Animation Body Mechanics: Understanding Exaggeration

The principle of exaggeration is an idea that is relatively simple to understand; you're essentially taking an action and pushing it further. This can range from pushing a pose, to exaggerating the timing of an action. Just about every animation that you do is going to consist exaggeration; it's a vital technique to implement, because when it comes down to it, the way we move in the real world is not very entertaining or appealing. As animators, we are often basing our animations off of a real-life video reference that we shot, or animating in a way that we know is how something moves when it's obeying the laws of gravity. This is great, but as animators it's our job to identify the areas that can be pushed further to create an even more appealing animation, and this can often mean putting everything you know about real-world movement on the back burner and focusing on what makes a great animation, which often entails exaggerating what we see in the real-world. Exaggeration can be something as simple as taking a character from angry to furious, or scared to terrified. This means pushing not only their expression but their posing as well. It also can come down to the timing of an action, maybe your character is turning to look in the direction of a loud noise that startled them. Your timing might be based purely on what was in your video reference, but you can easily cut the timing in half and speed up the action significantly, exaggerating the fact that the character was startled. Sure, it might be physically impossible for someone to turn that quickly without injuring themselves, but the great thing about it is that we are not constrained by the real-life when it comes to animation. Exaggeration can also go beyond just taking a character from scared to terrified, or pushing the timing of an action. It can also mean pushing a pose way beyond anything that is physically possible. Of course, depending on the type of animation you're trying to create this can be a fine line you must walk, if you push it to the extreme then your animation may look very cartoony, which may not be what you're aiming for. However, animations that are supposed to be more realistic can still be exaggerated beyond what is physically possible, as long as it's done over a few frames, so that it's felt rather than seen. In the shot above, it's obviously a much more cartoony-style animation, but by pushing a lot of the poses and timing it increases appeal. If this animation was based purely off video reference then the jump would have probably been a few inches off the ground, and the ending pose would not have been as exaggerated. The purpose of the shot is to show that the police officer got startled by something rolling by his feet, the action before is subtle, as he is searching in the darkness. To really sell the fact that he is frightened, his actions after can be exaggerated to communicate to the audience and create a more appealing action. With all this being said, there still is a concern of over exaggerating a shot, and you need to ensure that you're not going beyond the threshold of too much exaggeration. If you push every single action to the extreme, then you risk creating a sense of uneasiness in the audience. You need to pepper in exaggeration where it makes sense, as soon as you start incorporating exaggeration to every area of a shot then you run the risk of numbing your audience to it, and it loses its appeal. You want to give your audience something to compare the exaggeration to. To avoid this you need to understand the essence of the scene, what is the purpose of the shot, and how does it fit within the shots before it and after it? By understanding your scene, and knowing what you're trying to communicate you'll know what needs to be pushed and exaggerated, and what needs to remain more subtle. Going back to the previous example, if the character is startled by a noise, then what needs to be exaggerated is his expression and posing, and the timing in which he enters into this frightened pose. Keeping everything else more subtle can really help to drive the main idea of the shot home, which is being frightened by a noise. You want to make the purpose of the shot as clear as possible. This being said, there is certainly a place for over exaggeration. There are really two types of exaggeration, the kind that pushes an emotion, i.e. furious instead of angry, terrified instead of scared, etc. This helps communicate a feeling, make an action look more appealing and helps to sell the purpose of the scene to the audience. There is also another type of exaggeration and this is simply for entertainments sake, the extremely cartoony, and the type of exaggeration that is not trying to hide, it's out in the open.

These model sheets from Tex Avery’s “Bums Away” can be a great resource for inspiration and reference.

You can see great examples of this in the classic Tex Avery cartoons, where the exaggeration was pushed so far to the extreme that it’s part of what made his cartoons so unique and appealing. A character yelling not only had their mouth wide open, but their body was involved in the entire action, and they were so angry they floated above the ground as they screamed. However, if you watch these cartoons closely, you can also see that he still used exaggeration when it was most needed; there are moments where the scene was subdued, right up until the big moment of the scene, and it made the exaggeration all that more appealing and comical.

Take time to study exaggeration in your favorite films and cartoons, examine the type of exaggeration that is felt rather than seen, and study the extremely pushed, the kind you find in films like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the Tex Avery cartoons. The best way to grasp how to implement this principle is to learn how it’s accomplished in your favorite types of movies and cartoons. Remember that even the most realistic shot is going to have exaggeration in it; sure, it may not be as prominent and obvious but it’s still there.

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