Notes from Animation Talks: Ted Ty

Feature Animation Performance

Just a bit of a preamble: This is a collection of notes I took from a presentation given by Ted Ty, an experienced Dreamworks animator with many great feature films under his belt, back in 2014(!) – The pages I’ve written them on are getting quite faded, so what better way to keep them alive is to share them.

  • Body mechanics for performance! Even in shots that don’t show the character’s entire body, animate it! If you want accurate believable movement, you have to make sure that off-screen is natural and is alive. Don’t “puppet show” your character. Mike Sez: Also this helps with those last-minute shot changes/adjustments.
  • Plan, plan, plan – thumbnail ALL of your work. Do not ever start animating without a solid plan of what you’re doing.
  • Dreamworks uses Motion Capture to block in the layout, including the camera rig – this saves massive amounts of time on shot composition & timing/duration/camera moves, as well as provides reference for the animators.
  • Speaking of Reference – Reference is NOT cheating!
  • When filming your reference/motion capture, do try to do the following:
    • 10 takes of how you think you want it
    • 10 takes of “What-if” experimentation
    • 10 takes of your friends/coworkers – you may be surprised!
    • Film the voice actors as they give their performance – include their body/hands
  • Shooting reference of your friends and coworkers will bring new insight to possible takes and acting choices, plus it helps minimize your own personality quirks from showing up often in your work.
  • Blocking your poses and key frames: Your goal is CLARITY of communication! The viewer shouldn’t be struggling to figure out what your character is doing at the keys stage.
  • Acting with Emotions: You cannot skip the REASON for the emotion; your planning of the animation needs to consider what choices you are making for the character in the context of your animation.
    • The point is not simply “how far can you push a pose” – you have to have a reason.
  • Knowing who your character is in the story allows you to be more specific, more direct on how to project that identity & the character’s intentions.
  • Very few motions/actions are done without a thought or motivation behind it. Never move just for movement’s sake.
  • Exercise the self-discipline and self-control to animate ONLY what’s needed for the shot, and not blow past what’s needed to sell the story’s progression.
  • If the animator doesn’t plan, and/or is uncertain about their work, it will show in their work as a lack of accuracy, a lack of genuine energy, and a lack of conviction/intent behind the movement.
  • Speed is the enemy of animating acting shots. You can’t rush life. Ted Ty references the following quote:

“You sit and you dwell and you wait and you read and you think and you meditate. It takes time to think and ponder, and the work is never done because it just continues. It’s looking for evidence of things.”
– Tom Hardy

  • Bad acting can also arise from unclear or inconsistent direction.
    • Doing too much in too little time – “Hit. Every. Note. Possible.”
    • Enthusiasm (over-abundance) can blind objectivity/critical judgement, and lose sight of the overall big picture, the flow of the story.
  • Shooting acting reference: When shooting your video reference, take the time to do the “As-If” exercise…
    • Do or say it neutrally first.
    • …But how would it go “Happily?”
    • …Or as if you were confused?
    • …As if your computer just crashed, losing your work?
    • …As if you had a great morning and a lucky streak?
    • …As if the flu was setting in fast?
    • …And so on.
    • You can even include your consideration & thought process as part of your acting video reference – a spring-board to trigger the reaction.
  • If a given situation isn’t lending itself to visualization, then try to think of another situation that has the desired reaction.
    • For example, instead of your PC crashing but finding out your work is safe, try when your oft-late friend arrives early for a change.
  • Body language, hand poses, finger gestures can be powerful symbols, but if used carelessly, it can totally screw up your shot.
    • Watch out for cross-over/repeating the same quirks across different characters! Mike sez: I call this ‘Jeff Goldblum’ or ‘Matthew Perry’ – always playing the same personality quirks in every film/show

Finding the acting spark in a given shot, through planning, filming reference, pre-thought, will make even drudge work more rewarding & satisfying to do.

Good animation is technical; Great animation FEELS great!

  • The emotion of the mouth shape is FAR more important than perfect lip synced dialogue. Mike sez: Humans are LAZY. We mumble and mush – we do not enunciate every single phoneme nor syllable.
  • The EYES by far tell the most about the emotions going on in your character.

