10,000 Hour Rule

While not specific to animation, the concept of the 10,000 hour rule certainly makes its way through the community, from students, masters, and everyone in between. It’s a perpetual topic for creatives.

The rule, popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell (my high school art teacher used to read to us from Blink while we mediated…), argues that it takes 10,000 hours for someone to achieve mastery over a particular skill or subject. It’s also often referred to as the ’10 year rule.’ Like any sort of vague creative rule of thumb, there’s plenty of writing both condemning and condoning the idea, and generally its interpretation is simplified and/or misinterpreted to the point of being incorrect.

At the same time, I think with a bit of aforementioned context, it’s still a great jumping off point to discuss bettering oneself.

10,000 Drawings

There is a popular quote in the animation industry that certainly runs adjacent to this sentiment.

We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better.

Walt Stanchfield

Walt Stanchfield is most famous for his time as a Disney animator, teaching others. He, along with Eric Larson were responsible for creating the training program at the studios in the 70s that brought up many of the artists who went on to play pivotal roles at Pixar and Disney during the 90s. For the longest time, the bulk of Stanchfield’s lectures were passed around as photocopies, but later were bundled into two published volumes, Drawn to Life Volumes 1 and Volume 2, that have become staples of any animation student’s library.

The same mix of condemning and condoning apply here as well. But let’s take what we need from this concept, ok?

The Deciding Factor

It all boils down to intent.

Now, the actual ten thousand hours of practice spread (most realistically) over ten years is a rough average of course, not meant for everyone and every situation. I don’t think it was ever intended to, to be clear.

And intent–the most important factor of this–tends to get lost in conversations. Its core stresses quality time over quantity of time–not just more time on task, but better time on task. Experts may not log any more hours than you, but they practice differently than your average person, doing what cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice.

In Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, she cites the original researcher, Ericsson, who, as she put it “is the world expert on world experts.”

From Duckworth’s book:

First, they set a stretch goal, zeroing in on just one narrow aspect of their overall performance. Rather than focus on what they already do well, experts strive to improve specific weaknesses. They intentionally seek out challenges they can’t yet meet…Virtuoso violinist Roberto Diaz describes “working to find your Achilles’ heel–the specific aspect of the music that needs problem solving.” Then, with undivided attention and great effort, experts strive to reach their stretch goal.

Intent is arguably more important, or at least, could undermine any well-intended but mild effort.

I try to stress to my students the importance of active practice over passive practice. That an hour of focused daily practice will put you miles ahead of a few hours of passive, mindless work, say, throwing a movie on in the background and working while watching that. Now, to be clear, I’m not opposed to having music or something on in the background, but you need to be honest with yourself about how well you personally focus or are distracted by external things like that and your phone. I’ve definitely seen professional artists work with ample distractions around them and still get quality work out, and I’d argue that’s because they’re actually ‘masters’ of their craft or are well on their way. But if you’re still a student in the academic sense (because we’re all students forever, right?), you’re at the very start of your journey. It’s especially important to get started on the right foot.

I’ve heard stories of artists who recognized a certain aspect was a weakness of theirs, like drawing hands or cars, and focusing on that and excelling in that particular area. I remember attending a talk with animator Aya Suzuki years ago and her mentioning having to pass on an opportunity to work on the rebooted Neon Genesis Evangelion films because she’d had limited experience with more mechanical and hard surface designs, and city elements. Looking at her body of work, it’s clear that she opted to focus on more organic elements and character animation, and mastered this area.

Active Vs Passive

What exactly does that look like?

Have you ever read a book or an article and found that you couldn’t recall any of the information you just read? Maybe you got to the end of a paragraph and realized you hadn’t actually read it–you just went through the motions of reading it. But you weren’t actually engaging with and retaining the text.

Or what about watching a film while scrolling on social media? Are you really actively engaged with either screen if your brain is divided between them? In this world of hustle culture and constantly optimizing and hacking our productivity, I can understand where this might seem more beneficial. But in the long run, you’re better off giving each task and skill you want to learn your undivided attention.

Deliberate Practice

It’s about knowing what areas you do want to delve into. As I quoted earlier, it’s about knowing the weaknesses you want to improve.

Ten thousand drawings aren’t helpful if half of them were mindlessly done, if you aren’t learning from each one and cumulatively bringing that knowledge and experience into the next one.

If you’re trying to do this as a career, or just anything beyond a fun hobby, I encourage you to try to be deliberate in your art practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect–perfect practice makes perfect. ‘Perfect’ here is relative and a bit hyperbolic of course, so don’t fixate on that as much as recognizing how you practice is way more important than what we give it credit for.

ARRAY 101 and the Power of Film Literacy

With all of the recent news in the US–particularly the disproportionate rates that black Americans experience police violence (3.5 times more likely to be killed by police when they’re not attacking or even have a weapon), it can be strange to write about film and animation.

But I’ve always felt that media is an important tool for helping people understand others. For building empathy, or at least teaching tolerance.

For Example, Accents

Let’s shift gears for a second with a quick example. There are studies that show a disproportionate number of villains in animated shows and films have foreign accents, or had American accents associated with low socioeconomic status.

Accent signaling is also a more subtle form of ethnic stereotyping that can coexist with improvements to the ways in which children’s shows depict the world and the people who occupy it…

Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak in Foreign Accents? by Isabel Fattal for The Atlantic

I’m sure there are people who argue that such things are a stretch or don’t impact people as much as we think, and while we’re still learning about these impacts, we already seem them played out. We already know the gender disparity on screen negatively affects young women, with studies showing girls as young as 6 already have gendered beliefs about intelligence. Think about how much we rely on representations in media to fill in knowledge gaps when it comes to other cultures we’ve never encountered? Think about the tropes you see played out for different subsets of characters and differing identities. Animation Complex’s first video covered this a bit too.

People are not born racist or sexist. These things are taught implicitly or explicitly. Absorbed from their surroundings, the systems and society they exist in, the culture they are a part of and consume.

One trope that became a harmful stereotype that I can recall from my childhood is how gay men were portrayed in US media in the 90s. I hadn’t befriended any LGBT+ people until high school, so I remember up until that point, the only things I could associate with them were the color pink and the flamboyant gestures and very specific speech patterns I’d seen portrayed (either parodied, mocked, or with attempted sincerity). An entire group of people, watered down to a few things, and even one ethnicity (white) and body type (thin). It wasn’t an ah-ha moment when I got to high school and was friends with gay men who were white, black, Filipino, as well as a gender fluid friend who later identified as transgender, but it was clear that media was failing me, and more importantly, them.

Often these ideas aren’t ill-intended–they’re just what’s been done before. I’ve seen this again and again with creators adding onto existing stereotypes, refusing to acknowledge their place in these larger cultural conversations. They become part of the problem but plead ignorance, or insist they’re an isolated incident. But no one is. When we can name the number of Indian-American characters in Western animated film and TV shows, we need to be aware of what those characters are collectively saying. That can be frustrating for sure, because I also don’t want to imply that any given character speaks for all of that demographic, because that’s tokenism, and we don’t like that! But until we have more, that these stories are the norm and each one not a cause for celebration but an accepted everyday occurrence, we continue to unfairly rely on a handful of characters to represent huge facets of culture.

Language tropes can have far-reaching consequences, both for kids’ perceptions of those around them and their understandings of themselves. Research has shown that kids use TV as a key source of information about other ethnic groups, as well as about their own ethnic and racial identities. Linguists have also found that not only do people make judgements about their peers’ intelligence and education levels based on language characteristics (with those who speak standard dialects usually being viewed as smarter and better-looking), but also that those judgments often shape how a person or group of people is treated. These patterns imply that when children see a correlation between evil and foreignness, or between evil and low socioeconomic status, there’s a good chance they are internalizing negative perceptions of themselves or other groups.

Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak in Foreign Accents? by Isabel Fattal for The Atlantic

All of this to say that film–animated and live-action–is an important tool for media literacy in both kids and adults. The idea of teaching film studies through the lens of media literacy is something I feel is crucial for a more critically engaged society. Creating lessons plans to accompany films is something I’ve been interested in pursuing as a resource on this site, largely inspired by AFI Silver’s Screen Education programs.

Array launched a new series of lessons today though, and it couldn’t be more timely.

ARRAY 101

Director Ava DuVernay founded her distribution company Array ten years ago, and it has served as a much needed platform and resource for filmmakers of color.

Today, Array launched Array 101, a free curriculum to use along with viewing DuVernay’s 2019 When They See Us, a 4-part miniseries based on the true events of the Central Park 5 case from 1989. It sounds like the plan is to release more lessons surrounding more films in the future.

There’s a learning companion, available either as a downloadable PDF or interactive flipbook with 110 pages of information (ONE HUNDRED AND TEN WOW), and a Field Study Lesson about media bias and data analysis. You can just scroll through the website and explore it all through each of the series’ four episodes.

From the site:

  • Episode One explores how the arrest and interrogation process denied The Exonerated Five their rights and humanity.
  • Episode Two examines how inequities and limited access to resources affected their ability to mount a defense.
  • Episode Three uncovers the many ways their imprisonment harmed their families and communities.
  • Episode Four chronicles the hardships inherent in the prison, parole and reentry systems.

“The episodes highlight the devastating effects of wrongful incarceration and underscore the unjust systems and structures that make such overt brutality in America possible.”

Further:

Each section of the guide contains:

  • Episodic Themes
  • Episode Recap
  • Objectives and Key Points
  • Essential Questions
  • Classroom Activities
  • Resources for Self-Reflection and Deeper Learning

Participants will be encouraged to:

  • Explore systemic injustice
  • Reflect on individual, institutional and systemic practices
  • Take action to change themselves, institutions and systems

Honestly, the amount of information, resources, and different topics covered is completely overwhelming. There’s so much. I’m so, so impressed.

The works cited PDF alone is 23 pages long!

I encourage anyone to take a look at this resource, regardless of demographic, regardless of if you’ve seen When They See Us yet.

Film Sparks the Conversations

Of course, we don’t need a guide for every film to be able to talk about overt or sub-textual themes present in them. I understand and respect their decision to create this resource to address a systemic problem in the US. This resource is a generous bonus packed with information that I wish would only be used in a classroom or conversation, but could very well help protect someone. And that’s partly why she made this film too, I imagine. This was a known story already. But DuVernay recognizes the power of film of course, to push these stories out wider. To extend their lifespans. To keep the conversation, the outrage, the demands for change going.

Filmmakers want to say things with their films. That’s clear of course. And I think there’s a value in helping people see some of that. Of course, interpretations will always vary, people may run in the complete opposite direction of the creator. Authorial intent comes in to play. But part of this too is learning how to have these discussions, analyzing and interpreting things. I feel a series like When They See Us is straightforward with its intentions. But it might take some extra discussions for someone to understand the systemic issues at play here, someone who may never have heard of the concept of the school-to-prison pipeline. (I didn’t really see a grade or age recommendation for the Array 101 material, but it is rated TV-MA, so, skip this one for the younger ones.)

Maybe a kid watching Inside Out (2015) or Zootopia (2016) might not pick up on the lessons about mental health and prejudice present in each respectively. So then what would that conversation look like? Can you imagine trying to help a young person along in thinking through the stories critically? In seeing them in a new light? Seeing more layers to the stories they love? How would I broach my essay about environmentalism in Wall-E (2008) and Princess Mononoke (1997) with an eight year old? A fourteen year old? A peer? I think the main differences would be the give and take, where with younger people I’d probably be talking at them more, trying to get responses, whereas the older we get the more I’ve expect independent ideas and opinions, more of a neutral discussion.

I remember as a kid I absolutely adored this type of conversation, spurring me to seek out comparative literature and film studies classes in uni. But in grade school, I was all about trying to see the story beneath the story, to understand the true meaning. I loved parables from the Bible for that reason, and fairy tales, and adored shorts written by Ray Bradbury and O. Henry. These turned stories into a game, into a puzzle to solve and understand, to translate. To find the secret message, the hidden meanings, the subtle (or not so subtle) lessons.

It’s because the subject matter of When They See Us is so upsetting and relevant that we owe it to others to engage with it, along with many other resources to help us learn and unlearn things as American citizens. It’s that much more important that we challenge ourselves with difficult concepts, and text, learn other experiences, and learn how we can help improve society. This is just one way to do that, and as a film blog, I wanted to spotlight it specifically.

My Thoughts as an Animation Educator

I started teaching storyboarding in a university’s animation program last fall, and am teaching a second class this spring semester. And now my time with my students together in person was unceremoniously cut short. With classes online (which I agree with) for the rest of the semester, here are my personal thoughts as an animation educator during the pandemic.

Again, these are my thoughts and opinions–not my schools or anyone else’s.

If you want to LISTEN to this article, I have a recording you can listen to by jumping to the end of the article.

Transitioning Classes Online

Of course, the big challenge school-wise has been transitioning all classes online. My school in particular had been very on-top of things, sending out emails encouraging teachers to start brainstorming and preparing for remote learning weeks before things started picking up. Of course, being in the NY area put us at the probable (and then actual) epicenter of the US outbreak, and so we had to take it more seriously sooner than the rest of the country. Even with a few extra weeks to brainstorm and prep, it still felt abrupt when the switch happened.

There are two types of classes that are being transitioned for remote learning: those that can and those that cannot be smoothly updated.

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My Experience with SIGGRAPH

As my various social media feeds update, I am continually reminded that another year is going by where I am not at SIGGRAPH. While the friends I’ve made from SIGGRAPH salt the wound with their photos of the beautiful waterfront Vancouver convention center, I am reminded that it’s my five year anniversary attending my first conference, and thusly, I want to share my experience with SIGGRAPH. It properly changed my life, and I am forever grateful to it and the people who give it life.

What’s a SIGGRAPH?

SIGGRAPH is a terrible acronym that stands for Special Interest Group in Computer GRAPHics. It’s–as stated–a special interest group from the larger organization ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) which is a giant computer club, a professional association if you want to get technical. SIGGRAPH focuses on computer graphics within that larger field. What started out largely as a very technical, academic conference for researchers has become a massive convention for students, professionals (technical, artistic and everyone in between), academics, and hobbyists alike. So how did I find it?

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Why Should We Study Animation? Video

Animation was not always something that I looked at so rigorously. It wasn’t until I got to college and began studying animation–both as an artist and as an academic–that I began to see it from a brand new point of view, and my love for it deepened and expanded in so many ways. This site is a direct response to that, so I’m so happy and proud to share the first in what I hope are many, many videos delving into the wide expanse of this artform that I love so much. Please check it out, and let me know what you think!

While there is a lot more I could say on this topic, I tried to keep this video short (though it’s still a bit longer than your average video). I thought that this would give people a good idea about the angle that I am approaching animation from, as well as (hopefully) some new ways to think about the medium. If you want to hear more about my goals with this website, you can listen to a short podcast I recorded explaining it in our very first blog post.