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The Art of Critique at 3D Animation School

Critique in a 3d animation school or visual effects school should be the same as it is in a professional environment, so let’s talk about a good professional approach to critique. It is a skill like any other that takes practice and thoughtful consideration without which it will fail. Poorly constructed critical notes will either, like you, lose their credibility or not reach their useful potential. In some cases bad critiques can actually do more harm than good. If you’ve been through any significant number of dailies reviews, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Critiquing someone else’s work is a privilege and a responsibility to give clear direction. Critique does not permit you to place the entire onus on the artist with remarks like “I’ll know it when I see it”. It is not a super power that permits you to tell people their work is shit and to come back tomorrow with something better.
If your artist is bringing you shit, there are several possible reasons.
1. You hired an artist incapable of doing the work.
2. You gave the work to someone with the wrong skillset.
3. You did not provide clear, concise direction to the artist.

Notice a theme here? Ya. It’s your fault. Fortunately there are answers to all these problems such as:
1. Interview and vet potential hires carefully. If you fire someone for not doing a job they never said they could do, you have committed a wrongful dismissal and are putting your company at legal risk.
2. Coach the artists, mentor the artist, train the artist. Every team is built of people with different skills, goals and interests. The industry is growing worldwide faster than skilled crew can be generated so constant training is a fact of life in today’s industry, get with the program.
3. Get good at providing clear, concise direction, and get good at it fast.

The “Shit Sandwich” Myth
Let’s begin with a chat about the most commonly used critique technique, the “Shit Sandwich” It is a common myth that a good critique includes layering bad news with bookends of happy encouragement like a hamburger with nice, tender bread on the outside and something awful on the inside.  They usually go something like this:

Part 1: “Wow, John, that’s really something. I like the way you’ve made sure to…..er….number the frames correctly. Good job.”
Part 2: [Seventeen brutal notes attempting to correct every part of the shot.]
Part 3: “But again, really good job on the frame numbering, that was perfectly done. I’m looking forward to seeing this again tomorrow. Good job, John.”

The problem with this method is that most people working in the industry are smart and therefore cannot be emotionally manipulated by such an immature and pedantic approach. They can see right through your ridiculous ruse: “Hey don’t feel so bad about the huge list of awful notes I just gave you. I also praised you at the beginning and end, so now you don’t feel so bad, right?”

What a load of crap.

As managers, we should expect our commercial artists to conduct themselves professionally. Every member of the team from top to bottom has the same goal and that is to make the shot as great as it can possibly be, because they understand that this is the true path to success (except maybe the producer whose job it is to also try to make the shot as inexpensively as possible). With this in mind, seasoned, professional artists WANT the critique. That’s not the same as saying they are going to LIKE the critique, nor even agree with it, but they recognize the power and value of objective notes. They understand that every note given has one (and only one) purpose, and that is to make the shot as great as it can possibly be. If that is truly the purpose of the note (and it sometimes is not), and if that is also what the professional commercial artist wants, then “feeling good” or “feeling bad” about notes becomes irrelevant. Under these conditions, the “Shit Sandwich” is not only irrelevant, it’s insulting. Professional artists do not need empty encouragement, nor do they need their noses wiped or their nappies changed. Professional artists are there to do a job and want your objective notes so they can do it better.

Opportunities out of errors.
When a really bad shot shows up in dailies, it is not a portent of “bad things” although I have seen it interpreted this way. Rather it opens a world of great opportunities for the manager/team leader. This “bad shot” has exposed weaknesses of some sort in either the artist or the task coordination system or perhaps even in the management team. Great managers WANT to know where the weaknesses lie so they can be corrected. (Sounds suspiciously like an artist receiving critique, doesn’t it?) Each time a weakness pops up, it’s a chance for the manager to build a more powerful and capable team. The manager can coach through the issues during dailies, perhaps identifying skill gaps that need to be addressed. The manager can ensure that additional mentoring and coaching resources are spent in the area of weakness after dailies. This approach has two immediate benefits. One is that a leaky hole in the ship gets patched and the other is that the artist in question will likely begin developing loyalty toward you and the team.

Loyalty? Who gives a shit about loyalty? I pay them. They work.

