How do you animate really, really fast?

That’s a question I just got from Rob, one of the interns I mentored during the production of Terra, after he went back to Australia and got a couple of paying jobs. Both jobs required exceptional footage, on the order of 5 to 10 seconds of animation a day, which is a massive change from the pace of any feature film. So how, he asks, do you do good animation at that rate?

The simple answer: you can’t.

Good animation takes time. There’s no way around it, and no work-flow tips or MEL scripts or burnt offerings can change that. The animation gods are cruel that way. Animators do tend to get faster as they gain experience, so a shot that four years ago would have taken me a week might take me a day or two now. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be satisfied doing that same shot the same way, because it probably wasn’t nearly as good as it should have been. I’d add layers of nuance and detail, making it a better shot, but also making it a more complex shot. Experienced animators tend to gain not just technical skills, they also develop a more critical eye. They see and understand more of what makes a satisfying performance. Incorporating that into one’s animation adds time. Few of us are satisfied keeping the quality of our work the same as we improve our speed. Ultimately there’s a trade off between quality and speed. So getting better means getting somewhat faster, but not five or ten times faster.

If 5-10 seconds a day of great, or even good, animation is out of the question, how does one do ‘adequate‘ animation really fast (adequate enough to get you paid, or adequate enough to make you not want to stab a pencil into your eyes)? I’ve never had to do ten seconds of animation a day, so maybe I’m not the one to ask, but I have gone from the glacial big studio pace of 2-3 seconds of animation per week to 10-15 seconds a week at a smaller studio, without wanting to commit suicide.

So here’s the huge insight, the key:

Know what you want to do before you start animating

Disappointing, huh? Even though you hear this again and again from the great vets, it’s the one area I consistently see inexperienced animators struggle with. I know it’s hard to resist diving in and starting to set keys. You know, just to see if your basic idea will work. You kind of start blocking it loosely (‘kind of‘ being the operative phrase), feeling good that you’re getting something done. Except you’re not, you’re slowing yourself down. You tell yourself that you can always buff it up later, add more detail, build on it, clarify things, etc. I’ve done this many times, and still do on days when I’m not mentally sharp and my discipline is weak.

There’s an old saying, Don’t just sit there, do something. And that’s fine, as long as you realize that ‘doing something’ doesn’t mean animating, it means mentally inhabiting your scene, playing it out in your mind’s eye, in continuity, planning, thumbnailing, jotting notes, reviewing reference, discussing with your director and supervisor, thinking. But not animating right away. In this case the saying should be, Don’t just do something, sit there (and think). Because animating without careful planning is a deadly trap for several reasons.

First, it’ll probably never be very good. Forget about the speed issue, think about quality. Once you’ve done a first pass, whether it’s drawings or CG keys, it’s always hard to break away from that approach. There’s some kind of mental magnetic pull, drawing you back towards that initial mediocrity. You look at it, see that it’s flat and uninspired and not sufficiently interesting, and you push those arcs out there, you add little cool bits on top of the main action, you think you’re amping up all the action dramatically . Then you show it to someone, and they tell you . . . it still looks flat. So you give it another pass, pulling out all the stops, and . . . it still, somehow, sucks. By now there’s all kinds of little wonkiness that’s crept in, too, since you’ve made dozens of compromises in the interest of saving all that work you’ve put in. You officially have a mess, and now you’re really behind schedule, and the urge to salvage all that work is stronger than ever.

The best thing that can happen in this situation is a computer crash that corrupts all your animation files! Seriously. I used to marvel at the discipline of good 2D animators, who would spend days on a difficult shot and, when it wasn’t working, toss a whole stack of drawing right in the trash. Just like that. It was appalling and amazing (and in my assistant animator days I used to fish some of those scenes out of the trash and study them, because even their crap was better than my good stuff).

Yet somehow, it’s harder to toss out a CG scene. It’s just a bunch of 1′s and 0′s, yet we hold on and hold on and keep tweaking till it’s a puddle of mush. When you get stuck, just blow the garbage away. I can safely say you’ll be amazed at how quickly, once you start over with a clear idea of what you want, you can recreate that whole scene — except it’ll be so much better.

