Frame by Frame

Over the past year I’ve been making the switch to Blender for personal work and for the most part have been happy with the switch (more info to come in a future post). As a little test I recently did the animation below which has been kindly broken down and analysed by the folks at Frame by Frame. It’s an amazing resource that I pay attention to and learn from, so I was surprised to see this land on their platform!

I did this shot in one sitting, about 4 or 5 hours without planning or a clear goal. I tend to block straight into spline and figure things out as the shot progresses, it’s a messy process to start with but it often feels more natural to me to mold the shot and adapt ideas/approaches as it’s happening. There are some polish things I would love to fix about her arms going into the first jump, but the joy of having frame by frame point out strong parts of the animation is that it takes attention away from the weaker areas ; )

The rigs were provided by Agora and converted to Blender by Rigging Dojo. They’re a solid start to playing around with Blender, fast in the viewport and fairly simple controls. I look forward to doing another with the Tibbers rig.

And in another update Nick Kondo and I were recently interviewed on the Animation Mentor blog about being Supervising Animators on The Mitchells vs The Machines. It was a tough but rewarding project, hopefully our experiences are worth the read!

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


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.

Simplicity in the Spider-Verse Part 2

I thought I’d continue on the point of my last post with an example of a full scene where the directors have chosen for more restrained animation and analyse why from a story perspective. I’ve also gone through and looked at why this is also great animation from the perspective of the 12 principles, despite being so minimal in those terms.

I recently came across this scene with director voice over on the New York Times. While the audio of the film is somewhat muted, there’s still plenty of information to glean how individual shots work within their sequence.

In order of sequence, here are some shots with minimal movement, and why in my view simple motion was chosen over something more complex. I should take this to point out that although I am working at Sony, I didn’t work on this film and views are entirely my own.

Into the Spider-Verse

The second shot of the sequence is the establishing shot. The purpose being to give the audience a chance to take in the environment and have a sense of where the action is taking place. This would be a key reason for minimal character movement, along with the characters themselves having a chance to take in their surroundings.

This part of the sequence has 3 consecutive shots of minimal movement. Miles standing on his uncle’s shoulders to reach a high point is definitely a visual way to describe their relationship but the key here is also the spider. The outstretched held pose allows us to focus on its movement towards taking the all important bite that sets the story wheels in motion.

Another shot where the environment is the focus, not the characters. It also marks a tempo change in the scene, from enjoyment of their artistic process to contemplation, both of the artwork and thoughts & words being imparted. The amount of movement in the animation reflects the change in tempo.

Two shots of the minimal acting taking place. Again the focus being on quiet contemplation between a mentor and mentee, there’s no need for strong reactions or exaggerated acting. The shots feel natural even by staying within just one main pose.

The minimal movement here serves some comedy relief for the scene, Miles’s reaction goes against our expectations; we all know the importance and life changing events that will happen with the bite of the radioactive spider, we also know how over the top people often react to spiders. The acting is a massive downplay of both points and in doing so with such a whimsical slap, creates humour.

So now we’ve looked at reasons why simplicity in individual shots helps serve the sequence, we can also look at the shots in more traditional ways of animation appreciation

Into the Spider-Verse

The shot has clear silhouettes, especially of the arm on the lever which hooks up with the previous shot. With the silhouette we can also make out Miles looking around, his little spring mid way gives a visual clue to his excitement. His uncle’s movement is completely restrained, letting our eye take in the environment and then Miles, there’s no conflicting motion on Uncle Aaron to draw our attention to places we don’t need to be looking.


The posing of the characters and framing of the shot lets us see all the way down to Uncle Aaron, keeping a visual continuity through the scene. The faster move of Miles’s hand at the tail of the shot adds a touch of texture to the timing.

I love the staging here, the characters framing the painted figure, the words “no expectations” are clear and also Miles is positioned to cover most of the light source. Given a viewer’s eye is often directed to the brightest point of an image, it makes sense to hide some of that to reduce its visual significance.

The posing here giving a clear differentiation of the two characters, Uncle Aaron looking far more confident and comfortable within himself. Also notice the staging, Uncle Aaron surrounded in dark shadow, the younger and innocent Miles staged in a vibrant and lighter backdrop, another visual way of telling story.

The posing here is spot on in telling us what we need to know, Miles is taking it all in and processing it. Notice the break up in timing of the eyes and brows, and also the subtle furrowing at the end of the shot.

Pay attention to the silhouette at the head of the shot, it’s designed to read the spider on the hand, the lack movement combined with this gives us a quick and easy read. Notice the break up in timing of the hand doing the slapping, moving from medium to slow to fast and back to slow, there’s nice texture to it and gives us a chance to read the motion. Also the acting choice of the slap feels dainty, it creates some nice humour.

I hope looking at a sequence and shots that comprise it have helped to garner thoughts of how important working with the sequence is. Animation isn’t just about the 12 principles, by all means we should analyse, understand and appreciate those aspects, but it’s only part of what makes a shot great. The other part is telling the story in a way that shot requires, even if it is just one held pose and a subtle eye dart.

