How different are animation directors from their live-action brethren?
I have been working as a director in the world of animation for just over ten years now, primarily in short films and commercials. I find that, even in creative circles, the role of an animation director is not widely understood. ‘Animation' can cover any number of productions including feature films, television series, cartoons, commercials, music videos, and video games. But from my experience it is not common knowledge that there is a key figure at the helm of each of these productions, namely the director, whose role is fundamentally the same as that of his/her live action counterpart.
"Most people can name their favourite (live action) directors. Ask anyone with the slightest cinematic interest and they can reel off the names of a dozen or so from blockbuster moguls to arthouse auteurs. Ask someone to name an animation director and they tend to be far less fluent...When you consider that animation is a huge part of our entertainment and visual culture, and with so many of the largest grossing movies of all time being animated, this is pretty surprising." Christopher O'Reilly, co-founder Nexus.
What is an animation director?
I posed this question to a group of well respected, high-flying directors and producers working in the animation industry both nationally and internationally. And I have found that the discussion is multi-layered, often complex and invariably volatile. Has the changing landscape in film, interactive media and entertainment removed the distinction between directors and animation directors entirely?
My aim for this article, is to define the difference between a director at the helm of an animated piece, an animation director working on, for example, a feature film and an animator. By doing so, I hope to go some way towards elevating our common profile in the public consciousness.
Animation director, Director of animation, Animator…Eh?
I think that most people could describe a live-action director's job fairly easily. So it is strange that the animation process and production hierarchy are shrouded in mystery.
"The beauty of animation lies in its lack of creative boundaries - there's no theme too obtuse, no story too unreal, no design too hard, no set too ambitious…Anything is well and truly possible." Katerina Athanasopoulou, animation artist and director.
Perhaps as a direct result of this, there seems to be a perception that animation happens magically. Far from it. You start with a clean slate. Then, as a director, faced with an empty set, page or virtual space you must envision, and then oversee, the creation of all that is to inhabit the final picture from the tiniest spec of dust to the most terrifying of dragons.
"You can’t place a camera in front of a puppet, shout action and watch the magic unfold…Unfortunately animation doesn’t work like that. Every single event, object or character in every single frame of every animation production has to be planned, researched, designed and crafted by numerous different groups of incredibly specialised, talented people. This process is repeated and repeated for each and every frame you see. The person who orchestrates all of this insanity is the animation director." Mark Waring, director.
I spoke to my brother Ben, a writer and father of two, on the subject and his outside perspective was interesting.
"I think that people value directors of films for adults more highly than directors of films for children. This has lead to them being given higher status and celebrity. It just so happens that films for children are often animated. Could your average punter tell you who directed any of the Muppet movies, for example, or the Harry Potter films? Films for adults are perceived (by adults) as more important than films for children. I would say most people would see animation as low art for kids… Children aren’t sophisticated enough to understand that their favourite cartoons were directed by someone, but the characters in their favourite shows are as famous and glamorous to them. So I think animation directors suffer from the fact that their work is usually consumed by an audience either too young to know of their existence or too old to take it seriously."
This is a good point, especially as most people think immediately of children's programmes or films when the term animation is mentioned. Unfortunately, even though the animation world has expanded so much now that the children's market is probably just a small sector of over all animation-related production and turnover, the general perception of the medium has remained the same.
So what does a director working in animation do exactly?
A director working in animation can often be heavily involved in every stage of the production process. Sometimes, depending on the budget, they carry out many of the roles themselves from initial script development and writing, storyboarding, creating the animatic, casting the voice talent, designing/art directing, directing the animators, working with the composer and sound design team, to compositing and the final grade.
But on a big production, there is usually a person whose role comes somewhere in-between the over all director and the animation team.
"In the case of working with an overall director like with Tim Burton or Wes Anderson on a feature film, the role of the animation director is slightly different. Although a lot of the same directorial work will be covered...on a feature the animation director is the eyes and ears on the floor for the overall director. The director has the universal vision and usually has been the one working on the story and involved in the boarding stages to create the template for the film. It is the role of the animation director to implement this vision - they put into practice the wishes of the director...Regular check-ins and updates are prepared, but it is the animation director who keeps the ship running and moving forward on a daily basis." Mark Waring, director, lead animator ‘Corpse Bride’, animation supervisor ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ and ‘Frankenweenie’.
