More on Video Reference for animators

There have been some great comments to the last few posts that I wanted to explore further:

  • Is video reference a creative dead end, akin to rotoscoping, and even a form of creative plagiarism?
  • What about lipstick cam footage? (That wasn’t from the comments, but I was thinking about it today.)
  • How does an animator using reference ‘get outside of themselves’ to keep each performance fresh and unique?
  • Should animators take acting classes so their reference will be better?

Keith Lango gave a strong argument against self-generated video reference, and I thank him for raising some red flags. It absolutely can become a crutch, and it can lead to technically strong animation that lacks any zing.

If you’re shooting reference to copy from, rather than to learn from, then you won’t advance as an animator. Just copying will help you produce a particular shot with more nuance and better biomechanics, but you risk becoming an overfed mo-cap machine. In fact, one of the things that makes most mo-cap look unsatisfactory is that there’s no discrimination to what’s captured. A mo-cap system captures as much data as it can, without judgment. The key, distinctive elements of a behavior are given the same weight as random, irrelevant movements (while some key information is completely missed).

As an animator using any kind of reference, we have to have the intelligence and artistic judgment to edit out the ‘noise’ and exaggerate the good stuff. Ah, yes, exaggeration. One of Frank and Ollie’s 12 principles, and one which many people consider the very soul of animation. Mike Nguyen talks about exactly that here with a beautiful pencil test to illustrate.

We want to go far beyond any form of rotoscoping or roto-lite. As I’ve said, I’m a crap actor. The last thing I want is animation that’s a little bit better than what I can do as an actual actor. I want animation that’s a million times more interesting than any performance I could ever do.

So, should we avoid shooting our own reference if we aren’t great actors? I don’t think so. Reference is a chance to go beyond the ‘rules of thumb’ that have been handed down. It’s a chance to avoid using the lore we’ve learned from other animators, and observe for ourselves how something really works. For example, I recently read these two rules attributed to Ollie Johnston (among his ‘12 rules for expressions‘):

10. Eyes in close-up should move 3 frames ahead of accent.

11. In a blink, eyes should close 3-4 frames ahead of accent.

Those might be two good general rules, but really, do you want to follow that by rote every time you do a close up? With every character? During any kind of emotion? I don’t. It’s by looking very closely at video reference of real people, myself included, that allows me to consider other possibilities.

Speaking of eyes in particular, I think this is a place where video reference has it all over on using a mirror as an aid. Haven’t we all been encouraged to use a mirror when doing facial acting or dialog? The problem with mirrors are twofold. First, you’re always looking right at yourself with a mirror. It’s very unnatural, since you will almost never have your character looking directly into the camera.

Second, most of us act things out in slow motion when acting into a mirror. Otherwise things go by too quickly. But what we do in slow motion is completely different than what we do at full speed. Not that you should never use a mirror — just know that, like video reference, it’s not the end all and be all.

The key with video reference is to not just use it to copy from, but to break down a performance, analyze what’s good about it, and then incorporate and exaggerate that.

Walks are another good place for video reference. How many hundreds of pages of animation books have been devoted to the rules for walks? Unfortunately, a lot of those rules are contradictory, overly complex, or don’t really work that well except for extremely cartoony characters. For example, I see students struggling to learn the rules for, say, what the hips do during a walk. Hey, guess what, hip movement varies dramatically from person to person. Put on a white belt and some dark pants, wrap a line of masking tape around your knees, and film yourself. Do the same with some friends. See what really happens to the hips, the feet, the knees the ups and downs, instead of relying on what someone wrote in a book.

I know from reading Keith Lango’s blog that he has pretty similar views on video reference. I’ve gone into this level of detail not to argue for video reference, but to give context to my last post — it’s a potentially useful tool, and there are some ways to make it more useful. I also realize I haven’t used any video reference in months. My guess is that I use it in maybe 5% of my shots. It’s just another tool in my bag of tricks. Sometimes an invaluable tool, sometimes just a different way to do things.

A form of video reference we haven’t talked about is using lipstick cam video of voice actors. For those who don’t know, on most feature productions a small ‘lipstick camera’ is positioned in the recording booth to capture the voice actor’s facial performance as they deliver their lines. This isn’t always done, but when it is, I find it extremely useful. Why ignore all that potential information about what the actual face that’s producing the dialog is really doing?

Again, the goal is NOT to copy the actor. Few voice actors try to give useful physical performances. So it’s very limited as acting reference. Where I find it a gold mine is in watching the actual head accents, the little eye squints and half blinks and full blinks (which tend to be very consistent from reading to reading), and in noting the variety of mouth shapes. It always amazes me when I watch a half a dozen similar reads of the same line by the same actor, and see how distinctly different mouth shapes are used to create the same sound.

