The Animator’s Survival Kit

I woke up this morning to the unfortunate news that Richard Williams has passed away. An amazing career and character, but the knowledge he passed down through his Animated Survival Kit is what impresses me most. It’s a book that sits on my shelf, has helped guide my understanding of animation and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a working animator who hasn’t gleaned knowledge from it in their career. His impact is no doubt in every animated film on screen today.

I thought it’s a good time to reflect back on the book, through my eyes as a working/professional animator rather than a student. Two mains things stood out to me:

  1. Almost a quarter of the book is about walks
  2. His first lesson is on work habits


Through my current position as an animation lead at Sony I oversee crowds animation and I noticed one thing straight away when we started building our library of cycles: even senior animators struggle with walks. In the Survival Kit, Richard quoted Ken Harris saying:
“A walk is the first thing to learn. Learn walks of all kinds, ’cause walks are about the toughest thing to do right”.

A walk is something we see hundreds of times a day, and do ourselves all the time; I had two friends comment yesterday they were using pedometer apps and were hitting 10,000 steps for the day. Our expectations of what correct motion looks like is so much higher than say, two aliens fighting on Mars as our familiarity is so much more ingrained. Any imperfections in the mechanics are easily felt.

The Survival Kit has more information than I could ever write about, here are some extra tips from my experience:

Be Methodological

I tend to think the key to a walk is getting the 4 main poses right from the start. If doing a vanilla walk, start with the contact positions 12 frames apart, put the passing position half way in between those two poses and then the down and up poses in between the passing and contact positions. It’s a methodological approach of getting your base right, then working down from there into the details. It’s quite easy to add in breakdowns and before you know it you have your first pass ready for polish.

Make arc tracking simpler
One fiddly thing in 3D animation is getting nice arcs using IK. You can easily perfect the arcs and spacing on the heel and then find your knee arcs are popping back and forward. One simpler way is to switch to FK when the foot is off the ground, swing through like a pendulum to the contact position and then switch back to IK for the foot plant.

Knee pops
One thing I notice more commonly in student walks are legs stretching to avoid knee pops. Done well, it’s fine and unnoticeable, but more often that not it’s easy to see elastic legs. Knee pops are caused by the distance between the hip and heel becoming too long, it causes the knee to lock into an outstretched position and pop back into place when the hip and heel come back into regular proportion. Before you go searching for a stretch to fix your pops, look into those controls first. Perhaps more rotation on the hips or bringing the heel back for a slightly shorter stride will solve your problems.

Re-use animation
In a vanilla walk, everything is mathematical. The forward motion is constant and the distance a foot travels in a stride is also a constant. If you have a character doing a simple walk, then then cycle with an offset or copy & paste your curves. Getting two strides right that repeat is a lot easier than going through and perfecting 10.

Animate a quadruped

Once you feel comfortable with walk cycles I’d suggest attempting a quadruped. While Richard Williams breaks it down to think about it as though you’re animating two bipeds walking, I find it far trickier as the relationship of the four legs adds more complexity. I found by doing a quadruped is my attention to detail requires a higher level; perfecting foot rolls and mechanics on four legs requires a greater deal of patience and dedication. Once you’ve been pushed to that level, it becomes more second nature to apply that level of observation to a human or bipedal walk.

Work Habits

One of the great stories Richard Williams retells is his asking Milt Kahl about listening to music while working, in fact it’s marked as “Lesson One” in the book and beautifully animated above by Eduardo Quintana. I remember reading this and thinking of it as a far stretch as a student, I’d often listen to music or podcasts to help keep me motivated.

It seems some research even supports that theory about music at least, depending on the type of task and choice of music. Despite that I’ve completely changed course and find music, podcasts, youtube, etc as major distractions. Podcasts and youtube videos are easier to point out, as the linked article states about acquiring new and interesting information:

“Your body releases dopamine in response to this “newness,” causing you to feel some degree of pleasure. That ultimately can make the music more appealing than whatever other task you’re trying to do, drawing your attention to the tune and compromising your work focus.”

