Shot Analysis: Robots

Ice Age: Collision Course is Blue Sky Studios’ latest Scrat short, directed by Michael Thurmeier and Galen Chu, both tremendous talents in the animation industry.

“Go graphic; make the eyes tell the story.” – Mike Thurmeier

Today we’re gonna look at a shot from Blue Sky Studio’s 2005 animated feature, Robots – a show that featured a tremendous group of young talent and some of the finest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. First and foremost is one of the leaders of studio (and long time figurehead of the animation department) Michael Thurmeier, one of finest and most talented people in the industry. Mike is someone whom I’m personally forever indebted to for giving me my own break in the feature animation business and has been a friend and inspiration for a long time. Due to his talent and the weight of the studio sitting heavily on his shoulders (at least early on in its development) we don’t get to see too much of Mike’s animation anymore since he’s moved on to full-time direction. He’s one of the rare animation artists who have received Annie Nominations for both Best Character Animator and Best Short Film (which also garnered an Oscar nomination).

So, I dug up this old shot of his for the purposes of our study. As you will see, there is both brilliant thought, acting and execution in his animation.

This shot of Rodney’s dad, Mr. Copperbottom (voiced by the wonderful Stanley Tucci and animated by then Supervising Animator Mike Thurmeier) shows all the good things that great animators do – create texture, weight, balance, emotion and appeal. From Blue Sky Studios’ 2005 animated feature, Robots.

Here is a breakdown of some of the key moments of the scene:

Copp000

As you can see, Mike begins with a clearly balanced triangular composition and starts the scene in mid-action.

Copp001

Beautiful and slight rotations of the head create interest, as we go into a hold, and arm gesture pushes through the action. Line of action (LOA) changes.

Copp002

The momentary stillness as he says “Robot City” gives the scene a temp break in the action, as he looks downwards, indicating feeling and thought. This creates visual interest during the pause in physical activity.

Copp003

When Copperbottom pushes forward again, his eyes reconnect with Rodney as their hands meet.

Copp004

Here, the body and head rise, building anticipation for the next big expression as he gathers emotional strength and support (for his son.)

Copp005

Excellent reversal of line of action again, as the character pushes forward and outward. The weight shifts forward and his hand compresses onto Rodney’s shoulder, which depresses, confirming the reality of the forces at play.

Copp006

Rotation inward and down form a nice reversal again as the head and body masses visually combine creating a nice ‘squash’ before the stretch. Face compression amplifies the expression.

Copp007

The body and head spread out, as the character first pushes up and then down, as it builds into another anticipation of forward movement. The facial expression hints at confidence and belief.

Copp008

The movement here is particularly nice, as Mike chooses to uses a scooping motion down and then upwards towards Rodney, giving variety to the combination of actions, as well indicating a kind and gentle support for his son, already hinted by tone of the monologue.

Copp009

Beautiful twists and turn of the body and head lend force and weight to the movement. The second hand reaching out and pressing on the shoulder increases the connection between the characters.

Copp010

The action follows thru, and the eyes connect looking upward as the body, head and hands settle into a short hold. Careful profile position of the head retains perspective and appeal.

Copp011

The large anticipation backyards prepare for the final expression of encouragement. Shoulders and head lift high and back while the head rotates to form a nice strong torque. Facial expression is loaded.

Copp012

Beautiful arc and flow of the forward movement give this last big expression force and intensity.

Copp013

Last movement that finishes the scene, as the body rises up to the final position. Elements of the head and face drag giving weight.

Copp014Final settle position is high and close, as the facial expression indicates connection, hope and trust between the two characters.

A quality shot like this is rare. The best animators, like Mike Thurmeier, deliver them with surprising consistency (Mike’s work in particular has the best lip sync I’ve seen of any animator). As one can see, there is an obvious amount of planning involved along with detailed execution. Excellent acting, well-defined weight, strong use of forces, as well as concepts like lead and follow, solid posing, and varied timing, are what make shots like this so good.

An aspiring animator would do well to study scenes of this caliber. Don’t expect that following formulas or letting the computer do the work is gonna make you good. Work that features rich analysis, solid planning and expert execution can teach you a lot about what it takes to make art that connects.

“I don’t like to let the computer do too much for me, and I’ll have an idea what I want the character to look like going from one pose to the other.” – Mike Thurmeier.

