TCAF, and why being thoughtful counts

On a recent episode of Canadaland, guest hosted by comic artist and writer Chip Zdarsky, was interview with Chris Butcher. They talk a lot about the Toronto Comics Arts Festival. Chris is the cofounder and organizer of the TCAF. It’s a little tangential to indie animation, but it’s an interesting story. It’s about having principles and values that help you create something truly important.

“We came up with this idea that was a little bit more European Influenced. A little bit more thoughtful. Which sounds really pretentious, but we really thought about why we wanted to do the show, and what the show was supposed to be about.”

When I was in college and went to my first TCAF I fell in love. TCAF wasn’t like any other convention I had ever been to. It’s held at the Toronto Public Reference Library. It’s packed with comic book creators and publishers from across the world and every niche in the art form.  TCAF has become a world renowned show for comics.

What TCAF has really known from the beginning is who it’s for. Butcher explains that TCAF was made for creators. “I had an idea about a comic show in Toronto. With local talent, that puts the spotlight on them.” Their devotion to creators has made interesting choices. The biggest being not charging admission. “The reason we kept making it free, even after we could close doors. Was the idea if we’re taking $20 or $30 at the door, or even 5 bucks, that’s money we’re taking out of the pocket of people who are coming in to spend it on creators.” This choice can’t be easy. They could rationalize that now that the show is bigger it’s worth charging. There is every pressure to make this change. And most of the fans would pay that. But they’ve decided on the values they have. As Butcher puts it “The whole point of the show is those creators. The people who are generating the work that allows the whole industry to exist.”

In an attempt to tie this back to animation, the point about TCAF is that being thoughtful counts. There’s an attitude out there to build something or start a business you have to lay your values at the door. The world is a big place and there’s plenty of room for your values. Maybe you to speak for an underrepresented group. Or you care about how your team is treated, or productions are organized. They could be about how you interact with your fans. Your values might just be the thing that makes what your making great.


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VGC Animation: indie animation software

Last spring I got a chance to sit down with Boris Dalstein. Boris was building a new kind of animation software. This was big for me, I’ve been researching new animation software for awhile. Boris was the first person who actually knew what he was talking about. The software is called VGC it’s two vector graphics tools VGC Illustration for design and painting, and VGC Animation, for 2D hand drawn animation.

When I’m bored I search different animation keywords on Google Scholar, that’s where I found Boris’s research. He created the proof of concept VPaint that you can download and test right now.

I’ve been trying to write a post about animation software for Indie Animators since I started this blog. I’ve struggled to write something because I’m not totally happy with the available tools. I had the realization that most animators have built workstations so they can work and create art at home. Most of us don’t have animation software at home. Often the software we use at work is prohibitively expensive. The dedicated might use the animation tools inside drawing software like Photoshop or Clip Studio Paint, or learn a whole new software package.

There’s very little animation software for artists. Most animation software is built to be production efficient. To solve the studio problems, and make animation more streamlined. This is different than a tool that is easy to use, that allows you to explore, and create. I know a lot of animators who just want to draw again.

I was happy to find out that I’m not the only one who feels like this. There are much smarter people than me who are working on building the next kind of animation tool. Boris is funding development of VGC through Patreon. It’s a chance for artists to get involved and support the kind of tools we need.

It’s early in development, planned release in 2020. There’s no guarantee that it’ll work. But it’s a good shot. What I like about Boris is that he’s much like an artist. Software is creative and technical just in a different way. Boris chose an independent path. If you can spare a few bucks a month and are interested in animation software it’s worth the contribution.

VGC Patreon


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Why studios should train their artists

I recently read two management books. The Hard thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz and High Output Management by Andy Grove. They both touched on a subject I didn’t expect to see in hard core business books. Training. They both talk about how important training your team is for the productivity of the business. It’s made me rethink how learning and teaching should be a part of animation productions.

