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Animation Step 1: Information Gathering

May 24, 2007

Film and animation is expensive. A typical day of shooting film a carefully budgeted production will run between $60K to $140K.  It generally takes an hour to set-up and shoot 1 shot. So what does that have to do with animation? Animation is also an expensive endeavor.  If you calculate the man hours that will go into your scene after the animation is approved, it adds up real fast, and by the time of delivery, a shot of animation will cost as much as a shot in a film.

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By the time a production gets to cameras rolling or animation handed out, the story, scenes, elements, dialog, everything has been gone over with a fine tooth comb. Every single thing that a director will ask you to do has a specific purpose. Every scene, every shot, every action, every line of dialog serves some purpose in advancing the story.

I was directing a Lucky Charms commercial and the animator, after many days of work, brought his animation into the studio and shot it on a video test and showed it to me. The animation was marvelous. It was filled with personality, weight and beautiful timing. I had to reject this animation. Despite the beautiful animation, the animator had missed the point of the scene.

I struggled with this problem myself as an animator. Quite often, in the process of animation, you will sketch out a beautifully crafted drawing, and your tendency will be to hang on to that drawing at every turn. It may not be a pose that serves the timing or the surrounding poses well, but in a fear of loosing that beauty, the rest of the scene will often suffer. Writers will often say, ‘To write well, you must be willing to throw out your babies.” Animator’s have said, “To animate well, you must be willing to trash your best drawings, to sacrifice your best poses.” When 1 frame of film dictates the other 60 then you have a problem. Know the big picture well so you can effectively and quickly squash those little despots that frequently dog your heel.

Here are some practical steps of information gathering:

1. Read the script. Read the scenes before your scene and after your scene to understand the immediate context.

2. Know your character. Talk with the director or another animator who worked on that character to understand the character. Watch other scenes where that character is animated. Review any references given for that character.

3. Ask yourself good questions:

  • What is this purpose of this scene?
  • What is the characters emotional state?
  • Does the character change emotionally in this scene?
  • What is this character thinking?
  • What do they want?
  • What do they expect to happen?
  • What is the current state of their relationship to the other characters in this scene?
  • What is the single most important thing that takes place in this shot?

4. Ask the director or directing animator any questions you have. If you are unclear about the action, motiviation, spirit of the performance, anything, get clarity. Get your questions answered. You must be able to sit down at your computer and have a clear understanding of what is expected.

5. Find references for special actions, movements, prop usage, etc. How does an experienced horseman climb onto a horse? How does an archer hold a bow? Are there cultural objections to how one eats, sits down, or stands up?

The information you have about a scene will flavor how you approach your animation.  It all starts here.  If you have a weak framework, your animation will lack depth and may miss the mark completely.

Up Next: Exploration

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