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.

Planning
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.

Blocking
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.

Inbetweening
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.

Tools
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

aTools

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

Check-Ins
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.

3 thoughts on “TV animation workflow

  1. Ray Alez

    Thank you so much for writing this! Absolutely fascinating post, extremely useful.

    I’m in the early stages of making my animated short, and this is very inspiring.

    In terms of limited animation, I absolutely love Family Guy, they’re keeping it very simple yet it looks amazing.

    Really looking forward to more of your articles, I’d love to hear more about your process =)

    Reply
  2. admin Post author

    Thanks Ray!
    Yeah that same workflow can be applied to shorts. When we did Lily & Snout it was on a super tight turnaround time so basically blocked my entire section in splines as it was all action and would do very rough previs passes to get quicker feedback from the team. Good luck with the short.

    Reply

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