“People at McDonald’s get trained for their positions, but people with far more complicated jobs don’t. It makes no sense.” Ben Horowitz The Hard Thing about Hard Things

There’s been something lost in the process of animation. There used to be a system of apprenticeship or levelling up. In hand drawn animation you could start as an inbetweener and work your way up. You worked off the work and directly with senior animators to improve your craft. Learning was embedded into the process. Beyond that the best studios have always been havens of learning. Disney was the first to hire Don Graham to teach life drawing to his animators. Pixar has courses and classes. Training isn’t just something for big fancy studios. It’s something that every studio and production needs to practice. It’s something that every supervisor and manager should take part in.

Ben Horowitz and Andy Grove are hard core tech entrepreneurs. Ben Horowitz is a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz and Andy Grove is the former CEO of Intel. They make the case that the best tool managers have for increasing their teams output, is training. Training is an essential function of management.

“Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. Consider for a moment the possibility of your putting on a series of four lectures for members of your department. Let’s count on three hours of preparation for each hour of course time—twelve hours of work in total. Say that you have ten students in your class. Next year they will work a total of about twenty thousand hours for your organization. If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in your subordinates’ performance, your company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as the result of the expenditure of your twelve hours.” High Output Management, Andy Grove

It’s often believed that in small productions that you don’t have time to train. When really you can’t afford not to. Ben Horowitz puts it this way, “Ironically, the biggest obstacle to putting a training program in place is the perception that it will take too much time. Keep in mind that there is no investment that you can make that will do more to improve productivity in your company. Therefore, being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat.” There’s all sorts of training that people need. We need people to draw, paint and animate in the style of the show. We need to train supervisors how to give feedback. Train production managers how to manage schedules. We need new hires to learn how files and assets are managed. It all takes time, but taking the time  saves so much time in the long run.

“After putting economics aside, I found that there were two primary reasons why people quit:

  •  They hated their manager; generally the employees were appalled by the lack of guidance, career development, and feedback they were receiving.
  •  They weren’t learning anything: The company wasn’t investing resources in helping employees develop new skills.

An outstanding training program can address both issues head-on.” Ben Horowitz The Hard Thing about Hard Things

In order to make better cartoons we need talent. The thing is the talent is out there, untapped. One of the great benefits of training is that the people already working get better. You don’t just find talent, you grow it. When I talk to artists one of the biggest things they talk about is learning. They want work where they can learn and grow. I like the idea of training and learning from the perspective as an artist. What these books show is that training is so much more than that. It’s a function of the business and it managers. There’s no excuse not to train, and there are so many benefits.

Hyper-collaboration

I was once showing a few pages of one of Isaiah and I’s comics to a friend of ours. She asked, “Who does what? Do you draw and he inks?” I said, “No, we both do all of it.”

I like to think of what we do as Hyper-collaborate. In the past we tried a more traditional approach, penciling, inking and toning, and we didn’t enjoy it. I was the main artist, and held a majority of the burden. It didn’t feel like we were making a comic together.

First we changed how we wrote. Our process is based on an improv game. First person starts the scene, second person adds the next part. We go back and forth five times till the scene is done. This approach is really fast, but also a lot of fun. Having the other person’s writing gives you ideas for what to write next. We realized that we wanted to work this into our drawing process. For us more collaboration = more fun.

With Small Havens, we wanted to collaborate on the drawings as much as the writing. Coming from animation doesn’t make this that hard. We understand how to draw in different styles. How to use the process to maintain consistency. When we draw a page we go back and forth on the artwork till everything is at an acceptable level. As the ‘main’ artist, I will do a lot of adjustments and notes. Both of us do every part of the process. In the end it’s still more enjoyable and collaborative than the traditional approach.

This process isn’t for everyone, and not for every project. What’s important is iterating and developing a process. The traditional workflow for comics didn’t suit what we wanted to do, and more importantly it wasn’t enjoyable. When it comes to personal projects how enjoyment is important. These projects take a long time. You don’t know for certain if the project will be any good, and you can only do so much about that. The experience is all up to you, and in the end probably more important.

 

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