Video Reference

Here’s animator Jeff Gabor doing some of the best and most extensive video reference for animation I’ve ever seen [Addendum from 3/19 – apparently the folks at Fox asked that this be taken down. Hopefully this screen-grab gives you a little taste.]:

Jeff Gabor video reference for Horton Hears a Who

Jeff Gabor at work

When I first started working in animation in the late 1990’s, video reference was looked down upon, like some kind of unworthy crutch. I remember during Quest for Camelot another assistant whispering to me that he’d seen one of the animators enlarging frames of live-action reference at the photocopy machine. The animator looked embarrassed and quickly went back to his office. At DreamWorks every now and then I’d get a glimpse of an animator doing a bit of reference photography or videography, and I noticed it was usually done at a time and place where it wouldn’t get too much attention. Even using self-produced reference as a general tool, without taking individual images and registering and pegging them up, was seen as cheating. Plus it was a big hassle for a variety of reasons, even after video camcorders became commonplace.

Somehow the shift to CG animation has taken the curse off using video reference. Maybe, with everything digital, it’s just much easier to shoot and use your own reference at your desk. Maybe it’s that CG animation tends to require more realistic movement to not look wonky. I think a big part of it is that CG animation is less spontaneous than hand-drawn – there’s no CG equivalent of a scribble test (at least not yet), and few CG animators (even those who started in 2D) do extensive thumbnails. Shooting a few passes of video reference can go a long way towards organizing one’s thoughts about basic timing and posing, while also revealing bits of nuance that CG animation is particularly good at capturing.

That said, many animators still never use video reference. Jeff Gabor clearly enjoys being in front of the camera and performing. Most animators are a lot more shy. One of my old office-mates, Kevin MacLean, is one of the best animators I know, but he’s shy enough that I had to take his place in a DreamWorks improv class. The class would have been torture to him. I know he never shot reference for his scenes, yet he turned in some of the most sensitive and expressive acting shots in Over the Hedge. On the same film, my pal Sean McLaughlin did some beautiful, dead-on video reference of himself, sometimes playing multiple parts, with great results.

Myself, I’m somewhere in the middle. I know I can’t act worth a damn, and I’m moderately camera shy, but I’ve enjoyed having a web-cam to shoot quick bits of reference for particular pieces of acting or performance. It can be a huge time saver, and sometimes it’s the only way to really figure out how something should move. On the other hand, when I really try to act, or when I’m thinking about trying to hit certain acting beats or do certain gestures, it’s almost always stilted, unnatural, and a waste of time.

In a sense, video reference isn’t any different than using reference like Muybridge, or finding a great clip of animal action on a nature show. On the other hand, if you can’t work out of your own head, then you’re going to be limited to what you personally can act out. Then a tool becomes a straight jacket.

What I’m talking about is distinct from rotoscoping. Strictly speaking, rotoscoping refers using the machine invented and patented by Max Fleischer, as in the Out of the Inkwell series and Gulliver’s Travels. When Don Bluth or Ralph Bakshi are said to rotoscope some of their films, they’re really using registered and pegged live-action photostats, which is a mouthful, so we now tend to refer to any technique of transferring filmed live-action poses to animation as ‘rotoscoping.’ And rotoscoping, like motion capture (a different beast, but in the same family tree), really can be a crutch. I think both rotscoping and mo-cap have their place, but there’s no doubt they both have inherent limitations.

Here are the few tips I have for effectively doing video reference. First, if you’re too shy, you should probably not bother. I used to be so inhibited that I could only shoot reference if no one else was around, and even then it was crummy reference. It took animating at a 10-20 seconds/week pace, in a studio with nothing but open cubicles, to get me over most of my inhibitions.

Second, make it super simple. If your production allows a webcam and appropriate software on your computer, great. If not, consider a notebook computer with a webcam or a digital camcorder. If the process is simple enough, you won’t get precious with the process. I found when I had to go to a production coordinator to get the key to get into the dedicated video room, and when I was done filming then had to spend several minutes encoding the video and transfering it to my computer, I tended just skip the whole process. It needs to be as easy as standing up from your chair and acting things out, as we do all the time, whether we’re shooting reference or not.

