The Animator’s Toolbox: Preparing For Animation

Preparing For Animation

Congratulations! You’ve been assigned a brand new, shiny and clean, animation shot. It’s just a small portion of the overall project, and there are many like it, but this one is yours. You’re ready to step up to the challenge so you pop open your animation tool of choice and begin moving splines hither and yon.


First of all, why are you using words like “hither and yon”? Second, do you even know what you are animating? I mean, sure, you know HOW to animate the scene, but do you know the WHY of the scene?

Preparing For AnimationJust as with my previous video, Preparing for Rigging, you need to take some time preparing for animating. Animating isn’t just making things move, it’s giving the illusion of life. By taking some prep time before you put pencil to paper (or cursor to vector, if you prefer) you vastly increase your chances of crafting a successful shot.

Step 1: Analyze The Shot
When you first get your shot, it typically won’t be in a vacuum (unless you’re animating a scene in space. HA!). You should have a general idea of the story and where your shot fits in. Look over your shot, whether it’s in an animatic or in layout, and see what your shot is about. Look at the previous and following shots or the whole immediate sequence if need be. Put your shot in perspective to the overall project and determine what you need.

Step 2: Set Your Goal
Once you know where your shot fits into the grand scheme of things, dig deeper and try to find the underlying “why” of the shot. Why is your shot in the film? What is the scene trying to communicate? A feeling? A joke? Is it there to transition to the next scene or explain something? Once you know the goal of your shot it will give you a target to shoot for that will let you know when your animation is done. In the end, you should be able to ask yourself “Does my shot meet it’s goal?” If you can say “yes”, then the shot works.

Step 3: Collect Your Thoughts ScreenNow that you have your target, start collecting your thoughts and what you will need to know to hit that bullseye. Take notes on specific things, write down which details you want to show, establish your shot length and what time constraints or sound queues you need to hit.

Step 4: Watch Reference

Gather and watch video reference. Break down the movements and actions so you can analyze things move the way they do. In Jason’s video, you can see that he learned how chicken’s place their feet, the timing in which they move, how they seem to be moving almost cautiously. If you can’t find reference for what you need, record someone (even yourself) acting it out. Be angry! Be sad. Look puzzled. Pretend to leap across a chasm. The video doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should support the goal of the shot and show you the range of motion needed to capture it. The purpose of the reference is to understand and internalize the motion.

Step 5: Brainstorm

Once you have all the pieces in your mind, it’s time to brainstorm! Think about all the different ways you can reach your goal. Go broad! If it’s a funny scene, don’t go funny: go gut-busting, pee your pants hilarious! Don’t go scary: go heart-stopping, pee your pants terror! Don’t go sad: go gut-wrenching, pee your pants despair. You might come up with a completely new way of approaching the shot you wouldn’t have thought of. You might also need a change of pants. Once you have a wide range of ideas you can then narrow down your options to the best ones and focus on crafting the perfect shot.

Step 6: DO IT!

Most Importantly – Give yourself PERMISSION to plan. You wouldn’t drive to New York by just shouting “EAST!” and leaping into your car. Well … you might, but you definitely wouldn’t arrive in time for Hanukkah dinner, and by the time you got there your latkes would be cold (and nobody likes cold potatoes.) No – You’d get a map. maybe choose a few places to stop along the way … and definitely, let your mother know you were coming.

It’s the same for animating your shot. Give yourself the time to create a proper plan – and you just might finish your work in time to sing Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel with your niece.

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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