Monday, November 5, 2007

Ruminations on Art and Sacrifice

On Art

As Rainier Rilke once advised a young poet, “ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” If you’re lucky, the answer is “no.” However, if you’ve received the curse of being an artist, nothing will ever fulfill you but the creative act. If I may add my two cents to Rilke’s sage advise: make sure you really have the curse before you invest yourself in it; because, for all the sacrifices your art will demand, it will ultimately be its only reward. A pragmatist would advise against artistic endeavor. Only a hopeless romantic would pursue it. If you are fine with that, welcome to the club!


The time has come for us to talk about sacrifice. We all knew going into this that making animated films involved a certain degree of sacrifice. I’ve been working on BOS for a decade now, off and on, and it’s interesting to note how major life choices have already been influenced by this affair. I’m currently accepting a lower-paying job with steady hours instead of a fancier job with fancier hours in order to make this side-project possible. I’ve even avoided job opportunities that seemed perfect for my career and family because the relocation would’ve disrupted the production of this monstrosity.

Plays Well With Others

One of the things that drove this endeavor from the beginning was the realization that this particular story carried the potential to be an excellent group project; filled as it is with all manner of set pieces, fantastic worlds of high imagination, interesting lighting and animation scenarios. It presents the opportunity to practice the myriad disciplines of CG animation in every conceivable way. I’ve always dreamed of forging some sort of group effort to create artistic expression beyond the capacity of the individual. My early experiments to this end involved the founding of a nonprofit art community (the aptly titled Epicenter – go New Epicureans!) and getting involved with all sorts of group projects in graduate school. But this film project would be the first one of this scope, with its fifteen minutes of running time. The maxim in the animation industry is “a million a minute” ... every minute of feature-quality animation costs a million dollars to produce. If I took the legit route this would be the fifteen-million-dollar experiment. But I’m going the guerrilla route; zero budget (but zero pressure from producers!) Asking for volunteer help wherever I can get it, insisting that participation pays itself back in FUN; the fun to be had working with others on an animated film. The concept doesn’t seem too bizarre where I come from; in my old starving-artist daze, we all worked through our passions without a passing thought of ever getting paid. It was accepted that art was something you sacrificed for, that never gave back, and we were cool with it. But this notion is an uphill battle in the unionized film industry. People in this town expect to get paid for their artistic contributions; which makes this a hard sell in Hollywood.

Major Studio

I should take this opportunity to mention that I work in a major Hollywood animation studio. You’d know the name if I said it. Let’s just say it’s probably the second one that just came to your mind when I said “major animation studio.” I’ve done my best to recruit from among the ranks there, but in this racket the personnel are already overworked; most of them are working nights and weekends anyway. Many offer verbal support. Not many offer their nights and weekends. I’ve had the best luck with interns and students, who are always enthusiastic and eager to work on a group project. They aren’t as jaded and desensitized as they will be after five years of overtime, so it’s a good time to seize their talents. The situation in these cases seems to be pretty symbiotic; they genuinely need the experience, and I genuinely need the work done. So it works out. I’ve been able to get some visual development, some models and some textures done recently; and it makes the entire project so much less lonely when you start to get the contributions rolling in. It even lights a fire under my ass, feeling the momentum to pick up speed on production. Most importantly, it lends a richness to this virtual world, with different points of view able to bring a fresh outlook to the table. I’m very excited about the quality of the work that is starting to be produced for the project, and tickled pink that I’m not working in isolation any more. In the coming weeks I will focus some blog entries on the trials and tribulations of collecting and motivating teams, which is a pursuit just political enough you’ll want to avoid it for the typical three-minute short; but anything more ambitious and it becomes inevitable. You need a team to keep the momentum alive.

The Length

About the length of my film. Someone asked me the other day why I chose to do a fifteen minute film. Actually, it’s the most common question I get about this project, so I trotted out a well-rehearsed answer. I figure: making animated movies is hard. Why kid yourself into thinking that a three-minute short is going to be easy? It’s not. It takes months, years of prep time, and an entire pipeline infrastructure to be designed in support of it. Yes, even for the simplest film. With that degree of investment at stake, why not double or triple the time you put into it, delaying the rewards, sure, but ending up with something really powerful at the end? At the most, I’m only investing the time it would have taken to make five three-minute shorts. I’d rather go for the magnum opus.

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