Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pros and Cons of Video Reference

Hi Shawn,

Great blog! My question is I’ve been listening a lot to various animation podcasts and watching animation videos, and it seems there are some great very experienced animators that don’t use video reference, some that don’t even thumbnail at all. Some indeed say you shouldn’t become too reliant on it, and warn that using it may suck the life out of a performance. Other’s stating as a reason that they don’t like to video themselves as they think the performance will end up being too much like them self and not like the character.

I was wondering about your thoughts on this?

I know myself that when I first started my career as an animator, I never used video reference, I never thumbnailed, I just went straight into the 3d program and animated and my work sucked. After I learned a bit more and started to plan more using reference my work massively improved – but do you think it has negative affects also?
-Steven Heft

Hi Steven! Thanks for the nice words and the great question!!!

I too know many animators who don't use much reference for human animation (I still don't know many who wouldn't at least study some reference for creature/animals work), but these are all either very experienced professional animators or are animators who's work never quite measures up.

Everyone has their own method of working that they are most comfortable with, and everyone is at a different level or a different place along that path to learning animation.

Truthfully, I don't use near as much reference anymore if I'm animating a biped. Depending on the action, I might, and certainly with acting shots I would generally film some reference in order to seek out some unique acting choices and emotional beats, but these days I'm finally able to see the action animation more in my head, and am finally experienced enough to be able to combine that vision with a deeper understanding of the body in order to be able to just dive into it and pretty much know how most of the physics will work. Of course, I still blow it sometimes and have to go back to the drawing board (whoops!), but for the first time, I'm finally understanding this stuff a little more.

But that's after over a decade as a professional working on films. I'm not claiming that's some big number in the length of a career, there are a whole lot of animators out there with piles more experience and talent than me, that's for sure. But I mention the number of years in order to point out that for at least the first seven or eight years as a professional, I needed to go through a very deep planning process for pretty much every shot if I wanted it to be a shot I was proud of.

If you include my years as a student and working in games, then you're talking about a 12-year stretch where any assignments or shots I got cocky with and skipped my planning phase inevitably turned out simply "adequate," at best. Certainly less special than they could have been. At worst, they were complete failures, and I can't think of a single shot frrom that 12 year stretch that didn't include planning that I would include on a demo reel today.

Conversely, the shots where I spent the most time planning, filmed reference, studied it, etc., are the shots that finished fastest and turned out the best, and which I am most proud of -- or at least can look back on with the least amount of cringing. :)

This is why I so strongly recommend a thorough planning process to animation students. If someone has been animating for a bunch of years and feels like their experience lets them skip that process, then I think that's great -- more power to them. However, the vast majority of us, myself included, would still benefit from some amount of planning for the majority of our shots, *especially* if they include dialogue and/or acting.

To me, recommending to a beginner or mid-level animator that they don't use reference would be just like tossing a first time swimmer into the deep end with no instruction, or handing some carpenters a bunch of wood and tools but no schematics or blueprints and telling them to build a house. Can that guy swim? Maybe he can figure it out, maybe not. Could the carpenters build a house? Sure, maybe, but unless they already have a lot of experience, my guess is that it isn't going to turn out very well, and certainly isn't going to win any architecture awards.

As for the fear you mention of reference affecting our work negatively, that's up to us as the artist. If I film reference of myself for Yoda, Optimus Prime, and ET, and they all move the same way, then I've pretty much failed in my job! ****REFERENCE IS NOT FOR COPYING.**** If someone is copying the reference verbatim, then yes, they run a really high risk of sucking the life out of the shot and animating everything to move the same way they move.

But that isn't how reference should be used. It should be a source you can study to see how the body mechanics work, or to discover great and unexpected acting choices. But THEN you have to apply your knowledge of the principles of animation TO that reference. Exaggerate the poses a bit, push the timing here, add some contrast there, etc.

As long as your are doing your job as the animator to apply life and interest to the reference you are studying, then you don't need to be afraid of it having any negative impact on your work whatsoever. That's my opinion, anyway...

Thanks so much for writing in!!

Shawn :)


Alonso said...

Kevin Koch has some interesting posts about vid ref.

Cuby said...

Really interesting. Thanks for the awesome blog, it's really inspirational!

I keep hearing how important planning is, but when it comes down to it, I wouldn't really know how to plan a shot properly. So if possible, I'd love to hear an in-depth post on HOW to plan a shot.


Anne-Marie said...

I agree with Cuby!
When I come to plan a shot, I do some thumbnails... but not sure on how to plan the timing and all the anticipations and extremes and stuff like that.

mattanimation said...

This came at a good time. I've been starting to use reference recently and it does help immensely, but I did notice you really to have to exaggerate the key poses depending on what style and timing you are looking for. Thanks for the inspiring words Shawn.

Kevin said...

Thanks for the info, Shawn. My question is in regards to the use of proxy rigs, or a character rig that gives you the option to use low-res geometry with a fully functional rig. I know that this can free up resources and make working in the viewport much faster, but can it also be used to get a head start on animating before the character model is even done? For example, my classmates are working on several character models that I intend to rig and animate. However, this process will likely take a couple of weeks, and I'll be wasting a lot of time if I wait for the final models to be handed off to me. Will a proxy rig allow me to get started early, or is it something added after the rig is done for performance purposes? Thanks!


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