The Animation Department at the Royal College of Art (RCA) received a pleasant surprise to help mark its 25th anniversary this year. All three British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nominations for short animations last year were awarded to films created as RCA animation projects. One of them, by David Prosser, was also an Adobe Design Achievement Award winner.
To celebrate the department’s silver anniversary we decided to launch a DVD of fifty films. As one of the current tutors I had the enviable task of reviewing films made over this period to create a short list for the DV. Luckily I was familiar with many of them.
While reviewing the films I noticed a difference between the earlier and later films, with the later films having an increasingly sophisticated technique, or a significant increase in production values. This was not to say that the earlier films were not polished or well made, but there was a difference that seemed to mirror the development of digital production. I wondered if a current familiarity with the digital world allowed for this, with a majority of students being “digital natives,” or whether it might have something to do with the tools themselves. It is of course, a combination of both factors, but access to digital technology and the ability to combine applications such as Adobe® Photoshop®, After Effects® and Flash® allows for greater control of the image.
In addition, there have been significant changes in post- production. Editing as we knew it, has now become non-linear editing. There is a slightly different process and mindset to editing now; sometimes it may include a small amount of what used to fall into the category of “effects.“ Working with sound digitally is similar to non- linear editing, where there is an immediacy to cutting and layering sound. You can now have multiple layers. Although you could have this before, you were constantly mixing down or working with four main tracks so cutting and pasting could also get complicated and messy. Being able to work with sound and image together in applications such as Adobe Premiere® is a major development. The developments aren’t always obvious in the finished animation, and the difference is not in the final sound mix, but in the process of developing the idea.
Although there is strength in producing predetermined plans, which was a necessity in the pre-digital era, you could still correct errors, but not as immediately as is possible today. There was less room for trial and error then. There was no undo button – you just went for it. Today you still need to do the planning that was required earlier, but now there is more an opportunity to make decisions on the fly while you are working.
After Effects is one of the main post-production and animation tools our students use. It has changed animated filmmaking significantly, with students using cut-outs or illustrations, and being able to animate them within an application. After Effects is also used for compositing. If students are working outside the digital environment initially they use After Effects to knit everything together before the editing stage.
Roughly five years ago a lot of films were made digitally at the RCA. Now there seems to be a swing back to more hands-on filmmaking and using digital technology to polish the final effort, or bring it all together – which is quite nice. Students seem slightly less restricted by the applications (although you can do a lot in them). There was a time when you could look at a film segment and say – “that’s After Effects” or “that’s Flash” – you could see evidence of the applications everywhere; less so now. I think students use these applications in very creative ways. They are also animating in Photoshop, and often mixing applications.
In the department we use the short film as a teaching model. It gives students a broad approach and allows them to acquire a good overview of the whole creative process - whether it’s narrative or non-narrative, it’s our starting point. They learn about sound, sequencing, editing, writing and development. They can attend workshops for specific skills with digital tools, but the main thing they are learning is how to create something whole. There is a great deal you learn that you aren’t aware of when you are working by a project, just by “doing it,” rather than taking software training courses.
From reviewing the films it feels like there have been three stages. I’ll call the first the pre- digital world where people were drawing, animating, or making models (which thankfully still happens). The second stage seems to me a “big digital world” where students were using Flash and After Effects or other applications as animation tools. In the third stage students are mixing, not just traditional animation techniques and digital tools, but also the digital tools themselves. With greater inter-application compatibility it’s easy to float from one application to another, you can work within different applications on the same film. Students don’t see it as just “this application does this or that” - there is less separation. Of course the skill of animating a figure, of timing and gesture, as well a sense of design, does not come from the digital tools, but they do have an impact on realising what an artist is able to achieve.
Now students can use artwork made outside of the digital environment and move it into Photoshop, see how it works, and then take the work into a 3D environment. It is because of the 2D and 3D digital tools that students are able to put together this type of digital environment. You have always been able to take a flat drawing and film that on a 3D set, but it works in a slightly different way now, you are lighting things differently, even the motion is slightly different. You are not restricted to gravity, which helps sometimes! Things don’t fall down or fall over. There are practical things to be gained; you might have elements you need to composite or remove, such as wires or supports, which is easier in the digital realm.
The emphasis of the Royal College of Art MA in Animation is on students taking an individual approach and working in their own way. We don’t tell students, “you will use this programme” or “you need to animate in this way” – it’s up to them. It is really important to us that students develop their own individual style and approach.
There are many smaller to medium size animation companies in the UK looking for “an individual.” Of course, if you have a personal approach and competence with all these digital tools and workflows, you become qualified as a problem solver. Our students can go to a company with a variety of approaches and quickly fit their style of working. They easily move into directing roles and prove highly mobile in the industry.
The UK industry is quite varied, from children’s TV, to mainstream television or film, to advertising, to motion graphics, special effects, to gallery work or exhibitions. Students don’t leave RCA and join the industry; often they leave here and become the industry. They set up their own companies. This subtle difference is reflected in individual successes evidenced both by awards and inclusion in film festivals. The students’ talent and creativity, their inventiveness and skill, allows them to create strong individual work. It is not the tools themselves that make our students exceptional animators - though the tools go a long way to helping them realize their vision.
These three BAFTA 2011 short animation nominations each took a different approach to the use of digital tools.
Mike used mixed a traditional 3D model set and some After Effects compositing. The main character’s life has been spent in both fascination and fear of his quickening perception of time with age. As he nears the end of his days, his interest turns to obsession and he undertakes progressively extreme measures to control and counter time’s increasing pace.
Matthias created his film completely in the digital environment using a mixture of flash animation and Photoshop animation, as well a small amount of digital 3D brought together in After Effects. This everyday love story set in the not-so-distant future sees blackbirds battling with technology, automatic palm readers, and power cuts.
This film uses a mixture of 2D drawn illustrations and animation bringing them into a 3D environment creating a beautiful hybrid of the two. It is a story about a perplexed fisherman who becomes united with a fragment of estranged matter.
Let’s see what the next 25 years brings.