"On 'The Amazing World of Gumball' all of the 2D animation crew; twelve animators in London and twenty four clean-up artists in Germany, work on scenes with [the character] Gumball in it. They are all very different artists, with creative strengths and weaknesses. Yet when the work is finished, nobody should be distracted and see that so many people acted the part of Gumball. Part of the job of animation director is to 'cast' the right animator for any given shot and then to ensure that all those scenes look like they came from one artist. Some animators are brilliant at subtle acting but not at broad action scenes and vice versa. It's my job to get the best possible performance out of my crew as a group and create character portraits that are of high quality and consistent across all the scenes. The animation director's job is invisible. I've done a good job when the animation successfully communicates the ideas of the director and looks simple, unfluctuating and effortless." Joris van Hulzen, animation director 'The Amazing World of Gumball' and 'Peppa Pig'.
Where does the animator fit into all of this?
On 'pure' animation productions, the animators are your main actors. As an animation director you guide them in exactly the same way as a live action director would her cast. And like actors, individual animators can be better at interpreting different characters, personalities or emotions.
"I believe in ʻcastingʼ animators wherever possible, like actors, they can breathe and own a character, taking it further and making it more complete than I could do on my own." Suzanne Deakin, freelance director.
The animator looks to the director for an overview of the character just as an actor would look to a live action director for guidance. And similarly an animator often brings something unexpected or amazing to the role, something that the director never considered. In short, as a director, it is a real joy to work with a talented animator. They bring your vision to life.
So, a director working in animation is a leader and the creative head of the production team. They have final say on all the creative aspects of the job from design and animation through to sound and music, as well as guiding and motivating the other members of the team. This is also the role of a director working in live action or the theatre. So perhaps we should all just use the term 'director' and drop the 'animation' part. After all the role is the same and there is a lot of crossover these days, with directors making hybrid work that combines both live action and animation.
"I came to film with a background in stop-motion animation. However I now make films which involve blending live action performance into miniature sets and digital effects, to create the cinematic worlds that I imagine. Having this background in animation certainly comes with many advantages, one of which is knowing how to construct films frame by frame. This skill enables me to create precise and visually distinct work." Lizzie Oxby, director.
The main confusion seems to come from people muddling up animation directors with animators. For me and many of my peers, this is the rub. Mixing up the terms “animation director” and "animator" is like confusing “director” with “actor”. I think it is extremely important for those individuals working in the industry to understand the difference. I am approached on a regular basis by clients saying that they are in need of an animator, when in fact they are in need of firstly a director and then secondly an animator. Technically speaking, an animator does not work on the pre or post-production of a project (excepting those working in pre-viz and vfx). So they do not come up with the ideas for a piece and they do not design, plan or oversee a production. This common misconception can be extremely frustrating for both animators and directors alike because the client's expectations are often quite far removed from what is achievable within a certain budget or time frame and with regard to an individual's skill base.
A director is also, more often than not, trained as such, whether this be at college or on the job. Years are spent acquiring and honing a knowledge of storytelling and conventions for screen, visual language, etc. It is not uncommon for a director to have started out as an animator - Tim Burton, Brad Bird, John Lasseter and Nick Park for example all having taken this route. But they have all gone on to learn more about the entire process of filmmaking rather than concentrating on the craft of animation.
And it doesn't necessarily figure that animation directors can animate. An increasing number of illustrators and designers are being signed by production companies as commercials directors. Whether or not these individuals know how to animate is, in some ways, irrelevant - just as a live action director does not need to be an actor. A knowledge of the craft is valuable but not essential. The director must have an overall vision and be capable of steering a team towards the realisation of that vision. A director tends to do the longest hours, working overtime and at weekends to fix problems and keep projects on schedule. The weight of the production is firmly on their shoulders. This is not true of the animator. Although they will no doubt have tight deadlines and heavy workloads, they are not responsible for delivering the final product.
I think the overriding message that has arisen from gathering opinions for this article, is that most of us directors working in animation feel that we are no different from our peers in live action and theatre. Above all we are storytellers and creators.
Rebecca Manley is a director at Independent Films / Indy8. She is currently working on a title sequence for the BBC and ABC Australia. She is a board member and Animation Group Chair at Director's UK.
(NB: This piece is a cutdown from the original article published on the Director’s UK website).