5 simple tips for animating cartoony characters quickly

15 February 2017

By Bader Badruddin (Animation Director at Blue Zoo)

Making kids TV series often has crazy quick deadlines for character animation, so how do we make sure our animations look great? It's all about working smarter rather than harder and getting more out of your poses during blocking at the first pass, rather than fixing things later and wasting time in the graph editor.

So here are five tips on how to accomplish this...

1. Strong good poses over fluid and smooth animation

In longform TV animation, we rarely have time to polish our animation, and as such are always looking for ways to make our animation stand out without having to spend days on a single shot.
The way we can do that is by working on one strong and very appealing pose that fits the shots objective and then work with that pose. Characters can still move and do things, but they key is finding that balance between completely limited animation, and fluid feature film animation.

Remember, always work within the pose! One strong pose is better than 3 mediocre ones!

Character poses

2. Build a library of acting choices in your head, no need to stand in front of the camera

One thing that’s always being told to animation students is to act it out and use video reference. The truth is that TV schedules don’t really allow time to shoot reference material.
So how can you get good acting? Well, I listen to the shot's audio a number of times, then pull out a pose from my acting library. This isn’t physical one or a premade pose library on my computer (that doesn’t hurt either); it’s actually in my head. I spend a lot of my time outside of work just studying people and films, learning more from that than my own video reference or an animation class. Learn to observe and collect information in your head so it’s accessible to you when you need it.

With time this will become second nature and over years of experience can be a very useful tool for becoming a faster animator.

3. Study smearing and squash and stretch until it becomes second nature

Getting from one pose to another can be hard (i.e. going from a sitting character to standing up). This can involve very tricky body mechanics, taking more time than needed if you were to approach using a standard method of animating. One thing I always do is trick the viewer into thinking they are seeing something, in reality I am pulling one over them by doing some quick animation tricks. One thing that works really well in this situation is knowing when to add a smear frame, or how to squash the character to get more out of a breakdown. Often having a little ease out of a pose, then a big smear, into an ease to the next pose works just fine.

Just be careful not to over-do it and end up with smeary animation; it’s all a balance of different tricks.

Character smears

4. Facial animation needs principles too

A lot of animators animate the body brilliantly, but then come to the face and it's all very robotic and basic. I never understand how the most important part of the performance can be brushed over so easily. Put keys and breakdowns in the face just as you would the body. I usually animate the entire body including the face and lip sync all at one go. The energy you get and consistency of the pose looks so much better if you treat the face as just as important if not more than the body with regards to the foundations of laying out your poses. So if I'm on frame 1, and I am adding a pose, I will also add the pose that mouth shape is in, and the facial expression with it. Lip sync and facial animation shouldn't be a pass you add on top, but a key foundational part of the main shots structure.

Most of the time people watching your animation will be staring at the face, so put the effort there.

5. Lines of action, yes it’s basic but nobody does it anymore!

I can’t emphasise enough how important it is for cartoony animation to pay a strong attention to lines of action. Yes, we can all see it on the spine if the character is tilted to one side, but often times everything else is ignored. Use the line of action to get more appeal out of your pose. Is the face following the line of action? What about the shoulders? Even small things like squash and stretch on the head/body? What about the shoulders and arms and the tilt of the elbow? All of these things should be in some way affected by the line of action.
Sometimes my lines of action help me get from one complicated pose to another, as it breaks down what I need to do by only focusing on one line. You can get away without line of action in many forms of animation, but it’s absolutely essential for cartoony animation, without it, you simply can’t take your animation to the next level.

Character pose
Character pose
Character pose