9 ways to shine as an animator

Escape Studios' head of animation reveals nine easy steps you can take to enhance your skills.

Professional animators of 3D movies need to be able to please both the director, with the quality of their work, and the producer, with their speed. As head of animation at Escape Studios my job is to make sure all my students are ready to succeed in today's animation industry. What follows are nine simple steps that all animators can take to make sure their workflow is good, fast and reliable. 

01. Create a camera and lock it off

It's good practice to create a camera view right away, and then lock it off so you don't mess it up by mistake. For most animators the standard layout is a three-way split: perspective view on the left, camera view on the right, Graph Editor below. With the exception of games projects, animators should always animate to the camera view; you also won't waste time animating stuff that won't be seen by the audience.

02. Do your facial expressions early on

Alex worked on The Open Season characters; they are so well-loved due to their masterful character designs

Make a positive statement when you begin making your poses by making the facial expressions clear from the start. Is the character happy? Sad? Angry? Make these choices early on and make it clear. Your next step is to offset the symmetry of the poses and make each key pose as expressive as you can. Facial expressions are key selling points for directors, and are vital to telling your story and to making the shot clear.

03. Decide your key controls

If a character has multiple body controls (most do), then decide which control curves you will be using and stick to them. If you don't, you risk forgetting which control curves you have keyframed, and the result is spaghetti. For example, if you use multiple rotations on the spine controls, you may forget which ones you have used, and it can be difficult to make adjustments to your animation later on.

04. Make sure your character's eye direction is consistent

Poor eye direction can take the viewer out of the animation

Poor eye direction (for example, characters not looking at one another) will ruin the believability of your shot and undermine your work. Allow extra time before you submit your shot for review, as you will likely have to fine- tune the eye direction at the very end.

05. Don't over complicate things

A common mistake made by junior animators is to have too many expressions or poses in a shot. When you begin, pick an overall attitude for the shot and use this as your starting point. Just one main expression for your shot will often do the job.

06. Present your work in high resolution

Alex has a long history in animation, starting with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Remember to do your work justice and always present it in high resolution. Low-resolution shots (even if well animated) look grainy and unimpressive. High-resolution renders will give your shots a more polished and professional look, and you will likely get your work approved faster.

07. Put yourself in your audience's shoes

When reviewing your work, before sending it anywhere important, you should always ask yourself, would this shot make any sense to a total stranger? Put yourself in the place of your audience: will they understand what's going on? If your shot needs an explanation in order to make it clear, then it needs more work.

08. Always do thumbnail sketches first

Thumbnail sketches are a simple and quick way to get thinking, start planning your shot and help solve problems early on. Sketching can really help you to be inspired and get creative. Even if you don't draw well, crude thumbnail sketches can help you plan your poses and timing. The extra time spent on planning your work will be worth it in the long run. You wouldn't build a house without architect's plans, would you?

09. Download TweenMachine

The TweenMachine is a handy free Maya plug-in which makes the process of adding breakdown poses to your shot much quicker. Download the TweenMachine and you'll never look back.

This article was originally published in 3D World magazine issue 211. Buy it here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Williams has worked on titles including Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and studios from Blue Sky, to Sony Imageworks. He now teaches animation at Escape Studios.