Now, how does an animator use reference to ‘get outside’ him or herself, to keep each performance fresh and unique. Hmmm, that’s the $64 question. We can ask the same question whether one is using video reference or not – how do you avoid falling into cliche?

I suspect anyone who gets dependent upon video reference will actually tend to have a harder time getting outside themselves. Personally, imagining a variety of performances and personality types that I can animate is much easier than actually acting out a variety of performances or personalities. I suppose just letting the camera run while you riff on the dialog and situation, trying everything you can think of, might produce an occasional creative breakthrough. But for me, if I’m going to try to get outside myself, I’m going to avoid shooting video reference of myself. Instead, I’ll try to think of interesting personalities I’ve known, or good actors I can study.

Which brings us to the final question. Is it useful for animators to take acting classes or improv classes? Yes, if that’s your cup of tea. And no, if it’s not (which is pretty much what James Baxter said in the latest animation podcast).

I think it’s more useful for any animator to read about, dissect, discuss, analyze, and study good (and bad) acting performances. And to do the same as you observe real life. If you enjoy performing, then I suppose actual classes might be eye opening. But I think something more akin to Don Graham’s Action Analysis classes from the early days of Disney would give more bang for the buck. A group of us started up informal weekly meetings at DreamWorks during Over the Hedge to do just that, and it can be both fun and useful.

12 Responses to “More on Video Reference for animators”

  1. alonso Says:

    thanks for the post Kevin, I have been thinking so much about vid ref in the last few months, that I had come to the conclusion that it was a necessity. Thanks for snapping me out of that.
    You said that vid ref can help you get better nuance and biomechanics, do you think it is possible to obtain an equal level without using vid ref? The larger acting choices I easily understand brainstorming from your head, but the little variations and subtle 2ndary actions don’t spring as easily from my pencil.
    Paul Ekman (I think) says that humans occassionally throw out “micro-expressions”, a facial expression that lasts less than a second that slips out as they transition from one expression to the next, usually revealing the true emotion before they’ve remasked it. That seems like the sort of thing that would be hard for me to convincingly create without a reference.

  2. Kevin Says:

    I would say that observing and understanding real life is the necessity, and that video reference is a great tool in that process. I don’t have any doubt that if Don Graham and the original Disney animators were doing Action Analysis classes today, in addition to bringing in film clips and animation clips, they’d be shooting and analyzing video reference.

    The whole series of posts on eyes and eye movements that I’m in the middle of doing is partly inspired by looking carefully at good video reference. So yes, keep using it to pick up those little variations and subtle bits of nuance. Over time, you’ll expand your repertoire, and you won’t need video reference as much, but it’s a great ‘reality check.’

    The Paul Ekman research is fascinating. I’ve been learning about the Facial Action Coding system off and on for years, and one of my resolutions for this year is to take the formal FACS course. Those micro-expressions are way less than a second, more like a couple of frames. Yeah, they can really only be appreciated with video reference.

    Unfortunately, the few times I’ve tried to use a microexpression in animation, it’s gotten noticed by the director (the sad result of the way we loop our shots endlessly in approvals) and taken out. That’s a subject for a whole ‘nother post – the way we sometimes over watch and over polish our shots.

  3. alonso Says:

    It’s interesting that film does hyper focus on everything, looping it over and over. I wonder if it really ups the quality that much.
    this dude did 250 fx shots in 4 months on his own by fighting against that, paying attention to where the viewer’s eye will be from the last shot and where it’s going to go in the current shot and putting his time in the places it matters
    and this is a fun little clip proving how much we miss when our eyes are being directed elsewhere

  4. Keith Says:

    Great expansion on the topic, Kevin. I’m pretty much with you- I’ve used video ref of myself for 2-5% of all my shots on a film. Usually just to study the mechanics of an action. When the camera is on I can’t act my way out of a paper bag and doing it for 10 minutes only makes it worse, not better. 🙂
    I’ve taken a lot of acting classes over the years, as well. I’ve found them to be of varying degrees of usefulness mainly because the technical task of an actor is very different than the task of an animator. Still, I always learn something from them so when the opportunity comes up to go to one I’m right there. Improv is the same. A lot of times I think people go into things (acting classes, improv, video ref, life drawing, etc.) thinking the magic bullet of ultimate success awaits them there. In reality there are a few useful nuggets of gold surrounded by a fair amount of extraneous info. The trick for me is to know that going in. Find the gold and leave the rest for another day.

