Animate from the Gut

Today let’s step away from the technical aspects of character animation, and focus on the forest and not the trees. Try taking a completely non-technical approach in the early stages of your shots. I’m recommending you get yourself firmly into right-brain mode, block out your internal critic, and just animate from the gut. Animate unconsciously. Put yourself into a trance. Try not to let anything or anyone interrupt you during this phase. Work this way until the shot starts to take clear shape. Then, and only then, start consciously thinking about the principles of animation. Only then start consciously monitoring your poses and arcs and spacing. But as you go into a conscious, thinking mode, don’t lose the initial spontaneity and verve of your first pass.

Wall Street Journal illustration

I was reminded of this by an article in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago. The writer, Robert Lee Hotz, summarized some recent studies on perception and decision making, aptly titled Get Out of Your Own Way. He writes, “Such experiments suggest that our best reasons for some choices we make are understood only by our [brain] cells. The findings lend credence to researchers who argue that many important decisions may be best made by going with our gut — not by thinking about them too much.

I’ve been considering these kinds of ideas as I’ve been animating lately. I was thinking I might record myself animating a scene, to use as a multi-part blog post. I would show something students frequently ask for: how I worked through the shot, from start to finish. But I realized that the initial stages of my work flow aren’t nearly systematic enough, and that I couldn’t completely explain why I do some of what I do. To someone else those early stages would probably appear chaotic, even random. But I know it works for me, and I know it’s not that different than what many other animators do (though each in their own way). Our right brain is dedicated to intuitive, creative, holistic activities, and those activities don’t lend themselves to logical, linear analysis.

Another interesting quote from the WSJ article:

“. . . Ap Dijksterhuis at the University of Amsterdam recently found that people struggling to make relatively complicated consumer choices — which car to buy, apartment to rent or vacation to take — appeared to make sounder decisions when they were distracted and unable to focus consciously on the problem.

Please note: I do not think the key to animating from the gut is to distract yourself. I think good animation takes too much of our brain power.* What I’m suggesting, which is consistent with the Dutch study above, is that we make better complex decisions when we aren’t consciously trying so hard. We tend to do great work when we’re in the mystical creative trance that can’t be explained and has to be experienced.

Animation: From Script to Screen

As I write this, I’m remembering the thoughts of Shamus Culhane in his book, Animation: From Script to Screen. I’m sitting in the airport in Las Vegas, so I can’t get at the book, but I’ll have to pull it out for a reread when I get back to Los Angeles. If you haven’t read this book, I think you’ll like it. Especially his thoughts on tapping into your creativity.

I’m not sure CG animation lends itself to that creative trance as much as hand-drawn animation, but I do know that it’s possible, and I know some animators who work this way even if they don’t view it in those terms (perhaps because it sounds kind of new-agey?). Give it a try (realizing that you’re trying not to try, but that’s the beauty of it!).

*This statement will doubtless remind people of this: [Milt] Kahl also hated having music or audio distractions while he was working, telling protegé Richard Williams that, “I’m not smart enough to do two things at once.”

[Floyd] Norman said that the first rule of working in the animation wing was “never disturb Milt Kahl while he was working . . . The slightest noise would prove a distraction, and the irascible animator would soon visit those who talked too loudly, or dared to crank up the radio.

14 Responses to “Animate from the Gut”

  1. alonso Says:

    I think letting the intuitive flow guide you for CG would work best in the preperation stage, (for me at least) it just takes to long to make a pose on the computer. Thumbnailing to work out my poses ahead of time can flow quickly and effortlessly, and after I’ve got all the poses I think I’m going to want I can add my animation knowledge on top as I translate the scribbles into posed 3d characters.

    I should re read Culhane’s book. But the very next one on my list is Eric Goldberg’s long anticipated book )

  2. Rajesh Gupta Says:

    One more aesthetic view “Try taking a completely non-technical approach in the early stages of your shots.” It deeply touches me.

    Also, I like what you realized that “the initial stages of my work flow aren’t nearly systematic enough, and that I couldn’t completely explain why I do some of what I do.”

    I am now a better thinker by your article. Thanks for suggesting the book for pushing the creativity.

    Great post Kevin! Can’t wait for the next one!

  3. Philip Says:

    woah!! thats a scientific way of looking at wat we do daily. i have the habit of listening to music while animating.But after a while i get into this animation trance where i even forget that there is music running.Maybe listening to some trance music wud help me get into this mode early on.LOL!!

    Nice post!! thanx a lot!!

  4. Cassidy Says:

    Interesting advice, Kevin!

    I’m totally with you on the from-the-gut part. It’s totally essential in the early stages of a shot, to just play and explore and let yourself stumble on things, rather than nailing yourself down to something too concrete right away.

    The one thing I’d say to qualify your advice is that if you’re working in CG, this play-exploration phase should ALMOST NEVER be done at the computer. Far better to do that part by sketching on paper, or jumping up and acting out your scene, or watching some video reference for inspiration and taking thoughtful notes.

    There’s only one way I can think of to use the computer as part of that exploratory process: you can pull your character this way and that in your scene, to explore how the rig works in the 3D context– but don’t expect the poses you create this way to be at all useful as a foundation for animating your shot! In CG, there are way too many invisible technical pitfalls (IK or FK, etc.) that can make your life a nightmare later on if you commit too early to the wrong choice. So, think of those exploratory poses as rough sketches done on paper napkins– in other words, disposable. Then, once you’ve got some fun ideas, you’re ready to throw the poses away, and start planning how to execute them properly!

  5. DShum Says:


    I’ve always been taught that the organic approach, or the “from-the-gut” approach was something of a bad habit. And that planning before animating was the key to great animation.

    And from that, I’ve always felt guilty when I try to make discoveries; rather than having a clear idea of what you want right from the start.

    I can see how both methods (from the gut & lots of planning) are to help us achieve the best result…. But all of this must be pretty confusing to anyone trying to learn ‘The Proper Approach’… or how about teaching it!

    The last thing you wanna do is to tell your self/students not to try so hard…

  6. Ian Says:

    Great post again Kevin.

    I teach animation, and one problem I often face with students is that the more technical information I give them the less likely it seems they are to think about the work as a whole, to focus on how it feels, to concentrate on what it is thats appealing to them. It can seem that the more technically correct the work gets the less personality it has.

    Its really hard in a class room situation to find the peace and quiet needed to get lost in a scene. I think this is where the habit (some call it a bad habit) of listening to music comes from. Often the music can be less distracting than the shinanigans of your less focused class mates.

    Never the less I do push my students to find this head space where they are floating in the idea. We refer to it as “The Zone”. One thing I’ve noticed about getting into the zone is that you can loose track of time so easy, half a day can go by in the blink of an eye. Another thing I think is interesting is that with practice it becomes easier to find, I remember back when I still worked full time in the biz, it seemed I could just go there whenever I wanted. I see my students really struggle to find it sometimes, some never do find it.

    I think its important, as important as a lot of the technical stuff. As you have touched on in your post, the tricky thing is communicating how to do it 🙂

  7. Kevin Says:

    Cool, so many good responses on the subject! This is a really deep subject (not deep as in “heavy,” though there’s some of that, but deep as in it can be discussed and argued at great depth) of which I barely scratched the surface, so I’m grateful for everyones’ expanding on the topic.

    Alonso and Cassidy both talk about doing the “gut” work primarily in the planning stages, before one hits the computer. Despite the awkwardness of the CG interface, more and more I’m trying to allow for the unconscious process to carry through from the planning stages to the blocking and first pass phases of my animation. I’ve come to realize that the more experienced I get, the less I have to think about the technical pitfalls as I’m exploring the scene in the computer (or the less I worry about being able to fix the messes I make). I think it’s analogous to what Shamus Culhane writes about in his book, in describing the way he had been animating long enough that he’d built the discipline to be in that trance state and still draw on model and with appropriate volumes.

