Studying Animation Masters: Grab and Shake

Two “Studying the Masters” posts in a row?! Yes, despite normally spreading them out, today we’re going to take a look at another clip right on the heels of last week’s in order to contrast them and give you some examples of what NOT to do!

First, the clip!

Clip from Pocahontas

Let’s start with a bit of a disclaimer: Despite the critique that follows, this clip is very well done. I don’t want to come across as saying it is poor, because it most certainly is not. The craftsmanship here is still of the highest quality. There are just a few decisions that I believe could have been chosen better, or at least differently. I don’t claim to know more than the animators involved in this scene, these are only my personal observations from studying it!

The Good: The Grab

First take a look at something extremely nice here, which is the grasp Governor Ratcliffe has on this poor old fellow’s shirt. His hands really feel like they are gripping the solid cloth, and this frame alone is a great example of how to handle simple wrinkles that indicate the pull without becoming so complicated that they don’t translate to animation:

Pocahontas wrinkles in clothing for animation

Here’s one little difficulty with this, though. The old man isn’t wearing a shirt with a darker purple stripe down the chest, but a VEST over top of a lighter purple shirt. Unfortunately they are animated as one article of clothing, instead of two.

Now, obviously this is just a tiny clip in a much, MUCH larger film, but it’s precisely attention to detail like this that usually sets Disney classics apart. Here is a perfect opportunity to get some extra oomph out of this simple shot, with a nice extra bit of overlap and secondary action. The vest would react the the grab differently than the shirt, and push up showing some separation. Just something to keep in mind!

Regardless, when you are animating a scene where a character is gripping something (cloth, an object, whatever) pay careful attention to making it feel solid and “true,” especially in 3D. It can take a scene from average to amazing if you get it as spot on as the image above!

Feeling the Weight

Now we come to a few missteps in this little clip (again, in my opinion). While there’s a nice sense of weight to the cloth as it’s being grabbed, there is a definite lack of weight in the shake and shove that accompanies it. In my opinion this hinges on two key aspects:

  • The overall timing
  • The old man’s spacing

The Overall Timing

One of the biggest reasons the clip we took a look at last week from The Little Mermaid works as well as it does is because of the phenomenal sense of timing. Each pose gets just long enough to read before moving on to the next. The audience has time to absorb the action, but not so long that it reads “Pose to pose.”

Here, unfortunately, the same can’t be said. The action is rushed, and because of that lacks the force that would otherwise appear. I appreciate the idea of the back and forth shaking as Ratcliffe shouts his lines, but it isn’t given time to breathe. Instead it’s “shakeshakeshaketoss.” If it was “Grab, hold, shake, shake, hold, toss” it would work out much better, in my opinion, because it would allow the audience’s eyes time to settle. And with that time would come much more force and sense of dominance. Here the action almost makes Ratcliffe LESS frightening, which I doubt was the goal of the animator. An action that should read as “I am in control” instead reads “I am shaking, personally.”

The Old Man Spacing

Tethered (quite literally) to the shaking action and its timing is the animation of the old man. Again we can go back to the clip of Ariel and Sebastian. Though the kiss is a much slower, more deliberate movement, look at how well Sebastian’s pose reads. You have time to feel that his expression changes (even if slightly) and there really isn’t much movement between his normal and “impacted” states.

Now go back to the Pocahontas clip. Watch, for a moment, ONLY the old man’s face and head. Focus intensely on him alone and you’ll likely start to get dizzy! The motion is all over the place! Not in arcs or back and forth spacing that allows the eye to read, but almost seemingly randomly placed. He appears to blink twice in this tiny time frame, which instead of reading well only strobes. Ollie Johnston once wisely said

“Change of expression and major dialogue sounds are a point of interest. Do them, if at all possible, within a pose. If the head moves too much you won’t see the changes.”

This is a perfect example of that. The old man has previously a dumbfounded look on his face. Once grabbed and shaken, his eyes shift from wide and shocked to closed to wide again, but throughout this change his head is moving SO much there’s no time to appreciate the change.

