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

Walks

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.

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