I was recently asked to crit a piece of work by someone starting out in animation. I took the time to type up my workflow notes, not only for sharing, but also as a way of recapping what I've learnt in my whirlwind first year in animation (my Pg Dip at Central St Martins). These are a mish-mash of different peoples' advice that I've received and noted down over the last year, and come with no particular warranty!
Aside from concerns of how the style relates to the narrative or the function of the piece (form follows function, or a house style), style can partly be dictated by the quality of the animation you're aiming for. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to move away from cutout animation and try drawing. Cutout animation is realistically only efficient for making limited animation on a fast turnaround - its a real struggle to make 'full' character animation in cutout. In cutout animation poses typically end up being very weak as you don't have to engage with creating the pose as much as you do in drawing (by default the assembly of the cutout pieces resembles a pose, so people tend to do the minimum posing work necessary, whereas every drawn pose must be created from scratch), and the restriction of the media prevents you from working with proper three dimensional poses, in perspective and so on - you might find it hard to progress your character animation skills if you limit yourself to cutout. Compositions also often end up being very flat and dull, and thinking spatially, its hard to bring the audience into the scene - the flat look resembles a long lens, and gives a voyeur's viewpoint in contrast to a POV which might be obtained with a wider lens (less flat composition). Unless you've storyboarded or thumb-nailed strongly its likely you'll make compromises in the animation stage due to the awkward workflow that cutout has.
Limited animation is fine for a certain type of work, but the work might have to rely heavily on dialogue (as for example Hanna Barbera cartoons do - see "Limited Animation Unlimited Imagination" in this set of essays) or on a fast paced story line (for example, "The Simpsons" is an example of animation where story is prioritised over animation), and unless these are really great, you'll have people turning off very quickly. Try sitting through the whole of the Beatles film, the Yellow Submarine and you'll see what I mean about limited animation failing to hold attention.
Drawing is so important, not necessarily for image making, but as proof that you can observe correctly. People often say they can't draw, but really the problem is that they can't observe, and if you can't observe, then you stand no chance at all of being able to critique your own work and will constantly be relying on others for advice. If you can hold a pencil and draw a straight line, a circle and a square, and you are capable of tracing, then there is no problem with your drawing facility, but rather with your observations. The word animation literally means breathing life into something, and so, no matter how far away from realism your style might be, its still essential to reference back to real life. Draw lots of poses from life to practice (if you can't find anywhere to go life drawing, get out on the street and draw people who are moving as fast as you can, or try posemaniacs if you want a way of checking how accurate your sketches are). Crit each drawing you do yourself, draw corrections over the top in a different colour (see John K's advice). Pick a scene of your favourite film and break it down into key drawings as if you were rewriting the storyboard. Draw from music to help capture a mood, literally draw everything you want to capture in your animations as it will be a way to proving to yourself that you've processed and understood what you want to capture. Also physically get into the poses that will be in your animation - feel where the weight is, what aches when you hold the pose for too long, if you're off balance, which way will you fall? Is the pose natural, would moving a limb make it more natural. How does the pose make you feel - commanding? subservient? confident? vulnerable? open? and so on. Draw with both hands, one after the other, and at the same time. Try to make drawing automatic if it feels unnatural, so you don't have to think or worry about moving your hand over the paper. Sit a real person next to a life-size doll and draw the scene trying to capture the life in the person and the stillness in the doll.
Act out the scene a few times trying different things, then record it when you're confident you know the scene so well you can act it as if it was real (ie without any trace of your 'acting' showing through). The director Bresson used to get actors to repeat scenes hundreds of times until he felt they weren't showing any acting - he referred to his actors simply as 'models' who had to follow instructions rather than invent on the spot every time (See Notes on the Cinematographer for more). You should know the action inside out before you even begin to animate. Make sure the action is natural - would you do it that way? Ask someone else to do it without showing them how, without them acting, and without them knowing your watching or recording their movement - you'll have to set it up somehow eg "hey could you pass me that X over there".
Working from the video draw thumbnails of every single frame. (see Rainplace for a great workflow idea). These can be very rough to start with, but by drawing every single frame, not just the keys, you start to learn how long each action needs to be in terms of frames, and also you feel the flow from one key to the next if you're drawing fast enough (Shamus Culhane used to work frame by frame drawing very fast so as not to loose track of the flow). If you can't imagine the movement or draw it out from memory without looking back to notes, it will really slow down your animation. I find that making a neat summary of what I've learned really helps afterwards - here are some examples from my own notes: 1 2 3.
