Animation Process Part 1: Thumbnailing, Keys, and Extremes
A week or so ago I finally finished this little dance animation that I’ve been chipping away at in my spare time! In the end it took me about 45 hours over the course of 8 months.
I documented each stage of the process in gifs and wanted to share in order to give anyone just starting out an insight into my workflow and how I break a complex motion into digestible, accomplish-able chunks so that I don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of work that’s ahead.
In this first part I’m going explain a little bit of my approach to thumbnailing. The great thing about this part of the hand drawn animation process is that I would approach it the same way in ANY piece of software. This stage is just about drawing and timing. Even the lowest tier programs can do that. It’s not until the cleanup stage that any of the bells and whistles matter.
The Research Stuff
Before starting any drawings I like to search around youtube for inspiration; especially if it’s an action I’m not entirely familiar with. I had just watched the webseries The Earliest Show in which Lauren Lapkus and Ben Schwartz do a lot of really great dancing, so I studied a couple of those frame by frame. I also looked at some swing dancing competition videos to get a feel for the basic steps.
For stuff like dancing or even playing an instrument I’m not familiar with I like to sometimes look up a couple beginners’ tutorials just to get some ideas for how to approach the movement.
This isn’t days of research. It’s just half an hour to an hour to get a feel for what you want to accomplish. Anything more than that and it can easily turn into procrastination.
The Drawing Stuff
Once I’m satisfied with my research I begin the thumbnailing process. As you can see, my drawings at this point are only slightly more detailed than a stick figure. I’m not worried at all about mass, I’m just trying to nail down some simple, clear poses.
The Animation Stuff
In order to not be overwhelmed by everything I like to approach scenes in a very systematic way. I’d say 90% of the animation I do is Pose to Pose meaning that I break actions up into 4 different types of drawings
Keys: The main storytelling poses. If the story of the shot is “Man hears news and is disappointed” then you only have two keys to do - the man hearing the news, and the man being disappointed. I’m not thinking about how he’s going to get from pose to pose at this point, I’m just thinking “What’s the best drawing to show that this man is really disappointed”.
Extremes: These are all the poses that have to be there in order for the action to work. If someone is walking across the room it’s every drawing where their feet make contact with the ground. If someone’s jumping in the air it’s the anticipation down and the highest point of their arc. The way I think of them is that they’re the furthest up, down, left, and right the character is going to go as well as any drawing where they make contact.
Breakdowns: These are the poses that establish or reinforce the physics behind the motion. If an arm is swinging forward and the hand drags behind this is the drawing that shows that. When a character does a high kick and puts the entire weight of their body into it this is the drawing that shows the hips shoving forward as the foot just starts to lift from the ground.
Inbetweens: The drawings that smooth out and polish the movement. Here I’m focused solely on the spacing of the drawings. Is it slowing out or slowing in? How far do I want to favor one way or the other? What’s the shape of the path of action? Are the drawings following a nice arc?
This is one of many ways to categorize the drawings. I’ve seen a lot of people who combine extremes into their keys phase, and others who combine extremes into their breakdown phase, and others still who do breakdowns while they’re inbetweening. This is just what works for me.
For the thumbnails I’m only focusing on the Keys and the Extremes.
First I do the keys which for the first dance involve these four drawings:
As you can see there’s no thought about the weight of the movement. That’s fine. I’m just establishing how he’s going to hit each accent.
From there we go to the Extremes
Here I start to add a little bit of weight to it. The main things the extremes (in green) are establishing is the foot pattern. How is he passing his weight from one leg to the other?
With the torso I wanted to loosen it up a little bit. If you look at the keys they all have a really similar line of action. I reversed the line of action for the extremes which adds more change of shape and helps it feel more lively - even at this early stage
The arms are just establishing the passing positions of the arm swing. They’re fairly straightforward.
If you notice, these extremes have a lot of qualities of breakdowns in them. If I had to label them more precisely I’d say that what I’m calling the extremes are the contact drawings of the legs combined with the passing positions (breakdowns) of the upper body. I call them extremes instead of breakdowns because the legs are the most important part of these drawings and I wouldn’t consider those legs broken down at all; they’re just contact drawings. These hybrid drawings are the reason that so many animators categorize drawings differently. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you call any of this stuff as long as it makes sense to you and the end result looks good.
The Technical Stuff
At this point the entire animation is just a rough drawing on one layer. I would do this exactly the same in Harmony, Flash, Photoshop, or TV Paint. As long as you have drawing tools and a timeline you can thumbnail out animation like this
Extra Pro tip: It’s really helpful at this stage to establish some kind of basic ground plane or perspective - even if it’s just a character dancing in a void. This really helped keep the 3 Dimensional space in mind while planning his footwork. It also reminded me to have the character lean a little forward and backward in Z space as he’s moving. It’s easy to forget that kind of stuff when a character’s facing camera. Without it the animation will always feel a little flat.
