Friday, June 3, 2011

Definition of 12 Principles

An old student sent me an email asking me to define the 12 Principles the way I used to in class. Okay, but a slight proviso first. These are not dictionary definitions. What follows is an experienced animator describing how he thinks in response to a specific question from a student. Of course it is over-simplified. Of course these concepts are not to be considered rock solid rules in every situation.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was at Disney Feature it was a common (though frowned upon) practice for animators who wanted to earn some extra money or loved working on the classic characters to pick up freelance animation at Disney Toons on the Direct to Video sequels. I did it a lot. It was just plain fun to move those old characters around. A change of pace from the overworked boring feature stuff I was working on across the street.

One particular scene presented to me was a shot from an homage of the classic "dance of the pink elephants" sequence from Dumbo - this time staring a magic dancing Heffalump. I was told this particular shot had been originally given to a very famous supervising animator over at Feature and had come back out of sync with the music and unfinished. Seems the animator considered the beat of the music too fast and the physical changes too extreme to do in the allotted amount of time.

Now here's the point, the famous very successful animator told the people working on the film that the concept of the shot was the problem. That the music/boards had been executed badly and he needed to change the entire concept of the scene in order to execute the animation to his "standards". If he couldn't do what was being asked in the way he usually animated then what he was being asked to do was by definition "bad".

I looked at the boards and listened to the music and couldn't see why it was such a problem. (I should add here that I asked not to see what the previous animator had done so I have no idea what the specific issues were.) I animated the shot in about four days and it turned out very well.

See below for pencil test.

So why I am telling this story? Is it to illustrate that my formulas and concepts are right and this famous animator is secretly a hack? I'm great, love me, love me, love me? Absolutely not. I have people in my life who blow enough smoke up my ass for my ego to thrive. I don't need the internet to love me. (and neither should you, O Artiste Wanna-be)

The famous animator is famous for a reason. He does fantastic work. I love a lot of his stuff and admire much of his technique. He is a great animator. My point is only this, learn how to use LOTS of tools. Otherwise no matter how good you may be at a particular style, you will eventually get in over your head.

You should work not to become locked into a particular way of moving things or drawing. The concepts we are examining are only tools and every job needs the tool best suited for it. Don't memorize a few formulas (even if they make you famous) and stop there. The famous animator's mistake was locking himself into a style as the only "right" way of animating. The animators at MGM, Disney, Warners, UPA, Hanna -Barbara, each mastered and used variations on classic animation formulas that worked for their particular studio's style and goals. And they deliberately studied each other's techniques, because there is always something more to learn.

Styles and formulas are wonderful tools. But instead of memorizing and eventually becoming enslaved to them, understand the principles behind the techniques. Then choose the right tool for the right job. Hell, invent your own! If you understand why something works, you can make it work better.

Crap. Long blog. Sorry. I'll do a couple principles here and pick up the list in a later blog.

Squash = Shows what material an object is made of.

Soap bubbles squash a lot at any speed, human flesh somewhat less, cannonballs do not quash at all (usually). The viewer's eye is looking for clues as to what the object is made of. Squash is the fastest way to tell them. Squashing things too much does not make animation snappy or "classic'. It makes things feel unreal when done too much. Best advice. Keep squash on ones whenever possible and don't transition between shapes. It can get gooey. Remember you can always add an inbetween later if you need it.

You are looking for snap, not mush.

Stretch = Used to continue persistence of vision when an object is spaced so far between frames that the eye will perceive it as a different object.

That effect usually refereed to as "popping" or "strobing". Blur does the same thing visually as stretch, but again can be overused. Remember classic animation used stretching much less than you think and usually pretty subtly (MGM). CG tends to have the motion blur turned up too high because real objects blur when photographed. Okay given, but photography is a much LESS precise art form than animation. Brilliant cartoons were made for years with little or no motion blur. Don't get lazy. Blur is not always necessary and is far overused by visual effect folks to cover the fact that the animators didn't space the moving objects precisely. Computers want to space things evenly so they tend to float and strobe. The math is easier. Too much blur is often used to cover poor placement of objects by the computer's automatic inbetweening. (Quick tip: In Earth normal gravity, practically nothing inbetweens on thirds. We'll get to this later.)

When should you use blur and stretch at the same time? Practically never!

Stretch is not an indicator of speed. Spacing determines speed, not stretching. Check out some Bugs Bunny cartoons from the forties. When stretch is over-used but the object doesn't move far enough to need it, the character doesn't feel like he's moving quickly, he just feels rubbery. Usually that was not a stylistic choice. It was a mistake made by great artists experimenting.

Yeah, drawing wildly stretched characters is fun. Get over it.

By the way, popping and strobing can be very effective when used correctly. If you slap blur on everything out of habit, you lose a powerful tool.


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