Simplicity in the Spider-Verse

“Simplicity is the hall-mark of all art forms and animation is no exception” – Chuck Jones.

Through animation schooling we’re often taught to appreciate great animation as one that utilises the 12 principles effectively, motion that is so well executed that it creates the “illusion of life”, performances that are memorable or shows a high level of technical prowess.

We study masters like the 9 old men, Glen Keane and modern films by Pixar, Dreamworks and ILM.


But to me this is only part of the way to building an understanding of what good animation is. While we can look at these shots for their use of principles and the character that the motion conveys, the downside of doing so is that we often take them out of context of their environment, we learn to praise and appreciate animation for how it looks but not what it serves, i.e, story.

The role of animation in narrative work is to visually tell story, our 12 principles are a means we use to achieve that aim, but they aren’t an end to themselves. A shot with no movement can be great animation and shot with amazing movement, character and timing can be a failure if it doesn’t provide what the story requires.

To try to highlight this point, I’ve gone through the latest trailer for Spider-Man : Into the Spider-Verse and picked out shots that favour simplicity over complex animation. While they might not be the kinds of shots that leap out to the viewer with glitz and glamour, they are well executed animation as they serve the sequence they’re a part of.

Also pay attention to how much can be told with just one pose, one shift of an eyebrow or one look away. Learning to identify when to take such a minimal approach will help to strengthen your skills and sensibilities as much as studying broader and more commonly appreciated animation. Hopefully I’ll expand on this topic in future posts.

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.

Silhouette – Early Man

This Early Man clip just popped up on my Facebook. I watched it through out of curiosity as a film goer and then played it back without sound, looking at it from an animation perspective. The thing that stood out to me most was clear posing, mostly through the use of silhouette.

I’ll start with a few examples of clear silhouettes in a kind of text book definition:

Here we have a rabbit’s most identifiable features and shapes clearly shown, 2 long ears, a fluffy tail, a head and a body. You can tell just by silhouette what we’re looking at.
Early Man Silhouette
In this one, the two thumbs clear of the body make them easy to read in the short time the character remains on screen.
Early Man Silhouette
The extended arm and club work well as they’re not foreshortened, their shapes are easily read in profile.
Early Man Silhouette
The negative space between the characters allows the poses and situation to read.
Early Man Silhouette

But is that all there is to it? Just putting limbs into negative space so they can read well?
It’s here that I think silhouette can be misunderstood. All of the above poses are great, but it’s only one use of silhouette.

In the below image the cave woman’s pose is very clear, making great use of negative space. But where are the rabbits arms and legs in terms of silhouette?
Early Man Silhouette
They’re both kept within the silhouette, because I would argue they’re not important to the shot. Having limbs with clear negative space can help draw attention to them, having them inside a silhouette can help downplay their importance. In the above screen grab the joke is with the cave-woman and our attention as a viewer should be kept there, all we need from the rabbit is to just to read it’s a rabbit. Its arms and legs aren’t important to the shot.

Take that same thinking to this pose, what’s most important for the viewer to read to understand the action and story?

Early Man Silhouette
It’s the club and the fact that she’s anticipating to hit something, the animator posed the arm and club to be easily read for that reason. Is the other arm important to understand the action taking place? I’d say it’s a lot lower on the importance scale, so it’s interesting to note how the animator used foreshortening to make the screen left arm smaller in screen space, you literally see no forearm and only a touch of the hand.

So if limbs inside the silhouette draw less attention to themselves, where do you focus your attention to in this shot?

Early Man SilhouetteIf you said “his face”, I’d agree.

If we look at these two silhouettes, which seems to convey strength and which seems more conservative? Why? They’re both large, strong characters holding weapons.

Early Man Silhouette
Early Man Silhouette
If you look at the silhouette of the above character what shapes would you use to describe it? And then what shape language would you use to describe the lower silhouette? Personally I’d say the top is formed using squares, straights and angles (strong imagery) while the lower uses circles and roundness (soft imagery). A conservative character tends to have a more contained silhouette, follow her silhouette through that shot and you’ll get a strong sense of that.

Last example, an object does not have to be in negative space to be clearly read in silhouette. Here the arm against the brown clothing is enough of a colour variation that it’s easily and clearly read, it’s an internal silhouette.
Early Man Silhouette

These are just all my own casual observations, perhaps different to what the film makers were intending, or perhaps you may also have your own different view of the use of silhouette. Either way I’d recommend doing a similar exercise with some great animation and try to ask yourself what the animator had in mind when they posed the character.

Maya: Retiming Video Reference

This is a little tip I actually picked up after Animation Mentor but regularly use now, it simply allows you to retime your video reference using Maya’s Graph Editor. I’m not sure how mentors teach this, so thought I’d type it up and share.

Here I’ve gone through and imported an image sequence onto an image plane, with an offset of -100 frames to match my starting frame for the shot.
Retiming video reference in Maya

You’ll notice the Image Number is a purple colour, meaning it’s being controlled by an expression. My first frame for this shot is 101, and this value is also 101. My last frame is 224 and this value is also on 224, the frame number you’re currently on is in direct correlation the the number contained in this box.
Retiming video reference in Maya

What I like to do is right click and choose Delete the ExpressionRetiming video reference in Maya

This will set the value back to 1 and as the name implies, deletes the expression which was controlling the playback of the image sequence.

