Category Archives: Animation tips

Master Studies 2

A while ago I posted about Master Studies.

It’s something I still continue to do and usually upload them to my Twitter account.
I thought I would do a follow up post since I’ve made some changes to my studies but also would like to address the most common question, “how are you doing the animated studies?“.

Time Limits
In my previous post I mentioned I liked taking time to focus on detail. After a while you start to become more comfortable with your ability and found actually having a time limit helped me get through more and focus on the main shapes/ideas. Previously I would easily spend a few minutes on each sketch, now I have it down to somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds depending on my mood.

60 seconds each.Disney pose studies

A mix of 30 and 60 second studies.
Disney pose studies

I then started to apply that time limit approach to animation studies. Here is about 90 seconds per frame.
Great Mouse Detective animation study

And here going down to 30 seconds per frame.
Mulan animation study

I feel I got as much out of those as doing something more detailed, without time constraints.
Zootopia animation study

Actually doing the animated studies.

I simply import a quicktime or gif into Photoshop and use the Animation Timeline to draw the different frames.
Animating in Photoshop

The animation timeline isn’t exactly the most user friendly. To make things easier creating Actions can help by automating steps.
F1 will set the start point of a frame.
F2 will set the end point of a frame.
F3 will create a new frame starting at the current position of the timeline marker.

If you need more information about that, check out Alex Grigg’s video explaining how he animates in Photoshop.

One question I’m often asked is “do you trace the animation?“. My answer to that is simply no. I don’t feel I’d be learning to understand the shapes, negative spaces, line of action nearly as well by tracing. I draw next to the original. To help keep shape, volume and positioning I will
– sometimes use Onion Skinning
– pay attention to background elements to help keep a sense of where things should be
– on harder studies I will use a grid. The problem I found with a grid is you start paying attention to detail again rather than the overall shape/pose. If you do go that route, the bigger the grid the better.

Further Studies.
One limitation of all these studies is that I’m copying what’s in front of me and not necessarily applying what I’ve been getting from each study. As a next step I’ve started doing memory sketching. First copying the pose and then trying to redraw it simply from memory. By doing so it’s easier to see where I can still be pushing poses, shapes, etc.

Pose Studies - Memory sketching

The other limitation I’m seeing is that by doing the animation test next to the original I’m not paying much attention to timing. That’s something I’m yet to figure out a good answer to, will hopefully have more to say on that next time!



Complexity vs Simplicity – Glen Keane

Glen Keane : Duet Posing

In drawing there is a principle known as “Straights vs Curves” which I think ties strongly into what I like to think as, “Simplicity vs Complexity”. The contrast of simple and complex lines/shapes helps to create appeal in a pose and can also often help to lead the eye to points of interest, usually the complex area of the drawing. Griz and Norm visually explain the idea on their blog here and here as does Rad Sechrist here.

While watching Glen Keane’s Duet, it was easy to spot this idea in action.
Glen Keane : Duet Posing Glen Keane : Duet Posing Glen Keane : Duet Posing

I find the principle is easier to apply when drawing than working in CG, while drawing you are much more aware of the use of your lines and negative space than when posing a 3D rig. So out of interest I went through the Tangled Teaser (animation directed by Glen Keane) to pick out points where this idea of Simplicity/Complexity have been applied with CG rigs.

Tangled PosingTangled Posing Tangled Posing Tangled PosingTangled PosingTangled Posing Tangled Posing
Tangled Posing Tangled Posing

Twinning : Ratatouille

If I had one shot that had the character’s hands in the same pose 8 times, is that a bad thing?

I tend to find students are quick to point out twinning when giving critiques, as if to say it shouldn’t appear in an animated performance. But what is it about twinning that makes it something to be avoided? It happens in everyday life and is something we sometimes naturally do. Give “Barack Obama hands” a google image search for a quick example.


If it’s something that naturally happens in everyday life, why try to avoid it when animating? I feel there’s an assumption that twinning = unnatural posing/movements. Yes very symmetrical twinning does appear unnatural, stiff, mechanical, etc, but it doesn’t always have to be that way and there are ways animators can help reduce that feeling.

