Saturday, March 15, 2008

Developing Your Cartoon

One thing that really controls the quality in cartoons is the way the story is presented. Nothing is worse than single viewpoint talking heads. The use of cinematic techniques makes a huge difference in your cartoons. The script is the starting point, but the visuals, the shots, the visual relationships, and the look of the cartoon all flow from the story board, the layouts and eventually the animatic. Not only do you develop the rhythm and pacing through these steps but you also can dramatically impact your workload in production by your choices.

In making an animated cartoon, it is usually a good starting point to develop a story board. But exactly how do you go about doing that?

Here are some basic suggestions on how you might get started creating a storyboard:

Story Boarding is a visualization process. Some creators start with the story boards and some start with a textual script. There is no hard and fast one correct approach. But there are lessons that experience teaches us.

The longer you avoid getting too detailed the more likely you are to explore alternatives and the more choices you will create. Experience teaches us that although our first impressions and decisions may be good, they often aren't the best ones. We want to explore many different options while we are in a creative expansion phase like visualization. Expansion is a term for letting things grow and develop and creatively we want to allow our thinking in visualization to be unencumbered. Later on after we have exhausted our expansion of ideas we have plenty of time to "edit" down the options and make decisions. I call that step contraction. So detail is the enemy of expansion, mostly because of the fact that it takes extra time and effort invested in the work and we as humans hate to waste our invested time and therefore we are less likely to want to abandon large investments.

So story board drawings need to be both quick and rough and easy to reposition and replace. Personally we use a very important pre-story boarding step which is also a pre-layout step, and a pre-scene planning step and a pre-animation step. We make lots of thumbnail drawings. Thumbnails are relatively small quick sketches that are a form of visual brainstorming and idea capture. The goal is to, with no real investment, explore possibilities and expand our creative options. What are all the different ways to visualize a shot? a scene? an action? We want to explore as large a range of possibilities as we reasonably can so that we make better choices.

Begin by putting together a rough outline of the story. Just a series of plot points or bullets that describe the main action or flow you want. Create a rough scene breakdown list based on your story outline. This is a way of deciding what the different locations will be for the story and their order of exposition. A story can consist of a single scene or a series of multiple scenes. Once you have a scene breakdown, you can start to develop a shot list for each scene. Each unique camera set-up (point of view) is a different shot. A scene can be composed with just a single shot or a series of shots. After you have a scene breakdown and a scene shot list you can start drawing up the main story telling keys of each shot. Each story telling key is a single drawing on a single sheet of paper. Many people use 4"x5" blank cards for their shot key panels. You then can tack the shot keys up in scene order on the wall to visualize the flow of the story. ( The practice of tacking up the story panels on a fiber wall board is the origin of the name “story board”. ) Each story board panel is a story telling key which means it is needed to follow the exposition of the story. The more keys the more panels. Complex shots have camera diagrammatic notes and framing notes added to help communicate the camera movements.

Now that you have the story broken down into scenes and the scenes broken down into shots and the shots broken down into story telling keys, you can scan each drawing into your computer and import them into your software of choice and create an “animatic” where you can add a scratch sound track and "slug" out the timing. Slugging is a term used to describe the process of padding out each scene, shot, and key into the appropriate number of frames it will occupy. It's a slug of frames representing screen time. Adjusting the slugs is one way to control the timing and pacing of the story. The shot selections, the story telling keys, the cutting and transitions for a scene are another. As you view the story in sequence you will discover problems. These are dead spots, or confusing spots or just places where the story moves too fast or too slow. I usually recommend that you start out thinking in terms of each panel being about 3 seconds of screen time just to get a rough pace. (72 frames at 24 FPS) Some panels will be on screen longer times and some shorter times.

Here are some basic suggestions on shot selection: (one way not the only way) Shots are points of view. The order of shots in a scene can and should vary according to what the scene is about. Shots are one your tools for guiding and focusing the audience's attention. Your shots are your main method of exposition. As a general guideline you want to start broadly and then narrow things down to the more important details. The basic shots are "long", "medium", and "close". They are modified by the following additional descriptor "extreme" as well as by combining them for blended shots (examples: Extreme Long Shot, Extreme Close-Up, and Medium-Close-Up). Simple shots are stationary while more complex shots involve moving the camera. Traveling shots are complex shots. (Examples: trucking or dolly shots, crane shots and combinations of these like "dolly pull-back crane shot".) If you can imagine the camera's view point you can create the shot.

Note: single point of view scenes are usually boring and too many shots in a scene can be confusing, so plan your shots based on how they will advance the telling of your story. If it advances the story, it works, and if it doesn't advance the story or is overkill and it should be cut.

