Duck into a narrow passageway off a quiet street in New York’s West Village, step down half a flight and over some sandbags, and you’ll find yourself in the looking glass world of Michael Sporn Animation. Last fall, the Museum of Modern Art honored Sporn’s 35 years of work with a retrospective, including his animated versions of the children’s books Lyle the Crocodile and Doctor Desoto, which was nominated for an Oscar. But I stopped by for a representative look at animators’ ongoing struggle with their digital tools. Animators, more than most designers, are caught these days between commercial and fine art, between serving their clients’ workflows and their own creativity.
Sporn knows these divides well, even if he mostly avoids them. The basement studio looks like something out of a Spike Jonze film, with creaky computers, hissing radiators, scanners propped on swivel chairs and inks stacked against the wall. His colleague Matthew Clinton walked me through their hybrid digital/analog process: Sporn’s films begin life as hand drawings on traditional light boxes, before being scanned into Photoshop and stacked (by frame and character) into hundreds of layers. After Effects puts time into the equation, then Final Cut Pro stitches everything together. “But mostly, we’re using the computer as a camera,” says Clinton, who then can’t resist using After Effects to make Rousseau, the philosopher, skit across a beach in his bathing costume towards Gertrude Stein. (Don’t ask.) What’s so striking about his demonstration is the technical simplicity of the process. Sporn explains, “For the moment, what I do works, and there’s no real reason to abandon it until I have a true replacement with which I feel completely comfortable.”
Sporn’s methodology is neither quick nor cheap, but few others have that luxury, shabby as it may be, of taking things easy. Most animators working in advertising, television or videogames have strict deadlines and budgets. For them, the challenge is deciding whether to buy inexpensive software, often used ad-hoc, or to spend big bucks for specialized programs. And, especially when it comes to 3D, they are still grasping for horsepower and stability.
But price remains the biggest issue. Anzovin Studio, a small computer graphics shop in western Massachusetts, recently switched its 3-D work from Animation Master to Maya, the powerhouse now owned by Autodesk. On the face of it, their choice was simple: Maya is more broadly used in pipelines for animation and gaming, which was the work they wanted. But going from a program costing $300 “a seat” to one costing $2000-$5000 was a large step. “We had to build up the studio to the point where we could get the software and hardware needed to go after those other jobs,” says David Boutilier, Anzovin’s VP/Production Manager. It’s a classic business scenario, except this isn’t a big piece of equipment, or a new office, but software.
No such choice is perfect, or without consequences. A client’s existing “assets” may demand the use of yet another program, like XSI, by Softimage (itself a subsidiary of Avid). That means another five grand, to start. “Companies have created tools and assets and pipelines structured around how a 3-D program works, and for the animators to change means not only an outlay of costs for the new 3-D program, but they also have to create a whole new set of tools,” explains Phil McNagny, who teaches 3-D animation at New York University and is a founding partner at Kickstand, an animation R&D lab.
The situation is just as volatile in 2-D animation. For most freelancers or small- to mid-range studios, the de facto reigning program is Flash—emphasis on “de facto.” It’s the most inexpensive and accessible choice, and plenty of television shows have been built around it, but Flash was never intended for complex animation jobs, and some artists want more. The simmering discontent in the community bubbled to the surface in January, when influential animation blogger Amid Amidi, of Cartoon Brew, posted the news that Lili Chin and Eddie Mort, creators of ¡Mucha Lucha!, one of the first Flash-based television series, were “truly over” the program and its “buggy filters.” Commenters exploded with angst over Flash’s limitations versus its accessibility. “Flash was never meant to be a tool for character animation,” insisted “Slowtiger.” “That it was used to create lots of, and sometimes really great, character animation, only proves that an animator will use any tool within his or her reach, no matter how awkward it would be.”
Many small-time animators are likely to continue using Flash just as he describes, partly because it’s the only affordable way for them to stay in business. While Chin and Mort have said they are switching to Harmony, the enterprise-level program from Canadian software maker ToonBoom, for their next project, freelancers and up-and-comers can only dream of such an upgrade. “A lot of us would probably like to use Harmony,” said commenter “::smo::,” “But we’re not loaded, or studios.” I caught up with “::smo::”—real name, Thomas Sebastian Smolenski—while he was touring the country with his band in a biodiesel bus. Smolenski gave up the Pale Force cartoon he had been animating for Conan O’Brien, but he’s still animating from the road, on a tablet PC loaded with Flash. “I couldn’t do that with a light table,” he said. “Flash has helped people like myself put a foot in the door. Before, no one would outsource to some punk kid out of college. There are a lot of small studios springing up because of this.” There may be an Oscar nomination and 30 years of experience separating Smolenski from Sporn, but both animators have learned that when it comes to their industry’s software, there’s only one standard: making do.
June 1, 2008