The Do's and Don'ts of Using Reference in Animation
The purpose of any animation is to tell a story through moving pictures, and as an animator, your job is to bring inanimate objects to life in a way that does not jeopardize the illusion being manifested to an audience.
In order for an animation to succeed, an audience must be fully captivated by the story being conveyed to them. That means everything in the animation should be key-framed with a quality that would not cause any distractions that could confuse the viewer, and ultimately, harm the story. This puts a heavy responsibility on animators to create life in the characters or creatures they’ve been tasked with so the characters’ movements seem natural and entertaining.
Here’s where reference plays a very important role. Reference is simply a guide artists use to create a certain look and feel in their work. Without it, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to animate or illustrate anything to have a sense of believability and appeal. Since reference is so vital to the success of one’s work, is it OK to rely on it heavily, or should it be used primarily as a tool for artists to overcome obstacles that would be rather difficult to conquer without it?
When deciding on whether or not to rely on reference material, it’s important to remember that its purpose is to be a learning tool, helping you to become more adept in your given set of creative skills. If you find yourself stuck on a challenging animation, there’s nothing wrong with finding some reference to get over the hurdle. And this reference can have many forms. It can be in the form of video footage that you captured yourself or were provided with from an online resource. It can be in the form of people, creatures or objects we observe in the real world that we’d like our assets to mimic in some way. It could even be an inspiring image, perhaps from a comic or a photo we’ve come across.
No matter what form it takes, remember, reference is meant to be a helpful learning tool. This, in turn, means that it should not be used to copy or plagiarize. If you intend on becoming a better animator, you must increase your understanding of the subjects you study in reference so there can come a time when we no longer need to rely on source material. So copying from a source, frame-by-frame, can be a hindrance that can take you further away from this goal because at that point we’re memorizing the reference instead of understanding it.
Imagine you’re given a fantasy creature to animate and you’re struggling to figure out how it should move and behave; what its mannerisms should be. This would be a great moment to acquire reference footage of real-life creatures that resemble the creature you must bring to life. After studying all of your reference extensively, you can begin taking notes and sketching thumbnails of everything that stood out to you in the reference you might be able to salvage and use in your work. If thumbnailing isn’t your cup of tea, you can use the material directly to help block in sections of your performance, but remember to not go overboard. Try using a good mixture of reference and your own creativity, because it’s really your imagination that will help your work stand out from the crowd.
Also, keep in mind that reference doesn’t necessarily have to stop at your blocking pass. If you find that, in your polishing pass, something in your timing or pose doesn’t quite look correct, then try to use your reference to pinpoint the problem. You might be surprised by the gems of knowledge that can be gleaned from your source footage! By incorporating these helpful bits of information, you can then start to help tell, and even enhance the story you are showcasing through your animated sequence, which means you’ve fulfilled your job as an animator and a storyteller!
Remember that reference can very much be a helpful guide for improving the quality of your work, but it can, at the same time, be a barrier to achieving greater artistic accomplishments if not used correctly. If and when you decide to use reference, use it just enough to understand the character or creature you’re animating, then let your imagination have the final say so you can create performances teeming with appeal and originality.