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For People Crazy About 2D Animation!

Acme Punched! is for people crazy about 2D animation. It may be enjoyed by beginners and others, but it is aimed at animators who know already something about the process of animation and the basics of character animation. In large part, it will attempt to provide a deep look into the problem solving that goes on in my head as I work out a scene, often in step-by-step posts that I will sometimes enter in "real time", without knowing in advance what the outcome will be. Mistakes and false starts will not only be included but emphasized, so that the creative process of animation will be portrayed realistically. And, while my own bias is for 2D drawn animation, many of the effects and principles discussed here can apply to CGI 3D animation as well. I hope the blog will prove useful and instructive for all.

-Jim Bradrick

Saturday, April 14, 2018

No. 156, Another Rope Trick

This is the same rope seen dropping to the ground in Post No. 153, Rope Trick.

Now the rope or cord is being tied by the old man to the handle of his trunk; he will drag the trunk by this means through the long corridors of the airport terminal.

I wanted to show a complicated sort of knot without really going through all the actual mechanics of tying that knot. But I thought it would be funny to start out as if it were a how-to, like an animated page from a Boy Scout manual, then show a flurry of movement that is impossible to follow, and slow down again as I show the knot being drawn tight.

Here's the result.




Friday, April 13, 2018

No. 155, Stan Green, Animator, Part Two

In my last blog post, No. 154, I spoke of my excitement at meeting and getting to do some animation work with Stan Green, animator and principal assistant to the great Milt Kahl.  I remember being quite excited, sitting at my board with a stack of Stan Green's animation drawings--just extremes and breakdowns--in my hands, with all the inbetweens yet to be done by me.

Stan Green placeholder image. Anyone got a photo of him?


There were the drawings to go by, of course. They were delicate and bold at the same time, but very sure in there execution. I seem to remember blue pencil under the graphite, very loose compared to the precise black lines that had been laid down over them. There was just one character, a man who talks expansively about something (the product or service being advertised, I have no idea what.)

And it was full animation--oh, yes!--straight from a Disney veteran.

As I have said in other posts, I was self-taught, having learned everything I knew about animation either from books or from experience.  I had never even worked with another animator who knew more about it than I did. What did I know at that time? It might be easier to tell you what I didn't know.

I knew the 12 Principals, but there were some I did not fully understand. I didn't know much about timing. I didn't know you should not try to show more than one thing at a time. I didn't know how to think deeply enough about a scene before starting to animate it; thus, I often did things over, or things came out flat, and I didn't know why.

But as an inbetweener? Oh yeah. I could do literal inbetweens in my sleep, following arcs of movement and keeping the mass the same, and I understood the spacing charts. yet there were things there I had never seen before--little marginal thumbnails of an eye closing and opening for drawings 21, 23, 25 and 27, for example. Or a notation sketch about how an arm should look as it was being raised.

I believe that working on this sequence raised my aesthetic standards, too, as I tried to get my own drawings to the same level as those of Stan Green.  I worked through the assignment with confidence, and when I turned it in, he flipped through it and said, "Yeah.  I can work with this."

Of course I don't know what he really might have thought, but just to know it was acceptable seemed like high praise.

Stan had plans to teach a course in animation film making, which I believe never got off the ground. My further hope of getting more animation lore out of him directly was not realized either.  Like a lot of experts, he was not a natural teacher and we ended up only hearing some amusing anecdotes about his experiences with Milt Kahl. A year or two later, I learned that he had died.

Still, I value the experience of being his inbetweener for that one brief moment in time.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

No. 154, Stan Green: Animator, Part One

Who Was Stan Green?


I have long wanted to do a blog post on Stan Green because the brief time I knew him had rather a profound effect on me. But as always when I do a post, I like to have some pictures or graphic images of some kind with which to enhance the words. In Stan Green's case, this has been a considerable problem. 

In the first place, I don't personally have any pictures of him or by him. I have no images from the one television commercial on which I assisted him. In the second place, the internet has been little help. He does have a listing in the IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) but there is nothing biographical or anecdotal, just the chronological listing of his screen work, which ranges from doing layouts for The Lone Ranger animated show in the mid 60s to his period at Disney feature films.

What he is best known for amid the animation industry is having been key assistant to Milt Kahl for the last period of that man's animating career, working with him through Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977). He is known to have done much of the animation of the great Kahl villainess Madame Medusa.

When he retired from Disney, he moved with his wife up to Newport, Oregon, and took some work animating locally in Portland, where I lived and worked at the time.

