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A Methodology for Character Animation

May 23, 2007

Over the next few weeks I will be looking at a specific method for character animation. The specific categorization and terminology is mine, but the material crosses all different types of animation styles and personalities. No matter who is animating, they all have a common, and important, methodology.

Animation method is so important to Disney, that they are skeptical of hiring animators who have much professional experience (at least when I was in LA). Disney’s hiring principal was to get talented kids right out of school when they are young and maliable, not having developed deeply rooted bad habits. They would enter at the bottom rung and proceed through a lengthy apprenticeship process. Unfortunately, most could not advance very far given that Disney was congested with little room to move up.

In this method, I have briefly outlined 7 steps in how to approach and execute character animation. Future posts will look at each step in greater detail.

Step 1: Gather information

Get a clear brief from the director or directing animator. Know as much as you can about the scenes and sequence you are creating performance for. Read the script. Know your character. If you are unclear or uncertain about anything, ask questions. This information will be a framework for you to work within, and will guard you wasting time and energy travelling down a wrong path.

Step 2: Explore

This is the brainstorming step. This is the most difficult step to do because it’s so easy to bypass and jump right into animation. Many 2D and 3D animators will draw pages of thumbnail sketches to find the most clear, personality-filled poses. Glen Keane instructed his animators to sketch out the first approach that comes to mind, and then don’t do it that way. This removes the cliche’ from your performance. He wanted his animators to stretch themselves and to try to find an animation performance that is fresh.

Often the animators will select their key poses and show the thumbnails to the directing animator or director before proceeding with animation. This gives you confidence to tackle your scenes with more gusto and more meat on the bone up front.

Step 3: Work out any difficulties

Many animation assignments have specific problems that should be worked out before animation is begun. A common problem for 2D animators is footprints. They have to draw schematics and guides to help their characters arrive at the require feet placement for their poses to carry. If there is a dance, repetitious timing issue, or difficult movement, these problems should be solved beforehand. The goal is to free yourself from as many encumbrances to the animation process so that you can focus on performance and not technicalities.

Step 4: Determine your approach

Does this scene call for straight-ahead animation, pose-to-pose, or a mix of both?

Step 5: Time out your scene

2D animators have a very helpful tool with the exposure sheet (or dope sheet for those with the British background). The exposure sheet is basically a spreadsheet where every row represents 1 frame of film or video. A bold line is found at the bottom of every 8th frame, and a double bold line is on every 16th frame. These bold lines break the sheet down into visible timing units. Every 3 groups of 8 frame blocks is 1 second. Directors will use an ‘action’ column to measure and indicate where certain actions or events are to occur on the exposure sheet. Animators would use the action column to further breakdown the timing of the action in more detail. In fact, some animators drew curves down the sheet, very similar to 3D curves, to help them find texture in their timing so that it was not all the same. These timing notes were guidelines only, and often changed, but nonetheless, they provided an important step in approaching the animation.

Step 6: Execution of Animation

Now it’s time to go to the bathroom, turn off the cell phone, pour your coffee, and enter the zone. I will talk in more detail about the actual methodology of executing animation later in the series.

Step 7: Finishing Details and Refinements

Once the heart of the animation is complete and approved, now is the time to add the frosting and cherries. This is the stage that you add the secondary details, such as waving hair, cloth movements, and finish off any drag, follow-through or secondary action. You will also refine curve movements and punch up secondary weaknesses.

Another important point at this stage is to focus attention on the inbetweens. Inbetweens are a problem area for 2D and 3D animators. In 2D, inbetweens are charted and the rough animation is handed over to assistants who should know what they are doing. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many assistants draw exact inbetweens without any thought to following the charts, or taking curves and arcs into consideration. These folks butcher otherwise beautiful animation. To combat this problem, animators often ‘rough out’ all the inbetweens to ensure proper execution.

As 3D animators, you should consider the default rendering software to be a ruthless butcher. your inbetween frames can kill otherwise good posing and timing. Take care of your inbetweens. They may only be pawns in the big scheme of things, but pawns can play significant roles in winning or loosing the game.

Up Next: A closer look at Information Gathering

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