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.