    I should emphasize that, when I talk about being intuitive at the computer, I DON’T mean I don’t plan like crazy. I still have a very good idea of what I want and where I intend to go. Starting to set keys without knowing your intentions is NOT what I’m advocating!

    Philip, I like listening to trance music sometimes! For me the key is, if I’m going to listen to music, it can’t have lyrics (unless I’m in the polish phase, where it’s mostly a technical game) and the energy of the music needs to roughly match the energy of the scene. But what I notice is that when I’m in that fine creative groove, music becomes vaguely distracting. At work I often found I was working with headphones on but no music, without even consciously deciding to do that.

    DShum, you’ve nicely summed up the tension between intuition/unconscious thought and planning/conscious thought. It’s not about not trying hard, it’s about learning to let your whole brain be part of the act.

    Ian, I’m totally with you. I see some students whose work really tightens up (creatively) as they learn more. As they lose their naivety, their work also loses some of their playfulness and appeal. And I laughed out loud at the line about music being less distracting that the shenanigans of classmate! So true, and it’s often a factor in the studio, too. Hence my occasional of headphones without music.

    And your last points, about losing time and the process becoming easier with experience, are really valuable. It does get easier to sit long periods at the computer (one has to remember to schedule breaks, as opposed to having to chain oneself to the chair!), and it gets easier and easier to drop back into “the zone” once you start going there regularly. I think it helps to assure the students who don’t quite ‘get it’ that it takes a lot of practice and doing a lot of scenes before some of this makes sense. If they don’t quite get it as students, they can still do very good work just bulling their way though with lots of conscious planning, and as they continue to animate the more zen approach will probably reveal itself. Assuming they’re open to it, and give themselves permission to try. 😉

  8. Alej Garcia Says:

    It may interest you to know that these principles regarding “working from the gut” apply equally well to scientific creativity. I’m a theoretical physicist and in my work I develop computer algorithms for simulating fluids. Although one might think that theoretical physics is done with Vulcan-like logic and rigor, that’s not the case. That’s why blackboards are popular with scientists, so that we can write random scribbles and drawings as we brainstorm. Although I might be using mathematical symbols as I sketch out my ideas, in my mind I’m seeing the algorithms as dynamic geometric patterns.

    During this creative stage music is a distraction. But after the basic ideas have been laid down, then I need to listen to music as I write my programming code. At that point I enter that “zone” where time perception is completely distorted.

    One last thing: Students under-estimate the importance of this initial stage because it doesn’t appear to produce anything tangible. That’s why they want to start writing their computer programs right away. But I tell them that if they’re going to spend two days writing a program, spend the first day with a computer turned off and in front of a blackboard.

  9. Ian Says:

    Hmmm, This has all got some cogs turning for me. I may be going off on a bit of a tangent here Kevin so feel free not to publish this one. I think that the explosion of information about and for animators on the net over the past 3 or 4 years has been amazing, I’m based in Australia and when I was a student over a decade ago I remember being very frustrated that I couldn’t find any information about what was going on in the big US studios I loved so much. How did they work? what was life like for them? What mattered to them in their work? Outside of what I learned in The Illusion of Life I could only guess.

    Now there is so much its mind boggling and wonderful. Its reached to a point where there isn’t anything technical I can teach in class that isn’t on the net, I’m fond of telling my students and employers that educators can’t act like they have all the information locked in a cupboard any more, what we can offer is structure, feedback, guidance and encouragement.

    But one issue for students is knowing where to start. Take this post for example. I think it would be healthy for a student to read this post quite early in their education, a reminder that as they move forward they always need to be keeping one eye on the big picture. Recently there have been quite a few great posts across the net about polish, but these would be more useful to a student after they have got the fundamentals down. In one 11 Second Club Ecritique you might learn about the fold of skin under an eye and in another you might learn about fundamental character posing or layouts.

