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.
But 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 Lucha!, 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 be.”
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 Force cartoon he had been animating for Late Night with 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 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.