“How would you do it, then, and still read it as him being physically shaken?” you may ask. We have to go back to timing in that case. Give the action that room to breathe that I mentioned. If Ratcliffe snatches him up first, then the old man has time to look surprised, THEN he’s shaken and tossed, the audience gets enough time to register what’s happening, and it ends up being a more pleasant experience for the viewer. This doesn’t have to dramatically alter the movement, either. Even just 4-6 frames of “held but not shaken” will work.

Returning to spacing, another issue happens when the guy is tossed. There’s a problematic lack of weight here, as it seems that the old guy is no heavier than a pillow. One could argue that he is old and Ratcliffe has quite a set of muscles, but there could still be a lot more impact to the shove than we see on screen.

To change this we need to understand why it lacks punch. Looking closely, you’ll see that the “throwing” is actually being done with Ratcliffe’s FINGERS. Look at the change of shape in the arms, where the muscles we’d normally use for shoving are:

pocahontas change of shape 01

What you see here is there’s not much change. There’s a LOT of change in the fingers, which is why the force seems to be coming from that area.

Now look at what could have been. Below is the first shot, but next to a screen of the arm fully extended (which happened as Ratcliffe grabbed the man, and is shown here out of order just to explain the point).

pocahontas change of shape 02

Now that’s what I call change of shape! The force is huge and obvious now, and instead of casting the guy off with a flick of the fingers, Ratcliff is shoving him away. (Sort of. Obviously this example isn’t perfect as the second shot is technically from him going to pull the guy closer, just out of order. But hopefully you get the picture.)

Another issue is that Ratcliffe’s beefy hands obscure the old man’s face for a frame which then causes his exit to strobe slightly. This obstruction is part of the issue with spacing on the fellow.

pocahontas obscured

If you want to keep things where they are, there really needs to be an extra frame- a cheat- before the old man vanishes from the frame. Then he won’t simply disappear from view, but be PUSHED from view.

I want to put forth an opposing view here: It’s possible the animator WANTED Ratcliffe to cast the old man aside with just a flick of his fingers. In that case this shot is a great success, and my point is moot. If that was their intention, it was successful. I still feel it would be stronger with a full-arm shove, but I understand that’s just a difference in opinion! Neither acting choice is necessarily right or wrong, just different.

Hey Look a Hand!

One last snag here is if you look at this frame:

Pocahontas strobe frame

I understand what the animator was attempting to do here, allowing more time for the eye to follow the old guy out of frame. Unfortunately this little blob of peach colored shape is only on screen for 1/12th of a second, and because it has nothing before it to prepare the eye, it just flashes and is visually confusing. It’s distracting instead of assisting to the audience to understand the motion. It isn’t something you’d probably notice, but your brain feels it regardless, and you want to avoid things like this. Keep it simple, keep it clean.

As an aside, this frame probably had no issues in pencil tests. It wasn’t until it was filled with solid color that it probably began strobing.

To the Film Room!

Hopefully this look at the contrast between the clip above and last week’s has proven helpful in some way to you. There’s a tremendous amount more to study out there! We’ll take a look at more clips in the future. In the meantime I encourage you to go check out some of your favorite scenes and break down why they interest and entertain you! You never know what you might learn.

Keep in mind that in animation there are very few “wrong” answers. Even though I have given examples of other ways to animate the clip above it doesn’t mean this is incorrect as it is! It’s just what I noticed while watch the gif flash by. The animator who did this scene is clearly an extremely skilled craftsman, especially to have been put on the A Team at Disney during this epic film! Most of us would give our non-animating arm for such an opportunity.

We’ve also received an email from one Animator Island reader, Alex, who wanted to know more about the “how to” of studying animation. We’re compiling a full article on tips and tricks just for that how-to process, so stay tuned! And if you have any methods for study that work well for you, share them in the comments and we’ll all benefit from what each one of us has learned as we work.

A Note from Ferdinand

One last thing. While discussing this clip with Ferdinand, he made a very good point. It can be somewhat dangerous to watch a very short clip over and over on repeat if you’re looking for ways to improve it. The thing to remember is that the people who are watching your scene will not be viewing it in that way. So what may seem wrong on repeat will actually work just fine in context of a larger film. Don’t beat yourself up over the details so much that you miss the bigger picture! Learn what you can, but remember no animation will ever be perfect.