The Power of Play

ToyStory3-Bonnie

Bonnie, like all children, is happy to play with her new toys. Like any apparatus or product of creation, toys are tools that teach children physicality, interactivity and imagination.  From Pixar’s conclusion to its magnificent animated trilogy, Toy Story 3.

I don’t think many people have a very good understanding of leisure and the importance it plays in our lives. – Jack Nicholson

It’s funny. As kids, you’re expected and even encouraged to play, have fun and discover the world around you. You grow up, and you’re told to be serious. You learn to stiffen up, say nothing (unless it’s something to be repeated), and generally discouraged from thinking outside of the box. Sometimes, employers even want you to be ‘creative’ while still working within those same set of rules. How absurd!

willy_wonka

Is it really possible to work in a creativity factory? In Gene Wilder’s Chocolate factory, you can. From Mel Stuart’s 1971 classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

I used to have a ‘serious’ job – economics, accounting and finance – working with numbers dealing with clients and accounts that sometimes tallied in the hundreds of millions of dollars. I’ve been inside multi-million estates and even sat in the odd supercar. It was all incredibly meaningless. Not only did a lot of the day-to-day feel monotonous and unfulfilling, not much of it was any fun – not the work, not the people. Money and material accumulation never turns out to be the grand (or comforting) reward it’s promised to be. It’s alarming how so many people still think so.

Alec Baldwin’s brilliant speech, from David Mamet’s marvelous screenplay-turned movie Glengarry Glen Ross, make this one of the greatest scenes in modern film history. Jobs that deal primarily with money are typically accompanied by big time personal and social-emotional stress – stress that typically brings out the very worst in people. (Warning: This scene contains mature language)

The working artist has its own challenges, and working in animation, dealing continuously with deadlines and quota can be immeasurably difficult and discouraging. If you’re unlucky enough to be “stuck” at a sweatshop-type environment you really have to think twice about your vocational longevity or the career itself. Although it’ll never be as crazy as being a stockbroker glued to the screen obsessing over every half a percentage drop in the stock price, or as crappy as working at the dumpsters in a landfill, jobs in animation can lose their fun and sustainability. It’s up to you to stay awake and be aware of the on-goings of your situation. You’ve got to remember why you’re here and assess your level of happiness. In other words, you have to ensure, that in at least some way, somehow, you’re still able to sneak in the fun into your everyday work and after-work existence.

Jones-and-Geisel

Two geniuses who brought fun to the work they did and fun to the whole world. Chuck Jones sits here with Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel during the production of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

Working in cartoons, video games and special effects always sounds more exhilarating than it really is. To be successful at it, you must have passion, competence, and professionalism. Those latter two areas can often prove very serious – sometimes too serious. As is often mentioned in this blog, animation artists are not unlike professional athletes or medical doctors (even if they don’t receive the same kind of compensation) – they need to continually stay on top of their skills and their development. This requires a commitment to practice and to continued learning. The practice is necessary. The learning is fun. This ‘fun’ is what sustains all craftsmen in any creative field.

Andrea

Andrea Blasich is a sculptor continually devoted to his craft. Andrea has contributed to numerous animated projects, including working for major studios such as Blue Sky, Dreamworks, Pixar and Walt Disney. He’s seen here making a sculpt for Tonko House, a new animation studio founded by friends, Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo. To see more of the artist’s work, go here.

If you’re working in this field already, chances are you have the aptitude. This means you probably like what you do because people tend to like what they’re good at. This is the kind of common sense that people forget or take for granted. And if you’re good at something, your job is to get EVEN BETTER at it. Make something of it because, other people, who might like to do what you’re doing but can’t, would sign a deal with the devil to change places with you. I’m not kidding here.

“Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.” – Voltaire

An old classmate (who was practically a certified genius) I went to school with a long time ago used to say to everyone “he’d give away all his smarts” if he could draw like me. It was a bizarre compliment to receive, and I didn’t know what to make of it at the time (I didn’t and still don’t think I was that good.) But I found out that he recently told his cousin (who’s a close friend of mine) that he still feels the same way, even as he’s driving his $100,000 BMW, working as a partner in a prestigious law firm. I suppose it’d be alright to enjoy this kind of financial comfort (or at least some of the security), but alas, we’re not all meant to end up in the same place. It’s a privilege to be a working artist and it’s one that I’m very grateful for.

frederic-back-post

Frédéric Back, one of my “heroes” in the animation world, was determined to do what he was meant to do – present a message to people around the world about the importance of preserving our environment. His films, like Crac! and The Man Who Planted Trees, were both recipients of an Academy Award from Hollywood. He was also an animal rights activist, a vegetarian and was awarded the Governor General’s award for lifetime achievement in his home country of Canada. Back truly believed in what he was doing everyday and lived in a way that honored those beliefs.

There is a lot of uncertainty being an artist and financial insecurity is rarely a complication that’s not periodically on the artist’s mind. Survival is instinctual and necessary before we can do anything else. As creatives, our only solace comes from the work that we do and how we do it. Yes, the world can be incredibly cruel to artists – history has proven that – but time and time again, artists find a way to say their say regardless of how they are treated.

TeslaPortrait1

Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest inventors in human history. Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center, stated “Tesla did what he did for the betterment of humanity, to help people have a better quality of life.” Tesla gave his whole life to scientific discovery including advances in lasers, x-rays, radar, etc. Tesla Motors, Elon Musk’s electric car company, is named after the visionary inventor who unfortunately died penniless.

Legendary talents and cultural giants like Oscar Wilde, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Egon Schiele, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake and Herman Melville, among others, all died poor and even unrecognized during their lifetime. Their struggles didn’t stop them from doing what they were meant to do. Only death was able to do that. Their names live on because of the significant and lasting contributions they made to humanity. Artists today don’t live with half the discomfort and troubles that these creators had. In fact, most people today (in the western hemisphere at least) live with far greater security and access to opportunity than ever before. Plainly speaking, our excuse for not making the most of our skills, and of ourselves, is rather weak.

“An artist must never be a prisoner…  (he) should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success…” – Henri Matisse

MatisseCutout

Henri Matisse was one of the most inventive and playful artists in history. In the last decade of his life, Matisse focused on painting  guoache onto hand cut paper. He described the process of making them as both “cutting directly into color” and “drawing with scissors.”

In my own hopes, I ask myself what am I here for? And how can I best serve this universe before my own days are up? Service and fun go together. We have to get serious about making our art because we make our contribution to humanity thru play.

“If music be the food of love, play on.” – William Shakespeare

Weight

Rodin_Bowman_Wife

One of my favorite exhibits to visit ever was the Musée Rodin in Paris. Rodin’s sculptures need to experienced in person to be truly appreciated. His work captures not just form and weight, but the enormity of the entire human condition.

“Every normal action needs weight. Every pose needs weight.” — Eric Larson

Here’s the dictionary definition of weight:

  1. a body’s relative mass or the quantity of matter contained by it, giving rise to a downward force; the heaviness of a person or thing
  2. a heavy object, especially one being lifted or carried.
  3. the ability of someone or something to influence decisions or actions.

Rapunzel

Sketches for Walt Disney’s Tangled by Glen Keane. Keane’s drawings carry immense weight both figuratively and emotionally. There is always an element of story and personality supplemented by force and excellent design. It’s this combination that gives great power to all his work and ensures his legacy as one of the greatest animators ever.

Weight is often the most illusive thing for the beginner or amateur animator. It perplexes him because it doesn’t seem to be a tangible thing. What he must first acknowledge is that weight in animation is, in fact, an illusion. All 3D models and even flat classical 2D drawings are flat and in reality carry no “physical” weight or substance that you can either touch or carry unlike other “heftier” forms of art such as  sculpture or even puppetry. The impression of substance, that is, something tactile and physical, comes from the illusion created by the change and overlap of visual forms in time and space. Fundamentally, it’s all about forces.

EricGoldberg

A simple yet perfect demonstration of weight, as shown by the position of the poses and the timing charts that will determine the breakdown frames. From Eric Goldberg’s marvelous book on animation Character Animation Crash Course a book I highly recommend.

For most animators, the walk cycle is the first place to go to learn the application of forces. Failure here will indicate the lack of understanding of weight and likely foretell problems going forward in one’s development. It’s no coincidence that animation studios (at least in the past) would test applicants during interviews with an animation walk cycle. If you couldn’t do a decent one in a few hours on demand, chances are you wouldn’t get the job.

A jovial and spirited conclusion to a Robin Hood walk cycle by Milt Kahl. The walk is the first place feature animators explore on a character. A lot can be learned and tested here; its physical weight, its bodily tendencies (such as sway and physical attributes) as well as its general attitude and composure (nervous, quick, or non-chalant).

Too many young animators, spend far too little time learning the application of forces before heading off to do “acting” shots. I’ve seen animators who have done as little as two walk cycles heading off for studio jobs! It’s simply astounding that this happens. It’s not surprising that producers and supervisors are discovering that many of their new hires are simply unprepared for some of the shots assigned to them. Where the fault lies is unimportant, what IS important is that you, as an animation professional, must be as prepared as possible for your duties. If no training is provided, you must train yourself. The ultimate responsibility always lies with YOU.

“There’s weight to be concerned with. We don’t take steps, we fall into them.” — Eric Larson

Besides doing various walks of differing body types and personalities, young animators should be experimenting with small jumps, skips and side steps exercising both large and slight shifts in weight. These exercises will prove priceless come the time when your characters need to perform emotionally and mentally — for bodies are usually in motion during any kind of performance. Rarely does a character stop to “act.” Weights shifts are continually occurring.

An excellent sequence by Angus Mclane, from Pixar’s 2004 box office hit, The Incredibles. Characters rarely freeze, and during conversation or expressions of frustration, they shift weight from one side of the body to the other. This is the pure reality of bodies in motion and needs to be reflected in your animations.

When approaching shots, know that weight comes from understanding the primary physical forces that are applied to or by the character. Physical actions applied on the character exert an external pressure on the character and he/she is secondary to this exertion. An example would be a baseball bat being struck to the head à la Tom & Jerry, or simply a character leaning against a door that gives way. On the contrary, physical actions driven by the character are guided by internal forces such intention (motivational drive) or emotional reaction to external stimuli (physical, verbal or imagined). This is basically any character moving on it’s own accord without any external physical force applied to it (which is the case 95% of the time). At all times, however, unless the character is underwater, the force of gravity always needs to be accounted for. A tired character, for example,  or one that loses his footing whether from being pushed or falling on his own accord, will be pulled down by the earth’s planetary influence. If it’s a free fall, Newton’s law applies and he’ll fall at an acceleration rate of 9.8 meters per second squared.

wile-e-coyote

Gravity was something Wile E. Coyote had to continually contend with. From Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes series.

For those of you who still struggle with the application of weight, here are the major areas to learn (or re-learn) :

Thinking Poses in Terms of Movement:

The illusion of weight comes from well-intended variation within the poses and between poses. In other words, only animation that depicts change can carry an impression of weight. The first thing to improve in your poses is to get an idea that there is weight to start with, a place and position from which it comes from, and then ultimately, a destination where it’s going to. The concept of time must not be forgotten when it comes to making a solid and convincing pose. Every pose must imply change (i.e. a transition in time).

WaltStanchfield_Tigger

Great posing denotes change of form, line and substance. A pose captures a state of the body at a moment in time, and therefore its various parts of construction will be seen in various states of motion. This infamous Tigger diagram arranged by Walt Stanchfield (the drawings were done by Milt Kahl) demonstrate everything you need to know about posing. The descriptions imply all sorts of change – indicating force and weight. Such variation and visibly noticeable change is both comforting (i.e. believable) and appealing to the audience. To learn more from Walt Stanchfield, go here.

Timing as an Objective Count of Frames:

Flit

The hummingbird Flit, animated by Supervising Animator, David Pruiksma, was a sidekick character that zipped around screen at lightening speed. During my training with Disney Animation, Dave mentioned to us that sometimes Flit would have to come into screen, perform his gag AND leave the screen, all within a second or two. Where to place your frames became as important as how many to use. Image from Walt Disney’s Pocahontas.

The idea of weight can also be further strengthened by the astute management of the units of time. Generally, how quickly or slowly something moves gives us a sense of its solidity and density. We all know that heavy things move slowly and that light things accelerate or move quickly. Slower means it takes more frames to get from one place to another and faster means less.

irongiant

The Iron Giant was big and heavy. Generally, he moved slowly and deliberately. When he “wigged” out, he moved in quick automation, making him a frightening, inhumane vehicle of destruction. From Brad Bird’s beautifully-directed film, The Iron Giant, released by Warner Bros.

Although there’s more to timing than isolated units of time, the cold reality is that if something’s traveled somewhere in a very short amount of time, it’s gonna be regarded as fast. The opposite also holds true. At other times, however, heavy characters, especially when motivated enough or have gathered enough momentum, can also move fast, while small, lighter characters can move like molasses if it suits their personality. It’s all a matter of creative choice and execution.

Slow-Poke Rodriguez isn’t very big, but it’s his attitude that dictates his mobility.  He’s not regarded as heavy even though he moves incredibly slow (executed via a long frame count walk cycle). Instead, the weight here depicts his non-chalant ‘dopiness’ rather than his physical make-up. From Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes.

Arcs & Spacing as Keys to Regarding the Distribution of Frames

Timing can be a tricky thing. Without deliberate and careful application of arcs and spacing, the number of frames used isn’t enough to convey sufficient and appropriate weight. Nature moves in a particular fashion, and that is, it tends to move in arcs and does so gradually. Only machines move linearly or at an evenly controlled pace.

This astounding animation not only defines the nature of the characters and their states of emotion but boasts a display of weight and form that is both believable and beautiful. In the hands of Milt Kahl, both the Prince and King move with rhythm, balance and force. Every frame shows a proper transfer of weight from one spectrum of movement to another, all in perfect arcs and spacing. From Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

As incredibly simple as this sounds, time and time again, we witness characters lacking weight and substance in today’s animation — sometimes even in full-length features films. Style is one thing, but poor execution is another thing altogether. Weakly defined weight is weakly defined animation.

SherKhan

“I know where the weight is all the time!” says Milt Kahl, in reference to his work on Shere Khan the Tiger. From Walt Disney’s 1967 film, The Jungle Book.

Animation principles such as lead and follow, overlapping action and follow thru, all derive from the understanding and application of weight.

So if you find that your work still lacks weight, go fix it (not just the scene but your habits, execution and understanding of it.) Remedy the situation like a hockey player would if her skating was poor. What would a professional hockey player do if she was determined to reach her potential? She’d set up a disciplined regimen to strengthen her legs, practice her stride, and possibly get further education/coaching to help work on all her deficiencies. Lack of knowledge is not a genetic deficiency, it’s just a lack of exposure, understanding and effort. Don’t blame it on a lack of talent because talent alone is never enough. We have to overcome our doubts.

Tom-Hulce-in-Amadeus

Tom Hulce plays Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart seen here diligently working into the wee hours of the night. If talent alone wasn’t sufficient for a prodigy like Mozart, how could we expect otherwise for us mere mortals? Image from Milos Foreman’s 1984 masterpiece, Amadeus.

As an animation artist, you must ask yourself what you’re determined to do about the lack of weight or any other deficiency that you may have. To get better, you’ve got to WANT to get better. There’s no secret other than going after it and doing it. Practice makes perfect. Remember, animation without weight has no believability and without believability, there’s no magic.

“As animators, we have the power to defy gravity but when that power is used, it should be with purpose and reason and with entertainment in mind. In our work, we strive for weight and balance — for sincerity, with caricature, in movement and pose, giving our characters believability.” — Eric Larson

Stillness

Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910), Summer Squall, 1904. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (61.6 x 76.8 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.8

No one captures the sea quite like Winslow Homer. His paintings connect you to moments that aren’t just seen but felt.

“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” – T. S. Eliot

Placidity is everywhere in nature, but absolute stillness – pure quiet and inactivity – is rare. We only perceive its existence because of the sudden change in our state of awareness prior to experiencing sound or action. In other words, we’re not looking closely enough. Any office employee who stops whatever they’re doing at any given moment can immediately hear the hum of their hard drive or the footsteps just around the corner. Our awareness of visual movement, something we animators must deal with and manage, works on the same principle.

Upon repeated viewing, clear holds are apparent in this beautifully planned and animated sequence by James Baxter, but they hardly seem to matter. Thoughtful acting choices, excellent posing and exquisite timing, help balance held movements with actions that have weight, force and focus making this sequence a lovely introduction to the hero. From Walt Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

There’s a lot of request for stillness these days in the animation industry. We think we’re doing it out of good taste – throwing out terms like “acting” and “subtlety”. Unfortunately, a lot of the times we just end up with a lot of dead, lifeless and non-believable animation – work that neither moves the character nor the audience. Plus, creating convincing stillness, is immeasurably difficult.

“There’s nothing harder to do in animation than nothing. Movement is our medium.” – Milt Kahl:

MarcAnthony

Contrast is everything. Small is only small next to something larger. Cute and cuddly kittens are extra cute and cuddly next to rough and gruff bulldogs. From the magical hands of Chuck Jones.

It’s easy to forget that movement is a given – the question, more correctly, is to ask how much. As with all things in art, creating contrast should be the aim by which to indicate an idea. Change of pace not only introduces new information to an audience, it’s essential for staying connected to them.

Brad Pitt and Edward Norton star in David Fincher’s controversial film, Fight Club. Perfectly cast for their roles, one can see that total immersion into character and great acting doesn’t necessarily mean actors barely move to achieve subtlety or convincing performances. This scene shows that live actors are often in constant motion.

The advantage of 2D animation is that holds (even those that appear frozen) seem to read okay, but it still isn’t preferred if larger budgets are allowed. The fact that classical animation is mostly shot on 2’s (as well as being susceptible to imperfect shifting of the paper on the peg bars), makes holds in the 4 to 5 frame range somewhat tolerable. The inherently rough nature of the pencil line also helps with the illusion of some forgiveness in final results – lower budget 2D shorts use this to gain extra frames and life, seen often as kind of a boiling effect. The 3D animator is excluded from such fortune.

A lovely little sequence of shots by the masterful Ollie Johnston. There are holds in various places but they are carefully placed and helps moments read without feeling frozen. In 2D animation, holds are far more forgiving, but they still must be handled with care. From Walt Disney’s Robin Hood.

The magical Merlin by Frank Thomas from Walt Disney’s Sword In The Stone. Stills/holds at the opening of a shot are acceptable especially if it’s the start of a shot on a character or establishing shot, rather than a match cut of action. The first 5-8 frames are hardly noticed by the viewer since it takes some time for the viewer to adjust to this new found visual information (inherent in all cuts between one camera view to another).

An immensely complicated approach to animation, Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov’s Oscar-winning interpretation of Ernest Hemmingway’s great novel, uses paint on glass to achieve the results he wanted. Like most richly drawn or painted animation, individually animated artwork is recorded over a number of frames, and changes in the imagery are created by shifts in the camera or recording software to keep things lively, giving it a watery, or sometimes, boiled effect. In Petrov’s film, the results are suitable and stunning.

In 3D productions, it’s best to keep either or both the camera or character moving at least a bit. We don’t want it to look like it’s glued to the background. And don’t expect lighting department to save your art (or your ass). Although real light does shift in reality (due to changing luminary conditions such as a setting sun, or movement of surrounding elements in passage of said light), animators in general, must ensure to keep the characters alive themselves.

It’s a reminder that the cold, calculating perfection of the computer has it’s price – robbing life from the animator much like excess wealth does to a person.

ToyStory3_climax

In this sequence from Toy Story 3, the shifting environment, flickering light and moving cameras ensure continual movement and life – the characters need not move much – in fact, restrained animation allowed for greater clarity in contrast to its continually shifting environment. Director Lee Unkrich demonstrates great control in this brilliant climax to Pixar’s most popular film franchise.

Here are some ways an animator can get around this dilemma:

1.) Great Posing

Solid posing is a good start to eliminating stillness. It sets the standard for good animation. The quieter the movement, the better your poses better be – an audience has got all the time in the world to see its errors and can easily fall victim to boredom or irritation.

The best still paintings and drawings and sculptures evoke a sense of movement to stir the imagination and the soul.

ilya-repin-ivan-the-terrible-and-his-son-ivan-on-november-16th-1581-detail-1885-1345645121_b

A stirring painting of “Ivan the Terrible” by the Ilya Repin, the great Russian painter who, according some experts, held a position “comparable to that of Leo Tolstoy in literature.” The immense power of his work was often accompanied by moral or social purpose.

You should make your poses live – give them weight force, form, and a sense of action and feeling –  before you even begin to move them from one frame to the next.

“Make a positive statement. Do not be ambiguous with your approach.” – Glen Keane.

File name: 2835-018.jpg George Bellows Stag at Sharkey's, 1909 oil on canvas framed: 110.17 x 140.5 x 8.5 cm (43 3/8 x 55 5/16 x 3 3/8 in.) unframed: 92 x 122.6 cm (36 1/4 x 48 1/4 in.) The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection

Robert Henri disciple, George Bellows, would’ve made an excellent animator. His paintings are often defined by movement, human emotion and story.

 

2.) Small Drifts

Slight shifts in weight or path of action such as a  continual swing or drift can some times do the trick, but it’s dangerous and often very hard to do convincingly. Moving holds require exquisite handling and a ton of skill.

Small shifts in weight are hardly detectable in live action. To study the reality of the situation, artists much watch what happens to the character relative to the background to gauge the amount of activity.

A marvelous little scene between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam, played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio respectively. Day-Lewis, one of the finest actors in the world, complements non-action with distinct gestural action. Notice carefully that even in stillness, he keeps life stirring by with his tiny facial expression changes on top of his heavy almost, hesitant breathing – revealing bit by bit what’s inside the heart and mind of this calm yet frightening character. From Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York.

3.) Secondary/Tertiary Actions

The better choice sometimes is to plan small actions (secondary actions) that add to or exhibit for enrichment of a characters actions/attitudes or personality. They don’t detract from the main acting, but support it, and by extension buy time for poses to hold, as it takes longer for overlap and follow thru actions to play themselves out.

Nicely handled changes in expression keep the character alive, yet still enough to convey the expressions required for the scene. Animation by Thomas Grummt. To see an in depth interview with the artist, go here.

4.) Camera Drifts

If you have control of layout direction, this can sometimes be an option to keep it all alive and give it that “live action” feel. This was used in films like Sony  Picture’s Surf’s Up, where a documentary-style camera technique was employed à la Christopher Guest, who wrote/directed famous mockumentaries like This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show.

In live action film-making, physical cameras are subject to physical contact, balance and stability of the supporting equipment and the operators hands. If the camera is “hand-held,” shifts in the framing become even more obvious and allows the filmmaker a little extra give to offset any rigidity.

Paperman

The recent Oscar-winning animated short, Paperman, directed by John Kahrs, exhibits the acknowledgment of physical cameras by adding the slightest of movements in the camera throughout the film – giving it a “live-action” feel. Produced by Walt Disney Animation.

Therefore, in handling held poses or quiet moments in a scene, we must learn how to execute that moment convincingly.  Too much movement and the sense of quiet, often required for an idea or mood to be understood and felt, will be lost. Too still, and things will come across as frozen or unbelievable. The animation artist needs to achieve relative stillness versus movement to create life because life is movement – without movement, we register death. We must keep the magic act alive and convincing or the cards fall.

FechinDrawing

Sensitive drawings like this one from Nicolai Fechin convey movement and beauty even in silence. A great artist plays with contrast in texture, form, line and value – everything at his disposal – to breathe life into their works.

“An artist’s job is to surprise himself. Use all means possible.” – Robert Henri

Imagination

carl_sagan_cosmos

The late Carl Sagan was a dedicated pioneer and advocate of exploring the beauty and science of the universe. His book and TV series, Cosmos, both educated and inspired people all around the world.

“Do we want the stars? We can have them. Can we borrow cups of fire from the Sun? We can and must and light the world.” — Ray Bradbury

It’s all too often we get lost in our minds, lost in doubt. We become disoriented scatter brains who can’t seem to either accept or deny that we can’t stay on board all the rules and regulations that our upbringing, formal education and our society has imprinted upon us. We get obsessed with the “how” rather than the who, what or why. Yet, deep inside, we know that those profound questions as to who we are, what we’re doing and why we’re here are far more important than the how, for it drives us to discover and to search for answers and meaning.

As artists, our job is to fight thru all the noise, interference and entanglements so that we can discover the gems underneath the quagmire of information that life throws at us. Thereafter, we must find a way to present our viewpoint and take our stab at new possibilities and alternative solutions.

Referring again to that marvelously prolific writer-imagineer, Ray Bradbury:

“Everywhere we look: problems. Everywhere we further deeply look: solutions. The children of men, the children of time, how can they not be fascinated with these challenges?”

space-elephant-dali

The famous Salvador Dalí Space Elephant sculpture that sits on the south bank of London.  Image by © picqero

salvador-dali

Dalí was one of the most unique personalities and creative artists in history — he dared to look beyond the obvious into the surreal, into the imaginative.

How exciting it is to be an animation artist today! To be an artist working in a medium where you can still reach out to the masses? The opportunity to sneak in a bit of truth, either in concept or design, with movement or color, to convey an idea NOT in the script designed for the greatest possible corporate/financial gain? The artist always has the opportunity to give as much or little of him/herself into the final creation. It’s here where the magic lies — our contribution via our actions.

The mighty Milt Kahl was always blatantly honest about the industry and was criticized often for his snappy remarks about it:

“We always had our share of crap.” — Milt Kahl

The key is to find ways to work around the not so tasteful or far too commercial, to keep searching for ways to deliver something new, something exciting. And that he did.

The Mad Madam Mim, from Disney’s Sword in the Stone is one of the most exciting and deliciously animated characters ever. Milt Kahl may not have been happy with many aspects of Disney’s lower budgeted feature(s), but he never shortchanged his boss or his audience.

Despite being part of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, directors and writers during the 1930’s to 1960’s were often restricted to producing films on war, gangsters or westerns (now collectively replaced by superhero/science fiction action-adventures, romantic comedies, and yes, animated family features). Yet, these artists found a way to use the genre merely as a backdrop to greater aims and visions — ideas more intimate, interesting and profound were layered deeper into the fabric of the genre and of the medium itself.

TheSearchers_JohnWayneNatalieWood

John Wayne and Natalie Wood star in John Ford’s grand masterpiece, The Searchers, a film that is so much more than your typical “shoot’em up” western.

tdk_bank_robbery

The opening shot of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight signaled a new take on Batman. Nolan brought realism (including using NYC as Gotham), concepts of real drama, themes of sacrifice and intense emotion into ‘comic book’ movies.

Forget for a moment, quota, deadlines, and financial consequences. Know that how you spend each day, each moment, matters — that is your life. We must find some purpose behind our actions, ideas and expressions and bring them out. If us artists don’t do it, then who will? Who better to set an example of diving into the unknown, searching for joy, fulfillment and meaning in our everyday existence?

“You’ve got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. You’ve got to want to do whatever you want to do more than to be whatever you want to be… Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.” — Bradley Whitfield, Emmy-award winning actor from The West Wing.

NormalRockwell_studies

Normal Rockwell obviously didn’t mind the endless amount of studies and preliminary work that preceded his final execution of the project. Artists must love what they’re doing — every part of it — for results are never guaranteed, nor is positive reception to it. Photo by Bill-Scovill.

To quote one of the greatest art teachers in history, Robert Henri:

“The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture – however unreasonable this may sound. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting is a sign of what has past. The object, which is the back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue, its results is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state.”
the-beach-at-biarritz-joaquin-sorolla

Painting of the beach at Biarritz, by Spanish master, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida. Art this beautiful only comes about when an artist loses himself in the transience of the moment, into the work.

Henri continues:

“These results, however crude, become dear to the artist who made them because they are records of states of being which he has enjoyed and which he would regain. They are likewise interesting to others because they are to some extent readable and reveal the possibilities of a greater existence.”

It is in those above words, he suggests not only the value of the approach an artist must take, but also that, by taking such approach, the by-product, by way of the soul and artistry so invested by the artist, aid in the success of the entire operation — resulting in a product that connects to the unsuspecting, and often unexpectedly large audience (the very goal, ironically, that marketing departments world-wide try so hard to accomplish).

calvin-and-hobbes-friends

Calvin and Hobbes creator, Bill Watterson never intended mass market appeal or profits. Even to date, with incredible steadfastness and integrity, he refuses to commercialize and financially profit from his creation (estimated to be worth close to a billion dollars) — much to the chagrin of TV, film and toy manufacturing executives.

Time and time again, we see that art is a brave dive into the unknown. It is only in this way, that we grow, both individually and as a species.

“Imagination is more important then intelligence.” — Albert Einstein.