My partners and I had been doing some work with a company called AN/FX, and that is how we ran into Stan Green. The animation technology then (about 1980) was still artwork to film to video tape if you were producing for television. In those days, it was also pencil drawings to Xeroxed cels but the painting was still done by hand. AN/FX had a new state-of-the-art rostrum camera of which they were justly proud.

Stan was hired by the owner of the company to design a character and do full character animation for a TV commercial. Stan required assistants for inbetweening, and so my friend Don Wallace and I were contacted.

I talked to Stan personally only a few times. The important thing to me was, that he handed out his scenes for inbetweening, and I got to do a big chunk of it.  I never learned so much, so fast as during those few days.

More about this next time...

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

No. 153, Rope Trick

Make It Interesting!


Sometimes, if you are on a severe deadline or your client or employer cares more about speed and quantity than artistry, you will have to animate a scene in the simplest possible way and be done with it. But when you have the time, try to make it interesting, whatever it is.

If you are working on your own project, as I am, then in my opinion there is no excuse for not giving it your best.

I have a simple little example from my film in progress, Carry On. Closeup of a man's feet and legs. One end of a thin rope drops to the ground. That's it! Not much of a scene, and one might be tempted to do it in the flattest way possible so you can get on to the walks and dialog scenes: the fun stuff, right?

But what if this rope scene could be made interesting? Frankly, I wasn't sure at first that that was possible. Here are the storyboard panels.


Panel 1. 


Panel 2. The rope drops.

Panel 3. The rope at rest on the ground.

How to approach a problem like this? Because if your approach is wrong, and it doesn't look right, then you will have something much worse than if it is merely boring or routine; you will have created something that may distract the viewer from the moment; which may destroy the viewer's engagement in your story and her suspension of disbelief.

Took me a couple of false starts before I got it right. I don't mind admitting this since, after all, this blog is largely about making mistakes and then fixing them. But as the drawings were so simple, there was not much wasted time and effort.

Following are a couple of rejected solutions. (Where else but on Acme Punched do you get to see the rejected work?)






At the beginning I had visualized that the falling rope would be uncoiling as it drops. Now I saw that after hitting the ground, the rope might coil up again until it reached its limit (where the unseen hand above is still holding onto one end.)



That worked well, but if you notice, I have also added in something else--a wave that moves back up the rope to the higher end, spending the last bit of energy of the movement, a good example of the principle of follow-through.

Following is a clearer look at the action, with only one layer visible.


Remember, even the simplest things can be animated in an interesting way, if only you look carefully enough.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

No. 152, Off Screen Animation

When a stage actor enters the stage, she must be already in character by the time she becomes visible; otherwise, the illusion of the moment is lost. Going offstage is the same. If an actor's character is angry and exits in a mood of contained fury, the audience must not see that actor relax into nonchalance as he goes backstage.

I once saw a play where there was a wall with a street door at the rear of the set. Suddenly the door burst open and a woman rushed in, slamming the door behind her as she leaned against it, catching her breath. She had created the illusion that she had been running all the way to her door.  Of course, she had done no such thing. She had been waiting for her cue at the back of the door, and when it came she seized her character in her mind, quickened her breathing, and leaped into action. It was professional expertise, and it was engaging and convincing.

In animation, as in theater, our characters must be in character from the first frame, and if they are entering or leaving the frame, they must be held to the same standard as their live counterparts on stage or in film.

For animators, this sometimes means making drawings or poses that are not seen by the audience. If we are walking someone off, for example, anyone ought to realize that even if you are left showing only an elbow and one foot, it would be best to base those parts on drawings of the whole figure. But sometimes a character might be coming into the frame in some other way, and one might be tempted to fake it and just draw the portion of the character that is actually included in the frame; this might work just fine, but you may find it a good idea to do some drawing "off screen."

I have an example here where I decided it wasn't good enough just to fake it.

This is from the same scene I discussed in post No. 151.  You can review the pencil test here.
Where I ran into trouble was in the first few drawings. Starting out with his head down, he brings it up as he stands. The first key drawing I did after the resting poses was this one:

Drawing 5

This is drawing 5. The next extreme is drawing 13.

Drawing 13


How do I inbetween  numbers 7, 9 and 11 without seeing the lower half of the face in drawing 5?  Well, just because I was running off the bottom edge of the paper where I was already well out of the camera frame, that did not mean I could not draw the image I needed.  And so I did, attaching an extra piece of paper to the bottom of 5.  Then I could easily do accurate inbetweening for the drawings that would be seen.

Drawing 5 with the temporary extension added to show the rest of his face.


And, what of drawings 1 and 3, where we see only the hat and the curve of his back?  Oh, those I just faked.  Which really means, I extrapolated based on my experience. As I say, it sometimes does work to "fake it." By trial and error, you just have to learn when you can do that, and when you shouldn't.




Saturday, February 24, 2018

No. 151, Using the Z Axis

Most of you, except those who have never worked in or experimented with a 3D application such as Maya or 3D Studio Max, will know what the Z axis is. Whereas the X axis indicates movement to left and right, or side to side; and the Y axis is up and down, or top to bottom, the Z axis is front to back, moving toward or away from the camera.  (Or the virtual camera itself may be moving along one or more of these axes.)

Here's a little graphic I created in Autodesk Sketchbook. The 3 axes are
usually coded with these colors in onscreen graphics.                                   
Defining movement on screen in this way is precise and convenient when working in 3D, but we can use the same language in describing the drawn movement of objects and characters in our 2D world.
Foreshortening of an arm or leg is a way of working in the Z axis because it implies that something in the drawing is extending out or back from the plane in which the character "exists." If you enlarge the foot on the foreshortened leg, you are emphasizing even more the existence of the Z axis--of the depth of the space your drawings depict.

I once did some animation of two pigs--big, cartoon hogs, actually--dancing in a circle on a small table that eventually collapses from their weight. This was part of a TV ad for the Oregon State Fair. It was funny and pretty effective, and everyone seemed to like it, but now when I look at the drawings I see where I could have made better use of the Z axis.

My original dancing pigs.


And how I might do them today, with a little more depth to the drawing.

Well, you can never go back and redo animation after it is broadcast. It is what it is, for all time.
But you can learn to look out for opportunities to improve as you work on new things.

I just finished a new scene for my film Carry On. My Old Man character, having in the previous scene (as seen in post No. 149) managed to get his legs out of a taxi and become prepared to stand up in the street, is now seen in closeup as his head and shoulders rise into the frame and he looks about.



After a hold as he looks off to the right (his left), he turns and looks back the other way. To begin the turn and bring him out of the hold pose, I naturally wanted some kind of anticipation. Instead of having him swing to the right before going left, I have him mostly pulling back from the camera, then coming forward again as he changes direction.

Drawing 47 is the hold drawing before he turns to look the other way.
Drawing 91, the extreme for the anticipation.
Drawing 115, the final hold drawing.

This is deliberately utilizing the Z axis, and I think you will agree, it makes an effective anticipation. Since the Renaissance, artists working on flat, two-dimensional surfaces have known how to suggest depth in their drawings and paintings. Animators should be mindful of these possibilities too.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

No. 150, Oscar Nominees for Best Animated Short

Once again I got a chance to view the animated shorts in advance of the Oscar ceremony.  Here are my reviews.

Dear Basketball


Here, Glen Keane and composer John Williams, best known for his scores for Star Wars, collaborated with Kobe Bryant on a sentimental homage to the sport of basketball as it affected his own life and fortunes. Keane's hand-drawn animation, always a pleasure to look at, nonetheless cannot elevate this maudlin film without a real story arc to anything of much cinematic interest. Two stars.

Negative Space


A quirky, funny little story depicted in what appears to be stop-motion animation (though it is sometimes hard to tell these days) about a man who takes pride in knowing how to properly pack a suitcase and his relationship with his father. Delightful, with clever transitions and a lot of graphic surprises. Four stars.

Lou


Pixar's entry has a lot of razzle-dazzle computer animation, as might be expected, and a small story about bullying on a children's school playground and a character assembled from the contents of a lost and found bin. Three stars.

Garden Party


This film about a mysteriously abandoned  mansion that is gradually taken over by a troupe of amphibians from nearby who unwittingly reveal its secrets. Excellent computer animation, but above all an engaging storyline, all accomplished without dialog. Four stars.

Revolting Rhymes


Another Raould Dahl story brought to animated life, Revolting Rhymes conflates Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Three Little Pigs into one dark but hilarious storyline.  Computer animation that sometimes looks like stop-motion; possibly another hybrid.  And there is even a suggestion of romance between Snow White and Red!  Four stars.

*     *     *     *     *

There they are.  But if you are interested in glimpsing some of the entries that didn't make this final cut of five, just take a look at this blog post from Amid Amidi's blog Cartoon Brew. You will see trailers, stills or--in a few cases--complete versions of over sixty films trying for the Oscar gold. Some of them are dark subjects, and many are in unfamiliar styles that the average viewer of Hollywood cinema might find uncomfortable. But they all are winners of film festival prizes, and all deserve attention.  It is a reminder that the possibilities in animated film are wide and deep, and the limitations few.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

No. 149, A Different Point of View

One Way to Draw a Difficult Angle


A few days ago while struggling to draw my Old Man character from an unusual angle, I recalled an old technique that I would like to pass along to you.