But let’s get back to the speed issue. Every hour of planning probably saves several hours, and sometimes several days, of animating. Marc Davis was not only one of the best animators who ever lived, but over a very long career at Disney he put out one of the highest footage counts of any of the animators. He never worked long hours, not like we do today. His routine was to come in early, animate till lunch, get out of the studio for a decent meal (and a martini), and return to the studio to plan his next morning’s work. Then he’d head home at a reasonable hour, and spend his evenings painting, drawing, and reading. Next morning, he would animate what he had carefully planned the afternoon before, go to lunch, and so on. It was a recipe for a long, productive career full of high quality work.

As Clay Kaytis puts it, If you can imagine what you want to see, half your work is done.

By careful planning, you’re far more likely to do things right the first time. You’re more likely to actually be animating your characters from the inside out, building an interesting, watchable performance from the start. Technically, you’ll be able to anticipate problems and integrate solutions — you won’t be half way through the shot and realize the hands should have been in IK.

I suspect many beginning animators have long ago scanned ahead, looking for any useful technical tips and tricks. I’ve left those out (maybe for another post), because I find that the less experienced someone is, the less able they are to fully accept the crucial advice to carefully plan and know where you want to go before you start. I’ve seen their eyes glaze over when I tell them. It was one of the most frustrating parts of teaching the beginning classes on Animation Mentor. I’d go on and on about thumbnailing, about knowing in great detail who your character is and exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I’d push and push for specificity and clarity in their intentions . . . and it usually didn’t seem to make much difference. They just wanted to animate, dammit, and figure out all that other stuff later.

On the other hand, towards the end of class 4, when everyone had gone through the pain of animating their first multi-shot, two-character dialog test, and certainly by the end of class six, when their short film is supposed to be wrapped up (‘supposed’ because, well, who can animate a short film in 12 weeks?), they really get it. Weeks of struggling to refine and polish shots that were superficially planned and blocked will get your attention that way. Again and again I hear, “If I were starting my blocking over, this time I’d . . .,” following by a bunch of insights that, often, should have been predicted.

That, in a nutshell, is the goal of good planning: to think through your shot so carefully and fully that, when you’re done animating, you’re comparing how close you came to your original intentions, not seeing what you discovered along the way. If you don’t envision coolness at the outset, and plan for it, you’re unlikely to have enough happy accidents along the way to justify the effort.

By the way, there are an infinite number of ways to do this planning. For me, it involves a lot of visualizing the sequence in my head, acting things out at my desk, and jotting illegible notes as the performance solidifies in my imagination. I tend to use words and phrases and stick figure hieroglyphics more than thumbnail drawings, because that’s usually the fastest, clearest way for me to communicate with myself. I find a few well-chosen words on a post-it note stuck to the side of my monitor can often serve as a guiding light during the animation process, keeping me focused on the intent and not the details. But that’s just me — you need to find your own way.

On a production, communication is also crucial to planning — communication with your director, your supervisor, and your fellow animators. With directors, sometimes things seem clear and obvious when they’re not. Your job isn’t to do just do what the director says, your job is to give the director what they want. There’s a distinction, and you have to understand the project and the director (and here’s a tip — if you ever find yourself in dailies snarling “Just tell me what you want” to your director, it means you really need to step back, take a deep breath, and clear your mind — because that’s a sure sign you and your director aren’t on the same page, or even in the same book).

Communication with your fellow animators is crucial so that your performance works within the flow of shots in that sequence, and so you don’t end up constantly reanimating the beginning or ends of your shots so they hook up properly. It’s often up to the animation crew to keep performances consistent and progressive, and too few animators work towards that consistency. Which means a lot of scenes are unnecessarily redone later, slowing everything down.

Let me end with a story to drive the importance of planning home. For Shrek 2, DreamWorks send 16 traditional animators up to PDI for two months to learn both CG animation techniques and the PDI software. Some of us (me included) had already trained in Maya the year before, some had no experience with CG at all. I ended up sitting next to James Baxter, who I think is probably the best animator working today. James was a complete computer novice. Didn’t even know how to do e-mail, I kid you not. I’d assisted James for a couple of traditional pictures, and I was eager to have a bit of role reversal.

