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The Basics of Animation Timing

Animation timing is one of the toughest skills to learn...and yet one of the most vital if one's animation is going to take on that elusive illusion of life. Here Gene Deitch lays down the basics.

An excerpt from Gene Deitch's book, How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

From Self-Defense For Cowards. © Rembrandt Films.

From Self-Defense For Cowards. © Rembrandt Films.

The best thing I could do to teach you how to make animated movies would just be to help you find your own way.

There are unnumbered ways to make animation. The only limit is your own imagination. When I was a young animator, in 1949, a mindless "veteran" of 10 years in the craft said to me, "Gene, when you've been in the business as long as I have, you'll know you can't get away with those kinds of crazy ideas!"

A lot of my "crazy ideas" of those days are already old-fashioned ideas today. I'm well over 55 years in the craft and I know that "crazy ideas" are what keep us all alive!

But there are some rules that do stay. They are basic to any kind of film or video animation. If you can learn just the basic rules of how to harness the technology that gives the illusion of life to still drawings or objects, and how to string together individual shots and scenes to tell a story, or create a homogeneous, meaningful sequence or mood, then you can use these rules in your own personal way.

Timing Is Everything

The whole thing about making animated movies is to somehow find a way to always keep in your mind the amount of time any action is going to play on the screen. You will of course be working incredibly slowly in comparison to the time your drawings, models, images, or whatever, will actually be seen. The one rule you cannot break is that 24 individual pictures go whizzing by on the screen each and every second. (In Europe, where 50 cycles per second is the electrical standard, the video and TV projection rate is 25 frames per second. The difference is visually undetectable. 24 frames per second is the internationally standard film projection rate, except for special presentation systems, such as IMAX.)

If you are going to make drawings, or move objects that will be registered one phase at a time, then each drawing or each phase of movement, has to have a number that indicates on which frame of film, or sector of tape, disk or memory chip, it will be registered.

But how are you going to know which drawing goes with which frame or frames? Well, the answer to that will make the difference whether your movie will just move or whether it will seem to live!

The Process

I can tell you how to find the answer gradually. You have to start with the idea that you are an actor, a mime. You will need to have a stopwatch for timing. Nearly every cheap digital watch usually has a stopwatch feature.

Just as the strip of film or videotape records 24 individual images per second, so can each story or action be broken down into sections, which we can call sequences, scenes, shots, actions, bits of action, or poses. When you are planning your movie, you will gradually break it down into smaller and smaller bits. You can do all of these things by acting it all out with a stopwatch; doing it over and over again until you are sure that it has just the timing you want. When you get it right you must write down the timings into finer and finer bits. This usually is done on forms called exposure or "dope" sheets, with lines representing each phase.

You can then create the images of the key positions of the character or object you are animating. The key positions, or "poses," are the main "way-stations" along the line of action, from the beginning to the end, of the scene you are animating. The phase numbers assigned to these key poses are attached to specific film or tape frames, and establish the basic "acting" and timing of the scene. To connect those poses, "in-between" images must be filled in, so that there will be a phase or position on each and every filmframe. This may seem simple, but improper inbetweens can completely destroy the best animation. Invisible arcs connect one pose with another. The inbetween images must follow those arcs. But that is just one aspect of proper inbetweens. The spacing of the inbetweens is where either "living" or mechanistic movement is achieved. It must be the animator who indicates the spacing, with little pips marked along the arcs. Wider or closer spacing will make the action faster or slower, because the projection speed is constant. The deftly spaced phases of action become a counterpoint, a shifting obbligato to the rock-steady ostinatto of the projection speed. Therein is the illusion of life!

Want to read more career advice from Gene? Then check out his book How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!). An AWN exclusive.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946 and the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon "renaissance" of 1956-1958. He was also: Animation Department Chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951, Creative Chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954, Director at John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc. New York, 1955, President of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. New York, 1958-1960, Creative Director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968, and star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993. He has worked for over 40 years with the Prague animation studio, "Bratri v Triku."