How much polish is too much?

Shoe shine boy at work, 1908

That’s the question I was asked by a recently graduated animation student I spoke to at last year’s SIGGRAPH FJORG! event. One of the things I spoke about then was the need to treat the body as a connected whole — when the head moves, for example, the chest and shoulders are going to move, too. Without this nuanced connectedness, almost any movement looks unnatural. This student took that to heart, and since then wrote:

My eye for detail has really improved (still has a long way to go, of course) but now I face another problem: time. Adding in all these subtle details takes time, and sometimes I’ll spend a few hours adding something in and when I playblast, I can barely notice it.

This brings us to polish rule number one: Polish simply takes time. There is no way around it, and lack of polish time is the main reason high-footage animation (like that for TV, direct-to-video, or low-budget features) looks, well, less than special, even when done by fairly skilled animators.

And I know that exact feeling – polish a scene for a few hours, do a playblast, and wonder if it’s any difference. Here’s what I do in those situations. I take a break from the monitor, get my eyes focused on something else, try to mentally hit ‘reset,’ then go back and look at the playblasts with a fresh eye. Hopefully your hard work is clear, even if not dramatic. Which brings us to . . .

Rule number two: polish is subtle. If it made a huge difference, then it wouldn’t be polish, it would be animation. So don’t expect your polish to transform a scene into something it wasn’t already. Polish isn’t what makes a scene work, or be entertaining. It makes an already good scene great. He goes on to write:

In essence I think my question is, “How much polish is too much?” The question may be easier to answer in a production setting, where the project has a defined level of style and detail that the director wants, along with deadlines that force you to give up a shot, but what about for a personal piece on a demo reel? As a recently graduated student, it’s difficult to know when to stop. I can track arcs and spacing for weeks (and have been), but I’m not sure how much it adds to the final product. A certain level of detail is desirable and adds to the performance, but it’s really hard to know when to stop and move on to another shot.

by Patrick Owsley at

Ultimately, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as too much polish. But you have to understand what good polish is all about, because it’s very easy to waste time here. The key to efficient polish comes BEFORE the polish phase. So first, do good animation*. If your animation is full of redundant keys, tangents pulled all over the place, and problems in your timing, then you won’t end up polishing. You’ll end up reanimating.

I look at polish as being two sides of a coin. On one side, polish involves fixing minor technical mistakes. Here I’m referring to knee pops, body parts going off the arc, spacing errors, bad IK/FK transitions, frozen body parts, posing tangents, and so on. The key here is to NOT do this technical polishing until you’ve done the creative polish.

Creative polish is the other side of the coin, and is mostly layering in nuance. Depending on the style of animation, this may take a lot of work (more naturalistic work) or not so much (cartoony animation). Here we’re looking at the way things start and stop, at the subtle transfers of momentum among body parts, at sculpting poses to be a little more clear and interesting, at the quality of the moving holds, at overlap and follow-though, at avoiding multiple body parts ‘hitting’ on the same frame, at making the arcs organic, and so on. This is the kind of polish that takes a keen observational sense, and practice, and more observation.

If you hold do the technical polish before the creative polish, you’ll be repeating some work. And realize that there is a huge difference between “smoothing” and “polishing.” It’s a good idea to save different iterations of your shot before and during polish, because sometimes you realize you’ve polished the sharpness out of your animation, and you need to revert to an earlier version. If you get stuck and think you might be doing this, try getting a second set of eyes on the scene.

When I was learning clean-up animation, I was taught a trick by Dori Littel-Herrick (currently the head of the animation department at Woodbury University). Her advice was to hold off on making the tiny, picky little corrections to each drawing until you were finished with the scene. Then roll and flip the scene, and see what REALLY needs fixing. Often, many of those little imperfections that you were going to stop, erase, and carefully redraw, would turn out not to need redrawing.

Polishing in animation can be the same. Not everything needs to be perfect, the shot just has to look great. There is a difference. One of my favorite quotes is from Voltaire: “The best is the enemy the good.” Our goal is good, entertaining animation, not perfection.

Damn that mofo could draw!

On the subject of favorite quotes, Edgar Degas once said Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do. I think this exactly the dilemma referred to in the email above. The better you get, the more you seen needs to be done. Degas himself had a problem with this, to the point where an art-dealer/friend took to chaining Degas’ paintings to the wall, the better to keep Degas from continually taking them back to his studio for ‘improvements’!

Don’t fall into that pattern. Set yourself a time limit for how long you’ll polish a shot, and then move on. Later, if you see some obvious error, go in and fix it, but don’t get stuck in endless polish cycles, because you’ll never progress.

Polishing takes forever when you’ve animated without really making a commitment to what you’re animating. It takes forever when you’re not completely clear in your mind what you want for that scene. You need to start with good, clear ideas. Polishing will also get faster with practice, so starting and completing scenes on a regular basis will spur your growth far more than making one or two perfect shots.

When your time is limited for your polish pass, think carefully about what the audience will really notice. Usually they’ll always pick up on the overall movement, on anything around the eyes, and on hand gestures. Don’t scrimp on those areas. Then have a friend take a quick look, and see if they notice anything. But just show it for a pass or two. If an animator friend doesn’t notice any problems right away, it’s unlikely the audience will, either.

*Polishing a scene that wasn’t working to begin with is commonly known as buffing a turd. You can spend a lot of time on it, but you only end up with a shiny turd.

24 Responses to “How much polish is too much?”

  1. Jim Says:

    Thanks so much for your thorough response, Kevin. I’ve made a lot of the mistakes you mentioned, sometimes over and over again, but I think I’m learning – slowly! 🙂

  2. Sunny Kharbanda Says:

    Kevin, you just blew my mind. You managed to present Zen-like wisdom together with nitty-gritty specifics, all in one post, and it makes perfect sense. Thanks especially for the distinction between creative and technical polishing, and the really graphic conclusion! 😉

  3. Daniel Huertas Says:

    “Rule number two: polish is subtle. If it made a huge difference, then it wouldn’t be polish, it would be animation”

    Awesome read Kevin… !! really helpful… 🙂

  4. Lucas Martell Says:

    I’ve got a particularly turdy shot that I’ve been working on and I think its time to scrap it and start over. Thanks for taking the time to do these excellent posts!

  5. Yeray Díaz Díaz Says:

    Awesome post, extremely helpful and insightful. Thank you very much for your generosity and work, Kevin. 😀

  6. Andy Norton Says:

    This is excellent theory. I hope to take this approach to polishing the next time I start doing some animation very soon.

  7. kevin scott Says:

    Wow kevin i love your take on things. thats was a really good thing to read for me. polishing is definitely a beast, and as a rookie to animating i still struggle with it. (but getting better) “polishing a turd” is hilarious ! you keep writing and i’ll keep reading.

  8. Dhar Says:

    Thank you for the great lessons, Kevin. I could never tire of your teaching.

  9. Rajesh Gupta Says:

    Wow! what an aesthetic writ. Now, I will remember your tips and have confidence while start new animation shot. Thanks Kevin!

  10. remi Says:

    wow, this couldn’t come at a better time!

  11. Karen JL Says:

    ‘Polishing the turd’ seems to be a universal animation term. It’s used in the Canadian animation studios too. Too damn funny. 🙂

    Great post Kevin. Sometimes in this business (especially TV animation) ‘good enough’ just has to be, well…good enough.

  12. Graham Says:

    I have buffed many a turd in my lifetime. Great post!

  13. Jean-Denis Haas Says:

    “Rule number two: polish is subtle. If it made a huge difference, then it wouldn’t be polish, it would be animation.”

    Genius! That should be a poster inside every animation school’s class room. 🙂

  14. tj phan Says:

    Great post, Kevin! One line that really struck me was this:

    “…I look at polish as being two sides of a coin…The key here is to NOT do this technical polishing until you’ve done the creative polish.”

    There are too many good one-liners here–I’ll need to put them all on a list and post them on my moniter as a reminder.


  15. alonso Says:

    nice tips, thanks.
    Annoyingly I feel like I’m still working on getting my theory into practice and building an animation with a solid enough structure that it’s worth putting polish onto. You don’t have a magic tip to adding more hours in the day do you, cause that would be super useful 😉

  16. Erik Says:

    This is a great post!
    I agree with “The key to efficient polish comes BEFORE the polish phase. So first, do good animation.” I guess that’s why I alway fall into a endless polishing cycle because the animation is not good enough to move into polishing.
    Thank you for the post, it clarifies a lot things to me.

  17. Anirudh Says:

    hi kevin, another fantastic eye opening post from u. polishing is definitely one of the things many animators struggle with and unfortunately everyone has a different take on it and may work for everyone differently. but you mentioned a very important thing about doing the creative polish before the technical polish.

    i have realized this that when something is not working in my scene, i feel its a technical issue, but on closer looking, its the creative side of thing which is not working as smoothly as i wanted.

    so many good suggestions and insights ! thanks!

  18. Kevin Says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for so many thoughtful comments. This kind of feedback makes writing these posts worthwhile!

  19. Paul Says:

    Hi Kevin!

    Carlos’ blog reminded me to take a look back here and boy am I glad I did! I’m in the middle of my revision polish for a single character dialog shot and this helped SOO much! Thanks for all the great advice!

  20. sunil tokas Says:

    this is good .
    hope i had learn something 🙂

  21. Joost van Schaik Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks so much for this excellent post again. I recently graduated from AM and this was one of the things that was on my mind. How not to lose too much time in the polishing stage and still deliver my shots on time when I am in a production environment. This info is spot on and reminds me of accepting to let go of my shot at some point and focus on the next one and keep enjoying the journey of becoming a better animator.

  22. Phil Willis Says:

    Hey Kevin

    Outstanding post.

    I think I’ll bookmark it and come back to read it once every 2 months or so.

    So many nuggets of good advice in there (and one turd!)

  23. Mike York Says:

    This is a golden thread about 2 much polishing and when to just let a scene go. You have some awesome knowledge that I am soakin up

    Great Post Koch’s

  24. Inspirational WETA… « BlurFrame Says:

    […] How much polish is too much polish ? […]

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch