THE EMOTIONAL ANIMATOR
I remember when a video link to a Director Review went out to all the artists working on his film, and my animation shot was presented. I had poured my heart and soul into it, creating countless iterations, struggling through my supervisor's notes, and it had been kicked back for further tweaks half a dozen times.
“This looks fantastic! I love it!”, the director said.
Or something Steven Spielberg would often say, “Put it in the movie!”
The rest of the day I was on Cloud 9. My skill and artistry had been validated for all to see. I pushed through all the difficulties and knocked it out of the park. I was on a high!
But on the flip side, many of us have also been crushed by negative comments. Ive had a supervisor say,
“If I’m being honest, I would be embarassed to show this to the client in its current state. Let's fix it up more.”
What did he mean by that? Did he think my work sucks? Maybe he didn't like me? When this happened I felt judged. The rest of the day I was frustrated and upset, and I cared about the work I was doing just a little less. I was on a low!
This has happened to so many artists working in the film industry.
I asked myself many times why I wanted to write this article. Maybe Im a little more emotional than most, but maybe not. Maybe I just show it more. I’ve never had a good poker face. I imagine many of us deal with these highs and lows all the time. After all, we care about what we’re doing; we care about becoming better artists, and we love film.
Working in the animation industry can often be an emotional experience. Not only are you constantly striving to be the best artist you can be, but you are also a technician - a kind of construction worker - doing a job for other people who share different visions, different personalities, and have their own jobs and agendas to fulfill. As a small cog in a giant machine, your mental state of mind is constantly tossed around the emotional spectrum. It is largely effected by external influences such as personal and family issues, people you deal with daily at work, and client or supervisor feedback. Then of course there are the highs and lows you create all on your own. Like when you nail an acting beat in your blocking and feel great about yourself as you walk down the hall wanting to high five everyone. Or conversely, when you can't figure out how to deal with the technical complexity of setting up a shot with crazy character interactions and constraint systems. Suddenly you've spent two days trying to piece it together and are worried your superiors will be wondering why you are so slow.
And then there are the long term pressures you find yourself often thinking about. What show will I be on next? Do I like the company I am working for? Am I being used to my full potential and do my employers perceive me the way I perceive myself? How do I rise up the food chain and get more responsibility? How do I break out of the type casting my supervisors have put me in and get cooler hero shots? All of these questions, if not answered, can make us feel emotional and even defensive. If left unanswered long enough, can cause us to react impulsively.
I am not a religious person, but throughout my life I was heavily influenced by my mother's spiritual outlook on life. She would spend countless hours over the course of my adolescence challenging my way of thinking about things. One of the major psychological and spiritual concepts she often tried to teach me is that my emotional reactions to a given situation are often a distortion of reality. Our responses as human beings to a particular experience, whether it be anger, bliss, jealousy, resentment, or fear, are often an expression of something we are sensitive about. What was always extremely difficult for me to accept was that when I felt slighted in some way, or reacted to a situation in a particular way, she would tell me I was responsible for feeling the way I did. According to my mother, if my boss said something to me that I thought was inappropriate, the anger and resentment I felt was my fault and not theirs!
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them” - Epictetus
As human beings we are reactive creatures. Our consciousness is in a constant state of being bombarded by external and internal experiences. We are always reacting to the world around us, as well as our own urges, desires, passions and pains. These emotional reactions give a voice to who we are. They carry with them a truth about ourselves. Quite often, it is our reactions to a situation that can actually sabotage us. When our emotions cry out, whether it be anger because we feel slighted or joy because we feel praised, our mind is actually constructing a kind of false control to protect us. Before we know it the anger subsides and is forgotten or a new experience quickly wipes away the feeling of joy and replaces it with something else. Like any workplace, where we have supervisors critiquing our performance, or we do work that we care deeply about that falls under scrutiny, our emotional state of being is on a constant roller coaster. How you feel when you start your day is often not the same as how you feel when you end it. Very few of us are aware that our emotions are constantly controlling the way we behave. More often than not these feelings are not an accurate representation of the truth because truth is permanent but our emotions are not. How often have our emotional reactions to a situation tricked us into behaving a certain way? That thing you felt slighted by was not intended the way you interpreted it. Or the joy you felt by a director’s note can so quickly result in frustration when you realize someone else has notes that they want you to address. Sometimes our emotions may get things exactly right. We feel slighted because we were slighted. We rightfully feel happiness because there is great cause to be happy! While the emotion we feel may seem real, and even accurate, it is our attachment to that emotion that can sometimes lead us into behaviour we regret.
