to remove the “process tax” entirely, but I think we will be able to reduce it massively by choosing processes and stylistic decisions that work together to make animation much more direct. Ephemeral rigging and interpolationless animation is just one part of that. The biggest savings is actually in environment creation. Background art for this production process would be created much as it is for drawn animation--it would be painted. With the right stylistic choices and some simple 3D geometry for perspective and projection, a background artist can do the work of multiple departments in a conventional CG pipeline. For The New Pioneers, art director Chris Bishop set the tone for the background art team by simply painting a lot of it himself. An individual can sit down and produce finished background art, rather than shepherding it through concept, asset creation, lookdev, layout, set dressing, and lighting, and that art in a final or near-final form is what animators work to.

Nonphotorealistic rendering of characters and other fully CG elements is also an important part of the process. For one thing, you’d quickly lose any advantage from painting the backgrounds if they had to match the look and feel of fully rendered characters. For another, the fully rendered look tends to demand a high degree of polish from animation--a level of polish drawn animators do not need to concern themselves with. Watch great drawn animation closely, and you’ll see lots of little imperfections--”hitting a wall,” wobbling, parts of the body freezing in place--that never bothered anyone, but would stick out like a sore thumb in most CG**. Why I think this is probably requires a different blog post, but suffice to say that it seems possible to escape these issues by using a simplified rendering style and variable pose rate. This frees animators to focus on the performance questions that matter, rather than spending endless time on polish. In some cases this reduces the amount of time needed to animate a shot to a fraction of the time you’d normally need to complete it.

Nonphotorealistic rendering also makes it easier, at least in theory, for the production to be entirely real-time. Last year I did some animation for Zafari, a production using the Unreal Engine for lighting and rendering. The advantages to the production were pretty huge, but they didn’t extend to layout and animation, which still had to be done in Maya.

Unfortunately it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before VP2 can keep up with the Unreal Engine. But while I don’t know if you’ll ever see VP2 producing something like the Fortnite trailer, it may be possible to use it for my much less photoreal purposes. That’s something I’m going to turn my attention to once the ephemeral rigging system is battle-tested in a few actual productions. Regardless of how it’s achieved, fully real-time production at every stage is a big part of the process I’m visualizing.

Lastly, I imagine using these techniques to create productions with small teams, rather than try to do production more quickly with a conventionally sized team. There’s such a huge logistical overhead to the normal animation studio environment that I don’t think adopting faster techniques would necessarily create the cost decreases that I’d like to see. A drastically smaller team doing a production on a more conventional--or even relaxed!--schedule could create far greater efficiencies, and allow the best artists on the team to do a lot of work of their own, rather than spending all their time managing others. The contribution of any individual artist to the production goes up too, hopefully leading to more engaged artists putting more of themselves into the production. You can think of what I’m trying to create as being way out on the “cheap/good” end of the “fast/cheap/good” space, even though the way I’m trying to do it is by making the work of production faster.

A lot of these ideas are pretty speculative! New Pioneers proved that they could work, but also showed a lot of areas where further development is needed (which is basically what this blog is chronicling!).

I don’t want to make movies like an Iron Man, from inside an expensive, complicated machine that blasts every problem with the same overwhelming force. I want to animate like a Spider-Man, leaping from scene to scene with incredible speed, clobbering shots with my own spider-strength and using just the right amount of technological assistance to let me swing away and leave them webbed up in my wake.

*I’ve decided to start using the term “variable pose rate” rather than “variable frame rate” to describe the mix of 1s, 2s, and 3s that are frequently used in drawn animation, because “frame rate” has a specific, separate meaning. Something can have a variable pose rate, but a frame rate of 24fps. You could have two characters with different pose rates within the same shot--indeed, you’re very likely to!--so the term “variable frame rate” doesn’t really make sense.

**The exceptions to this are usually leaning into the imperfections as a deliberate stylistic choice, like the stop-motion-derived look of the Lego movies.