So what's the Problem?
In my first animation tutorial that I wrote over three years ago, I outlined a fairly common (but under-documented) methodology for managing one's keyframes in CG character animation. The point of that tutorial was never to declare that it was the only path to great animation, but was merely a suggestion for one way to approach your animation in a sensible, organized fashion that hearkened back to our traditional animation roots. The thing that I always felt I never properly addressed was what to do after you hit the end of that lesson? What takes merely functional animation and elevates it to excellent animation? How does one get from good poses with fairly decent timing to a natural flow of performance that just draws the viewer in? In short, how do you go from OK to great?
Well, Smart Guy, How DO You Go From
OK animation to
Thinking about it at the time, I had to honestly admit that I didn't have all the answers to those kinds of questions. While I am in no way suggesting that I am great now (trust me, I'm NOT), I've gotten a lot clearer in my head about some of those answers. Now here's a fairly bold statement, but I think it's true: For the most part, all pose to pose based animation will tend to feel the same. I've seen hundreds of animation tests from people who have adapted the p-2-p method for their own uses. While they all generally function, most feel about the same. And when I looked at my own work I realized that a lot of my stuff had that same feel. Basically, I had stalled on "OK". I needed to go the next step to find that elusive unique voice for each character, to take my animation to the next level beyond "OK" and start to approach some of the really excellent work I had come to admire over the years.
Thanks for the Personal Testimony, But You
Didn't Answer the Question....
After a thorough analysis of my work up until that point, and then another analysis of of the work that I admired, I started to note a trend. That trend basically boiled down to this: I didn't polish my work. I was happy enough to get it into shape, to get the major forms and timings figured out, but I hadn't taken the time to really work on all the little things that add to the quality of a piece. After more cross reference and study and a fair amount of bouncing my work and experiments off of other animators who worked at top studios and picking their brains for feedback, I came up with a checklist. This Checklist consists of a number of various areas of the performance that I ask myself to examine in my work. Some of the questions I ask early on, while still thumbnailing my poses. other questions come much later in the game, after I think I'm done and happy with the work. But by far most of the questions are asked again and again as I develop the piece. The biggest advancements in my work come when I began to methodically go through my animation at various stages and ask myself about the items on my Checklist. These questions strike at the core of my work, forcing me to get my head out of the mere construction of a skeleton of the animation and into the realm of fleshing it out. Often the answer to these questions would require me to start over.
OK Sparky, So You Wanna Share Your Fancy-Dan
For every motion, pose, timing and action on every character in your shot, you need to ask every one of the following questions. By going through the list one item at a time and cross checking every motion for the item, youíll find so many areas of weakness that need attention. The struggle for many beginning animators is that they donít even know which questions to ask, much less how to answer them. Hopefully this list will help you to begin asking the right kinds of questions. It's helped me a ton. Itís not exhaustive, but it goes a long way to spotting trouble before you save your file for the last time and think you're done. If only finding and implementing the answers was as easy as asking the questions.
Check to make sure your motions have good clean arcs. Turn on trajectories if your software supports them. If not, get out your dry erase marker and draw the arcs on your monitor.
1. wrist- you need to keep an eye on these to fight that marionette feel
2. elbows- if you're using IK arms, then you absolutely MUST check your elbow arcs
3. feet- track the heel & the toes to see if you're getting clean arcs on both
4. head- the most obvious motion hitches will show up in the head. It's usually a torso problem, it just shows up in the head arc
5. knees- watch for pops and skips
6. hips- the center of mass is vital to believable weight, so check the hip arcs.
8. props- so many time we forget that the prop the character is holding/using is as important to the motion as the character
9. eyes- when they turn, are they linear turns? If so, add some arc.
10. face (lipsync)- make sure your face doesn't linearly go from static morph target to target. The face needs to feel organic.
11. tails- way overlooked, and very tricky to get right.
12. check break downs and make stronger if needed- weak arc? Push that breakdown pose.
13. no two motions should have same arcs- feels very unnatural. Weave the arc lines like a tapestry of interesting motion.
14. cross arcs and overlap for interest
Line of Action:
Make sure youíre being strong with your lines. The difference between an OK pose and a great pose most often lies in the line.
∑ Have you pushed your line so it reads clearly?
∑ Is your line interesting?
∑ Is your line strongly concave or convex?
∑ When going from one pose to another can you invert your lines for stronger contrast?
∑ If all you had was one still frame to show for this pose, is your line of action capturing the kinetic energy of your character like a good illustration would?
Find a part to emphasize by scheduling it's late or early arrival. Offsets help keep things loose and let your character breathe, combating the common "pose-move-pose-move" feel of most Pose-to-Pose animation.
∑ Check for twins. Shifting one arm by a frame or two is not fundamentally addressing the issue of twinning. You need more than that.
∑ Does it fit for you to offset the hand from the elbow? The elbow from the shoulder?
∑ For this move should your arms lead the torso or do they follow it's weight?
∑ For this move should your hand lead the arm or follow it's weight?
∑ Does your upper torso move independently from your hips?
∑ For this move, should the head lead or follow?
∑ Have you seen if offsetting your rotation keys from the translation keys adds any life to the character? How about individual rotation channels from each other?
∑ Do your fingers each move independently from the other fingers?
∑ Should your fingers flow after the hand or stay tight to it?
∑ Is this the right place to use the offset (aka "pixar") blink?
Overlap & Followthrough:
What a LOT of pose-to-pose animation suffers from is the dreaded "hit & stick". You need to find a way to get that out of your animation while still keeping strong clear poses and clean timing.
∑ Are you overlapping too much? Is it too soft? (mushy)
∑ Are you not overlapping enough? Is it too hard? (sticky)
∑ Are your motions distracting? (poppy)
∑ Does it feel like your ease outs are too linear? (robotic)
∑ Will this move benefit from the successive breaking of joints?
∑ Do your body parts overlap with believable physics? Are the hands too slow (heavy) or too fast (light)?
∑ Donít blindly trust overlap or lag plug insÖ check each frame for accuracy.
One of your primary tasks as a character animator is to manage your tension, your energy build up and release. Each character will build & release their energy in a very different way. And even given different circumstances you character will build & release energy differently.
∑ Does the size of the anticipation match the speed of the subsequent action?
∑ Does your character flow well from one thing to another? Should they?
∑ Does your character's body language and gestures' energy match tone & energy of the dialogue?
∑ Look for ways to build texture into a shot- building across phrases and releasing. Not every pose or move is the same length.
∑ Move your character around on their feet to keep them believable. Nothing says "I'm not believable" like frozen feet.
∑ Does the energy of your character keep building up during hold when appropriate? tip: if the pose hit didn't have an extreme with a recoil, but is rather meant to build energy for release (like an anticipation hold) then you'll keep growing the energy up into the pose, like a long ease into the extreme.
∑ Does the energy of your character keep settling with gravity during hold when appropriate? tip: If the pose hit had a settleback after an extreme, you'll generally want to keep the held energy settling into gravity.
You need to keep things moving at a natural flow. If your shot feels dull, look at your pose holds and your transition timings. I'll bet you $20 that all your holds are about the same length and all your pose transitions are about the same length.
∑ Are you motions too even across the shot?
∑ Are all the motions too fast?
∑ Are they too slow?
∑ Do you have an appropriate mix of fast moves verse slower ones?
∑ Be aware of the appropriate speed for a given set of appropriate actions.
∑ Mix up the pacing of motion. Fast flurries followed by long simmering holds. Great contrast.
∑ Don't make every move the same speed & flavor.
∑ Favor the anticipation or the breakdown or the ease out. Meaning: think what works best for a given action- slow in/fast out? Or fast in/slow out? Or even in/out but fast breakdown in the middle?
What would Character A move like compared to character B?
Make your poses read in an instant, not in an hour.
∑ Do your poses read clearly in plain black & white?
∑ Funky lines in the silhouette? Check elbows to see if they're sticking out unnaturally.
∑ Check spine & your line of action.
∑ Think of ways to compressing the pose/action into planes in space for cleaner reads. Perpendicular to camera plane, or parallel to it. think Woody's "cool sheriff" walk from the cardboard box in Toy Story 2. Look at how his motion is compressed into a single easy to read plane that is parallel to the camera plane.
Does anything have a funky motion that just looks off?
∑ Check for IK pops
∑ Look for and fix hitches in the arcs
∑ Smooth out any hiccups in line of motion
∑ Destroy any and all distracting moves
∑ Do you overshoot on moves too much? Not enough?