As we worked on our first CG test, a classic ball bounce, I enjoyed the occasional interruption from James asking some technical question. And I’d see him out of the corner of my eye, hunting and pecking away at the keyboard, taking long pauses between mouse clicks. I was trying not to be a bit of a show-off, since my computer skills were about a hundred times better than his. I was going out of my way to make sure my ball bounce had a bit of extra panache, and I was about a third of the way done with the test when I glanced over at James’ screen. My jaw hit the floor. There was this amazing shot of a ball bouncing all over this cleverly conceived set, ricocheting and bouncing this way and that, finally rolling to a satisfying stop. I squealed “How did you do that?! I mean, so fast? It’s perfect.” James, in his calm, even way, said “I knew what I wanted the ball to do, I just needed to figure out how to get the computer to do it.” Those words ring in my head even today, especially when I’m on my 20th playblast and still not quite sure what I’m going for.

You can’t animate it if you can’t see it, clearly, in your mind’s eye. Storytelling precedes technique.

17 Responses to “How do you animate really, really fast?”

  1. Alonso Says:

    Hey Kevin,

    Interesting posts you’ve been making. My eyes were opened to how powerful knowing your shot before you do it when I saw a finished animation by Anthea Kerou (AM alumn) and then her vid ref, and I realized how much she had worked out naturally (without getting in the way of the character, like your Michael Caine quote from your last post) and then was able to break down the motion and nuances of that naturalness into 24fps .

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know we’re out here, lurking, reading your thoughts and thinking about them (but I guess not commenting that much)

    Oh, I ran across Kurosawa’s Rashomon on google video (they let you download it even) http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2772827266425414401&q=rashomon&total=176&start=0&num=10&so=0&type=search&plindex=0
    and it made me think of you, you showed our class clips of Hidden Fortress in class 4.

    Happy Holidays.

    -Alonso

  2. Kevin Says:

    Hey Alonso,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Wow, all of Rashomon is on there! Too bad the quality is so horrendous. Or maybe that’s a good thing, since a great film should be seen properly, in a good quality print on a decent sized screen. One of these days I’ll be getting that 50″ plasma so I can see these great black and white films the way they’re meant to be seen.

    Kevin

  3. Ross Marshall Says:

    Hey Kevin

    Very nice post, thanks for sharing.

    Its good to hear that even when your faced with animating 10 – 15 secs a week (which terrifies a newbie like me half to death!) theres still no substitution for careful planning and experience to get shots done quickly.
    I’m all too guilty of learning the hard way :)

    Ross

  4. pritish sanghvi Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    You have some pretty awesome shots in your reel. I’m a lead animator in a small company in India, studied animation in Canada and aspiring to work someday in a big studio like Dreamworks.

    It was by chance that I came across your website. One of your students here, DJ animator mentioned you on his website and that’s how I got here.

    Well, I just want to thank you for sharing this tip on how to animate really, REALLY FAST. I have always wanted to know how do experienced animators animate so fast and so good. Even though my animation is of a pretty decent quality, I always want to animate faster than I can. And I always thought that someday I would land up in a big studio and see how the veterans animate so good and so fast. That way, I will improve myself both in terms of quality and speed.

    But now I realize that, no matter how experienced you get you are only marginally better in terms of speed because you always want to make your shot better by adding a lot of subtle nuances in your performance . And that is the important thing. Not the number of frames you churn out in a given amount of time.

    I will now focus on not animating faster but giving a better performance. Thank you again. It was one of the best tips I have ever received. To animate faster. ;)

    Pritish

  5. Bobby Pontillas Says:

    Thanks for the Insights Kevin, I dont think this issue can be reiterated enough. Having ( or rather, not having) to throw whole stacks of drawings away was my biggest motivation for doing little planning scribbles.

    Thanks for sharing another great Baxter story btw!

  6. Michael Auerswald Says:

    Thanks for the post. It’s great to get a reminder every now and then, as more often than I would like I catch myself just jumping in. And as you say, it usually ends in tears…

  7. Jean-Denis Haas Says:

    Great post, thanks a lot!

    For great movie watching btw. I recommend the HC1500 :)

    http://www.bestpricecameras.com/prodetails.asp?prodid=902306

    That link has the best price I could find ($699). I just watched “2001″ on Blu-ray yesterday and it’s a beauty (especially on a 130″ screen).

    Anyhoo, thanks again for the post!

  8. A Innes Says:

    Amazing post, exactly what I have experienced with animation, the slogging through basic ideas and trying to refine it when I didnt give the planning a shot needed.

  9. Avner Engel Says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights Kevin.
    It’s just what I needed to read as I experienced things the hard way too.

  10. Great animation resource | ..:: avneriginal ::.. Says:

    [...] How to animate really really fast [...]

