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Animation Tips & Tricks: What Makes or Breaks a Good Body Mechanics Shot?

by | Jul 14, 2014

Hello Animation Afficionados! Today’s post is from a newsletter tips & tricks article back in 2010 from our very own Wayne Gilbert. Wayne Gilbert is a valuable contributor for Animation Mentor and is currently the Head of Animation of Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (VanArts). Learn how he breaks down a good body mechanics shot and what lies behind the intention of the character and how that affects the body. Enjoy!

– Animation Mentor Crew

If it’s believable, it’s successful. We want to believe that the character moved, not that someone moved the character. An animator’s responsibility is to visually represent the forces that create movement. These forces are internal and external and can be exaggerated, but must remain consistent throughout the shot.

How does the character show that it is aware of its world and situation?

How does it move within the world and situation?

Animators must decide what happens whenever there is a force and change in force to be represented. When animating a character jumping into a 180-degree turn, landing and recovering safely you have to make several decisions, including when the character looks back, starts to lean into the direction of the jump, crouches, jumps, when the body begins to twist and initiate the turn, how does the body stop its rotation during recovery, do both feet land at the same time…and on and on? The computer will only know what you tell it. In 2D animation, an assistant often adds information to what the animator has blocked in. The added images are to further define the sequence of movement for clarity and these images are the result of an artist making decisions.

When doing a body mechanics shot, your attention must be focused on the body and how it moves — don’t spend a lot of time on the acting. The audience must believe that the character decided to jump so there needs to be a tiny amount of acting such as a quick look in the direction of the jump to show that the character is aware of the situation. In each body mechanics shot there is a sequence of activity that runs from the character’s brain through its body and you must decide what that sequence is before starting to animate. Where and how does that sequence begin and eventually end? When the sequence is correct, the shot is successful; if it is entertaining that’s a bonus.

When referring to the sequence of a movement or the principle of lead and follow we move into a realm referred to as ‘breakdowns’ and that is where a body mechanics shot is made.

Breakdowns have been defined a few ways and … you got it … here’s a new definition – a breakdown is any image needed to clearly explain why and how a character moves from point A to point B. Breakdowns define the order in which the sections of the body move and how they move, which results in a visual representation of force. Each of these breakdown images is a result of a decision the animator makes. Terminology and lingo from the 2D realm of decades ago can be confusing in the land of CG, actually it can get confusing in any land and at any time. An animator must decide how a character moves and there are many options for how to animate any move. First, define the broad descriptive forces creating a movement such as leg drive or body lean and arm pull, then show the subtle force options such as the turn of a knee, foot direction, head roll, a twist in the body and decide when each of these happens. What leads and what follows is the best starting point for understanding breakdowns. What moves first? Why? What moves next and continue through the sequence. Explore your options and decide why the character moves then how you are going to show that and decide before you start animating. Time to make this a participation article…raise your hand well over your head, fully extend your arm but don’t move your shoulder. Try again … again … now give up – you can’t. The sequence of movement starts at your shoulder.

Personality is shown through posture. The first thing you have to break down is how the character stands. You must arrange body parts to describe inner life. How a character stands reveals emotional state, energy level and attentiveness. Everything that you do from there is a sequence of lead and follow that shows how that particular character moves. Nothing moves without a force either driving or pulling it.

Observe and make notes on daily life, shoot video reference, sketch, act out the intended motion whenever possible. In analyzing video reference, you are looking for what caused the movement not just where the body is at any given frame. Identify the forces that created movement. What decisions do you have to make if you are animating a character side-stepping onto a box?

  1. Is the character facing us?
  2. How does the character show awareness of the box?
  3. Is the character energetic or lethargic, young or old?
  4. Is the character pigeon-toed or splay foot?
  5. How high is the box?
  6. Is there an anticipatory weight shift prior to the action weight shift?
  7. When is one hip higher than the other and why?
  8. Does the character rotate its knee in or out when lifting the trailing leg?
  9. Does the character use arms to boost in support of the step up?
  10. If using arms to assist, how do the chest and shoulders lead?
  11. Are the character’s hands open or closed?
  12. Where is the character looking at any given time?

…and on and on…

So, what makes a good body mechanics shot? When the sequence of movement through the body is arranged and timed to represent the intended action and we believe that the character moved. And don’t forget – having fun is also important.

Wayne Gilbert is the head of VanArts. Check out his website at http://www.anamie.com/

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