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Signal to Noise ratio


Or: Kids these days!

When I am doing timing for storyboards my typical setup is Final Cut Pro. I get the audio and the still images from the board and pace out the show based on the acting in the audio track. I will add sound effects if required and occasionally the odd piece of music as a temp track to help detail out the timing that I am trying to express.

What I don’t have going on when I am doing this is the following:
Movies or TV shows of any kind.

There is of course the background noise of the studio or home life that is going on around me. Generally this can be ignored while I am working. It’s kind of a Zen thing for me I think. Years ago when I was hanging out at University someone gave me a book on Zen Philosophy. Can’t remember the name of the book but it was a small 40 something page thing that had a sentence and a drawing on each page. It went kind of like this. “When you brush your teeth”… Turn the page…”Brush your teeth”. Next page. “When you wash the Dishes.” Next… “Wash the dishes.” Silly sounding I know but this has served me well over the years.

When I first started in Animation I had a job that required little creative thinking or deep attention in order to be productive at. In this case I would get audio books out of the Library and listen to them at work. It was fine because my attention didn’t need to be focused on what was directly in front of me. I didn’t have to worry about things like timing, pacing, story elements or dramatic context. I only had to worry if the paint was in the lines.

When I walk around a studio today I am always impressed by how the young animators can have all the above things going on and still seem to produce work. I wonder how much better that work could be if they had none of these distractions?

I recently finished reading a book called “The Theater of the Mind”. Written by Jay Ingram. The book is about the search for what is Consciousness and what scientists are doing in the area of research now and in the past. There was one part that struck me. It has been discovered that our ability to retain information versus the data coming into our minds is extremely limited. If you think in terms of bits of data our sensory input devices (ears, eyes, touch) create amounts in the millions of bits entering our head every second. But the conscious mind can only perceive less than 1 millionth of this information every second. Between the subconscious and conscious portions your brain decides what is important at any given moment to be perceived but it still can’t be any bigger that this amount. This is partly why it is easier to remember a 7 digit number than it is a ten or more digit number. The conscious mind has limits. The 7-bit rule can be lengthened by the perception of a series of information being created into a single bit of memory, like the area code for a phone number. Even though it is three digits we perceive it as a single piece of information. There are ways to train the mind into perceiving larger series of data into small bits in order to seemingly remember more. Chess players have this because of the amount of time spent in memorizing patterns of pieces on a board and seeing this as a whole instead of the individual parts. This makes twenty pieces remembered as one bit of data.

I have a challenge for those of you that are doing a heavily creative type of process in the world of animation. If you work with having all the above things going on at the same time that you are doing the job, make a note of how much work you get done versus the amount of retakes you get. Then on the second week turn off everything and only have on the things you absolutely need to do the job. Make notes of how much work you did versus how many retakes you get back. As a second thing try and remember how you felt about the passage of time in both of these cases.

Let me know what your findings are!

When you brush your teeth…


  1. Sketchees Sketchees April 8, 2010

    Very interesting post. Thanks Rob

    Personally, I work with music on because designing for television can sometimes be monotonous. Although, when I’m doing personal things i like, I prefer the noise off(*unless it’s doodling, then music inspires me)

    I also know of fellow co-workers who, like you mentioned, can have 20 things going on at once, and still get alot of work done. I guess it depends on the personality and how well they can deligate time.

    Maybe i’ll try this week test some day. When I have alot of owrk to do.

  2. Daniel Man Daniel Man April 8, 2010

    Another nice post here, Rob.

    Personally, I work with music on if it is monotonous work, like Sketchees said. However, it is never on when dialogue is involved. I like to direct my focus right to the task at hand, and personally music does not distract, but instead inspire me more. All in all though, I usually get my fill of music on the commutes to work anyways. Facebook, MSN and the like, have no real place at work for me.

    (PS: I am an animator. This might help explain my point of view 😛 )

  3. Rob Anderson Rob Anderson Post author | April 9, 2010

    Some people find it easier to tune out the external noise for sure. Sadly I am not one of them!

  4. Suzanne Suzanne April 13, 2010

    Very interesting thoughts Robbie! I have done some reading of Zen philosophy over the years as well; and the writing that struck me as being the most useful generally was the simplest.

    I’m reminded of a fantastic Robert Crumb comic called “Mr. Natural Does the Dishes”. In the comic, Mr. Natural walks into a kitchen piled high with filthy dishes. In subsequent panels he works at the sink, cleaning dish after dish. The final panel is Mr. Natural all done, clean dishes all sparkly and he exits the scene.

    When doing dishes… >^_^<

    I usually have a pile of distracta on in the bg when I'm drawing. But I'm just as happy drawing with nothing on at all. One thing I've noticed is that if things are going particularly well in drawing-land that the ephemera fades away. Time gets a hazed blur to it and music mutes out. It is that Zen spot where creativity and meditation become one and the same…

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