Shawn Kelly: 'Planning is the most important principle of Animation'

By AMRITA VALECHA | 4 January, 2011 - 15:26
Shawn Kelly, Lead animator at ILM on day 1 of Kre8tif 2010 shared the similarities and differences between Animating live action films v/s animating animation features. Inspired by Star Wars since he was 5, he decided to work in this industry and has been with ILM since the past 13 years. He has recently completed work on Rango.

He shared that the basic principles of animation is applied while animating live action films and not just for the cartoony effects. He also showcased few photographs on which these animation principles were applied on. Moving further he shared about the principles of Animation which are - Squash and Stretch, Anticipation, Staging, Straight ahead action and pose to pose, follow through and overlapping action, slow in and slow out, Arcs, Secondary action, Timing, Exaggeration, Solid drawing and Appeal.

He further added, "Often people forget one of the principles of animation which is 'Planning' and it takes them long time to do the production. It is the single most important thing before you start animating and it should be used for every medium. Every producer should spend 40% of their time in planning the entire project and 60% in executing the plan."

Shawn Kelly, Lead Animator at ILM

There are 4 types of planning i.e Visualization, Observation, Reference, Thumbnails. He said, "Visualization is the easiest of all. You need to sit and close your eyes and imagine the funniest way to animate the show. (And of course not fall asleep)". The other way of planning is by Observing. He said, "Keep your eyes open and see what all you are looking at, being curious is the most important thing for an animator. Keep observing your surrounding but don't just copy what you observe. Filter the observation and see what works for you."

The next type of planning was Reference. He shared, "Find out videos and also film your own video with the help of your team. Shawn showed how he had hidden a camera in the mall, and observed all the people walking and passing by in the mall. He observed people walking together have the same footsteps while walking. He also taped himself sleeping to observe his behavior while asleep.

Shawn gave an example of a scene from Transformers One, where Bone Crusher smashes into the car which catches fire. In this scene, Shawn looked at the previz of how the Bone Crusher would walk and smash the car, but he was not satisfied with the way it looked. He looked at lot of ways in which bone Crusher can go and smash the car but nothing seemed to convince him. At last he made his skater friend to skate for him which convinced him and he finally filmed the scene. He observed the film and made the thumbnails of the movement of the legs and hips. "I then proposed the idea to Michael Bay and he loved it as well", He shared.

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So what is the difference between animating animated features and animating live action? Giving his own example of Transformers, he says "The major difference is that you have been given the background plate". He further shared the importance of Previz before the background plate has been shot. "It is all about brainstorming and of course to think big. Previz is a cheap way to throw a lot of ideas at the wall and see what sticks. Create a camera that feels like the real camera because impossible cameras will make the vfx look fictitious. Pre-visualization is a great time for developing your characters. You can come up with new ideas for your character even if it might get rejected.

Shawn further gave insights on some of the other principles of animation. He said, "People have often mistaken Squash and Stretch for cartoony effects, but that's not true. Think of it as more of an overall change in the body. Then is staging which is an art of leading the eye of the audience through your scene. You must consciously direct the audience attention, especially in busy shots where there are a lot of characters. It is all about how the audience perceives the scene."

For staging, he gave an example of the robots from Transformers, where it was difficult to place so many robots and get the attention of the audience on the one you want to. It had to be dealt very carefully so that the audience did not miss any important element of the scene. He further explained about the importance of secondary characters saying, "It's an idea that supports the main idea of the shot without drawing attention from the main performance. Remember to keep secondary actions on secondary characters.

He also put emphasis on Polishing the scene. Once your animation is done, you need to polish it up. It is about adding a little complexity and noticing every detail of the scene and how you can make it better.
Shawn concluded the session by sharing some of the common restrictions in VFX. They are camera moves, lighting, sound effects, frame range, budgets and actors.