Now I can go to frame 101, type 101 into this box, right click on it and set a key. Then I can also key 224 into the final frame.

Retiming video reference in Maya

I’ve essentially re-entered the numbers that were already there. This time the numbers are being controlled by my keys, not an expression. You can visually see the difference now the box is red.

The beauty now is if I open my graph editor, I can now see a curve representing the playback of my image sequence.

Retiming video reference in Maya

If I set it to linear instead of the spline tangent above, it will play back at 1:1, as it did before.

Retiming video reference in Maya

But now within the graph editor I can add keys and slow sections down, speed others up, etc. I can retime my whole video reference or just sections I’d like.

Retiming video reference in Maya

This is great if you have video reference and an audio track you’d like to match actions more closely to, if you find your acting is a little too even and would like to add a bit extra texture in the timing before blocking or if you want to do some cartoony actions with timing that is not entirely based on reality.

Industry Life

I recently heard about Double Fine’s documentary on the making of their Broken Age game. It’s quite long but I thought it gives one of the best insights into working in a creative field, being valuable for both people looking to enter into the games or animation industry and also experienced animators looking to develop their own projects. Here is a link to the documentary and below it some take aways that I thought might be of interest.

Generating ideas
I thoroughly enjoyed how much time the documentary spent on Tim’s idea process, it seems to be a topic that I don’t see covered all that much. The depth he goes to in brainstorming ideas was great to see, literally showing endless titles before landing on “Grim Fandango” as a name for his game for example and not being afraid to shoot out fairly random/bad ideas to get it. I was also intrigued about his process of free writing as a warm up before getting into generating ideas specifically for the project and also that he still brainstorms offline, with pen and paper in his office, library or cafe. If you’re working on a shot or a short film, how in depth do you go before starting up Maya?

Listening to notes
One of the earlier episodes features an intern, who later in the production is employed to do some remote contract work. Tim states one of the reasons the intern became so valuable wasn’t so much because he did amazing work in the first pass, but because he was able to listen to the director notes and apply them well in the second pass. It’s a nice reminder that being a great animator isn’t just about talent or skills, but the ability to listen and achieve the director’s vision.

Unfavourable notes
To delve deeper on that same point, there was another stage of production where an animator was screening for director approval, only to be told that the scene needed a complete reworking from the ground up. The animator later mentions to camera that the scene is 4,000 frames long, a huge amount of work to delete and redo. The thing to take note of is how he handles himself in that situation, there is a brief back and forth between himself, his lead and the director, but there was never a complaint or bitterness voiced. In a similar point to the above, being professional and easy to work with in my opinion is as important as how good your showreel is.

Productions are tough
One of my take aways from directing DUEL was the realisation that everything goes wrong. Everyday there’s a new problem to solve and the process of delivering a project is tackling those problems one by one until it’s finished. It seems the Broken Age project was particularly hard and it shows. There were mentions of people sleeping in the office, Tim mentions stress maybe helped lead to gallstones being removed, one programmer was forced off work for a week during the intense crunch and the audio engineer was close to tears when looking back on the project. We’re often given a pretty image of the industry on production documentaries, it was nice to see this one not being afraid to show that productions can physically and mentally affect those working on it.

Business drives decisions
Throughout the documentary we get insight into seeing how the business side of a company affects a project, one of the reasons of starting the project in the first place was to avoid laying off members of staff. It is nice to think that we choose to work in a creative industry, but at the end of the day the work we do is largely influenced economics. One example being the decision to split the game into two acts in order to have enough funds to complete the project, but it also later becomes depressingly clear when the studio does indeed go through lay offs due to a project cancellation. Just how dire the financial positions of some studios can become is something that few talk about while studying.

Finishing a project
One moment I particularly liked in the documentary was when the trailer was screened for the first time. The smiles on the crew’s face as it played on a big screen in an industry event is a great feeling and I think the film makers captured that well.
I thought the documentary also captured the strange feeling of releasing a project out to the public. There was a lot of reading comments on forums, watching analytics and generally.. just sitting in front of a computer. Premiere screenings are a great experience, but after that, the feeling of releasing a huge project can be somewhat anti-climactic. The amount of effort vs instant gratification is severely mismatched and the cliche of “enjoy the process” starts to hold a lot more meaning.

They were just some moments that stood out to me, hopefully you can also enjoy and find your own takeaways from the documentary. Kudos to the Double Fine crew for being so open about the production process.


Proud to finally share our short film DUEL. It marked my first time directing, an amazing experience working with 46 artists around the world. The short premiered at the CTN Animation Expo as its opening animation, followed up by a fun panel talk and a Cartoon Brew exclusive online release.

The level of support and enthusiasm my the short was inspiring, thank you to all those involved. We’ll be doing an online Q&A on Wednesday December 14th, 9pm Pacific Time. Come and say hello!

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