Art Notes

I was originally going to call this page “Animation Notes”, but I think I’ll start with this general page and recategorize as necessary when it becomes too large or unruly. So here are some notes on various art topics. I’ll place the newest notes at the top.


Some directors really like working with a scene as it evolves on paper. Your choices are unbelievable when you’re drawing. Now, think of the same choices when the director is standing on the set the day of the shoot, with 50 people standing around waiting. I mean, to me, it doesn’t make any sense not to have a plan before you go in.” Steven Katz, Film Directing Cinematic Motion

If you have been wondering how to get your animations to the next level and you haven’t been incorporating planning – well, I’ll almost guarantee you that this is the one thing that will improve your work. It doesn’t just help in directing – it helps in story writing, software development or just plain life. It’s one of those key animation principles that is missing from most animation principle lists.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Clay Kaytis, over at Animation Podcast, has a great little outline for planning.

Here is my general workflow when planning and implementing my animations:

1. Get to know your character – where do they live (Alaska?), when do they live (2000 years ago?), how do they live (eat whale blubber for desert?), what would be an adjective that best describes the character (sneaky?). Ask as many “Who, What, Where and How’s” as you possibly can come up with. In order to do a good job you need to believe that the character actually exists – or at least suspend your disbelief for awhile. “It never occured to me that these [Looney Tune characters] were not living things.” Chuck Jones.

2. If there is dialog: listen to it over and over and over… well you get the picture. Draw out a timeline and graph the high energy and low energy phrases. What is the character saying and where is the emphasis? What is the character really saying? You and I know that someone can say the words, but have a totally different underlying meaning. Discover what that meaning is…

3. Grab your video (or webcam) and act out your scene. Don’t do it once, or twice, but 20 times. It’s going to probably take you a few ‘takes’ to get ‘into’ character – not to mention get your lines right.

4. Analyze the video and look for the actions that are appealing to you and feel “in character”. Sometimes you will take parts of one ‘take’ and parts of another ‘take’ as reference for your animation. Either way, don’t be bogged down by the details of your performance – look for broad actions and maybe later for some detailed secondary motion (motion that isn’t primary, but secondary – you know, like scratching the nose while the character is thinking).

5. Thumbnail your poses. Go through your reference and find your ‘golden’ or ’story telling’ poses. Draw them out. I use Plastic Animation Paper to actually do a 2d version of my animation now… I didn’t use to, but it really helps to pull the action out of the reference and then ‘abstract’ it by drawing it in 2d. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it can just be stick figures.

6. Push your poses and exagerate the motion where applicable. Your reference isn’t there to be rotoscoped, but to be reference to indicate to you what may be a good acting or movement choice. It will help you to see weight shift in the hips, for example. It will help you to better visualize your acting choices.

7. Block your animation using the 2d poses you thumbnailed. Again, the thumbnails don’t need to be used ‘exactly’, but you’ve already put a lot of thought into the poses so you probably don’t want to stray away from them. I use stepped keys. Keith Lango uses linear keys. Rick O’Connor uses spline keys. It really doesn’t matter – the thing that matters is that you put your key poses into the computer. It’s true, thinking about them as ‘drawings’ really makes a difference.

When you block, key all the controls for your character on one key. This way you can move an entire pose around by moving the all the keys for all the controls from one frame to another.

8. Play with the timing. Move your poses around and experiment with the timing. Play around with extending the timing of your anticipation, the time spent in each pose, the time spent moving from one pose to the next and so on. Use your reference as reference – remember ‘toony’ animation isn’t timed like ‘realistic’ animation.

9. Show your blocking to your director (or peer, or spouse, or…). Get feedback as early in the process as you can. Go back to a previous step if you need to tweak timing or a pose or the entire acting sequence. It’s easier to throw away blocking than it is to throw away finalized animation.

10. Spline the puppy. This is where a lot of finessing and tweaking comes into play – and a lot of time, so you don’t want to be changing things at this point.

I’m working on a training DVD that shows pretty much this entire process – it’s almost done!

Keep it simple

I’m not an advcoate of reductionism per se, but there is something to be said about reducing the complex to the more simple. At least in order to try to better understand something or, for example, in art, it helps to simplify when we go about being creative. After all is said and done a complex idea or work is often a combination of simple elements. That’s why we learn our A, B, C’s before we learn the meanings of words and then move on to learning grammar.

I think that this applies to the entire gamut of artistic endeavors. Consider drawing the human form. If you look at the human form and have never really tried to draw it, it will seem like an impossible task. All those details, shapes and shades. Where do you start? Most good art training will tell you to reduce the work into it’s basic forms. Simplify. The head is basically a sphere. The arms and legs connected cylinders and so on. From those basic forms you continue to add layers of detail. But you start simple and even if you keep it at that level – most people will know that it’s a human form – think “stick figure” drawing. If, on the other hand, you start drawing all the wrinkles and details before you lay down your basic foundation then you will, more likely, end up with a mess instead of a likeness of the human form.

Consider character animation. One of the things that I have discovered is that often the most entertaining and well executed animation is fairly simple. There is a fundamental basic ‘action’, that may be detailed with a bit of extra flourish, but basically the acting choice and the execution is fairly simple. When we make our acting choices or mechanics overly complex we muddy the communication waters. People aren’t sure exactly what you are trying to communicate. Keeping it simple clarifies what you want to say.

Here is a little test to see if you tend to make things more complex… or if you keep things simple:

The following short quiz consists of 4 questions and will tell you whether you are qualified to be a ‘professional’. The questions are NOT that difficult:

Q. How do you put a giraffe into a refrigerator?

A. Open the refrigerator, put in the giraffe and close the door. This question tests whether you tend to do simple things in an overly complicated way.

Q. How do you put an elephant into a refrigerator?

A. Open the refrigerator, put in the elephant and close the refrigerator. Wrong! The correct answer is, open the refrigerator, take out the giraffe, put in the elephant and close the door. This tests your ability to think through the repercussions of your previous actions.

Q. The Lion King is hosting an animal conference. All the animals attend except one. Which animal does not attend?

A. The elephant. The elephant is in the refrigerator. This test your memory. Ok, even if you didn’t answer the first three questions correctly, you still have one more chance to show your true abilities.

Q. There is a river you must cross. But it is inhabited by crocodiles. How do you manage it?

A. You swim across. All the crocodiles are attending the Animal Meeting. This tests whether you learn quickly from your mistakes.

According to Anderson Consulting Worldwide, around 90% of the professionals they tested got all questions wrong. But many preschoolers got several correct answers. Makes you wonder, eh?” (excerpt from “Here’s the Scoop)

Justify all that you do…

This can be applied to a lot of different things (life, cinematography, illustration, animation, etc.). By ‘justify’ I don’t mean ‘make excuses’ – in the negative sense. What I do mean is make sure you think things through and have a reason for everything that you do.

Here is an example from cinematography. Don Bluth is talking about storyboarding a dramatic scene in “Secret of Nimh” and he says the following in regard to moving the camera:

“Every time you are tempted to move the camera, stop and ask yourself why the new scene will be strengthened by the different camera position. Justify all that you do.”

When I was teaching Graphic Design this was a point that I tried to drill into my students. Have a reason why you put that line right there… or that graphic element under there… Have a reason for why you used that font or that specific color. Having reasons will help you: to better understand your craft; to strengthen your piece; to explain to your client why you did what you did; sell your idea.

If you are like me, there will be times when you discover something ’serendipitously’ and it works and feels right. Great! But try not to stop there. Try to evaluate why it works and feels right – more often than not, you will discover a reason and that will help you to make that next piece even that much better because you are not relying on accidents – accidents usually end up being disasters instead of successes. I suspect we want to get more successes than failures.

So, in character animation, make sure you have a reason for the poses, for the staging, for the acting choices, for the timing, and so on. It is normal for my clients to ask for changes in the blocking stage of my animations. Hey, that’s why I block it out first. Get the idea across and then get feedback. Great! I value the feedback and I want to know the direction that my client wants to take with the piece… but sometimes they will ask me to change something that I have a very good reason for including and being able to tell them the reason why I included it and then tell them the impact of changing what I’ve selected helps the client to see why I made the choice and why it may be the better choice. Of course sometimes there are bigger reasons that can override the original choice, but that’s cool too. It’s all about priorities and reasons.

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