“A strong emotional involvement between Virgo and Cancer is multilayered, an experience of many dimensions. We’ll try one on for size. Not fictional, but very real. To protect the innocent (for both players in the drama are indeed innocent of a conscious intent to hurt each other), we’ll change the names, geography and such… retaining only the thread of truth that could link this Moon Maiden and her Virgo man to you and your own girl Crab - or you and your own Virgo lover. It’s much stranger than fiction, truth is, because almost always Life wins the race against man’s and woman’s limited imaginations. His name, the Virgo, is Gerald, make-believing. Her name, the Lunar lass, is Hope, for imagery.
They met and first miracled somewhere in Illinois, where they fell in love more than a dozen years ago. They are the parents of five assorted beautiful girls and boys, cherished by both of them. They have not yet married. Somehow, they can’t live together, nor can they live apart. Following a haunted karmic path, they walk along, arm-in-arm, for months of empathy and closeness. Then Gerald’s yearning begins, Hope’s sighing starts… they reach that sad, familiar fork in the road and take different directions, waving goodbye wistfully, before the last, abrupt turn - and the slow walk back alone. Time moves on, but destiny lingers. Sooner or later, there’s the memory of her lyrical laugh, her mushroom soup and patchwork quilts of warm affection. His lonely reaches its breaking point just when she’s making her wonted wish on the New Moon, and he appears at her door. Then they swaddle the babies snugly within the blankets of their reunion joy, closing out the world of her disapproving, frowning (but long-suffering) parents, and become a family again. Until it’s time for him to go, leaving, as always, a part of himself behind… to manifest itself nine months later into another living proof of the mutual need that binds them. Five times. Five angels to guide them down that remembered, dreamlike path, through the dark forest of misunderstandings. Next time, it will be six, the number of Venus. It could be different. Venus may have plans to overcome Cancer’s inconstant Moon and Virgo’s restless Mercury.
That’s the way it sometimes is with these two lovers. Especially if the Virgo man is the kind who fears that a deep involvement will cause him to lose his own identity, the common and persistent worry of both technical and astrological Virgins. Especially if the Cancerian woman is the kind who chooses the path of least resistance… motherhood and waiting… counting on the New Moon magic to weave a spell of magnetic memory to lure back the questing Virgo man who is not quite strong enough to stay, yet is unable to escape the pull of her luminous enchantment… again and again. Typically, some Moon Maidens believe that babies or money can soften any blow of Fate, anesthetize any kind of pain.
There are, naturally, other kinds of Crabs and Virgins. There’s the kind of Virgo man who smoothly adapts to the necessity of adjusting his bachelor-button antipathy to partnership, of pacing his jogging to someone else’s rhythm. He calculates the loss of his privacy against the rewards of companionship, and he remains - asking only for occasional periods of pensive apartness, time in which to wander by himself, to refresh his single-minded goals. As priests and monks are required to make “retreats,” so are all Virgo men required by their own natures to retreat and meditate alone now and then, returning from their seclusion self-revitalized and freshly sweet. Newly able to innocently believe once more in tomorrow.
The Cancerian girl who understands this need of the Virgo man she loves will take care to walk softly while he’s dreaming, find her own retreat beneath a bristlecone pine that’s maybe waited a century or so for a friend to sit beside it, sharing a silent but eloquent communion. If the Moon maid finds her own midsummer night’s dream in which to wander, those times when her Virgo man has disappeared somewhere inside himself to brood or plan - or to heal his worried mind - he’ll stay. They can harmonize themselves this way in perfect tempo, their relationship never jolted by the violent percussion of “Goodbye” - “Come back” - “What did I say or do?” - “Don’t go” - “May I come home?” - “Forgive me” - “Please don’t hurt me anymore.” It’s a matter of calmly floating with the ebb and flow of the tides between them, not trying to surfboard over waves too high and dangerous.
Then too, there are those girl Crabs who are acutely aware of Cancer’s Cardinal charisma, those Lunar-ruled females who patiently reinforce the weak or worn corners of the fabric of a relationship with concentration on a career. Her ambitions then become the vivid colors - and a love affair or marriage that wasn’t quite made in Heaven but was conceived near enough the stars to sometimes sparkle, becomes the pastel background pattern of her life. It works. It adds strength to their love. They separate each morning, and she goes her tenacious way, while he whistles happily, tinkering with engines, practicing his yoga… rewrites the dictionary, draws maps or maybe juggles those odd-shaped objects called numbers, that produce such mysterious results, whether they’re dashed and dotted in checkbooks, surveys, charts or graphs. They become sort of friendly strangers who fall in love each weekend. It satisfies her desire for change and his need for time alone to retain his friendship with himself (the person he relies on most). It allows them to love.
When they love in a physical sense, the Virgo man and his Cancerian woman blend quietly into a deep and absorbing union, in the natural way of earth and water in Nature. When the Moon’s changeable influence over her emotions is beneficent - and when he is his own normal, tranquil self - their lovemaking is a peaceful consummation of desire for both of them. But when her Moon-madness takes over, when her Lunar fluctuations are waning, causing her to be crablike and moody, she can flood his affectionate intentions with excessive emotional behavior and demands. Just as he can bruise the delicacy of her passion when he’s worried himself into irritability during the day and is unable to relax either his mind or his body. Restlessness is a contagious feeling, and they can transfer it to each other without realizing it. Then she may retreat sullenly into her shell, refusing to recognize her attitude as a rejection of his tentative wanting, and he may blame her for a cool response to his own cool advances. This is when his Virgo analytical talents would be very useful, and her Lunar gift of perception would greatly help. Yet, perversely, these periods of sexual frustration may be the very times the two of them neglect to call upon their own best qualities to clarify the breakdown of communication between them.
The Virgo man and his Moon Maiden can walk in sunshine and in rain, and recuperate from the seasonal changes in their love more often than not. They can make Valentines together, cut out cookies in the shape of New Moon Crescents, play anagrams and charades with each other because he loves to meditate on words .. and she loves to make-believe she’s more than one woman, slipping in and out of her moods like a glittering mermaid, hiding her true mother- of-pearl self in midnight silences and the brightness of noontime laughter. If their seeking is intense enough, together, these two can find whole meadows full of gentle camaraderie together… perhaps even dream a vision in the prophet’s field of Ardath… for theirs is a ‘sextiled’ vibration. In astrology, a sextile is an opportunity, and these lovers will always be showered with as many as they need for tightly mending the occasional chips and cracks in their relationship, like a continual light snowfall of little stars around them, a sextile itself being represented by the symbol of a tiny star…*
When the girl Crab becomes cranky, or her Virgo becomes critical and caustic, and they should escape into the woods, lie down together and take a moonbath, which is different from a sunbath. When you are sunbathing, you may be burned, turn all red and stinging. When you go moonbathing, especially when the Moon is phasing from waning to waxing, near its Fullness, you turn pale golden, lavender and iridescent, like a butterfly’s wing. Then, naturally, you can fly.
Another thing Virgo learns slowly but surely from his Looney Bird Moon Maiden. Gazing directly into the Sun can blind the eyes. But gazing directly into Cancer’s shimmering Moon is restful, and sometimes makes the miracle of allowing the Third Eye to see things hidden by midnight’s mystery from the sunlight. After they’ve moonbathed together, they can jump into a dinghy and sail away to the ruins of Babylon. Who knows what they might discover?”
If there’s one thing that’s clear about Les Misérables, it’s that everyone cannot handle how hot Enjolras is. Victor Hugo cannot be clear enough that Enjolras is a hottie on levels that we’re just not ready for.
Enjolras wasn’t the first Hugolian character to be too pretty for this world, however.
Allow me to present to you Djali the Goat, from Notre-Dame.
Then Gringoire saw come up to her, a pretty little white goat, alert, wide-awake, glossy, with gilded horns, gilded hoofs, and gilded collar.
Enjolraic quality breakdown:
pretty? Check. Gringoire can’t deal with the prettiness of this goat. Djali’s a boy-goat, but that doesn’t stop the flurry of adjectives describing his beauty.
alert? Check, and wide-awake. Nothing’s getting past Djali because this goat has traversed the revolutionary goatpocalypse.
glossy? Check. Djali and Enjolras could share conditioner.
gilded? Check. They’re both Hugo’s golden boys.
How special is Djali? Shit, you don’t even KNOW you are not READY for this magical fucking goat. Yeah, he’s easy on the eyes, but he does goddamn MATH on a TAMBOURINE. What month is it? Djali knows. What time is it? Djali can tell you without needing an overpriced Society 6 clock.
Djali does mothereffing impressions. This goat is too damn special, like a guy who fights on the barricades and emerges untouched at the end.
Esmeralda and Djali walking down the street:
two fine, delicate, and charming creatures, whose tiny feet, beautiful forms, and graceful manners he was engaged in admiring, almost confusing them in his contemplation; believing them to be both young girls, from their intelligence and good friendship; regarding them both as goats,—so far as the lightness, agility, and dexterity of their walk were concerned.
Whoa there, Hugo. Djali’s just that amazing. Like Enjolras, Djali’s talents get him into hot water when he’s convicted of witchcraft. That’s right: Djali’s a martyr for progress too.
Honestly, I don’t even see much of a difference between Enjolras and Djali. Stick a rosette on this goat and call them twins.
The last few years, for a variety of reasons, I have been taking an entirely cerebral approach to drawing – learning design (or trying to, that didn’t go so well), line quality, technical breakdowns, finding the right inbetweens to make someone else’s animation flow smoothly – but in doing so have lost touch with the more emotional, intuitive side of drawing, which used to be what animated me (so to speak). There are all sorts of tutorials out there for how to be a better draughtsman or colourist or whatever, but not so much on how to hook your heart up to your hand, presumably because this is what artists start with and the layers of technical expertise are built on top of that. I remember the feeling of being able to spill so much emotion into a drawing but can’t seem to find that pathway now. Have any of you had this problem? Is there a mental trick you can suggest, a brain-tweaker, some way of approaching it that might re-establish the connection?