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Animation Step 2: Exploration

May 25, 2007

One thing that is common about good 2D animators is that they go through a lot of paper.  Some are methodical and keep a large box close to toss the rejected drawings into.  Others simply cast the drawings aside, creating a work environment that looks like it snowed paper around the artist.  Even though the drawings are refuse in the eyes of the artist, that didn’t stop many resourceful admirers from scouring the rejects to collect great drawings.

The goal of exploration is to find and develop good key poses.  We’re not looking for inbetweens.  We are looking for the key poses, and our goal is to develop the key poses so that they are clear, strong, appealing and filled with personality and emotion.  Exploration also helps you to work out difficult movements and awkward staging problems.  Exploration can be considered as ‘pre-animation.’  It’s a process that will help you tackle your performance within a non-committal environment of self critique.  Once you enter your 3D software, the battle takes on a new nature that does not nurture a healthy criticism.

There are 7  benefits I see in the exploration process:

1.  Exploration saves time.

It takes time to explore, and many animators are too impatient to take this time. What they don’t realize is that they are superficially exploring as they animate.  And in the process of animation, they find certain things are not working as well as they should have, and they find themselves painted into a corner.  And they must make a choice.  Do I deliver this substandard scene, or delete this and start over.  In reality, what they try to do is salvage the salvageable.  It usually takes more time to try to tweak bad animation rather than to start over.

2.  Exploration supports  better performances. 

The best animators  explore possible poses in pages of thumbnail sketches.  The sketches are not unlike the ones we create in the gesture drawing class.  They are simple, clear and straight to the point.  This step will delay you from beginning the scene, but you will make up time in the long run.

One animator told me he would work out at least 3 different approaches to his scenes and then choose the best one.  Sometimes the first one he sketched out was the best, reinforced by the exploration of the other two.  It was not wasted time.  The process gave him confidence to move ahead with gusto.  The process also helped him to strengthen the first approach to make it better than it would have had he not fully wrestled with the other two.

In my experience, seldom is the first approach the best.  There’s a saying in Hollywood that great scripts are not written, they’re rewritten.  Hemingway also said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”  Thumbnailing allows the animator to go through a pseudo-rewriting process.   It helps you to check your ideas, see different approaches.

It’s also very non-committal, which means it’s easier to toss out bad ideas for the right reasons.  It’s important for you to have the ability to reject substandard ideas.  In 2D, the recycle bin is the animators best friend.

3.  Exploration fuels boldness and fights timidity. 

I taught a few oil painting workshops in Maryland.  The first thing I instructed my students to do was to buy the cheapest materials they could find, and to buy in bulk.  The reason I had them do this is because if they purchased expensive canvases and paint, this would bring timidity in their approach to painting.  Instead of learning with boldness, they would be hampered with hesitation, motivated by ‘wastefulness.’  I also didn’t want them to freak out when I asked them to scrape the paint off the canvas and start over.

Hesitation and timidity in art is a death warrant.  The great illustrator Harvey Dunn told his students to be bold and to make big bold mistakes.  It’s hard to be bold as an animator if you are making progress in a scene.  It’s very hard to delete keys, kill curves, and be faced with something that creates a ripple effect through your entire scene.  But this is an important capability in animation.  2D animators face the same challenges.

In any animation, to change a key will also effect many drawings surrounding the key, and often killing the entire shot.  Hours of work quickly go down the drain.  If you look at that as an economic loss of time and energy, you’ve just lost.  Your focus is on the small stuff.  Rather, you must train yourself to look at that loss as a stepping stone to being able and capable of producing a better scene that will better serve the story.

Much of this heartache can easily be avoided if you take the time to do exploration beforehand.  Without exploration you are bound to paint yourself into a corner as you go through your scene, and only for the sake of showing something do you render it off to show it and receive the difficult changes.

4.  Exploration forces you to focus on the big picture of the performance.

When an animator thumbnails his ideas out, he has to focus on key posing.  You won’t get any benefit from thumbnail inbetweens.  That’s not something you can take to the plate when you are animating (unless it’s an unusual circumstance).  Thumbnails help you to see each pose in relationship to each other.  You can easily spot shifts in curvature, shape change, and balance.  These are important elements in foreseeing the movement in your scene.

Thumbnails also force you to think of your poses in simpler terms and clearer shapes.  You can instantly see what reads well, what is strong, what pose carries emotion.  It fights our tendency to fixate on subtleties and minor details.

5.  Exploration provides you with a solid, objective blueprint.

My habit was to circle my chosen thumbnails, and then I would redraw them onto my animation paper in their proper relationship.  With those thumbnails, my ideas for the performance were a tangible element that I could show the director, if I had a question, and receive feedback on.  The director could then adjust my sketches, and caution me on things he did not want to see.

Glen Keane would actually take his thumbnails and enlarge them on a xerox machine and tape them onto his animation paper.  These enlarged thumbnails served as rough keys in his process.

6.  Exploration allows you to exercise self-critique before you loose objectivity. 

Animation is one of the most difficult of all art forms, and in the struggle of the animation battle, interruptions, and afternoon fatigue, it’s easy to loose objectivity.  If you have this blueprint of where you are going to go in your thumbnails, it’s much easier to get back on the tracks after a minor derailment. Having a clear direction and plan allows you to be bold.

Thumbnailing is the time to be highly critical of your work.  If the poses don’t work at the thumbnail stage, they won’t work once they are in your scene.  A weak or uncertain thumbnail will be a weak or uncertain pose in 3D.  A thumbnail without personality will be a key pose without personality.

 7.  Exploration allows you to try things you would not dream of trying in the animation process.

Thumbnailing is non-linear.  You can do anything you want at any time. There are no constraints.  If some wild thought pops into your head, a quick series of thumbnails will allow you to consider the off-the-wall idea without much time waste. Sometimes these off the wall ideas are great, or will lead you down a new path you had not considered before.

Somehow, when you begin to animate you begin to think in terms of the timeline, and the timeline does not encourage creative thinking or exploration.

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