The way in which most storyboards are constructed, each panel is a story telling key. A camera shot is normally defined as a set-up to achieve a specific point of view. The further back and the broader the point of view, such as an extreme wide angle shot, the more generalized the information being presented. The closer in and tighter the shot, such as a extreme close up, the greater the amount of detail and emotion being presented. So fundamentally, each shot serves the purpose of advancing the telling of the story by presenting information and also enhances the presentation of the story by providing additional psychological perspectives. If the camera is high looking down on the shot that provides one psychological feeling while if the camera is really low looking up on the shot that provides a completely different psychological feeling. So the first step in telling a story, humorous or otherwise, is to write down the basic flow and action, the main content. Then you can go through that treatment and break it up into story telling shots based on what information you are trying to convey in each shot and how you want to present that information. The camera is an important part of storytelling so how you use it will definitely affect the quality of your presentation. Most beginning film students are encouraged to watch lots of great movies and encouraged to study the cinematography carefully to understand how and why the director chose each shot.

When I work on stories I rarely ever just write, or draw up a story idea and then just say " great now I can make this film ". I usually go through phases. At first I really like the idea, then usually after I run it past my associates, I find, or they find, places to change things. Then after some rework, I get frustrated with the story and have to put it away. I suppose that at any given time I have several stories that are sitting around in some phase of "I'm tired of working on that one right now." It's not that they aren't good or at least potentially good, but when I work on things for awhile, really intensely focused, I get too close to them and just need to distance myself and then come back for a second or third or fourth pass. I do the same thing when I'm animating a sequence, I never can just leave my work satisfied after only one pass.

Animatics can be considered as an extension of the writing and story boarding process. When we write a story or scene our first form is usually textual. We express the story verbally. Then we visualize the story in panels which are static cinematic shots in a story board. So in those steps we have evolved our story from text to pictures. The next logical step because this is an animated movie is to add the dimension of time. So the animatic is a timed out (slugged out) version of the story using the story board panels and usually having a "scratch" sound track. If you aren't familiar with what I mean by a scratch sound track, it is usually just a recording of dialogs with minimal music and effects often recorded by the story team and not actual actors. Its purpose is to help present the story and also to aid in determining the overall timing of shots and scenes etc.

Most animatics are as described above, but in feature films and commercials animatics are also often produced as running progress pieces throughout the production of the film. They start as timed out slide shows of story board panels and those scenes and shots slowly get replaced with pencil tests and finally more finished animations until a final rough cut evolves. So the animatic has been around in various forms since the 1940's probably started at Disney Studios like most production innovations in animation. It is a valuable part of the creative planning process in animation production. It is far smarter to see problems in pacing and flow in animated content before extensive labor is committed to finishing animation. Unlike live action, animation tries to minimize discarded footage on the cutting room floor.

Once a storyboard has been "approved" we start the process of recording dialog and gathering or creating the Foley sounds then we can begin trying to layout the animatic. We start with the drawings from the finalized boards and time out the sequences like a slide show with the scratch sound track layered on top. Then its just a matter of adjusting and messing about until we like the flow. From that point it just becomes a long tedious step by step process of replacement of pieces in the animatic with more finished work (pencil tests, revised tests, background sketches, finished backgrounds, finished animations, mixed sound track, etc) until we finally have a finished film. It really is like a construction project from concept through planning through step by step creation of each shot and scene until a final result is completed.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Relating Web Comics to Making Animated Cartoons

Web comics are certainly not limited to any set form or pattern. But for most people the initial idea of a web comic is very much related to the traditional sequential art form of print comics, or newspaper or magazine comic panels or strips. So for the purposes of this article I think I’ll keep the focus on that more traditional format with the eventual goal of expanding that view point to more cutting edge forms in future articles.

You might ask, “Why would anyone interested in cartoon film making be interested in web comics?” After all, in their traditional format, web comics are static art. That is true and that also is one of their attractions for would be film makers. Web comics are a great medium in and of themselves but they are also a great training ground for film makers.

You might think of a web comic as being similar to a story board, but really it is much more than that.
Web comics are an excellent way to develop your characters, and your stories. Comic art in general requires the artist to choose the most important poses that convey the most information about an action. They require the artist to plan and utilize scenes and shots cinematically just like in a film. They also hone your dialog writing skills.

“Why not just make animated cartoons instead?” you might ask. The simple answer is that learning and mastering many of the correlated skills of cartoon making and film is much faster and easier in the static comic form. It removes much of the complexity, letting you focus on the essentials and therefore makes for an excellent learning environment. Coloring, lighting, points of view, strong poses, shot selections all can be studied in detail when producing a web comic. Even story pacing and learning to construct good stories can be explored. So don’t overlook a web comic as a great training ground and as a development platform for your cartoon film making.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Acting It Out

I know that many people hate hearing the analogy that animators are like actors. The only difference is that an actor in the theater, TV or in movies gets to use their own body; their hands and facial expressions. To be a good animator you need to perform, but the audience doesn't get to see you, they see your art. They look at your drawings, so it's a matter of how well your drawings work to express how you feel.

As an animator you are taking your feelings and putting them into your drawings. Through your pencil you are able to project yourself on to the screen. The challenge that an animator has is to mentally get past the point where you’re thinking in terms of drawing. You are no longer drawing on the paper or the computer screen. It's not a process of drawing. You have to transpose yourself into the cartoon and exist in that space that is now a “real” world. So then you can start to draw a character moving in space and you're not thinking so much of perspectives and all those technical things. Instead you're thinking "How does it feel? How do I feel in this moment in this cartoon world?" Hopefully you get into it, otherwise the animation has a very technical and studied look and it isn’t as believable.

