One nice and easy way to get some loosening up is to not have everything hit on the same frame, which is contrary to everything I have said so far.
But that organization served it's purpose and now it's time to back off from that rigidity. Up to this point, we have hit our poses solid.
Every part of the body comes to hit the pose at the same time. That's not natural. So we need to shuffle things a bit. Here's a look at some dopeSheet screen grabs that show how I like to do this...
I'll grant you that my approach is a bit formulaic, but again, we're working outwards toward our goal, from organized structure at first into disorganized life in the end. So for offsets I'll shuffle my head from my spine and my spine from my hips to have the torso of the body sorta flow into a pose. Depending if I want the motion to lead with the hips or the head will determine which way I'll offset my keys. Sometimes I'll shuffle some keys and things will look awkward for a certain pose or transition.
That's OK, I can shuffle them back for that spot. It's a cheap way to get rid of that robotic feel of pose to pose.
I'll offset the hand's rotation to occur a frame after the hand hits in place. Now this is assuming an IK arm set up (as I used here).
Since the hand controls where the arm will swing as well as the hand rotation, it's a good idea to break this up so it looks less like a marionette being pulled by the wrists. Alot of folks don't like using IK arms. I used to hate 'em, but got used to making them look OK after some work. I know Rick May is a fan of the IK arm, for those keeping score at home. As far as I can tell the key to having IK arms look decent seems to be in good breakdowns, careful observation of arcs and offsetting hand rotations from IK handle translation. If I were using an FK arm, I'd offset the lower arm a frame from the upper arm and the hand a frame from the lower arm, allowing the arm to have a sort of unfolding overlap, the "successive breaking of joints" kind of feel.
Again, with IK I'll do it with breakdowns and offsets. In general, anyways. Again, where it looked funky I'd step back and not do it there. These are just cheats, not rules. The only rule is the animation: does it look good?
If yes, then the cheat is good. If not, then the cheat is evil.
Oh, one more thing, I offset both arm animations to get rid of twinning in my pose hits. Just in case anybody cares.
Here's what it looks like after all that offsetting and shuffling....
Smoother, but not quite loose enough for what I'd like this to be. By the way, this is about as loose as it gets for us at work. After this I'd be ready to run a smoothed fcurve spline filter on the curves and be on to lipsync and grabbing my next assignment.
The style of our show is pretty tight, which fits the deadlines. For my own stuff at home I sometimes like to explore loosening things up a bit more.
Kill Mr. Roboto!
Here's where things get a little less formulaic for me and I start to rely on experience and a good eye for animation. The deleting of keys.
Many a young animator struggles with having too many keys. Especially if they're just going straight ahead. After awhile they don't know what they're looking at anymore (at least I didn't back then). The solution for me was to key smartly. But in the pose to pose world, the problem is it can be TOO organized, things can be too structured. What's needed is some good old fashioned editing.
I try and look at the spine mostly. I found that alot of the rigidness in my work comes from the spine being too tight.
So I'll go in there and shuffle things around, deleting keys and some breakdowns here and there. I'll also try having
a lower spine control not settle into the pose until almost near the end of the hold. Sometimes I'll have the head take
longer, or somesuch. This is the massaging part of animation that is very difficult to define as a step or a process.
So here's a look at a close up of the dope sheet and the corresponding animation change that goes with the edit.
It's a very subtle effect, but when you do this for the whole shot, it really starts to loosen things up and defeating that robotic feel. And remember, this is still all with linear keyframes. There's no ease in or ease out from key to key.
The plus side of this is that when the time comes to start adding ease in and out by switching the fCurves over to spline interpolation and then filtering the tangencies, you're not in for any surprises. Oh, one last thing here: I took the time to really tweak the whole hip/weight transfer flow in the part where he kicks the fallen tablet out of the way. This again is something that you just need to use your animator's eye to spot and fix. This is the place where I try to address anything that really needs fixing, before going into spline curves.
Now I'm ready to switch the fCurves from straight linear interpolation to a spline interpolation with edited/filtered curve tangencies at the keyframes.
Here's a quickie peek at the curves for one control object...
What this is going to do is really smooth out alot of the remaining jerkiness of the animation. Pose hits have ease to them, transition breakdowns have some flavor besides straight through. There's no surprises here, I'm not really adding anything new, but I'm taking what I already have and applying this neat smoothing to it all. It's like icing on an already pretty tasty cake. The trick is to not violate the extremes as they have been defined already. Spline interpolation by default tends to overshoot the holds, really making things sloppy. So I try and keep the holds pretty tight with a minimum of overshoot, while the keys in the middle transition areas are pretty smooth. Now if I wanted, I could go through each control object and delete select keys in the middle of curve transitions to make things smoother, and I may yet do that for this piece. Generally if I want to loosen things up even more I'll do it in the fCurve editor by deleting some frames along the curve that are hitching the motion a little bit. But by and large the amount of return for that amount of effort will be minor.
Still, if you want the absolute best animation you can get, then that's a step worth taking in my opinion. Like I said, I didn't do that for this piece as it is seen here.
Here's the motion with the spline ease curve interpolation...
The animation of the body is pretty much done here. Like I said, I could go in and tweak it more. Since this is a personal clip and not for work, I may. That's the nice thing about personal pieces, no deadlines and no quotas. Well, sometimes no deadlines. I did 3.25 minutes of animation in 7 weeks for my short film "Lunch".
As you can see, THAT had a deadline and this method helped me meet it.
The Final Result (well, final enough anyway)
And one last look at the final with lipsync and eye/facial animation....
I'd go into the eye and lipsync animation, but that's another subject in and of itself. Suffice it to say, there's some little cheats I use there as well, but nothing earth shattering.
For the ultra curious, I have made a side by side comparison of the preview animations as they progressed. The way it works is this:
pop1 vs. pop2
pop2 vs. Linear
Linear vs. Cleaned Up Linear
Cleaned Up Linear vs. Linear Offset
Linear Offset vs. Splined Curves
Splined Curves vs. Final Animation
So there you have it, one guy's way of working through animation. As stated earlier, I'd welcome any feedback or discussion.
Sharing techniques and methods can only help us all. I don't pretend to be the world's greatest animator, nor to impose that my way is the right way. But folks have expressed interest and I figured it couldn't hurt to open up my brain and share some of how I work to get my job done and still try and make halfway decent looking stuff.
Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to go through all of this.
To those who's feedback has made my stuff better through the years:
Mike Comet, Mark Behm, Rob Dollase, Ron Smith, Tim Lannon, Rick May, Chris Bailey, Victor Navone, Doug Dooley, Ethan Hurd, Angie Jones, Steve Talkowski, John Goodman, Julian Love, Bear Weiter, Wes Houghton and a host of others I'm probably forgetting. Thanks also to my wife Kim, bless her heart she puts up with me and this silly
idea of being an animator for a living. Poor girl could have married a dentist....
About the author
Keith Lango is an assistant director/animation director for the "3-2-1 Penguins!" children's video series
produced by Big Idea Productions in Chicago, IL. Keith has also produced/directed a number of award winning short films and has been an avid student of the art, craft and profession of animation since 1993.
He also hopes to age well like a fine cheese.