Once I've finished going through stop frame, I'll play the reference back on loop at real time speed and try to tap the rhythm of where I think the keyframes should be (footsteps, head turns, etc) as if I was learning the beat of a song. If its lipsync, rather than working with a dope sheet with phonemes, I personally prefer to speak the dialogue with my finger on my top lip and my thumb on my bottom lip, feeling when my mouth is most open and closed (the most important part visually), and then on a second pass, where it is widest or narrowest. For 3D animators Stop Staring has some great advice.
Once I've internalised my reference and planned out my keys either as thumbs, or ideally as full size sketches (I tend to block in 2d, even though I'm animating in 3D as it gives me a much better grasp of how the poses work and really helps to record it in my mind, which I don't think I get in the same way if I do my blocking in 3D), then I start to animate. Even if you hate disney style animation, you can't ignore the 12 Principles of Animation which are present pretty much in any movement. Disney chose certain aspects of them to exaggerate (notably squash and stretch and appeal), and certain aspects to underplay (personally I always feel that their staging is sometimes dull and straightforward - I would guess for efficiency and clarity over drama), but if you pay a fairly even amount of attention to all of them, you'll be heading for life-like animation. The summary on wikipedia is really no replacement for the full version in the The Illusion of Life which is definitely worth a read if you haven't already. You should really know these principles off by heart and be applying them all at once without having to think about them. Its not good enough just to be able to list them, they have to be happening automatically in your work without thinking about them. Its easy to find examples of them all in animation, and the disney book has great illustrations which go through each principle, showing it visually - try copying a few sequences out if you don't get what the text means.
I wouldn't start to animate a scene before I know whats going to happen in it, and have planned it out, at least in terms of major poses and keys, in thumbnails at minimum, but ideally on layouts at full scale. I know some people like to feel their way through without thumbnailing first or without doing a rough blocking pass, but usually I find this costs a lot more work, and makes the edit much harder. At the very least you need to know how one shot connects to the next, so you have to have a sort of target pose to reach by the end of the shot. If you choose to go straight ahead (as I do for most shots - I work in 3D as if its stop motion, animating frame by frame, and completely ignoring the graph editor), then I'd strongly recommend using a type of "pop-through" technique, where you work out the timing on a separate rough pass (either with live action stills or quick sketches), then start again animating straight ahead, but aim to hit the poses on the times you planned out. You could go the whole hog and film live action and rotoscope to it (even in stop motion or 3D), but ideally I'd recommend reducing a live action shoot to a selection of keys and then sketching over the keys to exaggerate them. In Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer he discusses how a photograph of a sculpture has none of the artistic (or monetary!) worth of the original, and as such a video of an actors brilliant performance has none of the brilliance of that performance (in the way it does live in a theatre). The video needs to be resuscitated - Bresson does this in the edit - as animators we have a second chance to do it with exaggeration.
To take an example of the pop-through method:. if you know you have to hit a contact position on frame 9, and its a fast walk, then you're going to need to be around the up position on frame 7... ie you work backwards from the key you need to hit to work out how close to it you need to be on the frame you're currently drawing or posing. That way you get the nice flow of straight ahead, but none of the unpredictability. If you're working in 3D straight ahead you might benefit from some tools to smooth over glitches - tracking motion paths as well as the Push & Relax tools found in blender are very useful.
Once I'm done, if I'm not happy with the result I have a big troubleshooting checklist to go through. There are tonnes of books out there for learning animation methods, but nobody really tells you what to do when it doesn't work. Start with the big questions first...
Staging - Are the characters in the places on the screen which would both ease the cut (if that's your aim), and communicate the situation as best as possible? Is the character above or below the camera's "eye" level if they are dominant or suppressed respectively? Can you see a facial expression if you need to? Have you needlessly close-framed to try to get "added drama" (point 3 in Bordwell's list)? Is the camera obeying the 180 degree rule (and the 30 degree rule - alternating angles and shot sizes to avoid jump cuts)? If not are you breaking the rules for good reason, or establishing your own set of editing rules? Is the shot size and location supposed to convey information about a POV or not? Does the shot clarify or obscure the geography of the scene? Is there a continuity error in the staging? Is the camera moving? Why (If you're Ken Burns-ing/Hitchcock Zooming every shot how will you hike up the tension when you really need it - see point 4 in Bordwell's list)? If its moving check the animation with it still if possible to minimise the number of things distracting you in your error checking process. If you're not sure which shots to use check out David Mamet's On Directing Film, (sometimes more cheaply available in the compilation book A Whore's Profession which includes some other essays on screen-writing which I haven't got around to reading yet).
The staging can have a big effect on the length of a shot - ie. do the characters spend ages walking around before we see any relevant action? Is it OK to cheat the position of characters within the shot to avoid lots of unecessary locomotion? (for a great example of cheating staging see from 2m30-2m40 in Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood: Ivan walks about 500 metres in the space of half a second but the audience accepts it because it has been done for emotional effect). Is it OK to cheat physical space across a cut? - see Edward Dmytryk's seven rules of cutting (in On Film Editing) for when its acceptable to do this. If your staging is wrong you might have to reanimate the shot - get it right in the thumbnail stage if you can, then block at layout scale to check the poses still work when timed up.
Composition - Much like staging, but in 2D screen space (whereas I consider staging to be primarily concerned with the 3D set or world space). Hit the key actions on the third guides, use leading lines in the set to focus the eye to points where action occur. Are limbs cut off awkwardly by the cropping of the shot in a distracting manner? Do the visual shapes the characters make communicate well and integrate into the background well (not just silhouettes - consider complimentary colours and brightnesses)? Check your title safe area - make sure nothing important happens outside it? Eyes will be drawn towards areas of high levels contrast - check the animation most thoroughly there - also consider if the composition causes strobing problems - movements which are too fast and in high contrast colours (for example I had a black wing sweeping across the screen over a white background very fast, and it just flashed/flickered due to the extremes of brightness).
Readability - Can the audience tell whats going on - show the shot to someone who hasn't seen it and isn't an animator and ask what they just saw. Closely linked to this is silhouettes. If you're working in an overly graphic or cartoony style which lacks clear definition of volumes, check that the shot works in silhouette and that you can tell whats happening from the silhouette. Be careful though that working in silhouette doesn't cause you to choose a dull flat Disney-esque composition every time. Use it more if you're communicating something crucial. In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky argues that as a director you must leave things ambiguous rather than emphatic, and not spoon feed the audience as if they were stupid. Stories are more interesting and exciting if the ambiguity that you create is not so much random, but adds to the plot development emotionally (deliberate confusion or disorientation) or logically (an alternative plot line). You should also expect a degree of competance from your audience - I think its in Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe where Herzog talks about the problem of visual illiteracy in audiences today.
Line of Action - As well as planning poses starting with a line of action, assess animation by working backwards from your finished animation into sketched lines of action with a grease pencil - are the lines what you were aiming for? can you reinforce the line in the pose? Does the line show either (1) where the force is - if the character is static and/or (2) where the character is moving to/from if its in motion and (3) what the emotional state/mood of the character is? is it possible to get all three of these elements into your line of action without compromise, or would you be better to focus on just one of these for this scene? For example, if the plot point is being conveyed using acting within a shot (or an inflected cut to an emotively emphatic pose), rather than locomotion, then it might be better to use the character's line of action to show depression/elation rather than using the line to show where the force propelling the character is. Has the timing of the animation given enough time for the pose to read? Eric Goldberg talks about 'attitude walks' in his Crash Course book - where he adds eases around the contacts - the keys- which most express the attitude of the walk through the pose. If the line of action is right, check the pose - if I'm working in 3d and I have trouble with a pose I'll draw a copy of it by hand. If I have trouble drawing it, then I know its probably an unnatural/uncommon pose (one I'm not used to seeing in life drawing!) - I try to draw something else then put that in. Remember even if you're working in 3D, every frame is ultimately a drawing - the audience sees every frame for an equal amount of time - its no good getting just the keys right!
Pacing - Essentially timing, but on the scale of the edit. Is the story moving too fast or too slow? If you're working with a three act structure have you spent enough time on each part: the setup, the conflict, and the resolution? Have you given the audience time to adjust to the shot (half a second of wasted screen time per cut). Digital editing encouraged whats known as frame f*cking (see Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film, a paper by David Bordwell) which is when the editor replays a sequence of shots over and over, each time removing a frame at a time from one shot until the shot is as short as it possibly can be (contrary to Edward Dmytryk's rule 2: cut long rather than short). The short cuts problem originated with action movies, but the disease has spread so that average shot lengths for feature films are now in the region of 2-4s rather than the 6-20s common in the Steenbeck editing machine days; obviously when manually splicing film, frame f*cking was a much more laborious process.
