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.

2 thoughts on “Breaking the rules

  1. Justin Irabor

    These are wonderful, Tim, and while I have yet to see the latest Hotel Transylvania movie, this will help me appreciate better.

    I came to read this for some perspective on the 12 principles of animation, and got a masterclass instead, hehe.

    Reply
  2. admin Post author

    Thanks Justin! This was a tricky one to write, how do you honour the wisdom of the principles while also questioning them. There’s fine line between having a valid point and being naive, hopefully there’s a bit more of the former than the latter ; )

    Reply

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