Coming back to my opening question, I noticed this shot in Ratatouille. It’s a 12 second shot and by my count twinning occurs 8 times.
twinning01 twinning02 twinning03 twinning04 twinning05 twinning06 twinning07 twinning08

I thought this is a great clip for studying how to pull off twinned posing without seeming unnatural.

Check out the clip for yourself and look out for:
– Small variations in the posing of the hands
– Different timings. The hands come in and out of poses at different moments.
– Different movements. Watch how the hands will move within a pose, one might go up while the other goes down for example.
– Moments where the hands break up into completely different positions. The hands aren’t twinned through the entire shot.

Quicktime: ratatouille_twinning

Another example to study, the opening shot of the Klaus teaser


Bouncing Ball

I had to animate a ball bouncing in one of my shots at work this week and it gave me the idea of writing a post on the topic. I think the bouncing ball is the foundation of animation and is absolutely worth spending time to get it down to perfection.  Just browsing through the Class 1 Assignments on A.M, I can see a lot of people can pull it off, but for those who haven’t quite got the hang of it I tend to think there are 2 areas where they trip up: planning and understanding how the graph editor relates to the viewport.

1. Planning.
If we can’t demonstrate with pencil and paper the arc, spacing and timing, we’re never magically going to get it right in Maya. Take the time to check out the Survival Kit on how a ball bounces and then draw it yourself with all the information.

This is not enough:
I noticed a lot of people show planning like this. While it shows arcs and the fall off in height, it misses spacing and timing. Spacing is key in a ball bounce. Just simple ticks is enough to show the idea that a ball doesn’t have even spacing.


That’s all it takes. It’s not perfect, it’s rough planning but it clearly shows the concepts and gives us time to figure out how things should move before adding all the complexities of working in Maya.

Assuming the above planning is for a basketball, there are also two points to clarify:
1. What is the drop off rate on the bounce height for a basketball? Successive bounces are usually lower by the same percentage, different balls with different weights will have different percentages.
2. How long does a bounce take? Shoot or get some reference and count the frames (if it’s at 24fps). How long is the first bounce, then the second, the third, etc.

Mark both down on the planning sketches. Basketballs take a long time to come to rest, when animating one we’re not going to be aiming for real life precision. We’ll be able to get something more believable though having that information as a starting point.

Graph Editor vs Viewport.
The graph editor takes getting used to, but trial and error will get us a long way. One easier way to get a grasp of it is by having more visual feedback of what the animation is looking like and how changes in the graph editor are affecting it. I’ll point out 3 ways of doing this:

1. Arc Tracking.
In this case I’ve laid down 3 keys and animated a quick bounce just as an example. Now if we turn on Motion Trails within Maya we can see the arc the ball is moving on. To do so, make sure we are in the Animation menu bar (hit F2), select the ball, then go to Animate > Create Editable Motion Trail

What we also would like to see is a representation of the position of the ball on each frame. To do that we can select the curve and in the Attribute Editor turn on Show Frame Markers. Now we can see our arc and our spacing.


Notice how our visual feedback in Maya is looking a lot like how we drew our planning ; ) To delete the motion trail, just select it and press delete.

2. Ghosting
Another way of visually seeing more of your animation is by using ghosting.
In this case Maya will show where your object will be in the frames following and preceding the current frame. To turn this function on, select your ball, go to Animate > Ghost Selected
I prefer to turn the options on and choose Custom Frame Steps. In this way I can choose the number of frames to show before and after the current frame.
To turn ghosting off, simply go to Animate > Unghost All

3. Screen Drawing.
The last way is to literally draw on your screen. There are two ways, find a screen drawing application or use an erasable whiteboard marker. Screen drawing software ranges from free to about $20 (I will say without hesitation $20 is definitely worth it). At work we can’t just install our own apps, so a lot of animators will have a piece of perspex they put over their screen and then draw on it with a white board marker.