Thanks to Ted Ty for giving this talk, and I hope that his words inspire you to push yourself to higher heights of your animation skill. Remember: you have to work on the stuff you’re not strong in – discomfort means you’re learning!


Link: The 25 Fastest Ways to Fail at Animation

For both my benefit, and yours, I must share this excellent post about the animation process.

Thumbnails of Animation

The 25 Fastest Ways to Fail at Animation
Article by J.K. Riki.

Many of the points touch on how the animation process cannot be forced into greatness; you have to follow discrete steps, including PLANNING, before you can truly tackle the task before you. Overcomplicating your shot with fancy tricks/techniques is a sure-fire way to lose sight of what you’re aiming to achieve with your animation. It’s ludicrous how often K.I.S.S. shows up in the creative fields, but it always bears repeating, as it’s still ridiculously easy to lose sight of it: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Storyboarding even the most ‘basic’ of shots is always worthwhile. Who cares if the ‘storyboard’ only takes 20 minutes to create – it becomes the foundation of what you plan to do with the given shot. Don’t worry if your storyboards are barely more than stick figures in 1-inch doodle boxes. You’ll be ahead of most of the competition already.

Happy Animating!

Animating in Source Filmmaker – “The Big Surprise” & how I did it


As I put together my animation reel & portfolio earlier, it became apparent that I had no recent examples of character acting nor dialogue scenes. This obviously lead me to assign myself a project – find a good juicy line of dialogue, and animate a character to it. Now I’ve already been exploring & learning the freely available Source Filmmaker tool from Valve, so I immediately thought to springboard off with it. The focus of this new clip was to show off character animation, so that fortunately saved time by restricting it to a single shot, without extra camera moves nor cutting.

The Audio

First, I headed over to an old standby from my college days: The MovieWavs site!
This place is a fantastic resource for finding short audio clips (In .wav or higher quality .MP3 format) for animators to use in their own personal projects. I hit up the movies section, and just browsed, clicking on various films.
Important Tip! Try to pick something that has a range to it – monotony is dull – and pick something that ISN’T from your all-time absolute favorite film. Why? Avoid favorites because you will hear that line over, and over, and over… You can end up HATING that part, because you’ll hear every little nuance. Same tip applies to animating to music – don’t pick your favorite song.
Ultimately I settled on a classic movie, The Shining directed by Stanley Kubrick, and Jack Nicholson’s scene in the kitchen pantry. It was a great monologue, and it had laughter in it, which was a good challenge. Making laughter look convincing without straying into a mechanical staccato motion is a good exercise for animators.

The line transcription: “You’ve got a big surprise coming to you. You’re not going anywhere. Go check out the snowcat and the radio and you’ll see what I mean. Go check it out! Go check it out!! Go check it out.” (Link to MP3)

The Planning

Never skip the planning stage when creating any kind of work, including film & animation! Unfortunately there’s little for me to show you, as I have just pages of notes I wrote, breaking down the emphasis and pacing of the audio. Little scribbles in the margins & between lines like “BIG! (1.1sec)” or what sort of emotion to aim for at key points. I also drew a very loose thumbnail storyboard of the poses I thought would work with the phrases & sub-phrases. Ultimately the final product differed from those initial sketches, but you need to start somewhere in order to see where you need to go.
Also, I did a bit of “location scouting” in Source Filmmaker, looking for the right kind of map from Team Fortress 2 that I could use, as well as finding the right kind of props to inspire me in the Source engine’s asset library. The Shining lent itself to looking for wintry COLD maps, which narrowed my search massively, and fortunately there was a great medical/interrogation chair from Half-Life 2 that I could use. The idea I had in my head from when I found the audio made it much simpler to build the shot. There is nothing worse, nothing more soul-destroying, than aimlessly lumping stuff together until it looks “sorta cool.” With the initial setup done in Source Filmmaker, it was time to begin animating!

The Animating

It is worth mentioning at this point that everything I write/say is what I think – it may not fit perfectly with your own processes! Every artist has an individual methodology that lands on a vast spectrum – some are easier to learn than others, but the difficulty in each is up to the individual. Some of the best creators I’ve seen use convoluted labor-intensive plans, that come as easily as breathing to them, while others freely surf the wild abandon of “straight ahead” into gleaming final products. That said, it helps to have an idea of what works, when you know WHY it works for that person. Onwards!

The first phase of character animation I tackle is the Line of Action. Much like the flour-sack exercise taught in many animation courses, it is essential that the very core of the actor is moving & shaped in the way of their business in a scene. On this foundation, all the other additional layers of animation serve to enhance & strengthen the animation. For this clip, it was the pelvis, spine, neck & head of the Sniper. If I could make just those parts LOOK like he was saying the words and laughing, the hardest part of the animation was achieved. The best facial animation in the world will be useless if the body is a lifeless broken mannequin. Body posture and movement can speak volumes while the actor is hidden in a mask (See V for Vendetta and Bane of Dark Knight Rises)

The results of the first phase:
Note: I also blocked in a rough eye direction with the Sniper rig’s view-target, as the eyes where solid white 95% of the time – distracting!

The second phase – I targeted the shoulders, arms (via elbow up-nodes), hands & fingers, the eyes, and the jaw bone. At this stage it’s a little odd to call it “secondary” action as these are still quite essential to the overall character animation, but these elements do reinforce the primary core. It takes self-restraint to avoid over-animating any one part. The best way to control it is in the planning stages; I had notes like opening up the hands & eyes during the “BIG” phrase.
Important tip! The jaw animation was a good reminder of what we humans see versus hear – do NOT just flap the jaw to match the sound waveform in the audio – it will look off and ‘too slow.’ One of the main factors as to why is that we generally open our mouths before we begin to vocalize – forming the shape of the lips, tongue and jaw before firing the voicebox. There’s no dead-set rule as to how early to start, but generally 2-3 frames (in 30 fps) is a good starting point. Re-playing OFTEN will tell whether you need to go earlier or later, as well as the speed of the change.
Further lip-sync animation would be done in the final phase – I chose to render this phase before the final finished clip.

The Final Phase

This is the last of the parts to be animated – the face, with the brows, cheeks, nose, and lips. By this point all the underlying animation will inform you where to place those keys, and where to put the extra polish in. I’m also going to the earlier parts for some minor tweaking, like the head was going a bit too far, or adjusting the timing of the eyes – there’s always room for improvement. (But you also need to know when to stop and move on!)
Another important tip! Human beings are inherently lazy – we will seek energy-efficient movements as often as we can, consciously or not. Same applies to speaking – Do. Not. Enunciate. Every. Syllable. The general speed of human speech means that we visually “smear” our phonemes, and if you try to make every sound have a visual shape, the character will look like a bizarre machine. Instead try to aim for the primary emphasised syllables first, and then work down from there. Sometimes a word will be long enough that the mouth can blend into the next syllable clearly, even if it’s a soft one.
The eyebrows – I love expressive eyebrows, and it’s up to you to determine of the character will use much of them or not; some people have very static faces, while others have lively animated phases that figuratively show the gears turning in their heads. I use the brows to reinforce what the eyes are doing, as well as swing the intent of the character’s thinking. It was unfortunate that the TF2 Sniper rig wasn’t as broadly expressive as I’d like, but that’s just how animation work goes – you work with what you’ve got. Once again, take care to avoid over-animating the face! Unless it is your intent to make a very nervous/twitchy character.

The above image is to give some of you an idea of how complex facial animation can be, here’s what the animation keys & curves (change over time) looks like for just the face rig in isolation, with a portion of the audio it’s synced with.

The finished result!

Some of the things I learnt from this self-assigned project:
– The Source Filmmaker tool, while great, has some picky quirks (especially in the keyframe editor) that I had to burn a fair bit of time to devise a work-around or change in my workflow. This is always the case when still acquainting yourself with new tools/pipeline. So don’t freak out if it takes you longer than you initially guessed.
– Short is sweeter. This scene clocks in at 32.9 seconds, which generally speaking is much longer than most shots on a TV show, movie or game cinematic run for. That said, it’s good to reach for the stars and go for broke once in a while.
– In future self-projects, I look forward to going for more dynamic editing in a single short, and with additional characters. Even though that WILL increase the workload dramatically!

Thanks for reading, and good luck with your own animation work!

Article: Why Creativity Blocks Happen

Stumbled across this earlier today, and it was a really good read, so I must share!

Why Creativity Blocks Happen (and How to Overcome Them) by Iris Shoor.

An excerpt:

Don’t start at the beginning

One of the most common breaking points for a project is not the finish line but rather the starting line, before the race even begins. We’ve all been there, postponing a new project day after day, week after week. When starting a new project most people approach it according to its natural order—writing the first paragraph of an assay, designing a website’s homepage. The first milestone is usually very challenging, and when faced with a big challenge we tend to give up.

When I notice that I drag my feet with a new project, I never start at the beginning. I find an anchor—a part of the project which is very standard or is technical in nature. It can be the ‘about me’ paragraph or the website footer, it can even be a line or a slide I’ve used before. From there I move on to the next part. It doesn’t have to be closely related to the first one, but again, one you can handle more easily. In a few relatively easy steps I can build a rough skeleton and from there all I have left is to connect the lines between the dots.


Article: “Style Development and You” and my own thoughts.

Style Development and You, via Cberniez’s Tumblr (who is a most excellent 2D artist! Go check out her stuff)

Great write-up reinforcing the inherent truth of the creative process (not just art!) – for every great work from a master, there are hundreds of thousands of “bad” work you never see. Of course it gets very easy to get lulled into the impression that many top artists put out nothing but amazing work, every time – but that’s only due to the selective “posting only the winners, hiding the mountain of attempts in the Crypt of Shame.”

As a result, a tough thing to really force yourself to do, is to do ANYTHING – a poorly done image (or story or song) is better than nothing done at all. Easier said than done, as I myself have a well-developed skill in thinking of chores, tasks, things I’d rather do than face making something shitty. “I should do some art… But the bathroom needs to be cleaned!” It’s clearly a kind of avoidance tactic; after all, very few of us really revel in the feeling of failure. Of course, the resulting guilt of having wormed my way out is one hell of a gargoyle to squat on my shoulders. Especially when I do aspire to achieving this level of legacy, from Despair, Inc.“Hundreds of years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove… But the world may be different because I did something so bafflingly crazy that my ruins become a tourist attraction.” Naturally you cannot PLAN on achieving that, but dodging doing anything that would lead to that, certainly will fail that mad idea.

I’m going to see if I can formulate a structured way to get an image done, every day, and smash through this mental wall of mine. Do note that I said “an image.” There are no subjective qualifiers there – not “good,” not “awesome,” not “funny.” Not even “post-worthy.” As those invariably start inviting self-judgement of whatever I’m thinking of drawing, before I’ve even started. I couldn’t tell you how many times (every time?) I’ve self-edited before pen touched tablet/paper.

To close off this ramble, I’ll call out a notable bit in the posted article above – there is no magic pen, no professional grade paper, no “right software.” Think of those cloying TV commercials featuring a pro athlete hawking a new line of sports shoes. Selling to you that if you buy those shoes, you too can be just as awesome as them. This is the very same logic in action, when many new artists ask exactly what type of marker their favorite artist is using. It’s good to know what are better tools to use, but I’ve had some of my better doodles come from a blue-ink BIC disposable pen on a lined notebook paper. The point I’m making here is that those doodles came freely as I just wasn’t thinking about whether the end result was going to be “good enough to share.”

Keep going, everyone.

Another link: Banishing your Inner Critic

Another great read that is worth calling out – Banishing your Inner Critic, by Denise Jacobs. Once again, it’s from the viewpoint of a writer, but it’s so integral to the creative process, that it carries right over into the visual arts realm. I’ve begun to start putting these into practice and it’s helped a lot already.

It’s healthy to be critical of your own work – nothing worse than a terrible artist with delusions of grandeur – but not so picky that you squelch your own productivity on the Altar of Perfectionism.

We’re all human (or mostly human, or passing off as humans) – we cannot make the Perfect Image. So let’s have fun making Good and Great Images instead.