On the Move

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 be in the looking-glass world of
Michael Sporn Animation. Last fall, the Museum of Modern Art honored
Sporn’s 35-year career with a retrospective that included his
animated versions of the children’s books Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile
and Doctor De Soto; the latter was nominated for an Academy Award. But I
stopped by for a representative look at animators’ ongoing
struggle with their digital tools. Animators, more than most other
designers, must cope with industry-specific software that is either
exorbitant in cost or technologically imperfect.

Sporn knows that
divide well—but he mostly avoids it by cobbling together his own
tool set. His basement studio looks something like a set for a Spike
Jonze film, with creaky computers, hissing radiators, and ink bottles
stacked against the wall. Sporn’s colleague Matthew Clinton walked
me through the company’s process, a hybrid of digital and analog
technologies: Sporn’s films begin life as hand drawings on
traditional light boxes; he then scans them into Photoshop and stacks
them (by frame and character) into hundreds of layers. After Effects
adds a temporal element to the equation, and 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 the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau skit across
a beach in his bathing costume toward Gertrude Stein. (You have to see
it.) 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—a
three-minute film can require four months of production—but few
others enjoy that luxury of taking things easy. Most animators working
in advertising, television, or video games have strict deadlines and
budgets. For them, the challenge is deciding whether to buy inexpensive
software, often used ad hoc, or spend big bucks for specialized
programs. And, especially when it comes to 3-D, they are still grasping
for programs powerful and stable enough to handle big jobs.

price remains the most pressing 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, Anzovin’s choice seems 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 $2,000–$5,000 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 vice president and production manager.
It’s a classic business scenario, except this isn’t about
adding staff, 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 animators
to change means not only an outlay of costs for the new 3-D program, but
also creating a whole new set of tools,” explains Phil McNagny,
who teaches 3-D animation at New York University and is a partner at
Kickstand, an animation R&D lab.

The situation is just as volatile in
2-D animation. For most freelancers or studios with small staffs, 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
, one of the first Flash-based television series, were
“truly over” the program and its “buggy
filters.” Commenters exploded with frustration over Flash’s
limitations versus its accessibility. “Flash was never meant to be
a tool for character animation,” insisted a commenter named
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

Many small-scale 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 [full-fledged]
studios.” I caught up with ::smo::—real name, Thomas
Sebastian Smolenski—while he was touring the country with his
band, Mose Giganticus, in a biodiesel bus. Smolenski gave up the Pale
cartoon he had been animating for Late Night with Conan
, 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 says. “Flash has helped people like me 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 Sporn from Smolenski, but both animators have learned that
when it comes to their industry’s software, there’s only one
standard: making do.