Spacing — the hand-drawn days

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:

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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:

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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.

20 Responses to “Spacing — the hand-drawn days”

  1. Benjamin De Schrijver Says:

    I’m not entirely sure I get how that rolling system works… As a traditional animation student at AM, it could be really useful. Any chance you could upload a photograph or little video of your hand position? That’d be great…

    Great post(s) as well, I’m really enjoying this blog.
    – Benjamin

  2. Todd Jacobsen Says:

    Another great post, Kev. The example from “Sinbad,” and your explanation of spacing (and on occasion, lack of charts) between drawings was an excellent way to show that sometimes inbetweens aren’t exactly “in betweens.” Sometimes, more than anything, you just have to feel your way through the action in a scene.

    The “pencil in the mouth” technique and rolling with two hands is truly interesting. I could picture exactly what you were doing. Necessity really is the mother of invention. Wish I had thought of that when I was rough inbetweening.

    And it’s true–getting rid of all the distractions can be helpful. My first rough inbetweener job (on “Looney Tunes: Back in Action”) mandated, mostly due to lack of space on my desk, that I not have any telephones or CD or MP3 players to clutter my workflow physically or mentally. I felt some of my best learning experiences came from this picture, not having anything but the task at hand to inform my work. And I ended up being asked to assist Eric Goldberg on one of only two or three scenes that he animated for the movie.

  3. Alonso Says:

    Hey Benjamin (I thought you were already done with AM) anyway I found a tutorial on youtube for you with 2D rolling between that and the AM walkthru a 2D mouse jumping rope thing (is that thing still around?) hopefully you can figure it out. I’m assuming Kevin means that he’s doing the 3 previous pages/drawings in his left hand, and the 3 following pages/drawings in his right, and rolling between all of them to see where on the blank page in the middle whatever body part he’s following should land and then making a little mark there with the pencil in his mouth. (I’ve often wished for a 3rd arm as a new Dad, glad to see that if I ever to grow one I’ll have other uses for it once my kid is bigger) Also, I remember you were dissapointed with the amount of 2D instruction at AM, have you seen ? it’s a lot of tutorials in flash about solid 2D workflow stuff. Not the most dynamic of presentations but the information is good.

    Hey Kevin (sorry to hijack your blog there)
    Cool post. I liked Sinbad, I thought it was fun and swashbuckly, and the animation was well done. As I get deeper into animation spacing seems more and more important to the craft of movement. In the recent Animation Podcast with James Baxter he talked about how he tries to only have a maximum of 2 charts on any key (trying not to be the guy with 7 to 8 charts, like you mention) It seems like not having the limbs all come to rest at the same time is one of the ways to avoid a computery feel, but if you are trying to simplify down to 2 charts how do you avoid this, in other words aren’t you giving up a lot by simplifying?

    They also lamented the dependence on playblasting. They talked about the strength of the 2D guys who had to just KNOW what they were doing, and couldn’t send the film out all the time to see how the work was coming. Just wondering how it’s possible to KNOW what you have without testing to see what you have. I understand how you can see if the spacing and arcs are correct by scrubbing/flipping, but how do you know if the overall timing is working without testing.

    I’m totally blown away by the stuff on The guy’s definitely one of the kings.


  4. Kevin Says:

    Hey Benjamin! Yes, it is tricky to explain, and tricky to do. It’s probably better as you’re starting out to stick with the regular methods of ‘flipping’ and ‘rolling’ your drawings on the pegs as you work. The two-handed system I described was difficult and slow, and was really best for doing inbetweens on a scene with a lot of complex movement. Plus, I’m not sure how clear I could make it even with a video. Just grab a scene of yours and try to set it up the way I described, and play around. And thanks for the kind words.

    EDIT — I just added a footnote to the post, explaining things in more detail. Hope that helps.

    Hi Todd. You’re so right about the way having a minimalist workspace can really help your work flow. Doing CG and always being hooked into the internet can make being efficient a nightmare. You really have to have the discipline to tune everything out and just FOCUS. The work turns out better, and it gets done faster.

    Alsono, speaking of James Baxter and charts, I was looking at some of my Xeroxed scenes from the 2d movies, and he really never did use more than two charts. I wish I would have saved some of the crazy 8-chart scenes from other animators. Sometimes the different charts all had different keys, so you had to constantly do partial drawings, then go back later and finish.

    So, how did James manage with just one or two charts and not make things simple? The main way was to use charts, but to also do partial drawings on the breakdowns/inbetweens for anything that wouldn’t fit the chart. So mixed in with the keys would be some drawings with just a hand or a foot or part of a face. Dialog was often handled this way, so there’d be lots of drawings with just mouth (and sometimes eyes and nose, too). He’d do the partial drawing in graphite, and I’d finish the drawing in blue, so when it was time for clean-up there’d be no doubt about what to follow.

    Realize that the animator doesn’t just do the key storytelling drawings. They also do the extremes and the secondary keys. As you note, the extreme for one body part is usually on a different drawing than the other body parts — these partial extremes might be partial drawings. And on a complex scene, the animator just might end up doing most of the drawings.

    As for developing the skill of getting good timing without endless playblasting — well, it’s a learned skill. When you test or playblast all the time, you don’t force yourself to think as carefully, and you learn less from each attempt (if you learn anything at all). Try working on a scene for a couple of hours, and only allowing yourself a fraction of the usual number of playblasts. Do this over a period of time, and I’ll bet your sense of timing will significantly improve.

  5. Benjamin De Schrijver Says:

    Cheers! I get it now!

  6. Cassidy Says:

    This is terrific stuff, Kevin! I’ve never heard this much deatil about the nuts and bolts of 2D animation before, and it is truly illuminating. This puts the job of inbetweening in a very different light! And those Sinbad shots are really gorgeous. Say what you will about the movie as a whole, but the animation on that film was top-notch!

    It’s amazing how the everyday problems of good workflow (ergonomics, elminating distractions, etc.) never really go away, no matter what medium you’re working in… for my CG work, I finally found a good solution with a mini-keyboard, a tablet, and a set of foot pedals, so I can work with both hands and both feet at the same time. Your pencil-in-the-mouth technique makes me feel a little bit less weird about that. 😉

  7. Kevin Says:

    Thanks, Cassidy. Yeah, <em>Sinbad</em> was strong on the technical and animation end. It just wasn’t nearly what it could have been on the story side, and I wasn’t very charged up about the voice work. It comes back to the earlier discussion of <em>appeal</em> — I clearly remember the first pitch for <em>Sinbad</em>, as we were finishing up on <em>Spirit</em>. Were the PDI guys on board yet ? Maybe you got the same pitch. Anyway, the director was great at pitching, and most of the animation crew left the pitch feeling enthusiastic. I walked out shaking my head that we were making a movie with an unlikable lead character and an overly complex story (there was a loooong first sequence of exposition about Sinbad and Proteus as kids, and there were about a dozen gods with different powers and agendas, and NO COOL MONSTERS for Sinbad to fight, and the biggest McGuffin in the history of film). The story improved, we added some monsters, but it was never enough for me to get excited about. But we did work hard to do great animation, didn’t we? 😉 Did you get any cool shots of the sea monster?

    Anyway, it was still a great experience, and I learned a ton. I’ve been going though my boxes from those days, doing a little housecleaning, and I’ve found some cool stuff I’ll be posting in the future.

    Now, a request for you — as someone who is trying to break his mouse dependency, and who is slowly getting comfortable with the tablet, I’d love to see your setup in action. Maybe you could do a post on your blog about what hardware you’re using and how you’ve configured things?

  8. willipino Says:

    hey kevin,

    if my memory serves me, i believe that randy did some inbetweens on those shots, too. just wanted to throw some credit to mr. rocket.

