As a creature animator who has worked primarily on hyper real content, exaggeration is a constant issue in my work. For example, just a few days ago, my animation supervisor told me my shot was an “eleven,” and he wanted me to take it down to an “eight.” What he meant by this was that the creatures in my shot were too energized. I was breaking the boundaries of believability within the context of this particular project and the edit. While my characters moved mechanically correct, and even the actions in their performances were good, everything was too bouncy, too fast, too BIG! Maybe this would have been fine if I was making a cartoon. Knowing where to draw the line between over exaggerated and contextually believable is part and parcel of a creature animator’s job. The only real difference between a cartoony animator and a creature animator is in how far the principles can be pushed.
Anticipation vs. Action
In cartoons, the relationship between the speed and size of an anticipation versus the subsequent action can be played with and manipulated to create a wide variety of different emotional responses. You might have a slow and big anticipation showing heaviness and a building of power, followed by an unusually fast action, thus creating a strong contrast in physics and timing. Or the opposite might be the case. A character takes a quick leap off a ledge and then hits a long moving hold as he hovers in mid-air over the precipice. Obviously with hyper real animation these kinds of timing relationships must still exist between antic and action, but the contrast must be toned down to the point that real world physics exists unquestionably in the mind of the viewer. And this is no easy task! This is very often why viewers can watch realistic CG animation and come away feeling something looked odd or unnatural about the performance. They may have no clue why they feel this way, and more often than not it is because as animators we have somehow failed to create motion that can deceive what the human mind is already an expert at, namely the scrutiny and perception of the physical universe. (As a side note, these issues segue into the Uncanny Valley, and are the source of why so many movies to date have failed to convince the viewer that humans can exist seamlessly and believably as CG characters.)
Striking a Pose
In cartoony animation there is a great deal of emphasis placed on hitting a pose to elicit an emotional “signal” to the viewer. A character expressing fatigue might inhale deeply, hitting a long upward and expansive anticipation, followed by a quick compression of the body and lungs, his shoulders and head slumping downward and striking a strong exhaustion pose. Since the origins of classical animation, we have become experts at breaking down the structure of poses to understand how they can elicit various emotional responses from the viewer. In hyper real animation we concentrate much less on striking poses. Of course, the methodology and work flow that goes into creating animation will have very minor differences between a cartoony project and a realistic one. We still block our shots in very much the same ways (a cartoony animator may block in stepped while a realistic animator may block in spline), making sure the blocked performance has all the necessary key poses to convey the narrative. But our main goal is to create a fluid and organic performance based in reality, and is less about punching an emotion on a given frame; so more time and energy at even the earliest outset is placed on the breakdowns and inbetweens. What do I mean by this? Most creature animators I have worked with choose to block in spline. From the very beginning of our shot we need to place a great deal of importance in understanding how the weight, mass and energy of a character unravel through the performance. It is less about striking emotive poses and more about offsetting and layering the motion so that it never feels like parts of the character are landing at the same time. The parts of the character have to be perfectly grounded in physical reality, so that there is a constant justification for how muscles, bones, tendons, and organs react through the movement.
I could go on and on scrutinizing how different animation principles are handled differently between animation styles that favor strong exaggerated movement and those that do not. The point is that exaggeration is a constant give and take in the type of animations I have done throughout my career. Under some circumstances we may need to push a pose much harder than is physically realistic, but more often than not this is for technical reasons. A pan on a camera may be softening the look of a pose from that particular angle, or a character may be unflatteringly foreshortened and need to be “cheated” to make sense. As a general rule, exaggeration is a good thing if it brings life and energy to the performance, but it quickly becomes a bad thing when that part of the human brain rejects it as “weird” or unnatural. That's when we know we've gone too far or have simply interpreted the physical world incorrectly.
Guest blogger Aaron Gilman