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November 9, 2020

Animating My Way Through the Pandemic

One of the main ways I have been coping with the stress of the pandemic has been delving deeper into my interest in hand-drawn animation. I set up a new instagram account ( @AlecAnimation ) where I have been posting animation projects old and new, as well as posts about various animation resources. It feels like a new easy way to document my self-study of this art form. I currently have no desire to work as an animator, so it's all "just for fun" though many of the skills I am building up have also helped me level up as a cartoonist. This all kicked off back when I had the realization that two of my favorite cartoonists (Carl Barks and Jeff Smith) started their careers in animation and maybe it would help me to be a better cartoonist if I underwent some animation training too.
My animation journey began at the ripe old age of 32. I had been fascinated by animation my entire life, but it was not until 2012 that I finally picked up a pencil to try my hand at it. You can actually see my very first attempt at animation cataloged on this blog, as well as early experiments I drew using exercises I cobbled together from Richard Williams's excellent book The Animator's Survival Kit.

Over the next five years I read Disney Animation The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (which I spent my whole childhood flipping through, but never actually read) and Cartoon Animation by Preston Blair. As a cartoonist I had always assumed animation simply meant more drawings for less storytelling output, but I quickly learned it is so much more than that. It's a whole different way of thinking and seeing. You make a leap into the fourth dimension - not just depicting static characters, or a sequence of images, but the actual movement of a character or scene. There is nothing quite like the magic of watching one of your drawings come to life for the first time!

In 2014 the Belgian comics publisher L'employ√© du Moi asked all of its authors to animate a short walk cycle in the "shape" of its logo for an exhibit at the Angoul√™me International Comics Festival. I chose my character Argus (from my graphic novel Basewood). You can see my process posts on this blog: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5. Then in 2015, I created an animated holiday e-Card for The Harry Potter Alliance (there's a process post here). With both of these projects I learned so much, and also had a ton of fun. It lead me further and further down the animation rabbit hole.

After a decade of teaching the same comics workshops every summer at The Center for Cartoon Studies, I was burned out, so in 2017 I pitched the idea of teaching an animation workshop instead. I've taught it every summer since and it has been so wonderful to have an "official" place to share my enthusiasm for this art form, and all the different ways it has influenced my cartooning practice. It also gave me an excuse to continue learning as much as I can about animation!

Because of the pandemic, last summer's workshop was held 100% online, with the students creating all of their work using RoughAnimator (an amazingly powerful piece of animation software for Mac and PC which only costs $5) and the SyncSketch platform for sharing work. It all went very smoothly, so I'm pleased to say that I will again be conducting my Introduction to Hand-Drawn Animation workshop online, this time during the CCS winter break, January 11-15. Classes are synchronous from 11am-5pm ET Monday through Friday. It is a very intense week where we cover the principles of animation, a simple walk cycle and a looping final project. You can see samples of past students' work and find more information on the workshop page!

There are needs-based scholarships, which all workshops students can apply for, as well as our standard 50% discount offered to all CCS alumni, current students and staff. 

This year we're also adding an exciting new merit-based scholarship to support professional development for BIPOC cartoonists. The application process is super simple (basically, submit a piece of your best work by December 1st) and then a committee of faculty and staff will review the work and award one full scholarship for each of the three Winter Workshops (there's also Digital Coloring for Comics and Graphic Memoir). Please help us spread the word about this awesome opportunity! 

When I turned 40 last year, I decided that animation was going to be my mid-life crisis. I bought more instructional animation books, as well as some new equipment (an "Acme" Hole Punch, a Wacom One Pen Tablet, etc.), and signed up for a bunch of online animation classes. As I began working on homework assignments and little projects here and there I became more and more obsessed with animation. 

When the pandemic hit, my day job became very stressful. I started animating every week on Friday nights after my kids went to sleep, for stress relief. Animation is so complicated that when I am working on it, I am unable to think about anything else. I put on some jazz music (I'm currently on an Oscar Peterson deep dive) and just get lost in the flow of animating. It is incredibly relaxing for me.

I set up my @AlecAnimation account on instagram, because it's a great platform for sharing small videos of my animations, as well as photos of the animation books I'm reading, websites I'm using to learn various skills, movies I'm watching, as well as other resources. I see it as a direct extension of my animation workshop, where people can follow along with my journey as I teach myself this amazing art form. 

I thought that posting new work every Friday would help me scratch the animation itch, but somehow it only triggered a frustration that I couldn't spend more time animating! All day, every day, I was thinking about animation, but because I was only able to work on it on Fridays, it was driving me crazy. After a lot of soul searching, I finally decided in October to begin animating every day (similar to my Draw Comics EVERY Day vow, which I have stuck to for the last twenty years). I managed to keep this up all through October, and it has been amazing how much easier it is to learn and improve when I do something every day, even if it's only for 15 minutes or so. I hope I can continue this practice moving forward!

One of the biggest challenges was shaking off my own stigma about working digitally. I prefer working on paper, but to make the best use of my limited time I decided it made more sense to work solely on the computer (mostly to cut down on time spent photographing/scanning drawings and having to compile them, though there are other advantages as well). 

I realized that I mentally catagorize time spent at my computer as "work" and time spent at my drawing table as "art." My wife Claire and I were already rearranging some furniture last month, and I was able to snag two small shelves which I used to build my own little digital animation work space. This tiny desk has made a huge difference for me. I can sit down and begin animating immediately without having to set anything up, and all my reference materials and text books are within easy reach. I'm starting to get the "art" feeling in front of the computer.

So I guess that's it. This is where I'll be sitting a little bit each day from now on, delving deeper and deeper into the animation art form, learning as much as I can, and sharing my journey with as many folks as I can through my workshop and instagram account. I hope some of you will join me!