Animation Body Mechanics: The Importance of Video Reference
Character animation at its very basic level is essentially recreating real-life movements, whether it's 2D animation, or 3D. Sure, much of this consists of exaggerating these real-life actions to increase appeal and to create something more entertaining to watch. It's our job, as animators, to understand how the human body moves and reacts, not only that, but also how animals and even inanimate objects behave. To understand animation, and to create believable movements, we must study how things in the world move.
Take a walk cycle, for example, if the hips are moving incorrectly, and the weight is off then the animation is going to suffer. Sure, you could argue it's trying to be more of a cartoony style animation, but even so, you need to have some sort of believability in the movement. While the walk cycle may be extremely exaggerated, and over the top, that doesn't mean things like weight, and essential body mechanics can be overlooked.
In the Animation Fundamentals Series, you learned about the very basics of character animation, and how to utilize many of the principles of animation to achieve believable movement. (Catch up on the previous articles in the Character Animation Fundamentals Series: Timing and Spacing, Overlapping Action, Squash and Stretch, Anticipation).
In a sense, we are still going to be studying the fundamentals of animation, but applying it to more advanced animations. Things like Ease in and Ease out, and Exaggeration are going to be taught, but taught through body mechanics, rather than simple objects like basketballs, and pendulums. Even though the basketball bounce is an essential animation exercise that every new animator needs to master, it only gets you so far, and at some point you will need to apply what you learned to a full character.
However, before you can jump into more advanced animations, you must start with the basics of body mechanics. You need to learn how to study the real-world, and apply what you see into your animations, so that the animation, whether it's a character jumping, or a baby walking for the first time is animated in a convincing way. Without a strong understanding of the way we move, your animation is going to suffer.
For this first part in the Body Mechanics series you'll learn about the steps to take that will help you have a better understanding of body mechanics, and the best way to do that is through video reference.
Video reference is really an animator's best friend. Video reference plays a key role in nearly every single animation that you do, at least it should. It's important not to think of video reference as "cheating" because it certainly isn't. Video reference is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal, and with the Internet, you can find excellent video reference for just about every action imaginable, whether it's someone doing a back flip on the ground, or a person sprinting.
Video reference is just as important to an animator as the photograph is to the portrait artist. It gives you a guide to follow, and an understanding of how the action is actually accomplished in the real-world. In addition, it gives your animation believability, and a stepping-stone to build from. As you learned in the Five Steps to Animating a Cartoony Shot article, you can use video reference as a building block, even if you are tackling a very cartoony shot. That is another vital thing to keep in mind, even if you're trying to tackle something more exaggerated and stylized, it doesn't mean video reference can't come in handy. You just need to learn what to look for in the reference, and what to push and exaggerate.
Why Video Reference is Important
There are certainly many benefits to using video reference, and as you'll learn about below, it's a vital tool to use in order to gain knowledge of how things move in the real-world. However, it's important to find some of the more obvious and basic examples of video reference, so you can use it to find posing ideas. You can experiment with different actions and poses very quickly by working through the movement. It's also an excellent tool to use for a basic timing structure for your animation. By converting the playback to frames in your video player application, you can see exactly how many frames it takes for say, your hand to grab the cup, or to complete a single step in a walk.
You can use this to base the timing of your animation on. Of course, a large majority of the time, the timing you get in your video reference will need to be altered some, either to increase appeal since more often than not, timing in the real-world can be boring at times, or because not everything translates well to 3D animation. However, you'll still have a basic timing structure you can adjust and build off of quickly.
Studying Video Reference
You need to use the video reference as something to learn from, and to gain knowledge and understanding of how your subject moves, whether it's a human or a cat. Although one benefit of video reference should be something to base your poses and timing on, you should also be looking deeper than using it simply as a type of tracing material.
Take the time to study your video reference. For example, say you have video reference of someone walking down the street. Don't just use this reference for merely rotoscoping purposes; instead, really pick apart what you are seeing in the reference and why it's happening. When the person moves toward the "down" position, how are their hips rotating? Additionally, where is their weight centered during this moment in time?
What is the arc pattern of the feet during the walk? And as the hips are rotating upward as the leg raises, what type of affect is that having on the torso and upper body? These are things you should be asking, and trying to answer while you study your video reference. Not only will this give you a wealth of knowledge for this one particular shot, but it will instill that knowledge into your mind for any other shot down the road. Maybe you're working on a similar walk cycle, but the project doesn't allow for enough time to film your own video reference. Going back to the knowledge you gained by studying that particular bit of video reference, you know that in a general sense, this is how the hips are going to rotate in a basic walk cycle, and this is how the torso is going to react.
As you're starting to dive deeper into the world of animation, take the time to study video reference even if you aren't necessarily using it for a specific shot. Look up parkour videos, and frame-by-frame it, you'll certainly find some excellent body mechanics examples there. Just like someone who studies traditional art, they must understand anatomy, form and weight. As an animator, you must understand this as well, but also understand it as it pertains to movement. The more you know about anatomy, weight, and how we move your animations will be better because of it.
While you might not have gotten to animate your first body mechanics shot in this initial part of the series, understanding how people move, and studying how to utilize your video reference is one of the most important things you must learn at the beginning, before ever trying to tackle your first full character animation. Take some time to find video reference online, or even shoot your own video reference and really study what you see in the video. In the next part of the series, you'll learn about the principle of Ease in and Ease out.