I’d also argue in the case of music, it becomes a distraction as we’ve become so trigger happy. While putting some old time favourites may have benefits it also, in my own opinion, forms a new distraction: switching apps to change tracks, finding what you’re in the mood for, pausing for lip sync, deciding you want to change it up, all adds up to attention being focused elsewhere countless times a day.

Why be so anal about this? If you’re reading this right now, it’s because you care; you care about animation enough to read a long post about it and find tips or opinions about workflow that may help your own work. Improving your quality of animation isn’t just a matter of knowledge, it’s also a matter of discipline and concentration. Why only focus on one side of the coin?

I completely agree with Richard on this one.

Level of Study

“If you are drawing a blank, or are having a hard time drawing a certain thing, then it is because you have not studied it enough”
– Glen Keane

While poking around some blogs I came across this collection of deer studies (originally posted on Michael Spron’s blog) that Rico LeBrun provided and taught to the Disney animation crew during the production of Bambi. My reaction went from intrigue to gobsmacked, the number of pages of pure anatomy in motion is astounding.

It’s great to also compare it to the next stage of development drawings Andreas Deja has on his blog, we can see where the animators have veered away from realism and pushed animation principles.

What I found interesting about the pages is how motion is studied differently in schools and workplaces compared to this kind of training. While modern day animation relies heavily on reference, I question how much of that becomes more a habit of copying to get a shot done rather than truly understanding of why and how anatomy functions or movements convey meaning.

When speaking of using reference on The Jungle Book, Milt Kahl said “the way to use it, I think, is to learn so much about it that you don’t have to use the reference anymore“. It’s easy to see through this documentation that his comments were no exaggeration.

In looking at our own animation training, how does this level of analysis compare to your studies of locomotion? Is it overkill for today when we are able to find specific reference to help deliver a shot, or does it show insight to the deeper level of study one takes to become a great animator?

I tend to think it’s the latter.

Simplicity in the Spider-Verse Part 2

I thought I’d continue on the point of my last post with an example of a full scene where the directors have chosen for more restrained animation and analyse why from a story perspective. I’ve also gone through and looked at why this is also great animation from the perspective of the 12 principles, despite being so minimal in those terms.

I recently came across this scene with director voice over on the New York Times. While the audio of the film is somewhat muted, there’s still plenty of information to glean how individual shots work within their sequence.

In order of sequence, here are some shots with minimal movement, and why in my view simple motion was chosen over something more complex. I should take this to point out that although I am working at Sony, I didn’t work on this film and views are entirely my own.

Into the Spider-Verse

The second shot of the sequence is the establishing shot. The purpose being to give the audience a chance to take in the environment and have a sense of where the action is taking place. This would be a key reason for minimal character movement, along with the characters themselves having a chance to take in their surroundings.

This part of the sequence has 3 consecutive shots of minimal movement. Miles standing on his uncle’s shoulders to reach a high point is definitely a visual way to describe their relationship but the key here is also the spider. The outstretched held pose allows us to focus on its movement towards taking the all important bite that sets the story wheels in motion.

Another shot where the environment is the focus, not the characters. It also marks a tempo change in the scene, from enjoyment of their artistic process to contemplation, both of the artwork and thoughts & words being imparted. The amount of movement in the animation reflects the change in tempo.

Two shots of the minimal acting taking place. Again the focus being on quiet contemplation between a mentor and mentee, there’s no need for strong reactions or exaggerated acting. The shots feel natural even by staying within just one main pose.

The minimal movement here serves some comedy relief for the scene, Miles’s reaction goes against our expectations; we all know the importance and life changing events that will happen with the bite of the radioactive spider, we also know how over the top people often react to spiders. The acting is a massive downplay of both points and in doing so with such a whimsical slap, creates humour.

So now we’ve looked at reasons why simplicity in individual shots helps serve the sequence, we can also look at the shots in more traditional ways of animation appreciation

Into the Spider-Verse

The shot has clear silhouettes, especially of the arm on the lever which hooks up with the previous shot. With the silhouette we can also make out Miles looking around, his little spring mid way gives a visual clue to his excitement. His uncle’s movement is completely restrained, letting our eye take in the environment and then Miles, there’s no conflicting motion on Uncle Aaron to draw our attention to places we don’t need to be looking.


