I am going to take a moment and write a huge block of text. No pictures or animations this time :(
The purpose of this mess of what will probably be rambling nonsense, is to explain my intent and review my process for the good and bad. Hopefully if you find yourself in a similar position you might find some things insightful or at the very least know that you're not alone in dealing with these things.
This project began with the ambitions to finally be directed by someone. I'd come to the conclusion that I'm not the world's best director and from experience this was rather problematic in creating little animation tests. No matter how simple I try and do a test and I hope that a broader story context and all that can be forgotten about and I can just try and animate a character and hang it all on some fun movement, my critiques always first fall on those exact things, because they inform the acting which gives the shot more believability. The hook of nice animation isn't enough to hang a test on. Ask anyone and they'll tell you that strong animation can only cover up so much and you need strong direction and story to have the complete package. This becomes difficult when you're dealing with just 10 seconds or so and your job is to have specific characters existing in a specific moment that is a complete story.
I often find myself in the predicament where I have an idea, I've brain stormed with with friends and think I'm on a good path, my first thumbnails or super rough blocking isn't enough to sell what I'm trying to do, so real critique of my choices doesn't tend to come in until I've finished a first pass of spline work at which point rewriting things becomes much more difficult and unless you just start over, the piece end up very unfocused anyway because you've taken this jumble of ideas from a bunch of people and cobbled it together in hopes of having ONE piece, but that's rarely the result for me.
To remedy this, I went to my good friend Aurora Gordon (www.auroragordon.com). She is both a live-action director and former actor. Any time I have shown her my tests, she always gives me a critique as if she were the director directing an actor. Her comments are always very legitimate but often require reworking huge sections or just simply restarting to take it to that level. I figured if I could go to her first, I could circumvent that artistic punch in the gut and be on the right track from the beginning. Then I figured, hell, if she's willing to direct me on this, why not take it further and have it be her idea from the beginning, so it's something I know she's 100% behind.
The first and biggest problem I faced was just that. It was her idea and our sensibilities aren't exactly the same, so when she approached me with this idea I was rather hesitant, and she noticed. One thing I need to work on is the old improv thing of 'yes and', and not second guess things. Even being hesitant, I knew however that she had a good idea and I trusted her, no matter how much I would have never chosen this clip/idea to do on my own. She gave me a full breakdown of the two characters and how they would act and their movement styles.
Not being able to just fully embrace the shot as I would have to on a real film project, I spent a lot of time confusedly poking around doing different pencil tests or blocking, trying to understand the shot and characters and the entertainment factors in it all. Luckily, her husband being a story artist, she understands rough animation and I could bring her whatever pass I did and see if it was in the right direction. After a series of failed attempts, I got her to act it out for me, which, yes, is sort of cheating, but it got us on the same page very quickly.
What was incredibly amazing was that after I worked to that reference and showed my initial rough spline blocking to my mentors and friends, they all have very little to say/critique. I was confused and unsure how to deal with this because that's generally the stage where people start throwing out ideas that send me off track and have big rewrites in my shot. I owe all of that success to the strong direction from Aurora.
At that point I knew I had a strong foundation and now could start polishing things up while still experimenting with things more and editing the motion to be something more caricatured and in the vein of 'art' that I am constantly searching for. Aurora seemed pretty happy with where I was at, so I leaned more on my mentors and friends in the animation community to critique me to the end.
I know that anyone can probably be directed and coached in the right direction and I can't use this as a crutch to always have someone be my director even for personal pieces. I am however someone who learns from others; I taught myself to draw by tracing comic book characters until I could draw them freehand, and at that point I could draw them in any pose or action I wanted. Hopefully through this process, I'll become a stronger director myself and will be able to stand more on my own coming up with ideas. I'll always have brain storming sessions with friends and colleagues though because that's what this medium is all about to me.
So in conclusion, having strong direction over strong animation will always win out. But it's at that point that my job as an animator kicks in to take that strong direction and make it something visually pleasing and entertaining. I definitely need to get better at getting excited about a supervisor or director's idea and run with it from the beginning. This time I was fortunate enough to have someone with the patience to hold my hand through the process, but if it were a real production I probably wouldn't be so lucky.
In addition to my thanks to my friends and mentors for all the important animation critiques, many thanks go to Aurora Gordon for taking on this project/experiment with me and I hope to have the opportunity to team up with her again in the future.