I've noticed that a feature of the Animation Mentor graduate animation is great walks, they seem mechanically spot on and always have a strong scene of attitude.
I've been animating for some time, but still haven't heard or seen a definitive breakdown of what to do with a characters balance and weight when walking. How long if at all do you have a character off balance for in a walk? Obviously this varies according to attitude (stomping to creeping) and mass (a heavy or light character), but I would love to hear how you work out what you’re going to do in this regard. Do you animate the body movement first and then just get the legs working under the body as needed? Or do you place out your foot positions and then place the body relative to the feet so as to have the weight over the feet at specific times?
Walks are deceptively difficult, and require a lot of study and research before you starting diving into them. A walk is something that cannot be tackled properly until you have a really strong grasp of all the principles of animation (such as follow-through, anticipation, ease in/out, arcs, balance, etc). Once you have a strong understanding of all those concepts, a walk is much easier to figure out.
That said, the main thing to keep in mind is balance. You cannot move without unbalancing yourself, and the speed you move forward will be determined by where you move your centerline, or your "center of gravity." In other words, the further you unbalance your hips in front of your feet, the faster forward you will move. A common description of a walk for animators is as a "controlled fall." You are constantly falling and catching yourself, creating locomotion forward, and the further forward you move the character's weight, the faster he will fall. The faster he is falling, the faster his legs will have to move to catch those falls, and pretty soon you have a run!
Unlike many other ideas in animation, there is no real "gray area" when it comes to balance. There isn't much room for artistic interpretation. Something either has correct balance or it doesn't. It's right, or it's wrong. So be sure to make a detailed study of how balance works in a walk before diving into it...
Other than that, it's essential to remember that in a walk you cannot lift either foot until the body weight is mostly over the other planted foot. It's important to remember how the hips rotate in at least two axis, and what that, in turn, will do to the shoulders. It's important that the wrists and feet have nice arcs, and the path of action of the hips and head are appealing and organic.
In short, what's truly important is that you take the time to research and plan a walk, just as with any other animation. For some reason, a lot of people seem to think that a walk is a good "basic first exercise." In my opinion, a walk is an incredibly complex piece of animation that should only be attempted when you feel somewhat comfortable with the fundamental principles of animation, and can draw on your knowledge of those principles, and how they relate to one another, to figure out exactly how the body needs to be moving in that walk.
My advice for tackling your first walk cycle would be to watch a lot of reference first. How do some of your favorite animated characters walk? What differences and similarities do you see? How about live-action walks? Go to the park or to the mall or just a street corner and watch how people walk. People with different sizes and shapes will walk a bit differently. How does the size affect the hip rotation and foot placement? How about the differences between male and female walks?
One of my early animation teachers and a good friend of mine used to strip down to his underwear and put black tape on his hip bones. Then he'd walk towards a mirror or video camera over and over and study how his hips moved!
Now, I'm not saying you should all start making underwear movies (or if you do, can I please put in an early request that you guys don't send them to me? Thanks! ha ha) -- but he did have the right idea, and he learned a lot of studying his own body this way.
Whether or not you have pants on, the important thing is to find ways to research and study how these animation ideas and body mechanics work in real life - that kind of observation is invaluable and incredibly necessary to your growth as an animator! :)
Thanks for sending in the great question, and thanks for reading our blog!