The posing of the characters and framing of the shot lets us see all the way down to Uncle Aaron, keeping a visual continuity through the scene. The faster move of Miles’s hand at the tail of the shot adds a touch of texture to the timing.

I love the staging here, the characters framing the painted figure, the words “no expectations” are clear and also Miles is positioned to cover most of the light source. Given a viewer’s eye is often directed to the brightest point of an image, it makes sense to hide some of that to reduce its visual significance.

The posing here giving a clear differentiation of the two characters, Uncle Aaron looking far more confident and comfortable within himself. Also notice the staging, Uncle Aaron surrounded in dark shadow, the younger and innocent Miles staged in a vibrant and lighter backdrop, another visual way of telling story.

The posing here is spot on in telling us what we need to know, Miles is taking it all in and processing it. Notice the break up in timing of the eyes and brows, and also the subtle furrowing at the end of the shot.

Pay attention to the silhouette at the head of the shot, it’s designed to read the spider on the hand, the lack movement combined with this gives us a quick and easy read. Notice the break up in timing of the hand doing the slapping, moving from medium to slow to fast and back to slow, there’s nice texture to it and gives us a chance to read the motion. Also the acting choice of the slap feels dainty, it creates some nice humour.

I hope looking at a sequence and shots that comprise it have helped to garner thoughts of how important working with the sequence is. Animation isn’t just about the 12 principles, by all means we should analyse, understand and appreciate those aspects, but it’s only part of what makes a shot great. The other part is telling the story in a way that shot requires, even if it is just one held pose and a subtle eye dart.

Simplicity in the Spider-Verse

“Simplicity is the hall-mark of all art forms and animation is no exception” – Chuck Jones.

Through animation schooling we’re often taught to appreciate great animation as one that utilises the 12 principles effectively, motion that is so well executed that it creates the “illusion of life”, performances that are memorable or shows a high level of technical prowess.

We study masters like the 9 old men, Glen Keane and modern films by Pixar, Dreamworks and ILM.


But to me this is only part of the way to building an understanding of what good animation is. While we can look at these shots for their use of principles and the character that the motion conveys, the downside of doing so is that we often take them out of context of their environment, we learn to praise and appreciate animation for how it looks but not what it serves, i.e, story.

The role of animation in narrative work is to visually tell story, our 12 principles are a means we use to achieve that aim, but they aren’t an end to themselves. A shot with no movement can be great animation and shot with amazing movement, character and timing can be a failure if it doesn’t provide what the story requires.

To try to highlight this point, I’ve gone through the latest trailer for Spider-Man : Into the Spider-Verse and picked out shots that favour simplicity over complex animation. While they might not be the kinds of shots that leap out to the viewer with glitz and glamour, they are well executed animation as they serve the sequence they’re a part of.

Also pay attention to how much can be told with just one pose, one shift of an eyebrow or one look away. Learning to identify when to take such a minimal approach will help to strengthen your skills and sensibilities as much as studying broader and more commonly appreciated animation. Hopefully I’ll expand on this topic in future posts.

Breaking the rules

This weekend marks the opening of Hotel Transylvania 3. It’s a film I had the pleasure to work on and thought I’d celebrate with a post about its animation style.

While studying animation, the 12 principles defined by Disney animators were the gold standard. I’d often see points from the Illusion of Life thrown around by students and mentors as though they were fact, it seemed if an animation went against what is written in that book then that animation is somehow wrong.

I’d argue what is written in the Illusion of Life is by all means the foundation of animation, but it’s also written from the perspective of one style of animation. Adhering to them isn’t following a path to strong animation, it’s following a path to producing strong animation of the Disney style.

Hotel Transylvania is an example of animation that is still solidly built on the 12 principles, but is pushed much more into a graphic style than what Disney Feature produces. I’ve used the trailer as an example of where principles established by the Nine Old Men or common rules highlighted in animation schools are broken to achieve a different style.

“No twinning”
Twinning is the idea of a pose being symmetrical, one side is an exact opposite of the other. Throughout my studies I constantly heard the word “twinning” being thrown around as an evil to be avoided. I do think there is some truth to twinned motion breaking an illusion of organic movement and feeling robotic, but for the most part I think it’s an overused term. Check out these great poses that are twinned to get a strong graphic read.

“Respect anatomy”
When doing squash and stretch on a head, the general rule is to maintain the structure of the cranium as it is hard bone and have the jaw do the squashing and stretching. It’s a rule I often saw Sony animators break on quick inbetweens.

Here the animator has gone from correct anatomy on the nose to a broken shape that adds to the humour of the pose. The nose on the right is almost completely profile on a face straight to camera.

There is so much broken anatomy in these poses. Obviously the different neck lengths but check out how short Drac’s upper legs are (I’m guessing to avoid negative space) and how much longer his upper arms are to his forearms. The pushed anatomy again helps sell the humour of the shot.

I love how graphic this hand pose is, a beautiful mix of straights and curves. Try creating the pose with your own hand and see just how broken it all is.

“Maintain weight”
Walk cycle 101 tells you the “Up” pose before the contact pose is the highest point of a walk, and the “Down pose” just after the leading foot flattens out is the lowest point. Check out the hips on Drac, his walk has no ups and downs, giving him a weightless feel. Whether that’s purely for simplified cartoony reasons or to give Dracula (a character who can float) a subtle floaty feel in his walk, I’m not sure.

I love how pushed Frank’s balance and line of action is, he’s clearly in a falling pose but (from memory of the film) he breaks physics and stays on the train.

“Arc your movements”
I love how the animator on this shot managed arcs on the hand. The motion of the wrist is linear and unnatural, it doesn’t arc but the shape of the arm and fingers gives a subtle arc feeling. Also notice the squash and stretch on Erica’s head completely ignores the rule of maintaining volume.

“Keep characters alive”
Earlier days of CG animation saw animators talking about dead pixels when characters don’t move, arguing that a 2D style can’t be done in 3D. It was said characters must be kept alive when doing nothing, the most common way being breathing and very subtle movements on limbs or weight shifting. Hotel Transylvania throws that out the window, watch any background character and notice how still they are. Main characters can also completely maintain a completely held pose.

Also notice how movement can be isolated to one part of body. Drac’s body is completely locked except for head movement

“Ease in and out of poses”
The idea of ease in can be ignored to exaggerate the sudden movement of an object. The plane here literally drops from one frame to the next, breaking rules of gravity.

“Use video reference!”
All through the film we used no video reference, all the above points I’ve highlighted wouldn’t have come through. The idea was to push graphic shapes and stylised motion and not be limited to correct physics. In terms of animation schooling I think animation reference is an important part of learning timing, antics, arcs, etc. But it also leads to a more nuanced style of animation than a cartoony style seen in Hotel Transylvania.

I hope that helps to highlight some ways rules can be broken and opens up ways of thinking about the 12 principles. I firmly believe in the saying “to break rules you first must know them” and thoroughly encourage sticking to them when learning the basics. But in order to work in different styles of animation, you’ll eventually need to learn when and how to break from the standard mould.

Contract work

My work on Hotel Transylvania 3 wrapped up a few weeks back and I’ve since joined the team at Method Studios for a feature that’s yet to be announced. I figure it a good time to briefly go over a part of the industry that may be not be so talked about in schools.

A colleague at Sony recently remarked:
“I was talking to the interns about how a show is wrapping up and a lot of animators will be going to other studios. They were so shocked and couldn’t understand why people were leaving”.

When I think back to my time at Animation Mentor, 5 out of 6 of my mentors were in staff positions, meaning they were hired as long term employees. I think all had been in their studios over 10 years, the odd one out has now been at their current studio for the past 4 years.

If I think about the group of people I graduated with who are now in the industry, I can only think of one who is in a staff role. Even if I very liberally round it up to include others I possibly don’t know about, I’d still say less 5% of my fellow graduates from 2014 are in staff positions. Comparing 80% of my mentors to 5% of my fellow graduates is a massive gap between my schooling and industry realities.

