animation tips: obsevation

Okay, so last month I was going on and on about how important it is to spend time planning your scene before you sit down in front of your computer, your animation disc, or your stop-motion set. But HOW do you do that? What’s the best way to plan a scene? Well, the first thing you absolutely have to do is OBSERVE.

 Sounds simple, right? Well, it isn’t quite as simple as you might first think, but it will become second nature eventually. The important thing to realize is that observation is not passive or casual. Observation is much more than simply “seeing” something interesting - it’s ACTIVELY studying the world around us. Sure, a certain amount of curiosity is natural, but you have to take your natural curiosity for noticing things and train yourself to crank that curiosity knob to 11 if you want to become an animator.

Let’s say that you see a little girl trying to feed her lollypop to a monkey at the zoo, and her mother grabs to stop her, knocking the lollypop into the air where it sticks in the mother’s hair. Seeing that happen might have been funny, or maybe you felt bad for the mother, or embarrassed for them -- either way it was probably pretty memorable. It’s something you might even tell your friends about that night.

However, simply remembering and relating that overall story is not observation. An animator would notice SO MUCH MORE in that moment than the mere fact that the lollypop got stuck in the woman’s hair. An animator will see the overlap on the girl’s hand as the mother smacks the lollypop into the air. An animator will see the frightened expression on the girl’s face, or the way the monkey reacted to the whole thing, or the frozen moment in time when the lolly landed in Mom’s hair and they both just freeze for an instant as they realize their situation. The way Mom’s shoulders might slump with resignation, or maybe how the little girl tried not to laugh, or maybe it’s even the way that their dresses spun in the wind as Mom picked up her daughter and hustled off to cut her hair in the bathroom.

That’s observation, and it’s the single biggest animation tool you will ever have. Any time you see something interesting - be it the bounce of a squirrel, the flutter of a feather, or the twitch of an about-to-cry eyelid - file those things away in a little filing cabinet in your head. You never know what you will find helpful down the road, and the bigger library of observations you can build in your head, the better equipped you will be to deal with any scene a director might throw at you. Not only that, but you’ll be able to come up with scenes and actions that are not cliché and that feel real and ring true to an audience - and the reason the audience will
identify with the action or emotion you animate is because it’s something you’ve seen in your past, or in a film, or on TV, or even in a mirror.

All strong animation starts with observation, so train yourself to do more than passively notice the world around you. Soak it up, file it away, and start using the amazing things around you in your art! Your work will only become stronger and less cliché the more you allow yourself to truly study the motions, actions, reactions, and emotions of those around you.

Next month we’ll tackle reference! In the meantime, if you want a fun observational exercise, hit a zoo or a park or a shopping mall and just sit on a bench and watch people. You can even bring along a sketchbook to draw what you see and take notes, but the important thing is to watch the people around you and truly study them. Oh, and don’t forget to wear sunglasses so you don’t creep them out!