Sunday, July 06, 2008

Animating From the Gut

Kevin writes.

... Let's step away from the technical aspects of character animation, and focus on the forest and not the trees. Try taking a completely non-technical approach in the early stages of your shots. I’m recommending you get yourself firmly into right-brain mode, block out your internal critic, and just animate from the gut. Animate unconsciously. Put yourself into a trance. Try not to let anything or anyone interrupt you during this phase. Work this way until the shot starts to take clear shape. Then, and only then, start consciously thinking about the principles of animation. Only then start consciously monitoring your poses and arcs and spacing. But as you go into a conscious, thinking mode, don’t lose the initial spontaneity and verve of your first pass.

I was reminded of this by an article in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago. The writer, Robert Lee Hotz, summarized some recent studies on perception and decision making, aptly titled Get Out of Your Own Way. He writes,

“Such experiments suggest that our best reasons for some choices we make are understood only by our [brain] cells. The findings lend credence to researchers who argue that many important decisions may be best made by going with our gut — not by thinking about them too much."

I’ve been considering these kinds of ideas as I’ve been animating lately. I was thinking I might record myself animating a scene, to use as a multi-part blog post. I would show something students frequently ask for: how I worked through the shot, from start to finish. But I realized that the initial stages of my work flow aren’t nearly systematic enough, and that I couldn’t completely explain why I do some of what I do. To someone else those early stages would probably appear chaotic, even random. But I know it works for me, and I know it’s not that different than what many other animators do (though each in their own way). Our right brain is dedicated to intuitive, creative, holistic activities, and those activities don’t lend themselves to logical, linear analysis.

Another interesting quote from the WSJ article:

“. . . Ap Dijksterhuis at the University of Amsterdam recently found that people struggling to make relatively complicated consumer choices — which car to buy, apartment to rent or vacation to take — appeared to make sounder decisions when they were distracted and unable to focus consciously on the problem.”

Please note: I do not think the key to animating from the gut is to distract yourself. I think good animation takes too much of our brain power.* What I’m suggesting, which is consistent with the Dutch study above, is that we make better complex decisions when we aren’t consciously trying so hard. We tend to do great work when we’re in the mystical creative trance that can’t be explained and has to be experienced.

As I write this, I’m remembering the thoughts of Shamus Culhane in his book, Animation: From Script to Screen. I’m sitting in the airport in Las Vegas, so I can’t get at the book, but I’ll have to pull it out for a reread when I get back to Los Angeles. If you haven’t read this book, I think you’ll like it. Especially his thoughts on tapping into your creativity.

I’m not sure CG animation lends itself to that creative trance as much as hand-drawn animation, but I do know that it’s possible, and I know some animators who work this way even if they don’t view it in those terms (perhaps because it sounds kind of new-agey?). Give it a try (realizing that you’re trying not to try, but that’s the beauty of it!).

* This statement will doubtless remind people of this: "[Milt] Kahl also hated having music or audio distractions while he was working, telling protegĂ© Richard Williams that, “I’m not smart enough to do two things at once.”

[Floyd] Norman said that the first rule of working in the animation wing was “never disturb Milt Kahl while he was working . . . The slightest noise would prove a distraction, and the irascible animator would soon visit those who talked too loudly, or dared to crank up the radio.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, Kevin! I couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

Well, an animator at Disney, now in Brasil, used to tell me to go with my first instinct as well.

I guess it's what they call "intuition", and it's what an animator is mostly paid for, not just pushing the mouse around! Or the pencil for that matter.

geat post!


Anonymous said...

I learned to sculpt in College and I always approach it the same way in animation, you're just chipping away at the rock and for pretty much the very first few passes it looks like nothing useful until you break things down. Maybe I'm a bit off topic, but I can't do the pose to pose thing too well, I like beats, maybe an arm or part of the body moves there, maybe there's a pose here. And just flow from one into another. Then when you refine it you make it all move as one :)

Good topic :D!

Anonymous said...


Would you compare it to (very) old school 2D "straight ahead" animation, starting with frame 1 and going forward, as contrasted with "pose to pose"?

Anonymous said...

The best way of animating is a combination of both.

Kevin Koch said...

Sorry, just got back from vacation, so I didn't get to this (and frankly, I'm much more responsive to comments on the SynchroLux posts over at the actual site).

Anyway, thanks for the positive feedback, and to anonymous I would say that you can let your intuition go and animate from the gut both straight ahead and pose to pose. I think someone doing very strict pose-to-pose work, with detailed keys that are unlikely to change, is going to be doing most of their right-brain work in the thumbnailing stage. Which is why I've never been totally comfortable working strictly pose-to-pose, despite how well it works for some people.

Also, realize that when one works straight ahead, it does not mean one works without careful planning before starting to animate. A lot of people seem to neglect that part of the process. Hope that helps.

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