Category Archives: Tips/Demos

If This, Then That

gears

To mankind, gears and machinery represent both progress and automation. Their function is decisively simple — it goes one way or the other.

We all deal with problems, large and small, from time to time. More often than not, there just seems to be too many of them. It’s all very overwhelming and yet we know that it’s all connected — failure in one area of work or life is bound to affect another. We know that multi-tasking doesn’t work. A simpler way to approach this dilemma is to have a bit of a strategy in how to approach all these challenges, especially those that force us to act with immediacy.

“IF THIS, THEN THAT” is a tactic to eliminate the hassle from the entire decision-making process. It helps with both the mundane repetitive chores that hound us and sometimes the tougher, more meaningful challenges as well. It ensures that we get things done and that we keep moving forward.  We don’t want to use up all our time and energy for every single task we face. That’s not a wise usage of those rather limited resources.

There is one profound rule to apply however, and that is, we must stop and look before proceeding. We must always gauge the situation first because gaining perspective is paramount to any kind of progress.

“Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy” ― Isaac Newton

cosmosfox

The 13-part scientific documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s marvelous 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was the milestone documentary that gave us a newfound perspective of our universe and our significance in it.

Here are some basic examples of applying “IF THIS, THEN THAT” to make our lives easier.

ISSUES OF COMPLEXITY

a) IF your work is looking messy, too confusing or hard to read, THEN it’s time to simplify. Take an overall view of the whole shebang. Ask yourself, what it is you’re trying to do? Have you strayed off the main path? If so, what can you remove or reduce to get back to your original vision? How can you simplify your artistic choices so that the essence of it reads while still attaining the levels of depth that you want? Are you listening to the track or the internal direction your body is leaning towards? Did you get external feedback throughout the various phases of work?

This wonderful scene by Supervising Animator Michal Makarewicz disregards complex movement for simplicity. The effort perfectly captures the state of the character’s dilemma. From Pixar’s Inside Out.

b) IF the work is looking bland or flat, THEN perhaps it’s time give it something extra. Here’s an opportunity to step up and do something special and original — the time to dig in for a bit more research and get more feedback. Can a new element be introduced? Or is there a way of adding some texture to your work to make it really sing? How about a change in rhythm or boosting the level of caricature either in shape, timing or attitude? What more can you give of yourself so that you can rest assure knowing that you’ve fulfilled your call of duty? As long as you’re careful not to deviate too much and let the icing ruin the cake so to speak, giving more of yourself is the only way to achieve something spectacular.

Done with careful thought and planning, this Frank Thomas scene is a perfect presentation of contrast, texture and simplicity. From Walt Disney’s Sword In The Stone.

ISSUES OF DIFFICULTY

a) IF the task looks too overwhelming, THEN you must look to reduce either the quantity or quality of what you’re doing. Too many people try to do too much with too little resources. If your deadline is in two weeks, but the work you want to do requires four — and you can’t get that extension — you must redesign you work so that it can be accomplished. Professionals always finish their work. It might be time to take out that extra move or idea you had or reduce the complexity of certain parts that are probably extraneous anyways. Sometimes doing less is more. Doing one thing at a time assures progress. Using the simpler, less original option might actually be the better option. Simplification is a very powerful and underrated concept.

In this marvelous scene by Glen Keane, an incredibly rich and meaningful moment of the story takes place — the deep inner connection of what it means to be human. A lessor animator would’ve tried to do too much. From Walt Disney’s Tarzan, released in 1999.

b) IF the work you’ve done seemed easy or lacking in challenge, THEN you must go back and look for what’s missing. Chances are you saw something you liked and lowered the critical bar in your analysis. You’ve either attained an excessive feeling of accomplishment or you’ve fallen back on you laurels and got formulaic. We’ve all done it from time to time. Rarely is great work accomplished without some sort of serious challenge being met. If you have time and energy here make better use of it otherwise you’ll regret it. If something looks too easy, it’s a glaring sign that you’ve missed something.

