Developing Animation Using Traditional Methods

Warner Brothers Studios, Disney Animation, Don Bluth Studios, Charles Schulz, the list goes on and on…. ALL OF THEM were behind my reasoning in choosing animation as a career.  I can remember being a teenager, hanging out in my room, listening to Black Sabbath and making incredibly crude flip books out of typing paper and masking tape while using a desk lamp about 6 inches off the page so I could see the frame underneath.  I cannot tell you how many times I burned my hand using this method, so I advise against it.  🙂  I think I still have one of those flip books around somewhere.

I can remember enrolling at Ringling School of Art & Design in 1995, being heavily advised to join the Illustration program  – even though the Computer Animation students were the only students allowed to take the traditional animation class offered at the school (which NEVER made sense to me).  After a semester at in the Illustration program, I left Ringling and joined the Marines.  (because that’s what every aspiring animator does, right?)


“I will animate the bejeezus out of the enemy.”

When I returned to Ringling in 1999, the “Death of 2D” nonsense was showing it’s ugly face around the industry, so I enrolled as a Computer Animation major this time around.  My traditional animation teacher was the one and only Deborah Healy and I couldn’t have asked for a more encouraging and inspiring animation teacher.  Here are some of the 2D tests I did during the fall semester back in Y2K.

This would be the only exposure I’d have to traditional animation during my time at Ringling – which is pretty sad figuring how detrimental the fundamental concepts were to me in the years to follow.

Flash-forward to 2003, I was a very green animator, fresh out of school and I considered the graph editor in Maya to be the end-all to my success as an animator.  It wasn’t until I sat down with my good friend and mentor James Chiang, that I realized how far I had strayed away from the basic concept of animation – a series of sequential images played in succession to create the illusion of life.  He told me to “forget everything I’ve learned” and get back to basics.  He introduced me to the concept of stepped-blocking while I was animating a test of Rodney (Robots) kicking a tin can down the street.  It was a moment of clarity that matched Anton Ego’s bite of Ratatouille.  Everything just suddenly made sense to me.  I was no longer concerned with how clean my graph editor was and just treated the 3D software as a tool to make traditional style animation.  I wish I had kept a version of that Rodney test because it was an epiphany in my animation career.  Thanks James.

I can remember in the early days of Horton’s production, technology was catching up with traditional animation.  I was playing around with ideas for Horton using a new software called “Plastic Animation Paper”.  I can remember the director enjoying the quick turn-around of ideas the pencil tests would provide, which led to the discussion of getting similar software for the other animators.  The head of R&D at the time convinced us it would be better to develop our own version of 2D animation software.  After a few years of back and forth with engineer Hugo Ayala, the proprietary Blue Sky software “Sketch” was born.  It was an amazing piece of animation software with a solid drawing utility and film-editing functionality.  I still think it should be made available to the public because it would bury everything else available on the market.

This made the idea of creating pencil-tests as previs for animation an extremely feasible option for the animators.  Rather than spending days blocking out a single iteration of a shot, you could literally turn around a few ideas within a day or two to get feedback quickly.  I was also as happy as a pig in $h*t, because traditional animation was once again easily accessible.

It has been a major part of my workflow in film and in game development.  Here more examples of how I used pencil tests to explore ideas in both mediums.

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