∑ Is there enough "keep alive" on your moving holds? Is there too much so that you're adding noise to the signal?
∑ Clean out any and all distracting nasty geometry intersections. The small single frame ones in the middle of big moves, forget about those. Nobody will notice.
Öis everything. Well, almost everything.
∑ Do your character's gestures & actions lead words appropriately in dialog?
∑ Feel free to play with physics a bit to add some texture. Give some jump & hold to things in the air.
∑ A move should never be linear and it should never be even.
∑ Are your physics believable (weight)?
∑ Break up long holds with secondary action (scratching, wiping nose, weight shift, etc.)
Can we see your action from the best possible angle? And remember: the ONLY view that matters is the camera view.
∑ For visually pleasing images compose on thirds
∑ Avoid staging your character directly down the middle unless you have a reason to.
∑ Use those lines of action to add visual angles to lead your viewer's eye where it needs to go.
∑ In production you must keep the integrity of the layout composition and then plus it with solid lines of action & silhouettes.
If your character is doing something important, make sure we can stinkin' see what's going on!
∑ Track your eye as you watch. Where does it go? Is it where it should go? Do your eyes feel like they awkwardly jump from cut to cut? Is this the desired effect (sometimes it is)?
Will we believe your character is sincere? Are they REAL???
∑ Stay true to character. Buzz Lightyear will not flail like a spaz like Woody would.
∑ Does acting match dialog intensity? Are you being too vaudeville?
∑ Do the hands & body merely illustrate words that your character is saying? How many times do you make a punching motion with your hands when you say the word "hit"? Not many. How many times do you make a kicking motion when you say the word 'kick"? Not many. How many times do you spread your arms like an airplane when you say the word "fly"? Not often. Guess what? Neither should your character!
∑ Do the eye emotions match dialog?
∑ Reveal your character's inner thoughts or emotions beginning with the eyes first. Cascade out from there.
∑ Emotion drives motion. Motion does not illustrate emotion. (no vaudeville. See above note) Also, thought does not drive action- emotion drives action. Thoughts merely drive decisions. but decisions are not acted upon without the emotion to drive them.
∑ Avoid overacting. Keep it simpler.
∑ Donít try to do too much in one shot. Less is more
∑ If your character's face needs to show an emotional shift, it's easier to read that shift while they are in a pose hold, not in a move. Emotional shifts should occur when the character is generally held still..
∑ Who owns the shot? Donít upstage the owner of the shot. Keep the secondary and background characters from being distracting with their motions. Sometimes breathing & blinking is enough.
∑ When the time comes to transfer shot ownership from character to character, make sure it's a clean hand off. Only one owner at a time. The audience should instinctually know who to watch based on what you show them.
∑ Maintain proper intensity levels appropriate for where character is on character arc. If your character has a major anger blow out in the third act, don't show that level of anger anywhere before that point.
That's A Lot to Check. Anything Else?
One simple discipline that I have found always helps me is this: About the time you think you're done with your shot, make a preview of your animation. Then, while it plays repeatedly, step away from the keyboard and grab a pencil & some note paper. Let the preview play over and over, until you start to see every frame. Start taking notes of what needs to be fixed. Find EVERY single glitch, hitch and problem you can find and write it down to be fixed. Don't stop writing these things down until you've noted every issue you've spotted. Spend at least 5 minutes watching this shot loop over and over. Then, when you can't possibly find anything else to pick, go back to your file and fix everything on your check list. So many times we think we're done before we're really done with a shot. This simple exercise will force you to stop and see the animation for what it is. By noting every problem, you're ensuring that you won't forget something. Then, when you've fixed every problem on your list, repeat the process again. Trust me, you WILL find more problems, stuff you didn't see before. It usually takes me about 3 or 4 times of doing this last pass-last gasp effort to really put the piece over the top.
I hope this is useful to some of you out there. It may seem tedious and rather dull to have to comb over your shots like this, but that's the effort that's needed to take simply OK animation and push it to the next level. If this were easy or simple or fast, then everybody would be doing it. But those who put in the effort to really push their shots the furthest they can go, they'll be the ones everybody looks at and wonders "Gee, what a lucky dog that he got into XYZ studios." Luck doesn't have much to do with success. Going beyond the simple application of a singular method and pushing yourself and your work to the highest level you can, that has a lot to do with success.