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Pose to Pose Pop-Through Animation

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Date Added: 30th December 2010
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Organized Keyframing and How It Works

1448_tid_moses01_pop.jpeg 1448_tid_moses02_pop2.jpeg 1448_tid_moses03_linear.jpeg


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 suggeston of Rick May, and have found it to be a huge help in forcing me to approach animation in a more sturctured 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.

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.

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. 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 til 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 til 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 quickly. 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 submitted for approval. Thus the main goals of this pop-thru method are to:

  1. animate quality footage as quickly as possible (it is a business afterall)
  2. provide the director a look at the animation as early as possible.
  3. 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.

continued on next page >

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Readers Comments (Newest on Top)
Aerys Bat on Fri, 10 February 2017 6:55pm
Thanks for the awesome tutorial!
Antoine on Wed, 23 March 2016 11:15am
Thank you for sharing!
Sebastian on Mon, 09 June 2014 10:31am
wow, thank you for creating and sharing this really helpful tutorial!
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