Continuing on the subject of spacing . . . I was lucky to come into animation when features were drawn, and to work my way up step by step. I got to spend a lot of time absorbing the importance of arcs and spacing before I had to struggle with larger issues like performance. On each film I worked my way up, through clean-up, into ruff inbetweening, then animating assistant, then animator. There really aren’t any analogs for those preliminary positions in the CG world, which is a shame. Not everyone who did clean-up or even ruff inbetweening had the makings of an animator, but if you did, it was a great place to learn some key technical issues.
I count myself particularly lucky to have assisted on many scenes by people like James Baxter, Kristof Serrand, and Rodolph Guenedon, among others, and having the importance of making shots both entertaining and technically correct hammered into me. These ideas started, though, before I got into the animation department, while I was still in clean-up.
One of the techniques I learned there was to systematically place each rough on the pegs, then lay a clean sheet of animation paper on top and, using a variety of colored pencils, mark each key part of the figure (eye, hands, elbows, knees, feet, etc.). Then you’d take the first drawing off, place the second drawing, lay that same sheet back on top, and continue. You’d end up with a single sheet on which you’d plotted all the sequential positions of each part of the body. It was an overall spacing chart. By lightly connecting the dots, you also got paths of action for everything. You now had a template for exactly where the key parts of your breakdowns and inbetweens needed to fall. Sometimes you’d see where the animator had gone off their own arcs, or where spacing mistakes were made, so you could actually clean up not just the drawings but the animation, though if you were doing that you had to make damn sure you weren’t screwing up what the animator intended! In any event, it was a great way to avoid flattening out arcs or doing perfectly even spacing.
These sheets ended up looking like multicolored tangles of lines, not unlike the graph editor in Maya. Maybe that’s part of the reason the Graph Editor always made sense to me. That said, I can’t emphasize enough that the curves in the Graph Editor DON’T represent the same thing — the ‘arcs’ and ‘spacing’ of these graph-editor curves only rarely really match the arcs and spacing of the character in the 2-dimensional screen space!
As a ruff inbetweener (the bottom of the totem pole in the animation department) I remember completing a scene for one of the lead animators. This animator didn’t think about spacing in a really systematic way. His drawings were fabulous, and his work had great poses and good timing and appealing action. But the spacing, and therefore the movement, often broke down. I couldn’t draw as well as he could, but I was always good at working in the style of the animator, and so my breakdowns and inbetweens looked pretty much just like his keys. But my real trick was that I would often ignore his charts and, based on a solid understanding of spacing, put the drawings where I thought they should go.
The first time I did this was on a complex scene with the character bounding all over the place. When I got the rough keys, it looked beautiful drawing by drawing, but when it was shot on the pencil-test machine it just didn’t look right. I couldn’t not fix the spacing errors in this scene. So I did. Then I turned the scene in and gritted by teeth. An hour later the animator came flying into my office, with a big grin on his face. He said the scene looked fantastic, that I was the best assistant he’d ever had, and that it must have been because of the way I drew, because I’d matched his drawings so well. I breathed a sigh of relief and said thank you.
What I eventually came to realize was that proper spacing often defied charts. Others have written about the difficulty that many assistants had with complex charts. Not that this stopped some animators. I remember getting scenes with as many as 7 or 8 different charts on each key, one for part of the body, sometimes full of thirds, and thirds of thirds (a ‘third’ is an inbetween that favors one drawing or the other by a 1/3 to 2/3 ratio). It could get endlessly complicated. The best animators avoided all that, and just drew as much as they needed to draw, so they could keep the charts simple.
James Baxter was great at this, and we worked together enough that he sometimes didn’t use charts. He taught a couple of us an ingenious system for several complex shots in Sinbad, including a couple of Sinbad carrying Marina on his shoulder across the deck of his ship. I wish I could show you the pencil tests, because the clips from the movie don’t begin to do these scenes justice. They’re amazing in a way that only an animator could appreciate. No mo-cap, no reference, just great planning and drawings by the best in the business:
Sinbad and Marina animation by James Baxter. Copyright DreamWorks Animation.
I’ve cropped some of the screen on the first shot so you can see Sinbad and Marina better. A few frames were dropped in the capture/encoding process — it should be all on ones. This is a virtuoso shot, yet few people would notice if it weren’t pointed out to them. It hooks up with:
Sinbad and Marina animation by James Baxter. Copyright DreamWorks Animation.
The second shot is from the full-screen version of the film, and a fair bit of the figures are cropped away by that process. If my scanner bed were large enough, I’d scan some of these drawings in sequence so they could be better appreciated. What I also noticed in looking again at Sinbad (and I literally haven’t looked at since I worked on it, because it’s probably my least favorite of the films I worked on) is that these two shots don’t quite hook up anymore. After they were completed, someone in editorial cut three frames from the head of the second shot. You don’t really notice it, but if anyone is going frame by frame across the cut, know that we weren’t the ones who screwed up!
So, anyway, James basically did every other drawing, and Randy Dormans and I did all the inbetweens, without charts (Randy and I were the animating assistants on the Sinbad character). We did this without putting a single part of either of the characters on halves. There are no straight inbetweens anywhere in these scenes. Here’s how it worked — let’s say I was doing drawing number 12. I would put drawings 9, 10, and 11 on the pegs, then 17, 15, 13 (in that order), then a blank sheet (which would become drawing 12). Drawing 10 would be my previous inbetween. I would arrange my fingers so that I could ‘roll’ drawings 9-12 with my left hand, and ‘reverse roll’ 12-17 with my right.* With practice and proper coordination, I could do this sequentially so I could see the three drawings before and three after the drawing I was doing. I’d hold the pencil in my mouth, and in rapid succession roll, make a tick mark, reverse roll, adjust the tick mark, roll it all and see if that fit, and repeat, until I had a reference mark for every part of each figure on the sheet.
This kept the drawing I was working on on the top of the stack, and I could also adjust my fingers and ‘flip’ in the traditional manner (in which case I’d be flipping drawings 11, 12, and 13). Completing the drawings required a lot of that kind of flipping to get the shapes and volumes correct. I would lightly “draw through” body parts that were eclipsed, so everything could be tracked whether or not it would be seen in that drawing. It took some practice and and a lot of focus.
Parenthetically, the way I really noticed how much more concentration assisting animation required compared to clean-up was I had to stop listening to Books On Tape while I worked. Animating takes up a lot of brain power.
Finally, I want to make the point that great spacing is not the soul of great animation — it’s a fundamental principle of good, competent animation, but it’s not an end in itself. Understand it, and your job as an animator is easier, but good entertainment and good acting still come first.
*Here’s more detail: the stack of drawings on the pegs, from bottom up, will be 9, 10, 11, 17, 15, 13, 12. Drawing 9 goes between left pinky and ring finger, drawing 10 between the ring finger and middle, 11 between middle finger and index, and 17-12 between index and thumb. With the right hand, you pinch drawing 12 between thumb and index finger and have 13 between index and middle, 15 between middle and ring finger, and 17 between ring finger and pinky. It helps if you’re using 16-field paper, I think, as 12-field is small enough that it’s hard to coordinate between the two hands.
This is also different from using the pegs to roll a scene. Many animators would put as much of a scene as they could onto the pegs, then use both hands to ‘roll’ 10 or 11 drawings in order. In that case, the first drawing in the scene goes on the pegs first, and the last drawing is on top. You can also hold the entire scene (off the pegs) from the top of the sheets, and roll the entire thing that way. By keeping it on the pegs and using both hands, you keep it all registered, but it’s a more cumbersome process.