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Character Animation Fundamentals: Timing and Spacing

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The Character Animation Series is a learning path designed to take a person with little to no character animation experience and get them up and running. No matter what 3D application you use you'll be able to follow along as you know how to set keyframes and open up the Graph Editor or Curve Editor in your 3D program of choice. This series is designed to focus on the core principles of character animation and not the software that you use to create it. In each article there will be a step-by-step tutorial teaching you how to implement the subject taught in the 3D application. At the end of each article you will be given an animation assignment, using the same techniques as you used in the step-by-step tutorial, only this time you'll be doing it on your own. To download the rig used in this tutorial visit this link: Ball Rig

Understanding Timing and Spacing

Timing and spacing is really one of the easiest principles to understand when described properly. However, it's probably one of the most difficult principles to get right in an animation. Having a basic knowledge of how this principle works, and understanding the description of it in the 12 Principles of Animation doesn't always relate to implementing it properly into an animation. As you can see from the image above, timing refers to how long the action takes, and spacing refers to where that object is at each frame of an animation. Since film is run at 24 frames per second (FPS) you use this as the building block for your timing. If you have an object moving from point A to point B in 24FPS that means it takes the object one second to reach point B. Spacing refers to where that object is at between the other 23 frames. Depending on where you position the other 23 frames can give the illusion of acceleration, deceleration, or a constant even speed.
In the video example above, the ball moves at the exact same timing throughout. In the first two examples the ball takes one second to reach point B. However, by simply adjusting the spacing of the ball between the other 23 frames it can drastically change how the object moves through space. In the second example it takes the ball 12 frames or half a second to get to point B. By simply adjusting the spacing it makes the ball appear to move faster and slower. This should give you an understanding of how important the principle of timing and spacing is to your animation because both timing and spacing describes the speed of an action or movement.

Timing and Spacing in the Real-World

To understand timing and spacing more thoroughly, the best place to look for examples is not in other animations, but rather in real world reference. After all, the principle of timing and spacing is derived from how people and objects move in the real world. Once you understand how timing and spacing works outside of pencil and paper or mouse and keyboard you'll have a strong point of reference that you can hang a hook on, and you'll understand why this principle is so important to your animations. Every movement that you make in the real-world can be broken down into timing and spacing examples. Every time you reach for your phone to look at a text message what is the timing on that movement? To move your hand from the mouse to your phone did it take one second, maybe two? Or maybe it was really important so it only took half a second. To break this down even further, what is the timing on how long it takes for you to press a key on the touch screen of your phone? Maybe a quarter of second? Or maybe it takes a full half a second because you're knew to texting on a touch screen. You can see how important timing and spacing is because it really describes the speed of every single action, whether it's big or small. It also can show the thought process for someone. If a person takes a full second to press a single key on their touch screen you probably know they aren't familiar with typing on a phone. Whereas somebody who zips through the keys has probably done this many times before. Right there, that simple timing difference can describe someone's current state of mind. If it takes that person one second to type each letter on the touch screen you probably know they aren't very tech savvy. As you start to dive deeper into animation, this is something you'll have trouble getting out of your head because now everytime you go out into public you're going to be examining every person's movements and running through the timing and spacing scenarios in your head. This is both a gift and a curse for an animator!

The Two Functions of Timing and Spacing

As you can probably already tell by now, but timing and spacing is extremely important to your animation. Not only does it describe the speed of an action, but it can give thought and motivation behind your character. Going back to the phone example again, just by adjusting the timing of how long it takes the character to press a key it can completely alter who this character is. By showing that the character is slow at texting will give a cue to the audience that this person may have never used a cell phone before. While timing and spacing is really one of the simplest principles of animation in theory, it really is the building block for your animation, because without good timing and spacing it's hard to find a good animation underneath. That's why it's the first principle you need to understand as an aspiring character animator. You may be wondering where the cliché ball bounce exercise comes into play in all of this? That comes later, no need to worry! While the ball bounce exercise is the best way to get an understanding of timing and spacing it's important for you to look beyond that. Yes, timing and spacing is there to help create believable and realistic movements based off the real-world but it's also your job as the animator to use timing and spacing to show emotion in your character and give them thought behind their actions. It's also the best way to create more appeal in your animation. The sooner you understand this, the easier the animation exercises will get as you dive deeper into character animation. The ball bounce will still be used as the exercise for timing and spacing because it really is the foundation for all animations. Without good timing and spacing the ball bounce won't feel like a bounce at all as you'll find out a little later. But it's important to understand that timing and spacing really serves two functions. The first obviously being it's there to create movement that obeys the laws of physics and the other function is to add interest and appeal to your animations. For the exercises in this article we'll focus on timing and spacing to create realistic movement. The second function can be saved for "Advanced Timing and Spacing" later in the character animation series, but it's still important you keep the second function in the back of your mind as you continue your journey through the Character Animation series.

How Do You Know What Good Timing Is?

So with everything said, how can you know what good timing and spacing is? Well, a lot of it comes from experience. As with anything, you'll get better at it the more you do it. However, one of the best ways is to look at real-world reference. Since this principle is based off movement in real-life it's logically the best place to learn about it.

How to Implement Timing and Spacing Into an Animation

So studying reference and learning about the importance of timing and spacing and how it works is vital, but how do you actually implement it into your animation in the 3D application? That can be the most difficult part. That's another reason why the ball bounce exercise should be the very first animation you ever tackle because not only does it require you to use the fundamentals of timing and spacing but it also gives you a broad view of the 3D application and the tools needed to properly adjust both the timing and spacing of an animation. You learn how to set keyframes but also use the Graph Editor or Curve Editor (Depending on your 3D application) to adjust the spacing of the animation. You'll discover more about this in the tutorial below:

Video Tutorial - Creating a Ball Bounce Using Timing and Spacing

This tutorial will be done in Maya, but you should be able to follow along in any 3D application as long as you know how to set keyframes and use the application's Graph Editor or Curve Editor. You can download the ball rig used in the tutorial at this link: Ball Rig

Assignment

In order to really grasp the concept of timing and spacing take this time to create two of your own ball bounces. The first is a ball bounce that resembles a bowling ball. The second ball bounce should resemble a beach ball. This will ensure you're comfortable with not only creating the timing but also adjusting the spacing to mimic these objects in real-life. Use the principle of timing and spacing that you learned in this article to create different styles of bounces. Watch the video below to see how the animations should look: You can research video reference to get an idea for the timing.
In the next article in the series we will go over the principle of overlapping action and walk through the importance of it in your animations and how you can start implementing it into your work. Jump to Squash and Stretch . Jump to Anticipation.