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How To Succeed in Animation

Chapter 3: Animation For Dummies

OK, here’s where Deitch the teacher addresses a classroom of wannabes, laying down the basics. If you can’t get this stuff into your head, you might as well go into another line of work.

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 yesterdays’ ideas today.    I worked well over half-a-century 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 movie 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.

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 in standard cinema, 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 has long been the internationally standard projection rate, except for special presentation systems, such as IMAX.)

If you are going to make drawings or objects that appear to move on a screen, you will have to register a series of images, one phase at a time, on some form of image capturing device, exactly numbered, that will allow them to be played back at a rate of speed faster than human persistence of vision.  That, in a techie nutshell is the essence of movie animation

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!

I can tell you how to gradually find the answer. You have to start with the idea that you are an actor, a mime. You will need to have a stopwatch for timing.

Just as any movie application records a standard number 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 enter the timings into finer and finer bits. This usually is done on paper forms called exposure sheets or the virtual forms on computer animation applications, with lines representing each phase of the action.

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 frame or phase numbers assigned to these key poses are attached to specific film or digital 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 specific phase of the desired action on each and every recorded frame. 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!

There is another way to animate - actually the original way in the development of cinema animation, and that is "straight-ahead" animation - just making one drawing at a time, without predetermined poses along the way. An individual animator, making a movie alone, may get away with this, (an indeed it can be more fun), but it is not practical in a studio situation, involving assistant animators and inbetweeners. Straight-ahead animation requires a lot of advance thought to be sure you know where you're going! It is useful in purely fanciful animation, with changing shapes and bizarre graphics. Which method would be the best for you will require experimentation and experience, and will vary according to the requirements of the project you’re doing.

How to animate? (How to build a house?)

Every job can be broken down into steps.

Have a plan. Think ahead. Make sure every action is in accordance with the plan.

When you animate a scene in a story film, know what comes before your scene, and what comes after it. Make sure your action fits into the continuity. Know the character. How is he, she, or it is supposed to think and act? Find the character’s idiosyncrasies. How would the character walk, move?

Are there some special gestures, body attitudes, quirks, disabilities, facial expressions you can build on? The recorded voice — (if there is dialog) — is a strong impetus to an animation key. Make sure every move is in character.

Whether we call it film, movies, screenplay, cinema, video, documentary, polemic, graphic exhibit, or whatever, it is my feeling that root idea for any dramatic sound and light presentation in a darkened room goes all the way back to our human beginnings; that it actually fulfills humankind's earliest artistic and storytelling cravings. I had a friend, Alexander Marshack, who once was a photographer for LIFE magazine, and then an early TV director, who became a foremost expert on the beginnings of human art and graphic communication... He traces art back at least 35,000 years. His story was told in National Geographic magazine.

What interested me greatly about his work was what he discovered and postulated about the cave paintings of Europe. First of all he reminds us of the weird feeling we have when inside a cave. If you've ever been inside a large cave, you'll know this feeling. And if you've ever been deep inside a cave and turned off your light, you will know what dark is!  It is a total blackness and quiet we can experience in no other way, especially with the deathly feeling of being under tons of rock.

Alex Marshack pointed out that all those beautiful paintings we know of have been created maybe a half-mile deep inside the caves. Why did those early artists do that when it must have been enormously difficult for them?

It certainly proves that they were able to produce light. Hollowed stones have been found inside the caves, which were probably oil lamps. They also had to be able to bring in drawing and painting utensils, to make scaffolding, and to mix colors on the spot.

Flattened areas of stone have been found with enough residues to indicate they were used as palettes. It can be assumed that they did not drag all those animals in there to use as models! Yet these paintings are marvelous examples of drawing skill by any standard. These were trained artists! What is especially fascinating to an animator is seeing that many of the drawings were attempts to convey an image ofmotion!

But this was a time of primitive and exceedingly difficult life, when just staying alive and hunting for food were the predominate needs. But yet they felt it necessary to support "professional" artists! From this we have to assume that these so-called cave men had a more advanced social organization than we might have thought, and that they were able to bring in a surplus of food, and that not every man or woman had to spend full time scrabbling for existence - that societies 35,000 years ago could support and train artists!!!  Why??

All of these deductions by Alexander Marshack got me to thinking that these people had a culture and a lore they wished to preserve, to pass on - a need to tell stories!  It struck me: Could there be a more imprinting way for those people to inculcate their youth with the legends and lore of the community, than to lead them into the icy vast darkness of a cave, to a deep, forbidding gallery, always the one that was the most sound resonant, (Cave-age Dolby Surround sound!), and in flickering oil lamp light, illuminating wondrous images, tell the tribal tales, in an atmosphere of guaranteed attention? Could it have been the first "cinema" presentation!

We can see that though the technology of animation has changed a bit in the last 35,000 years, the aim is the same: to tell stories in the most dramatic, riveting, and attention-holding way we can. Technical advancements come thick and fast in our times, but we mustn't let them rule our work as a thing unto themselves. Technology is an ever-evolving tool, but our use of it must always be the same: to tell our story!

If you learn anything, learn to keep the clarity of what you are saying, or the gag you are presenting. Don't fall victim to the mannerisms of the moment and let the technique smother your story!

In our art/craft of animation, in order to truly win our audiences hearts, we should aim not just to make our characters move, but to make them live — or certainly seem to live — to project an inner life, that motivates their actions and make those actions plausible. I wish I could say that I ever truly accomplished that!

I was a UPA man at heart. I have always valued strong stories and humanity, but I had other goals as well, guided by graphics, symbols, and stylization.  My successes nicely balanced my failures. I have grown in my understanding of what animation is all about. Our audience is made up of humans. We must of course respond to human expectations, but we can also deftly attempt to widen those expectations!  That was risky, and that’s my commercial failures were, but also my most satisfying endeavors!

When I became a director, and entered a studio engaged in producing films under my direction, I couldn’t escape a certain moment of panic. "My God!    All these people are working on something that is my conception!  What if I'm wrong? They were all trusting their livelihood to the notion that I knew what I'm doing!"  I always had to believe in what I was doing!

What does a director do? If you've sat through the end-credits of an animated feature film, you know that what we do is a (large) group effort.  Sure, you would love to think up, write, design, animate, paint, voice, shoot, composite, and edit your own film... Great!  Maybe you will win a prize in a major festival after four to six years of work, possibly being financed by a grant, but more likely from your career as a McDonalds fry cook. But if you actually want to earn a living in animation, you will have to find your place in a studio, and your place in the complex interplay of many talents.

A good animated film is a deft amalgam of many talents and crafts. But a good animated film must look like it’s the work of one hand. That is what a director does!  The director is the one with the responsibility for the overall vision, and he or she is the one who must know what goes in, and what is discarded, the one who holds the production to a straight line. Without a director's clear vision and firm hand, the movie will wander all over the lot.

A good animation director should basically know how to do, or at least understand the place, of all the elements of the movie, and strive to keep them all in balance, not letting any one element dominate, and have his or her eye and ear at all times centered on the story being told, the premise being proved, and the point being made.

How you do it is the step-by-step approach. Analyze the action. Act it out physically if you can, or at least in your mind. Have a stopwatch in your hand. First, time the overall action. Often you will be given an exact scene-length by the director. Then, step by step, break down the action into logical sections and bits. Your rough drawings or computer positions will then be anchored to exact frame numbers. In your scene, you will have a precise number of film or video frames.

The fact that your scene will be shown at the constant rate of 24 or 25 frames per second is what makes animation possible. Think of that steady frame rate as your (very fast!) rhythm section. What you will do with your animation poses and spacing against this steady frame rate is your counterpoint. Closely spaced phases of motion will appear to move slower when played back, and widely spaced phases will appear to move faster. Here is your basic animation tool in a nutshell: You are doing a counterpoint to a steady beat!

From "Self-Defense For Cowards" ©Rembrandt Films

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