Thursday, March 29, 2012

Learn from my Failure: Unsolicited Laughter

I consider myself someone who takes criticism – particularly of my work – relatively gracefully. Maybe I don’t give a big smile and a warm “You’re absolutely right,” all the time, but I try not to bite either. I know that feedback is – usually – intended to uplift me as an artist, and take my work a step or two further than I’d pushed it myself.

Today, I acted ungracefully.

I’ve been working on Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time for over a year now. Of all projects I’ve ever worked on, this has been the most rewarding – by far. The game is truly a triple A title, both beautiful to look at and fun to play. I’ve done some of the best work of my career on this project, and take great pride in the team I’ve been matched up with. A greater group of talented, enthusiastic, and collaborative spirits I have never known.

One such artist, and in fact one of the artists I respect most in the video game industry as a whole, stopped by my desk today to have a look at what I was doing. AND THEN ZOMG ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE!!!

Okay, to be fair, I was rather tired, having had only about 4 hours of sleep and coming in extremely early. Also in my defense [whiny voice], this particular shot was one I had really been fond of, and had thought was turning out quite nicely.

You fellow animators will know, when someone looks at your work and doesn’t say anything, that’s a bad sign, and a gut wrenching feeling. So I gritted my teeth as he watched it loop over and over, and waited for the “It’s good… but...”

That never came.

Instead, what he said was “Well, [Deep gut laugh] it’s not there yet.”

Again in fairness, it wasn’t the most tactful criticism. Even in reading the words, they seem incredibly un-harsh. Any animator knows, however, that an unsolicited laugh is one of the most stinging criticisms one can receive, yet I implore you not to think harshly on his response. To start, he very sincerely apologized soon after. It’s what happened next that is the truly shame-worthy action – or perhaps I should say “RE-action.”

I didn’t exactly pull out my machete and lop off his limbs, but in no uncertain terms, I told him his words were extremely useless, and (like a hormonal teen) made sarcastic jokes about how “helpful” he was being, and I was “sure glad to have his critical eye around to let me know when I’m failing.” Taken aback by my stinging reaction, he apologized and walked away.

He returned to his desk, at which point he IMed me, apologizing again. Still seething, and having had a few moments to think up some more angry words, I typed them out. “If you’re not going to give me ‘helpful’ words, I’d prefer you kept your mouth shut.” “I do this professionally. I know more than you do on this subject” [which is not only unfair, but wrong]. These aren’t exact quotes; as I said, it was early and I was tired, so I can’t give an exact transcript of the discussion.

He profusely apologized again and agreed that, unless asked for feedback, would “keep his big mouth shut.”

I stewed for a while in my own annoyances, staring at my shot. I showed my lead, and to add to my anger, he agreed that it had a long way to go. No it doesn’t, I thought. You’re all blind.

I started pushing here, pulling there, and after a while, had something of a breakthrough… suddenly it clicked, and really worked. I compared it to the playblast that had sparked the unwelcomed response, and could not believe how bad the previous version had looked. My fellow artist, who was not attached to the piece, had seen what I had not.

I then sucked up my pride and apologized to him – not because he was right, but because whether he was right or wrong, my reaction was immature and unprofessional, and for these things I was, and continue to be truly sorry.

We hear constantly “take criticism gracefully,” yet even when we think we practice this mentality, our own personal feelings can blind us to what others, who are not standing so close to the monitor, can see much more clearly.

If my coworker reads this, I want to apologize again, and thank him for his critical eye. After a few more hours of struggle, I now have a shot I am rather proud of, and more importantly, a new wrinkle in the brain: spontaneous laughter as a negative response to my work is a blessing in disguise; an honest, knee-jerk reaction that informs me that “no, my shot is not working.”

Learn from my Failure!