“I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

ISSUES OF FOCUS

a) IF you can’t see straight, THEN you must step away. If you’re tired, dazed or confused, you can be assured your work reflects the same. You can’t do serious work without serious focus. Too many of us today are easily distracted. We’ve losing our ability to focus and mindfully attend to the tasks in front of us, and by default, we’ve become more fatigued, lowering both our stamina and potential at the same time. It’s good to take a time out. Taking a break away from work isn’t laziness, it’s wisdom. How often have you put in tons of overtime in the evening only to realize the next morning that you did absolutely nothing of positive consequence in those extra hours? People max out in terms of performance. Sacrificing endless hours to battle your inability to see or act effectively is never the solution regardless if you’re being paid overtime or not. Doing more bad work ensures only a bigger mess to deal with the next day. Only by gaining perspective can you see the sum of all moving parts.

“We have as many planes of speech as does a painting planes of perspective which create perspective in a phrase. The most important word stands out most vividly defined in the very foreground of the sound plane. Less important words create a series of deeper planes.” — Constantin Stanislavski (Author of An Actor Prepares)

b) IF you’re feeling sharp and energetic, THEN your job is to dive right in. Take advantage of that wonderful feeling or deep inspiration and activate yourself! A visit from the creative muses must not be wasted.  It’s time to grab the brush, move the pen or start animating. If you’re in bed, and great ideas pop into your head, write it down somewhere. Be ready to receive, be ready to perform. A failure to act here — usually caused by inertia or even the sudden onslaught of fear (our left brains like to do this) — will result in not only the loss of the idea or inspiration, but will ingrain in you the habit of laziness or worse, paralysis by analysis.

matisse_bedworking

Henri Matisse, in his old age, was very much incapacitated by his physical troubles but that didn’t stop him from creating at any time.

In summary, we can’t and shouldn’t always make our decisions in this sort of automatic or binary way — many things require the dedicated time and contemplation to make the right choices. That said, “IF THIS THEN THAT” is a useful tactic in our arsenal to achieving success and happiness. We’ve all been trained to brush our teeth when we wake up — there’s little debate or thinking about the consequences —  we simply do it because the benefits of doing so far out weigh the costs of not doing so. Automating certain processes saves us the strain on the mental and physical resources that our craft demands. Sometimes, the simplest way is the best way.

“Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury – to me these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best for both the body and the mind.” ― Albert Einstein

Process over Product

CarlosNine

The art world suffered a great loss recently. Argentine painter/illustrator/writer/sculptor/cartoonist Carlos Nine (1944 – 2016) left behind a legacy of creativity and immeasurable beauty. He lived completely devoted to art and his creations are evidence of a life fully expressed. To see more of the artist’s work, go here.

“What do I mean to infer? Just this – that the art, the art of living, involves the act of creation. The working art is nothing. It’s only the tangible, visible evidence of a life. ” — Henri Miller

As artists, we’re always fighting that battle to create. Whether it’s getting ourselves off our butts to make something that matters, or finding the spirit to give that little bit extra for paid work that has lost its luster.

There’s dignity to doing the work, and doing it the best we can. We can call it professionalism or we can simply call it living fully, each and every moment. We have to keep feeding the mind and express what’s inside.

“The unfed mind devours itself.” — Gore Vidal

Duet. The great Glen Keane could easily just ‘hang up the skates’ so to speak – he’s achieved everything imaginable as an animator – having created numerous memorable characters, achieving all kinds of awards and accolades that will assure his legacy. But instead, he continues to explore, and continues to create, testing new mediums, sharing what he wants to say and expressing his craft, the way only he can.

It’s not always so easy to do — keeping in mind “process over product.” External pressures such as deadlines and quotas put intense strain on the faculties. Sometimes what weighs more heavily is our own internal pressures — our desires to improve and our wish to excel, our wish to not disappoint. We all suffer these challenges as creatives.

What helps is getting lost in the work. But that can’t happen without first getting started.

Here are some simple tips that can be helpful:

1. Have a regular ‘start-up’ routine. Top athletes and musicians all have that little “thing” that they do that gets them going before the performance. Visual artists should do the same. You may construct your art, but the doing of it, is still very much a performance. You need to enter a state of mind, body and spirit to create at the highest level. The famous psychologist William James noted that only by rendering daily life as “automatic and habitual,” are we able to “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.”

Shamus-Culhane-Animation-From-Script-To-Screen

Former Disney animator, Shamus Culhane wrote one of the very first books on how to become an animator. Animation From Script to Screen was first published in 1990. It stressed the importance of quick sketching as a warm up before animating, and thus helped numerous artists (the author included) to become better draftsman and more prepared for the rigors of classical animation. He was also one of the first classical artists to insist that new animators at the time learn computer animation which “would be” the future.

2. Have a well-prepared work station, or open space. Nothing is worse that having to clean and prep everything in order to work. Any inertia or laziness you have at the time will soon overwhelm you. This is part of being a professional. Inspirational urges don’t wait – you‘ve got to be ready for action.

“Once it starts to go, it requires no effort.” — David Foster Wallace

Le_Corbusier_in_his_studio_Paris_1961

World renown architect Le Corbusier, seen here in his studio in 1961. An artist’s work space needs to be a place of comfort, inspiration and be conducive to creative activity . It should trigger the mind.

3. Focus on the work. Close the doors if you can, turn off distractions, and set aside a time slot free from appointments or meetings. (This is especially important for those who both create and lead teams.) Social media and checking your neighbors new addition to his figurine collection might be fun, but when you work, keep it a working atmosphere, one that remains conducive to creative production. It’s hard enough getting into the groove of things at the best of times, so don’t let others take you out of it once you’re there.

“There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” — Ernest Hemmingway

Hemmingway_Biography

The great Ernest Hemmingway wrote early in the mornings to avoid distractions. He was a soldier, and carried the discipline of a soldier to this artistry.

4. Look at the big picture of what’s working and what’s not, but break things up and start with a manageable section or piece. Top professionals all work on one section/phase at a time. This is especially important on large or complex pieces. Do not feel small or overwhelmed. Every little accomplishment builds confidence, results and fortitude.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu

Degas - Four studies of Jockeys

Studies of Four Jockeys. Impressionist master Edgar Degas did numerous studies before proceeding with any final painting. Creation is a journey, not a race. One thing at a time, is best.

5. Proceed regardless. Once you’ve decided to work, WORK. Trick yourself if you have to. Whether I was designing, animating or directing, I was never ever 100% sure of anything — I took action in spite of strain or fear. I made choices. Your art is defined by your choices. Know that you’ll be challenged as you go through the various of phases of work from preparation to finish. As they say, just do it.

“Painting completed my life.” — Frida Kahlo

FridaKahloWorkstation

The details of Frida Kahlo’s work station reveal her preparedness and dedication. Despite being crippled with pain and incapacitated from her over thirty-five operations, she was always ready to create. Art’s a lot of work. You’ve got to fight through resistance and overcome the unexpected. Creation and excellence is not for the weak-minded.

6. Practice and develop your skills. That’s all part of the process of being an artist. Again we come back to how performers in other competitive fields do it. It’s common knowledge that professional athletes should train like they compete. So whether you’re doing a life class, sketching or acting out a shot, don’t do it sloppily. Do it with focus. This doesn’t mean not having fun, but just know that our monkey minds are easily weakened by the sloppy repetition of bad habits. And if you get used to only giving 60%,  that’s likely what you’ll get when the stakes are higher and the pressures mount. Our attitude matters.

KeithHaring

American artist and social activist Keith Haring (1958-1990) seen here in one of his many famous exhibits. Prolific, daring, and personal, Haring’s remarkably simple yet beautiful work both profoundly altered the art scene and emotionally moving millions around the world. He produced as much art as he could before he succumbed to HIV-related illness.

“What is an artist? He’s a man who has antennae, who knows how to hook up to the currents which are in atmosphere, in the cosmos.” — Henry Miller

It’s a huge privilege to be a working artist. Yes, it’s not easy. Failure is a necessity and we often have to make compromises. In commercial fields such as illustration or animation — where deadlines, quota, and the need to appease our superiors or clients is paramount – it’s all part and parcel of working in a craft that requires the talents and efforts of many. That is more the reason to enjoy every bit of the action. It’s what fills the day. And so we shall embrace it all the best we can and not get too insanely focused on the end results. The outcomes are inevitably a natural by-product of our efforts. Being an artist is all about the process of being alive and expressing ourselves as fully as we can.

Icon and martial artist Bruce Lee was all about the process — using each and every creative moment as an opportunity for full-out, honest personal expression.

Here’s the great teacher-painter, Robert Henri, to remind us of the value of our efforts:

These results, however crude, become dear to the artist who made them because they are records of states of being that 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 greater existence… The object therefore is the state. We may be even be negligible of the byproduct, for it will be, inevitably, the likeness of its origin, however crude.”

nine01

Another insatiable piece from the collection of Carlos Nine’s many creations. There aren’t too many better than Carlos, a master who lived a life of constant creation. Rest in Peace.

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

Rituals — How They Can Help You.

WileECoyote_plans

It was part of Wile E. Coyote’s ritual to always have a plan. His didn’t work (that was the joke), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. Image from Warner Bros.

Rituals are cool. They help you get things done without having to stress too much about them. As animation artists, our jobs often feel too overwhelming, and if you’ve got the added responsibilities of running a team, the more you have to do, the more you have to think. Thinking requires extra energy and having rituals helps ease that burden.

Take for example the issue of exercise – exercise is so incredibly important yet it’s stunning how so many people don’t make it a ritualistic part of their lives. The modern life of working on the computer for long periods of time has been scientifically proven to damage the body leading to poorer vision, chronic pain, weight gain and increased risk of repetitive strain injury and heart disease.  Physical exercise alleviates a lot of these problems, including refreshing the mind, regaining energy and building confidence.

Goofy-gymnastics

Still from  Goofy Goofy Gymnastics, part of Walt Disney Studios’ brilliant “How to” series from the 1940’s.

Besides mental and physical maintenance, rituals, selectively designed and personalized, can help you as an artist and your growth as a human being in general. I couldn’t live without my particular rituals for too long. They help assure me that I’ve done something just for me. If something can ease the burdens of living or benefit in some way or the other, I like to think of it as a no-brainer to make it a part of my repertoire. Think of it as maintenance – like brushing your teeth.
Grumpy_Tytla

The legendary Bill Tytla had the curious habit of animating his characters in multiple colors – separating body masses from limbs, as well as items like clothing and held objects. Animation is a very long and complicated process and this was a great way for him to stay organized. Production drawing of Grumpy from Walt Disney’s 1937 landmark film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I, for one, prefer to start the day with my mind cleansed and refreshed, so that it has a chance of performing well for the rest of it. Each morning, depending on the job/assignments I have at the time, I’ll partake in my ritual of meditation or exercise or both. It’s like shaking off the rust before you move. The things that follow, seem natural, like a good breakfast and getting things in order, such as reviewing your goals and activities for the day ahead. I know that no matter what happens from that point on, I’ve already taken care of me, and only then, do I have a chance to take care of others.

Superman

Unless you’re Superman, the best course of action is to take care of yourself first, so you can do a better job with everything else. Image courtesy of DC Comics.

As for doing art, when I turn on my lamps I know I’ll paint. And when I’m done, I’ll ritualistically wash and dry my brushes afterwards and leave myself a clean station to begin the next time around. When I animate, I automatically check to see how long I plan to take, whose shot precedes or follows mine, what references I need, and then sit down to listen to the track for the first hour or two, before I go about shooting video or doing thumbnail drawings. I don’t have to think about these things, I just do them automatically.

My old colleague Aaron Hartline always put in the preliminary work before animating his shots. This assured him that he’s explored as many options as possible, as well as having a solid reference point to work from. Video from his work on Blue Sky Studio’s hit series, Ice Age. (To see more of the artist’s work, go here.)

Like all routines, you have to try and experiment many things. It’s all very personal – what works for others may not work for you. That’s part of the fun in finding yourself.

“Try everything that can be done. Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking … Learn your own possibilities.” – George Bellows
GeorgeBellows_father

Painting of the artist’s father, by George Bellows.

Here’s a list of routines you might want to consider incorporating into your daily life as an artist:

  1. Review the days’ work ahead, write it down before beginning any work.
  2. Set a timer for that break at 90-120 minutes. You’ll never remember to stretch, rest or walk away if you don’t.
  3. Have a regular time of the day for that extended coffee break and walk outdoors – get away from that stale, office air.
  4. Get into a habit of leaving the work day no later than a particular time  – again, set a timer or alarm if you have to. If you work from home, get some separation from your job – close the door and don’t return.
  5. Set up regular activities, spent solo, or with friends or family, that will serve as something to look forward to after work – it’ll make you more focused and efficient.
  6. Try your best to leave any internet browsing/chatting to certain times of the day — but know that it will NOT serve as a break from the computer.
  7. Have references, materials and tools conveniently placed so you don’t have to drag stuff out in order to perform. (i.e. Always keep your work station clean and conducive to peak performance.)
  8. Get into the mindset of showing your work to your peers regularly — don’t just wait for dailies.
  9. Have the same organized routine for starting work. If you’re animating, it should be automatic to set time for listening to the track, to collect/record video, and to do thumbnails.
  10. Have the same routine for finishing up your work, including file naming, folder clean up and basically a  standardized way of delivering things — this way you always ship and ship without issues.
  11. Have a regular time of day/week to work on your skills as an artist — professionals in all fields do this. Don’t stop learning or sharpening your tools just because you have a “job.”
  12. Tailor your routines to you and your body only. Only then do they have any chance of working.

These things may seem like a lot to do or even think about doing but that’s precisely the point; if you don’t make it a part of your “auto” routine, you’ll HAVE TO think about it. Once you’ve automated the procedure, you just do it, and you’ll be glad that you did. Routines will actually save you time and energy. And remember, it’s good habits and routines that separate professionals from amateurs.

JamesJeanSketchbook

A page from James Jean’s marvelous collection of sketchbooks. Jean, a prominent comics illustrator and fine artist, has a habit of drawing everything he sees, everywhere he goes. His works are filled with life, beauty and authenticity. (To see more of the artist’s work, go here.)

In the words of Twyla Tharp, Dance choreographer extraordinaire and author of The Creative Habit:

“I don’t think that scheduling is uncreative. I think that structure is required for creativity.”

What’s your ritual? Do you have one? And is it one that gets you going or keeps you going? If not, why haven’t you changed? Rituals and habits are powerful things — first we make them, then they make us. Make and design yours. One of the greatest sensations you get from having rituals is knowing that you’ve taken care of things. Not many things in art or life give you that feeling of security.

The Power of Posing

Penny_OllieJohnston

This poignant drawing by Ollie Johnston, shows that sometimes just a single pose can tell everything there is to know about a character and its situation. Production drawing from Disney’s The Rescuers.

For animators, the importance of posing can’t be overstated. It’s one of the key components that define this art form in terms of performance, appeal and story telling. Poses, fundamentally, should be thought of as a visual representation of an idea in the form of shapes. After all, animation is defined ultimately by the shapes and how they move. Hence the commonly heard expression that animation is all about pose and timing. But poses always comes first, everything else comes afterwards.

“The key part of action (needs to be) done first, ‘inessentials’ (are) added after the main action is completed.” – Bill Tytla

A marvelous, albeit short, arrangement of “key” drawings (shot mostly on 4’s) by Ollie Johnston from Walt Disney’s The Rescuers . You don’t need a lot of poses to define what you want to say – but everything you do say must be strong, clear and accurately define the energy of the scene.

The pose test is the ultimate expression of the importance of shapes. In such a test, animators aim to find the most expressive shapes that define:

a) the story (main ideas)

b) the emotion and physicality (inner and outer forces)

Therefore, there is first the need to find the correct, most basic expressions that define the skeleton of the scene – as defined by the key story poses – the ones you’ve identified via your thumbnail sketches and notes.

MiltKahl_Rescuers

This beautiful page of thumbnails by Milt Kahl, done for Disney’s The Rescuers, was used to help find and define story poses, rather than animation poses, which aim instead to support and refine the stated expressions in terms of a more complete physicality. Story keys lay the framework for the entire scene, and need to be very carefully explored.

A note about the concept of posing. The key pose is not so much a static “pose” (for example, like what’s commonly glorified in fashion photography), but a moment in time that defines an idea. It is the common mistake of beginners to think that these keys are frozen. More often than not, key poses, especially in the blocking phase,  represent an area defined by a particular expression – an expression that may take, more often than not, a range of frames which will continue to progress or recede in any particular direction. In other words, major story keys, are often just place holders for a region of movement, that defines a singular idea. When any animation is complete, story keys, like any other key frames, often appear seamless among other frames that surround them.

A lovely animation test from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by the magnificent James Baxter. Notice how each key demonstrates excellent weight, beautiful flow and is loaded with personality and charm.

Only after the basic outline of your scenes are set up, can you, as an animator, begin to refine and clarify the physical path your character takes in order to best express those ideas. This is where you define the physical, visual path that your scene must show so that your ideas, can come across believably. The story (idea) is the goal, but the visual shapes and movement are the foundation (physicality). Or as Paul Rand said so clearly:

“When form predominates, meaning is blunted. But when content predominates, interest lags … the genius comes in when both of these fuse.”

Although timing and movement is as crucial in making any animation complete, it is the poses that ultimately define the ideas, much like a great photograph, painting or logo, can say so much even when idle. Your images, i.e.  your poses, should be so strong and clear that the content that you are trying to get across to an audience is unmistakable, even before the additional elements of form, that is, the use of time and movement, are added to the equation.

StoryvsAnimKeys_web

The differences between “story” vs “animation” keys. Story keys form the foundation of the shot. Individually, story keys may change as supporting animation keys are added.

In terms of working order, it’s always best to know and test those key story poses first. Only then can you fill in the rest of the framework so to speak. Since your story keys are the major pillars of your shot, your remaining animation keys serve more to accurately flesh out the rest of the structure – defining all those elements that make for solid and entertaining animation.

“Start by thinking like a comic strip artist – if you can develop the ability to encapsulate an expression of attitude in a single drawing (pose), then you’ve already gone some distance towards successfully communicating to your audience.” – Eric Goldberg

When it comes to poses, I personally like to simplify them – thinking of them as remarkably obvious statements of shape and form. In other words, they work, even without detail or polish, or anything fancy.

With minimal detail, Milt Kahl’s wonderful rough animation test clearly defines the joy, enthusiasm and spirit of its wooden-puppet hero, Pinocchio.

Poses should have all the elements that make for great visual presentation. Here’s a list of things to consider:

  1. Clarity of expression (idea)
  2. Unmistakable visual form (reads even without movement or sound)
  3. Balance (accounts for gravity and momentum)
  4. Staging (what’s the point of view?)
  5. Sense of movement and life (expresses/implies past, present and future action)
  6. Line of action (unifies form and energy)
  7. Believable construction (respect for anatomy)
  8. Line and form (interplay of internal and external form)
  9. Solidity in dimension (real depth)
  10. Solidity in weight (acknowledgement of forces)
  11. Absence of distraction, or disharmonious elements
  12. Appeal

While mastering each element is a monstrous challenge to any artist, such a checklist would be a great way to assess your work. Failure in any one of them risks making your animation anything less than spectacular.

True, there is a lot more to making great animation than ‘just’ posing, but aiming towards making more distinctive and appealing posing will give you a stronger foundation for the rest of your animation to build on.

“For it to entertain, it must capture… it must rivet you to the screen, (and) it must demand your attention. It must hold the audience.” – Glen Keane.

We conclude this post with a delicious collection of scenes by the always excellent Doug Sweetland.  A sequence of animation like this is defined by great posing and supplemented by marvelous execution of movement and timing.

Doug Sweetland’s character animation of the Pelican, from Pixar’s Finding Nemo, stands, in my biased opinion, as one of the best sequences in animation history. It defines all the elements that help distinguish this artform for its unparalleled combined expression of emotion, form, movement, and beauty.