Putting it Down on Paper

The beautiful notebooks of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo display both her thoughts and visual explorations of shape and color.

“Speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Writer

There’s one thing I know for sure; if I don’t put things down on paper, any idea I have begins its gradual descension towards nothing. In other words, all goals, bright ideas or moments of genius have very little chance of surviving beyond their initial birth.

This may seem obvious, but we’d be surprised at how few people actually put their goals or ideas on paper. Choosing to rely only on their brains to hold onto to their dreams or visions, they’re simply unprepared for the onslaught of everyday demands that rob them of their ability to think and remember. Short-term memory is SHORT TERM. Putting ideas down on paper counters this reality. In fact, it’s the most formative step towards massive purposeful action.

“Very often, gleams of light come in a few minutes’ sleeplessness, in a second perhaps; you must fix them. To entrust them to the relaxed brain is like writing on water; there is every chance that on the morrow there will be no slightest trace left of any happening.” ― Antonin Sertillanges, Philosopher

Great creators always record their ideas and often so immediately after their ideas come to them. Putting our thoughts down on paper is one of the most reliable and useful habits an artist can have. It’s why journals are important. And it’s why smart people have notebooks and writing pads around their bedside tables and all around their living areas. We can never know when or where ideas might come from nor which ones will become something special, so we can’t take the chance of letting them escape. This is the only place where FOMO (fear of missing out) has validity. Moments of inspiration are remarkably fleeting and in today’s environment that’s doubly scary.

Homer Simpson is no longer the symbol for uncommon behavior. Modern man’s attention span is now officially lower than that of a goldfish. According to a recent study by Microsoft Corporation, the average human has an attention span below that of the weak-minded goldfish which typically loses its focus in as little as nine seconds. The digitized brain today loses concentration after a lowly eight seconds.

Throughout history, documents were not only made and preserved so that great knowledge and discovery can be made useful to its creators but so that its wisdom can also be passed on to future generations. Records of thought leave great blue prints of not only wisdom but also marvelous traces of history and important confirmations of process. All inventions, both creative and scientific have been formed in such fashion.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld reveals his box of hand-written notes where he kept every single funny idea or joke that came to him over his entire career. From the documentary, Jerry Before Seinfeld.

Furthermore, the mere act of making an idea which is intangible onto something tactile like paper, is that it brings it into the real world. Like a farmer’s seed that’s been taken out of its bag, it now has the opportunity to breathe and be cultivated. Despite technology’s portability, most of us work in a physically confined space, the digital world being much more cerebral than physical. Thinking or voicing our ideas is often not enough. Only by writing, drawing and recording them onto a solid surface can our ideas take on that plastic quality and become more accessible. Tactile formation of cerebral information brings all the senses into play.

Exploratory watercolor sketches by Dice Tsutsumi examine both color and mood. Created for his and Robert Kondo’s Oscar-nominated short, The Dam Keeper.

So what methods of putting it down on paper apply to the artist or animator? And how do they help? Here is an assortment of techniques that I’ve found helpful:


Mind-mapping — which can use an assortment of imagery or words — is a great way to explore ideas in the funnest and most liberated way. Especially powerful when it comes to personal development and discovering tangible items that we can only intuitively think or dream of, it’s a place for uninhibited exploration of possibilities using free association. If problems allude your “overly-analytical” thinking brain, mind-mapping is a great place just to throw all ideas out there on the table. The visually tangible web-like associations allow one idea to lead to others in the most natural and unexpected way to generate the most original ideas.

Free associative mind-mapping is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used in all aspects of creative thinking.

Character studies:

This is probably the most obvious and most useful form of putting down ideas for animators. Unfortunately avoided by many young artists who lack the confidence in drawing, those same artists don’t realize they’ve just thrown out the most powerful tool an animator can possibly possess. Even just using rudimentary shapes like stick figures and circles, an artist can explore endless possibilities of expression and story while ensuring solid presentability. Strong shapes, clear lines of action (LOA) help simplify and give order to the work. That said, the most important thing is attitude and presenting an idea with utmost clarity. Poses tests can also help predict unusual problems with staging that may require adjustments to cameras, props or even the rigs.

Character studies of Dumbo by master storyteller Bill Peet explore all the various attributes and scenarios that help define a character.

Layout tests :

2D composition and choreography is one of the weakest skills of animators working today. Laying out visually the paths of action and composition is essential for seeing what it all might look like BEFORE putting it all into the digital universe. Like a painter, we need to treat the screen like a canvas, only potentially a moving one, whereby the placement and subsequent movement of characters are responsible for leading the eye of the viewer. Poorly planned and poorly placed action, loses or confuses the audience. Furthermore, knowing and even having some say with the layout might help improve staging and improve the dynamics of a scene.

Awesome layout designs by the masterful John Nevarez, done for the movie Brother Bear. Great design and staging can really inspire an animator’s creativity.

Topographical (alternate view) diagrams:

Seeing the world from different perspectives give us a world view of things. Like an architect that would NEVER build a home without one, they serve as plans for everyone to follow. As an animator, one should know where the character is in space relative to its environment — sets, entry and exit points, props, and position of other characters. It’s very hard to acknowledge how large the virtual space is and even mechanically how long it might take a character to travel in such a space. A bird’s eye view helps put things in perspective physically, especially when cutting back and forth or when characters move both towards and away from camera.

It’s crucial to know where your characters are relative to each other and its environments. Top views bring clarity. From Eric Goldberg’s excellent book, Animation Crash Course.

Rhythm charts:

I like to think of animation as a form of visual music. There are repeated patterns and broken ones. The tempo and flow of a piece of moving art requires a deep analysis and prevision of how it all plays out. Here you find and design the highs and lows, as well as how short or long moments of action or pause need to be. What repeats, and what doesn’t and where the contrast is gonna be. Rhythm charts help define the energy of the scene. It unifies the entire scene.

Dialogue/Facial Charts:

Sometimes it might be prudent to make little diagrams of how a piece of dialogue or music might play out visually. To know or test ahead of time where the peaks in sound or emotion are in the track can heavily affect where we might place a particular pose or action. Do we want or need a certain part of the line to read visually? Then we must be careful that the physicality required there doesn’t obscure the reading of the face or mouth shapes. All too often I see animators missing out on great opportunities for nailing the potential of a great line by having crucial words expressed during the midst of a fast head turn or complicated action. Know where to simplify and where to add sophistication.

Look at these marvelous studies exploring the flow and timing of the dialogue to work with the action by master animator Charlie Bonifacio. Notice the little facial poses that accompany held body poses as well as the tiny charts denoting the spacing and kind of rhythm the artist has in mind.

Written notes:

Not all forms of note taking for the artist need to be drawings. It’s important to make annotations of all sorts, including mental notes and ideas that are just as fleeting as visual ones. Simple guidelines and decisions we want to make, such as who the character is and what the intentions/motives are are very important. Putting down that choice can prevent us from constantly changing our minds. My own thumbnails are almost always accompanied by mental notes, such as little head shakes, or emphasis of an idea, anything that’s too difficult to draw or show. They serve as reminders of things I might use during the physical animation process.

Glen Keane is famous for his amazing draftsmanship and animation, but he also makes copious amounts of notes. They indicate the kind of thinking that goes on in his mind as he discovers, develops and forms his characters.

Special Note:

To those of us who feel incredibly uncomfortable drawing and haven’t adapted to making regular notations, realize this: NO ONE has to see our scribbles. They are there to serve the creator and the creator ALONE. They’re not meant to be stand alone pieces of art. We mustn’t be intimidated by those gorgeous Glen Keane sketches we see online and think that we’re not qualified to use this tool. The final presentation of our work as 3D animators is all digital. To me, making thumbnails is only research and development — part of the process of coming up with something great. Often times, after laying out the poses and rhythm charts for my entire scene, I don’t even look at them anymore. During animation I just fly through it. The ideas and feelings I want have already been burned into my brain thru the act of sketching and note making.

Furthermore, for those of us who rely strictly on video reference, know this: Unless we spend an extensive amount of time learning and practicing real acting and we’re very comfortable in front of the camera, we will not get much useful reference material. The diversity of shape and designs of animated characters seldom correspond to the physics and visual weight of any live human form. Not only will appeal be missing, copying live action recordings might even lead to poor presentation of the body mechanics. Know also that video is only one source of material that can be used. We’re here to create, not copy.

Blue Sky Studio’s super-talented (and super hardworking) Jeff Gabor uses lots of video reference. But he does it in a way that is appropriate with expertly laid out camera work, rich scene analysis and a deep devotion to acting. This compilation is from Jeff’s work from the movie Epic.


Remember that putting things down on paper is primarily a form of preparation. To know where we are and what problems we might have going forward. It defines the path we’re about to take — all towards a particular destination. It’s crucial to know where we’re going.

At the same time, we mustn’t overstay our venture in the preparation phase. Once it’s clear we’ve exhausted the exploration process it’s time to move on. It’s wise to set a budget for how much time we can afford to plan and experiment. Ultimately, we must DO IT. And because things almost never go to plan, we must temper our expectations. Then why go thru all this you might ask? Well, if we don’t we’re even worse off. If you’ve got a fight coming up, and you’re not the least bit prepared, odds are you’re gonna get hurt badly. Those who take a casual approach, become casualties.

“Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.” — Ludwig van Beethoven, Composer