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.

4 thoughts on “Level of Study

  1. Chris

    I’m of two minds on this. There are still incredible animators nowadays that don’t use reference, like Hiroyuki Okiura. Their stuff looks almost rotoscoped but it’s not, it’s just the result of an incredible repository of animation knowledge. I think processing observational study with our own artistic sensibilities is how to arrive at a style. However many clients, especially in vfx, don’t want a style. They want to know that this animal moves exactly the way it would in reality and may request to see the reference. So then it becomes a matter of just using reference because it’s both convenient and appeals to the client.

  2. Tim

    Hey Chris, yeah I agree with you. The example sketches by Milt Kahl above highlights what you mention, his observational studies combined with his artistic sensibilities combined to bring something structured yet simplified in his drawings. It’s a shame that you’re finding clients not willing to go that route, hopefully over time innovation will win over conservatism in the regards of style. We’ve definitely seen it on the character animation side in the past few years.

    I’ll reword the blog post, rather than a question of reference and style, I think what I found most interesting in the observational drawings is what we don’t often see as animators: the inner workings of renown animators such as the nine old men. I find we’re often presented or pass around work they’ve created at an accomplished level and tend to gloss over how they reached that level. As a comparison, we have troves of diaries and studies from Leonardo Da Vinci, we can pinpoint choices made in the Mona Lisa in studies done years earlier or read about his trips to a morgue to understand the muscles involved in her smile. But with our equivalent in the animation industry I feel we’re just being shown the Mona Lisa’s (clips from films) or the preliminary sketches of the Mona Lisa (pencil tests). I’ve read Kahl studied Muybridge extensively, and yet I haven’t seen one sketch of that.

    I think the better we can understand that journey happening behind the scenes, the better we’re able to apply that to our own situation. I guess that’s more the direction this post should be written in.

    1. Chris

      There’s two books full of drawing practice that Disney animators did while being trained by Walt Stanchfield that give a clue to the level of study of the 9 old men. Anime fans also like passing around douga and genga, the rough and finished animation. With the internet it’s much easier to watch artists as they work, even over livestream or YouTube vlogs of their habits and study. It’s a great tune to be able to see the journey people are taking to refine their abilities!

  3. Tim

    Yep, I have the first Stanchfield book and it’s great. I also have the Eric Larson memoir with his animation lectures included and have an order for a book on Marc Davis that shows some of his figure and motion studies. But yeah it’s great this is more freely available than just a decade ago, I hope more becomes uncovered and shared.


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