While more time intensive the advantage of this method is I can draw the arc from my current animation and also I can also draw the arc I intend the ball to take. Motion Trails and Ghosting are only able to show what your animation is currently doing, while drawing on your screen gives you the advantage of being able to draw the arcs, spacing, keys, poses, etc that you want to achieve. It can act as a guide as much as it can as visual feedback.

I hope that helps in some ways. To recap: don’t skimp on planning. Planning = getting the concepts figured out before adding the complexities of Maya. And secondly, use some way of visually seeing your arcs+spacing to gain a better sense of how changes in the graph editor will impact the animation.

Planning an acting shot

Currently working on a new acting shot for my reel, so while in the planning frame of mind I thought I’d make a post out of some tips I’ve gathered and now use as part of my workflow.

1. Searching for Audio Clips
Animation Mentor discourages audio clip web sites and I personally tend to agree with them. Find unique clips with decent audio quality. TV shows can be a reliable source, if you can think of a character you like then there will be plethora of lines if the show has run through a few seasons.

Some things to look for in clips:
– A story. A start, middle and end. A goal, conflict & resolution.
– Texture in timing and tone.
– A change in emotional states.
– Something that appeals to you.

You can also make the audio clip work better for you. Add sound effects, cut things out, add “white noise” so there isn’t complete silence before your clip starts, etc. Keep it simple though, playing with audio is a new can of worms.

One last thing to keep in mind, if your clip is 10 seconds long your animation could easily end up being 15 seconds. Sometimes you may need time before the dialogue starts in order to set the scene or some time after the dialogue to finish out actions. The length of your clip doesn’t always equal the length of your final animation, it’s something that’s easy to get caught out on.

2. Ideas
Build on what’s already there in the audio. Read into the subtext, change the context, bring something fresh to the table. Don’t just replicate the same scene as the film/tv show.

3. Animatics
Having basic drawings with timing and audio gives a much better sense if the idea will work. Even just having one quick storytelling image for each idea will give others a good sense of your idea in order to give feedback.

I like drawing in Photoshop with the timeline. If layering audio I’ll use After Effects to assemble the animatic. I’ve also used the Animation Desk iPad app for pantomime shots.
It doesn’t have to be all high tech though, a cheap option is Flipbook which Jason Ryan recommends and also Pencil which is free.

Some of my storytelling images for 3 different clips/ideas:

4. Shooting reference
First, two breakdown vids that hopefully most have seen before, both from Blue Sky animators.

Epic Animation Tips – by Patrick Giusiano
YouTube Preview Image

Epic Comparison Reel – by Jeff Gabor

Memorise the lines.
Amazing how many students don’t do this. Without knowing the lines and timing off heart, you’re not going to get into the performance.

I like to use the FiLMiC Classic app as it lets you shoot in 24FPS and you can also lock off focus and exposure. I like the ease of reviewing shots with app but also the frame rate is a big plus, you can precisely count frames for the timing. If you’re using a dedicated camera try not shoot 30FPS, if you convert it later 6 frames of every second will have to be dropped, it just makes it a bit harder to analyse.

Set the camera up in the same position as the camera in your scene and occasionally check what you’ve been shooting.

Make sure your area is well lit so you can clearly see the reference. Just a quick comparison of what happens when you change the position of your lights.

Patrick in the video above recommends getting into character, including similar clothing. Jeff in the 2nd does a mix, wearing the hoodie for Mary Katherine’s shots for example, but he also wears a plaid shirt in other shots. If you have them, plaid, striped, dotted clothes can make it a little easier to study the body mechanics in your acting.

Sometimes when acting you know you’ve done something spontaneous you like, or just felt it was a better performance than others. I like to clap at the end of the take, it just makes it easier to scrub through and find those specific takes later.

5. Mod your characters
Create new characters. Show their character traits in their design and have something that looks a bit different to other shots on other people’s reels. Some of how to do this was covered in the Bishop post and Texturing Tribes Rigs.

