Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How I Study Animation

If studying in school is essential to getting good grades, couldn't you say the same for creating good animation?  If you truly want to have better animation, you need to study.  More importantly, do you know HOW TO STUDY?  When I was a kid, getting good grades never came easy to me.  No matter how much I read through all the material, I would still do poorly on my tests.  It wasn't until my Mom showed me HOW TO STUDY, that things changed.  I came upon the same realization very early in my career.  I remember comparing my animations to the first Monsters Inc. Teaser.  You know, the one where they stumble out of the closet.   In comparison, my animations looked like dog shit, and despite my best efforts, they were staying that way.  I had hit the all-demoralizing plateau.  I just sat there and stared at the teaser, as if looping it over and over again was going to somehow magically infuse my brain with the talents it took to create it.  Then I muttered stupidly...


Then it hit me.  I had to learn how to study a shot like that, if I ever wanted to create a shot like that.   At the time, the only thing I could kinda grasp, was that the 12 Principles of Animation were pretty important.  So, using those principles as a guide I studied.  I remember starting with the first principle and combing the teaser for every example of that principle I could find.   Since then, my process has evolved quite a bit, and I will share that with you.  Before I do, I'd like to label this page with the age old disclaimer

"just because this works for me, it doesn't necessarily mean it will work for you."...because I'm dumb.

SO LETS START STUDYING!!! (that never sounds exciting no matter how many exclamation points you tag at the end of it)
In order to study, we need to study something.  Picking the right shot to study is perhaps the most important thing to do.  Its essential that you pick something that inspires you.  Who cares about length, content, who said what, if you respond to it, your questions and answers will stick with you.

*** TIP ***
With every shot or every test I animate, I try to learn something new and get something out of it.  No matter how big or small it may be. To help me do so, I would study a clip that would help me learn that "thing."  If you are in need of answers, they'll soak in that much more.

For this demonstration I have selected a shot from the movie THE SECRET OF NIMH. 

My first group of questions are pretty standard.  They try to establish context, and what I responded to.  The more questions I ask, the more specific they get to the shot.  Its important to keep the questions organic.  Let your brain dance around.    
Can you give a brief description of the shot?
Its a scene from The Secret of Nimh, in which Miss Brisby soaks her cut arm in a water dish within a birdcage.
If not a stand alone, what is the context of the shot?
In the scene leading up to this shot, Miss Brisby needs to drug the evil cat so that the good guys can carry out their plans to save everyone.  Unfortunately she gets caught and put in a birdcage.  While waiting for rescue she learns that the good guys are in hotwater, and if she doesn't get to them in time, everyone will die, including her family.  In the few shots leading up to this, she has made several attempts to escape, but hurts herself in the process.  While soaking she spots a way out.
Why Did I pick this shot?
As a kid I would rewind my VHS tape and watch this sequence over and over again.  Of all the much cooler shots there was something about this one in particular that really grabbed me.  Perhaps because of the cool water effect, or perhaps something else.
Any initial thoughts on why you think its a great shot?
I truly feel the pain in her arm in the pose.  The interaction with the water feels real.  There is also a subtle but very clear thought shift.
What is the shot saying?
that she is in pain, but she needs to put that aside for now and find a way out. 

...What does that say?
that there more important things at stake than just her personal well being.
How does the moment feel?
A quiet calm before the storm
...Why do you think that is?
because its important to focus on her pain.  To much action might action, might take away from the personal experience in the moment.  More specifically iit might take away from that pain. 
...Why do you think the pain is important?
Its clear she is vulnerable.  She's not just a cartoon, she is real.
***A HA!!!***
maybe this is why i responded to it.  You don't feel that too often with cartoons.  If I think she can get hurt, she feels more real to me, and the tension and stakes in the movie just raised a bit.

How would I have screwed up that shot?
  • I would have had to much fun with the water refraction bit, or
  • focused a lot of time on the interaction with belly deformers against the rim of the bowl, or
  • made the take/reaction too big. 
  • Or focused more on the struggle getting under the cage.
Is there anything else you respond to in the shot?
Her quiet reaction makes you feel the sense of the enironment she is in.  If she makes too much of a noise, or too big of a reaction she might draw attention to herself.

Now that I've established some context, feeling, and a few reasons why I respond to it, I try to delve into the mechanics of the shot.  Attempting to break down the animators performance.

What is the story telling pose of the shot? 

