Animation Quality vs. Quantity – What About Quality?!?

Toothless and Hiccup

Dreamworks "How To Train Your Dragon", scene animated by Gabe Hordos

Toothless and Hiccup

Dreamworks “How To Train Your Dragon”, scene animated by Gabe Hordos

The past two posts have looked at techniques I use to animate as efficiently as possible. They are common tools for time management, and can really be used for any endeavor. I definitely find them useful for managing my stress level and allowing me to crank out more footage.

But you’ll notice that the title of these posts have also included the word “Quality”. In this post, I’d like to focus on that aspect of this equation, since without quality, quantity means.. well.. poop.

Seriously.  If given the choice, I would rather have an animator on my team who created one frigging mind blowingly amazing shot than an animator who created 15 piss-poor shots.

But those are extremes, right?  In the real world, each animator can’t only produce a single shot in a film, and I certainly won’t be happy if all my animators just crank out pure drivel at a rate of 15 feet per week (What The Heck Is a “Foot”? For those of you who haven’t worked in “feet” before, 1 foot is 16 frames of film. There are 24 frames per second, so 2 seconds of film is 3 feet of animation. At most studios a weekly quota for an animator can range from 3-6 feet per week depending on complexity. That’s 48-96 frames per week of finished animation).

“Crappy animation produced quickly is still crappy animation.”

~ Jason Schleifer

So how do we hit that quality mark that is so important?

Before I answer that, I think it’s important to qualify what we consider “quality” animation.

To do this, I’m going to use a fun technique of organizing ideas that I learned about recently.  It’s kind of similar to a mind map, but instead I’m going to use stickies or “post it notes”.  I heard about this while listening to a class by the “sticky-note-ninja“, a woman named Kate who works at Adaptive Path, a “user experience” company.

The podcast had a whole bunch of really interesting techniques of using Post-its to come to common themes and ideas when designing user interfaces.  I think that the same idea can be used to quickly throw down a bunch of thoughts, and then organize them into common themes for further exploration for animation.

To try and see if I could use this technique to come up with a clear definition of “quality” for an animation shot, I went to the website Edistorm (now called StormBoard), and quickly threw together a bunch of “virtual post-it notes” that each had a single idea of what I thought of when I thought of a “quality” shot.


As you can see, there are just some random phrases in there like “rhythm”, “contrast”, “emotional”, etc.  You can certainly expand on this and add a few more of your own, but you get the idea.

This in and of itself isn’t very exciting.  What is exciting however is what happens next.  We take each of these “post-it” notes and start arranging them into clusters.  Pretty soon, you can start to see some patterns emerge.

We have grouped this random collection of thoughts about what adds quality to a shot into 3 sections.  I’ll color them so we can see them a bit better:

On the left we have words like “focus”, “intent”, “funny”, “emotional” “connect with the audience”.  To me, these all feel like acting and directing words.

On the right are things like “graphic”, “timing”, “arcs”, “polish”. These are animation terms.. technical and artistic things we do to make the movement look nice.

In the middle are words that I think can apply in both areas.. “contrast”, “entertaining”, “unique”.  Really great acting has to be unique to the character, just as it’s important for the rhythm of each shot to feel unique and special.   I kind of feel that these terms can be defined as over-arching themes for quality work… things I want to be thinking of while working on my two main areas of focusacting and animation.

What interests me about this image is that even though I threw it together rather quickly, I can easily see that if I want to have a really great shot, I need to focus on both animation and acting.  I know this seems basic and obvious.  The thing is by doing this exercise with stickies I can give myself some concrete goals to focus on to MAKE my acting and animation better.

If someone says I need to work on the quality of the animation on my shot, I can look at these things specifically and say to myself “did I check my arcs?  Is my timing off? What about the rhythm?”   The same is true with acting: “Am I hitting the right emotion? Is the shot funny enough? Am I connecting with the audience?”

We’ve  talked a little bit earlier how making beautiful animation can take time.  Creating nice arcs, beautiful spacing with unique rhythm means that you’re going to have to take the time to finesse the heck out of the shot.  There’s only so much you can do there to make this process go faster, so let’s take a look at the other side of the equation.. Acting.

If your character was once attacked by a stapler when she was a child, how do you think she would handle walking through an office building?

How do we make sure that the acting we’re working on is the best it can possibly be?   There are two things we need to know in order to make sure we’re hitting the mark on this.  The first thing we have to know is who the character is.  We’ve got to understand as much about the character as possible in order to have a clear idea as to what they would do in any given situation.  What was her relationship with her parents like?  Does she have any sort of physical deformities?  If your character was once attacked by a stapler when she was a child, how do you think she would handle walking through an office building?  Does she think before reacting, or does she react and then think?  Would this cause her to lead her movements with her head or with her heart?  Is she open to new ideas?  Closed?  How would she hold her arms in social situations?  Down at her side?  Crossed?  Hand on her hip?  Does she bite her lip when she’s nervous, or pick her fingernails?

All of these things help clarify your character’s style of movement, the acting choices you might make, the way the character will react in a situation where they aren’t the main focus of the shot, the subtle shifts as another character leans in close for a kiss.  Know these answers before you start animating, and you’ll have more confidence in your shots as thus your work will be stronger.

The other thing that is imperative and is probably the most important thing you can do is to clarify the intent of the shot.

This… will be the topic of my next post.

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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