Third, grab a friend or two if they’re likely to be better actors or better at a certain behavior. Know your limitations. If you really, really can’t act, then you’re risking a garbage-in/garbage-out scenario.

Forth, I find it necessary to trick myself, by planning to do 4 or 5 consecutive takes in rapid succession. I figure that by the third or fourth take, I’ll be relaxed and natural. Ironically, I usually find that my first take is the best, but if I try to do it in one take I always over-think, or tighten up. And if the first passes aren’t any good, delete the file and start over. There’s also nothing to stop you from editing parts of different takes together.

Fifth, use props. Jeff does a nice job of that. I find I need to set up ‘prop heads’ if I want to appear to look at other characters. If I don’t set up a fake head or two, I have to consciously think about where to direct my gaze, which kills my meager acting. Set things up to be as natural as possible.

Finally, I actually prefer the low resolution and low frame rate of a cheap webcam. For me video reference works best when I’m using it to get the basic gesture and timing of the movement. I know I’ll need to exaggerate, and I find it easier to exaggerate from a fuzzy image where everything isn’t perfectly clear (just remember to convert everything to 24 fps!). The exception is closeup facial shots, where I make sure the lighting is decent to get as good an image as possible.

In those close-up scenes, I try to be ‘in the moment’ (which is frankly something you can’t really try to do, but you know what I mean) and let the chips fall where they may. If I focus on saying and feeling the dialog, I tend to get a fairly natural performance in the eyes and brows. If I think about facial expressions, it all becomes contrived. It’s important to know the dialog cold, and to know just where the accents are and what kind of emotional tone the voice actor used. It’s also crucial to actually say the line out loud, and not try to lip-sync it, or your facial performance will be hesitant and restrained.

Happy filming.

20 Responses to “Video Reference”

  1. TJ Phan Says:

    These are great tips on using video reference! Thanks, Kevin. Awesome blog btw.

  2. Carlos Says:

    Hey Kevin, awesome site!
    I’m glad you covered filming your reference. Do you have any suggestions in terms of breaking out of your own performances? Sometimes I find that I’m doing the same gestures when I film myself. Thanks, and keep up the incredible work, this site really is awesome. 🙂

  3. dan Says:

    That was just fantastic to watch. After watching that I’m going to enroll in some acting classes to help me as an animator.

  4. Keith Says:

    I’m a bit crusty on this stuff, I think. For an animator who came up in CG I’m uber-crusty. 🙂 I’m not a big fan of the results of what I’ve come to see as ‘rotoscope-lite’ – the practice of using video reference as the visual foundation of a scene. It’s slightly different than getting reference as a way to organize your thoughts. Those who employ Roto-Lite will copy exact poses and facial expressions and much of the timing as well. Unless you’re doing something like Gollum I think it is a crutch. But I see a lot of younger CG animators using it in cartoon projects as well. My personal guidelines for reference are simple: Use reference to understand something, don’t use it as the visual basis of your performance. It’s like writing a term paper in school- you use reference (encyclopedia) to understand your topic, but you can’t just copy the text from the book into your term paper. That’s plagiarism and doesn’t show your instructors that you understand what you’re talking about.

  5. alonso Says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about vid ref lately, I’ve been feeling like a lot of the animator’s who I’m impressed by use it. I’ve often read that the first 10 minutes or so is going to not be useful because you’re self conscious of everything, that you need to act it out so much that you start Acting it and stop thinking about it. Personally when I’ve done it I’ve just set the audio to loop and just keep going again and again, and I’ll give myself a prop like a hat or cane to help me try and put myself in the characters position, then I make sketches exaggerating the parts I liked best. It’s especially helpful to me for the unconscious things I do (2ndary actions) or tricky bit of physics.

