#002 What I learned in Animation and applied to Photography
Some of my best friends today were colleagues in the animation studios I used to work before I discovered my interest in photography.
They often hear me saying that I apply many things learned in animation to photography.
By this, I don't only mean the aspect of the craft related to framing and image composition, but also, and possibly most importantly, the necessary mindset and professional attitude that comes with it.
Before animating a character in an animated movie, the animator has to frame the scene through the use of a virtual camera, which can be static or in motion, depending on the scene.
This task involves importing into an empty 3D space the environment where the scene will take place, the characters and the props (items) that will populate the scene, arranging it, and then framing it through a virtual camera. The storyboard is your guide to do this, in fact, the basic goal here is to recreate your storyboard in the 3D software.
This process is also called Scene Layout and Camera Staging (or simply, Layout) and is supervised by the animation supervisor as well as the director of photography or the movie director.
The inputs these experienced professionals give to the animator in the layout stage are essential to better tell the story through the right framing or camera movement. They can be general changes in camera position or also requests to improve very fine details in the way the camera moves through a dynamic sequence or frames a static scene. It is a whole subject, which is the essence of cinematography and storytelling, complementary to animation, that every good animator has to learn and should always strive to improve.
The funny thing is that during my second animation job, which was in Rome for an animated feature film, together with the rest of the animation team, I had to do the layout of the entire movie before animating it....and I hated it!
Why did I hate it? Because I wanted to animate characters in the movie and felt like doing 8 months of camera staging was a waste of time. I was young, I was 20 years old and despite all my frustration about the situation at the time, eventually, I had to admit that (of course) I was so wrong! It was not a waste of time at all.
It is also fair to say that the whole animation team (10 people) was hired on the premises of animating the movie, yes we knew we would need to do the layout stage before the animation but usually, you do the layout of a sequence and then you animate it.
Instead, the director decided to do the whole layout of the movie first, so we were stuck with it for months. This is actually how things are done in big studios, where they do have a Layout department that does this whole process before the animations start to work on the projects. But in smaller companies, the animators do that too.
To cut this story short, when 8 years later I started to photograph, all those things I (almost reluctantly) learned in those 8 months in Rome come out of my head like a waterfall after torrential rain, and very naturally, I started to apply them in every composition. The more I photographed the more I recalled and was able to put into use. In fact, I often say that I knew how to compose a scene and communicate through images, but I didn't know the technical side of photography, so had to learn how to use the camera and expose images. This is the opposite of what people usually do: they first get attracted to the toy (the camera) and learn to use it much like a technician would do, and only a lot later concerns themselves with learning the basics of composition and lighting.
For some unexplainable reason when I was spending countless days (...and nights...) in the animation studio overwhelmed with notes from the supervisors to improve the compositions and camera movements of my scenes, I never thought I could use all that knowledge, aesthetic sensibility, and visual training towards something else away from computer graphics, such as photography, drawing or even interior design.
Of course, I still had to work and always will work with dedication on my photographic compositions, and quickly found out that this topic deeply interested me, especially when applied to crafting images through photography.
With photography, I realized that framing and image composition is the most important thing to practice and aspire to master, so I delve into this subject ever since. Not only by practicing photography regularly but also by studying books about image composition, landscape paintings and painters, art history, colors, lighting, cinematography, and finally photography.
As I'm writing this I have realized that when I started to photograph I instantly focused to improve my image compositions and natural light interpretation skills without any distractions because I knew those are the essence of the craft. But with animation instead, I saw the layout stage as a distraction from the animation process, which was what really interested me and what I considered to be the core of the craft. While in reality, they go hand-in-hand and only together constitute the essence of the craft, therefore they must be learned together.
I remember that keeping things simple and making things simple was among the hardest things to achieve. Although some camera movements were complex to do, I always had to seek simplicity, harmony, and balance. Still, nowadays, these three characteristics are always very prominent in my mind and I always contemplate them whenever I'm framing (through photography) a difficult scene or can not find the solution to a visual problem. Later on, I started to apply these three principles to many things in life, far beyond animation or photography, and into my relationships and personal life.
Animation, just like cinematography, is a collaborative work. The animated scene you are working on has to sustain the flow from the previous shot and blend seemingly with the next one. This is why the concept of coherence is very important. So much so that it is a given among people from the movie industry and nobody ever argues about it; if coherence is not met, nothing you're going to say is going to alter the fact that you'll need to fix it. Whether it is about coherence or something else, you quickly learn that there is no point in “fighting” over notes or negative feedback. Better embrace the correct attitude instead: pick yourself up and do the changes in the most efficient and precise way you can. Through good supervision, you'll appreciate how your work will improve and the satisfaction that comes with it. In photography, I didn't have any supervisor or mentor to follow, so I had to be my own critic and be harsh at times. Because I was so used to having people being plainly honest about my work, often to the point of telling me to redo from scratch the same task over and over again, I knew how badly I needed (and always will need) it to improve and the innumerable benefits that such attitude would have brought me, especially on the long run.
A crucial point here that so many misses is that any critique or negative comments about your work are, in fact, about your work! They are not about you!
In a professional environment, you are not so important, your work is.
So stop pretending to be important and stop acting like a victim.
Your supervisors don't have to like you, they have to like your work. But if you take it personally, for sure they will not like you and will get rid of you as soon as possible, and ultimately, this will be on you.
Professional skills and a good personal attitude go hand-in-hand.
The more you take it personally and the more the next comments will be about your personality, your professional maturity, and eventually about you as a person and not about your professional output.
Instead, by accepting the other's opinions and by trying to understand how best to improve and meet the quality required, you will show that you can handle the criticism and the next feedback will solely be about improving your work and not about your own self.
When this point is reached and can be reached after the first interaction with your supervisor, this is where working in a team becomes a pleasure and everyone strives for their best.
Because it is not an “appearance” contest or a “beauty” contest or a “feeling sorry” contest, it is a “do your best” contest.
Taking this back to photography, I knew I only had to focus on my work. If you like to work hard in solitude on long-term goals like me, this thought is quite liberating: You don't have to worry about anything, just do your best and the rest will follow.
The last point I want to touch on is discipline and dedication.
Only those who have animated for a fair amount of time can understand why I brought this up and what a great teacher of discipline is animation, nonetheless I try to explain further.
The animation process is very time-consuming and consequently drains much of the brain's energy.
Not exclusively because it is a long process but also because you have to be highly focused on it.
It teaches you to be disciplined in your planning and execution as well as be dedicated until its completion. There are no instant rewards, on the contrary, most of the time the process is so long that by the end of any animations, you may feel so used to it, while crafting it and seeing it over and over again until every final detail is just right, that you will either just want to move on or won't feel any pleasure in seeing it again for a while. The final reward really is the end of the entire movie production when you see everything you had accomplished and the overall progression of your skills thanks to your long-term discipline and dedication to the craft.
I like to approach photography in the same way, meaning that I try to work on long-term photography projects and seek gratification at the very end. I don't stop after some “great” photographs because I know that real lasting accomplishment is something else entirely and needs much more than that. So I move on in search for the next “great” photograph, keeping up that same discipline and dedication which makes up my professional attitude and personal ethos.
January 20th, 2022.