Animation Quality vs. Quantity – Finding The Intent

How do you find the intent for your shot?

We know how important this is.. how necessary it is for you to understand why your shot is in the film, and how it relates to your character’s arc and the story’s progression.  We know that without this information you will probably spend some time flailing about trying everything you possibly can to get the shot approved.  Most likely, you’ll end up showing the shot in dailies more times than you need, and you’ll end up hearing the director repeat him or herself a few times.  You’ll probably end up stressing about getting the shot through, and you’ll be focused on just getting it off your plate instead of adding all the little bits and bobs that make the shot special… the things that make you geek out over it after you’ve finished.

So how do we find it?

Here are the things I do to try and hone in on the intent.  I would love to hear your views on this, and any tips and tricks you have!

Go To Every Dailies Session

I find that the more often I go to dailies, the more my head is in sync with what the director wants.  I start to be able to guess what he or she will like, and I can get a good sense of where the story is headed.  This allows me to gain more supporting information about the whole show and the character’s motivation throughout the movie.


View The Sequence Before the Launch

Before launching my shot, I’ll watch the sequence in storyboard and layout.  If possible, I’ll watch the sequences before and after as well.  This will give me direct information as to what is happening and what my shot may need to convey.  I should be able to get a good sense for the rhythm of the sequence and start to gather any questions I may have about my shot (or sequence of shots).

Talk To My Supervisor

If I can, I’ll talk to my supervisor (or head of character animation) about the sequence to see if there’s any additional information they might have.  Usually, the supervisor will have met with the director before the sequence started to get a lowdown on what the point of the sequence is.  They may have some good information that isn’t visible in the boards or the layout.

Prepare Questions

I’ll prepare a list of questions for the director that I have ready in case the director doesn’t cover everything in the launch.

The Pitch

Practice ACTIVE LISTENING at the Launch

When the director launches the shot, I’ll actively listen to everything that they say, often repeating it to myself in my head.  I’ll watch their eyes and their face instead of stare at the screen.  I will use encouraging body language and supportive acknowledgment of what they are saying in order to draw out as much information as I can (It’s simply amazing how much a difference not crossing your arms makes when you listen!).  I will write down keywords and phrases in my notebook, especially if the director says “this is important”.  I’ll ask questions about motivation, emotional state, any change of emotion, what other characters are going through, if there’s any physical needs of the shot, and anything else I can think of that will help me discover the key intent.  Finally, once the director has finished, I’ll quickly look at my notes and see if there is anything I am unsure of.  I will try and summarize the intent in a couple of words and repeat it back.  If looking at the notes doesn’t help me determine the intent, I’ll then clarify: “So, the intent of the shot is to show George’s emotion shift from sad to enraged?”  or, “Just to clarify.. the main point want to get across is chaos of 13 characters running in different directions?” or even “The key idea is that Jennifer turns on the radio.. is there any hesitation in her action due to some emotional distress?  Or is she quite happy to turn it on?”

Review My Notes

After the launch, I will go back to my desk and play the shot and review my notes.  Sometimes I’ll write the intent in bold on a new piece of paper, and then list the other notes underneath it in order of importance.  I’ve often found that by doing this I can quickly see if I forgot something, or if something isn’t as clear as I hoped it would be.  Note: Without this review session, you might as well not be taking notes at all.  Reviewing them will help you solidify the director’s thoughts in your head.

Block As Few Poses as Possible

I’ll quickly rough or thumbnail a few poses for the shot and compare them with my main intent.  I’ll then ask other animators, my supervisor, or anyone else I can if these poses or drawings fit the intent.  This is quick work, and I can quickly correct any sort of wrong directions I may be heading in.

Lending A Hand

When Lost.. Ask!

The big thing here is that even if you do all this work before you start the shot, sometimes it’s easy to get lost and lose the intent.  Or, you can become blind to your shot and not know if it’s working.  Everybody does this.  The best thing you can do is stop what you are doing and talk to someone else about the shot.  Clarify the intent with your supervisor.  Find another animator and ask “is this reading?”  Watch your shot in continuity with the surrounding shots with another animator and clarify the ideas.  And if all else fails.. ask the director.   Remember, you are both working together to make the shot work.   You both have the same goal.  If you need a question answered or clarified, get in front of them and ask.  I find that most of the time this will clarify things immensely and really help you move forward on the shot.

Anyway, those are some of the things I do to help clarify my ideas.. what about the rest of you?

Jason Schleifer
Jason Schleifer
Jason and his mad scientist eyebrows have been pushing the boundaries of CG animation and sharing his knowledge for nearly 20 years. Widely recognized as an industry leader and mentor to hundreds of animators, Schleifer, formerly of Weta Digital and Head of Character Animation at DreamWorks, now works as Head of Content and is a co-founder of Nimble Collective.

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