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:
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
a heavy object, especially one being lifted or carried.
the ability of someone or something to influence decisions or actions.
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.
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.
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).
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 famous 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:
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.
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 has traveled anywhere 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, when motivated enough or have gathered enough momentum, can also move very 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.
“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 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