Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Rhythm and Texture

These are a couple of animation terms that get tossed around a lot, and many animators are not completely clear on exactly what they mean (I wasn't completely sure about them myself until well into my animation career). One reason I think they're so hard to pin down is that there's a lot of overlap (not that kind of overlap) between them, and it's hard to talk about one without referencing the other. Kind of like trying to talk about spacing without talking about timing and arcs. But lest I digress, I'm going to talk a bit about rhythm and texture as specifically as I can, and how important they are in your animation. I suppose I should attempt to define these terms before I go much further, so here's how I understand them:

Rhythm - how the actions or "beats" in a shot are spaced out over the length of a scene. You might also call this "tempo". Unlike with music, good animation has an inconsistent rhythm, making it less predictable.

Texture - the variations of timing and poses in your shot. Big and little actions, slow and fast timing, flurries of action and holds. A shot in which all the actions are the same size, have the same timing, and occur in an even rhythm has no texture.

Take a look at this clip from the classic Disney double-feature, "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad". Here we see the hero, Ichabod Crane, wooing Katrina and evading fellow suitor, Brom.

There is plenty to be appreciated in this clip, but let's pay attention to the rhythm first. Notice how the first 4 pose changes on Ichabod are all timed about the same and are all spaced evenly in time - you can count out loud between the beats: "1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000, 4-1000". In animation we generally try to avoid this kind of evenness in the timing; in music, a consistent rhythm is a good thing, but not in animation.* There's a method here, though: the animator is establishing a pattern so that he can break it. He gets the audience used to a certain rhythm so that when he changes it the audience is surprised. When Brom appears suddenly and tries to grab Ichabod the scene shifts into high speed. This contrast of rhythm creates emphasis - we know something important just happened. It's such a fast change that if it weren't staged perfectly, the audience would miss it and wouldn't understand the action. Notice how Brom hits his "grab" pose and holds it, and how Ichabod's hat floats in the air to tell you where his head "was", since there was no anticipation into his drop.

My favorite part of this scene is the next shot, where we cut inside the house and Ichabod is standing completely still, as if nothing just happened. The action of lifting his hat is tiny compared to all the big flourishes and the escape that proceeded the shot, and is isolated to just his arm. It's another big change in the rhythm and phrasing of the scene, and it not only reiterates Ichabod's composure in front of women, but also adds unexpected entertainment value. A few more quick actions (grabbing and presenting the flowers), and the sequence ends with Ichabod melting into a relaxed pose. All these changes in tempo, size of action and timing give the scene its texture.

The above clip is a pretty broad example, but you can achieve the same kind of texture in a smaller, simpler scene. Here's a clip from Monsters, Inc. featuring Sully, who is reacting to an offscreen sound.

Essentially, Sully is doing the same action over and over: he is looking around for the source of the sound. However, the animator has given the shot texture by varying the timing and size of the looks, as well as breaking up their distribution over the course of the shot to give it a more organic, staccato rhythm. Notice also that there is a progression in the looks; they start small, just in the eyes, then move on to progressively bigger and bigger moves involving the head and the torso. There's even a double-take to break up the tempo even more. The final look is the largest, and involves the biggest shape change in the body by incorporating the screen left arm. This gives the final look the most emphasis, because it's the point of the shot; this is when Sully will actually see the source of the sound (Boo playing with his tail).

Planning and blocking and animated scene is a complicated undertaking, and there are many things to keep in mind. It's not enough to obey the 12 animation principles. It's not enough to have original acting ideas and clear posing. You have to figure out the best combination of all these things to create your performance. Memorizing the dictionary and grammar rules does not make you a poet! You must find ways to string your ideas together lyrically to create a clear, cohesive, and of course, entertaining performance. You may come up with 4 great ideas for your shot, but the ideas might not flow together well. As important as your acting ideas are the changes between your ideas. What's more, the shot may only need 2 ideas. Try to be economical with your ideas, and find a sequence that flows together well. Figure out how little you need to do in the shot.

I usually start by just throwing out every idea I can on paper and/or video tape. Next I narrow it down to my favorite ideas that I think are most appropriate to the shot. From these I try to find the ideas that flow together naturally and create a nice progression, making sure that the biggest change occurs at the right time to emphasize the point of the shot. Once I have this phrasing worked out, I start to block my poses and actions into the computer. Now I can start to experiment with timing, playing with the speed of the individual actions and moving my beats around in time to try to break up the rhythm of the shot. The computer is great at helping you figure out your timing without wasting a lot of effort. This is how I find the texture in my animation. Usually after I've done my first blocking pass, I'll end up adding or removing an idea, or changing something from what I had planned to make it work better in the actual 3D scene. But no matter what I always play back the entire scene to make sure it has a pleasing texture. Always check the texture not only across the single shot that you're working on, but across the entire sequence. Remember to look at your work in context!

* What if you're animating to music? If a character is singing or dancing you want to respect the overall rhythm of the music, of course, making sure you regularly accent the beats of the music. But you must also look for places where you can add accents that fall outside the music's tempo. If you stay slavishly locked to the same beat, the animation will quickly become boring to watch. Have some accents fall on down beats, some on upbeats, some between beats. Have some actions happen in double-time, some in half-time. Remember that whenever you stray from the tempo of the music, you create emphasis, so do it wisely! Check out this vintage Flat Eric clip:

Note how he hits the down beat for most of the clip, but occasionally he breaks into a new rhythm, or skips a beat for emphasis (around 00:23). These little changes in the rhythm keep the clip entertaining to watch.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Hey Victor. Thanks for the post! Super informative and great examples. :)

    As for the embedding QT videos.. I'm not sure. I did a little research and it looks like you need some sort of quicktime embed plug-in, maybe? I've only found one for wordpress so far. I'll keep my eyes open... Here's the site I read about it on anyways...

  2. I think I found it! Here ya go..

  3. The quicktime 404's :(

    Btw, you should use something like tumblr or wordpress. It'll be so much less hassle to deal with!

  4. Thanks for the breakdown of the shots and great explanation of Concept. Appreciate it.

  5. Seems like Wordpress would make it easier to embed videos in posts... I'm pretty sure Wordpress also has a conversion tool from Blogger so you can migrate your blog to Wordpress which would be very simple, but then you would lose your URL that a lot of people probably have bookmarked. I would just stick with Blogger for now.

    Interesting post, Victor... I'm an animation student and this something new to me. Thanks for the detailed post!

  6. great stuff! Very inspirational

  7. Thanks Teresa, that did the trick! I'll try to embed the videos tonight.

  8. Thank you Victor for a great post. I`ll dig in and give the monsters shot some extra study. Timing is huge and you`ve created some great inspiration. Cheers!

  9. Very good info. I hope AM is getting into this a bit more now.

    That final clip song is by Mr. Oizo. I think it's Smoking Tape.

    iTunes Link

  10. Hey Victor,

    Awesome post, as usual. :) I love your analysis on stuff. So I watched the video of Ichabod, and then i watched it without the sound on. In these sort of shots, what would come first? The muscial track or the animation? I seem to recall on the extras in The Incredibles DVD that they showed an orchestra recording the tracks with the movie playing in the background. I think it was in the Incredibles DVD.. So anyway, I was just curious to see how much the music was planned for back in the game, and in the films of today...


  11. Okay, the embedded QT video should be working. Thanks again to Teresa.

    Pasquale, if you're getting 404's it may be because you're reading the blog from some external link or reader, and I've setup my site so my movies can't be linked externally. Protects my bandwidth.

    clockwerkz, usually the music is created after the animation. The exception would be if you're animating to an existing song or composition, such as in a musical. There are musical numbers in this short, which I'm sure were recorded before animation started, but the incidental score in this clip was likely added later.

  12. It's funny, cause even when making music without pictures added to it, you want the texture and contrast, to avoid a boring mechanical feel. Often the sounds that does not hit the beat right on the spot, is the ones that adds character, making it interesting and definitely the ones you will remember when hearing it again. When animating a dance sequence e.g. you have the opportunity to make off beat visual anticipations to an otherwise steady beat, that will add a lot more excitement, than just following the beat slavishly.


  13. Excellent post Victor! I really enjoyed every bit of it. At Disney they always taught us to have texture in the rhythm, and this is one of the simplest explanations I've read of that principle.

    Well done!

  14. thanks for your post victor..... it is really amazing to know that how much of subtle details can be added to a shot to take it to the next level. I never use to think of rhythm and texture like that....

  15. Thank you so much for wonderful post.
    With the great examples and detailed explanations I feel like I'm starting to understand texture and be more aware of it while watching films or observe life

  16. Hi Victor! Congratulations on this superb post! Thank you very much! =)

    But I have a doubt... I've read your first post about "3 speeds", that are connected to this one, right? Because of the "texture" stuff.

    To make our shot more interesting, do we necessarily have to make it evolves in the shot? Like starting small, then medium and finally big ? Or we can break it, for example, when we have something to emphasises in the middle of a shot (small, big, medium)?

    I know that we can break it in a sequence like the Ichabod's example, right? But everytime I watched the examples, I noticed the progression in the shots. So, we can freely change it, or we have to go all the way then start over (small, medium, big, small)?

    Thanks one more time, and sorry hehe This concept of "rhythm and texture" is something new to me

  17. Hi Felipe,
    Yes, progression is important, but it doesn't have to go from small to medium to big. It could go from big to medium to small, or mix it up differently. The goal is to have the greatest contrast occur at the most important part of the shot. So if most of the actions are big, you can emphasize the important part of the shot with a small action. Chuck Jones does this a lot by having lots of broad action, then putting in a small reaction to break up the scene.

  18. Hi Victor!

    Hmn... So if we want to emphasize a part in a shot, we "just" have to contrast it with the rest, independently of the order. And by doing that we break the rhythm, and by breaking the rhythm we get the texture, because we are applying these variations, that make our shot more organic and more beliavable. Is that correct? hehe

    Well, you said that we don't have to follow the "progression rule", so we can take out the intermediate action(small to big/big to small) too?

    Thank you very much for taking your time. I think I'm getting this much better. It's a little complex, and I understand why It's difficult to talk about one without the other hehehe

    I feel like we can talk about this subject forever hehehe Thanks for the great examples. Chuck Jones nailed it. And I can't stop watching that clip of Sully's reaction!

    And sorry for the large comments hehe

  19. Hi Felipe,
    The term "rhythm" in art and animation is not the same as in music - it does not suggest a constant tempo or repeated pattern. So you're not really breaking the rhythm when you add contrast. This kind of thing is difficult to talk about, and quickly becomes semantic; it's much easier to show!

  20. There are musical numbers in this short, which I'm sure were recorded before animation started.
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