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Observation, Observation, Observation...

One of the most important things about being an animator is being able to notice physical and emotional actions in people. Animation Foundation have some thoughts on how you can do this.

To become a successful animator, it is imperative that you are continually aware of things happening around you. Animation is a craft that requires a heightened awareness of physical and emotional actions of people, animals, children, machines, and anything else we are trying to recreate. By adding observations of the surrounding world to your scenes you will bring a sense of reality and subtlety that will make your characters come to life.

Imagine you are writing a term paper or research report on a subject that you know very little about. If you write the paper without researching the subject it won't be as effective as it could have been if you had spent the time learning about the topic. Unfortunately many animators begin animating a scene in much the same way. They set keyframes almost blindly and relentlessly shape and reshape what they have already created until they get what they want. This not only results in poor and lifeless animation but will usually take a lot more time and effort to get it there.

As professional animators, we routinely choose from at least three different sources to get inspiration for the scenes we're beginning to animate. This first stage of creating a shot is one of the most critical parts of the entire animation process. We won't even think about setting keyframes until we've looked at some sort of reference. We generally reference from existing video of live action or animation, videotaped action of ourselves by observing the specific action we are looking for. In most cases it is a combination of all three of the techniques that give us a better idea of how to animate our scenes. In a recent interview with Animation Foundation, Bobby Beck had some great ideas about the importance of referencing and capturing the natural essence of people in an unspoiled form. He likes to set-up a video camera in a restaurant or public place and film people in these settings. Since these people are not actors all of the movements are absolutely real and unrehearsed. This is a great way to get reference that is true to reality and it can add a lot of realism to your characters. (see the entire interview at

Let's create an example of how this process is put through its paces during an animated production. An animation supervisor assigns a shot involving a character watching an intense basketball game. The team he is rooting for has just scored a basket to win the game and our character is cheering with excitement. That's all we get, just a little back story and the characters motivation. We have to create the rest.

The first thing to do is sit down and think of films that have similar action. We prefer to look for a variety of sources including animation and live action from film and television. Animated resources are great for timings and exaggerated poses while live action often provides those extra subtleties that are sometimes missed when we are just observing. Video also allows us to break down an action that is moving faster than our eyes can perceive.

For this particular shot we found some great animation reference in "A Bugs Life." One scene in particular is of the grasshoppers cheering for the circus. Although it is not a basketball game it gives us some idea of how other animators approached creating an excited character. After looking through the animated scenes, we viewed some footage of NBA basketball games. Although we expected to look primarily at the crowd, we found the most interesting reference in the actions of the players standing near the bench. The dramatic nature of these games and the impact on the players lives made these reactions very natural. It was obvious the players were genuinely excited about an event that took place so this was a good resource for our scene.

This first process of observation was extremely beneficial. However, to take it a step further we decided to shoot some reference of ourselves performing the scene. This would allow us to roll the different actions that we studied into one concise performance that we could control. In staging the shot the way we want we can choose the location of the camera and we can cater our performance specifically to our scene.

We used a simple 8mm video camera and set it up against a blank wall. Remember the quality of the image is irrelevant, so you don't have to go out and spend thousands of dollars. A cheap camera will work and many large electronics stores have great ones for under 400 dollars. We set the camera to record and began to practice the action. It's best to work through the shot many times and be as loose as possible. It's understandable that it can be intimidating to act and for the first few attempts your actions will probably be unnatural. Just relax, by doing the action many times you will develop a comfort level with the camera and provide you with multiple takes to study from.

Movie 1 shows some of the performances that we liked best. These two clips put together have some nice subtleties that we will try to implement into the scene. Mike has a couple of jumps then some nice pumps with his arms. We will study the reference for timings and poses and use it to get a better sense of how the body is behaving. In this case we made some quick thumbnails that illustrate some the key poses and their corresponding frame numbers. This is a big step in being able to translate the reference we shot to the video. One important thing to remember about looking at reference, is that it is just reference. We're not in the business of copying or rotoscoping so we just use this footage as a basis for information about a specific action. Timing generally doesn't translate directly from live action to animation and poses and actions usually have to be exaggerated.

Movie 2 shows the resulting animation. When animating this shot, we basically turned up the volume on most all of the actions. The jumps are significantly higher, the poses more exaggerated, and the timing is considerably faster. We had to take these liberties in order to create an action that was "over the top." Copying the poses and the timings directly from the reference would have resulted in a mediocre piece of animation.... and the last time we checked no one likes mediocre animation.

The process of observation is a critical step in animation. Take the time and make it a integral part of your daily life. In the end your scenes will be more believable and the results will happen much faster. Well leave you with a great quote from Walt Disney.

"In sum - an animator must be a student of everything that might or does exist. From the shiver of a blade of grass - affected by an invisible breeze - to the behaviour of a starving hobo eating the first steak he has had in years. From a baby, tentatively trying to walk for the first time - to an elephant doing a can-can."

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.