Friday, 10 December 2010


This project has been an eye-opener in many ways. I started this specialist study with the intention of focusing on character animation and acting, wanting to really push myself as an animator to achieve something more fluid and technically advanced than I have done in previous years, as well as to gain a deeper understanding of the principles of animation and acting through narrative. However, as noble a goal as this was, I vastly underestimated that time it would take me to animate to such a degree of detail and as a result only managed to produce 12 seconds of animation that didn’t even complete the fight scene I originally intended. This was partly due to me being unpractised at drawing straight onto Flash with a detached graphics tablet, as well as my meticulous perfectionism that kept cropping up despite my attempts to work more roughly. But the truth is I honestly believe that this has been a worthwhile experience, and I actually feel like I’ve learnt more from taking my time and sticking to the focus of my specialist study rather than ploughing ahead in a desperate struggle to complete the piece on time regardless of quality.

All my previous projects have suffered from time constraints; the inevitable corner cutting and rushed editing that comes before deadlines resulting in ‘finished’ pieces that I could never really be proud of. My strengths lie in narrative based animation and I hope to make a short film for my final piece in Specialist Study 2, but at the start of this year I had little inkling as how to go about that or plan my time in order to achieve a completed goal at industry standard. So in order to properly prepare myself (as I told that was the true purpose of Specialist Study 1) I decided to go through the development process of storyboarding and character design as though I was planning a narrative for Specialist Study 2 and would have more time. Granted there was no way I could ever finish it all in just ten weeks, but through doing this I’ve learned how long each stage of planning should take me and what I’m required to do before I start animating. Had I have taken another path for my first Specialist Study, I just know that come next year I would waste ¾ of my project time dithering over the developmental stage and never get round to animating anything decent since I’d have no idea how long it would take me to animate at high quality. Due to my work on this project I now know the speed at which I’m able to animate, as well as becoming far more skilled drawing directly into Flash with a tablet thanks to the practice, and will be able to plan my time better in order to complete a finished film next year. I’m also pleased with the outcome of the part of the fight scene I did manage to finish this time round: while I’m aware there will always be ways to improve it, I think it’s by far the best thing I’ve animated to date on this course. I’m glad I was able to push myself to this level by taking the time and care to add all the little details and secondary animation to the main movement, and I feel like I’ve improved my character animating skills significantly through my studies and practice. I also feel I have achieved my goal of loosing up, as my initial sketches to work out the basic action were much messier and quicker to draw than usual (before I cleaned them up, of course), and I think my lines of action became a lot more varied and flexible as a result, leading to more dynamic key frames. Hopefully I can only get better in the future as I continue, and preferably speed up my work pace in the process.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Final Animation

...Or at least, as close as I can get it to being final considering my time has officially run out. If I had another week I would have been able to finish the fight scene and possibly go even further, but for now I'm satisfied with the outcome of this. It may be short but the fluidity is there, and all the time I spent agonizing over tiny details such as the curves of the hair seems to have paid off. I put my two existing scenes together and changed the line colour to black to give a more finalised appearance... Also to make the hair and body the same colour again to keep things consistent.

Finishing Touches

Added facial expressions to the body, again making sure to focus on the eyes and how they widen/relax as she's jerked around.

I found the hair especially tricky here, mostly due to the strange perspective poses that came from her being yanked down at such an odd angle. There was a lot of frenzied trial and error involved here, but I think in the end I managed to make it work... The follow through of the hair as she's jerked across looks nice at any rate. As always, I try to keep the hair flowing at least one frame behind everything else.

Everything up to this point is finished and clean! Since my deadline is just a few hours I'm sadly going to have to leave this here for now, but at least I know everything I've drawn is thoroughly tested and works reasonably well. Also finally put my two scenes together.

Running Out of Time...

It's become apparent that I've serious underestimated how long it will take me to complete this scene... Even though I cut down from doing an entire storyboard to just doing the throw and fight scene, it seems unlikely I'll finish the fight scene on time given its length. It just goes to show how clueless I was about my own work process before I sarted this project; I was so used to being able to churn out a decent amount of average-ish animation in a few days that I assumed the same would happen here even though I'd upped the quality of my production. However the last thing I want to do is give up and stat cutting corners again in order to finsih the scene on time - that won't gain me anything and it'll feel like I've cheated myself. The focus of my study is convincing character acting shown through detailed and fluid animation, so rather than worry about it I intend to just keep on working as fast as I can and what I get done gets done. I'd rather have a shortened scene of high quality than a longer scene where you can instantly tell the quality drop 3/4 way through.

Trying to make her look like she's really pulling the hair back from her throat with all her might was difficult, again because of her tiny arms. Exaggeration saved the day again here, keeping in mind the intense squash and stretch of the Tex Avery cartoons I stretched her arms accordingly to make it work.

Here we see her jerked upwards by the hair and across into a slanted slide (another move inspired by my old dance classes), a wonderfully fun, dynamic little pose that I really enjoyed drawing her into. But while I think the basic movement arc works well, it just seems too... mundane. The downwards anticipation isn't exaggerated enough; her head needs to dip lower in order for it to really work, I think...

Lowering the downwards anticipation proved to be quite successful, but the settling bounce needs tweaking somehow...

The Struggle Continues

From this point onwards I started building up the character in layers rather than trying to draw everything at once, as the hair was getting more and more complicated and it was hindering the flow of the body movement due to how much I had to keep rubbing out and correcting it. Every time the pigtails overlapped the body I ended up destroying all my hard body work while trying to fix the hair, so I created a new layer on top for the hair alone and decided to only start animating it once the body and facial acting was perfect. Above is the test showing only body movement.

Same action but with facial expressions added. I spent a lot of time ensuring that the facial features remained consistent and didn't melt all over the face; a task easier said than done when her face is literally just a ball. I found it was very easy for the eyes of eyebrows to slide of course, making the flow look off. I also tried to add variance to her expression as she struggles such as her eyes clenching even tighter/opening slightly for only two frames before shutting again, her mouth contorting as she grits her teeth/gasps for breath etc. All tiny little details you probably wouldn't notice unless you zoomed in and went through each individual frame, but I feel it makes her struggle a lot more dynamic and compelling to watch rather than her keeping the same static expression.

Hair added in a different colour to make it easier for me to distinguish which line belongs where. The hair is technically a separate character from the girl at this point, so I think it was a good choice to animate it on a separate layer. It makes things far easier on me when I din't have to redraw everything underneath everytime I make a mistake, and thus speeds up my workflow. Also, I enjoy making sure that the body movement works on its own without any hair to hide possible flaws. This way even though I had to rub out most of the footwork that fell behind her pigtail, its still clear to the viewer that the hair isn't hiding any lazy corner cutting.

The Hair Attacks!

The next part of the scene finally involves the hair leaping into action of its own accord, forming 'hands' from the ends of its pigtails as it does so. I wasn't sure how to go about this at first in order to get the movement right; I knew it had to be snappy in order to show the violence of the attack, but at the same time needed correct anticipation and build up to pull it off without being too slow. Before I began I asked someone to take photographs of my own hands in various positions/from various angles which I thought would make useful references for the hair hands, which you can see below.

As I was posing and trying to work out how exactly the hands would work best, I realised I was using my arms to represent the pigtails since human arms are naturally far longer than those of my character. It was then I made the connection with the arm positions of ballet (I used to dance regularly before I came to university): the starting position 'bras bas' looks very similar to how the pigtails fall around my character's feet before the hair comes alive. Or at least it would if humans arms where floor length, but you get the idea.

So I thought why not have the hair start to raise like a ballet dancer would raise their arms to second position?

It worked better than I thought it would and made a good starting point for the action. From there I decided the pigtails needed an extreme accented pose before they went for the neck, again to exaggerate the violence and create more impact. Also I wanted to give the feel if a predator leaping into action... Having the pigtails stretched up as far as they can go was inspired by Niche (see below), whose pigtails often spike up into swords ready to attack the moment she gets agitated.

I didn't put a frame in between the peaked pigtails and the throat grab as I honestly felt it didn't need one. An extra frame would have slowed the lunging movement down, meaning less impact and less exaggerated reaction. I did, however, stretch the pigtails so they were far longer then they out to have been on the downward arc in order to make them flow better, and again, more exaggeration on the attack.

Throat grab cleaned up with hair detail added.

Starting the Fight Scene

Starting from where I left off with my last scene, I began with the girl moving her head down to push herself up from the floor. I initially did this on 'ones' (24 rather than 12 drawings ('on twos') per second) due to the last scene only flowing fast enough on single frames; double frames made the throwing actions far too slow and sluggish. However it soon became apparent that moving her head down should be a very slow and sluggish affair in order to show how much effort its taking her to move and how possibly how weak she is compared to the hair.

Changed the first few frames to 'twos' now, this makes the movement a lot slower and more laboured, which is what I was aiming for.

Getting her to kneel up was tricky due to the shape of her arms... Since she has such tiny arms which come to a point at the hands/fingertips, I found it difficult to draw them from the correct perspective to show them facing towards the screen. In the end I got around this problem through vastly over exaggerating the enlarged perspective and literally made the arms 'shrink' as she pushes herself up. It took quite a bit of trial and error to make it look convincing, but the result works surprisingly well and has the added benefit of making her look like she's leaning/sitting back with a curved spine rather than just moving straight up vertically. It also allowed me to add more noticeable squash to the hands and she starts to push herself up.

Standing up from the kneeling position was easier, but getting the hair to fall/trail correctly around her feet was tricky. I had to map out a curved line for the pigtails to follow, keeping perspective in mind and all the while trying to make it flow naturally like the soft hair it should be. I don't want the harshness to creep in until the hair actually comes alive, so its important at this stage to animate her hair and fluidly as possible. This includes the hair gathered above her hair ties; I spent a long time with a small brush and a very zoomed-in sage area making sure I got the subtle bounce of right has she stands. Its a tiny detail, but it makes all the difference, I think.

Animation References

Below are pages scanned from Richard Williams' 'The Animator's Survival Kit', by far the most useful and informative book I've ever owned. These pages are my main sounce of reference for the principles of animation I most want to focus on improving in my work. First one: flexibility. Vital for ensuring my character isn't as stiff as an ironing board.

Takes and Accents

Surprise Anticipation - My poor character's going to be shocked a lot.

Invisible Anticipation

Weight and Follow Through

Whips and Waves - Especially useful for animating flowing hair.

Eyes Are The Windows To The Soul

Through studying the principles of acting and body language I've discovered just how important the eyes are in conveying a character's thought process. Eyes are very expressive and are widely regarded as the windows of the soul, so I intend to take extra care when animating my characters eyes and facial expressions. I intentionally have her a large head to encompass her larger than average eyes for this very reason, and I intend to make the most of it. While the fight scene will be to fast and action filled for any lingering, contemplative looks, I still think the principles of eye language are useful to know and to take into consideration. An interesting document detailing the secret messages eyes send us can be found here.

Ed Hooks

A useful piece written by Ed Hooks, found in his Acting For Animators Newsletter April 2010.


A simple improvisation that I include in all of my Acting for Animators workshops immediately highlights the difference between the way that animators perceive and apply acting and the way that stage actors do it. The Status-Negotiation exercise works this way. Two volunteers from the class are positioned at opposing sides of the stage, one far left and the other far right, facing each another. One is told he is the king (or queen), and the other is a slave. They are to pass one another in the castle hallway and exchange greetings.

An animator, given these instructions, will inevitably start imagining how a king looks and moves, or how a slave might grovel. When I say, “Action!” he will illustrate physically the idea he has in his head about how the movement should look. It is not that he is wrong, only that this approach guarantees stereotype movement.

Consider how two experienced actors would carry out the same improvisation. They have been instructed that one is the king and the other is the slave. A stage actor will respond, “Yes, and…?” In other words, “What am I doing as the king?” He will not be thinking of how his character moves or looks at all! (Notice I specified “experienced” actors. A novice actor might well do the same thing the animator does because he has not learned better yet.)

Animators think in terms of movement. Stage actors think in terms of communication, intention and emotion. Get those elements right, and they will dictate to you how the character moves.

After coaching this improvisation hundreds of times, occasionally with master animators as students, I have come to recognize that this is just the nature of the animator, to think visually, and there is nothing wrong with it. However, there is a marvelous object lesson. After the first time they move back and forth across the stage, I instruct them with an actor-type adjustment. “Give yourself a place where you are going, and we’ll do it again.” That’s all, just a place where they are going. It doesn’t matter where that might be. The purpose of movement is destination. Once the animators have a strong destination, they will no longer be thinking about movement, and they will cross in the hallway differently. Their bodies will move differently, more naturally, less self-consciously. After everyone in the workshop recognizes what has observed the improved movement, I instruct with variations of destinations. “The queen is in labor. Go to her.” “You spilled wine on the royal carpet and must clean it up right away.” “You are having a romantic relationship with the chamber maid, and this is your time together.”

The fact that an animator thinks visually, in terms of movement, is why it might be a problem when he acts out his own video reference for a sequence. He turns on the recorder, positions himself in front of the camera – and is self-directing, once again trying to imagine movement rather than intention. This is the reason I suggest that an animator have a friend act out the reference if possible. Just give your friend the situation. Don’t tell him how to move or what you want to see. “You’re trying to catch a dragonfly in a net.” You don’t say, “Be sure you look very frustrated.” Simply let him try to catch the dragonfly. That’s your reference.

What is your personal definition of good acting in animation? I will bet it has something to do with the creation of “believable” movement, even if caricatured. The point I am making is that acting training will not enlighten you about how believable movement looks. Acting training will encourage you to first seek the purpose of movement and then to be mindful of how it looks.

Walt Disney was very smart about these things. In his famous 1935 memo to Don Graham, he observed astutely, “Many [animators] do not realize what really makes things move, why they move, what the force behind the movement is. … [T]he mind is the pilot. We think of things before the body does them.” That is 100 percent correct."

This was very interesting to read, as I've always thought that acting out references yourself was preferable to getting someone else to do it for you. I always feel I can understand the movement better after trying it myself, I highly doubt I'd be able to animate as well if I only watched people... But I do agree that its easy to over think things when you try to act on your own, I always find myself trying to plan the movement out in my head before I record, and then it always turns out stiff and horrible. Thankfully that wasn't the case so much with my video references for this project, as for the most part I completely winged them. They slower ones such as trying my hair and pulling myself up onto the desk were very planned, but when it came to the most important part (the strangling), I honestly had no idea how to go about it. So I just when crazy on a whim and ended up in a heap on the floor, laughing at myself. Granted the laughing had to go, but when I watched the footage it looks so much fresher and more dynamic than everything else I'd done, so I did a few more takes or similar actions to perfect them. I never considered my lack of planning to be a benefit at the time, but after reading this and looking back, it really was. Rather than planning out movements in my head, I was simply trying to imagine what I would do if my hair really was strangling me, and acted the first impulse that came to mind. His theory really does work! Now I just have to take this into consideration the text time I'm filming references; I think from now on I will try to ask someone else to act for me first, then attempt to copy their actions myself afterwards so I can still get a personal feel for the movement, Best of both worlds?