  11. Teresa Says:

    Hey Kevin,
    Really great post! It’s really great to hear this information over and over :)

  12. Daniel Edwards Says:

    Kevin, thank you so much for this. Both sadly and thankfully I can relate to this 150%. Lately, as a Class 6 student I’ve been looking at my work thinking ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, is this right for my characters?’ The whole idea of ‘kind of’ just blew my mind, it is exactly the mindset I have and didn’t realize that’s where all my problems have come from. Maybe I have to learn by doing, but this little blog post was so poignant for me right now I really feel like I can see just what I have to do to get passed it. You just provided me a ladder to overcome this wall… excuse me while I go climbing.

  13. Kevin Says:

    Those are really gratifying words, Dan. Thanks.

  14. Vincent Florio Says:

    I used to be a student at AM, and working on my first dialogue shot for the latter half of term 3, Intro to Acting, I ran into a version of this. I had planned what I thought was sufficiently well at the time (it most certainly was not) and spent week after week making adjustments and then, embarrassing as it is to say this, with less than a week remaining, I thought “Wait — is this even entertaining?”

    I had developed -a- plan of action, but had not even given consideration to the whole point of the game. I hauled arse, started listening to my clip again, did thumbnails, reference, the whole works redoubling my efforts with an improved focus. It still wasn’t a good-looking shot, BUT in that almost-week I got something better in terms of -completeness- than the four weeks on the earlier version (They both used props as a crutch and had too literal of gestures, but that’s a different post =).

    Just wanted to compliment how well-written your post was too, and I appreciate the straightforward tone.

  15. vm Says:

    I realize this is a really old post, but I can’t help myself not to thank you for writing it! It’s one of the most interesting, and inspiring, and especially true and honest articles about animation I have ever come across. There is so much “political correctness” in the world of animation, it’s not so very often that I’d find someone, especially with your experience, actually telling it bluntly, like it is.

  16. Nick Says:

    Uh, you ARE aware that good animation can and HAS been done, right? Those Warner Bros. animators all had to crank out at least 25 feet of footage a week or get the can. Ub Iwerks could crank out 700 ready for inking drawings a day, and this allowed him to complete the first Mickey Mouse on two weeks notice!

  17. Kevin Says:

    Hey Nick, thank you for the insightful history lesson. I’ll point out a few things — Iwerks is universally acclaimed as the fastest animator ever, but he was also working in an exceptionally simple (later Disney animators would say ‘crude’) style that facilitated exceptional speed. His work was great for it’s time, but if you think he could have done 700 drawings a day in the ‘Mickey’s Band Concert’ style, you’re smoking some good stuff. You’ll note that, as Disney animation advanced, Iwerks moved into other areas of the process. Comparing Iwerks doing early Micky Mouse shorts to later animators is an apples to oranges comparison.

    And you’re right, some of the Warners (and Lantz and Columbia and MGM) shorts animators were working very fast, some (but by no means all) were even doing 25 feet a week. But only a few of them could produce at that rate and have it be very good, and if you look at the best of the Warners cartoons, you’ll find that they often hacked out some so they could spend extra time on others. I’ll also say that when one consistently works in the same cartoony style, on the same cast of characters, and is mostly doing single-character or two-character shots, one can animate much faster. I’ve done 20-25 feet/week of animation in those circumstances. It looks pretty good, but it’s not feature quality.

    Feature animators are constantly reinventing the wheel. On my last feature, ‘Rio,’ I worked on a wide range of characters (a widely divergent set of birds, some monkeys, some humans, a bulldog), each with completely different rules for how they moved and behaved, each with different rigs, different GUIs. I usually had just one or two shots with a given character, so I had to figure out what the rules were for those characters, and not only please my director, but make my work mesh with the work of dozens of other shots with the same characters. All but two of my shots had three or more characters, and a few shots had 6-8 characters. Yet the footage quota is pretty much the same — 5 feet/week of finished scene footage. On every film I’ve worked on, the animators are working twice as fast at the end of production compared to the beginning, and that’s just with a 9-12 month learning curve. The bottom line: comparing a handful of exceptional Warner Bros.’ animators to the average feature animator today is another apples-to-oranges comparison.

    That said, I think all animators should study the work and habits of people like Rod Scribner and other stalwart Warners animators, because I think we could use a lot more of their sensibility in modern feature animation.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch