Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Orthodox Sweatbox Paradox

In the early days of Disney Studios, the cramped room where Walt critiqued his crew's pencil tests was aptly dubbed "The Sweatbox" by the animators under scrutiny.  While the industry has changed radically since Walt's day, the Sweatbox survives; if not as a noun - a designated room, then as a verb - the act of critiquing.  Every animator's got sweatbox stories to share at industry parties.  I've been on both sides of that Moviola, as animator and director, the sweat-ee and sweat-or.

As a greenhorn animator, showing my scenes to the director was like being a riveter on a skyscraper forty stories up.  Failure to execute could send my ego falling, falling, falling......splat.  Some directors offered a safety net and some dropped hot rivets down my pants.

Animator Al Holter recalls:
"(Director) Simon Wells confided during Prince Of Egypt how hard it was to keep the approvals properly keyed to the artist. If you told the artist his shot was 'good' after you told him his last shot yesterday was 'great', the reaction was often to say they could do it better and want a second go-around, since his work was now only 'ok'.

So his order would be: 

1. "good" early on
2. "great" somewhere near the middle
3. "really great" in the last third
4. "fantastic" as near the end

... when what he actually meant all along was 'Thanks. These will all work.'"

Different animators have different reactions to criticism.  Some are fragile and need a lot of encouragement, some are combative and think their work is precious, and then there are guys like Jeff Etter.  The first time, as a directing animator, I was shown a pencil test by Jeff, he said "A or F?"


"A or F?" He repeated. "It's either an A or an F."  There was no wiggle room, no grey area.

Taken aback, I said "Neither." then tried to give some direction.

He cut me off.  "F!" he shouted, and strode back to his desk like Grumpy going to wash his hands.

The second time he showed me a pencil test, he again said, "A or F?"

Even though the scene only needed minor tweaks, I said, "F!".   Jeff laughed uproariously all the way back to his desk. shouting "F!   It's an F!"

So there's the paradox - the safety net and the rivets down the pants are BOTH orthodox in the sweatbox!


  1. When I was at Blue Sky Studios on "Robots", the studio used the coldest room in the building for "sweatbox" sessions. The air conditioning was cranked up so high I used to wear a coat and scarf. "Icebox", I called it. ---Alex

    1. I always heard about the sweatbox in Animation at Blue Sky but never experienced it first hand. In Story we had The Pitch, affectionately know as the "Bloodbath".