Well, yes, that does tend to be the attitude at many of the larger studios unfortunately. When I say unfortunately, I mean that it is mostly unfortunate for the company, because they are missing out on huge opportunities. Big companies often pretend human factors either don’t exist or are not major factors in production-line effectiveness. They are totally, completely wrong. Loyalty is merely one example of how human factors can make or break companies. Loyalty is one of the most powerful weapons at your command. Loyalty is the nuclear option. You don’t use it unless you have no other choice. When things go really sideways and you are faced with the unpleasant task of telling the crew at 4pm on Friday that everybody needs to work the weekend, loyalty goes a long, long way. Without loyalty, most of your crew will blow you off with excuses about attending weddings, funerals, having flights booked, important haircuts to go to and so forth. Here’s a little tip if this has ever happened to you: It’s (usually) not because they have weddings funerals, flights and haircuts. It’s because they don’t like working for you. It’s because they have not been shown any loyalty and are now wondering with some amusement what ever made you think they’d come through for you in a pinch. Loyalty is a two-way street, kiddies.

But I digress. Let’s talk more about critique.

The Critique/Review Contract
When someone asks for a critique or review, or has one thrust upon them, it creates a contract between the two people. This contract demands of the reviewer thoughtful consideration, honesty, accuracy, courtesy and respect. It demands of the receiver openness, thoughtful consideration of the notes, courtesy, respect and appreciation for the time taken. When both the reviewer and the receiver have the same goal of making the shot as great as it can possibly be, critiques/reviews become routine and comfortable, rather than the reviewer awkwardly reaching for nice words to give a bad note and the receiver sitting quietly in the dark wondering what the hell they’re still doing there late on a Friday night listening to a knob who has no clue. Make no mistake, artists and TDs never like hearing that their work has not yet hit the mark. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to improve it, even if they’re not consciously aware of it.

Objective vs. Subjective notes
It is crucial to understand the difference between “objective” and “subjective” notes in the context of commercial digital art critique. Objective notes are clear, concise direction such as “there is too much green in the sky colour. Bring it down maybe 25%.” Or “Please add a mountain to the left of the spaceport in that matte painting. I will send you reference of the kind of mountain I am talking about.” Or “the face is not maintaining volume in the lip squash at frame 73. Please correct that.” Objective notes come from someone up the food chain from you. They are things that must be done. Theoretically, if you complete all of your objective notes, then you are finished your task. Subjective notes often begin with “You know what would be cool?” or “I think we should change ‘X’”. Subjective notes usually come from someone either at your level or not too far above. They are outside of the objective notes that come down from on high. Subjective notes may be your VFX supervisor wanting to try out a cool idea to show the client. This can be good or bad. On one hand, the changes might delight your client. On the other hand, they may suck you into an ouroboros of never-ending subjectivity. During one particularly difficult project, there was a department responsible for the layout of a highway full of digital cars. There was great concern about what models and colours of cars were on the highway from one location to the next. The studio Sup would give notes, the crew would complete the note, but instead of the completed notes going back for review, the department head would continue to give more notes based on his own subjective interpretation of the VFX Sup notes. The shot sometimes iterated between crew and lead ten or twenty times before going back to the client. Over time, we realized that these additional iterations made it no more or less likely for a layout to be given final approval the next time it was seen, however it was very difficult to stop the department head from adding subjective notes and holding up shots for days, or even weeks while they were redone again and again making the shot sometimes ten or twenty times as expensive as it should have been. This is an example of subjective notes gone bad. I have, myself, given subjective notes from time to time (although I try to avoid it) that have either delighted or appalled the client. It’s a bit of a crap shoot, so if you’re going to add your own notes to that of the client, sometimes it’s best to do it as a “b” version. In other words, show the version as the client asked for it and then after that say “You know we had an idea we wanted to run past you. What do you think?” Clients are less likely to be appalled and more likely to be pleased that you are doing more than merely the notes, even if the idea does not pan out. It shows that you have an active interest in making the shots as great as they can possibly be. This gives your clients confidence in you, which affords you a) even more elbow room to try things out and b) good will for those inevitable times when you f#@k up.

So who should give critiques?
Not everybody is cut out to provide critique. Just because he is an amazing artist does not mean he understands the contractual relationship established by the critique. It doesn’t mean he has the patience to provide a proper critique and it doesn’t mean he has the verbal skills to articulate his observations. To begin with, the best critique generally comes from one who is genuinely interested in helping others succeed. This attitude usually automatically addresses the next criterion which is that critique should be given by one who can convey information with courtesy and respect. Not everybody knows how to do this. It takes an empathetic soul who has been there and can understand what is like at the other end of the critique. And very importantly, critique should be given by one who understands that being asked for a critique is an honor, and that the receiver is risking himself by asking for it. Asking for a critique, by the way, includes submitting a shot or asset to dailies for review. Even though they are told to do it, they are still putting themselves out there by showing the work. Artists tend to be an emotional, passionate bunch, which is a super power if handled well. But it means they sometimes measure their self-worth by the results of their dailies notes. Be aware, but don’t tiptoe. You have every right to expect professional behavior from even the most volatile artist or TD. Anyone who has been through several projects and has worked with several different kinds of production management teams knows there are many different styles to dailies critique. Most importantly they have probably experienced or heard critique from someone who clearly has no business giving critique.

So who should not give critique?
Definitely the worst are the ones who use critique to demonstrate their own superiority or who believe critique is an opportunity to hand out praise or derision. Usually these people don’t recognize that their crew are smart enough to know they are just a big fat jerk. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, critiques can go very badly if the reviewer is not prepared to take the time necessary to form genuine feedback on every possible aspect of the piece, given the allotted time (and honestly sometimes there isn’t much). Thoughtful consideration is crucial to forming clear, concise notes that are actionable. Here are a few examples of amusing non-actionable notes I have actually received:
-Can you make it more, you know, less like it is?
-Please make this 25% more magical.
-Keep going, I’ll know it when I see it.

If the reviewer is in too much of a hurry to provide clear, concise, actionable notes, then there is no point in having the review at all. Best schedule it at another, more convenient time.

Believe it or not, there is also a line between people who should and people who should not receive critique. That is not to say that some commercial artists should never receive critique. It is to say that if a commercial artist should not receive critique, then they probably should not be a commercial artist. If they are so precious about their work that they can’t hear someone else’s opinion, consider its value and act on it to the best of their ability, they should probably be at home working on their own masterpieces.

So who should receive critique?
First and foremost, the artist / TD should genuinely seek to improve the piece. She must be open to hearing feedback of any kind. This does not mean she has to agree with the results of a critique. She must understand that she can defend her decisions and disagree with given notes, provided it is done in a courteous, respectful way. She must also understand that if the reviewer finally says “please just do the notes as I have given them” then the discussion is over. We are paying you to do what we ask you to do, so please do it. Your objection may be absolutely correct, and we may find that out only after you have finished the notes, but that’s a path we must take, it is neither your problem nor your responsibility. And one more thing: when we do eventually find out that you were right and we were wrong, please don’t rub it in our faces. All of us make mistakes. Even you.

Perhaps most importantly, critique is best given to one who understands that the road to excellence is a difficult one and that every good critique is a step along that road.

So who should not receive critique?
Some artists seek only praise for their work. Usually these are highly insecure individuals who have no sense of self-worth except the words of others. Danger: High Maintenance. These people usually react poorly to anything other than “Awesome work.” They are usually closed to the ideas and comments of others and may believe their work is already as good as it can be. They may be insulted by suggestions to change their genius work. They do not see the value in objective comments and, in fact, are usually not even aware of the value of objective review. These are usually very inexperienced artists who do not understand collaborative workflow. The good news is that most people can be trained in good critique. Not everyone, but most. Depending on the natural talent of the individual, it can be well worth the effort.

Here are a few simple tips to help you build a great critiquing system:
1. clear, concise, actionable notes are critically important to collaborative workflow.
2. critique should always be given and received with courtesy and respect. There is absolutely no excuse for humiliating a team member in dailies (or at any other time, for that matter)
3. critiques are not always fun. That’s just the way it is.
4. critiques are not compliments or insults. They are the accurate conveyance of information to the best ability of the reviewer.
5. a good critique demands personal responsibility from both the reviewer and the receiver. The reviewer is being offered trust by the receiver and should provide clear, concise, actionable feedback using language that is non-inflammatory. The reviewer does not praise the work, nor does she deride the work. The receiver does not expect praise nor derision. The receiver seeks accurate perceptual information to improve the work.
6. Critique is not about superiority. Anybody can give a critique to anybody else. A layman or child can have a valid opinion about the work of a veteran artist or designer. Sometimes their opinions are even more valid, not being clouded by an understanding of the technique and technology of your industry. Remember, everybody is an expert on what photo-real looks like. although they may not be able to articulate issues.
7. Critique is about whether or not the work successfully reached the intended technical and/or aesthetic objectives. Often a critique will begin with questions about what the intended objective was (or what the artist thinks it is) so that success can be evaluated.
8. Often critique will include the reviewer’s subjective opinions about her perception of the work.
9. Don’t take any of it too seriously. It’s entertainment, not brain surgery.

I hope this is in some way useful to you. Certainly not everybody will agree with all the assertions made here, but they have worked well for me throughout many projects.