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From Blocking to Polish: 5 Steps to Animating a Cartoony Shot

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As an animator, it's always important to be well-rounded in your skills. Depending on the projects you work on, the animation style can be complete opposites from one project to the next. For instance, you may be working on a project that calls for a very realistic style of animation, the next may be the polar opposite, and calls for an extremely cartoony style of animation. It's up to you to take these head on and deliver the quality of animation that is required. Being comfortable animating more stylized is an extremely important skill to have as an animator. There are certainly challenges that arise with each style of animation, but knowing how to overcome these challenges is vital. In this article we'll walk through the ten key steps to creating a cartoony-style animation, so you can understand how one might approach a cartoony shot. So let's act like we just got sent a shot from our animation director, he wants the security guard character to spot something, and then jump in terror, away from whatever he sees. In this case, it ends up being a completely harmless creature. Given the style of the project, this is a very cartoony animation. Now it's time for you, as the animator to figure out how to animate this shot. So let's get started! (Note: We've created three different time lapse videos to give you a better idea of how an animation like this was completed)

Step 1: Planning the Animation

thumbnails So one thing that you may find as a challenge when it comes to animating a more cartoony style shot is that it can be hard to shoot video reference for it. However, there is nothing stopping you from doing a few thumbnail sketches for your animation. It's always a good idea to come up with a few basic key poses. You certainly might have the basic idea of how you want your shot to look, but instead of going through trial and error inside of Maya, it's better to just take some time to do some rough planning. It always ends up helping out in the long run. For this we've just made a few quick sketches for the main beats of the animation. The security is searching for something off in the distance is one beat, jumping high into the air because something scares him is the second beat, and finally the settle is the third beat. So we have a place to start from and this gives us some direction once we actually get into the 3D application. As you can see from the image above, these sketches are not pretty, and they aren't meant to be. Try and spend a few seconds on each thumbnail.

Step 2: Blocking in the Animation

Now that you've done some planning sketches, the next step is to take it into your 3D application and begin to block in the animation. For this particular animation we've taken a somewhat unique approach of a straight ahead/pose to pose method. Which you can see in the time lapse video above. We've also started in spline mode, which depending on your workflow may be a different than what you typically do, which is to block in the animation using stepped tangents. If that is how you like to work, then by all means do what you feel is most comfortable. The reason a hybrid approach was taken for this is more of a personal choice. The animation is blocked in using spline tangents, and the poses have literally been worked in straight ahead, moving from the first to the last. Whereas a pose to pose method would be to first block in the most important key pose, which would be the security guard searching, then the next key pose would be him jumping, the next would be him landing, and then coming to a settle. So really, only four key poses would be blocked in, and then you would go back through and add in the next extremes, and so on. With this, it's been blocked in from the first key pose to the last, and every key pose inbetween has also been put in. However, we are still keeping the amount of keyframes to a minimum. We want to get the basic animation across in the first blocking pass, but we don't want to start offsetting keys, or anything like that. We are still taking a pose to pose method, of getting the important key poses in, but we are doing them in order, and not adding in the four extremes, then going back over it, and adding the next extremes, and so on and so on, until the entire animation has been blocked in. Instead, we are getting it done essentially all in one pass.

Step 3: Refining Pass

The refining pass is when we're starting to think about drag, and overlapping action. It's also when many of the poses have really been pushed to an extreme. When it comes to cartoony animation it really comes down to simply exaggerating regular actions and movements. For example, if you were to shoot video reference for this same shot, you would see the basic motions are pretty much the same. When you jump, you push off with one foot, and when you land one foot plants on the ground first, and then your body follows. It's the same basic idea of a jump, but everything has really been pushed. His leg plants several frames before his body even begins its decent back toward the ground, and he stays in the air much longer than what would be possible in the real world. You can think of the jump in the exact same way you would animate a bouncing ball, the spacing is very tight at the top of the arc, and as he falls it spreads out. The refining pass is when we've also started to add in moving holds, during the anticipation he no longer just hits a wall, but instead eases into the pose. When it comes to 3D animation, you really don't want to have complete holds; instead you want to implement moving holds, so there is always slight movement going on.

Step 4: Second Refining Pass

The majority of the animation is completed at this point. The timing and spacing is correct, and he is moving on the screen how you want him to. The second refining pass is really the time when you can go in and do another quick pass over the animation, and look at areas you can exaggerate. In this instance, during the second refining pass the push off and landing have been pushed quite a bit, and adding in squash and stretch helped the action feel more fluid. Another very important thing that we've done in this pass is start to incorporate lead and follow. Up until this point, there hasn't really been any lead and follow, and all the body parts on the security guard have hit their pose at pretty much the same time. You want to star to fix this, have the hands coming up at different times, and make sure the body is really leading the actions. One vital thing to keep in mind though, is that we haven't really started offsetting keys yet, because you don't really need to yet. You can really get as much lead and follow as you need just by adjusting your poses, as you can see in the video timelapse above. The final settle has also been refined, with some bounce in there as he comes up into the final pose. There has also been some shake added in his hand that is holding the flashlight when it comes up into the settle position. Up until this point, nothing has really been done with the fingers, so a finger pass has been done on both hands, just to add some motion in the fingers, and make sure they are not completely stiff throughout the animation. The fingers are often something that can be overlooked at times, since it is typically something you wait to refine until further down the road, but you never want to neglect the hands and fingers, because they are extremely important to your animations.

Step 5: Final Polish

The animation is pretty much 90% complete. Now it's time to go in and add in those small details to the animation. Track the arcs, and make sure the animation curves are looking good. If you need to, you can start offsetting key where you need more lead and follow. The benefit to really waiting until the polish pass to start offsetting keyframes is because it's very easy to make any changes to your animation. If you're working in a production environment, it's not uncommon to get fixes or changes from the director, and being able to easily adjust your animation as needed without have to go back and re-do most of it is a huge time saver. Now you should have a basic understanding of how someone might approach animating a more cartoony shot. Next time you're tasked with a shot similar to this one, be sure to keep some of the things taught in this article in the back of your mind. Remember, when creating a more stylized animation, it often comes down to simply exaggerated what you see in real life. If you want to learn more about cartoony animation be sure to check out Animating Cartoon Characters in Maya.