Perhaps you’ve been in dailies and seen an artist (maybe you!) get defensive very quickly when a note comes up. We almost always have these quick reactions because we feel threatened for some reason. As a young man, my sister always knew exactly how to push my buttons because she understood what made me insecure. You may feel disrespected, unappreciated, or you don’t fully respect the person giving you critique. Maybe they contradict themselves a lot, or the way they deliver notes sounds negative, or perhaps they threw you under the bus in a meeting or client call. In any case, regardless of whether your mind’s interpretation of the situation is true or not, your quick impulsive reaction is often something you end up regretting. That reaction may not really represent who you are, or maybe it does but it came out in the wrong way. If you could have just taken a moment and stepped back, you might have reacted differently. Now you have allowed your ego to become externalized for all to see. Your defensiveness has created a conflict. If you could go back and do it all over again, you likely would have chosen differently. To make matters worse, the visual effects industry is a very small community, where your reputation is everything. Creating a pattern of negative reactions can quickly effect your ability to find work.
So by reacting impulsively, we have allowed our behaviour to be controlled by an external force. Often times we make the false assumption that our feelings should be placated by an external force. When your boss says something to you that hurts your confidence or makes you question your capabilities, you expect them to be aware of what they’ve done and apologize for it. This expectation is often never satisfied, and so you wait, building more and more frustration, painting a picture of them in your mind where you respect them less, or care less about the work you are doing with them. This is a form of living in the past. You can’t move forward because you are carrying emotional baggage with you. What you are truly capable of begins to suffer and people’s perception of you begins to change. You take the form of your weakest self.
So how do we deal with this? We don’t want to shut ourselves off from our emotions. In fact, having emotions gives us great insight into our inner workings. We need to listen to them because they are constantly exposing things about ourselves. We need to analyze and converse with them. Taking a moment to give our emotions breathing room is both difficult but important. We need to listen and understand what they are saying. If I have a fight with my wife and she says, “What is wrong with you?! Why are you acting this way?!” I may not have realized that I am acting irrationally only because I got cut off by some jerk in traffic a moment earlier. So the fight with my wife could have been avoided if I took a moment and listened to what was going on inside of me. Why do I feel this way? Am I really upset about this thing, or is something else bothering me? Why did I react to my supervisor that way when he gave me that note? Was I just annoyed by another note he gave me a day earlier and now my judgment about the current note has become clouded?
My mother always taught me to have internal dialogue. This is a difficult thing to do because it requires that you distance yourself from what you feel. Who we are and how we feel are rarely seen as two separate things. Have you ever met someone who keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over again and you can’t understand why they don't change their recurring behaviour? By feeling the emotion and taking a moment to look at it face to face, even though it may be terribly painful, you will often find it gets burned up and exhausted. So instead of carrying it around as you wait for someone to acknowledge it, you can diffuse the pain yourself, and understand that it is trying to tell you something about yourself. This pain is often the source of where our fragility originates. We need to spend more time feeling the conflict rather than acting on it. We need to feel it without going along with it. By doing this we will often find we reveal something to ourselves about our inner workings that then helps the pain dissipate. We have arrived at some form of truth that is no longer something we need to try and control in others.
Another thing that helps stabilize the highs and lows is experience. This isn’t something we can necessarily practice getting better at, as it just happens over time. By being aware of our capacity for inner dialogue, we can get stronger faster. I feel that as my career has developed, the extremes of my highs and lows have diminished and my reactions are a little less quick. My experience has given me more confidence and a thicker skin when receiving critique. If I receive critique, I am much more able to find truth in what is being said even if it is delivered in a negative way. We can find truth about ourselves and our work in many different forms. Sometimes it comes from within, and sometimes it is delivered by others. We can’t control how other's impart their wisdom onto us. We can control how we react to them, and most importantly the lessons we extract from every encounter that reveal truths about ourselves.
I often think about the concept of the Vulcan from Star Trek. They talk as if they feel no emotion. It is so hard to relate to them. But we know that Vulcans have simply learned to control their emotions and look past the ego’s attempt to cloud reality. I’m still searching for my inner Vulcan, and with time I can feel him slowly emerging. Just when I think I have things under control, I react just a little too quickly and regret it. Here’s to finding the Vulcan in all of us.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will” - Epictetus