  5. Kevin Says:

    Alonso, those are two great links. The first one really demonstrates how efficient it can be to take a holistic view of the audience’s projected experience, and not put equal weight on every last little thing in a scene (as we tend to do). I’ve seen the second one before, and it’s really eye opening (figuratively and literally). In fact, I think you’ve inspired another post.

    Hey Keith, excellent thoughts on acting and improv classes. For me, the pleasure I get from those kinds of classes are more like mental/emotional stretching. It may not make me a significantly better animator, but it’s a great change of pace, like taking a break from animating to sketch or paint.

  6. remi Says:

    In a recording of Milt Kahl
    Milt Kahl wasn’t a big fan of video reference, mainly for the same reasons as you guys already have pointed out 😛

    And IF you are going to use it he has the following to say:

    “… use it for reference, don’t accept it…Blindly..”

    he also points out that you shouldn’t rely on a “crutch”,,, and i think that could be the main danger in using life action…

    Personally i would definitely act stuff out, because I think it’s fun :P, for me it can help as a “brainstorm” session!! and just pick out the parts i like that i probably wouldn’t have come up with if would have sat behind my computer :PP also , i can use the exercise ha ha



  7. Cassidy Says:

    I’ve become a big fan of video reference lately, not as a source to copy from, but strictly as a brainstorming/observation exercise as you suggest. There’s no substitute for acting out your shot “in the moment” in real time, especially in multi-character shots. There’s a special dynamic that happens with other people in the room, the way people react to each other with body language, eye direction and microexpressions that I find a lot easier to observe from real life (or a video thereof) than from the blank slate of my imagination. Also, I find I can rough out a whole slew of ideas on video much more quickly than I could by blocking them out in the computer or thumbnailing them on paper.

    Lately, and this is a very new thing for me, I’ve been using video reference a bit as a tool for communicating with directors. Rather than spend two days blocking out a shot in the computer with one acting idea in it– an idea that might actually be wrong– I’ll spend a few hours experimenting on video, and show three or four of my favorite takes to the directors, and see which ideas they respond to most strongly. That way, when I do start blocking my shot, I can do it with complete confidence that I’m on the right track and not wasting my time!

  8. Erik Says:

    hey Kevin,

    long time no see, hows everything going?
    great post! I will keep visit here all the time. 🙂


  9. donnie Says:

    I think I would have to be careful with showing a director any video reference I’d recorded of myself.

    I say ‘I’ as I know that I am not a great actor and that I’d hope that any animation that I produced would be a hundred times better. The reference might just be a bit misleading to the director, unless I was sure it was showing the exact performance I would wish to mirror.

    Again, this is just me, I’m sure there are some wonderful aminators-as-actors out there. I’m just not one of them….

  10. Kevin Says:

    I think you’re on to something, Cassidy (at least as long as you’re animating characters that you can reasonably act out!). I think donnie raises a good point, but I think most animation directors, at least the ones I’ve worked with, would be able to look past the crummy acting to see the basic ideas being portrayed. After all, when we show rough blocking, there usually isn’t any meaningful acting present, either. You’re just looking for a sign-off on the basic timing and beats. Plus you can always edit together different parts of different takes.

    Hey, Erik! Things are great with me. How are you doing?

  11. Cassidy Says:

    Yeah, of course showing video reference to the directors only works if your video actually represents your acting ideas, and you have directors who respond well to that kind of input. If you shoot video of yourself and think “that looks like crap! I could animate better than that,” then it’s probably better to just go ahead and block out your scene as you envision it. And if you can’t act your way out of a paper bag, but you can draw really expressive cartoons, then maybe it’s worth drawing a comic strip of your shot and showing that to the directors instead!

    In the end, it’s all about communication. You and your supervisors/directors are collaborating on a set of visual ideas for the character’s performance. Anything that helps you get clarity on exactly what those ideas should be is a Good Thing.

  12. Gareth Cavanagh Says:

    This is a great post Kevin.
    As a rookie, Vid-Ref has been a big part of my learning experience over the last few months and I’ve found it both a benefit and a crutch. A benefit in that when it comes to the bio-mechanics of a shot it helps me focus on certain things that I would otherwise miss and a crutch that when it comes to the acting-side of things I definately fall into the ‘crap’ actor’s camp.

    After reading Victor Navone’s post on Thumbing from movie clips :
    I’ve found myself referencing real actors giving performances in clips relevant to what I’m trying to animate. I suppose by doing that you have to be careful that you don’t just ‘rip-off’ the performance of the actor/actress that you’re referencing, but I think if you are disciplined and know what you want from the shot it can be a useful tool.

    Again, great post Kevin,


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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch