Getting the Best Out of Your Animation
This is the simple part to write and read but the hard part to do. I get asked this question a lot. It comes down to some very basic steps and thought processes. If you follow these to the letter, your animation will improve. Here they are:

1) Learn how to draw
2) Think as you draw
3) Analyze the action you’re going to be animating
4) Plan everything ahead of time in your head
5) Draw thumbnail sketches
6) Keep your initial keys rough
7) Flip your drawings as you go
8) Pencil test and critique and revise as necessary
9) Add in breakdowns
10) Pencil test and critique again
11) Only when you’re satisfied with the rough animation can you go ahead and clean it up
12) Inbetween with care
13) Pencil test and critique

Learn how to draw
I know it sounds stupid when you read it but this is so important. If you want to take your animation to a higher level, you need to know how to draw well. This means structurally and three dimensionally, with consistent volumes and proportions. It includes not just cartoon characters but life drawing, caricature, object and environmental perspective. If all you can draw is stick men, you can apply all the principles of animation and it will move amazingly but you can only go so far with stick men.

This is a major element that holds so many people back from really excelling with their animation.

Think as you draw
This has become a personal mantra for myself and I’m very adamant about it with my students. You can’t animate on auto pilot. If you don’t think about the “who, what ,where, why and how” of the character you’re drawing then you’re just guessing and playing around. Nothing good will come out of your animation if you don’t think about these questions.

This goes into each and every one of the lines that you’re drawing on the character. You have to think as you’re drawing, “What does this line represent? Where should it go to make the action look it’s best? Why is the character doing this action? What is their motivation? What are they thinking? Who is the character? Who are they talking to? Where are they moving from and to? What is the best emotion for this particular moment for this character? How will this line best get the idea that I want to show across to the audience?

Lots of questions, but you need to ask them and come up with some pretty good answers as you go.

Many of these questions are preparatory and come before you even begin to draw and some are active questions that you ask as you are physically drawing each line. Sounds like a lot of work huh? Once you get used to talking to yourself (and answering yourself) you work will improve.

Now talk is cheap unless you back it up with some action. If you ask yourself the question, “Is this the best place for this line, so it represents the action I want from my character?” and the answer is, “No.” (and sometimes it is), you need to be prepared to take some corrective action to stop your hand from completing the improper line and fixing it.

Remember: you’re in control of your hand and the pencil it holds. Nothing happens unless your brain tells your hand what to do. If you disconnect this function and stop thinking, sure your hand can still move, we call that doodling. It’s like when you’re talking on the phone and you start drawing on a pad of paper. You’re not really thinking about the drawing, you’re too busy talking. If you think about your pencil as though it was a chain saw and you stop thinking about what you’re doing - people can get hurt. The same thing is true with your pencil. You can really hurt the people who have to sit and watch the animation you’ve mindlessly produced. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle - G.I.Joe!!!!

Analyze the action you’re going to be animating
This is all part of your thinking process. When you get an assignment of scene to animate, you have to break the action down into it’s basic components - the key poses. You can do this several different ways. The first is to mentally visualize the action - see it in you head - imagine what it looks like.

We all have this ability. It’s part of our memory section in our brain. You can think back to some of your childhood memories and picture them in your mind. Your first time riding a bike, the first time you kissed a girl or boy, the time you got your tongue stuck on the metal pole that winter, that freak accident with the meat cleaver you hope no one ever finds out about. You can replay them in your head... over, and over, and over again!!!! Why?? Oh, WHY FLUFFY????

Sorry about that.

Another way is to act the scene out physically yourself. Put yourself in the characters position and move through the action, thinking about better ways to hack, and chop and...

Sorry again.

As you go through the actions, think about the extreme poses. What is the farthest point that the arm moves to. How extreme can you make it? Can you take it even further?

Think about the paths of action. Are they straight lines? ‘C’ curved? ‘S’ curved?

What about anticipation, overlapping action, and recovery?

As you step through the scene, stop at each point and analyze the action and see if you can make it clearer and stronger.

The third way is to get someone else to act the scene out for you. Explain to them what you want the character to do. Get their ideas about how the character might move, they might think of something neat that you didn’t. Ask them to pose for you like a life drawing model and sketch the pose quickly exaggerating it as you feel it’s necessary.

