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  • Writer's pictureJeremy Stewart

Animation Reference: More than Video

Over the years I’ve animated a wide range of creatures, and since I was a student my teachers and mentors always stressed the importance of looking at reference. However, watching reference video is just the start. To create really believable movement, you’ve got take your research a bit further than YouTube.

For many years it was only by chance that I would look at the anatomy, evolution, or the psychology of the creatures I was animating. It wasn’t till I made a conscious effort to include these three things as part of my reference study that I noticed a significant improvement in my animation. Studying animals in motion is a good place to start when animating creatures, but I think it's important to also learn how your creature's body and mind work before animating it. This extra step will help you animate faster because you’ll spend less time guessing how your creature should move. You’ll know exactly why and how it moves.

The first thing I do is look at the animal's anatomy. This may seem strange as we’re not sculpting or rigging our creatures. We’re making them move, but the way a creature moves is influenced by their anatomy.

Looking at a horse's muscles you can see that it gets most of its power from its muscular back legs. Another thing that stands out is the ankles (the fetlock joints). You can see that they are bent. This is a bit unusual for such a heavy animal. Heavy creatures lock their joints, supporting their weight on bone. Horses can stand with these joints bent because of powerful, elastic tendons. These tendons act like springs. It is also the elasticity of these tendons that lifts the legs, and give the horse its speed. With that in mind watch this video to see tendons at work absorbing the impact, flicking the hoof off the ground, and propelling this ~500lb horse forward.

So how does knowing anatomy help YOU, the animator? Learning a creature's anatomy will help you understand the mechanics of it’s movements. It is especially helpful when you can’t find reference footage of the motion you are trying to animate. So instead of guessing how your creature moves, look at its anatomy to see exactly how it is designed to move. The bones and joints will tell you the range of motion. Muscles and tendons will tell you its speed and power. Even organs like the lungs, heart, and brain can tell you something about how an animal is made to move. Most common animals have been thoroughly researched. So you should have no problem finding info on their anatomy. If you’re animating an imaginary creature or one that isn’t well researched, look to similar animals like its evolutionary cousins. Which brings me to my next point.

Learn about the creatures evolution and how it has adapted to it’s environment. This is very important for creating new animation, instead of just copying reference. Evolution can tell you a lot about a creature's instincts and how it behaves. Learning anatomy will help you understand the mechanics of an animal's movements. Learning how an animal has evolved and adapted to its environment will tell you why and how it moves. Is it a “sit and wait” predator like an alligator, or an “active” hunter like a lion?

Here’s how you could apply evolutionary theory to your animation. Let's say you’re animating a herd of cows and you have to come up with some idle animation for a cow who’s away from his herd. You could have him chewing on some grass, flicking his ears, or shaking his tail.

Or take a moment to think about how cows and their ancestors survived before humans. With no claws or sharp teeth these herd animals protect themselves by staying in large groups. Even despite 10,000 years of domestication a cow on its own is not going to feel comfortable being away from the herd. You could add this detail to your animation, the cow looking for the rest of the herd. Or better yet because you know from studying cow anatomy they have poor eyesight, but an excellent sense of smell. You can animate your cow searching for his friends by sniffing the air. Looking at an animal’s evolution and knowing how it’s body and mind have adapted to its environment will help you avoid animation cliches, and create realistic, natural looking behaviour.

Animal behaviour is a lot more complex than just instincts. Behaviour is driven by instincts, emotion and intelligence. Which is my last point. Learn the basics of psychology; how the mind works. How instincts, emotion and intelligence are expressed in behaviour and body language. Animals with well developed brains (like us) have instincts, as well as emotions, and intelligence. These three parts of the mind influence behaviour in different ways. What makes for great animation (and great acting) is seeing the characters thoughts expressed in their movement. Seeing the mental tug-of-war between conscious thought, and the subconscious. Intelligence can create a plan for action, but fear causes hesitation. In the face of danger self preservation instincts will conflict with emotional desires to save a loved one. We’re often asked to animate creatures with human emotions and characteristics. So I encourage you to learn more about the human mind and psychology.

These are my three tips to help you create your best creature animation. Studying reference video is an important step to creating good animation. To create great animation you must also study

  1. Anatomy: how is the creature's body is designed to move?

  2. Evolution: how is the creature's body adapted to its environment?

  3. Psychology: How will it’s instincts, emotions, and intelligence drive its behavior?

Taking the time to learn about these subjects will save you from guessing how your creature should move (so you can spend more time guessing what the director wants). You’ll know what details to add to make your animation more realistic, and you’ll know how to express your characters thoughts and feelings better.

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