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Composition Study for Animation

Composition is one of the most essential things to focus on when planning any work of art, but this holds especially true of animation. It is a component that is absolutely vital to the final work you create, and it can be one of the very first things you decide at the start. Today we’ll look at the recent animation of the hosts of this year’s Oscar Nominated Shorts program, and where composition went horribly wrong, plus what YOU can do to avoid the same problems.

Composing a great composition is a little like being a master juggler. You have a number of things to keep balanced and “in the air” at the same time. One slip up and the whole thing can come crashing down on your head. And much like juggling, it takes practice and effort to master the skill.

Juggling is tough

Now I should pause to say I am in no way a master of composition at this point. I struggle with it just as anyone might. The difference is that I adore composition. I see it’s value and there are few aspects to animation I enjoy more than playing with composition in the early stages of work. (One reason I enjoy storyboarding so much, actually!) If you’d like to see a master of composition at work, a great start is Brad Bird and his thoughts on layout for animation. I take a lot of care to carve out time to study composition specifically, and I do my best to practice it regularly.

Since I’ve been training my eye to focus on this visual balancing act, it was especially painful for me when I had to sit through the short animations of a giraffe and ostrich that “hosted” this year’s Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films. 99% of their time on screen looked identical to this:

Giraffe and Ostrich of the 2014 Oscar Animated Shorts

This composition is unbalanced, unappealing, and frankly just boring. It may have been the intention of the artist who decided to produce it to attempt to BE boring, but I think that sells the medium short. Why would you create such an off kilter composition? Why do something that makes the audience suffer? It’s akin to the story of when a bunch of early Disney animators asked the talented Fred Moore, master of appeal, how to draw Mickey Mouse from a top-down view. “Why would you do that?” he asked. His opinion was that you should always choose the most appealing way to show your characters, and he makes a good point.

Positive vs. Negative

We’re going to take a look at two aspects of why this composition suffers, and the first is a simple matter of positive vs. negative space. For our purposes here, positive space is “the characters” and negative space is everything else. Take a look at the positive vs. negative space of this original composition when we simplify it into two distinct colors:

Positive space vs. negative space in composition

What becomes very easy to notice when simplified is that the negative space of this composition vastly outweighs the positive space. There is no balance. Now, that isn’t to say you can’t have a composition where one of the two is used more than the other and still be successful. It’s certainly possible. Here, though, the composition isn’t strong enough to hold up such an imbalance. That is partly because of the placement of the characters, and their silhouettes (or lack there of).

Character Placement

One aspect that this composition gets right is placing the characters mostly on the grid of The Rule of Thirds. Without going into a lot of detail (that’s another article) the Rule of Thirds are essentially these lines:

Rule of Thirds

By placing where you want your audience to look along these lines (and on the points where they intersect) you can create very pleasing compositions without a great deal of effort. It isn’t a magical cure-all, but it’s a great place to start.

Here the heads of the characters nearly match those intersection points, so that’s not a bad place for them- in theory. The problem then becomes that the characters are being shown in a straight-ahead view and lack any real visual interest in silhouette.

Silhouettes are important in animation!

The giraffe’s head begins to be a tiny bit interesting, but apart from an occasional ear-wiggle, these shapes won’t ever move. The main movement- as little was there was in these scenes- took place in the mouth, as these characters were essentially talking heads.

So, what can we do about this?

For starters, we can get rid of the full-front view of the characters. This viewpoint is generally extremely boring and is only useful in very particular situations. If we move the camera so they are shown in profile:

Profile View

we instantly add visual interest on several levels. First, and maybe most importantly, we will see the mouth shapes changing in an interesting way as the characters speak. And since all they did was speak, without much other movement, this is very important. The audience goes from seeing essentially static, unmoving characters talking to at least SOME movement happening, all from just a different camera angle (composition) choice.

Second, look at the positive/negative space and silhouettes of this version:

Profile silhouettes

Not only do we have a better balance between the characters and background, the shapes are much, much more interesting when simplified as well.

And we could leave it there and it will still be more interesting than it was. However great composition is rarely a two-stage process. It requires thumbnailing again and again to find the most appealing and visually engaging solution you can. We won’t take it farther than one more step, but let’s look at that next step.

Three quarter (3/4) view

Now we have the characters in three quarter view, and now we’re starting to get somewhere. You keep a bit of the dimensionality and charm of the front view, but also add in the visual interest of the profile. You give the characters room to move and act, and still connect with the audience. The positive/negative balance is very similar to the profile version, so it’s not overwhelmingly one way or the other. There will be movement along the silhouette and change of shape as the characters speak, too.

Plus you set the stage (here quite literally) for more things to happen. Since these characters are talking heads, the audience paying strict attention to them is not absolutely necessary. And frankly when you have static talking heads the audience is unlikely to pay much attention anyway, before becoming bored. So what if you had another animal in the background doing something? Perhaps a little penguin unpacking props for the upcoming performance, or a walrus stage-hand working hoisting the lights. While these things might distract slightly from the two main characters, it would alleviate some of the boredom that was felt from watching two unmoving characters speak softly and just deliver their lines one after another. And background characters are not a requirement, either, just another option. It’s always nice to have those options available.

There are other things we can look at regarding great composition, including leading the audience’s eye through the shot, “breathing room,” Golden Ratios, contrast, color palettes, and much more. Those will have to wait for a future article. In the meantime, we’ll leave with one final thought.

Your Goal When Composing

Remember when working out your compositions that your goal is to entertain the audience. That is the goal of animation in its entirety (unless you are doing iconographics to teach training videos or something, but even then why not also entertain?). Strive for the best compositions you can before you ever animate a single frame. It is the foundation on which all your work will sit, and if that foundation is rock solid then what you build on top is on firm, appealing footing. So take the time to put in effort in this early stage! Your final animation will be better for it.

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