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Teach Yourself Animation - The Art of Timing

How do I learn animation? For those with a school nearby and some time on their hands, it’s no problem. But for those with limited options, here are some resources to help teach yourself animation. This post covers the art of timing.

Since I’m mostly self-taught, I’ve been asked more than a few times by would-be animators, “How do I learn animation?” For those with a school nearby and some time on their hands, it’s no problem. But for those with limited options - my situation when I first started out in animation - I’ve assembled some resources for teaching oneself the fundamentals of animation. 

While these invaluable resources are no substitute for the classroom experience and a good teacher - what is especially missing is personal feedback and group exchange - together these bits and pieces could constitute a basic course in animation. The only additional requirement is the means (software or camera, etc.) to create frame-by-frame imagery. 

I’ll state at the outset that my bias is toward hand drawn animation. There are lots of software applications on the market, ranging from fully dedicated animation packages down to the simplest of image painting software. I do recommend that you have, at the least, a software programme that allows for onion skin or light table functions so you can see previous and/or next frames while drawing the current frame. The software will also need to have the capacity to play movie, and have frame forward and frame back functions.

I look forward to covering the tools in an upcoming post, but today let's focus on the fundamentals of timing for animation.

A good joke falls flat without the right timing. A wonderful character can be destroyed by an actor’s weak timing. And so it is with animation.

Timing is fundamental to creating believable motion, and believable emotion. Moments of motivation and reaction can be presented with the same action, but the nuances of timing alter the action's meaning and how we, the audience, receive that meaning in light of the narrative or plot line. Understanding how to time motion is an essential skill in the animator’s carpet bag of tricks.

I've often paraphrased Normand McLaren's words: Animation is more about what goes on between the frames than what happens on the frames. As McLaren explains it in his films on animated motion (see below), the key to the art of timing is in knowing how much and what kind of difference should exist between one frame and the next.

Screen shot from Norman McLaren: Animated Motion Part 1. Courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

Film Resources

Norman McLaren worked for years at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) where he had free reign to experiment with all forms of imagery in motion, working alongside other wonderfully creative individuals and without commercial restraints. 

Among the hundreds of films that he produced between 1933 and 1983 were 22 animations whose theme was The Art of Motion. These are mostly very short films in which he and fellow animator Grant Munro present and classify the fundamental principles of frame-by-frame animation. 

While all of his films are worth watching (many can be found in library collections) these 22 are particularly important to learning the principles of animated motion. 

Currently the finest resource for Norman McLaren’s work is Norman McLaren: The Master’s Edition.

This collection of 7 DVDs comprises all of McLaren’s films; in other words it’s a comprehensive suite of all 300 or so films ranging from his earliest productions in 1933 right through to his last film completed in 1983. Each film has been lovingly restored by the NFB so it looks as close to the original production as possible. Random marks and dust have been removed and the colours are fully restored. It’s a delicious collection, an essential resource, and you’ll likely refer back to it for years. At $99 it’s a bargain and certainly less expensive than 7 books on animation. 

A second NFB resource worth looking at is Caroline Leaf’s Hand-Crafted Cinema: Animation Workshops with Caroline Leaf. The DVD includes two distinct productions: an animation workshop given by Caroline Leaf on the process of painting directly under the camera (she uses the mediums of sand, and paint on glass). Produced by the workshop’s host school, Griffith University in Australia, viewers have a front row seat in viewing Leaf’s process, including how she times out a sequence. (The second production, a 13 minute experimental film, is not as educational but interesting none-the-less.)

By the way, if you have a favourite NFB film that you’ve always wanted to own, or if you are looking for examples of excellent animated films in order to study their development frame-by-frame, head over to the NFB’s store. If you’re not familiar with their rich holdings, begin with universal favourites like The Cat Came Back  by Cordell Barker, The Big Snit by Richard Condie, and Black Fly by Christopher Hinton.

Reasonably priced compilation DVDs Animation Greats (eight Oscar nominees and winners) and Animation Greats Collection (double DVD with 18 of the NFB’s best known shorts) are sure bets.

The Film Board also makes many of their individual productions both freely available on the web and as downloads for a small fee (SD format is about $1.95 and HD format is about $3.95). 

The NFB free web versions of the films (under Genre, check Animated film) are, of course, lower resolution than the downloads or the DVDs, and the default NFB player doesn’t allow for frame-by-frame viewing so you can’t study the motion in detail. But for access to hundreds among the best of animated films, and to see how the NFB animators have visualized their stories, there is no easily accessible resource equal to that of the NFB.

Book Resources

Among my favourite books, Timing for Animation (Focal Press), by Harold Whitaker and John Halas ranks high. Originally written in 1981 (and newly revised in 2009) this slim volume presents a thorough analysis of the many kinds of timing issues one encounters in producing a narrative style animated film. Timing on Bar Sheets, Movement and Caricature, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Objects Thrown Through the Air, Timing a Slow Action, Timing a Fast Action, Timing to Suggest Weight and Force... these are only a few of the many chapters included. A well compiled manual, it’s an old and current favourite.

Richard Williams’ book The Animator’s Survival Kit (Faber & Faber) is another of my go-to favourites. Heavier in every way than the Whitaker-Halas book, this comprehensive manual is a superb, in-depth resource. Williams offers us a multitude of detailed examples, and all of the principles are described thoroughly, primarily through visuals rather than text. This book alone would certainly comprise a fundamental textbook for any course on animation.

As an aside, Williams recently enlarged this already substantial tome. The first edition is probably available at a lower cost from a second-hand book shop or online book dealer like Is it worth the extra money to purchase the updated version? I’ve only had a look at the contents page but it may well be worth the extra few dollars to get the new edition. Additions include chapters on animating dogs, birds, and horses, and on the occasionally neglected but extremely important issue of life drawing for animation.

The Animator's Workbook: Step-By-Step Techniques of Drawn Animation (Watson-Guptill) by Tony White was the first book I used to teach myself animation. The chapter titled Inbetweening offers an excellent overview on how to time a motion through analyzing where the inbetweens go. Offering fewer examples than the Whitaker-Halas book, and certainly fewer than the Williams book, it is well worth the purchase price if you are serious about trying your hand at the genre but aren’t yet ready to get in too deep.

Animation Unleashed, (Michael Wiese Productions) the all inclusive go-to animation text by Ellen Besen, has one chapter fully devoted to timing. Covering essentials such as Varying the Pace, Effective Pauses, Timing and Mood, it is more basic than the three books listed above but covers what you need to get started.

Two additional books I’ve found helpful are Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (Knopf), and Walter Murch’s own book In the Blink Of An Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing (Silman-James Press). Both are addressed to live action filmmakers but offer fascinating insights into the timing of cuts and transitions, information which can apply equally to animation.

That pretty well covers my resources for learning how to time out animation - lots of options both visual and text based. Wishing you a lot of fun with it - playing with timing is the best part of the animation learning curve!