As you animate remember that you are making a FILM. It should have long shots, medium close-ups, big close ups and camera angle changes. Not only does this make the film look better, it is often a great help with shooting problems. Suppose you have a man who is required to walk, in long shot, across your set. It will take about ten paces for him to get across. You get to pace number four and he falls flat on his face. You have to pick him up, remodel his face, and put him back in exactly the same position, with arms and legs at the correct angle. You should be able to place him in the right spot, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll get everything else right. You have two choices, start again or change the camera angle. If he’s made four paces, you could cut to a big close up of his face. Even if he hasn’t fallen over, it’s not a bad idea to cut-in to a close up. It will save animating a long walk, and the film will look more interesting anyway. Changing the camera angle and cut-aways are your main defense against plasticine’s passionate inbred desire to fall over.
I’ve just shot a short sequence in my latest film. It’s about a magician in a music hall. I was doing a long shot of my magician performing a trick on a little stage I’ve built. Everything was going quite well, I had just turned away from the character after making a movement, and was about to click the shutter. In the second that I had turned away, my magician had taken a nose dive into the front of the audience. He was fairly well secured, so I would have thought it impossible that he would fall over. I sometimes think they do it on purpose. I was fairly well into the scene, so I didn’t want to start again. I simply did a cut away to a man re-acting in the audience, and then came back to the magician shot from a different camera angle. Most times this will get you over the problem, although there will be occasions when you have no alternative but to start the scene again. There is a rule sometimes called Murphy’s Law (other times it’s given more Anglo-Saxon names) which applies perfectly to working with plasticine. The rule is what which can go wrong, will go wrong.
I said earlier, that if your man falls over, you should know where to replace him. I always take the toe of the leading foot as my point of reference. If the man is walking I make up a strip of paper marked to show the position of each foot as he ‘walks’. If you want him to walk from A to B, make a strip of paper the length of A to B. You’ve decided the man will take eight paces, so mark the eight paces on paper. You can do similar with the arm movements, although I must confess that I do these by eye. To get the timing for each action you have to do the action yourself, timing it as you go. I suggest that you slightly reduce these timings. Those movements which I have meticulously animated to movements made by myself, have always looked too slow. I think there are two reasons for this. When you are acting out a movement you tend to do it a little slower than you would if you were doing it naturally – it’s the ham actor coming out I suppose. Secondly, a little man with short legs and enormous feet isn’t going to have the same body movements as a normal human being. As a rough guide, I reduce my timings by up to 25%, this seems to work quite well.
One important thing that you must do is use holds. In every action there are times where no movement takes place. These are the holds. If a man turns his head, and looks to the front again very quickly, there will be a brief moment when the movement is held. If the man is merely shaking his head and you are shooting at two frames per movement, then at the point where the head changes direction there should be a hold of four frames. If it’s not a shake of the head but the intention is to show the man looking at something, then you must hold on the turned head position long enough for the man to see what he is looking at. You may hold for a few seconds depending on the action. I think that animators working in fractions of a second get a little worried they may be holding one position for too long. But if you don’t your animation won’t look right.
Using a short cable release ensures that I move back to click the shutter, but I still get the odd shot of my hand – it’s Murphy’s Law again.
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Originally printed in Animator’s newsletter Issue 3 (Winter 1982)