6. Show people
Pretty simple, show others and get opinions before getting too deep into an idea. Facebook groups are great, I like to pick people whose work I like and mail them directly. Everybody is pretty open to helping out.

Focus – The Incredibles

Over the past couple months I’ve been becoming more and more aware of the importance of focus in a shot, in other words directing a viewer’s eye so they understand what’s happening on screen more easily. I just had the Incredibles playing in the background and noticed a couple of clear examples in quick succession so thought I’d highlight them.

There are a few factors that influence our focus but I’ll just point out 2 things: contrast in tone and contrast in movement.

1. Contrast in Tone.
If I show this picture, where does your eye naturally want to go?focus07

Or this one:focus06

Instantly it will go to the square, because that area has the highest amount of contrast within the frame. In this case the contrast is in tonal value.

If we look at just one frame from The Incredibles. There are 2 guards screen right, one on the ground and one higher up. Bob has picked up a rock and he starts weighing it up, so we get a sense he might throw it. If we look at the frame, which guard is grabbing our attention more?

If you said top right, then I’d agree. Why? Because the higher guard has gained our attention more through tonal contrast. If Bob were to throw the rock at the lower guard, we’d be momentarily confused. The use of contrast can help direct our eye to what is important on screen and also what comes next.

Here we have 2 guards, but a bright moon is competing for our attention. Why? focus04

Guess where the shuttle Bob has thrown is going to come from. focus05


Because this happens in just a few frames, it makes sense to lead the eye to the shuttle as soon as possible.

In the case Helen is much smaller in the frame, but with the aid of tonal contrast and depth of field on the camera she is still able to retain our attention. Also note how the lines of the room also converge to her.


2. Contrast in Motion


If we now look at this shot, the visual contrast between characters is less. They both take up about a 1/3rd of the frame and are lit equally.  If you play the clip below, even without sound we know where to look. But how?

When a character is talking they have bigger movements than the other character in the shot. It’s almost like a tennis game, focus moves back and fourth between the 2 characters simply by the amount of movement each character makes. All of this helps the viewer to understand what is happening more easily.

The same concept can be applied to a single character. Think of a magician for example. If he wants you to look at a hat in his hand, he’s not going to start kicking his legs and shaking his head, he’ll use hand movements to direct your attention to where he wants it.

Finally, give this a watch and notice how viewers eye movements are dictated by contrast in tone and movement.

Blocking Tips


2 things I do in my workflow to help get those key poses right.

Tear off a copy of your shot cam and hide your environment. The go into Lighting > Use Selected Lights (with nothing selected). You’ll get an instant silhouette of your character.

This just helps me really focus on the key poses. I like to go through my reference/animatic and pull out the key poses in Quicktime Pro. I just copy and paste them into a new quicktime. I’ve taken my current 10 second and reduced it to 4 frames. I then export that as an image sequence, create a new camera in my scene file and import the image sequence as an image plane. I then tear off that camera too. Having nothing but the key poses stacked over the first few frames just simplifies things a lot and I focus entirely on those 4 poses before moving on.
It’s a good idea to save the file as a mov as well, that you can easily add more keys and breakdowns later down the track.

Fresh eyes

I think most know of the old painters trick of turning a painting upside down or looking at it in a mirror to get a fresh set of eyes on it.
With sketches you can turn the page around and hold the paper up to a light.
For animation playblasts? Flip it in Quicktime Player! Just click Window > Show Movie Properties and make sure you’re in Video Settings.
Then select the video track and hit the flip horizontal button.


Class 01 Weekly Tips

I make a list of notes for my Peer Buddy who is in Class 01 so decided to collate them all here. Will add more as the term progresses.

Week 11 – Walk Splining
See below, week 09.

Two more tips for splining:
– Have you been using buffer curves? If not, they can be quite useful:
– I’ve also found the top mel script here to be super handy: As you probably guessed by the name, it deletes all your redundant keys. It makes that initial step into splining all the more bearable having a cleaner graph editor.

Week 10 – Personality walks
See my blog post on this topic.

Week 09 – Walk splining
– Knee pops are a pain. They’re caused by the relationship of the hip rotations and the foot roll. Play around with that before touching the leg stretch. Also save knee pops until the end.
– When you’ve addressed your mentor’s notes, do a playblast of your final blocking pass and save it. While splining every now and then go back to it and check your splining hasn’t gone too off course
– Make sure the front leg gets straight for at least 2-3 frames on the contact.
– Arc track both feet, you can just use the controller under the foot. Also check the knees, I wrote up a blog post on arc tracking joints here:
– Also here’s a tip that I used on every walk cycle, how to create a mel script to quickly jump between your key poses:
– I also use a screen drawing tool and mark out my key poses in different colours on the timeline. Just helps me see where everything is.

Week 08 – Vanilla Walk blocking
– Check the poses on pages 103 and 108 of The Animator’s Survival Kit for the key poses.
– If you quickly switch from stepped to linear, just check that your translate z on the hips is a nice straight line. There shouldn’t be changes in spacing between the poses.
– On the contact position the legs and ground should make a nice looking triangle. The body shouldn’t be favouring the front/behind leg.
– Download and step through this frame by frame, this one too (although it’s more of a personality walk):

Week 06 – Tailor:
– Hide the tail on tailor and animate the ball first, get it feeling right before you touch the tail.- Squash & Stretch must always follow the direction of Tailor’s arc
– A tail in motion always points to where it’s coming from (unless muscles are being used).
– One workflow method: you could animate the first link in the tail, arc track it and then use the arc to key the remaining links in the tail.
– Some inspiration:
– And some more:

Week 05 – Pendulum:
– Do the easier option first. I did it thinking I’d nail that quickly and move onto a harder movement, but 4 or 5 days later I was still working on just getting that simple pendulum swing feeling right. It’s easy to get in over one’s head on this assignment.
– Some people like to animate the top link first then copy the keyframes down the chain and offset them a frame or two each
– But some other people like to keyframe the whole chain, choose whichever method works for you, just make sure you get the passing position right (see below)
– This Keith Lango tutorial is a must watch
– Even though the swings of the pendulum get shorter, their timing stays about the same
– Make your own pendulum to study! This is what I did in class 01.

Week 04 – 2 Bouncing balls:
– Definitely get reference material and check timing of each bounce and make sure to mark that on your planning sketches. I use the ‘Download Helper’ add on in Firefox to download and analyse Youtube clips more closely. Shooting your own material is even better, just try and shoot in 24fps if possible.
– Check out the pdf tutorials here if you haven’t already:
– The feeling of weight really comes from how high the ball bounces, I’d recommend paying particular attention to that. You might even be able to exaggerate it a little in your animation.
– Beach balls are hard, they bounce but also have a floaty element too. Be prepared if you want to tackle one in your assignment.
– Always use the arc track tool in the AM menu so you can clearly check your arcs and spacing.
– I recommend not worrying about balls contacting or hitting walls, etc. The assignment is about weight more than anything, so focus on that first.
Week 03 – Bouncing ball

See my notes on making poses.

Pose tips

For this class I’ve become a peer buddy for a student in class 1. I sent her an email with my general advice when doing pose assignments and thought I would post it here.

1. Use references. I like to spend a bit of time and download about 20 pictures and sketch each one. If you have that kind of variety in research you’re basically learning how the body moves and reacts in real life, rather than just what you think it might be doing.

2. is a pretty good resource, I definitely found it more useful that google images. Only downside is a lot of the poses feel unnatural.

3. Use Using different words with similar meanings when searching will garner different images.

4. Start with the line of action first and then start laying body parts over that.

5. Watch this Keith Lango tutorial on posing:

6. Walt Stanchfield’s book is also a great read if you’re interested in getting poses nailed on paper:

7. If you make a camera, tear off a copy and then click Lighting > Turn Off All Lights, it gives you a great instant silhouette.