December 2002 Update: Since first posting this material, I have adapted and grown in my own animation workflow and quality expectations. I wanted to reflect some of these lessons learned in this online article. Since it was first posted this article has been used in schools, universities and animation programs around the world. Additionally it has been noted as a resource for animators in animation studios and game companies and translated into a few foreign languages. In light of the responsibility of portraying information accurately, I have endeavored to update this article with the things I've learned since first writing it. You can see the updates in blue, as I've written here.
Over the past year or two folks have often asked me how I go about my animation. In recent months much interest has arisen in various internet circles regarding a method of animation that is called "pose testing" or "pose to pose". I recall first trying my hand at this method of animating about 2 years ago at the suggestion of Rick May, and have found it to be a huge help in forcing me to approach animation in a more structured way. This has allowed me to produce more animation that is consequently stronger and more defined than anything I had done previously. As the years have passed I've come across others who have tried this way of working and adapted some of their ideas and techniques. In my circle of influence we have our own little way of approaching animation, and we call it "pop-thru" animation. Sometimes I'll refer to it as organized keyframing. In an effort to try and share some insights into this method of computer animation, I write this article/tutorial.
This is not "my idea".
Many other folks have had a hand in the maturation of this method. The techniques I describe here are merely my adaptation of this approach. And this technique is always evolving. I am absolutely positive that something I say here will not sit well with some animators. Which is fine. This is NOT an effort to say that this is the ONLY way to animate in 3d, but it is certainly a USEFUL way to animate in 3d. If I suggest something that you think is wrong or in error, or is a 'cheat' or sloppy, then please feel free to send me an e-mail outlining your thoughts. I'm still learning this craft we call animation, and I'm more than happy to hear other's thoughts on the subject.
If you want to take your animation to an even higher level, you're going to have to do more than just the straight forward steps outlined in this article. The techniques employed here will yield OK results for TV or video quality work. For something along the lines of feature film level of work, your deadlines will allow you to spend more time in the final massaging of your motion, as well as exploring different possibilities with offsetting the motion of certain parts of your character. Not every body part moves the same speed, so the simplistic offsets and breakdowns employed in this article are going to leave you short of the goal in something as highly defined as feature film quality animation. So while this article does include some useful techniques, it is by no means the end of the conversation when it comes to producing high quality animation.
A Little History & A Basic Definition
There has long been two general schools of approaching animation. Straight ahead and pose to pose. Straight ahead is what it sounds like: the animator just charges in and starts animating in a very stream of consciousness sort of way. This results in some genuinely inspired animation that flows extremely well. It also ends up in alot of dead ends and wasted effort when the animator realizes he's painted himself into a corner. Pose to pose animation is also much as it sounds, The animator picks some seminal poses that, when timed correctly, capture the energy and direction of the shot. The animator then will go and create these poses and hit the timings, working to deliver the shot with structure. This often times ends up with some of the most powerful animation with very strong poses and tight timing, distilling the animation down to the very core of it's being. It also often ends up looking stiff and mechanical and very stilted when the animator isn't careful to think about keeping things alive.
It needs to be said that the single greatest challenge to employing a pose-to-pose method as tightly as it is outlined in this article is that of keeping things from being too stiff. One of the greatest techniques for combating this stiffness is to break down your character's motion on an object by object basis. Starting from the hips out (the age old "layers" method) you need to look at your motion for arcs, consistency, hitches, glitches, force etc. By focusing on a single body part at a time, you force yourself to scrutinize every moving part of the body in order to work out all the kinks that a simplistic use of the pose-to-pose method can introduce. The second biggest challenge introduced by a simplistic use of the pose-to-pose methodology is a sense of everything hitting at the same time, or evenness. Simply offsetting the left arm a frame from the right does not significantly address the evenness issue. Instead you need to think more about what emphasis you want to place on which particular body part. It may serve the animation best to have a particular arm hit 12 frames before the rest of the body settles into a pose. Or it may serve it best to have the arm trail the rest by 18 frames. Or perhaps you want the head to lead the transition into a new pose and will start the head turning a good 10 frames before the torso follows. Or whatever. You have to think about the motion in a broader context than simply hitting a pose. Often the most powerful idea in animation is to choose a point of emphasis. Whatever doesn't ride along with the rest of the body is going to call attention to itself, and that is a very powerful technique that wasn't discussed in the original format of this article. Which is why I feel the need to address it here in an update.
In CGI animation, often times folks fall into two camps: realistic or "creature" animation and cartoony animation. Pose to pose, by it's strong nature, lends itself very well to cartoony animation, and straight ahead, due to it's fluidity lends itself very well to creature animation. But it would be a crime to say that there the boundaries lie and never shall they be violated. There's room for using a pose to pose approach in realistic animation, as long as the animator is careful to loosen things up enough in the end. And straight ahead animation works wonderfully for cartoons. Just watch some older Disney work to see this.
The term pop-thru is a stop-motion term that some of us have borrowed in CG. In stop-mo, there's not much of an "undo" feature, so the animator would often do a quick 'pop-thru' of their shot to get a sense for pose and timing. They may do this a few times, gradually revising their work until they felt they had the performance down fairly well. Then they'd go ahead and animate their shot with the puppet. In CG we're looking at doing things in a similar way. But the beauty of doing popThru in CG is that we don't need to treat these poses as disposable. Rather, we can use them as building blocks for our whole work, adding to them as we go until we at last have our animation.
The Project and My Motivation
Here is the final version of the animation that we'll be studying after about 20 hours of work, including lipSync.
The clip is about 8.4 seconds long. That projects out to nearly 17 seconds of halfway decent quality animation per week. And that's one of my main areas of focus. The adage is true, The best animation you do is the one you finish. At work we have a production quota of 18.5 seconds of approved animation each week. For comparison our good friends working on feature films often have quotas ranging from 4-9 seconds per week.
In short, we needed to develop a way for myself and our team of animators to create alot of good footage uickly. Additionally we wanted to allow the director the opportunity to see the thrust of the animation as soon as possible so as to reduce the number of fixes needed after the animation has been ubmitted for approval. Thus the main goals of this pop-thru method are to:
a. animate quality footage as quickly as possible (it is a business afterall)
b. provide the director a look at the animation as early as possible.
c. A side benefit is the highly organized structure of the keyframe data, which I will detail later. Trust me, it's a huge help.
First Things First
It stands to reason that if you're going to use the "pose to pose" method, you need some poses. Click the thumbnail for a full size look at some thumbnail sketches I did before starting the animation.
There's some thought that your thumbs need to be locked down tight. That may or may not be true. I find it's good to not get too attached to my thumbs, but to use thumb sketching as a stage of exploration. I'm not looking to define my animation exactly just yet. What I am looking to do is explore different poses and different pose combinations. It's alot quicker to explore things in pencil than on the box. But I came up as a CGI animator. I have no notions about the computer being an inferior animation tool.
So while I'll explore on paper, I also allow myself freedom to not settle on things until I get to the computer.
I think the computer can be a valid place for structured, focused exploration. It is, afterall, only a very expensive pencil. Animators who don't feel comfy on the box may disagree. That's OK. God still loves you and I'm trying my best to. :o)
An interesting practice in some 2d animation circles is to work through your thumbs, and then put the thumbs away in a drawer and never refer to them again. The main thinking behind this is to keep yourself from becoming a slave of your thumbs, cutting off those serendipitous gems that arise when the juices are flowing while you're hip deep in the performance. It's this kind of thinking that I tend to follow when doing my thumbs. Thumbs are great servants, but hard masters.
Anyhow, you can see how I broke down the dialog trying to find the energy of the delivery, marking out breaks. Then I just tried a bunch of different things seeing what I liked and didn't like. Then I kinda set that page aside and got on the box to see what worked best in the situation I was in.
Second Things Second
Here's a quick look at my animation set up using A/W Maya. I like to be able to have a window to toodle around in, as well as a locked down "look through the camera" view so I can check my arcs, lines of action and silhouettes. And I'm also a big fan of the dope sheet.
A few words about the dopesheet....
While I came up as a CGI animator, my training has had a pretty strong traditional bent. I like the clarity of one frame=one drawing with key drawings defining what the inbetweens will do. The dopesheet is a great way to see just keyframes for objects. No fCurves or channel curves to deal with. I'm looking at just keys and time.
This is a key component (pun intended) of what I like to call organized keyframing.
What is Organized Keyframing?
Just what it sounds like. The goal is to arrange all your keys in an easy to edit, easy to read fashion. The one draw back of straight ahead animation is that keys tend to end up all over the place. As time goes by and the work progresses, the keyframes get messier and messier to deal with. Need to shuffle a pose at the director's request? Fine. But which keys define that pose? What if you did fCurve bias editing to get that particular ease in that he liked? Now the difficulty lies in finding the keys and editing the fcurves again. With popThru pose to pose, much of this is difficulty is bypassed.