Another option is to video tape them or yourself for further reference. That way you can pause the tape and draw from it. Anything that you can do to make the idea of what the character is doing as clear as possible is always a good thing.
Plan everything ahead of time in your head
Once you’ve done all your analysis, take some time to think it through. Some of the Nine Old Men from Disney would say that they would spend a day or two just thinking about the scene and then they’d start drawing. Their comment was that it made the drawing so much easier once it was firmly in their head, they didn’t have to waste time trying to find the answer on the paper. This is not to say that you won’t struggle with the drawings a bit but it certainly will make it easier if you know what’s going on in your head first.

Draw thumbnail sketches
After you have everything worked out in your head, sit down and do some quick thumbnail sketches of the poses you want to hit in the scene. These don’t need to be detailed or even on model. You can just draw the character using their basic shapes. Each drawing should take about 10 - 15 seconds maximum. If you don’t like a drawing, just scribble it out and move on. This is a good thing to do while you’re thinking the scene through or you have someone acting the scene out for you.

These sketches will provide you with the start-off point for when you move into the rough key posing stage.

Keep your initial keys rough
Using your thumbnails as a guide, you could just redraw them at full size on your animation paper, or if you have access to a copier that has enlargement settings, blow the thumbnails up to the full size and trace over them. Be sure to get the character as close to on model as possible. I don’t mean drawing all the details so that it’s a cleaned up final. I’m talking about just the volumes and proportions to start off with. You want to keep these drawings rough so that you don’t waste a lot of time. I talked about this earlier, the less time you spend at this stage, the faster you’ll see the results of your key animation. you can go back later, when you’re satisfied with the movements and add the details in the clean-up stage.

It’s far more difficult to make changes to the key animation at this stage if you’ve invested a huge amount of time in each drawing. It’s less painful to throw out a drawing that took you 2 minutes to draw as opposed to two that took you 25 minutes.

Flip your drawings as you go
Flipping your drawings is an easy way to see if the action is correct without having to do a pencil test. There are three ways of flipping your drawings:

1) This is the simple two drawing flip. Drawing #1 is on the bottom and drawing #2 is on top of it. You take drawing #2 and hold it with your thumb and pointing finger in the upper corner. With the light table off, pull the drawing towards you and then push it back down over top of drawing #1. You look at the drawing #1 when you pull #2 up and then look at #2 when you push it back down.

The trick is to look at specific lines as you do this. Focus on just the hand of the character as you flip the two drawings. You can see the movement as you do this. The faster you flip, the easier it is to see the action because the replacement drawing pops on and off and your persistence of vision lets you see the action of the drawings as opposed to the movement of the paper.

The second method is called the “finger roll”. You can do this with 5 drawings on your animation disk. Place the drawings in order on the pegs. Typically it would be from bottom to top (1 on the bottom, then 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the top).

Leave drawing #1 on the glass of the disk and place #2 between you pinky and ring fingers. #3 goes between your ring and middle finger, #4 between the middle and pointer, and #5 between the pointer and thumb. Don’t close your fingers tightly, keep them loose and relaxed. Only #5 on top needs to be held tightly. With the drawings all lying on the disk, bend you wrist towards you and pull the drawings away from the disk. Place your head in a position where you can see the drawings on the paper. Now roll your wrist back down so the drawings ar flat on the disk again. Do this action, back and forth. As you do it you can bend your fingers slightly to reveal the drawings on each sheet. As you do this faster and faster you’ll see the same effect as you did with the two page flip but this time you now see a progressive action from drawing #1 through to #5.

The final method is called the “stack roll”. You can do this with as many sheets of paper as you can comfortably hold in your one hand. With your animation stacked in order from the bottom to the top (again, drawing #1 is at the bottom and the last drawing is on the top), grasp the pile of drawings at the top with your hand behind the pile (open the palm of your hand in front of you, palm up. Place the pile of drawings face up, with the pegs at the bottom and grasp the pile at the top.) Hold the pile in front of your face and with the other hand, grab the bottom of the drawings with your thumb against drawing #1 and pointing finger on the top drawing. Roll the drawings up so the bottom curls up to the top. Slowly drag your thumb across the edge of the pages starting at #1 and moving forward to the top, last drawing, allowing each page to fall to your forearm. Look at the drawings as you did in the previous flipping methods. The faster you do this the smoother the action will appear.

It takes a bit of practice to do this smoothly. Eventually you’ll all be pros at it.

There is a fourth method of flipping which I’ll cover in the section on inbetweening.

Pencil test and critique and revise as necessary
Flipping is good for quickly checking to see if the movement is smooth and in the right place as you’re animating but it’s really hard to stack roll the drawings and get each drawing to expose itself for 1/12th of a second. That’s where pencil testing comes in handy.

Whether you’re using a computer or a formal pencil test unit like a “Lunchbox”, the drawings are captured and stored in the unit’s memory. The software program will then play the drawings back at the proper timing.

Here is where you get to see if the action is taking place within a proper amount of time.

If it looks odd, determine how many frames you need to add in or take out between each drawing. Sometimes it may be as little as one frame that can make the difference between good timing and not-so-good timing.

It can be hard to self critique your own work at times. You’re too close to the drawings. It’s always good to have someone else give the animation a look and give their feedback on it. Ask them to be critical, then take their advice or leave it.

Here’s where working with your instructor can be an invaluable asset. Most schools have hired their faculty with care, ensuring that the people they have helping you know what they are doing. Sometimes this is true, sometimes it’s not. I’ve worked at schools where the person being hired has a great resume but they can’t teach worth beans. They just hand out the assignments and tell you to go at it without any instruction on what to do. They may give some good feedback but they were of no help in getting you there. This means you’re learning by trial and error which is not good.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can have an instructor with very little in the way of experience but wow, can they ever teach! They give you the assignment and walk you through the whole process, giving you little tips along the way. They might even do some in class demos which you might look at and say, “Yikes! Even I can do better than that!”

Unfortunately, students tend to look down on these instructors and as the semester moves along they listen to them less and less. These instructors usually have a lot more to offer you than the ones with the amazing portfolio. Communication is the important thing here. An instructor who can pass the information on to you can help you do a better job with your assignments. They may not be able to do a better job if they were to animate it themselves but if they can critique it properly, that’s good enough.

The best case scenario is to get an instructor who can both teach and do. The big question becomes, “If you can do it, why the heck are you teaching? Why aren’t you doing it in a studio?” My answer is, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. For goodness sake, just be happy you have them and suck as much information from them as you can.

Add in breakdowns
Once everything has been approved and you’re happy with the results of the pencil test you can move on to the breakdowns. The breakdowns are the responsibility of the key animator (that’s you). Breakdowns will fill in the large gaps between the extreme keys. They are just like inbetweens and are usually used to describe an unusual path of action or awkward body position.

You take the two key poses and place them on the animation disk. Place a blank sheet of paper on top, this will be the breakdown inbetween.

Take the top sheet and place it between your pointing finger and thumb. The second sheet of paper (the one in the middle) goes inbetween your ring and middle finger. You can keep the light on or off. With it on you can see through the sheets and it can help you find a more accurate position for the breakdown. Some animators say keep the light off, that it’s cheating and you should just flip the drawings. I say cheat if you can, whatever makes drawing easier.

The flipping process goes like this: pull the top two drawings towards you to expose the first drawing on the bottom. Then you push the top two drawings back down to show the top breakdown, then pull just the top drawing towards you to expose the middle drawing (the second key). Then back to the bottom drawing and repeat the process. It requires a bit of gymnastics with your fingers and wrist to get the rhythm right. Just keep practicing and after a while it’ll become second nature to you.

Pencil test and critique again
Check the whole thing again with the breakdowns added in. Do the critical critique and make any adjustments to the timing or even the drawings to make it right.

Only when you’re satisfied with the rough animation should you go ahead and clean it up
Many people become impatient with their animation. They just want to get it done. Even though there may be errors in the timing or action and it may have been pointed out to them by an instructor or colleague, the inclination is to just leave it alone. This may be due to time constraints such as a deadline. If you haven’t budgeted enough time to revise, you might be stuck trying to fix the animation at the last minute - pulling an all-nighter to get it done. This is not good.

If you default to leaving the animation with mistakes in it, you’ve basically wasted all the time you’ve spent on it up to that point and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll go back and fix the scene at a later date.

This really comes down to time management. If you allow yourself the time for revisions, you should use it.

Inbetween with care
Use the same flipping technique that you used when doing the breakdowns.

I would highly recommend that you keep the light table on so you can be as accurate as possible when doing the inbetweens.

Inbetweening is a very precise art. As I mentioned earlier, the inbetweener does the bulk of the drawings in a film, about 3 times as many.

The inbetweener is responsible for maintaining the details, structure, and proportions throughout the entire scene. Any variation is quite easily identified.

Depending on the complexity of the drawing and design, you could spend up to an hour or so on each drawing.

The inbetweener is the one who needs to read and understand the timing charts. There is an old saying that there is no such thing as an exact half way inbetween. There are several tricks to inbetweening that you can learn, far more than I can relate right here right now. I have written two other booklets called “Tips & Tricks” that cover all the things you need to know.


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