Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Distractions and Expectations

After a recent conversation with an aspiring animator friend, I am prompted to write a brief posting related to the subject of expectations and the learning process in general with a particular slant toward animation. When I started in animation in 1969, the learning process was infinitely more difficult than it is today due to the fact that animation was all photographic and equipment was hard to get and really expensive if you could get it. So I had to find a job in a small local studio doing all the grunt jobs, basically for free, just to get some exposure to the work.

We all have it so amazingly great today in comparison. These are very exciting times for people who love animation and want to learn and practice the craft. But these can also be very confusing times too. When I started there were not a lot of choices and even fewer opportunities. Now there are way too many choices and almost limitless opportunities. It can be exciting and frustration at the same time because things can be so overwhelming with so much out there and so many choices flying around. It can be too much of a good thing, which can actually be a bad thing. It is so easy to be distracted or to feel pressured by unrealistic expectations.

The availability of so many really powerful software applications as animation production tools is a great example of the two edged sword of today’s learning environment. Someone is always “in your face” touting the latest and greatest new software product. It is a perpetual feature and functionality candy store and you are guaranteed to get a whopping belly ache if you try to digest all the available goodies. Seriously, almost every significant software application that is marketed to aid in animation production covers the basic fundamentals needed and you really only need one to learn and develop your skills. So my advice to anyone starting out is “to pick your poison and put blinders on to the rest of the techno hype” and just stay focused on learning and practicing your chosen craft.

Concentrate on learning and practicing skills pertaining to animating and creating content and not on mastering software tools. Focus on learning the fundamentals of the craft using only those minimal tools or software features absolutely required for facilitating your learning. Your goal should be to reach the point where you can create something entertaining within reasonable expectations.

This brings up the subject of reasonable expectations. If you are a single student, particularly a person who is trying to learn through a self directed process and not specifically attending an art school or university, then not only do you have to be very disciplined to avoid the massive number of distractions being flung before you, but you also have to be practical in your expectations as to what you can reasonably produce and how long it can take you to achieve certain levels of results. I often have looked at artists whose work I admired and wanted to jump right in and do similar stuff. But every time I would research their work, I found that what I usually was looking at and admiring was the results of a significant evolution over time. If you want to test this, spend a little time researching Warner Bros. Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd. You will be shocked and amazed at how crude and different these characters, the stories, and the animation was when they started and it took a lot of talented people a pretty long time, 10 -15 years, to evolve them to the level we usually attribute to that style of cartoons. That realization will help you to appreciate what you should realistically be expecting from your brief beginnings to do this type of work. You aren’t going to be a Chuck Jones or a Ken Harris or a Ben Washam in a matter of months or even years. Realistically you may never come close to doing anything near the quality of work done by these legends. You should definitely strive to be as great as these guys were, but you need to set your sites slightly lower in the beginning. The real danger in self directed learning is the loss of momentum and enthusiasm. Most people just plain quit. So I always recommend that a self learner set themselves some realistic goals that they can achieve and celebrate. Lots of little and frequent successes are critical to sustaining momentum in learning anything.

Here are some suggestions to help make sense of it all. First, set reasonable realistic goals and milestones for your progress. Second, try to be realistic in your expectations and more importantly try not to get distracted by all the noise created by all the choices and hype. None of this animation stuff is all that difficult if you just focus on learning the essentials, it isn’t rocket science. Drawing skills and a good handle on anatomy and life drawing is essential. Learning to relate what you draw to the forces involved, internal and external is essential. Recognizing that what you say is more important than how it is said is also essential. Find a cartooning or animation style that is comfortable to you and work with that and try not to be drawn into a lot of distraction trying to be everything all at once. You can't become "super artist" over night or even in a few short years, skills take time to develop. Give yourself lots of opportunities for small frequent successes and celebrations of what you are doing so that you stay highly motivated. And last but not least, reach out to mentors and collaborators to get advice and assistance, they are out there and easier to reach than ever before in human history. All you have to do is communicate and interact with them.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Understanding Timing in Animation Part 1

When you begin to animate an action there are a number of planning steps involved. Certainly as previously discussed one of those planning steps is to think about how you want to present the action. We might want to refer to this as our story telling approach. We have some aspect of the story that we are going to communicate through the action we are going to animate and there are many possible ways to present this information. As an example, are we going to be close up or far away from the action? What comedic or dramatic effects do we want to achieve? There are many possible alternatives and choices. We have to explore these alternatives through our thumb nail visualizations. Eventually we will decide on an approach and then we can begin to work on producing some key poses.

The main key poses are also often referred to as “extremes”. Their basic definition is: the farthest point that a part of the action moves before changing direction. These poses are normally generated from the sketches you have made during the thumb nailing stage of planning an action. If you’re doing key pose animation, you are leaving some drawings in the action sequence out and drawing just the extreme positions. You will come back to the inbetween drawings at a later time. With key pose animation, you can do all the extremes and then decide on the actual action timing later. In future discussions we will talk about the advantages and disadvantages of animating by going from key pose to key pose VS animating an action straight ahead. Straight ahead animation starts at drawing number 1 and then you do drawing number 2, then drawing number 3 and so on. The big difference is in the planning of the timing. With straight ahead animation, you decide on the timing as you do each drawing. As you will eventually discover there are aspects of character animations that are best approached pose to pose and aspects that are best approached straight ahead. For the purposes of this discussion we will focus on pose animation and the timing of that approach to animating action.

The subject of timing for animation is very complex; I plan to explore it slowly through a series of articles which will build on each prior article. As a preface there are technical aspects to animating and then there are the performance aspects. We will be starting mostly on technical aspects to build a foundation but eventually we will try to blend them together which is ultimately how you will work.

Background Basics

Just to get everyone on the same page I’ll start with some definitions of terms and concepts.

A few additional drawing terms we need to establish beyond the notion of extreme drawings, are keys, breakdowns and inbetweens. As I previously mentioned “extremes” are boundary drawings for an action. They denote the farthest point that a part of the action moves before changing direction. They are the first drawings that you would produce to establish major starting and ending positions. Key drawings are also important positioning drawings like extremes they also establish significant points in a motion. The most influential keys inbetween extremes are often referred to as breakdowns because they provide important information about how the action transitioned between the extremes. They break down the action into a greater level of detail. The other transitional drawings between extremes and keys are called inbetweens. The names aren't of any great significance except that they give us a way to label a particular drawing in the sequence when we are discussing them from an order of creation perspective. The terms keys and inbetweens are sufficient for most discussions. A key drawing does what its name implies; it provides us with key information about the action. Keys alone can give us a good sense of the action although they are usually not sufficient to provide as believable or as fluid an action by themselves. Once we have key drawings we will produce drawings inbetween those keys that will transition the action and provide the visual fluidity we want.

Film is physically divided up into a continuous series of static picture images each of which is called a frame of the film. We will use the term “frame” to mean a single picture image composed of one or more drawn elements. To create the illusion of motion our series of frames are presented to the viewer one at a time. The rate of change from one frame to the next, the speed at which the frames are presented to the viewer, is called the frame rate. (FPS) The speed of an action is determined by the number of frames that are used to represent that action. The speed of presentation of those frames is controlled by the frame rate (FPS). The frame rate is going to be a constant for your film so its only value is to be used as a tool for calculating screen time. You use the frame rate to convert time into frames.

“On screen” time is simply the amount of time an action is visible on the screen. “On screen” time is determined by the number of frames used to represent an action. Frame rate is only the tool we use to know that we need a specific number of frames to represent a specific amount of “on screen” time. How much screen time we want to show for an action is its speed and that translates to some specific number of frames. The more frames used to represent an action the slower the action appears and conversely the fewer frames used to represent an action the faster the action appears, because it is on the screen less time. You don’t change the frame rate to control the speed of an action. You change the number of frames used to represent the action.

Technically, the two major factors involved in timing an action are speed and distance, also often referred to as spacing. The speed of an action is determined by the number of frames that are used to represent that action. Distance or the spacing is the amount of change between those frames. If there is no change between successive frames then there is no distance or space between the frames. This is called a “hold”. When there is a significant change in appearance between successive frames that is a large space or “gap”. When there is a tiny, very small, change in appearance between successive frames that is a small space. We will refer to a unique frame as a “change” and a non-unique frame as a “repeat” or a “hold”. So the speed of an action tells us how many total frames we will need and the spacing tells us which and how many of those total frames are “changes” and which and how many of those frames are “repeats” and how significant the difference in appearance is between any two successive changes.

One way to slow down an action is to use more frames to represent this action and to speed up an action you will want to use fewer frames. This seems simple enough conceptually, but what does it really mean? Supposing I have a fixed amount of screen time and therefore a fixed number of frames to present this action, how then do I slow down or speed things up when I can’t just change the relative number of frames? The answer is in the spacing. By spacing successive drawings closer together I am in effect increasing the number of frames used and therefore I slow down the action. The smaller the space the slower the movement appears. Conversely if I broaden the spacing between successive drawings I am using fewer frames and the action is faster. The larger the space the faster the movement appears. So having set boundary positions with key drawings I can determine the location, space wise, of my inbetween or inbetweens by evaluating how fast the transition between the keys should be. If the transition is constant then my inbetween will be half way between the keys. If the transition is accelerating then my inbetweens will be spaced closer to the initial key position to create a slow out that speeds up. If the transition is decelerating than my inbetweens will be closer to the second key to create an ease in that begins faster and slows down.

Therefore a significant part of our planning of the animation of an action, once we have determined the presentation aspects, is that we must decide on the on screen time and spacing of the action. From the on screen time we will know the number of frames available and the spacing will then tell us how many of those frames need to be unique and how significantly they change sequentially.

Every action is different. Two separate characters will do the same action in completely different ways. In fact the same character may do the same action differently just based on circumstances. There are numerous determining factors. Things like the situation, the personality and mannerisms of the character, the character’s environment, physical characteristics and the basic laws of nature and physics to name a few. So, how does someone learn timing? I can think of three fundamental ways. You can learn timing through observation, through analysis and study, and through experience. Observation is looking at similar actions in the real world and learning from your observations. Analysis and study is more focused on learning from others. For example watching lots of animated works frame by frame to analyze how and why they were done that way. And experience comes from actually sitting down and doing the drawings and making the adjustments as you work through creating the action.

So let's just summarize briefly. We have an action that will be presented on the screen for some determined amount of time. Using the frame rate we will determine how many frames are needed to represent this on screen time. Some of those frames will be change drawings either keys or inbetweens and potentially some of those frames will be repeats or holds.

OK, so having determined the total number of frames to represent our action we now have to create this action. Which frames will be key drawings? Which frames will be inbetween drawings? Which frames will be repeats? Will we always be using even spacing? Will we be using uneven spacing and if so when and why? What is the process? There are many things that we will have to evaluate and consider like weight, external forces, emotions etc.

Continued in Part 2

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Thumb Nails Are Time Well Spent

I have written previously about making thumb nails as an early step in the process of animating. So I just want to make a quick review of this concept. First of all thumb nails are basically throwaway drawings. By that I mean that they aren’t going to be part of the final cartoon or even a direct rough that will be cleaned up as part of animating. Thumb nails are “thinking” and “visualizing” drawings that are intended to help the cartoon maker work through the idea development process.

Suppose for an example in the script there is a sequence about a character going down a ski ramp. Now this character is not an accomplished skier and the script indicates that this should be a very humorous sequence. The storyboard panels for this sequence show several different shots ranging from a wide angle up shot as the character starts down the ramp to an extreme close up midway down and then back to another wide angle shot as the character is launched into space off the end of the ramp. But these panels are just a guide to the actual sequence and how it should be created. Perhaps we even have determined in our story development sessions how much elapsed screen time is allotted for this entire sequence. We now have to plan the actual animation of this action. So where do we begin? With the various extreme poses, you reply. But how do we determine what those poses will be and how can we “milk” the most laughs out of our performance? That’s were the thumb nailing comes into play. We will want to do our thinking and planning visually using these small quickly done loosely drawn drawings to explore the various possibilities. We can try different angles and shots and different ways in which the character moves as they hopelessly and clumsily go down the ski ramp. We don’t want to only have one take on how to do this sequence we want to have many different approaches because that’s how we will “discover” the one we will ultimately want to create. But we can’t and don’t want to invest too much time on any of these drawings they are just a planning tool and a throwaway one at that.

But it is much better to spend time exploring ideas and testing poses and ways to tell this story sequence through thumb nails then it would be to just start animating with no plan and hope for the best. Sure drawing thumb nails cost us time and seem like extra work but in reality they are going to save us time and allow us to get better results by helping us to minimize having to rework a disappointing sequence.

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