Does wanting a maya tool that counts how many times I use undo throughout the day make me a tortured artist? If so, is that such a bad thing?

The tortured artist is as popular a stereotype as that of a starving one. Behind the eyes or voice of many great and influential creators you could see an honest discontent for their work. You could tell they were never really pleased with their creation, no matter how much the rest of the world loved it. That torture was their passion to be great and the realization that no matter how hard they pushed towards it, the execution would never reach the intent.

Execution not matching intent is something every artist and game developer struggles with, so you would expect there to be no shortage of tortured artist syndrome. But as I meet more animators and game devs, the continued, quiet discontent isn’t there. In fact, most people often wear their creations, occupation and accomplishments with an eager enthusiasm, replacing creative pain with artistic acceptance. Maybe it is cultural. Or maybe it has something to do with a lot of the mistakes made while working on their creation being lost to the ether thanks to everyone’s favorite friend, CTRL + Z. But considering how prolific tortured artists have been in other fields, is this another key towards unlocking complete artistic acceptance for game development?

"For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can." -Ernest Hemingway

When I began to really study art, the idea of being an overly critical/borderline tortured artist was ingrained early into my psyche. The mantra of, “The minute you are satisfied with you art is the minute you need to quit” is one I still hold onto. That sense of continual yearning to improve one’s craft is something I believe to be essential to any successful artist. It is one of the things that makes art so magical. The variety of topics, skills, and knowledge you must possess to craft something of meaning is a well that can never run dry. And it is easy to be overwhelmed by the amount you don’t know, what you knew at one time but have forgotten, or what you now take as second nature. That is what makes the idea of artistic confidence such a delicate balance. And that balance is never more tenuous then when you make a wrong mark in paint, a sculpture cracks in the kiln, or improper light exposure ruins a whole roll of film.

But there is a fine line between humble, driven, and tortured. The first two are entirely necessary for an artist to be successful. But what about being tortured? It would appear to be the extreme in that or any other train of thought. But without tortured artists, many of our greatest artistic breakthroughs or achievements might not exist. They are the ones that continually struggle, never settle, and often times take risks to deliver their visions in an entirely new way. Their work is confrontational, unsettling, and highly provocative in a way that those working in the mainstream often look at warily.

So what happened to the tortured artist? I know we have impassioned advocates and independent creators working on some truly avant-garde games, but let’s look to the general pool of game devs and students. Why are many so happy go-lucky or just generally content with their latest creation when talking about them at large?

I know it goes deeper than just game development and is something that has become cultural, as the idea of many schools continue to lower the standards of what is academically acceptable while promoting undo confidence. Add in all the social media designed for self promotion, and it is easy to see why humility or a strong sense of personal conviction could be lacking.

But as game developers, we can’t entirely escape any of those factors and have additional factors to deal with. A game’s success is often times wrapped up in its marketing, and to speak or lament on your creative failures is not allowed, unless its being used to sell the sequel. In previous cycles it was a rarity for one person to even be able to focus on one skillset to a degree required of complete mastery. Add in the outside perceptions of game development, from detractors to fans to publishers, and its easy to see why tortured artist isn’t something that can really come about in this field. Being a tortured artist is almost a luxury, because it means you get to worry about nothing but your craft and message 24/7.

So how do we go about affording such a luxury? As game developer roles become more compartmentalized, the ability to really drill down past good enough towards truly spectacular can be a reality. With social media, it is possible to really show your passion, opinion and dedication to the craft beyond what is dictated by a production schedule. But ample amounts of creative energy is only half the answer. We need to be constantly aware of our failures, and not allow them to just disappear. It is easy to let the fake marketing praise or even real fan praise take over your imagination if you don’t have a reminder of how far off your execution was from your intent. We have adopted post mortem’s for a project, to evaluate where we went wrong. But what about your daily work load? Do you have anyway to judge that, or are you letting undo erase your mistakes? How much can we learn from those mistakes if we don’t have to fix them ourselves or are even reminded of  them?

Nothing reminds me of this like when I was doing hand drawn animation. After hours of staring into the glow of a light table, I would look up and take note of what I had gotten done. Next to me were two stacks of paper, one of drawings that were going to be captured on film, and one that contained the drawings that didn’t work. The pile of failed drawings always dwarfed those that were successful. By a lot. And while that felt like a swift kick to the gut at first, it also kept driving me to do better. The next day, I would try to have a smaller stack of failures, which would make me more mindful of the animation I was doing. All of that gave those failures weight and made the final creation that much more meaningful to me.

I know these are rose colored glasses I am wearing at the moment, and am reminded of such every time I sit down to draw something with a pencil and paper, and try to undo a line I’d just mistakenly laid down. Undo could in fact be one of the greatest inventions of our life time.

But the tool is only as powerful as those that wield it, and the idea of undo can be dangerous if it were to completely erase any consideration of our mistakes. So with that in mind, I came up with an idea on how to make us all a bit more tortured.

A few years ago a technical animator I was working with asked if I had any requests for scripts. I asked for a counter that logged how many time I used undo. He looked at me sideways and said I was crazy. I went into a diatribe that echoes this one, but he just said it didn’t make sense to spend work time on something not necessary to production. I’ve sense joked about the idea to other TA’s, often to the same results.

As I thought about this post, I put out a request to twitter for a maya phython scripter. John Neumann graciously answered the call and worked with my odd request to bring it to life. So if you yearn for a kick to the groin and have maya 2011 or later, here you go. Your very own Undo Counter.

You can now track how many times you had to use that digital eraser by leaving it open and constantly being stared in the face by your mistakes. Or you can wait until you finish a scene, at which point it will pop open and let your final count be known. Either way, there is no escaping its cold, honest truth. Whether you use it merely to temper your ego or succumb to complete torture, it is up to you.

My hope is that it causes everyone using it to think a little bit harder about the purpose and meaning of each action they take. Because once you get past the physical process of creation and into the mental/emotional process, is the moment you are working with true intent. And that intent is what should drive all artists, be it the happy or tortured variety. And it is what will keep us all from ever being content.

Being a true tortured artist isn’t in any form healthy. It goes well beyond passion and into some form of serious mental affliction. But in this world of excessive artistic egos and artistic contentedness, a little more torture and critical self reflection is something we could use.

** If you are in the market for a technical animator, you should talk to John. He was everything you can ask for: skilled, communicative, understanding and dedicated. Everything an animator looks for in a TA. **