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Taking the Computer out of Computer Animation

Students of animation often forget the difference between setting keyframes and animating. Learn how to create animation with life-like motion and emotion.

Many of us are enjoying the art form of animating on the computer. No longer are expensive cameras and stacks of drawing paper needed to complete a vision of animated character. For a few hundred bucks we can strive to join the ranks of Pixar or Disney and create our own animated film. With this freedom however we often forget that the computer like everything else that appears to save us time can create as many problems as it solves.

As easy as it is to find a cheap and suitable animation package, its just as easy to set a few keys frames. I see many young students and animators wholl set two or three keys then call home to their mom and say "Hey mom, Im an animator." With that being said we simply state SETTING KEYFRAMES DOES NOT MAKE YOU AN ANIMATOR. Animation is the study of motion and emotion. Its creating a convincing character that the audience loves or hates. The computer allows animators to do this very well as evidenced by some of the great computer animated films and characters that have come out in the last few years. But not surprisingly the ease at which artists can make characters move is creating a lot of animation that lacks those necessary qualities that makes animation great.

We at Animation Foundation have come together to help animators bypass these common hurdles. We have set out to combine a mixture of traditional animation principles with innovative ways of thinking in order to implement these fundamentals into this ever expanding technology. Over the next few months well be discussing various techniques and tips to help create stronger characters, more believable actions, stronger stories and various other items dealing with the world of animation.

We would like to start this month's article off by talking about the pitfalls of computer generated animation. As the months go by well cover some of the topics discussed this month in greater detail. Lets begin, however, by discussing how the computer can control our animation and in doing so, it can create something that lacks life and believability.

As many of you know, when we set keyframes in our animation software the program interpolates the actions between them. Basically, the "computer" is acting as an in-betweener. This sounds great doesn't it? We can set a few poses then hit the render button and everything is moving around. Were animating right? Not so fast.

This is where the computer starts to take control over the decisions WE should be making. The machine wants to create those in-between poses, but its not considering things like physics or motion and it is certainly not smart enough to understand human emotion. Its basically doing what computer's do best... its finding the fastest way to solve the equation. It's moving our characters from point A to point B as well as it knows how. This more often than not isnt the result we are looking for.

Lets look at an example of this. We have chosen to animate a generic head turn. The character is going to look from left to right as if following a car thats zooming by. Lets set an initial pose keyframe, an ending pose keyframe. Image 1. If we just take those two positions and let the computer in-between for us, well get an animation that looks like Movie 1. The resulting path of the computers interpolation is basically a straight line. As you can see, the motion looks very rigid and stiff. The computers in-between poses lack a sense of weight and the necessary arcs needed to make the character feel more like a human being.

Image 1. To view the animated version of this image click here (Movie 1).

Now lets fix this scene. Concentrate on watching the arc the character makes. As a reminder or in case you didnt know, everything thats organic or natural moves in arcs or circular motions. Without these arcs, characters feel mechanical and stiff. Even though its hard to detect arcs when analyzing your own motion, believe us... there are arcs everywhere in almost every motion that you see. Only rigid objects like machines will move in a linear fashion. By concentrating on creating arcs you will clearly understand how different the computer is from your in-between process. Take the time to let the computer do it the wrong way to gain a better understanding of how to animate the correct way.

Lets take similar beginning and ending poses and begin to break down the in-betweens how WE want them to be. The first additional pose that Ill set is shown in Image 2. This middle key (orange pose) will help give the character its initial arc as it swings from left to right. This first pose will get us closer to achieving the desired arc, but a few other poses will be necessary to really get the desired look.

Image 2. To see the animated version, click here (Movie 2).

As I study my performance in front of a mirror and on the reference video Ive shot, I notice that theres small rise in my body before I make the big motion to the right. My path is going to take a small loop on the left side of the action then swoop down to the middle pose, then loop again as the action completes. This action is similar to that of a figure eight. Weve created an image with a path that represents the path of action that our character has taken. Once again, Im moving the body outside of the motion the computer is creating. Ill continue with this process until the character is swinging in a natural and realistic way. Don't forget its important to pay attention to all parts of the body. The head, chest, hips, and arms will all move in different arcs and all move at different times.

All in all, the general rule to animating effectively on the computer is that it is better to set MORE than LESS keyframes to create something that will come alive. This is not to say that you need to go crazy and have all the controllers or joints of your character keyframed at every frame. We are simply pointing out that in order to create animation people will respond to, be conscious of what YOU can do to create that believability. Be vigilant in your approach to keyframing. By the time you are finished with a scene, all of the choices in how your character is animated are controlled by your own decisions. Once you begin to implement this approach into your animation you will begin to create characters that even your mom would be proud of.... and then and only then.... can you call her and say that you are an animator. Good luck.

Kyle Clark and Michael Ford are Co-founders of Animation Foundation. Animation Foundation provides information about advanced animation techniques and assisting student animators in developing and improving their abilities. We offer a multitude of services including animation seminars, training materials, curriculum development and consulting. Kyle and Mike currently work as character animators at Industrial Light and Magic and have worked on numerous feature film and commercial projects.

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