Don't Play It Safe
A way to think about pushing - your animation and yourself.
Now that the spring/summer workshop has ended and we are all on break for a bit, I get to do three things. 1) Go to bed early. 2) Browse the new collection of student reels and feel woefully inadequate. And 3) attempt to recall what the most frequent advice was that I gave over the previous fourteen weeks, and decide what I might do to build a lecture around that topic.
This last block I had two frequently occurring broad notes; “Animate from the core,” and “Don’t play it safe.” Animating from the “core” requires a lot of explanation and example, so I may tackle that in a future post.
Let me, however, try to describe what I mean when I suggest to an animator not to be “safe.”...
Typically, the first thing that comes to mind in a new animator’s mind when they think they need to push the limits is to come up with a scene or situation for their character that is overtly wacky or extreme -- as well as wacky or extreme body and face movement. This, however, is one of the first things I usually advise against. Keeping your idea simple, honest and easy for the eye to follow is always something to be concerned about as you plan and execute any animated scene, even the most exaggerated ones. Using fewer facial expressions and allowing them to hold longer, for example, gives your audience the chance to digest, and hopefully empathize, with your character’s feelings. So being somewhat “safe” in that regard is usually ok. But within those loose boundaries, there is plenty of room to do something a little extra with your poses and facial expressions to provoke a bigger response from your audience.
So don’t play it safe. All of these limits give you the space (in terms of frames) to really sculpt believable and potent expressions. Expressions that are not only appealing and entertaining, but ones that also really connect with your audiences hard-wired responses to the human face. These hard-wired responses are what you have to cater to when you “push” a facial expression. What do I mean by “pushing?” Well, first I believe you really have to be concerned about the actual muscle groups in the face and how they interact with each other so you are pushing and pulling them correctly as you try to take them to an extreme. If you start grabbing and pulling shaper controls on the brow willy-nilly, without regard for actual facial anatomy, you will not only create unclear emotions that your audience won’t easily understand, you also run the risk of breaking the rig and creating almost grotesque moments. That is the delicate balance, I think; between pushed and grotesque. A pushed expression should still follow believable rules of anatomy while at the same time stretching those same boundaries. A sense of appeal in the face partly comes from instantly recognizable expressions that are caricatured using simple pleasing graphics. Once you have found that pleasing and readable caricature, you will know the shapes you have the room to “push”. Lift that eyebrow shape higher. Drop those half-lids lower. Stick that underbite out farther. Try it!
Body poses can follow the same “pushed” principle, I think. Far too often rigs are bent in ways that exceed or defy the limits of the human skeletal system. This also reads as more grotesque rather than pushed, and this can take your audiences focus off the scene. They will be spending more brain time subconsciously wondering “what’s wrong with that character’s body?” as opposed to simply empathizing with them. So, in enhancing a body pose, I would argue you need to still follow believable rules of anatomy, weight and balance. But, I would also argue that you still have tons of room to push! Increase the feel of flex in the arms all the way through the wrist and the fingers, and show the force earlier in the joint chain, back down the shoulders, the back, and even the legs. Find a believable stretch or twist pose, and stretch or twist a little farther. Find a believable counter-balance between the core and spine, and then increase the contrast between them just a little bit (core pushed more to the left and spine leaning more towards the right, maybe.) And use negative space where you can to burn the pose into your audience’s brain as quickly as possible.
Don’t play it safe with movement, either. Mechanics can be pushed too. Weight, the most important ingredient in your body mechanics, can always be slightly exaggerated to create bigger emotional impact. Of course, it needs to start with a sense of believability. But if you have mastered the rules of body mechanics, you can begin to push past them and create more impact without breaking the illusion. A sad character walk that feels slightly heavier than the body itself. And aggressive lunge that overshoots its mark a bit more than expected and needs a bit more time and space to settle. A cocky swagger that exaggerates its own loose spine and arm overlap. So many things you can use to push your mechanics to a zone of hyper-believability, and all of it using the principles you’ve learned without breaking the anatomy. Don’t be afraid to go a little farther with your (proper) mechanics if it helps enhance the story you want to tell.
Of course, you could argue that “smear frames” are an exception, and you’d be right. But smear frames are not generally meant to be seen, and are more of an animation “device,” so we’ll leave that to a separate discussion as well.
Don’t play it safe with your polish as well. Too often we say “I just can’t see it anymore,” and defer to the fresh eyes of our peers. But I am willing to bet that a lot of you are like me. There is always something nagging me throughout the course of a shot that I would typically ignore and say, “it’s just me,” and “no one will really see that,” or “I’ll wait to see how that goes over in dailies first.” Well, that approach proves fatal fast. Once I learned to address my instinctive uncertainties about my animation on my own, without needing excessive amounts of reinforcement from others, I feel like I was able to create the best idea the fastest.
And creating the best idea the fastest is the name of the game most of the time. So my last point is always: don’t depend too heavily on constant feedback for every little incremental idea. If it doesn’t sell the first time, pick yourself back up and try again. Part of what makes you a valuable member of a team is that you can be trusted to take an idea and run with it. As a student, you have the opportunity to start practicing that. Developing confidence in your ideas and execution with diminishing amounts of hand-holding should be part of your goal, I think. Don’t be safe. Trust your gut and go for it.
Are you a supervisor? Let us know how you guide your team in this regard. Or any animator really. Love to hear what you think!
Next post... “What the hell is ‘animating from the core?’”