Its the pose that conveys the pain in the arm.  It also establishes a well telegraphed/staged landmark goal/feeling to contrast from later when she sees her way out.  
...and why is that?
The pose puts emphasis on the hand in the water, while mainting a very strong silhouette on the head.  The head provides the point of interest for the rest of the shots information to feed off of.
What are the goals and/or thought processes throughout the shot?
She goes from attempting to soothe the pain in her arm ---> seeing an opening ---> realizing its might be a way out ---> trying to get out.
!!! Brain geek out moment (they happen so let them happen) !!! 
Why do you think the interaction with the water feels real?
The look of the refraction.  The sound plays a major role here.  Animation does not overpower that sound. Ripples, the little bubble.  The even spacing on the hands opening and closing.  She's actively feeling the water.
Back on track!
How is the thought shift sold?
A very clear and well staged gear change.  look, see, react.   Notice how nothing else pulls from that focus.

Define a couple of quick characteristics that describe this character? How did the animator convey this?
  • gentle, timid, feminine. 
  • subtle brow animation.  Girls never get heavy on the brows
  • emphasis on eyelashes
  • even sharp movements are soft
  • small mouth.  Not goofily expressive
Can you relate to the characters experience in any way?  Does it feel similar?
I remember finding a beer bottle on the street as a kid and smashing it.  It slashed my thumb and I remember the throbbing pain in my thumb. I kept bending it for some reason.  Maybe it was the throbbing, or just making sure it still worked.  I was panicked and afraid to go home, because I shouldn't have been playing with the bottle in the first place.  
In the shot, when she pumps her hand that matches the feeling the most.  Can totally relate.
Disect all key body, face, and hand poses?  What do they convey in support of what is successful about the shot?
  • rhythm all leads to the hand in the water
  • lots of angles and tension - anxiety
  • more relaxed
  • focus on the eyes and hand in the water
  • more rounded forms and curves
  • more angular again
  • more tension
  • everything driving forward
  • 3 main points of interest give focus to important elements. 
  • intense eyes, tension in mouth corners. 
  • ears and cheeks perky with tension
  • overall relief
  • calming relaxed eye pose in contrast to previous
  • showing the tongue and opening the mouth more can help feel the breath
  • ears relaxing a bit
  • notice curls in ears keep rhythm forward.  Blocks it from drawing back to tail.
  • mouth transitioning to small nothing
  • eyes relaxed half looking
  • ears relaxed
  • mouth smaller
  • eyes widen.  
  • Pupils pushed out a bit
  • rhythm in face points toward opening
  • nice opposing action with ears/eye draw back and apart from mouth.  
  • nose maintains aim
  • look at how all angles still lead you toward the nose pointing at the opening.
  • rhythm of face more curving almost telegraphing the arc she is going to travel in.
  • nice crunch in eyes
  • more opposing action
  • maintains solid direction
  • subtle overlap in hair
  • big antic up, but clear telegraph of direction
  • mouth catches up to the head rise
  • starts to point down toward direction
  • chin juts out to help suggest air build in silhouette because of foreshortened cheek.
  • you can feel the force in all of the lines of the face bringing her down
  • scrLt (screen Left) - nice and relaxed.  Curve draws focus toward elbow
  • scrRt (screen Right) - nice blocky tension.  Suggests holding a lot of weight
  • scrLt - thumb out and slightly relaxed fist has feeling of pumping while getting blood pressure taken
  • scrRt - Neg space between hand and arm suggests delicately holding arm back.  Truly feel pain in this pose.  Its as if she doesn't want to press too hard on arm to cause more injury.
  • scrLt - continuing the pumping as if to feel the blood coursing through her vains
  • scrLt - Look how she gently searches with the tips of her fingers. 
  • scrRt - you can see the breakdown of the hand grabbing onto the rim of the glass
  • both hands - have a slightly relaxed grip.  Rhythm helps to lead up into the arms and draw toward face. 
  • hand - you can feel how the elbow creaping toward the hand is affecting the rotation of the wrist and thus raising the pinky a bit.

What is the texture to the timing?  Do different parts of the body have different speeds?
  • there is a fun texture to the timing of all the parts of the body getting into its first pose. Body eases in nicely, then the limbs move sharply to a 1,2,3-4  paced beat.  The last arm drop skips the next beat and happens on the up-beat.
  • the time between blinks builds the tempo of the shot by getting quicker and quicker.
  • the hand pumping sets up a nice timing and the quick hand move up happens on the upbeat of that timing.
*** A-HA!!! ***
suprises happen on upbeats to established rhythms!!!
spacing texture - sharps vs. softs - do the different parts of the body space differently in a consistant way?
  • head is very even
  • arms and legs sharp
  • body moves fast but has long eases
How does the rhythm of the dialogue and/or score, affect the animation? Does it hit beats? move lyrically?
no dialogue.  But the score supports her thought process and emotion.
Notice the trill in sound after she notices the way out.  
where do you see patterns of movement?
  • blinks set up a nice beat pattern.  They build to a faster tempo through the shot.    
  • the nose does cool loops back then forward a couple of times through the shot.  Biggest one on fr112 - 121.  Then breaks that patter on 160-end
  • There is also a pattern in the timing on the last two moves.  95-120 147-165
  • cool timing to getting into first main pose
find the reversals?
  • mainly in the legs as they stretch out
  • some drag in the hand as she pushes forward
  • hair drag
Does the animator do more than serve the point of the shot? Overanimate?
no animator did not overstuff the shot
what is motivating the movement?
  • Pain, then thought
  • at first the pain in her arm is motivating the rest of the body to move around it.  As if not to stress the injury anymore. 
  • Then the subtle look, see, react, gets her thought going and she attempts escape.
silhouette? Shapes in front of shapes
  • silhouette discussed above.  Points of interest and rhythm
  • the dark arm stands out nicely in front of her light brown face and chest fur.
  • face and chest fur add nice focus

where is the viewers eye? any choreography between elements?  how is that handled?
at first its in the water.  Then the arm slows down and eye is transferred to the face on slow head rise.
Is there any twinning?  if so how is that handled?
How did the animator handle contact?
  • Then tension on the hands reads clear
  • The belly is affected by resting on the water bowl perch
  • slight curve to the feet
  • jaw touch water fr134
  • notice how the hands reaching out to grab the water bowl touches with inside of palm closest to index finger first.  Almost as if to stop the momentum a bit.
  • also notice when she jumps into the water how the outside pinky is affected by the elbow placement.
How did the animator handle keep alive?
  • the character is always moving, settling and thinking.  And then there are a lot of residuals off that.  Yet it all still feels quiet.
  • when the main parts of the body are not moving there is a slight breath fr83
  • tail settle
Listen to the audio.  What subtle cues did they use?  what did they add?  take away from?
  • perhaps my favorite part is the sound of the water.  Its so quiet, and the animation does not overpower it.
  • 1 breath
How does the point come across without sound or dialogue?
  • you get a good sense of the subtle quiet tension through small tensions in the eases in and out of moves.
  • overall nothing is too loud in terms of movement.
  • eyes make a strong statement yet they are not overanimated.
where did the animator add details?
  • little jaw breath fr53
  • tail flick fr47ish
  • little jaw breath (touch water) fr134
  • fur floating in the water
Is the character being animated an animal?  If so where did the animator sprinkle in little reminders that it is?
  • tail keep alive and tail flick at the head of the shot, reminds us that its a mouse
  • little ear shifting around frame 35
  • 25-33 how the thigh deforms, is a good fleshy example of mouse anatomy
was there anything bad in the shot?  If so what was it and why?
  • her ears seem to translate into pose evenly between 32-44
  • 101 - 107 arm proportion changes and its weird.  Can chalk it up to the refraction though.  Still stands out a bit though.
  • I wish the belly contact deformation was affected more on the weight shift down.  Sort of pops on and maintains.
Then I'll try to imagine how you can achieve some of the moves I like with RIG controlls. 
...If i'm lucky enough to be working with the guy who did it, I would open up there file to study it.  Never ask, they'll say no.  
Lastly pull up your principles of animation and frame f*** the shot for every example you can find.
Each question will lead to more questions and answers.  Its through this process that we will better understand the material we are viewing, and more importantly what things we can do, and think about to get our own stuff to improve.


  1. Wow.. This was very deep and informative.... Cheers for the insight, and cheers to Garrett for pointing this out during class.

  2. Awesome post, thank you for this. A lot of times i will frame through shots that i love, but i realize there is a lack of in depth questions i don't pose to the shot which would be more helpful. This is going to be a great exercise that i will be adapting from now on. Thanks you.

  3. great post nick, very insightful stuff. thanks for sharing! :)

  4. wow this is really so nice.. ;) thanks


  5. Thank you so much for sharing! I'm learning a lot from the things you have written here.

  6. Great post and example!
    Thanks and i'll start doing this right away