Most animators are hired on a contract basis. They might be hired for a specific project, a specific time-frame or even hired with an open contract with an end date to be decided. The idea still remains the same, they are a temporary hire. What that means is that when a project is nearing its end date, a studio will evaluate if there’s enough work to keep their current crew, and if not, will go through the process of deciding which animators to offer a contract renewal and which to let go. A studio and its crew can fluctuate wildly, from mass hiring, to possibly no work at all for months. The coming and going of animators is a normality in most studios.

It can end up being a messy process and makes the end of a project a stressful time for those wondering if they’re going to be looking for a job in a couple weeks. I’ve seen people being offered renewals on their very last day and I’ve even seen people being let go and rehired a week or two later.

Here’s a couple tips that might soften that burden:
1. Live in an animation hub. This is one of the reasons I’ve moved to Vancouver, with a large amount of studios it makes finding work at lot easier and takes out the hassle of having to move with each new contract. Montreal, London, Los Angeles are also other cities that come to mind. Paris, Tokyo and Munich also have clusters of studios.

2. Save for downtime Maybe easier said than done, but every month I put some money aside for downtime with an aim of being able to cover living expenses for 6 months. Some countries may have unemployment insurance to help with long downtime, but I like to have certainty that I can take a gap between contracts and not worry about paying rent.

3. Have your reel and linkedin ready First in best dressed, you never know when an opportunity is going to open up or how quickly the role is going to be filled. You don’t want to be delaying things a week by thinking “I need to polish this shot a little more and then I’ll apply”, that’s an entire week a recruiter has been looking through linkedin and/or submitted reels.

4. Help others out  I got my first job in animation after a friend suggested I apply to the studio, my second through a friend who was working at the studio, my third because a friend told me the studio was hiring and gave me the recruiter’s contact information. People have helped me in my career and in return, I try to help others in theirs. Sometimes that is as simple as passing on a link to a job posting or passing on a reel to your supervisor. We’re all in the same boat together, be kind and help those around you.

If this contract nature of the industry sounds daunting, here’s what I find to be advantages from an animator’s point of view:

– It’s easier than other industries to be hired. I often joke that an animation interview usually follows the same pattern: “What are you working on now? Cool, when can you start?”. One of my colleagues remarked “the interview I had for a part time job at SafeWay was harder than the Sony Pictures interview”. Animation interviews are usually fairly casual, short and straight to the point.

– People stay nice. Maybe partly by necessity to stay hired or through studios weeding out their “bad seeds”, I find animation studios to be a supportive and friendly group of people. There are politics, but compares nothing to the stories I hear from friends in other industries.

– Pay rises/career steps. Bouncing between studios is the perfect time to be pushing for higher pay or a step up on the ladder. It might not always happen, but a couple studio changes can end up being quite a large leap in pay.

– Ability to choose projects. With enough experience or a solid enough reel, you may be able to choose between which projects you’d like to work on or which contract suits your situation best.

For further reading, check out Will Finn’s post “WHY YOU SHOULDN’T WANT A JOB IN ANIMATION“. He talks about looking at a career as a whole, rather than individual jobs and studios.

Silhouette – Early Man

This Early Man clip just popped up on my Facebook. I watched it through out of curiosity as a film goer and then played it back without sound, looking at it from an animation perspective. The thing that stood out to me most was clear posing, mostly through the use of silhouette.

I’ll start with a few examples of clear silhouettes in a kind of text book definition:

Here we have a rabbit’s most identifiable features and shapes clearly shown, 2 long ears, a fluffy tail, a head and a body. You can tell just by silhouette what we’re looking at.
Early Man Silhouette
In this one, the two thumbs clear of the body make them easy to read in the short time the character remains on screen.
Early Man Silhouette
The extended arm and club work well as they’re not foreshortened, their shapes are easily read in profile.
Early Man Silhouette
The negative space between the characters allows the poses and situation to read.
Early Man Silhouette

But is that all there is to it? Just putting limbs into negative space so they can read well?
It’s here that I think silhouette can be misunderstood. All of the above poses are great, but it’s only one use of silhouette.

In the below image the cave woman’s pose is very clear, making great use of negative space. But where are the rabbits arms and legs in terms of silhouette?
Early Man Silhouette
They’re both kept within the silhouette, because I would argue they’re not important to the shot. Having limbs with clear negative space can help draw attention to them, having them inside a silhouette can help downplay their importance. In the above screen grab the joke is with the cave-woman and our attention as a viewer should be kept there, all we need from the rabbit is to just to read it’s a rabbit. Its arms and legs aren’t important to the shot.

Take that same thinking to this pose, what’s most important for the viewer to read to understand the action and story?

Early Man Silhouette
It’s the club and the fact that she’s anticipating to hit something, the animator posed the arm and club to be easily read for that reason. Is the other arm important to understand the action taking place? I’d say it’s a lot lower on the importance scale, so it’s interesting to note how the animator used foreshortening to make the screen left arm smaller in screen space, you literally see no forearm and only a touch of the hand.

So if limbs inside the silhouette draw less attention to themselves, where do you focus your attention to in this shot?

Early Man SilhouetteIf you said “his face”, I’d agree.

If we look at these two silhouettes, which seems to convey strength and which seems more conservative? Why? They’re both large, strong characters holding weapons.

Early Man Silhouette
Early Man Silhouette
If you look at the silhouette of the above character what shapes would you use to describe it? And then what shape language would you use to describe the lower silhouette? Personally I’d say the top is formed using squares, straights and angles (strong imagery) while the lower uses circles and roundness (soft imagery). A conservative character tends to have a more contained silhouette, follow her silhouette through that shot and you’ll get a strong sense of that.

Last example, an object does not have to be in negative space to be clearly read in silhouette. Here the arm against the brown clothing is enough of a colour variation that it’s easily and clearly read, it’s an internal silhouette.
Early Man Silhouette

These are just all my own casual observations, perhaps different to what the film makers were intending, or perhaps you may also have your own different view of the use of silhouette. Either way I’d recommend doing a similar exercise with some great animation and try to ask yourself what the animator had in mind when they posed the character.

Project updates

It’s been another busy year, hoping to get back into a regular groove of posting here again, but for now here’s a run down of what I have been up to:

Hotel Transylvania 3
The first is Hotel Transylvania 3 at Sony Imageworks in Vancouver. I’m excited to be working with one of my animation idols, Genndy Tartakovsky and the amazing team at Sony Pictures. The film is slated for a July release, be sure to check it out on the big screen ; )

A couple months ago I jumped on to help Everett Downing on his Book Of Mojo project. We started out doing animation tests to work out a style for the show, one of them eventually turning into the first animated shots finaled for the short. Everett will be speaking at CTN on an Artella panel in a couple weeks along with having a table, if you’re at the event be sure to check out what we’ve been up to and say hello.

Petzi - Rasmus Klump
The project I spent almost 3 years working on with the wonderful Studio Soi crew in Germany now has a poster and will be aired in early 2018. We’ve screened at Annecy, Ottawa, Turin, International Trickfilm Festival Stuttgart, Anima Mundo and numerous others. So far it’s taken home 2 festival awards, not a bad start.

Lily & Snout
A few months back I posted about a VR project I was directing, we completed as a side project in the mega fast time of 2 months and had an online launch in July. The short can be viewed online here, using either a browser, a (modern) mobile phone or VR headset. I didn’t realise at the time of making it was the first short film to utilise Web VR, kudos to the team for their R&D and bringing the short alive with the technology. You can read a detailed making of here.

Thistle One
I also lent a small helping hand on Bobby Beck’s short film titled “Thistle One”, animating a 15 second shot that closes the short. The renders are looking great, looking forward to seeing this one in the coming year.

I’ve enjoyed all the projects, all have been different to each other and am looking forward to what 2018 brings.

Maya: Retiming Video Reference

This is a little tip I actually picked up after Animation Mentor but regularly use now, it simply allows you to retime your video reference using Maya’s Graph Editor. I’m not sure how mentors teach this, so thought I’d type it up and share.

Here I’ve gone through and imported an image sequence onto an image plane, with an offset of -100 frames to match my starting frame for the shot.
Retiming video reference in Maya

You’ll notice the Image Number is a purple colour, meaning it’s being controlled by an expression. My first frame for this shot is 101, and this value is also 101. My last frame is 224 and this value is also on 224, the frame number you’re currently on is in direct correlation the the number contained in this box.
Retiming video reference in Maya

What I like to do is right click and choose Delete the ExpressionRetiming video reference in Maya

This will set the value back to 1 and as the name implies, deletes the expression which was controlling the playback of the image sequence.

Now I can go to frame 101, type 101 into this box, right click on it and set a key. Then I can also key 224 into the final frame.

Retiming video reference in Maya

I’ve essentially re-entered the numbers that were already there. This time the numbers are being controlled by my keys, not an expression. You can visually see the difference now the box is red.

The beauty now is if I open my graph editor, I can now see a curve representing the playback of my image sequence.

Retiming video reference in Maya

If I set it to linear instead of the spline tangent above, it will play back at 1:1, as it did before.

Retiming video reference in Maya

But now within the graph editor I can add keys and slow sections down, speed others up, etc. I can retime my whole video reference or just sections I’d like.

Retiming video reference in Maya

This is great if you have video reference and an audio track you’d like to match actions more closely to, if you find your acting is a little too even and would like to add a bit extra texture in the timing before blocking or if you want to do some cartoony actions with timing that is not entirely based on reality.

TV animation workflow

I just checked in on the Animation Mentor community to see what was happening and saw a question about doing work for TV animation. Anyone who has gone from Animation Mentor into TV will probably agree that it’s quite different to what is taught in these online schools that prepare students for the film industry.

I’ve just wrapped up after almost 3 years of TV quality animation at Studio Soi, in that time I animated somewhere around 60 minutes of screen time (roughly 30 secs a week) on a new show being developed in-house. This post is about my personal workflow, different animators on the same production worked in their own different ways so it is by no means standard. Feel free to leave a comment if you have differing methods which might be of use to others.

Petzi, Studio Soi’s upcoming series

The “Tim Approach”
My approach to animating is to always see a shot in the context of what comes before and after. Before investing time on specific shots I would do a very rough first pass on the entire sequence, see how it all fits together and then go through with a finer comb. My goal was always to have something out as soon as possible and work it up rather than trying to show great animation all through the process.

On top of allowing me to see a shot in relation to what’s around it early, it also gives a chance for a director to come over earlier if something is very off and also helps reduce unnecessary tweaking; looking at the bigger picture helps focus on animation serving the story rather than endless tweaking of animation for animation sake, a luxury TV can’t afford much of.

Something that students might gasp at, animation planning was very minimal across the team. I went through a phase of drawing blocking ideas over the previs and showing the director early, which garnered a positive reaction. Eventually I found it actually didn’t affect much, it didn’t diminish the amount of feedback I received at blocking reviews and found I was still essentially rushing through planning rather than using it to explore ideas.

One thing I did use periodically was video reference. I would use it for acting shots or if there’s a unique movement the director was looking for. In all cases I used it, I would ask the director to act the shot out rather than doing it myself. My goal was always to find out what the director wanted as soon as possible and found this to be the most efficient way.

Usually we would be assigned a 1 minute sequence, with a 2 week turn around time. After having the kick off meeting with the director, my first pass blocking is essentially following the animatic and/or previs. I would block rough and get the main beats, playblast to the server and then move on to the next shot. I’d get through 1 minute in 2 days doing this and would work so rough I wouldn’t check playblasts until I looked at all the shots in sequence.

The next 2 days would be for refining the sequence based on my own notes. That would include blocking in new ideas, refining poses, reworking timing, adding extra keys and a few breakdowns. I generally wouldn’t go into much detail on blocking as the director will have thoughts or ideas that build upon what’s already there. Investing too much time early can be going down a rabbit hole and lost time if the director doesn’t approve.

The extra day for blocking would usually be eaten up by kick off meeting, director review, any extra touch ups or any outstanding notes a previous sequence.

After the director has given his blocking review I would go straight into inbetweening, incorporating any changes into this pass. Again I go quick and rough first pass through, usually leaving out lip sync and on big shots sometimes just keeping it at keys and breakdowns. Again this first pass takes around 2 days, I make my own notes on the sequence and then spend another 2 days doing detailed inbetweening. The final day to round out 2 weeks for the minute of animation is for final notes from the director.

Some freely available Tools I used when animating:
Tween Machine. An animator’s best friend.
aTools. All our CG animators now use this, it has a great arc tracker and fake constraint tool which I would use sometimes in rough blocking before setting up proper constraints. aTools does make Tween Machine redundant as it has its own functionality, but I always preferred Tween Machine.
Locinator. Great if you’re using walk cycles from a library


Keyboard Shortcuts
This one will annoy anyone who comes to your computer, but I remap my keyboard shortcuts so almost everything is done with my left hand. I wrote about this a couple years ago and still haven’t changed the set up all that much.
Maya keyboard hotkeys

Scene Optimisation
One thing that helps to work fast is if your Maya scene is light. I would animate a lot with Isolate Select and even set up my own keyboard shortcut to Isolate Select a character or prop quickly. I also used a mel script that would place all characters and environments on unique display layers and then would put any heavy objects in their own layer, turning them off for most of my animation time.

I have never worked in Viewport 2.0 on a production and always kept everything in low res until it was time to check final animation for technical fixes.

Pose Libraries
I know some animators who swear by them, I found they often took the same amount of time as creating a pose from scratch and were a more boring way to work. Libraries get larger and slower over the server, it takes time to find what you want and then takes time to tweak it to how you like it. We did work with simplified facial rigs, for a more detailed rig my opinions there might be different.

I did however use it for hooking up poses over shots and also walk cycles. I’d apply the cycle, animating the layout control along the path. Once the speed and path looked roughly correct I would bake the movement from the layout control onto the Feet and COG controls using the Locinator tool mentioned above.

One point I do like about pose libraries is if you’re new to a project, well fleshed out libraries can be a great starting point to keeping a character on model.

Stepped or Splined Blocking
My general workflow on any production is always to block with stepped keys. For action shots, shots with very subtle movement or overlap I switch to splined blocking, using a mix of Pose to Pose and Straight Ahead workflows. It allows me to keep a better sense of how timing will work and at Studio Soi I found action shots generally had less notes from the director than acting shots, so wouldn’t hold back on detailed blocking on those shots.

Limited Animation
The style of animation for TV’s high quotas needs to be a more limited style than what’s used in film or taught in online schools. This may need a whole other post, but the general idea comes from 2D animation and having less pencil mileage by having less inbetweens. Key poses would be milked more, animation tends toward a snappier pose to pose style, any kind of keep alive may be limited to just blinks or eye darts and generally polish is minimal. Although this is a simpler style of animation, when you’ve been taught in a nuanced Disney or VFX style it actually takes getting used to and is something we would look for on a reel when hiring.

Check out any of your favourite TV series and compare with a Disney/Pixar style of animation to get an idea. I’d argue that the Peanuts Movie and Lego Movies are both a very polished type of limited animation.

The Amazing World of Gumball, co-produced at Studio Soi, is a clear example of limited animation

At my previous studio we would do a morning check-in everyday, mainly to talk about any issues and to check on progress. It’s something we didn’t do so much at Soi seeing we were such a small team (4 animators for the majority of production). My only tip here is to always give realistic predictions on when you’ll be finished, don’t give an answer that the project manager is wanting to hear or what was written on the schedule. Having been on the management side of short films, I can say someone who is falling behind is much easier to manage than a schedule built on false promises.

Wrap up
I hope that helps get an insight into what might go into working with high quotas. It can be quite a change and a little stressful if you haven’t worked in that kind of environment before, but after pushing through that adjustment time and finding your own workflow it really does become quite manageable.