Animation Quality vs. Quantity – Intent


‘Megamind’ courtesy of Dreamworks.

In the last post I spoke about achieving quality in our work. We separated the idea of a “quality” animation into two main things – great movement & technique (arcs, spacing, timing, rhythm, etc), and great acting. Through an exercise with sticky notes, I broke acting up into two areas – character and intent.

Character has to do with really understanding who you are animating. It’s all about being clear on their background, their tendency to make certain choices, the most likely responses to any given situation.

Intent has to do with understanding why the shot is in the film in the first place. What purpose does the shot have? How does it move the story along? How does it push or pull the character along their given arc? Every shot is in the movie for a reason, so what is that reason?

Usually, when you receive a launch of your shots from the director you are able to find out exactly what the point of the shot is. It’s the perfect opportunity to clarify the intent, but quite often we don’t do it enough. Or – more often – we think we have enough information, but as we start working on the shot we find that we’re muddled a bit and that we are kind of swimming around the ideas. Sometimes you don’t notice this until showing the shot for the third time in dailies and you get that great awkward pause.

You know the one I’m talking about. The shot goes up, it plays a few times… a few more times… and a few more times… and the director turns to you and says…

“Yeahhhhh.. um.. okay … I think what we need to do here is … uh… maybe have a bit more … overlap? in the arms? or maybe you need to turn the head sooner?”

Then there’s a long slow inhale of breath.

“Maybe.. huh.  Maybe.. we.. need to approach it another way?  Like, perhaps.. maybe he’s coming in from the other side of the screen?  I don’t know.. does anyone have any ideas?”

We’ve all been there, and it suuuuuucks!!

I know I’ve had shots that I re-animated two or three times from scratch after my blocking pass simply because I “just wasn’t getting it”.

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, and I think I’m finally understanding what “it” is..

“It” is the intent.

Here’s the reality of the situation. MOST shots in films are not dealing with more than one or two main “intents”. You may have sub-intents.. but the main idea of the shot usually boils down to one or two key things. That’s it. It’s the sum of all the shots that deliver the complete story. Unless you have one of those crazy long shots that involves a whole bunch of emotional changes and shifts between characters.. you can probably simplify, clarify and be good to go.

Rex Grignon (at the time was one of the other Heads of Character Animation at Dreamworks Animation, now CCO of Nimble Collective.. woot!) and I were talking about cameras one day and he said something that really stuck with me. He said “every shot is a close-up”.

At first I was a bit confused. You have long shots, medium shots, wide shots, close up, medium close up, extreme close up… what do you mean that every shot is a close-up?

He clarified that in good camera-work, every shot is a close-up shot of exactly what is needed to tell the story. If you have to tell the story point of a knife being picked up, get a close up of the character’s hand picking up the knife. If you need to tell the story point of two people reaching in for a kiss, get as close as you can to those two people leaning into each other for a kiss. If you need to tell the story of a mouse feeling alone in a great big city, get a wide shot of the mouse in a big city.

I googled the term and found a book called Directing the Story that discusses this point a bit more.

Close-ups are the only shots that show just what you want to say. They say, “Look at this…. I’m pointing the camera at this for a reason.” We’re using the speaking metaphor of film to tell the story with pictures, one idea at a time…. we want to show exactly what we want to say in the context of a series of shots.

That’s brilliant! It’s so simple.. and yet so important! Only show what we need to show to tell the story we are trying to tell. Don’t add crap just to add stuff, because it just confuses the audience. This is why the eraser is just as important as the pencil. It matters just as much what you leave out as what you put in.

We can apply the exact same principle when animating our shots. Really clarify that intent. What is this shot about?????

By knowing what the shot is about, clearly and distinctly in your head, you can ask yourself right away “what is the clearest and most direct possible way I can get this point across?” Instead of thinking about the mechanics of what the shot is, you can think at a higher level of what does the shot need. Once you know what the shot needs, then you can layer in all the subtle things that make it unique for the character.

Kung Fu Panda Storyboards

‘Kung Fu Panda’ storyboards.

It’s the combination of these two things.. clarifying the intent and then making it character specific that gives you the ability to make the shot great.

It’s like … going on a road-trip.

If you just get in the car and start driving, you may end up where you want to be. Most likely you’ll just end up somewhere you weren’t before. If you get in the car and you say “I want to be in New York City”, you can sit down and think “okay, what’s the quickest way to get there? Plane? Car? Boat? What if I drove along this road? How can I make this road trip the most interesting? What if I want to get to New York City and visit all the theme parks along the way, how will I have to drive in order to get there?” Asking those questions limits your choices and quickly gets you going where you want to go.

Even if you don’t know a specific destination, but you know that you want to go somewhere “vibrant, with a lot of noise and some great pizza”.. that will help narrow down your choices and may even take you somewhere more exciting than your original destination.

The map metaphor is perfect for dealing with your shot.

Destination: I want to go to New York = Point of shot: I want to show Jim kissing a girl.

How to get there: I want to visit theme parks along the way = Character: Jim has just gotten braces and has spinach in his teeth.

Here’s the deal.. if you can solidify these things before you start animating you’ll be able to quickly get rid of any ideas that will lead you down the wrong path. But even if you don’t know the answer before you start, clarifying it will very quickly help you re-direct and get back on track. If you are on a road trip and suddenly you say “oh crap, I’m supposed to be in New York!” you can immediately look at where you are (San Diego?) and determine the quickest way to get back on the right path to reach your destination.

The great thing to realize is that in most cases the director doesn’t really care how you reach the point of the shot, they will care more that you get the point across. If you don’t know the point you’re trying to make, how do you make it?

In my next post I will talk a little bit more about how some tips and tricks to clarify intent. Reply in the comments and let us know what you think!

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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