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Why Your Animation Needs Contrast, Part 2: Timing

by | Nov 7, 2018

Last month, Shawn Kelly talked about the overall importance of contrast in entertainment and any art, be it sculpture, painting, photography, joke-telling, storytelling, horror movies, or love stories, and more specifically—the importance of using contrast in posing as an animator. This time he tackles a topic that might even be more vital than posing: contrast in timing!

Hello animators! Welcome to part two of contrast!

Last month, we talked about the overall importance of contrast in entertainment and any art, be it sculpture, painting, photography, joke-telling, storytelling, horror movies, or love stories, and more specifically, we talked about the importance of using contrast in our posing. If you haven’t read it yet, I’d encourage you to start with last month’s article, which you can read here!

This time around, we’ll talk about applying the concept of contrast to an area of animation where it’s arguably even more vital than with posing: timing.

Contrast is the Key to Entertainment: Part II, Contrast in Timing

Gene Deitch, in “How to Succeed in Animation” says the following:

“The art of animation timing is related to a basic element of all art, and that is contrast. What makes a painting, a drawing, a sculpture, a building, a play, a movie, or a piece of music or ANY object visually or aurally interesting and dynamic, is contrast. Dark vs. Light, Large vs. Small, Blur vs. Sharp, Straight vs. Curve, Rounded vs. Angular, Near vs. Far, Loud vs. Soft, Slow vs. Fast, Pause vs. Action. These last pairings are at the heart of animation timing.”

For the most part, the only things on this planet which move at perfect spacing at all times are machines. Contrast not only adds fun to your scene, or that elusive sense of life, but building contrast into the timing of your scene adds organic believability.

Putting contrast into your timing, like anything else I’ve ever written about here, is going to take careful thought and pre-planning. It will become second-nature after a while, but for the first few years of your animation journey, it isn’t something that will magically appear in your work. During your planning process, consider different uses of contrast (timing and posing), and how those moments might best be used to communicate emotion changes, sell jokes, show weight, or simply imbue your character with more entertaining and dynamic movement.

Let’s say you have a scene in which a boxer needs to take two steps forward and throw a punch at someone. So, the basic breakdown is two steps and a punch, right? Pretty simple. But you’ll find that contrast can be put into any sequence of movements or emotions that are made up of three or more parts. So what jumps out at me right away here is “oh, three things are happening. Cool. Could be a good chance for some contrast.” And then I’ll play with those three things in my mind, or on paper, or in my video reference, and exaggerate different levels of contrasting timing between those three things to see how it feels.

For example, let’s say you do what 90% of young animators will unconsciously do when they are given that scene. They’ll block it out, and without even knowing they are doing it, those three actions will be timed evenly, as though set to the tick-tock of a metronome.

Step…Step…Punch. I had a big problem with this in my first few years of animation, where senior animators were constantly pointing out to me, “um, your actions are all timed evenly,” and they’d clap their hands to the beat of my scene, and I’d be shocked to find my character’s big moments to be animated to a steady beat. It wasn’t something I was trying to do, it was simply something that happened without my noticing it.

So, 8 years ago, I may have animated it like this:
Step…Step…Punch. Even timing.

But what would be better?

Well, if you look at those three actions, and picture them in your head, almost any other version of the timing between those three actions would be far more dynamic, powerful, and interesting to watch. For example, what if it were two quick steps, then a big pause where the character leans WAY back to throw the punch and then he delivers it?


This would be so much better. It creates a moment of tension. It’s the calm before the storm, and that builds interest. The audience is left on the edge of their seats, just for a minute. “Will he throw the punch? Will it land? Is he rethinking his move? He’s really winding up for quite a hit!” Suddenly the audience’s brains are churning, and better yet, you have sucked them into your scene, and they are watching as though they are truly there with the soldier. They’re in the movie now. They aren’t bored, they aren’t checking their watch—they’re hanging on your every move.

Another idea might be to take one big step with the left foot, pause for a moment, arm cocked back, and then quickly take a huge right step and immediately swing his torso around to throw the punch with his right arm.


This might not offer quite as many opportunities for the audience to involve themselves in the shot (pausing just before the climax is usually the most dramatic), but it’s still far superior to the even timing in every way. The punch will be much more powerful, you’ve created a sense of a “wind-up” in the body and a rapid unwinding as he quickly steps and spins to throw the punch, adding a lot of force and dynamism to the move. And you still have an actual bona fide pause in the scene, which is the key ingredient to any contrast, and an absolutely necessary one if you want to give the audience a chance to enjoy the action, or to involve them in it. Even in this version, that early pause does give the audience a chance to think “oh my gosh! He’s going to throw his big punch! Wait, is he? Yes, he IS!”

Either of these versions will undoubtedly be more exciting, fun, and alive to the audience, creating a memorable moment for them in the movie, game, or TV show.

Contrast creates rhythm, and we should strive constantly to create rhythm in our work.

Think of your scene like a song. Actions should rise and fall, rest for a bit, rise into a bigger swelling crescendo, and then drift back again. Imagine if a song were constant crescendo? We’d be reaching for earplugs after less than a minute. We’d be worn out! Meanwhile, having no crescendo at all is just as bad, as the boring song would put us all to sleep.

Think of your favorite film scores, the best themes. The crescendo of the Superman theme is amazing, but if the entire song was just like the crescendo, the crescendo loses any power it had, and the song dissolves into noise. What lends that theme its power is the slow build and mini-crescendos that lead up to the climax of the song. In short, the contrast is what makes the crescendo exciting, and without it, it’s just a bunch of loud noise.

So it is for your animation as well. Your scene is a song, and while your crescendo may sometimes be a very subtle one, perhaps nothing more than a small eye adjustment, even that can be the crescendo within the context of your scene,. The audience loves the feeling of building tension, and then the release of that tension. Maybe your scene is simply one of a series of scenes in which the tension is building. You can STILL find opportunities for contrast, and within your overall goal of “building the tension,” you can almost always still create tiny pauses and ups and downs that give “texture” to your scene.

A by-product of this will be adding that organic believability to your shot as well, because once again, we are not machines. We don’t slowly escalate from “calm” to “furious” on some constant rate, our face morphing evenly from one emotion to the other! Our brains are churning, (as seen through our eyes), and as we consider the situation, we become angrier and angrier, but those moments come in spurts and rushes, separated by moments of thought.

Contrast in Context

Something else to consider with contrast, is that while your scene is a song, it is likely only one part of a much larger song: the overall story arc, or at least the more immediate arc of the sequence. You need to consider the whole song when composing your small part of it otherwise you cannot know how far you ought to push your crescendo. For example, let’s say I’m doing a scene in which Yoda hears some terrible news and gets very angry. Well, my inclination as an animator is that I want to exaggerate those emotions as much as I can. I want to show the world that he’s FURIOUS! I want the coolest, angriest, badass Yoda I can create, right?

So I take his facial controls and sculpt his face into a mask of absolute rage. And then I sit back and say, “Cool! He looks so angry! My supervisor is going to love this.”

Well, maybe that’s true, but if I haven’t considered the needs of the whole sequence, it might also turn out I’m being a cocky dimwit, and that 10 scenes later, Yoda finds out something even worse, and needs to become ENRAGED!
Well, if I already pushed his face as angry as it can go in my scene, what is the animator supposed to do 10 scenes later? My crescendo has inadvertently overshadowed his, and what will happen? Well, what will happen is that I’ll be the one redoing my scene and slowing down production, that’s what will happen! No matter how well I did the animation, the needs of the story will outweigh what I have done, and I’ll have to adjust my scene to be less angry in order to save the anger for the moment the story truly demands it.

As long as you are keeping the context of your scene in mind, however, contrast is always something you should actively pursue. The key is often finding ONE MOMENT to build your entire scene around. This moment is your crescendo, and everything else around it must be “smaller,” or “slower,” or else at least helping add to the build-up to the crescendo, or contributing to the release after it. Once you choose your moment, be sure not to overshadow it elsewhere in your scene with a bigger or faster move. Let the crescendo be your moment, and use the rest of your scene to contribute to its power.

Be sure not to choose multiple crescendos in your scene, unless it’s a really long scene, or in the rare case that the story demands multiple climaxes in your scene. You want to focus on one idea at a time. Give the audience one thing to be looking for. Don’t confuse us with mini-climaxes going on all over the place, or your scene will feel scattered and spastic. Your chosen crescendo can be incredibly subtle, but whenever possible, try not to have more than one. This is especially important in 2-character scenes, by the way, where you might want some back-and-forth happening between the characters. They might each have their own crescendo, but the best scenes usually have one character “winning” the “crescendo battle,” otherwise it devolves into a shouting match. They should interact in a believable, but rhythmic way – their beats working together like instruments in your song.

Ignore the Dialogue (Sometimes)

The last thing I think I’ll say about this is one other tip—sometimes you need to ignore some dialogue beats in order to properly create a contrasted performance.

To me, a “beat” at its most basic level is a change from one emotion to another or a change from one subtext to another. The best lines of dialogue have at least two beats, or – in other words, at least one shift in emotion. The character moves from angry (Beat 1) to furious (Beat 2) or from scared to heartbroken, or from joy to disappointment.
Those are the meaty scenes you can truly sink your animation teeth into.

But sometimes, especially in a longer monologue, you might feel you can hear many beats. And sometimes, especially with a less gifted actor reading the words, it might sound like a lot of moments could be crescendos. Or worse, the operative words (the most enunciated and exaggerated words in the monologue) might be very evenly spaced, as though he’s speaking to a metronome.

Well, it will be up to you, as the animator and true actor of this scene, to pick and choose your beats. In other words, you’re going to make the conscious decision in your planning to ignore some of the reader’s beats, and to ignore some of these operative words.

Why? Well, if you don’t, you won’t have any contrast in your scene.

You’ll have multiple crescendos competing for dominance, and evenly spaced gestures throughout the scene. Instead, you should make smart decisions about which crescendos you can bring down slightly, if not ignore completely, and which operative words you can get away with skipping. Unless the line reading is absolutely horrible, you’re probably only going to be ignoring one or two operative words at most, letting them go by with merely a small head motion to accompany them, saving the bigger body stuff and gestures for the operatives word(s) you’ve chosen to build your scene around.

In other words, if you have to dumb down a couple of moments that the dialogue sounds big, in order to focus on what you feel is THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT, and in order to create some pauses and calm in the scene to contrast with the bigger moments, then go for it.

Or, to put it even simpler: don’t let a bad line reading force you into even timing and overacting.

Are there times when you’d WANT to have a scene that is “all crescendo?” Sure! If the story calls for a frantic, spastic scene, then that is exactly what you should do. Likewise, sometimes you’ll want even timing (most often in relation to a joke), such as in The Wrong Trousers (the end of chapter 5), when Wallace’s toast-making machine goes through its motions. All of the things it does are done on an even timing to really drive the joke home when the toaster pops open, no toast pops out, and then you have the beat just before he gets a face full of jam, where there SHOULD be toast, but isn’t. This is an interesting case, as it’s also a wonderful use of contrast (that moment of pause before the punchline is probably my favorite 1/2 second in the whole film), but it’s also interesting to note how the even timing helps sell the no-toast joke.

Or consider the way we all laughed at the monotone teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, intoning over and over, “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” His monotone voice was used for comedic effect, and was hilarious. So, there are always exceptions to any rule, but (and yes, I know this is the oldest cliché in the animation book) you need to make sure you understand the rules before you break them.

Well, that’s it for contrast, I think. Still awake? Hope so!

Keep animating, and as always, have FUN!
Shawn 🙂

If you still haven’t read it, be sure to check out Shawn’s earlier post on contrast in posing!

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