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Animation Step 5: Time out your scene

May 30, 2007

metronome.jpgTiming is just as important as posing. When timing is done well it can convey force, weight, energy, emotion, reality…and story. Poor timing can also kill all these things and turn great poses into an awkward mess.

At the very least, as scene will have 3 phrases: 1.) Where the character came from, 2.) What the character is to do in the scene, and 3.) Where the character is going. In simpler terms: hook-up, business, hook-up. The shot is not just about the business of the scene, it must also consider how it hooks up with the shot before and after.

There are two stages to timing, which I divide into ‘Phrasing’ and ‘Timing’.

Phrasing focuses on the larger division of timing. For example, let’s look at the scene where Utz pops up out of the water and says “Who…who dares trip Utz?” There are 5 basic phrases in this simple medium shot.

1.) The pause of water ripples before he pops up
2.) Utz pops up taking a breath of air
3.) “Who…”
4.) Utz spits the reed out of his mouth
5.) “..who dares trip Utz?”

Each section has a unique ‘phrase’ of action or emotion. If you can plan out these large timing elements beforehand you are ahead of the game. Dialog will dictate the amount of time you have in certain phrases, but you may want to linger longer on the end of a line with the same posing.

Phrasing should also consider emotional changes. For example, a medium shot of Terakh has him looking at Stargazer with accusation, then Terakh looks up to Nimrod to see his reaction, and since Nimrod is firm and appears to not change his mind about, Terakh melts into controlled anger as he grabs a spear from Mardon. So the phrasing goes from accusation, to questioning, to anger. One of those emotions should predominate, or have more time. Which one. That’s what you have to decide. What is the scene about, who is the character, what is the character thinking, what information came before and will come after…all these things come into play as you determine your phrasing.

Don’t leave your phrasing up to happenstance. Having a certain timing in previs doesn’t make the timing correct. The previs is usually not that fine tuned. Phrasing is the first step in having good timing.

xsheet.jpgTiming is the second stage where the phrasing is broken down into more detail. How one phrase works into another phrase needs to be considered. Smaller timing details, such as footsteps, major pose changes, arm movements, slow-in’s and slow-out’s and the like should be worked out to some extent.

2D animators have used the exposure sheet as a helpful aide to creating good timing. The advantage of exposure sheets is that they are consistent, not telescoping like the timelines in 3D software. This consistency fosters a better understanding of timing, because over time, the animator can visually and intuitively, ‘feel’ out the timing with a surprising degree of accuracy. The more experienced the animator, the less dependent they were on ‘line tests’ to see their results. Milt Kahl eventually abandoned line-testing completely because he knew how his animation would look without any aide.

Texture in Timing
I’ve used this phrase on a few occasions. What this means is you want to have a variety of timing. If all of your timing blocks are very close in duration, then your scene will plod along at a rhythmic pace. The texture is repetitive, which is fine, if that’s what you want. But that will be less often the desire. Texture in timing will place emphasis on certain actions and will subordinate other actions.

What I often see in young animators is repetitive timing. Let’s say Utz runs into frame, trips on a rock, flips in the air and lands on his tush. He looks up in shock, looks around for something to blame, jumps to his feet, brushes himself off, then runs off screen. If every one of those ‘timing elements’ is roughly the same duration (say 15 frames each) nothing will stand out in that scene. It will also feel unnatural, and possibly defy some physical law. Some of these bits should be 2 to 3 times as long in duration than others to have proper ‘timing texture.’

Plan or Perish
As in most artistic things, if we don’t plan ahead, we will normalize creative decisions by default. In drawing our natural tendency is to straighten things up and put order into our angles and division of space. In composition we tend to put things in the center of frame (both vertically and horizontally). In painting we tend to have 50% light and 50% dark values, creating a tonal equality. In animation we tend to time evenly. Plan ahead to avoid this trap.

The goal of this methodlogy is to separate these creative problems into manageable units, and then bring them together in the next stage. This method will give you a fighting chance in even the most difficult of scenes. If you’ve followed Steps 1 to 5, once you get to the actual animation process, many of the decisions have already been made and it’s just a matter of good carpenter’s work to put it together, work out the rough spots and put on the polish. You take your timing, place the poses into the timing, then work out the details with a lot of meat.

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