When people ask how Framestore creates such amazing quality visual effects, iteration, that is, multiple versions with constructive criticism, is at the heart of the answer. Nothing is ever finished on the first version. Doing multiple versions with excellent, constructive feedback is the path to excellence. How do you give constructive criticism? And more importantly, how do you take it? In this article, I’ll discuss how to give and take constructive critique to facilitate great creative work.

The Experience of Being Critiqued

It’s 4:27am. Your render has just finished and you watch your work with a feeling of pride. The blood, sweat, tears, loss of sleep, and compromised sanity were worth it. This is the kind of work you imagined doing when applied to university and now here it is, right in front of you. 

After a couple of hours of fitful sleep, you find your seat in the classroom and prepare to be showered with praise from faculty and students alike. After politely remaining conscious while waiting for others’ work to be shown ahead of yours, your lovingly crafted images appear on the screen at the front of the room. The expected thundering ovation in response is instead substituted by a half-hearted smattering of applause. The beings that were once your classmates and mentors now transform into vultures that rip your work apart piece by piece by pointing out everything wrong with it, leaving only a skeletonised carcass.

You get hot, your heart begins racing, fingers clench. You’re so angry, they didn’t understand what you were trying to do. What do they know anyway? Half of the comments were from students, and if the faculty is so great, wouldn’t they be off working in the industry?

How to Respond

It can hurt to have your work criticised. If it doesn’t hurt at least a little bit, did you really put your heart and soul into it? 

It’s okay if it hurts. Let it hurt, don’t deny your feelings. Your job during critique is not to agree or disagree, not to defend yourself or what you’ve done. Your job is to listen and take notes. And then, put those notes away. Once you’ve had a break and your emotional response has waned, take those notes out and read them through, one by one. You’ll find a lot of helpful advice. You may not agree with all of it, but some of it, probably most of it, will be good advice that you should follow up on. 

Then put in the long hours again, make those changes, and get ready for another round of critique. You’ll get more suggestions. As the work improves, and you fix or improve the issues that stood out the most, the next level of flaws reveals itself. There is always room for improvement. Artwork is never done, only abandoned. 

As you get used to the process, the knee-jerk emotional response will fade. And you should seek out critique and advice throughout the process, rather than waiting for a formal review. Ask your peers, your mentors, your teachers. Ask your friends and loved ones, even those who don’t understand the process, because they won’t edit their response to stay within what’s convenient, or even feasible because they don’t know how it’s done. You need an outside perspective on your work to improve it. The more you work on something and stare at it, the more your mind accepts what is familiar as correct. The flaws become harder to see.

And when someone does offer you critique, your response should be “thank you.” It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree. It doesn’t matter if they pushed your buttons and you are so angry you never want to speak to them again. Write down what they said and say thank you. 

How Critique is Used in the Industry

When artists gather to get feedback from supervisors in a screening room it’s called ‘dailies’. When it’s done well, it’s an amazing sight to see. I sat in on some of the dailies for Christopher Robin, which is a Disney film with photo-realistic Winnie the Pooh characters and an adult Christopher Robin played by Ewan McGregor.

In dailies, the room is dark, there is a row of desks at the back occupied by members of the production team and editorial. The supervisor, in this case, animation supervisor Arslan Elver, sits at a desk on the far side of the room in the middle. There is seating for several others and the wall at the front is filled by a screen.

Dailies for Christopher Robin – © 2020 Walt Disney Studios

The editor is making sure the right version of the right shot has been queued up and is playing on the screen. Production is making sure that all of the necessary people are there and that the previous notes have been addressed and that new notes are being taken. Animators are entering one at a time in time for their shot to be reviewed. It all runs like clockwork. 

Arslan Elver, the animation supervisor, is a force of nature. He spends hours in this dark room reviewing shot after shot but the effort he puts in for each one is super-human. He’s getting up out of his seat and acting out the movements, explaining what is needed with his whole body in an engaging and entertaining way. One time I was sitting there quietly waiting for dailies to begin and he was reviewing a shot, and even though nobody was watching, he was still making faces and funny neck and head movements to act out the shot. He appears to think and create with his whole body.

The animators mostly listen, they may take a few notes of their own. Sometimes they have questions, sometimes explanations of their progress and what they are trying to achieve. If there are emotions bubbling underneath, they certainly aren’t visible to the casual observer. They remain professional and calm and get to work.

A Cintiq is set up where Arslan sits in the dailies room, which allows him to draw on the screen and everyone can see it at the front of the room. Framestore has their own system for this, but it’s like some of the functionality you can see onSyncSketch. He’ll draw on top of a frame of animation to show where a head might tilt, or a limb might be placed differently. He’s explaining things visually whether it’s with his body or with a pen. 

Animators can propose their own idea for how best to achieve a shot, but they can’t go rogue. They need to work with their leads and supervisors who are making sure the characters behave in a way that is consistent with their personality and with the story that’s being told. There is a hierarchy of creative decision making. Animator > Lead > Animation Supervisor > Visual Effects Supervisor > Director. Sometimes there is a client-side visual effects supervisor, especially if it is a big film that multiple visual effects studios are working on. Sometimes the animation supervisor is working more closely with the director, like when they’re creating performances. Christopher Robin had Framestore’s Global Director of Animation Micheal Eames working on set for much of the production. 

Everything that is done must serve the story and the director’s vision. A brilliant animated shot might have to be changed or even scrapped because it doesn’t work in the sequence or overall story. 

The end goal of dailies is to get a shot finaled. That means the animation is excellent, and it is serving its purpose within the sequence and the overall story. To achieve excellence, it takes many rounds of reviews and expert feedback. The magic of animation and visual effects is the determination to achieve excellence through multiple iterations. So giving and receiving critique well is at the heart of what brings us our most cherished moments on the screen. 

Giving Critique

When someone asks you to critique their work, take the opportunity. You can learn and develop your critical eye in the process. Here are a few suggestions to help.

Critique the work, not the person. This is both for praise and criticism. Try to remove the word “you” from your explanation. Critique what you see on the screen, not the effort you imagine it required or the mind behind it. 

Offer them a shit sandwich. The top and bottom is what is good and working well, and the things that need to improve are in the middle. If the first words out of your mouth are what’s wrong, you may put the artist on the defensive, and once they’re in that mode, they may not be able to hear the things that could be improved. Sometimes it’s hard to find something good to say. I’ve taught animation and visual effects for many years and seen the full spectrum of quality, from the truly inspirational to “what the heck is that supposed to be?” I still always start with a positive statement, even if the best I can do is: “it’s good that your assignment has been turned in.” 

Be honest. Often when students critique each other, they are trying so hard to be nice and supportive, that they only give encouragement, and leave out constructive criticism that can be acted upon. Some think it’s not their place to say what’s wrong, or what could be improved. But hopefully, you’re being asked because they actually wanted to know how to improve it, not just get a pat on the back.

Critique work in progress. The best time to critique is before something is done. When there is time to make changes, and they haven’t gone too far down any road and can still change course. On the day of the final presentation, maybe all that is called for is a pat on the back. At that point, if you have areas for improvement to offer, make sure they are welcome. Which brings me to my next point:

Avoid offering unsolicited advice. This is a good guideline to follow even outside the world of animation and artwork. Try giving unsolicited advice on parenting to a stranger in the park and you’re unlikely to leave that conversation unscathed. If you have thoughts you want to share that you’re sure will help someone, ask permission first, and try to assess if they really want to hear what you have to say or are just being polite. 

Channel your love. Even the harshest criticism can be received well if it comes from a good place, where you are genuinely appreciating what they’ve done and trying to help improve it.