Best Practices in Animation
Best practices in animation can make your life as an animator productive and efficient! Bringing an animation to life can be a painstakingly tedious endeavor. Even with animation software a short clip can take hours of work and require at least a basic knowledge of how the software works which can be overwhelming for someone who is new to the animation game. Newbies look at complex and beautifully animated movies done by Pixar and DreamWorks and wish that they could share in some of that talent. But like many things animating isn’t just about the level of talent a person has nor is it always necessarily based on an esoteric knowledge bestowed upon someone by some learning institution. To become a successful animator one should follow a certain number of practices that many serious animators adhere to.
The first best practice in animation is to, well, practice. Animating isn’t something that someone can tell you how to do like microwaving popcorn or installing car batteries and you sure aren’t going to find any tutorials online that will instantly make you a pro. Back in the early days of Disney animated movies those people didn’t have online tutorials or YouTube videos that they could rely on in order to create movies like Snow White and the Little Mermaid which found their way into millions of homes throughout the world. No, those animators had to put in the time and effort to make such art. A good way to practice is to start off with something simple. For example, when someone wants to make their first animation they will begin with a simple shape like a ball and they will learn to move it across the screen. They might make it bounce or roll but the idea is to keep it basic. The basics are very important and are the foundation for what the rest of your future animations will be. To step it up a notch one might practice making a character perform simple movements such as jumping or standing up from a seated position which allows the animator to make small adjustments in the character’s body that give the illusion that the character is in motion. When an animator becomes familiar with making simple movements they might take it to the next level and make a clip of a more intricate series of movements. An animation of a close-up of a hand picking up a small object requires a strong attention to detail and multiple objects moving at once. In this example, you would likely want to pay attention to the way that each finger moves around the objects and bends to get a grip. You’d probably also want to show how the skin wrinkles around each knuckle, if you were doing a more detailed animation. Doing these types of exercises may seem mundane at first but you wouldn’t want to jump right into a big project if you didn’t have any experience animating. If you could learn to have fun practicing basic animations, you will undoubtedly become better and maybe even great which will show when you put your mind to an important project.
Best practice in animation makes perfect but only if you practice correctly. When learning how to make objects move you want to be able to make them move in a realistic way, even if moderately exaggerated for a comic effect. Seek out real world references. For instance, if you were trying to make an animation about a snowboarder jumping and flipping through the air without having some insight as to how a body moves in that type of situation you’d likely end up with a clip that looks very unnatural. In order to make an animation seem lifelike you ought to study the way a body goes through certain motions. Watch how people walk through the streets and how they look around or lead with their eyes. Typically, a person will look in the direction in which they want to move and then their head points to that direction followed by the neck, the shoulders and so on until the whole body is oriented to move towards wherever the eyes lead them. When animating a face the animator will often make a recording of a voice over artist’s face as they lay down audio for a character. The animator will use this video as a reference guide when trying to express emotions in the animation. A good way to make a reference guide for character movements it to film yourself and use that to capture expressions for your work.
When you’ve gotten a good idea of how you want your character to move it’s best to form key poses first. To go back to the snowboarder example, you’d want to start by giving the character a generalized motion set. Then you can go in and work on the finer details of his/her flight through the air which will be much more natural looking and give your animation a nice fluidity.
When trying to express emotion in animation it is important to time your character’s movements. When trying to give a character a happy or excited appearance you’d want to give it quick and sharp movements. Or if your character was depressed, for example Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, you’d give him a slow or sluggish motion.
When making animations you also want them to appear balanced. If you were to make your character stand on his/her right foot while holding a bowling ball in the left hand you’d want to have the character lean to their right side in order to counterbalance the weight of the ball. Otherwise this just looks weird and unnatural. This is another good opportunity to use real world references.
If you were to watch a snowboarder hit a jump you would first notice the rider getting centered on the board as they approached the jump while bending their knees. When they hit the lip of the jump their knees will straighten out quickly to give them a boost in height as they become airborne. They will then sail through the air and come in for a landing at which point their knees will bend again and they will slide away. These parts can be described as the anticipation, the action and the reaction. These three stages are the main parts of every major movement and can be very useful when figuring out how to animate a character.
When animating a character who is speaking it might seem like an alien is talking if you were to try to form every letter in the character’s speech. If you watch someone talk you will notice that they don’t physically form each letter with their lips. Instead you would see a more generalized movement through their face. If you watched someone say the word ‘slow’ you would notice that their teeth come together with lips slightly open as they start the ‘s’ sound and follow up with an open mouth that forms the ‘low’ at the end. It’s kind of like reading a word. When you read you don’t say every letter rather the letters come together to make a unique sound.
When animating a big project, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of work and attention to detail involved. Even in a short clip you might have several scenes and multiple layers working together to illustrate a story. Because there is a lot of work involved and many components to keep track of it is important to stay organized and there are a few ways to do this.
It is very common for animators to use storyboards to bring their animations to life. Storyboards were developed by Walt Disney Productions during the 1930’s and have been widely used ever since. Storyboards are a series of basic drawings designed to deliver the gist of the story. Each drawing represents a scene and should immediately give you an idea of what is going on at that point in the animation. The best storyboards are simple- don’t waste time making your storyboard look pretty and well-illustrated. Just draw an image or two to represent each scene and then focus on each scene one by one as you begin your animation. When you are able to focus on each individual scene then you can start working out all the details.
When you do start to focus on each scene take the time needed to really think them through. When will each scene start and end? What characters are going to be present and what backgrounds will be needed? It is also a good time to figure out how to use special effects like sound to convey the feeling that you want the viewer to experience. Also, timing can play a big part in conveying feeling or realism. It is important that you map out your timing. For example, if you have a soccer player kicking a ball you want to calculate how many frames it will take for the kicker’s foot to swing and make contact with the ball and then how many frames the ball will fly through the air. Too many frames and the ball will seem like it’s filled with helium, too few frames will give the viewer the impression that the kicker has never kicked a ball before and will likely be kicked from the team.
Recycling basic animations is also a good way to stay organized and to save time. If say you wanted to make a crowd of people walking around it would be a huge waste of time to animate each individual person in the crowd from scratch. Instead make a bare bones, minimally detailed character walk and then save the animation in a file that you won’t manipulate. Then copy that basic animated character and paste it throughout your scene. Once you have multiple copies included in your scene you can go in and add finer detail like clothing, facial features and hair or even change the gait of individuals in the scene. This will save you a boatload of time and should give you a good idea of other ways to recycle animations.
Possibly one of the biggest ways to enhance your animations is to keep things simple. It is far too easy to get flustered when making animations and trying to include as much detail as possible only compounds the problem. If you watch a good animation you may notice that the animators are trying to focus the attention towards one part of the animation. To do that they don’t allow for any extra movements or detail around the fringes of each scene. Characters make simple movements and are not shown to be flexing every muscle in their bodies as might be required in real life. Backgrounds and foregrounds are fairly basic and aren’t attention grabbing. This is especially important for instructional or informational videos where the purpose of the animation is to teach a person about something. If you intend to teach someone via an animated movie, why would you overwhelm them with beautiful animations that are distracting and time consuming? Keep it simple and focus on the content of the story that you are trying to convey.
Animating can be a fun and very rewarding activity or profession but it is important to understand that it is a skill developed over time, and basic best practices in animation is one area. No one has ever been a master animator right off the bat nor is it likely that any of them have never required guidance. All good animators share in a few of the core practices detailed above and all have spent many, many hours practicing their art.
Best Practices in Animation Sources:
Best practices in animation – “5 Things To Do Before You Ever Start Animating.” About.com, 28 Aug. 2015,
Best practices in animation – “Best Practices | Animation Infatuation.” GreenBuzzAgency.com, 20 Nov. 2013,
Best practices in animation – “51 Great Animation Exercises to Master.” AnimatorIsland.com, 18 Mar. 2013,
Best practices in animation – “10 Best practices for creating a successful animation feature film storyboard.” AnimatorExpress.com, 5 Mar. 2015, http://www.animationxpress.com/index.php/latest-news/storyboarding-tips-to-follow
Best practices in animation – “15 ways to improve your character animation.” CreativeBloq.com, 24 April 2014,
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