It’s been a few years since I finished Animation Mentor, and I have learned a tremendous amount in that time! Shortly after finishing, I got very lucky in my job search and managed get a position as a freelance character animator for a brand new children’s TV show that was just beginning production (YOKO). As a freelancer it is a pretty rare opportunity to find gigs that last much longer than a couple months. Heck, even if you are an animator that is traveling from studio to studio on contracts it can be rare to find jobs that last much longer than a year, due to the nature of the business and it’s project schedules. Needless to say, a steady gig with more than a years worth of work a head of me was great way first foray into the animation industry!
Since then, I have worked on 15 episodes for that series as well as started work on another fun TV series (Fantasy Patrol) with a new studio. In that time I also got a chance to do some feature film work and a few commercials. All of these experiences have taught me new skills and brought forward new challenges I’ve had to overcome. I wanted to take some time and write out a post, maybe even a couple posts.. discussing some of the things I’ve learned. Some things I discuss will be relevant to any part of the animation industry whether you’re working in film, games, or TV while others may have more weight in specific mediums than others. I am by no means an expert, or have as much experience as someone who’s worked in any one of these areas for a long period of time but I think some of these experiences could be helpful for others to read about. So first…
Speed is Important!
Deadlines. Part of being a good professional is being able to be creative on a deadline. This is not an easy task and takes a lot of time and energy. In both big studios and small projects there is always a deadline. In features there are deadlines but they are typically much longer. Television animation often has tighter deadlines and requires animators to work much faster. If you are not good at managing multiple different shots all at once in various different stages of progress, it can be a big challenge. Using your time wisely and finding workflows that speed up your progress are essential. It is not uncommon for an animator working in television to do upwards of 20 seconds of animation in a week. This can seem like an insane amount of footage to those use to feature film quotas of roughly 3-5 seconds a week; however, it is all relative when you factor in many other variables such as complexity of characters and the level of polish required. When I first started in TV, I was a little worried about the quantity of animation, but once I got into working on the show and found faster methods of working it has been quite manageable. The longer you are on a project and start to learn the style and characters your speed will naturally begin to increase as well. Of course there are some days where you just gotta push through and put in the extra hours to hit your deadline but that will always be the case.
Find tools and scripts to help you!
Depending on the show and how much time and planning the project has had in pre-production you may have an awesome animation library or a strong set of add-ons and scripts at your disposal starting day 1 of production. Thanks to having a really awesome animation supervisor, and team of technical directors on both YOKO and Fantasy Patrol we are able to animate very fast for some scenes that would normally take way longer. That being said, I have never had a single shot where a cycle or pose just worked perfectly, but if you work smart you can use these tools to greatly increase your speed. I have found it as a fast way to lay down a strong foundation in a blocking stage and help you get to the end result much faster. Sometimes, for example, you can also find interesting ways to utilize a run or walk cycle and modify it using animation layers to build on-top of it. Problem solving is a lot of what animators do, and finding ways to solve these problems creatively and quickly will set you up for success, especially when you have a lot less time to get a shot done.
Simplify, simplify, simplify!
I am always thinking about simplicity when animating my shots. How can I do a specific action in the cleanest way, and convey the message of the scene clearly to the audience. That doesn’t mean making things less entertaining, but it does mean knowing what areas are the most important to focus on. When you have a large amount of footage to animate it is important to understand that perfecting a finger pose is not as important as nailing down the timing, spacing and overall silhouette of the action or pose. Simplicity comes in many forms when working; from finding the clearest poses for your character, to making sure your constraints are set-up correctly. It all comes down to finding simple methods to achieve the desired performance in a reasonable amount of time.
Working on YOKO really challenged me to simplify. The characters are extremely simple designs, and have some interesting challenges when it comes to finding appealing poses. Sometimes, having these limitations on a character actually can bring about some really fun end results because you have to start to think about solving problems in the scene in much different way than you might with a more naturalistic character or style of animation.
Take time to plan!
Planning is always an important aspect of animation and something that should never be skipped. However, planning a shot when you have a large quota and a tight deadline can be tricky. I do not always have time to shoot video reference or draw a bunch of thumbnails, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take time to study the animatics and storyboards provided to me from the Layout Department. It is always a good idea to take even just 10-20 minutes before laying down keys and think through your shot. Scrub through the animatic and look for possible problem areas, think about how you will need to set-up your constraints, how you will handle any props in the scene. Think of ways you can utilize any animation cycles or saved poses to speed up the process. I always make sure to have a pretty good understanding of the possible challenges a shot will throw my way before diving in. It is also a great idea to discuss your shots with either other animators or your supervisors when you find a specific spot that might be a problem.
Be Flexible! Don’t be afraid to adjust your workflow!
Depending on the project, or even in many cases, the individual shot I am working on, my workflow can change. I used to think you HAD to follow the more traditional method of blocking in stepped keys and then eventually moving into splines and polishing the shot. However, as the variety of the shots I was cast in would change, I quickly learned that some workflows just do not work as well for specific types of shots as they do others. For example, in really subtle shots, I might start out working in splines right away, because to me I wont be able to get the proper subtle body motions figured out when thinking in static poses. I really like to work more layered in these cases. However, in broad actions or more cartoony and exaggerated scenes where you really need to highlight specific graphic shapes and poses, I like to work in a more common stepped blocking stage and refine from there.
In other cases, if I have a very movement heavy shot or a lot of body mechanics, I will often switch back to working in a layered approach starting in spline tangents again. It helps me get a sense of the rhythm of the shot and know that the timing is working before I get too detailed into it. Then there are times where I will start with stepped keys and block that way but consistently switch all my stuff over to splines to check the timing is working pretty well, then switch back to stepped and keep pushing. This is a workflow I have used more commonly in the feature work or higher polish work. I think learning to work in various different workflows and being comfortable switching between them and understanding what works for YOU is a skill all animators can find valuable and it is something that comes with just doing a lot of work and a variety of scenes. I think this is the biggest thing I have changed over the years, learning to adapt my workflow for the situation at hand.
Pose Libraries are your friend!
Many projects, especially film and TV series have characters that need to stay “on-model”. In most cases they will often have very specific ways they should be posed for certain actions or expressions based on the style determined by the animation director.
Using a pose library to store approved poses, expressions or even just basic mouth shapes for lip sync is a huge time saver! You will almost always need to push these poses and tweak them but it can be an excellent starting point to get you where you need to go.
Utilize anything you can to keep you on track to complete your shots on time and to the best quality. Directors, producers and animation supervisors love animators that complete work on time and meeting the quality standards! Most studios have some form of pipeline tool like Shotgun to help you keep track of everything. However not every project will have a budget for that and you will likely have multiple shots to keep track of. It is not uncommon for me to have 5-10 different shots on a show assigned to me at once, all that have varying deadlines and degrees of difficulty. Knowing which ones to tackle first or which ones may require more revisions is important. Don’t let poor organization be your downfall.
That is all for this post, check back soon and I plan to have more interesting content! If you enjoyed the post please, feel free to comment or send me a message and let me know what you think!