Timing - This is where you really need to go back to your reference to check, or start tapping out beats on the desk. Unfortunately the timing from live action and from blocking doesn't necessarily always translate across to animation. If the timing's wrong, then why is it wrong? Don't just start shuffling keyframes randomly (see the update to Keith Lango's shuffle key method, or jump to the non-shuffle method), try to quantify where your mistake was so you don't make it again. Push the timing from real life - there are many examples in live action films where timing has been deliberately contorted for dramatic effect (in The French Connection the car chase was shot undercranked by Owen Roizman - ie. sped up, and throughout the Mirror, Tarkovsky dips in and out of overcranked shooting - ie. slow motion, but often barely noticeable - the best example is towards the end of the movie when the boy is waiting alone in the dark room; see some great notes on his techniques here) Try timing to music if you have no dialogue to work with - in The French Connection all of the edits in the car chase sequence are timed to beats of Santana's Black Magic Woman.
Spacing - Relates closely to timing, but has more to do with poses. Are the poses spaced closely enough together to carry the eye from one to the next? If the spacing stays relatively uniform between consecutive frames then you have smooth flowing action. If on the other hand the spacing varies dramatically between frames you probably have sharp choppy movements which might not be what you want? Examining frame by frame spacing (with motion paths) might be too subtle to see errors (ie. at the inbetween level), maybe consider the spacing between every other frame, or between consecutive keys. Big changes in spacing indicate a big change in momentum (either a large force or a light object), wheras small changes in spacing indicate a small change in momentum (a small force or a heavy object with a lot of momentum). A change in momentum requires energy - either new energy arrived, and if so where from (eg. someone pushing something), or energy was lost (eg. something hitting into something else and coming to a stop).
Arcs - related to spacing - do the traces of the end of the limbs sweep out smooth arcs and are there enough frames to make the arc noticeable? If you're moving from point A to point B over 1 frame you can only go in a straight line - its impossible to go in an arc. If you go in 2 frames, then you can at best go in two straight lines (which will be too fast for the viewer to see an arc). If you have say 5 frames to get from A to B, then you have 5 straight lines (or chords) which will join together to approximate an arc. If you have too many frames and your object moves too slowly, then viewers won't notice the arc at all, but if you go too fast, then there won't be an arc to see! You can reinforce the shape of the arc with follow through - leaving appendages trailing behind in the arc. Check the arcs from the camera view. Draw the shape of the arcs over your background - do the shapes fit nicely in the composition of the background element, or do they clash? Consider the motion paths that your characters leave behind as parts of that composition - think of the vapour trails left in the sky by aerial acrobatics, or the stripes on a frozen lake from figure skaters - the motion is ultimately beautiful because of the arcs it produces. If you climbed into a pitch black suit in a pitch black room and wore flow in the dark spots on your knees, toes, fingers and elbows, and started walking, an audience would still be able to identify the motion of the glowing spots as being a person walking even if they couldn't see you. The human brain can identify motions just from the arcs they trace out. Laban breaks down motions into three types: spoke like, arc like and carving. if an arc isn't appropriate would a spoke or carve fit better? Acting for Animators has more on this.
Eases & Acceleration - An ease can be used to emphasize a key - ie. to spend more time around that key, or just to provide a sense of acceleration from one key to the next. Don't confuse acceleration and speed. Check the easing between your keys - something heavy will need a bigger ease, something light might not need easing at all. What caused the ease - is it related to a force, or to a visual hold to help the audience see a key?
Forces, Leading Limbs & Weight - Forces set a structure into motion, or stop the motion. Forces allow a motion to be changed. Weight keeps a motion going (ie. gives something momentum) and accelerates it downwards. Remember that weight never takes a break and will start tipping a character over as soon as a leg is raised. Don't just consider how weight works in a walk or a jump, think about more complex motions aswell. A skateboarder can move forward to some extent by weaving from side to side - they lean off balance, their body tips forward gaining speed, then they steer back the other way bringing their board underneath them. A surfer on a day with bad waves does a similar motion pumping the board from side to side, and by weaving he turns his weight into a forward motion. Weight doesn't just pull things down, its a key element in moving forwards. Without gravity, even if our feet were somehow stuck to the ground, we would be shuffling rather than walking and would have to do a lot more work to pull ourselves forwards, because we wouldn't be able to lean into the walk. By leaning off balance we give ourselves forward speed. Leading limbs - check which limb moves first - does it draw the eye to the right place? is it the natural limb to move? For example a dog will usually start walking with one of its rear legs first because in terms of phase difference the rear legs are a half cycle ahead of the front legs.
Secondary action relates to the leading limb. if the leading limb is the first thing to move, try to work out the chain reaction of what will move next - My brain wants to move my foot, but really the leading limb is my upper leg, then my lower leg follows and my foot drags behind. Try not to think about what you want to move, but what has to move first. Working up the chain, my uppper leg no longer has support on the ground, my hips drop on one side and this propagates up my spine - my upper body adjusts to move my weight over my other leg and you get counter-animation (listen to Eamonn Butler on Animation Podcast if you don't get what counter-animation is) around my neck and shoulders to keep my head level - all one after the other, all time offset (ie. overlapping action). If you combine 'secondary action' and 'follow through' you get successive breaking of the joints (like a propagating wave). Follow through happens in space (ie. appendages following (and shaped to) the motion path), but also in time (one thing after another). The way our bodies move is like any structure (say a tower of cards) one thing affects the next. Check your know which movement is deliberate (independant action), caused by the character, and which movement is due to external forces, or secondary action. When I started out I was easily confused by the difference between secondary/independent/overlapping action & follow through, and for the most part treated them (wrongly) as one thing, but realising that they are in fact four separate concepts to implement was a big help. Don't confuse any of the different types, and make sure you've covered all of them!
Squash and Stretch - Self explanatory for cartoon styles. Always check you've maintained volume. What is the direction of the squash (in line with the stopping force) or the stretch (following the shape of the drag)? How quickly does the object squash or stretch - both require energy - is this a high or low energy situation? For rigid objects you can use the idea of squash and stretch to form the pose without actually squashing or stretching the anatomy of the character. For example an example of a 'stretched pose' might be if you stand up on tip toes with your legs and back straight and your arms above your head and fingers reaching as high as you can - without distorting the limbs you still get the idea of a stretch. A squash might be a crouch - imagine you've jumped from a great height - you don't squash elastically like a ball, but rather you crouch to absorb the force and spread your limbs sideways somewhat. Consider the squash and stretch to work on the bounding box of the character in the case of realism.
Anticipation - With aniticipation you need to check (1) the size of your anticipation and (2) the duration - two separate things - don't talk about a 'big' anticipation, be specific - is it a big movement over a short time, or a big movement over a long time, or a small movement over a long time? What exactly is big? In general if the action is physically large, then the anticipation will be physically large. If the action is physically small, then the anticipation will be physically small. However if the action which is about to happen will take a long time then the anticipation will be over quickly (so as not to bore the audience, or tire the character - for example someone about to run a marathon doesn't have a dramatic anticipative movement before the start the race). Vice versa if an action is going to be over very quickly (eg. someone hitting a baseball with a bat) the anticipation needs to be long to give the audience time to read it as the actual hit will be over very quickly. The size of an anticipation is proportional to the action, whereas the length of an anticipation is opposite to the length of an action. Sometimes surprise is key though, and giving the audience no warning at all can be the best option.
Model - Finally I check that the character hasn't 'broken' the model or the rig in any way - I do this last because I don't want to be animating around problems, rather I animate as best I can, and hope it works, and if it doesn't I'll try to fix it on the model rather than by fiddling with the animation. Check details like eyes and stiff fingers - hands can be really expressive if animated correctly.
Phone a Friend!
Only once I've gone through all of this stuff, do I then phone a friend for crits. Learning to understand/analyse what's wrong is probably the most important skill in learning to animate. It's very easy to look back at a piece of my own work and says its rubbish, but working out "what smells" (as Jason Osipa puts it) is the difficult bit. The easiest way to spot mistakes is to have a systematic way of looking for problems (I use this checklist I've typed up which has most of my common mistakes in, but I'm sure I have many other common mistakes I haven't spotted yet), and also to have another way of looking at your work. If you're struggling with a drawing then looking at it from a different angle or mirrored to see whats wrong. If you're working in 3D and you've already seen the problem pose from all angles then draw that pose by hand and you'll soon discover whats wrong by reconsidering the pose in a different medium, or at the line of action stage. Reference everything and don't rely on reference other people have given you - discover it yourself from videos and sketches - that way it'll stick much better in your memory.
That's all for now. I'm planning on switching to stop motion this year so I can animate faster and hopefully do some dialogue & acting work which I haven't had as much time to do in 3D.