An animator that can really project into the character that they are drawing is creating stuff that lives. Is it easy, heck no, it takes lots of practice. It has to become instinctive and intuitive. It is often a good idea to have a private space when working on an animation because you need to be able to allow yourself to not feel inhibited as you take on your role. Nothing is probably stranger to a casual observer than to see an animator gesturing and performing in front of a mirror or their computer display as they get into the moment and act out what they are trying to capture in their drawings. You can't be self conscious, your work space is your stage and you are giving a performance.

It is actually a desirable situation to be able to totally immerse yourself into the fantasy of your character’s world. Any good actor will tell you that they strive to become their character and ideally lose their own reality while performing. They want to think and feel not as themselves but as the character. And, this is equally true for the animator. I realize that to many of you this may sound a little odd. But that’s your goal, to become the character and to draw how you feel as that character.

I like to watch The Actor’s Studio program that plays on cable TV. It is very interesting to hear from some of the more famous actors how they prepare for a role and how they lose themselves in a part. If you want to become a good animator you need to employ many of the same mental exercises that actors learn to overcome the barriers to being able to project into a role. That is also the reason that it is so important to draw a character as many times as you can in planning your work. You need to get to the point that the drawing is instinctive so that you don’t have to focus on that aspect. It is a strange and liberating feeling when you and your character are in sync. It would be nice if the only prerequisite was being a little loopy; unfortunately it is a difficult skill and requires a lot of dedicated effort to achieve.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Approaches to Timing in Animation

There are many ways to approach animation and the timing of movements. There are many approaches other than fluid ultra-realistic motion. Many animators feel that the strength and the beauty of animation is in its interpretation and caricature of the real world and not in trying to directly mimic or duplicate reality. I suppose it is a similar argument to that of the world of painting. Most painters feel that photo realistic work is not as pleasing as work that contains more emotional aspects. After all, that’s the province of photography to capture reality, a painting should expose more of an interpretation rather than just to act as a mirror. And so it is with animation that the animator should bring to the art more than just an attempt to replace live action, except in the case of certain forms of CGI that are intended to be seamlessly integrated as a part of a live action production.

Rhythm in movement is usually not natural or realistic and yet in animation rhythm is so desirable. Sometimes to achieve rhythm the sequence needs to be a jerkier and almost spastic motion with downward antics and upward thrusts. Sometimes you want a tick-tock way of moving which helps point up the rhythm of the scene and is needed to sell the gag. Other times you may choose to focus on extreme poses and facial expressions. You also might prefer a style which emphasizes characters constantly in motion, and able to change shape on a moment's notice using "smear" animation to get characters from one pose to another very quickly. The point being that cartoon animation isn’t just one style and there are many ways to animate. The important thing is to interpret, to exaggerate, to distort, and to caricature movement so as to being something more to your animation than just a direct copy of the photo-real world.

Some people seem to think that animation means moving all the time. Animation can use holds and still be animation. Holds are an important part of timing.

Perhaps the most essential parts of animation are drawing and timing. A single well done drawing, the pose, can convey attitude and emotion; where as the timing of a sequence of drawings will give you weight and speed. Characteristics can be conveyed by either the poses or the timing or both. A single great character pose drawing can be very expressive.

Timing involves two things:
1. How fast something moves.
2. How long it doesn't move. (The holds)

The shortest amount of screen time for a hold (or moving hold) to register is 6 frames. 12 frames is enough time to read a facial expression, but 16 frames are better if you can afford the screen time. 24 Frames is probably too long. (These are screen times based on the standard 24 fps frame rate)

Lots of animators use the moving hold technique to make a pose “read” but still give it life. The character can be held with one or two moving bits; eyes, ears, whiskers, hair or some sort of secondary foot or hand movement. Or, a moving hold can be achieved by a really slow cushion into a pose for the equivalent duration of a static hold. Chuck Jones was a master of the subtle moving hold where a character like Wyle Coyote would slowly stop and turn toward the audience and make a slight shifting of his eyes as if to say “do you really believe this is happening to me”. Remember, from an earlier article, that an animation cushion is a term relating to the easing into or out of a pose. By its very nature the spacing between drawings gets closer and closer as your cushion into the hold is created. When animating, it’s desirable to use broadly spaced inbetweens and then cushion into a hold of a strong key pose rather than going past the key pose and coming back.

When animating an important principle to keep in mind is the principle of contrasts. Contrasts exist everywhere in nature and they should be prominent in your art as well. There are contrasting speeds, fast, slow, stationary. There are contrasting colors. There are contrasting shapes, and contrasting characters both in appearance and personality. And there are even contrasting scenes and camera angles. Contrasts are what make things more interesting. So look for opportunities to apply the principle of contrasts continuously as you work and certainly your approaches to the timing of motions is a great place to start.