In trying to draw a difficult head-down view of the character, I was not satisfied with my result.  Here is what it looked like at the time.



Not having created a clay or Sculpey maquette of the Old Man, I had only my own traditional model sheet for reference.

Traditional model sheet for Old Man

As you can see, there is a head-down view at upper left, but it is not nearly as severe as I was trying to do. Then I recalled an old trick and decided to give it a try.

I taped a copy of the model sheet right onto my animation board--but not at a level angle; I dropped the right side down so that the profile of the Old Man's head seemed about the same as the angle I was trying for in my drawing. Then I drew a full frontal view alongside, using reference points from the profile view that plotted out horizontally from one image to the other.

Here is a photo taken right from my backlighted drawing disk, with the dim model sheet image showing on the bottom level and the new frontal image on the top level.


The green lines show the corresponding reference points for several features--the top of the hat brim, the top of the ear, the top of the eyeglass lens, the bottom of the ear, the bottom of the nose and the bottom of the chin. Some are not exact, but they get me where I want to go.

After this, I found it a simple matter to now re-draw my three-quarter-front drawing that had been a problem. It came out like this:

New head rendering at left. Original rendering in inset at right.


It turns out in this case that my original isn't so very different from the new head, but the new one on the left definitely is more recognizable as the man in the model sheet. I am satisfied with the result.

So take this tip and drop it into your own bag of tricks.  Someday you may want to pull it out to solve a drawing problem of your own!


Thursday, January 25, 2018

No. 148, The Ambitious Inbetween Drawing

The Inbetween that Dreamed of Being a Breakdown Drawing

In my last post, No. 147, I talked about planning.  About how, if you planned a scene carefully and deeply enough, you might be able to avoid making too many changes after your first attempt.

Now I want to talk about serendipity and the discovery of things while you are working through a scene that can make the scene better, even if you planned it very well.

Often, this happens at the Breakdown stage, where you are making the major drawings between extremes that are so important to the outcome of a scene.  I have written about this before, too, but now I want to introduce the idea that a change or idea can occur during the period when you are just filling in the inbetweens that connect up everything else.

Inbetweens are usually described as being the least important drawings. Some of them might even be bad drawings, and it might not matter much that they are bad drawings. In the hierarchy of a big studio, inbetweens are the training ground for new animators, giving them their first sense of the flow of animation drawings and how the whole system works. With inbetweening they learn to curb their own style of drawing and conform to the work of others who are more experienced and to the style established by the model sheets, while at the same time they are studying the extremes and breakdowns that pass before their eyes and between their fingers. Ordinarily, with inbetweens, they are expected not to take liberties and to just place the contours of the drawing they are adding precisely where indicated by the notes--half way between two existing drawings and perhaps following an arc, for example. Admittedly, this can be boring as hell.

But I have an example to show you where an inbetween became more important than usual.  It is from this last scene I was working on--the Old Man getting his legs out of the taxi.

Here is the spacing guide that was on the corner of the relevant extreme drawing.



In the pose-to-pose method of animating, which is what I mostly use, the animator would do the most important drawings first, working down to the smaller changes which are the inbetweens.  In this case, 117 is first; it is halfway between 103 and 131. Then 113 and 121 would be done next, and so on, each time subdividing, so that the last drawings to be done would be 105 and 129. What I am getting to is drawing 125, which, as shown on the chart, is half way between 121 and 131. (Are you following this? Remember, at this point, drawings 123, 127 and 129 do not yet exist.)



So, 125 ought to have been a straight, mechanical inbetween of 121 and 131. But, I saw something that made me want to change it. Here is what the problem looked like.



Drawing 121
Drawing 131
The two drawings--121 and 131--superimposed as for inbetweening.

The straight interpretation for 125 would have been like this for the leg.

Green line shows the "straight" inbetween position of the leg for drawing 125.

But I saw where I could bring the knee higher here, giving it an extra accent, a little more force or snap, and it came out like this.


Here is the comparison:

The orange line represents the new "improved" leg position.
The new leg position then of course affects the leg in the subsequent drawings 123, 127 and 129.

In a hierarchical studio setting, the inbetweener would not make such a change--not without conferring with the animator first. But finding these opportunities for enhancement is one of the few advantages of having to do all the drawings oneself, as I have to do.

The point is that an inbetween may not always just be a boring, incremental  filler drawing that requires no creative thought. Even a lowly inbetween drawing may turn out to be something special.
So, stay alert for serendipity, even when inbetweening!


Sunday, January 21, 2018

No. 147, Time to De-taxi, Part Two

Upping Your Game


Wherever you find yourself in your knowledge and understanding of drawn or other hand-crafted animation, I hope you are always trying to push yourself a little higher.

If you get too good at your game, then you are coasting and not learning anything new.  Where is the challenge and the joy in that? So, up your game; make it harder for yourself. If for a master guitarist that means learning to sling the guitar behind and keep on playing, like Jimi Hendrix,  for an animator it might mean something more subtle like learning to time movements to the frame before even making any drawings except the key (story-telling) drawings.

For an animator with less experience, how about making a walk cycle that is so full and natural that other people can watch it for a whole minute without tiring of it?

Or you might be ready to try some dialog animation that is a bit beyond what you have done before.

It is important to reach out just a little ahead of yourself, and not reach too far at once.  But it is important to reach ahead.

For myself, in the interest of minimizing the instances of re-drawing and re-timing of animation that I have seen in my pencil tests, I am basically trying to learn the skill of visualizing accurately and in great detail the scene I am starting in on.

You start usually with the drawings from the storyboard, and they give you some ideas about poses and expression, but the detail is never nearly enough at the storyboard level. If you are animating a character in dialog, then the actor's reading of the lines will help to guide you and inspire you--but you will also be limited. If you know a character has a line before going outside that lasts only 42 frames, then you don't have time to show him putting on his coat as he says it.

Pantomime or non-dialog animation has more freedom but it has no actor's input to help you. It's just you and the storyboard.  How long does it take an old man to get out of a taxicab, for example? Many animators work with a stopwatch or a fixed beat (such as 12 frames, or a half second) that they have learned so well that they start their pencil tapping to that beat as they think about the movement.

Thinking about the movement: how important that is, and yet how elusive it can be. I suppose some animator's get it more naturally and quickly than I have, but it is hard to do at a deep enough level.

Let's look at my example of the Old Man getting out of the taxi. Storyboard shows that he opens the door, that he gets his legs out one after another, and then sits sideways on the seat with his feet down on the pavement.

Is that all the farther you have to think into it? No. This is an old man, and he is still capable, but he does move in a slow and deliberate way most of the time. Now I am seeing him. He might even experience a little pain in the movement that he must make to get his feet up and over the doorsill and onto the ground, one after the other. In this scene he does not stand up at the end, so there are three major moves here: 1] he opens the taxi door, 2] he brings out his right foot, and 3] he brings out his left foot. Two smaller moves are also obvious to me: 4]he braces his hands on the seats for leverage and 5]he sits up and comes to rest at the end.

In former years I might have failed to think it through this far.  I might have picked up my pencil and started doing pose drawings without enough thought and ended up with someone who got out of the taxi with the ease and grace of a young actor playing James Bond.  Then, of course, I would have seen my mistake, and done it over.

And, I admit, that is one way of doing something: do it wrong, look at it, and fix it.  Do it wrong, and then do it right. This works.  I should know, as I have been doing it that way for years.

But this is the thing: I am trying to learn if it is possible to do it right the first time. And I don't expect that I will ever be able to do it right the first time, every time. But I would like to be able to do it right the first time, some of the time. This is how I am now trying to Up My Game.

Much of it is in what is called the animator's thumbnails. Thomas and Johnston talk about this, and so does Nancy Beiman, and so does Eric Goldburg. This is the name for the deep thinking of the animator before she or he animates. It is thinking with a pencil, deeper ever than the storyboard can go. You don't just visualize the actions; you visualize the anticipations. You try to visualize where there will be overlapping action, and why. You try your best to really see it all, and miss nothing, and your thumbnail drawings are your scribbled notes so you can remember what you are visualizing in your mind.  You are thinking it through with attention to pressure and weight and effort and tension and slackness. You do your best to see it in your mind as if on the screen. The only things you may not need to consider are color and texture.

You do it as best you can.  I think I am getting better at it.  This scene of the Old Man getting out of the taxi came out pretty well, the first time through.  Here is the first pencil test of it with all of the drawings in. See what you think.



I like it pretty well, but after he gets his second foot out, he sort of jerks forward, letting go of his handholds. Also, the taxi door comes open too fast. Some of those drawings are on ones (a single exposure for each drawing), so I put them all on twos.

Fixing this, I tested it a second time:


I feel this is much better, but now I see something else--how his head turns too quickly when he looks forward to the head rest where he will put his left hand.

So I fix this also, and:


Now I feel that this scene is as good as I can get it. It is time to let it go and get on with the next scene. I will keep trying to get it right on the first try.  Little by little, I will get closer to being able to do that.  Just a little closer...

I hope you will also keep trying to Up Your Game.