Animation Nomenclature No-nos

There are some terms that I find students struggle with, some of which come from traditional animation but tend to get mangled on the CG side of the fence. First, let’s start with one that isn’t a word: animations. I can’t tell you how much this grates on the ears of anyone who comes from traditional animation, be it hand-drawn or stop motion. I think the word animations comes from the early, junky Internet-specific stuff that was done by people who had absolutely no connection with the world of animation. Unfortunately, the word is creeping into general use by non-animators. As my friend Tom Owens puts it:

There is no such thing as “animations.” “Animation” is already plural… You don’t say “I make musics,” do you?

Shots are individual pieces of animation. Scenes is sometimes used with shots, though some like to reserve that word for a related series of shots, with a series of related scenes making up a sequence. It does get complicated, but in any event, please save the term animations for that stuff that not really animation.
Now a few more that people tend to mess up:
Key frame, key, key pose, secondary key, extreme. Key frame is a CG-specific term. Milt Kahl never did any key-frame animation. He would have talked about drawings and key drawings. The key storytelling drawings would be his keys. The drawing of the extreme of an action would be called an extreme (duh). A key might be an extreme, and an extreme might be a key, but not necessarily. A secondary key is pretty much what it sounds like, a storytelling pose that is crucial but, well, not quite as crucial. Realize that there is a certain fluidity among these terms.

I don’t think key frame in CG is used in exactly the same way as a rough key or key was used in hand-drawn animation. For example, in 2-d a shot may be a long, subtle, complex shot that has a single key pose, along with dozens of subtle extremes. In CG, all of those tend to get talked about together as key frames, and many people refer to every frame they’ve set a key on as a key frame. That’s fine, but one should keep in mind the difference between building your key storytelling pose(s), defining your extremes, and setting your breakdowns.

By the way, all this talk of keys is separate from the 2-d job titles, like key assistant, or simply key. A key was the clean-up artist who was at the top of the clean-up food chain, and who usually cleaned up the rough keys (rough animation drawings tended to be shorted to ruffs). The key would then supervise the clean-up done by the assistant, breakdown artist, and inbetweener. So on a hand-drawn production you might have said, “You can tell Kay is a fine key by the time she takes on her keys.” One might even turn key into a verb, as in “Ken keyed the entire scene and now he’s ready to hand it off to his assistant.”

By the way, the word tweening was never heard in any classic hand-drawn studio. Inbetweeners were inbetweeners, and inbetweening was inbetweening (with or without the hyphens). Unless you’re using Flash, skip the word tweening, please.

Breakdown. This is the drawing or pose that defines the arcs and general spacing and timing of a movement. One might say that the story part of a scene is in the keys, and the animation or nature of the movement is in the breakdowns. That’s an important concept. The most obvious sign of “computery” animation is that the computer has been allowed to define the breakdowns. This is very, very bad. Computers tend to suck at inbetweening, and they absolutely suck at breakdowns (well, actually, they’ll just make a perfectly even inbetween, instead of a breakdown).

Breakdown is also what most people go through either in the middle of the crunch, or immediately after. I always preferred the immediately after version, since it allowed me to completely waste my vacation time staring at the wall while I waited for the cramps in my hand to subside.

Okay, those the terms that stick out to me as being most often misunderstood or misused. I’m sure there are others, and you’re welcome to add to the list.

11 Responses to “Animation Nomenclature No-nos”

  1. Karen JL Says:

    Hi, I’m new here. Discovered your site during your Cartoon Brew boom. 🙂

    I just want to give a resounding “Thank You!” for mentioning the ‘animations’ thing. This makes me nuts every time I read or hear it. It seems to be spreading more and more and it must be stopped!

    One I might add here is when a student used to tell me they have ‘to do their line quality’. Uh, you mean ‘clean-up your drawings’?

    My two cents…nice site BTW.

  2. MMiller Says:

    I agree with everything on this list except for “animations”. Given that English is an ever evolving complex language, I’d argue that it is entirely appropriate in certain contexts. Much like “monies” is often used to describe a group of money consisting of different currency, I can see “animations” being used to describe a collection of animation styles.

    The example above is correct in context, you don’t say “I make musics”; you also don’t say “I music-ed today”, but can say “I animated today”.

    That, and I think I’ve used “animations” somewhere in my writing and I don’t want to be wrong. 😉

  3. Kevin Says:

    Karen, you have a nice blog. That’s funny about students referring to clean-up as “line quality.” When I was a clean-up artist, some people needed to be reminded of the hierarchy of importance in doing clean-up: preserving animation quality > on model, solid drawing > line quality. Some people just loved to focus on the line quality, and didn’t see that they were sometimes taking the life out of the animation or doing wonky drawings. At 24 fps, we hardly register line quality, but we sure do register if the animation is flat or the characters become a collection of moving shapes.

    MMiller, I agree that our language is organic and always changing, but my real point is that whenever someone uses the word “animations” around people in the industry, they tend to highlight their lack of experience or understanding. It basically marks you as a fan or a noob, if you get my drift. 😉 And I’m really not sure “animations’ is an improvement over “animation styles,” since the latter is perfectly clear, and the former is pretty ambiguous.

  4. Alonso Says:

    Hope you’re not getting sick of me, I seem to always have something to chime in with, and I tend to ramble on 😉

    Anyway, one of the tricky things is that the programmers when they made the software adapted some of the traditional words and used them in a different way. CG students probably call everything a key, because any time you make a change you save it by hitting the “make key” button. Maya also has some special kind of ‘key’ that responds to how the curves around it change, you get this by using the ‘make breakdown’ button.

    I like Jason Ryan’s oft used term of “golden pose” instead of “key storytelling pose” because it isn’t as confusing.

    And Kenny Roy had one or two group critique’s in AM where he explained the history of the breakdown, which helped me understand that it wasn’t just a transition pose, but was in fact the tool you use to control the kind of motion you want between poses, the spacing, and the arcs.

    The similar sounding, but different meaning vocabulary between CG and traditional confused the heck out of me for a long time whenever I would read interviews or stuff from the 2D guys. Now that I know better the process I can interpret what meaning they are trying to get. But it sucked when I was on the beginning of the path.


  5. DJ Says:

    “my animations always have tons of key frames, but i dont use breakdowns in maya”…

    aaargh.. sorry Kevin, if I ever spoke like that in the q n a’s.


  6. madmind Says:

    Thanks for the interesting read. I never knew that there was such a “problem” with animation/animations in the US.

    Here in Germany many if not most use the word “Zeichentrick” (also “Trickfilm”) to name 2D animation of any kind. Roughly translated it would mean “drawing trick” in English. Personally I don’t like the word very much since it is always used for children and silly animation. In terms of 3D animation the term “Animation” is used.

    As for the terms I’d like to see that one day the terms of 2D animation are used in 3D too because they are very specific and helpful. By the way: Do you know if there was ever a similar wording situation in classic 2D animation (no terms, wrong terms, one term for all)? I figure that it must have taken some time to create the terms used today.

  7. Kevin Says:

    Alonso, no worries about the frequent comments. I love feedback — that’s a good part of why I’m doing this. You raise a great point about the software terminology driving some of this (as with the ‘tweening’ example from Flash). But as you say, when the words come to mean something slightly different, then lots of great reference material becomes almost incomprehensible. Hence this post!

    DJ, no worries either. I just hope I don’t sound too much like a curmudgeon right now!

    MM, I wouldn’t say it’s a “problem,” just an unnecessary annoyance. One of the cool things about any highly specialized field is you get your own ‘insider’ jargon, and I wanted to clarify some of that jargon.

    That’s really interesting about the terminology in Germany. I had no idea. There’s a lot of power in the words we use, and it seems a shame if hand-drawn animation gets trivialized as a ‘trick.’

    And yes, though I wasn’t around in those days (haha), I know that as the animators of the ’20’s and ’30’s invented the field (or reinvented it after McCay), they had to also invent the tools and techniques and terminology. But there were relatively few people in the field then, and they were all concentrated in just a couple of places, so I don’t think there was a big problem with people using different terms for the same thing. It would be interesting to hear if animators on the east coast, at say Fleischer Studios, had to relearn terminology if they came to work at Disney’s in the ’30’s. I do know there were significant differences in work styles (top pegs vs. bottom pegs, approach to acting, etc.), but I don’t know if there was different terminology. In any event, I think within a relatively short time everyone in the industry was on the same page with the terms.

  8. David Says:

    Good overview of the peculiar nomenclature of traditional animation. Thanks especially for doing your bit to eradicate the term “tweening” or “tweens” . I guess it’s spilling over from Flash , but when talking about traditional hand-drawn animation the term is inbetweening , as you correctly point out.

  9. Kevin Says:

    Hi, Dave, and thanks. I think it might be fighting a losing battle, but fight we must! 😉

  10. Francis Says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I just found this post and it have interesting defenition in it ;p

    I was just wondering about the term “Secondary Key”… I read a lot of animation book, and I have nerver heard of that term. Did you invent it ?

    Thx, Francis.

  11. Charles James Says:

    I’m a video game programmer and I’m writing a new style of animation system at the moment, mainly for my own amusement.

    I wrote it all out, had a play around, got all pleased with myself, and then decided that it worked well enough to try and lay it out in a nice clean code library that I might even use on a future game.

    So, I clear the decks, do lots of diagrams on how it all fits together, and start writing it clean from scratch. This is the point where I will create lots of code objects that form the fundamentals of the system – everything will sit on top. I like to get the names right, especially in this early stage.

    Most coders won’t understand the implications of this as they’ll look at it as a purely technical excersise. They’ll use the industry standards, and they probably won’t realise how just the names of the systems they define in code will inform the evolution of the system itself, will alter the way they themselves think it should fit together, and will ultimately go on to dictate to some extent how the end user (the animator) will be forced to work with it.

    I could go on about that for a lot longer, I find it all very interesting from a code as well as a conceptual point of view, but I’ll spare you!

    Anyway, I do a little research on the internet about the history of animation naming conventions, and I end up here of course. And finally then I come to the point 🙂

    See, in the general computer animation case, and certainly in the games industry (and please forgive me if I state the obvious or labour the point too much), when we talk about “an animation”, we’re talking about a definable, reusable, block of movement definition to apply to a mesh or model. We apply this “animation” to our model, tell it where the playhead is in time, and the model takes on the pose defined in that animation for that time. So we see the word very much as referring to an item, a single unit. It’s deeply embedded in the entire system, and therefore our language, and of course the two go round and round and reinforce each other.

    We talk about the number of “animations” we’ll need to make a character be able to interact with it’s environment (run animations, walk animations, climbing, jumping, transitional animations, idles, etc, etc). A lot of the time we’ll be able to apply the same “animation” to mutliple different models – so in our case the movement definition is quite separate from the the actual visual representation of it, or the underlying character or model it produces.

    Now I like the idea of taking on some of the long evolved knowledge of the traditional animation industry, these words have come out of a combination of process and technique applied by decades of highly skilled and talented people. I’d like my new system to be informed by that and not just by the standard games industry convention. So give me a name for it all – words like “shot” and “scene” don’t make sense in the context of a video game – these words seem to refer mainly to transient visual events not recycled, possibly looping movements that can be applied interactively to multiple different models.

    I’m thinking along the lines of “cycle” or “sequence”. so Instead of “animations” I’d talk about animation cycles or sequences. But the problen then is that we have animation sequences already. Often in games we have a need to play a number of different animations consecutively to effect a state transition of some kind – like a character running to a halt, turning around, and running in the opposite direction. Cycle implies a loop, and sequence causes confusion because of our concept of an animation being a unit in itself.

    OK enough, I do go on a bit don’t I. But here’s a rough hierarchy of words I’d probably use by default if I didn’t want to bother thinkng about it. Maybe if we find more useful conventions we could slowly undermine the might of Maya and 3DS Max conventions. Or at least my new animation system might be imbued with a certain deep wisdom compared to others. The system is not very conventional so that would be a good thing, but that’s another very long story.

    An ACTOR is a model and a collection of:
    ANIMATION SETS, which are sequences of:
    ANIMATIONS, which are definable chunks of movement definition to be applied to the actor’s model, and are made up of:
    FRAMES of animation, each of which is a snapshot inside the animation used to pose the model, and which are dervied from:
    KEY FRAMES, each of which marks an apex of movement within the whole animation

    In my case the key thing is the interactivity. It’s probably that more than anything that undermines the traditional conventions.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch