Sunday, February 06, 2011

Animating Limited Characters

I recently got an email from reader Andy Latham asking me a very good question:
When animating on Cars, is there anything that you have wanted to animate but haven't been able to due to the limitations of using cars instead of people?
The answer is yes (and no), but more importantly, this got me thinking about animation limited characters, such as cars, robots, fish, etc.  I realized that this is a subject dear to my heart, hence this article.  And yes, I'll expand on my answer to the question below.

Given the choice between animating a fully-articulated human character with dialog and silent, abstract character with limited articulation and vestigial features, I'll usually choose the latter.  I like the freedom that you get from simplified characters; the more stylized or abstract the character is, the less the audience expects it to move in a naturalistic way, and (I think) the more likely the audience is to empathize with the character.  I'm not going to get into the whole uncanny valley issue, but suffice to say that a realistic CG human has to work a lot harder than a cartoon blob to win the audience's affection.

Another thing I like about limited characters is the speed at which you can work.  Because you have so few controls to work with, you have fewer keys to set, so you can spend more time experimenting.  For example, on Cars the characters obviously lack arms, legs, spines, necks, etc.  Most of the time I'm just treating the body of the car like a bouncing ball (or bouncing box in this case) and relying on timing and line of action to convey attitude.  This means I can do most of my blocking with about 8 controls, which really speeds up my workflow!  Sure, I'll also throw in the occasional tire gesture, but that doesn't add a lot more complexity to my shot, and I can keep working fast.  My average weekly footage animating cars is almost double what it would be with more complex characters.  I find I shoot a lot less reference when I'm planning for a limited character, because reference isn't as useful.  I move in ways that a car can't, and vice versa.  I can record facial expression reference, and general timing reference from my head movements, but not a lot more.  I find that thumbnails are more useful, and I'll also just experiment right in the computer, because I can lay in poses so quickly and try different combinations in a short period of time.  With a human character I'm shooting a lot more reference, and I'm likely blocking pose-to-pose, meticulously sculpting the poses for rhythm and balance.  With cars I often block in a layered fashion, because the timing is more important to me than the poses (and how much can you really "pose" a car anyway?).  This gives me more instantaneous feedback about the timing and texture of my shot.

Finally, I like animating limited characters because they pose unique challenges.  It appeals to the part of my brain that likes to solve puzzles.  How can I make a robot with no facial controls look sad?  How can I make a car moonwalk?  How can I tell a complex emotional story with no dialog, no facial expressions, and a legless, elbowless trash-compactor?  I think of it like haiku; I have a very strict set of rules I have to adhere to, but within them I have lots of freedom.  Limitations are essential to creative thinking and problem solving.  As long as I have a clear idea of what the character's personality, mood and intent are, I've never run into a situation where I can't communicate what I want.  Of course I don't always get it on the first try!

To expand on Andy's question, I often run into situations where I want to put across a particular gesture or attitude with a car, and I just can't make it read.  The solution is often to not try to force human movement into a car (or robot or fish) but to try to find something unique about the limited physiology of your character that can convey the same emotion in a new way.  Or in the case of an actual living creature, like a fish, trying to find a natural behavior of that creature that could also suggest a human behavior.  Here are some clips to illustrate these points:

Cars - Lightning McQueen and Sally.  These shots were animated by Rich Quade and Dave DeVan.  Note how McQueen's front wheels are animated to suggest feet (usually they suggest hands) and how the gesture is made more "car-like" by rolling the tire on the ground.  Also note the use of Sally's taillights in the three-point turn to communicate thought.

Finding Nemo - Coral.  This is a deceptively simple shot of Coral saying "what?" by Shawn Krause.  Notice how fish-like it feels.  We've all seen fish in an aquarium do this kind of quick turn, and the animator has used this to suggest a take.  Also notice that he didn't try to add in a humanistic gesture with the fins.

WALL-E - WALL-E and Eve.  I animated all of this myself.  There's a lot to see here, but here are some less obvious notes:  WALL-E's neck compresses and expands to suggest changes in posture - when the neck compresses down, it's as if his shoulders were coming up.  His arm joints suggest shoulders when they are at the top of his cube buddy, and they suggest elbows when they are down low.  At around :39 WALL-E's head and body rotate around in opposite directions.  Why?  Because he can!  At :42 I shaped Eve's eyes to look like a standard U.S. electrical socket when she illuminates the light bulb.  At :56 WALL-E examines the Rubik's Cube by rotating his hand around 360 degrees.  Again, because he can.

Bonus clip: Pocoyo - Pato the duck is a favorite character of mine, and he's extremely limited.  Rather than trying repurpose natural duck behavior and physiology, the animators instead have chosen to invent a new vocabulary of motion for him, and use his simple body in unique ways.  See how he is able to stack blocks without the use of arms:

In conclusion, I think limited characters have more fun!  So if you're trying to flesh out your demo reel, why not try bringing life to a really limited character?  It's a good way to develop your storytelling and problem-solving muscles, and it's a fun challenge.  Happy Animating, and thanks for the question, Andy!


  1. Wow...Thanks a ton Victor !!
    that was very informative. :)

  2. Hey Victor, that was extremely helpful! Thanks for the way you explained the examples. It was great to know how you used the limitations to your advantage.

    Even I love working with limited characters. In fact, when I design characters, I like to take something away (like, hide the eyes or take away the mouth) just because it increases the challenge. I guess I love solving puzzles too! :D

    I would like to share a small 30 sec clip with you that I had done way back when I was starting to learn animation. I was working with extremely limited characters (Johnny the box and Ball with tail) and had a fun time making them emote. It's nothing great but I hope you would check it out anyway. :)

    Thanks once again for the insightful article. I'm sharing this straight away with my friends! :)

  3. Thanks a lot for tackling my question and giving all that detail on working with limited characters Victor! Really interesting and informative, I appreciate you taking the time.

    I work on Lego videogame cutscenes where the characters clearly have some limitations compared with realistic characters, so I'll try to keep your words in mind when I'm animating them!

  4. Thanks a lot Victor Navone, for the insightful information about character animation.!!

  5. Wow, that's really inspiring! Makes me think back to Luxo Jr. and how it seemed so fun to animate.

  6. Thanx you so much, You and Carlos have made me a better animator with your blogs!

  7. This is sooooo helpful. Thanks for this Victor. You are the one who taught me working in graph.


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  9. Incredible post Victor. I've always wanted to ask about this. Thanks for the breakdown

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  12. Thanks Victor
    It’s great to see you address this so clearly & succinctly, and to round it off with words of encouragement for those who are perhaps too hesitant to try and do more with less.

    I am not against realism, and certainly not against a level of naturalism in animation.
    But reality & realism are always right in front of us.
    Animation shouldn’t have to constantly try to encompass every aspect of it.

    Yes, reality is ‘a / the’ source, but it shouldn’t inevitably be the product.

    What’d be the point of animating a cat walking across the room if it were lit, rendered, had CG fur and was made to look precisely like any cat you could see with your own two eyes?
    I’d much rather animate (and see) a simple three tone shape that was a design abstraction of a cat, and push it to exude the specific nuance and feel of a feline personality up on the screen.

    There is so much more to be found by exploring the diversity of styles and ‘limitations’ that one can impose on aspects of a creative project, which beg inventive thought and solutions down the road.
    The trick is to choose to do so.

  13. First time visiting your blog, Victor, and I must say reading this was very special.
    Perhaps you wrote this a long time ago, but thanks anyway. It looks like you really appreciate your readers.

  14. really great article very informative

  15. awesome info...thanks for sharing