The Age of Specialization (Software Development Isn’t an Art II)

The animation industry has found that not everyone is alike. Someone who can give the appearance of weight and movement to fluffy bunnies is generally not as convincing when animating elephants or waves of water. Some can’t even animate at all, but are superb at choosing the colors or sounds or music to evoke a feeling of fright or happiness in a scene. So if an artist wants to do the animation for a particular on-screen personality or object they must be cast for the role, just as live-action actors are.

Let’s examine just how many artists it takes to make an animated film; specifically, Disney’s Hercules. According to the Yahoo! Movies entry for the film there were: 52 vocal artists; 2 directors; 5 screenwriters; 1 story artistic supervisor; 13 story team members; 3 producers; 1 associate producer; 1 color model artist; 1 scene planning/camera senior manager; 1 video reference production coordinator; 6 color stylists; 4 color stylist trainees; 7 color model mark-up artists; 1 digital film printing and opticals camera operations coordinator; 4 video reference cast artists; 1 video reference cameraman; 1 video reference crew camera assistant; 1 color timer; 7 digital film printing and opticals camera/film recorder operators; 2 associate editors; 1 additional editing member; 3 assistant editors; 1 dialogue editor; 1 supervising assistant editor; 3 negative cutters; 2 editors; 1 artistic coordinator; 1 character sculptures artist; 1 assistant artistic coordinator; 3 assistants supervising painting; 1 art director; 1 production designer; 1 costume designer; 1 recording assistant; 4 re-recording mixer; 1 original dialogue mixer; 1 ADR supervisor; 1 sound effects editor; 2 foley editors; 1 ADR assistant editor; 2 foley artists; 5 additional dialogue recorders; 1 supervising sound editor; 1 sound designer; 1 score recorder and mixer; 1 sound effects assistant editor; 1 composer; 1 lyricist; 1 executive music producer; 1 orchestrator; 1 song arranger; 1 song & score conductor; 1 vocals arranger; 1 song producer and arranger; 1 vocalist; 1 music production supervisor; 2 songs recorder and mixers; 1 additional score orchestrations; 1 assistant music editor; 2 orchestra contractors; 2 vocal contractors; 1 supervising music copyist; 2 additional song recorders; 2 music coordinators; 2 music editors; 1 dance choreographer; 12 supervising character animators; 69 character animators; 4 assistant character animators; 12 lead key clean-up animators; 38 in-between clean-up animators; 6 in-breakdown clean-up animators; 2 supervising key assistant clean-up animators; 59 key assistant clean-up animators; 43 assistant clean-up animators; 41 breakdown clean-up animators; 4 supervising visual effects animators; 27 visual effects animators; 1 effects animating assistant; 4 effects technical directors; 16 effects key assistants; 15 effects assistants; 28 effects in-betweeners; 6 effects breakdown animators; 4 effects animator trainees; 1 visual effects assistant scene set-up artist; 1 digital mark-up artist; 19 2-D animation processors; 2 senior animation checkers; 11 animation checkers; 8 scene planners; 3 scene planning and effects data entry; 35 background artists; 4 digital painters; 1 animation checker; 1 digital film printer; 12 key visual development artists; 1 paint/final checker; 7 CGI technical directors; 2 CGI look development & lighting; 1 CGI modeler; 19 rough in-betweeners; 12 journeyman; 1 color model assistant supervisor; 5 final checkers; 5 compositors; 1 animator editor; 1 assistant animator editor; 1 title designer; 1 key assistant; 1 layout key assistant; 1 layout stylist; 5 blue sketch artists; 5 dancers; 2 painting registration leads; 7 paint mark-up artists; 39 painters; 2 layout artistic supervisors; 2 visual effects artistic supervisors; 1 CGI artistic supervisor; 1 production stylist artistic supervisor; 2 backrounds artistic supervisor and 3 clean-up artistic supervisors.

This doesn’t include the producers and management, members of the orchestra, the staffs of the several outside production companies contracted in, and quite a few individuals left out of that Y! Movies crew listing. It also doesn’t count the administrative departments like accounting, legal, etc. which are just as necessary in producing the film you see because they help manage the production, and license or contract the artists and performers which are integral to the production.

To narrow this example down, and to make the point clearer, I’ll now drill down into the positions of the visual artists of the animation process to the animators. There are artists who draw, artists who paint, and also artists who make 3D models in wood or clay, called maquettes, of the characters. Of the artists who draw, there are storyboard artists, character designers, costume designers, set designers, prop designers and animators. Of the animators, there are character animators and effects animators. Of the character animators (and I’ll enumerate the animators for the grown up Hercules here), there is a supervising animator, one or more lead (or key) animators (10), assistant animators (unknown number), and rough-inbetweeners (unknown number), clean-up animators (1 lead key animator, 1 assistant animator, 8 in-betweeners, 8 key assistant animators, 6 assistant clean-up animators, and 2 breakdown animators).

The lead animator draws the key frames, or poses, of the character in a scene. His focus is on the movement of the character and his actions. The style isn’t polished and his drawings are called roughs for this reason. When his roughs have been filmed and the resulting pencil test approved by his higher-ups, they are handed off to the assistant animator. The assistant animator will add buttons, hair, and other character details pertinent to the scene. This work is also reviewed and pencil tested and when approved is given to the clean-up animator (Disney now uses rough in-betweeners to render in-betweens before the drawings are cleaned up to further specialize the animator’s role). The clean-up animator will trace the key drawings onto a clean sheet of paper, being careful to maintain the shape and flow of movement of the drawing while conforming to the proportions, appearance and details of the character. Finally, the inbetweener will draw the poses which are still missing, or in between, the key frames. There are moredetailed, and Disney Studios specific, descriptions of the roles on the net.

Think about all the steps required to draw a single scene in an animated cartoon and the specialization of the artists: three different animators are directly responsible for each key pose in the film! And another, or two, for the non-key pieces! All for a single character that appears onscreen. This collection of animators must create drawings that not only give the illusion of movement, weight and personality, but as if they were all created by an individual. The same goes for each character in the film. And all the combined elements of the film, the characters, sets, voices, music, etc. must present unified design principles that would appear to come from one mind.

We use a similar principle in the software we write: Single Responsibility. It is becoming a standard practice for the software we develop. For our teams to be more agile, it will have to be a requirement of our developers as well.

This strategy also applies to solopreneurs and microISVs. When you’re writing a marketing piece about your products, you don’t want to be in the middle of a phone conversation or chatting on IRC. Neither do you want to add error checking code when you’re writing out the logic of your functions. Focus on the one aspect of your code you’re dealing with at the time, then tackle the other issues separately and in their own phase.

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