Character Animation: What it Takes

Character Animation: What it Takes
Written by Zero Dean 1997

Character Animation is hard.

Character Animation is the process of bringing a character to life. This process transcends any number of media…from 2D hand drawn images to clay animation to puppetry to computer graphics.

Bringing a character to life convincingly, means doing so in a way which indicates a thought process. Simply moving a character does not qualify as Character Animation. In other words, the animated character needs to move in such a way that convinces the audience that it is thinking. That it is alive.

Since this is the 3d ARK, we’re talking about Computer Generated Character Animation…but forget about all the software gizmos and gadgetry. The software doesn’t make you an artist and it certainly doesn’t make you a good Character Animator. Many folks are fooling themselves if they think owning the latest Lightwave or 3DS Max plug-in is going to make them a better artist.

There is a problem, and it is this: A great number of Character Animation enthusiasts and wannabes are using their software as a crutch for poor animation skills and a lack of education. They honestly believe the poorly animated robot on their demo reel could land them a job at Pixar or Digital Domain. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Save yourself some time and money, make sure you know what you’re doing before you send off a demo reel.

Excellent Character Animation skills are something that generally take _years_ to develop properly. Sure, there may be a special few who, without any schooling, show signs of having a knack for it…a “gift”. And these few will “make it” without much trouble or less than most. But for the rest, it is an incredibly challenging and arduous task. Many will attempt it. Few will succeed.

Those who think they can become good Character Animators by devoting only a couple hours every Sunday tinkering with their animated robot “masterpiece”, are gravely mistaken. It takes a lot more time and devotion than that, some might even say what it really takes is _obsession_. ‘Tis true, Character Animators are a hardy breed who often work on little sleep and the utter lack of a healthy social life. They’re not in it for the money or fame either. They do it because they can think of little else

The journey to Character Animation stardom, or even just success, takes heaps of reference material. From books on anatomy to facial animation to digital cinematography to videos (preferably a laserdisc player or DVD with forward and reverse frame advance features) consisting of Warner Brothers classics (yes 2D!) to the latest Computer Animation Film Festival Videos.

While many who specialize in animation for a living _only_ animate, most had to travel a long and twisted path for the honor. Generally, folks begin this trade with a number of responsibilities, from lighting and composing scenes, to designing and modeling characters, and much more.

All Character Animators should have a good understanding of the arts. This involves the above mentioned skills and a lot more…Anatomy, Staging & Posturing, Weight & Movement, Timing, Lines of Action, Digital Cinematography skills, and more.

On top of this, Character Animators need to have a flair for telling a story. After all, without an appealing story, all of the animation is for nought. A healthy imagination will get your far. In addition to the above mentioned skills, it has been suggested that Character Animators get a few acting classes under their belts as well. So many things come into play when animating characters.

And perhaps most importantly, all CG Character Animators should have a thorough understanding of the Principles of Animation. These principles are the “golden rules” of Character Animation. If you’re a wannabe, you really won’t get very far without understanding what they mean and how they are important to effective Character Animations. If you don’t know what these are and you’re working on a demo reel, I suggest you start over.

And, if by some odd chance, you think Character Animation is easy, something you’ve already mastered (at least in your head), I encourage you to check out Steph Greenberg’s Stage #3 in the Key Elements of Successful Character Animation article. Character animation is more than simple walk cycles.

A Final Note about Computers:

Finally, there are a couple other skills needed to become a good CG Character Animation. Perhaps the most obvious…computer skills! While 3D software varies in price and features considerably, you should not forget that software (or the costly plug-ins!) doesn’t make the artist. Nor does buying computer animation software, even Character Animation optimized software, have to break the bank. Martin Hash’s Animation Master has often been termed the best character animation software under $8,000 dollars. In fact, some of AM’s advanced features have even Softimage users gnawing at the bit. If only they’d spent $7,800 less on their software. Yes, that’s right, Animation Master is only $199 dollars (and less with a student discount).

While I am not trying to sell you the software, I honestly believe that many folks think they need to make a $1000+ investment in order to “be good Character Animators”. At $199, AM is simply the most obvious way to find out. While you may have heard some dark rumors about AM’s archaic interface and such. Nearly all (if not all) of these issues are part of the distant past. AM was completely rewritten two full versions ago. And for your information, all software has a learning curve. If you’re not able to get past it, then computer Character Animation is probably not for you.

So I will leave you with this last thought…Character Animation is hard.