    I’m always preaching to my students that they should get stuck into all the amazing on line goodies and gobble them up, but surprisingly I meet a fair bit of resistance. There may be several factors, I think they can take it all for granted because they don’t remember a time when you couldn’t pop on line and see how Victor Navone uses a graph editor, another thing is that many just wont read (spoiled by too much instant media junk (eek I’m sounding old)). But one thing I think that’s daunting is knowing where to jump in, imagine stumbling across this post from the great Flip Blog ( when you are still working on your first sack of flower or bowling ball scene. Its an interesting post, but you can imagine it scaring the pants off a beginner.

    I wonder if there could be a web site of blog that divided up and linked to information across the web based on the level of animator it was targeted at? A kind of road map for on line animation resources set up so that new people entering into the whole thing can find information at a relevant level for them. It would obviously be a big job, not to be entered into lightly, also there is also a level of subjectiveness that could be awkward (different opinions on when students should learn different things), but its an idea that wont stop rattling around in my head.

    As I said before Hmmmmm.

  10. Tony Says:

    Hi Kevin

    Your blogs are inspiring and educational, and the technical side of things does my head in, since I am a beginner! But I’ve been looking through the animation survival kit and illusion of life (books), and both are such solid references when it comes to learning through theory and example. Since inbetweening is the first step (usually) for an animator or assistant animation, could you post some of your opinions/advice and experiences on inbetween and cleanup animation? I would love hear any approaches you may have or advice on improving in it. I recently tried inbetweening a scene and really underestimated I’m back to the basics (which are always overlooked) – the bouncing ball, sack drop and flag wave:)

  11. Franko Says:

    I’m just dropping this comment in after reading the first couple comments.

    I was just wondering if other animators have an “internal screen”?

    That is, seeing the ‘blobs’, seeing the animated movements in their mind before any paper or reference material appears?

    I’m sure it’s a conglomeration of movements that have caught my attention and stay in my memory, an internal reference, if you like. Combining them into an external animation occurs as my primitive style.

    I’m just a student. But that’s where I see the animation first. Do other animators? Not so much in my ‘gut’, but on that screen inside my head.

    I’ll probably find the answer when I read the rest of the posts, the rest of Kevin’s blog, and all the links. Apologies if I’ve made a silly comment or asked a dumb question.

  12. Jesse Says:

    I suggest a new strategy, Luke. Let go your conscious self, and act on instinct.

  13. Kevin Says:

    Hey Alej, you’re completely right about the approach to science. You know I was a neuroscientist before I was an animator, right? Science is another place, like animation, that requires a lot of bouncing back and forth between the left and right hemispheres of the ol’ bean.

    Ian, that’s an amazing idea! I’m initially boggled at the thought of what it would take to organize it. As you say, there’s been such an explosion of information that it can be overwhelming, and some of the best internet writing slips into blog archives and effectively drops out of circulation. There’s also the concern that students will get lost in reading, and get paralyzed in their animation. As you say, some of this stuff can be positively intimidating to beginners (one of my complaints about Dick William’s book, which is really suitable for working pros more than beginners). I’ll be interesting in seeing if you come up with anything on the subject of a “meta-blog of animation.”

    Hey, Tony, that’s a great suggestion for a post. It might take some time for me to make up a simple example and get it scanned, but hopefully I’ll get to it before long. By the way, when you read something that “makes your head hurt” 😉 just keep going. Keep animating, keep plugging away, and try looking at that material again at a future date. A lot of things I “learned” years ago have only started sinking in and making sense now.

    Franko, not a dumb question at all. There are definitely some animators who do exactly that. My internal screen is pretty low res, so getting my ideas onto paper or onto the computer screen takes a little work, but if you have that ability, you should work to develop it. It will serve you well.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch