There are all kinds of fancy animation tools, plugins, scripts and tricks that I use to enhance my animation workflow. Though in my opinion, none of them are as valuable as a pen and paper. Physically writing things down is the foundation of everything that I do in my work. It’s the most basic tool you can use, but in my opinion there’s no better way to organize your thoughts and come up with new ones than by making lists. Here I’ll explain how I use lists in every phase of a shot.
Phase one: Planning
Starting a scene with a blank page or viewport is generally accepted to be the most terrifying thing in the world next to clowns. And just like you wouldn’t enter a dark house with a clown on the loose, you shouldn’t jump right into a blank scene without planning. Writing down the purpose, beats and intent of the scene is the most effective way I’ve found to ease in and flip on the figurative light switch. If you’ve gotten a kickoff from a director or teacher, make sure you write down everything they said to make sure you don’t forget. Make note of the shot’s place in the sequence, what’s happening before and after, the framing, the desired emotional content, etc. Write out the dialog to make sure you know every word, pause, and breath. Think about the actions and gestures that you want to hit, and make note of them with simple scribble sketches. If you get through all this and you’ve written three pages, you probably have too many ideas. Seeing it all written out can be a great first indicator of whether you’re picking the simplest and most clear way to get the job done, or if you’re overcomplicating things.
What if you’re doing a school assignment or personal shot where there’s no director, script or storyboard? No direction at all and all the possibilities in the world? This is where that list becomes even more important! To successfully complete an animation, you have to set limitations. You need to make the big decisions first to have any hope of making good small decisions. If you don’t know what you want the shot to say, how can you decide how to say it? Spend some time up front coming up with the context and purpose, and then narrow in on things like staging, acting and props. Writing it all down will keep your ambition in check and help ensure that you don’t stray too far. And it’ll make that black void a lot less intimidating.
Phase two: Blocking
Once you’re drawing or posing the rig, you should have a clear idea of the specific actions that you need to perform. Writing out each beat gives you a roadmap to follow, and each pose in your blocking should represent one of those list items. Pose blocking for me is nothing more than finding the visual representation of the ideas that I’ve written down. I’m not concerned with how they transition between each other or how the timing plays (often I do it on consecutive frames to be timed later). I’m only concentrating on laying down the clearest visual of each pre-defined beat. This ensures that when I show my director for the first time, there’s no ambiguity or fluff – just the necessary information to get their buy-off.
Phase three: Dailies
Daily reviews are a crucial part of animation production. For a student, it’s class reviews and peer feedback. Actively listening to and implementing feedback is as much a part of what we do as setting the keys in the first place. Make sure to write down everything that they say so that you don’t forget about it later. Just the act of writing them down will imprint them on your brain and get the problem solving process started immediately. An animator that repeatedly fails to address feedback won’t last long, so be thorough in your note taking and cross each thing off as it’s completed.
Phase four: Polish
Polish can feel like it takes forever. There are always endless little things to fix and it can get overwhelming. If you just watch it loop and get swamped by the enormity of what still isn’t done, you’ll start to panic. You need to detach and take it one step at a time. Start your list by writing down three major issues that you can see. Note the frame number/range, and a few bullet points that will lead to the desired fix. Now do them and cross them off. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat again. Take it to reviews and repeat Phase Three. That’s how we do it! The shots you see in the movies aren’t done by some perfect robot that goes straight from blocking to spline to final in three easy steps. They’re done using this process of repeatedly executing personal and outside notes until the due date arrives.
I hope that you give this a try if you don’t already. It’s drastically reduced my stress level and kept me on track where I otherwise might have gotten lost. If any of this is unclear or if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.
Now I can cross this post of the list.
It’s so easy to get tunnel vision when you’re deep into a shot. I can get so focused on the arc of a wrist that I’m completely blind to the fact that the whole pose is wrong. I can be so concerned with my shot having a perfect beginning and ending that I forget that it needs to hook up seamlessly with the ones before and after. Losing sight of the big picture is something everyone is guilty of at one time or another. It’s important to learn how to recognize it when it happens, and how to deal with it.
The best thing to do is to just step away from your desk. Go for a walk and get some blood flowing. I’ve found that I just can’t solve an overwhelming problem in the place that it’s happening. The solution always comes to me when I’m out of that space and in a new environment. If I return to my computer without coming up with a fix, I instantly feel that cloud come over me again. Just because you’re away from your desk does not mean that you’re avoiding work; you’re doing what you need to do at that time. Don’t use this as an excuse to go play a video game or take a nap. There is a difference between active and passive rest, and too much of the latter can get you fired!
Asking a coworker for help is another tactic that’s under-utilized. I’m guilty of not doing this enough. When you’re stuck and lose confidence in the job you’re doing, it can be tough to reveal that to someone else. The good news is that no one will think less of you for it, since I guarantee it happens to them too. It says a lot about your character if you’re able to admit that you need help, and it will mean a lot that you trust their opinion. Unless you work in the most toxic studio ever, there’s no shame in sometimes leaning on your team. And if you’re a student or animating a personal shot, there are great online communities out there and you’d be surprised how many pros are willing to offer advice if you ask politely.
If you have another shot to work on, “plate-spinning” can be a good way to avoid going too far down a single hole. There are times when your full, undivided attention is required, but it can be smart to set a time limit so that you’re forced to shift your focus. This keeps things fresh and wakes you up to the context that each shot lives in.
Sometimes none of this is working and you need to invoke the nuclear option: shutting it down for the night and walking away. I know that you want to keep going and muscle through, but there’s a good chance that you’ll be spinning your wheels or even going backwards. I’ve spent many late nights trying to hammer a shot into working, only to come back the next day to find that everything I did was wrong. But there’s the secret! Since I came back the next day, I could see what the problem was. The human brain (or mine, anyway) tends to absorb information passively over time. Using guitar as an example, I’ve come to expect that I’ll stumble over a new riff over and over again, not able to get my fingers to do what my brain wants. The next day, though, after I’ve slept on it and let my subconscious mind do it’s thing, the information has soaked in and I’m able to play it. So the next time you just can’t get your animation working and you’ve exhausted the other options, just cut your losses and shut it down.
This is not an excuse to procrastinate or get lazy and there definitely are times when you need to snap out of your funk and get the job done! You don’t want to be known as the guy or gal who’s never at their desk or constantly on a coffee break trying to “work up to it.” That perception can be very detrimental to your employment status if you’re not careful. These are methods for enabling the hard work to continue, not to avoid it. A strong work ethic is essential, and balancing that with the appropriate amount of rest is key.
Now that you’ve taken a break from your shot to read this, get back to work!