Time seems so endless and yet ever-diminishing at the same. Never in our brief human history has the concept of time become as dominant as it is now.
“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” — Albert Einstein
As an animation artist the issue of time is a serious matter. As a subject it represents both a tool we use to execute our artistry and a constraint in terms of production (i.e. deadlines). But in life, time has come to be viewed as a commodity — something to possess, to get more of and to take advantage of. Speed and efficiency have become the buzz words of the 21st century.
Charlie Chaplin stars in one of his funniest films, Modern Times. Despite being made over 80 years ago, the theme of Chaplin’s film is just as significant today in its profound statement about the progress of technology and its impact on humanity.
For animators, time is represented by frames — units of measure that depict the spatial travel of objects or shapes. In typical film work, animating 24 fps (frames per second) is standard, while in Virtual Reality, the goal now is a mind-whopping 120 fps (to prevent nausea for the gamer). A solid understanding and control of time’s properties can help an animator tell a story by controlling the mood or energy of a shot. And when used in conjunction with sound posing and composition, wonderful patterns emerge forming rhythms not unlike what music creates — moments of action and stillness that trigger sensations that can’t be described verbally. Such is the beauty and power of this craft.
The suspension of disbelief through the astute usage of “hang time” are what helped make Wile E. Coyote’s foibles ever so interesting. From Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies series directed by Chuck Jones.
But like anything in film or any computer-enhanced imagery, nothing about animated time is actually real. Both the shapes made and the speed at which they travel are illusions. They can’t be physically touched and its information is contained only in an invisible digital format. Much like money and social approval, time is ultimately insubstantial — it has no physical bearing or weight. There’s nothing there. Units of time are just symbols, mere markers for the sake of convenience.
“We mistook the symbol for the real thing.” — Alan Watts
Chow Yun Fat burns counterfeit currency in his spectacular performance in director John Woo’s 1986 Hong Kong mafia flick, A Better Tomorrow, a film about money, power and brotherhood.
So the irony remains — the animator controls the units of time in his craft but not in his life. Tight external and sometimes unrealistic deadlines and creative demands generate immeasurable pressures on the production artist. We don’t have to be animators to live or understand that. This pressure is now everywhere, in every industry. We work to find time, and use that time to do more work. When do we stop or rest? What has happened to presence and leisure?
“Pruning minutes and seconds and hundredths of seconds become an obsession in all but a few segments of our society.” — James Gleick, from his book, Faster.
Having already mistaken money for wealth and social approval for love, we’ve now confused time — or its synonymous cousin, speed — for power. The most valued artists, or workers, are not necessarily the most effective ones anymore but those that deliver “acceptable” quality the fastest. The most successful and popular product isn’t the best product but one that reaches the market in the most timely fashion. It’s why release dates, and thus deadlines, have become so important, so pressing. How did this come about? How did we so blindly and voluntarily give in to such madness? Is there truth in that old saying “It’s not a lie, if you believe it”?
Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishbourne star in the Warchowski’s brothers iconic film, The Matrix. Our minds often confuse fantasy with reality.
As a society, we have all bought into the hurry-sickness of our times. It’s hard to break free from this mindset when everyone else is on board the same ship. It’s why crowd behavior is so powerful, and manias and financial asset bubbles form. Trends and formulas get repeated. A wave of belief assures even the most suspicious-minded, luring them also towards conformity. As a modern people, we can’t stand idleness — we’re all Type A personalities now. We’re all rushing to get things done so we can do even more. Wants become needs and time is something everyone wants. Unfortunately, the more time we have, the more we tend to fill it up.
“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” — William Penn
Is it no surprise that every CEO, producer, manager and coordinator is trying to cram as much as possible in the schedule? I once knew of a producer who was constantly pressing his programmers to design tools to deliver animations ever faster, to reduce the need for customization and ultimately, to cut down the need for staff while at the same time, demand greater artistry and emotional connection (which of course, requires that same customization and personalization he sought so hard to eliminate). Motion capture tools, auto-animate controls, special dynamics scripts and preset lighting modules are all the rage when it comes to speeding up the animation pipeline. The motivations behind these technologies rarely have to do with advancing the art form or improving quality, but rather reducing costs in order to increase profits, which ironically is diminishing because of the constant out-bidding among studios. It’s truly becoming a fruitless and futile, lose-lose scenario. All we did was get faster.
Untitled V. The art of Abstract Expressionist Willem De Kooning looks like it’d be easy to duplicate to the untrained eye, but that’s far from the reality. Fantastic personal artistry is impossible to duplicate.
Fortunately, nature has its limits. Creativity, and the emotional impact that responds to the highest quality — which can only come from the personal space that lies within the artist’s mind and soul — can’t be duplicated. Did photography remove the need for drawing or painting? Do realistic animations remove the need for live actors? Will machines or programs replace artists? The answer to all these questions is a resounding NO. We don’t connect to any work that is impersonal.
If you’re Olympic Champion Usain Bolt, or any professional athlete for that matter, speed is paramount. But we must ask, for most other things in life, such as artistic creativity, why should it?
Time is a tool. As much as it is a tool to help us get things done, it’s a tool to help express our craft. Furthermore, clocks and watches helps us measure things like cooking times and athletic performance, as well as set up conveniences like meetings. But when time is used to measure artistic merit or self-worth, it fails miserably. A musician isn’t judged by how quickly he plays and neither should an artist be judged by his rate of production. No great piece of art in history, whether in the realms of music, film or painting is remembered for how quickly it was done. Yet again and again, we commonly hear how successful a person or company is because of the speed of execution or how quickly a fortune has been amassed. Let’s get over this delusion. Society has yet to realize that when one person or one company has gotten faster, so has everyone else. The end result being no one is further ahead. The goal of art (and life) shouldn’t be to do it faster, but to learn from it, dance with it, and having a bit of fun with it.
South Park Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker lend a little animation to some Alan Watts wisdom.
But what if the world refuses to behave and our deadlines remain just as real and foreboding? Well, then hard difficult decisions have to be made. We must ask, is the work we’re doing worth doing? If not, why should we keep doing it? And if it is, can we find balance somehow? Is there a way of working within the external constraints? Musical talents like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen found ways to express their poetry in the standard three minute song. Within our everyday performance,there are many ways of working to improve our focus and effectiveness. Improved skill is highly correlated with improved efficiency and execution — it’s part of being a professional to bolster our abilities. Asking the right questions helps us get stronger. At the end of the day, we’re all judged by the quality of our contributions. Shortcuts don’t work, they never have.
“There are no secrets that time does not reveal.” — Jean Racine
Now, the other concern we may have is whether our work will suffer if we can’t work quickly or be able to endure super long hours. My own experience has shown me that rushing decisions (for example, skipping the planning stage) and working when we’re tired both diminishes performance and results in poor delivery — which ultimately results in having to do things over and taking even longer. Bottom line is, we can only do the best we can in the time allotted — the key word being allotted. Mistakes and failure are bound to happen and we have to learn from them. They are acceptable outcomes of being an artist and being a human being. Wise organizations will make adjustments and set more achievable milestones. The unintelligible ones will remain short-sighted and have short life spans.
Always remember that lack of success doesn’t break us, but rather helps us grow — it’s good and proper feedback. Rushing and pressing for more and more, with less and less time and resources, however, can break you. In fact, it will lead to a mental state that turns us sick in mind, body and spirit. If we let something as abstract as time dominate us, we will have invited impatience, irritation and aggressiveness into our lives and allow these attributes to define us. If we let go of expectation and perpetual haste, the anxieties attached to our creative performance diminishes.
At the end of the day, art requires the time that it needs. Varied pacing and balance are needed for great and interesting art. It’s only logical that the same goes with working and living.
Perhaps this moment from John Lasseter’s marvelous film, Toy Story 2, says it best. Good work requires skill, technique, care, and most of all, time.
“Art tends toward balance, order, judgment of relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living – very good things for anyone to be interested in.” — Robert Henri