    : )

  9. Kevin Says:

    Haha, that’s funny, I just emailed Randy about something else before I read this. Hmmm, you’re probably right. I know my memory sucks! I’m pretty sure I assisted all the second scene, but did we split the first scene? Maybe that’s why I found photocopies of the second scene, but only found part of the first.

    By the way, Willy is referring to my old office mate, Randy Dormans, now an animation supervisor at Nick, who worked his way up the ranks with me at DreamWorks. We both assisted James on a ton of shots on <em>Spirit</em> and <em>Sinbad</em>. And we started building rockets at work, just to keep things interesting (idle hands are the devil’s playthings, children). We were a pretty good team, both with rockets and with being animating assistants, and we used to gang up on the big scenes. Randy also kept up with the rocketry, and I think he’s now preparing to send his daughter into low earth orbit using a rocket engine built only from household items. And if you don’t believe me, go <a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>here</a>.

    Hey, Randy, chime in and set the record straight on these scenes.

    EDIT: Yep, Randy definitely assisted on both these scenes with me. I’ve corrected the original post to reflect that.

  10. Cassidy Says:

    Sure thing, Kevin! I’ll try to remember to bring my camera to work soon…

    I didn’t do any monsters on Sinbad, just a few CG background characters (including Sinbad himself) walking around on the ship, snowboarding down hills on shields, and such. I was very low on the totem pole in those days. (Which is another interesting contrast between entry-level roles in CG versus 2D… in CG, being the new guy often means doing lots of tiny background characters from start to finish.)

    Funny that Sinbad and ergonomics should come up in the same conversation, because it was those dog-slow Maya rigs that aggravated my last bout of RSI! There was no low-res mode, so you had to hold the button down for at least 15 seconds without moving the mouse a millimeter in order to see anything happen, and if you accidentally twitched during that time, you’d have to wait another 15 seconds to see what you had done… all this while carefully gripping that button. Even with a tablet, it was torture. Three months of that and I was right back to the doctor, and it took another three months of physical therapy before I could work again. Boy am I glad those dark times are over. (Not that I didn’t like the show itself– the directors were a total joy to work with!)

  11. Bobby Pontillas Says:

    Oh man, Those are completely virtuoso scenes.

  12. Kevin Says:

    Thanks, Cassidy. Damn, I knew you had a wicked bout of RSI, but I didn’t realize it was Sinbad that did it. I look forward to seeing the system that came out of that. And yeah, the directors on Sinbad were really great to work with. Tim Johnson in particular (who Cassidy and I also animated for on Over the Hedge) is a pleasure to work with — pretty much always knew just what he wanted, was willing to listen to your ideas, and wasn’t always coming up with new ideas when you were going for a ‘final!’ Not that I’ve ever worked for a terrible director as an animator, but dailies with Tim were generally smooth sailing.

    And you raise a good point about CG entry-level animators. They get stuck doing lots of complex biomechanical action, often the kind of stuff where you can’t cheat. It’s always seemed to me that many of the CG shots given to junior animators are among the most technically challenging. And those kinds of shots are really hard to make decent footage with, so the junior animator is doubly under the gun.

    And there are more Baxter scenes coming, Bobby, in the next few days, so keep an eye out.

  13. Jeremy Bernstein Says:

    Hey Kevin!

    Those clips are sick! Damn they look tough. Great job and great post on timing and spacing. It’s something I’m always striving to get better at.

  14. Kevin Says:

    Yo, Jeremy, long time no see! I’ve got to get a poker game together soon.

  15. DJ Says:

    Hi Kevin!

    This is a question i wanted to ask for a long time, but I keep forgetting.

    When animating a scene, lets say a character saying “I won” and lifting his hands up, how is the spacing on the body and hands?

    Let me ask it clearly. on a scene, for example, can the head “ease out and ‘hit’ and overshoot” while the hands “pop out” and then “ease in” towards the end? Or the entire character will have similar “charts”?

    I was wondering if any of this adds to the appeal of movement, if there is contrast between parts in terms of spacing? Can either of them taken as a general rule? Are you conscious about any of that? Like making one part ease in and hit and over shoot others, or otherwise? Or, do you just overlap (time wise) the eases but keep the eases of all the body parts similar (like all parts ease in/ease out).

    I know there might be special cases, but what is the general thing? Some how, after a discussion with a friend, I felt I might be missing something here. Should I ‘intentionally’ have different spacings on different parts? Or should I intentionally keep them alike since the body generally works as a chain and as a whole?


  16. DJ Says:

    by the way, that question came up because of the partial drawings and partial keys thing that you mentioned. That really keeps the “pose to pose” feel out of things, doesnt it?

    But Baxter-God seems to use just two or three charts while managing to keep that feel out. Any pointers on how that is managed? Is it just overlapping parts or anything else too? Amazingly, the videos you posted dont have that feel at all. brillaint stuff.


  17. Kevin Says:

    I think the trouble you’re having, DJ, is in trying to think of this using only the bare minimum of key frames (in the example you give, you’re basically describing the use of only two keys, one ‘down’ and one ‘up’). If you animate using just a few keys per scene, then you’d either have to have relatively simple (and therefore uninteresting) movement, or you’d have to use a ton of charts all over the place. James would instead use a lot of secondary keys and extremes, so the charting could be kept under control. In some of the scenes I put up in the post after this one, he did every drawing in some sections. In the two scenes in this posting, he did every other drawing all the way through.

    You absolutely do want different parts of the body on different timing, and with different, appropriate spacing (with perhaps some parts easing in, and others overshooting and recoiling back — it all depends on the shot). Part of this is because such complexity of movement is pleasing and naturalistic, partly it’s because of the physics. Our hands are much lighter than our legs, so when the entire body is flailing around, the spacing on the hands will be much different than that of the legs.

  18. Olivier L. Says:

    my flatmate just pointed at that post which I seemed to have missed. The rolling thing flew right above my head but the shots your posted are truely amazing… it s already very difficult to animate one character but having 2 interacting in such a manner is unbelievable.

  19. Eric Says:

    Hey Kevin,

    This is a great post (as usual)!

    One of my biggest frustrations in CG is not being able to track spacing (and thus not learn as much through experience, I think) as efficiently as I believe 2d animation can. Sure, there are tools you can use that involve switching applications in and out of each other, or dry-erase markers on the screens (unless the IT department strictly forbids you)… In 2d, if I’m guessing correctly, you have the really efficient method of using a pencil to get your tick-marks going on, and the lightbox check your spacing and arcs.

    I’ve found that even with the small stick-figure planning I’ve been able to do in Flash, it’s helped me understand spacing and arcs so much more than 3d ever would have by itself.

    I’m longing for some method that can use a lightbox-type feature in 3d, or a simple rolling between frames that is fast in a way that heavy-characters are often not when you’re trying to frame through your 3d scene.

    I would love to hear your own thoughts for how to overcome these obstacles when you work in 3d. (perhaps we can include this in the conversation during our shindig in April?)

  20. Kevin Says:

    You really hit the nail on the head, Eric. My only tricks for doing this in CG is either dry erase markers or china markers on the screen (with the parallax errors and messiness that involves) or a software plugin that let’s you draw and make marks frame by frame (that was something that was added to Emo, the DreamWorks/PDI proprietary animation software, and it was a very handy tool).

    Arc-tracking plug-ins for Maya can be really useful, but the ones I’ve used have some inherent limitations. Something I definitely want to get into trying is the kind of workflow Jason Ryan has demonstrated that you referred to in your comments. And I wholeheartedly share your longing for a lightbox-type feature and much more responsive scrubbing in CG.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch