The Value of Feeling Inadequate – Jumping Into the Deep End

I can’t talk about the movie I just worked on. Let’s just say it’s a spectacular take on the story of a wooden boy from two directors, one is a certain famous Mexican, coming in December (the trailer is just out). I will talk a bit about the experience of being in a high-level production.

This was my third experience working on a feature film, but the first at such a high technical level with artists who have been making great stop motion for decades, a pretty good budget and the best puppets I’ve ever laid hands on – a dream come true. I feel like I finally got my big break, I got my foot in the door, I’m being seen by people at the top of this industry and I held my own.

But for a while I felt inadequate. This is a pre-requisite for greatness. If you want to go far, get familiar with feeling uncomfortable. Appreciate and enjoy your growth.

I’m sure I was one of the least experienced animators on the whole team and since I joined late in the last months, I was completely lost as to the jargon and workflow. I was grateful, humbled and terrified. By now I know to expect to have an insecurity crisis at least once in each production. It’s a part of my process when I care about the work.

I have grown as an animator but for some time I had felt stuck. There is only so far you can go without the proper mentors, opportunities and high-quality puppets. It had been years since I had felt truly challenged, since I had been thrown into the deep end to sink or swim. I felt my potential but didn’t know how to find opportunities for higher-level productions (so thanks to my mentor Luis Téllez who stepped down from the project and recommended me. The producers didn’t know me but there was no one else around and I got my break).

There I was finally, taking a small role in a truly spectacular film we are all very proud of. I had to stay on my toes and catch up quickly. Yet my mayor excitement was seeing clearly all the space that I could grow into. Like a plant being moved to a much larger pot.

And I grew.

There were a few unexpected surprises. The first: The level of performance on this movie is incredibly high, so I expected stress levels to soar as well. The opposite happened. Granted, I was part of a second and much smaller unit so we were probably way more comfortable and less rushed than the huge first-unit, but still, stress was manageable.

Yes, there is a demand for perfection, but the workflow sets you up for success. You have the opportunity to be fully briefed, you plan and rehearse, you get every tool you need and receive clear, concise direction and feedback so by the time you go into your final version of a shot, for the most part you’re prepared and confident. That and being part of a crew of specialists working together like a machine running smoothly lets everyone focus on their specific craft, and we had each other’s backs.

On small projects however, sometimes expectations are just as high but with not enough planning, time and budget to back it up. You jump right into shots hoping for the best while making up for many technical shortcomings. You also probably fill several jobs, especially if some crew members above the line are new at animation and you have to guide (or wrestle with) them, leading to frustration and burnout.

I’m not trying to piss on small productions or new creators, I’m just being blunt in saying there is a difference when working with high-end technology next to seasoned professionals. And yet there is something very enjoyable about small productions as well. You get to know every member and appreciate their artistry. When things run smoothly, the crew becomes a family, even though it lasts for a short while.

So on this job I was surprisingly less stressed than I expected and overall I just had to concern myself with my performance and the state of the puppets and props on my stage.

The second big surprise was: all animators, even the most experienced, often feel insecure or unsatisfied with their work. I couldn’t believe this as I looked through their shots with dumbfound admiration. I thought: WHAT?! Artists that are rock stars to me can be just as unsure and even make mistakes? That was weirdly reassuring. We stop motion artists are a weird breed. We are naturally perfectionists and borderline obsessive, sometimes to our detriment. I liked how Sergio Valdivia, a rising star, put me at ease by passing down some wisdom. He said “when we animate, we make 300 decisions a day, we can’t expect all of them to be perfect”.

This was an ideal job with the best of both worlds: high technical and performance level that challenged me to grow my craft much farther, the best working conditions I’ve had so far, in a movie that is so beautiful it’s an honor to be a part of, and working with a small unit of talented people I can also call my friends. This experience will be hard to beat… but I’m waiting with open arms for whatever comes my way.

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