Lessons I Learned as a Traditional 2D Animator: Thumbnails and Planning

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Disney’s Robin Hood thinking about Maid Marian as he proceeds to burn dinner

You’re in for a treat today! We’re excited to share with you lessons from one of our amazing mentors, Jay Jackson.

Early on in his career, Jay had the opportunity to train under Eric Larson, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men. As a legendary animator at Disney, Eric and the rest of the Nine Old Men brought to life some of our favorite Disney characters.

Having Eric as a mentor was an invaluable experience for Jay, who continues to pass on that Disney wisdom to every student he teaches. Get ready to be inspired, to learn, and to go animate!


Eric Larson at his animation desk, 1951 via the Walt Disney Archives Photo Library
Eric Larson at his animation desk, 1951 via the Walt Disney Archives Photo Library

When I first started the training program at Walt Disney Feature Animation, I was thrilled to get the chance to be mentored by Eric Larson, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men. The years I’d spent in figure drawing classes had given me some confidence in my drawing ability, but walking down the halls of the animation building and seeing the powerful and emotional drawings from Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, and other Disney classics that hung on the walls, I wondered if I’d ever be able to draw well enough to work on a feature.

As I started my first animation assignment—an old woman trying to cross a busy street—I labored over each drawing.

As I started my first animation assignment—an old woman trying to cross a busy street—I labored over each drawing, trying to perfect her hair, her glasses, the wrinkles in her dress, hoping it was good enough to keep me in the program. When I felt that my scene looked presentable, I took it to Eric’s office for feedback. After flipping through the drawings and understanding my idea, he put the first drawing on his disc, placed a clean sheet of paper over it, and picked up a dull pencil with soft lead. He did a very rough, scribbly drawing, barely more than a stick figure, with a circle for the head, and no detail.

Frankly, I was disappointed and a little shocked to see him drawing so crudely. As he continued to draw over each of my poses, I started to wonder if he’d lost his touch. (He was, after all, in his late 70’s at the time.) He handed the stack of drawings back to me and with a little wink said, “Now go shoot these on the video tester.”

When I played the video, I was shocked again. Eric’s scribbly drawings, now in motion, seemed alive! They had so much more life, personality, and weight than my labored-over drawings. I threw away all of my drawings and started over. It was my first big lesson in the importance of a strong gesture as the basis for a finished pose. The line of action through the body, the changes in the curvature of the spine, and the position of the hips over the feet made all the difference. I learned that no amount of detail is going to fix a pose based on a weak gesture.

Eric’s scribbly drawings, now in motion, seemed alive! They had so much more life, personality, and weight than my labored-over drawings. I threw away all of my drawings and started over. It was my first big lesson in the importance of a strong gesture as the basis for a finished pose.

On his desk, Eric had a stack of Milt Kahl’s thumbnail drawings. For one scene in Robin Hood, Milt had drawn page after page of sketches of Robin Hood lying on the ground, stirring a pot of stew with a spoon. He had apparently tried every imaginable variation on how Robin would cross the legs, before deciding on the best pose for the scene. Even a virtuoso like Milt didn’t settle on his first idea for a pose. The importance of making thumbnail sketches to explore variations on a pose, while always looking for a clear silhouette, was the next big lesson I learned at Disney.

He had apparently tried every imaginable variation on how Robin would cross the legs, before deciding on the best pose for the scene.






I always recommend that my students spend some time planning and thumbnailing before starting to animate. Eric, along with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, said you should spend half your time planning and half your time animating.

Eric, along with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, said you should spend half your time planning and half your time animating.

It’s much more efficient to explore poses with quick sketches than with a CG rig. It’s faster to work out a line of action in a sketch. The more time you spend planning, the faster and smoother your animation will go.

-Jay


Jiminy Cricket 2D Animation Test by Jay Jackson

Want to learn 2D Animation from Jay Jackson?

Jay has worked on 30+ films since 1979, including The Fox and the Hound, Hercules, The Little Mermaid, Tarzan and The Simpsons Movie. He’s been with Animation Mentor since 2007 and loves to share Eric Larson’s wisdom with students in his 2D Animation for Beginners Workshop.

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