When I was in university, my professors mentioned that there would be moments in an animator's career where something would 'click', and then they would realize something that would make them a better animator. They said these moments happen to everyone, and that you remember each one. At the time, I didn't really think much of this. In fact, I forgot all about it until one day I actually had one of these revelations, one year into my animation career.
I was working on this shot for a commercial where this guy comes in and yells this dialogue. The direction was straightforward enough, so I went about my usual process I always did when animating shots. I took reference of myself, then took that video and screenshotted all the key poses and took note of their frame numbers so I had all my frames and framecount. Then I block directly from those images. and then spline and polish. Notes and polish and repeat.
At the time, I would say I was okay as an animator, but half the time I didn't know why certain animations worked and why some didn't. For example I would sometimes have happy accidents in my animation where it would look amazing, but I wouldn't be able to recreate it at all, cause I didn't know what I did but it just worked out. However, the flip side of that would be when I would have something that wasn't quite working, and I would try to go to fix it, but I wouldn't even know where to begin.
Such was the yelling dialogue shot.
It's interesting because when I showed my boss my blocking pass, he said it was great and to keep going. But when I showed him my spline first pass, he said it had lost the performance and it was worse.
So, I went at it and checked every single one of my curves, and pulled out all the tangents so that they were all super silky smooth. There was absolutely nothing technically wrong with my animation at all. I checked. No hitting walls, anticipation and overlap on everything. and all the poses were solid. And I watched it. And I was pleased. And then I showed him again.
He said "Hmm.... No. It's not quite there."
And I was like, "What? Really?"
He continues "You know what. Let me take a look at your file. This shot is due pretty soon, so it might be faster if I just did these specific notes real quick. I'll get it back to you in a bit."
Dammit! The animator's greatest shame-- the passing off of a shot cause you couldn't do it.
So he took the shot. and he borrowed my video reference that I started the blocking pass with. And he fiddled with the shot for a few hours. And finally he showed it to me.
And it was. Way. Better.
UGH. I wasn't even frustrated anymore. I was flabbergasted. I was more curious than anything! What the hell did he do to make it better? So I opened the file to look at all the changes, and I checked all the tangents to see what he did better than me. Because the poses were all pretty much the same. The arcs were the same. And the beats were also more or less the same.
But there wasn't any discernable differences in the tangents. There were a few changes to the timing here and there, but it wasn't anything that I wasn't doing. In fact, when I looked at it, I noticed that the tangents themselves weren't perfect. They were moved seemingly randomly, and they weren't as smooth as when I had them. So I figured it didn't have to do with a technique or a Maya thing.
So I was like, why did he move that tangent there? How did he know to change the timing of this arc, because its pretty much what I had but it just... feels better. Everything just feels better...
And that was it. I leveled up.
I realized that I was too reliant on the tools that make up the performance than the performance itself. At some point, I forgot that the feeling of the animation is more important than having a strong pose, or a clean arc, or a perfectly smooth tangent, or really cool finger animation. All of those things are only there to amplify the core performance. If you lose that performance, all you're doing is polishing a turd.
Ever since then, I started looking at animation completely different. I was able to watch it as both viewer and animator, analyzing arcs, but also enjoying the experience. It changed everything. Even animations that I had seen before now looked like a whole new scene. I began to really appreciate good animation and I was able to really feel the illusion of life.
Since that moment, I was able to animate faster. My process became more refined. And the notes I received on my shots changed too. The notes were less technical and became more of an acting choice decision rather than a lack of feeling or emoting. I understood then, that a successful animation could take on many forms, and could go many different routes as long as you achieve the true purpose or emotion the scene was intended for.
And then, I immediately hated all of my demo reel, haha. I could see then just how much better all of my shots could've been. So I started more personal projects... (key word - started)
It was like my animator eyes had just opened. And I could now see just how much I was lacking and how much better I could be.
And now, even though I leveled up, I am able to see the entire playing field that is the animation industry. And it is both exciting and daunting to see how many other people are just simply amazing animators. It's so cool. I want to be up there with the best of them.
Anyway. That was my first animator clicky moment, or whatever you'd call it. I'm hopeful I'll have a couple more that will be just as revelatory. If you had one of those animator clicky moments where you became noticeably better, I'd love to hear it!
Thanks for reading!