Monday, March 7, 2011

Animation 101: Animation tips, Part 1

This was a handout I gave to my students who are currently in production on their Thesis films at New York University Tisch-Asia..  They are in the thick of it now, actually MOVING their characters, all the work designing, boarding, story, etc,.. comes to this time of production.. when the characters you have created live and breathe. Before this moment they were simple designs and ideas. Now they become real.

1. Feel what you're animating.
    If you can "Feel" it,  you will be able to animate it well. FEEL it stick, hit, slide, crack, stretch, etc,  By "Feeling" what you're animating, you will be able to capture the emotion and timing.. I'm talking about becoming the material you are creating. For example.. right now if I were to become a bomb. I would hunch down, put my hands in front of me like I'm mimicking a sphere.. I would begin to shake as I FELT the explosion coming.. I would suck in slightly as to FEEL the anticipation.. and BOOOOM! I would leap up as if all my guts were being sprayed across the walls!!!  If you can do that.. you will be a lot closer to capturing it when you animate it.

These two very rough drawings had a lot of "feel".... i think i captured the casual determination and thrust of the masked character as it collects it's prey.
2. Build your poses.
Ollie Johnston once said, "Find the golden pose, and build the scene around that pose." Building your poses is the first part of animating a scene. Your poses need to work together and show movement together. Your poses also need to reflect a tight perfection in terms of scale, readability, silhouette, proportion, etc. You will be using your poses as a reference for everything else in the scene, so make them strong. The pose will reflect the emotion of what you're animating, a good pose isn't just a well constructed one, but rather it's a well constructed pose that reflects exactly what the character is thinking! Often your "Golden pose" will be your developed storyboard pose, start with that. This is the time to check for an effective silhouette, clear expressions, annoying tangents, or lack of force or weight.
Key rough poses for a chase scene from "Masks".. These three poses were the "golden" poses that structured the animation of the scene.

3. Slow down and use Subtle Actions:
    Life is slower than you think, especially when it comes to acting. The audience needs time to see the character think. The most important actions aren't actions at all, they are thoughts.. So slow down, use blinks, use small actions and motions that we do when we are in thought.  Do we smack our lips before we drink?  Do we let out a big sigh directly prior to making a decision?  Be creative, act it out, take note of the smaller subtle actions you find yourself doing.

4. Areas of Complexity:
    The audience is magnetically drawn to areas of complexity.. this is where your business should be taking place (both in the composition and in the character itself). Often it is the busy area of the eyes, eyebrows, nose and mouth. Pay special attention to the eyes as it's quite often the area of most complexity. If you create a very simplistic character with very detailed boots, the audience will be looking at the boots. Ask yourself where you want people to look, and concentrate on that area.
This Norman Rockwell illustration draws the eye into the maelstrom of this light hearted conflict. The area of complexity is the focal point of this piece and everything radiates from that point.

5. Use the foreground.
    There is an absurd amount of space between the camera lens and the character or object. Don't forget to use it!!! Your world does not begin where the character is sitting or standing.. the audience must feel the room, the objects in the space, the trees, other characters or objects.  Furthermore, remember that things tend to get more saturated and darker in the foreground.. just as things get less saturated and lighter the further back things are. Look at any landscape painting from the masters and you will see this effect. Ever notice how many dark shapes there are in the foreground in a classic Hitchcock film?  Black and white film HAD to use this technique because they didn't have the luxury of showing distance with HUE, they depended solely on VALUE.
Above: Another still from "Masks" I used darker figures in the foreground to fill the space between the camera and the main subject. Also, I used the "Tool of Thirds" to accentuate the main characters head, as well as placing the other characters so the sky acts as a glowing frame around the head.
Above: Durand, from the Hudson river school uses hue and value to establish distance. The foreground feels closer due to saturation, contrast, and hue.
Above: Screen grab from Hitchcock's "Life Boat".  Black and white film had to utilize Value to establish depth.

6. Use the frame.
    Always be on guard against Negative Space, space that has no function to what is happening on the screen. Business usually happens in one part of the frame, but remember that in order to keep the composition interesting you have to USE IT!  Even if you're keeping the composition empty to show desolation or loneliness, that's still USING the frame.  Try "Directing the eye" in these areas.  Even clouds can suggest a direction to look.  It's there to serve you, remember the basics of  "Rule of Thirds" (which I'd rather call the TOOL of thirds". Find where you want the interest to be, and then use the rest of the frame to push the eye to that place.
Above: A well placed tree in "Mulan" fills some negative space on the east side of the frame.

7. Listen carefully to feedback and critique.
    This is something I started to do way to late in my career. LISTEN. We get so wrapped up in our own agenda that we forget sometimes that we are making artwork for OTHERS to see.. why not get feedback and see if you can improve your image?  It works. I'm often astounded by obvious things that non-artists suggest that are truly great ideas for improvement.  And after all, what does it hurt? Open your mind.

8. Concentrate on what comes before and after the action.
    The motion of a character before he/she performs the action is more important than the action itself. This is why the principle of anticipation is so vital to movement. Also, what happens directly after the action is also vital. Every action needs to be set up.. the audience needs to be aware of the reason the character is taking the action, they also need to know the thought process and emotions behind the reason. Put it this way.. the way you throw a ball is not decided by the actual throw itself, but by the anticipation and set up of that throw.

9. Think around your form.
    These four words changed the way I draw. I have to give credit to where they came from, Glenn Keane.  And he's just repeating something from the masters. The meaning of "draw around the form" is priceless. Basically it means to stop thinking of a drawing as lines on paper, and begin to FEEL your drawing as a three dimensional form within space.

10. Exploit Contrasts.
    If you recall the lecture from last semester, you will know that I believe this to be one of the most important overall elements of Design, Story, Composition, Personality. Where there is contrast, there is interest and beauty.  Look at the sunset.. or a mother holding her child… a tiny moon orbiting a massive planet, a ferocious Beast holding a tiny bird. Our eyes and minds are pulled into wherever there is contrast or conflict.  It's a simple thing that we all need to be reminded about, and it's a good thing to keep in mind while animating.

Above: The overwhelming difference in scale, and the strong contrast created in silhouette accentuate this amazing photograph.
Above: Eyvind Earle was one of the many fine artists recruited by Disney in the 1950's. Eyvind's artwork is simply stunning. I can't think of a stronger visual designer, the best examples of which are the incredible images created for "Sleeping Beauty". I would highly recommend Hans Bacher's book "Dream Worlds".
Above: Power in contrast can also be exemplified by the american painter Frederic Edwin Church (Below), another Hudson River school painter. Church and Earle both use contrast, and contrast of scale specifically to create breathtaking works of art.


  1. Wow! Fantastic post, thanks for all the advice.

  2. I'm not sure why, and you can't exactly pick "favorites" of lessons like these, but working with contrasts is what I enjoy the most. In a way, contrasts can be translated into all the other rules. Contrasting action, contrasting spatial relationships...Great list, Pat.

  3. Thanks, Patrick, for another incredibly helpful lesson. Looking forward to Part 2!

  4. super boulot, mec ! généreux, précis.

  5. glad you like this. jess.. i agree about contrasts.. SO KEY. ask any of my students, they're about ready to kill me i say it so many times. it's because CONTRAST is a conflict, a change or an illustration of a difference.. and to create the illusion of lifelike movement, you have to time and design in an organic way. contrast in timing, contrast in action, contrast in scale, contrast in color. how are you btw??

  6. Just read this. Makes up for any notes I forgot to take in class. :D Thanks a bunch Patrick. This is awesome.

  7. Computer animation is essentially a digital successor to the stop motion techniques used in traditional animation with 3D models and frame-by-frame animation of 2D illustrations. Computer generated animations are more controllable than other more physically based processes, such as constructing miniatures for effects shots or hiring extras for crowd scenes, and because it allows the creation of images that would not be feasible using any other technology. It can also allow a single graphic artist to produce such content without the use of actors, expensive set pieces, or props.

    Alex Frisch