Monday, July 1, 2013
When all else fails: "Be the Camera"
I still want to post a bit about some of the simple depth and perspective tricks I learned in drawing, but first I want to mention one of the more memorable speed bumps I hit in my early animation education.
The last few posts began with a memory of working on DRAGON'S LAIR at Don Bluth's studio in the early 1980's. Prior to that I had done some script and story work on the studio's first theatrical feature, THE SECRET OF NIMH. I think I was in a kind of limbo because I really wanted to be a character animator but I was nowhere as good as the rest of the crew. So I would be given simple character scenes to do, usually miscellaneous rats, and the rest of my time I'd be scripting dialog, pitching ideas at story meetings and going to most of the recordings, where sometimes I'd be called on to improvise new material for the actors. Here I was a little better off because I was much more comfortable in the improvisational atmosphere of a story meeting or a recording session, where my big mouth and spontaneity came in naturally handy.
But my heart was aways in awe of the animators who brought the characters to life. I was so overwhelmed back then that even those simple scenes I'd get were usually beyond me. One (but by no means not the only one) that particularly had me stuck was a gang of huge, heavy set rats backing away in awe from a miraculous aura emanating from "Mrs. Brisby" the hero, during the climax of the movie. All i had to do was get one rat stepping gingerly backward as he watched on and I could base the others on that. Then "all" they had to do was settle to a stop. Simple.
I could not do it. As Richard Williams has written, a forward walk is task enough for a beginner, a backward walk? Fugheddaboutit. The rat designs were big and bulky, standing up on their back haunches like bipeds. The leg anatomy was largely hidden because their haunches were flabby, baloon-ish and covered with fur. It was utterly perplexing. I would start trying to figure out what to do with the toes of the stepping foot, then the heel, then try to work my way up the ankle… Suffice it to say by the time I got the knee-bone connected to the hip-bone, I was totally lost.
I have jumbled memories of top animators like Linda Miller (and even at one point I think Don Bluth) patiently sketching out a series of rough poses to get me going. Back I would hurry to my desk only to lose the thread again and begin piling up discarded sketches of my own. I'd take the scene home with me and struggle with it until the early hours of the next day, falling asleep in frustration and dreaming that I was still awake and still murdering that assignment.
Somehow it got done. The walk got worked out, with lots of extra help and coaching and probably drawing from others. Working out the timing of the group settling to a stop proved almost as complex. They would either appear to stop all at once, jarringly, or a more "staggered" stopping arrangement would be too erratic and distracting. I have not tried to watch the movie in more than 25 years but I bet that the saving grace were the special effects that probably covered everything up.
One of the fixes I learned a few years down the line when confronted with issue again had to do mainly with my frame of mind. When I was struggling, I realized I was trying to be overly analytical, trying to understand and motivate every muscle, bone and sinew from the toes up, from the inside out. In some sense, I was trying to be the master of nature itself, or maybe even God or something.
The fix I evolved for this turned out to be simple. When this would happen I would stop myself from trying to be "God" and tell myself to just be the movie camera photographing the action. Tackle it from the opposite direction: from the outside in. This sounds counter-intuitive, like it would be cold and distancing and prevent an animator from connecting with their character. Guess what, it doesn't have to be that way. You can still feel joy and empathy as you furnish the paper with the "photos" ifrom your mind. I would think: "If I were a movie camera, photographing at 24x (or 12x) per second, what would the frames of film look like?" On frame three, for instance, where would the rat be? The whole rat, not just the toes or the heel or whatever. And, then say, 3 or 4 frame later? Because whether he's walking forward or backward, he's moving his whole body from one place to the next, and his motivation is not simply coming from his feet. What would his posture be, what would the silhouette need to be to tell that story clearly? These are all questions a camera would answer automatically (and faithfully in the bargain!).
This crappy little movie I just did with Flash took me about ten minutes and tho the timing could be refined, it probably resembles what the finished animation looked like that took me weeks to do back in the day. Yes it's 30+ years later, but it also has everything to do with thinking like a camera instead of like the prime mover 'Him'self.
Yes, the feet do pretty much all the work at the ground level, but his mind and body and spinal chord and his feelings and instincts are all involved too, to no less a part. Trying to wrangle all these in sequence is asking a lot. So when that happens, let the mind slow down and pretend you are already looking at it. Then copy it down as you see it in your minds eye.
Like any animator I loved to study footage, live or animated, stepping thru it one frame at a time on a moviola or one of the early video tape players. After a while, you get a sense of how timing and spacing works and when all else fails, in my case at least, I could trick myself into imagining the material was already on film in my head and all I would have to do is draw the frames as i saw them there.
The great and talented Bruce Smith (THE PROUD FAMILY, E.N.G. TARZAN) had another fix for this a few years later. We were working at FILMATION on one of that studios ill-conceived features, but both of us were happy to be working on just about the only full animation in the US (outside of Disney) at the time. Bruce was animating a really rich, characteristic walk, tracking a character laterally across several steps on the page. I noticed he had not done the feet yet! Bruce laughed and said: "Well, I wanted to get this cute action on the character as she walks along here, I'll add the legs and feet after I get done with that."
Again, I was gobsmacked, it almost seemed like cheating. But (Richard Williams might not agree with this) the truth is, the action is going to involve the whole character. The feet are important, but they aren't the whole thing. The essence of the character's personality during those strides wasn't particularly dependent on the feet and legs. So they came along after and worked just fine.
This all co-relates to another issue I have to write about: "How Many Frames...?"
at 10:08 PM