Do you use AI?

AI in Animation: Innovation, Ethics, and Human Connection.

If you're not sure how to feel about AI, you're not alone. Whether you're excited or nervous, we've got some helpful tips for how to navigate the ever changing landscape ahead.

Seth Chaffee
May 17, 2024

Do you use AI? 

Our studio gets this question a lot. It’s often asked as a loaded question — a test — almost to see if we flinch. And it comes with different expectations from the clients who ask it. What they’re really asking is…

  • Do you use AI? Because that’s stealing work from artists and content creators!
  • Do you use AI? Because I’m scared of the backlash and I need someone to help us navigate the future.
  • Do you use AI? Because I want an easy button that can generate amazing things for pennies on the dollar.
  • Do you use AI? Because my boss keeps asking and I’m afraid AI will take my job.
  • Do you use AI? Because I’ve seen other animation studios making declarations like “We’ll never use AI — AI is evil — death to AI.”
  • Do you use AI? Because I see it everywhere and I’m confused. My toaster, my coffee maker, and my accounting software now all have AI and everything is changing so fast. Please help me. 

We’re not afraid of this question. And it’s a fair question that everyone should be asking.

AI has become the big buzzword in our industry — most industries actually. More dangerously it’s become a general term to mean a lot of things: generative text, images, video, music, voice, simulation, agent processes, and more. And when all these things get lumped together, it adds to the confusion. The overgeneralization of anything leads to bias, making it difficult to understand the important details:  How are the AI models trained? What are the motives behind how and why AI is being used?  And for the brand, is AI a pairing their audience will agree with? It gets cloudy.

Investors see dollar signs, businesses and industry insiders see question marks, and weary consumers are somewhere between excited and afraid, usually both, if they’re paying attention — or just sick of seeing the acronym everywhere if they’re not. So, the motives and responses are diverse.

Regardless of whether you love or hate it, AI isn’t going anywhere. The genie is out of the bottle. And history has taught us this over and over again.

It’s not unusual for technology to replace or refine traditional processes: the printing press, the automobile, the tractor, the assembly line, the copy machine, the computer, the internet, the iPhone, the list goes on and on. And those who ignore the signs get wrecked.

What is unusual however is how broadly and quickly this is happening. It’s going to displace a lot of people and a lot of industries for those who aren’t pragmatic. And we hate to see that. 

The truth is, AI is all the bad things you fear and all the amazing things you hope. It’s all of the above. From accelerating cancer research to generating pictures of your mom riding a unicorn across a bridge made of cheeseburgers, there’s a spectrum. As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And people don’t always use power responsibly.

So no, we are not in favor of killing art, stealing others' work, or murdering human connection. No one is excited about 400 poorly constructed AI Influencers spamming their feed.

Do we use AI?

Yes, we use AI. Of course we do, but maybe not in all the ways you’d assume. We do a lot of R&D on AI because it’s our job to know it inside and out — the good and the bad — to understand the polarizing extremes. Clients deserve an educated answer to the question. Most things we create do not use AI. But, even then, when we build something intentionally the old-fashioned way, we have to know how it will compete for attention in a world filled with more and more noise.

We have to know when it’s okay to use AI, and when it’s unethical. We have to know when we can use a tool or pipeline, or if we have to build our own. But, we don’t use AI just to make our jobs easier. It’s a tool. If that tool is ethical, serves our client, and opens the door for our artists to spend time on the things that make a human connection, great. If not, then we need to know that too. And we don’t just want that for our studio. We want it for the industry — for all those who might be affected. As John F. Kennedy said “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

So, whether you’re a client, a strategic partner, or even a competitor, we want you to succeed.

Here are 10 things you can do to keep your head above water:

  1. Acknowledge the truth of the moment. Yes, it’s moving fast and it’s okay to be overwhelmed. This is the correct and honest response to AI, whether you lean positive or negative. There is a good chance your audience, your co-workers, and even your dog are feeling the same way. Showing empathy for your audience’s anxiety is the human thing to do. Change is uncomfortable and, as a society, people are getting really sick of polarizing things: left or right, Coke or Pepsi, to be or not to be — you get it. Feel the feels and be honest.

  2. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Learn the nuances. Jumping to the easy “AI is good” or “AI is bad” answer is lazy. It does your clients or your audience a disservice. It does you a disservice. Keep your head in the game.

  3. Don’t dismiss AI because of current limitations. That’s an excuse. Those limitations won’t last for long. There is too much money, too much momentum, and too much competition for this to stall out. Being dismissive so that you can confirm you or your audience’s bias will eat your lunch. Don’t do it.

  4. Keep a close eye on the ethics (if that matters to you and it should) and the legal implications of using AI-generated content possibly trained on copyrighted work. This content is often not copyrightable and it’s a fast way to damage your brand’s image. Money, competition, and a lack of oversight make it easy for those with incentive to cut corners. It’s up to us to be the canary in the coal mine, when it’s appropriate. Be ethical.

  1. Learn and educate. And if you learn something that changes your mind, that’s okay. That’s progress. Complex topics aren’t black and white. AI is far from a simple topic. So, if you get something wrong, own that and reevaluate. The more research and development we do, the more our views shift, we learn what’s truly scary and what’s actually pretty cool. The best way to lead people to mass hysteria is to deny them an education. Get smart.

  2. Build relationships. Learn to connect with people. Everything is competing for our attention: games, movies, shows, social media, your family, and even when you’re slumped in bed, your dog or cat has probably learned to knock the phone out of your hand. Mine has. Relationships are your product. Nurture them.

  3. Get ready for the sh*t show. We’re getting very little signal through the noise and the sea of AI content heading your way is only going to make it that much harder to connect. Even if you make the best handcrafted non-AI content, it’s going to be harder to find. It’s going to require increased effort to stand out. It already does. And that means clients need more than just technical skill.

  4. Learn good storytelling. If you’re a creative agency or studio, actually study and apply good storytelling techniques. Train that muscle. Don’t just use it as a buzzword on your site for SEO. And don’t assume because you have a copy writer on staff that they understand story structure. Being a decent writer doesn’t automatically make you a decent storyteller.  It’s an art and a skill. Put in the work.

  5. Don’t become a commodity. The disadvantage of being a commodity is that you must differentiate primarily on price. Clients generally aren't willing to pay more for your product than someone else's, if it's roughly the same product.

    It’s not enough to just make beautiful things — animation, live action, whatever. That used to be where value was added, but as people get buried in generated overproduced nonsense, they crave authenticity more than anything else. It’s okay to make something beautiful. We still do that, but you have to dig deeper. You have to connect with people. You have to build genuine relationships. Instant one-button press AI isn’t going to be enough to do the job. If you settle for this, if you let your clients settle for this, you’re going to be part of the problem. Be more than just someone who knows how to press buttons. If that’s you, you’re just a gatekeeper and your clients can’t wait for you to get out of their way. They will happily treat you like a commodity and replace you with AI or whatever else helps them cut costs. Add value.

  6. Have empathy. AI is going to change your industry, your job, your life, and it’s going to affect everyone and everything. And change is uncomfortable. Some people will be displaced and that sucks. Have compassion for those who struggle. Help them. Remember to be kind to others and to yourself. Be a good human, otherwise what is this even about.

If this topic is triggering for you, you’re not alone. If you disagree, that’s okay. This is a complex issue. It’s evolving quite literally daily. We simply encourage our clients, industry partners, competitors, and artists to stay educated. Do your own R&D. Stay informed and pass that onto your clients. They deserve your best — and they’ll need that to survive. The commercial application of art is changing, for better or worse.

So, let’s rephrase the questions to what we should really be asking ourselves.

Regardless of whether or not you use AI, do you know how to connect to a human through your art? Do you know how to engage your audience? Do you know how to make them feel something to the point of inspiring them to take action? 

This is still the job to be done, and despite all the shortcuts AI provides, bad AI content is still going to flood the market, and it’s only going to get harder. 

And with that, I’m convinced, human connection is more important than ever. People will need informed experts to guide them. That's us. And hopefully that’s you.

Please reach out, if you’d like to chat about this. I’d love to meet you.


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