  6. Todd Jacobsen Says:

    Aw, jeez…he’s exceeded his bandwidth and the movie’s gone. You didn’t happen to save it, didja Kev?


  7. Graham Says:

    Clip is down 🙁

  8. Anirudh Says:

    hi kevin,
    gr8 article..lots of nice insights…thnx !!!

    but the video source doesnt seem to work now..i guess jeff has pulled down the reel for now…

    hope he gets it up again and soon… 🙂


  9. Kevin Says:

    Oops, I guess we sent too people towards Jeff’s site. Todd, I only did the screen cap. I probably could have grabbed it, as I probably had enough bandwidth to put it up here, but I didn’t think to do that. Hopefully he’ll get it back up soon.

    There are several great comments and questions, including those by Carlos and Keith, that I think I’ll turn into a follow-up post in the next day or two. While I’m prepping that, anyone else if encouraged to chime in with questions and issues about video reference that I’ll also try to incorporate into that post.

  10. Geoff Says:

    Wah! Did anyone manage to grab this Quicktime? I never got to see it 🙁

  11. Mike Says:

    I have to disagree with some of the comments from Keith. You said “It’s like writing a term paper in school- you use reference (encyclopedia) to understand your topic, but you can’t just copy the text from the book into your term paper. That’s plagiarism and doesn’t show your instructors that you understand what you’re talking about” Plagiarism? It’s not like Jeff found that reference from you tube or some where else. He created that reference from his heart one shot at a time and if you noticed the reference files are cut up and put together very carefully from different clips to find the best content. Oh and I think Jeff shows that he understands the material so to speak.

    The animators are required to show proof of concept within a day at BSS so shooting thorough reference is the best way to show the directors what you want to do. No offense here but I think the work Jeff is doing here is “feature quality” and I hate it when people jump up on the box and start offering negative comments on something that was incredibly difficult to accomplish. Just to keep the playing field fair, do you have anything to show that you feel you put this much work into? In all fairness to Jeff’s work and his work ethic I have to say that he is a professional animator period. All said and done the end product speaks for it’s self and until he put that content up there no body knew how he got there. My 2 cents.

  12. Kevin Says:

    Mike, I agree that Jeff’s work showed a high degree of professionalism (that’s why I linked to it in the first place!), and that Keith’s use of the word ‘plagiarism’ was over the top and doesn’t really apply, but in Keith’s defense I don’t think he meant to imply that Jeff’s use of his own video reference was in the realm of plagiarism. At least, I hope he didn’t mean it that way, because I don’t that that assessment fits.

  13. Cassidy Says:

    Bummer, I was too late to see the high-res version of this! But it looks like someone grabbed the quicktime and converted it to low-res Flash video, better than nothing:

  14. Regis Le Roy Says:

    take the dowload option , it is the HD mov.

  15. Anand Baid Says:

    Thanks a ton for posting the link, Cassidy.

  16. Josh Says:

    Thanks for link Cassidy and the extra info Regis. Can’t stop the internet!

  17. yashu batra Says:

    kelvin your acting really theatrical thats what every animator wants to be.. thax for posting this awsome stuff

  18. Dario Says:

    I’ve seen the video of Jeff Gabor. I think he’s an extraordinary animator, of course. However, I also think he’s too much into video referencing.

    Some of the scenes he shot he was just staying on the ground, doing nothing but talking. I mean, I think that’s too much and despite everything could be useful the more references you stick to, lesser the art you put in your work.

  19. Kevin Says:

    Dario, using that logic, one could argue that being able to draw well, and using extensive thumbnails before animating, also takes away from the art of animation.

    I think you have a point when it comes to animators who are DEPENDENT upon reference, and who are limited in their ability to abstract information out of reference, or limited in their ability to modify (and especially to exaggerate) reference. But if you’re a good actor, and if you can modify your acting for different characters, then I see no reason not to make video reference a part of your toolkit.

  20. Animation Article Database · Knowled Says:

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch