The golden advice I wish someone had given me earlier…
It would be biased for me to say that animation professionals have the best career in the world. We bring joy to millions of people, regardless of age, race, gender or sexual orientation. We have the ability to recreate the past, imitate the present, imagine the future and bring to life all sorts of stories, making you cry, smile, feel fear or nostalgia. To work with animation is, in other words, to recreate life — and in the process, make the audience embark on an emotional journey.
Getting the audience on that ride and getting them emotionally invested with something that you brought to life is indeed an amazing feeling. But this job, although amazing, is still a job, and has a multi-million industry behind it that is constantly demanding content. According to IMDb, there are close to 10,289 animated shows in production to date and over 100 feature-length animated movies from big studios and indie productions just in 2019, not to mention video games, virtual reality content and more. This all translates into quotas to meet, a number of seconds per week to animate or a schedule with bizarre deadlines to hit. This industry will always push you to produce, produce, produce.
This constant pressure leads us to develop a bad habit of going too fast, pushing us to develop what is common, comfortable, the same old recipe again and again. The incredible art of recreating life gives ways to generic animations to meet a certain quota. It is hard to achieve recognition when you are starting your career, and even harder to make something outstanding in an industry that moves that fast. So here is the thing that I wish I knew when I started my own career: to stand out, you must be able to step back. Allow me to explain…
Step Back 1 – Go beyond technology. Shots that stand out the most are the ones that make us forget about the technology that brought it to life. Mastering the technology is important, but the feeling you are portraying, the message you want to deliver, the essence of your shot must speak louder than the technology you use. Animation is an art form, a way of expression, and technology is just a tool.
Learning how to master the tools is beneficial, it gives you the speed you need to become proficient and competitive in this industry. But being able to observe and interpret any emotional and/or physical actions in people, and using this knowledge to bring characters to life is the actual core of the job. To stand out, you must aim for the essence of what the shot is, and that does not live inside the screen of your computer.
Capturing the essence of a shot means knowing what feeling you want to evoke in the viewer when watching your animation. For your shot to induce a feeling, your character must be believable, must portray emotion, must have clear intentions. The essence of any shot relies on reality and believable actions, and to capture it, we must go beyond technology and start observing ourselves and others.
Step Back 2 – Find the subtext. All shots have something in common, whether it is an acting or action shot, with dialogue or just pantomimes, with bipeds, quadrupeds, a flour sack or a box, it doesn’t matter. They all have two layers: text and subtext. Text is what is explicit, the line your character says or the action that is requested for you to animate, and subtext is the essence. The true gold. And a little more complicated to get.
Successful shots reveal what is not being said, what the character really wants to say, but cannot or doesn’t want to. Successful shots animate the Subtext. If you are asked to animate a guy crying in a bar, your first thing to do should be to ask yourself, “why?” Why is that guy there? Why is he crying? Why is he alone? You have to really dig until you find the intention behind your character’s actions and reactions, to define what your shot is really about. What emotion do you want us to feel when watching it?
Whether you work for yourself or for a big studio, sometimes you will receive the subtext on a silver platter, but in case you don’t, it is crucial that you know how to dig for it. The mistake some of us make is to run to the computer without asking “why?” and we end up animating the action and not the intention. In the end, we get a nicely animated motion that doesn’t mean anything more than just a random guy sitting at a bar.
No matter what type of shot, how the character is feeling affects how he/she/it will execute those actions. Sitting on a chair when you are upset should be different than how you sit when you are happy. Your character may not have dialogue, but your animation must be able to translate the subtext into actions that speak for itself.
Step Back 3 – Make it specific. After “why” comes “how”. Every shot can be animated in many different ways. The way you pose your character and how they behave is how you make the intention of the shot come across. Generic motions will get you nowhere. You should aim for motions and poses that best describe the emotional state of your character, that matches with the subtext of the shot, and that gives your character some sort of personality, making him relatable, memorable. Successful shots are the ones that people can relate to.
To be specific, you must know what to do: there is a huge difference between how you think you behave and how you really behave. Observation is the name of the game. Walt Disney once said: “…an animator must be a student of everything that might or does exist. From the shiver of a blade of grass — affected by an invisible breeze — to the behavior of a starving hobo eating the first steak he has had in years. From a baby, tentatively trying to walk for the first time — to an elephant doing a can-can.” In fact, I dare to say that we must be Students of Life, and in life, variation is the rule.
In real life, there is never an exact duplicate motion for the same emotion. Different people portray emotion in different manners, and even the same person can express the same feeling in a variety of ways. If you only rely on your imagination to recreate such feelings, you might miss the beauty of what means to be human, different, unique. The fact is that humans are not perfect — we all have our twitches, a gesture we do when angry, a way of walking when feeling happy. Did you know that there are several types of smiles (19 according to some studies) and only six of them portray joy? As animators, we should observe, interpret and select the best motion to represent what we want to tell. The more specific the motion is, the more interesting and memorable it becomes.
Step Back 4 – Practice. The human body has 206 bones and over 650 named skeletal muscles. We have psychologists like Dr. Paul Ekman who identified six basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise) — or if you prefer, we have the theory from Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, which states that emotions are concepts that are constructed by the brain and affected by personal experiences, environment, etc. We have macro expressions that often repeat and fit with what is said and with the sound of the person’s voice, and microexpressions, which are very brief, lasting between 1/15 and 1/25 of a second, which often display a concealed emotion and are the result of suppression or repression. My point is that humans are incredible machines, difficult to be copied, and even more difficult to be understood.
Don’t get fooled into thinking that you can recreate human behavior in a few hours of sitting in front of the computer. You have to be able to demonstrate weight, thought process, emotion and more, by either moving keyframes in a graph editor, or with drawings, or moving puppets and so on. Making something come to life takes patience and practice. It doesn’t really get easier the more you do it, but constant practice makes you fluent in the art of animation and makes you go through the whole thought process a lot faster.
Step Back 5 – Check your ego at the door. Practice can also come in the form of having to redo your work, either because the director said so, or due to story changes, or because your idea is just not working. Having the skills to rethink your shot and adapt to what is needed is extremely necessary to survive in this industry. Issues start when we get so attached to an idea that we can’t realize that it just doesn’t work, and no amount of practice will turn a bad idea into a good one. This is a very common problem that happens when we spend hours in front of the computer, staring at a scene, refusing to get fresh eyes on it. We become either desensitized or blind, and our judgment about it starts to get cloudy. That is what we call “tunnel vision.”
From time to time, we all need a reality check. Animation is a collaborative art and opening your shot for candid feedback is a great way to see if you are on the right track, or if the idea is good to start with. But keep in mind that good and bad ideas are subjective in nature, and you will see egos fighting to determine what is good and what is not — based on personal preferences, most of the time. If you need a tip to know if you are on the right track, here is something that a colleague, Daniel Rosales (3D Story Artist at Lucasfilm Animation) likes to say: “You don’t have to defend a great idea. It will survive on its own.”
Understanding that our million-dollar idea is, sometimes, just good to us and nobody else is a hard thing to accept — but our work should speak to a broader audience, not just to us, the creators. Leaving the ego outside is a great start, and so is the ability to start over. You should be comfortable doing so.
In conclusion, as animators, we are tasked with the nearly impossible mission to recreate the core of being human, to portray feelings, intentions, to interpret what was not in the script, what is not being said. In my experience, the majority of shots that fall flat are the ones that were either rushed, didn’t have planning, failed in observing reality, didn’t have feedback, or failed to portray or induce the correct emotion. I didn’t cry because the girl in the movie hugged her sister while she was an ice statue. I cried because it reminded me of my sister, who I would do anything for. I cried because I saw myself in that character.
Successful animated shots are not about the motion itself, but the story behind it and the emotion connection it creates with the audience. If you want your work to stand out, it has to mean something and you can’t be afraid to make people feel. I wish I knew this sooner: step back now, and whenever you can.
Bruna Berford is the XR Animation Supervisor at Penrose Studios, where she supervised the animation for the award-winning experience Arden’s Wake (Best VR Award at the 74th Venice International Film Festival) and Allumette (premiered at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival). Before joining Penrose, she worked as an animator at Oculus Story Studio on the Emmy-winning experience Henry, as a cinematic artist at Telltale Games, and several other projects including animated Disney TV series. As a storyteller, Bruna likes to see the world as potential ideas for future narratives.