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 a more thorough explanation of Keys, Extremes, Breakdowns, and Inbetweens see pages 64-68 of Richard Williams’ The Animator’s Survival Kit)
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.
That’s it for my thumbnailing process! If you found it helpful check out the next posts in the series!
Part 2: Rough Keys/Extremes and the Shift and Trace Technique