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Of the 12 basic principles of animation ‘exaggeration’ is probably the one most people think of first. This principle seems to encapsulate the essence of the art of animation itself – to take something in everyday life, or the context of our imaginations, and exaggerate it to enhance and stretch our understanding, enlightenment and enjoyment of the idea. Terri Dentry talks to Steve Piscopo from Nectarine, on how this principle is achieved with the tools available in the Flash8 platform.
Header images: Edward Muybridge (run sequence), and Piscopo using Muybridge sequence to create fluppet parts for Flashman character
Original publication: Desktop Magazine 2007
Republished with permission
The basic principles of character animation, created in the early 1930’s by animators at Disney, were developed to make animation more astute and entertaining. To master the craft of the illusion of life requires an understanding and application of these principles in all production forms. “Traditional animation is basically one trick after another” states John Lasseter of Pixar, “whatever it takes to get it working right on the screen is fair game, and it should be the same in computer animation.”

The principle of exaggeration, to accentuate the essence of an idea via the design and action, is one of the most interesting of the classic concepts. Lassiter explains “The principle of exaggeration in animation does not mean arbitrarily distorting shapes or objects or making an action more violent or unrealistic. The animator must go to the heart of anything or any idea and develop its essence, understanding the reason for it, so that the audience will also understand it. If a character is sad, make him sadder; if he is bright, make him shine; worried, make him fret; wild, make him frantic.” In the classic Pixar short Luxo Jr (1986) these exaggerated effects were an important part of the success of the film. “The ironic effects of all this exaggeration was to make the film more realistic, while making it entertaining”, says Lassiter.

Steve Piscopo of Nectarine is an accomplished animator who has spent many years working in both commercial and art house animation development. He presented an excellent overview of the use of the 12 basic animation principles at the recent WebDU conference, and how they are practically applied using the Flash 8 platform. In this article Steve takes us through some simple steps of applying the principle of exaggeration with the development of his character, FlashMan.

Steve explains “the animator must carefully choose which properties of their character to exaggerate. If only one thing is exaggerated then it may stand out too much. If everything is exaggerated, then the entire scene may appear too unrealistic.” It is also important to have a clear understanding of the overall tone of the film, and even sometimes the techniques being used in production, when it comes to applying exaggeration. This is one of the principles that is used more in traditional 2D animation, explains Steve, and is sometimes not used at all in 3D these days, for example “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”, where the goal was ultra realism, and exaggeration would not have worked. However, most of the time, it’s best to overstate everything in an animation, or the audience tends to miss it.” A character’s pose should be exaggerated at least slightly to make it clearer to the audience. Exaggeration usually helps cartoon characters to deliver the essence of an action.

Models of Life – the Rotoscope

To obtain reference and perspective in artistic renditions of nature we use models. In classical painting the artist sits for hours and hours with a live posed model or a reference dummy to ensure the lines, structure and volume of their piece will be accurate. A similar tool was developed by Max Fleischer in 1914 to be used as a live-film reference for his character Koko the Clown in his animated work “Out of the Inkwell”. Max managed to convince his brother Dave to dress in a clown outfit and act out the movements of Koko. He then devised an intricate and painstaking method of tracing the outline of the film actor projected onto a transparent cell, one frame at a time. But to speed things up a little Steve steps us through a simple method of rotoscoping in Flash 8.

Preparing the Images

For this example Steve has used one of the greatest tools created for understanding the moving figure, the Eadweard Muybridge books “Human Figure In Motion” and “Animals In Motion”, which are a great source for referencing real life movement, containing hundreds of frame by frame photographs. Each image from the selected Muybridge set needs to be imported to Photoshop for alignment to ensure a smooth transition of importing the images as a sequence into Flash.

Steve explains “What you need to be sure of is that all your images have the same registration point, usually top left corner. That way when you import your image sequence the will all be aligned with one another. You also need to keep in mind the size of your file both dimension and output size, you don’t want your files so big that it slows down Flash.

When the images are ready for import be careful to name the files sequentially “Naming is very important if you name your file sequentially i.e. run01, run02, run03 and so on, flash will recognize the images as part of a sequence.”

Importing into Flash

Steve instructs “be sure to have selected an empty frame, then import your images by choosing >File >Import >Import to stage… Locate your Photoshop prepared images, click on the first file (run001) and hit Open. Flash will now display the following message “This file appears to be part of a sequence of images. Do you want to import all of the images in the sequence? Hit the yes button, doing this not only allows you to import your entire image sequences but it imports them along the timeline. If you run through the time line you will see your sequence play in the stage and if you have kept the registration point the same throughout the series there will be no need to align any of your images.”, Steve explains.
exag 3: import human_figure run001.jpg – run012.jpg
exag 2: import to stage
exag 4: this file appears to be part of a sequence do you want to import the whole sequence

Rotoscoping a Real Life Run Cycle

Then we will look at rotoscoping a real life run cycle, demonstrating why we need to exaggerate movement

rotoscope 1 (real life run with overlayed flashman body components)
Then I’ll create an exaggerated run cycle, and then take that run cycle to the extreme

In the final animation I have exaggerated the extreme points (the extreme points being the characters highest position and lowest position) just pushing the two a little further out. I have also added some “Squash and stretch” on our character’s movement. And finally some added some “Follow Through” to his cape.

sketched guide
flashman run

Importance of Movement in Computer Animation

In traditional animation the action is usually made pose to pose with a pause of a couple of frames between movements. However, if this same formula is applied in computer animation the character appears to stop instead of “breathe”. The animator needs to create constant movement to keep the action momentum.

Even the slightest movement will keep your character alive. Sometimes an action that feels believable in traditional animation, looks too cartoony in computer animation. Because of the realistic look of computer animation, an animator needs to be aware of how far to push the motion. The motion should match the design of the character and the world. Animating very cartoony motion with lots of squash and stretch on a realistic looking object may not look believable, as would realistic motion on a caricatured object.

Terri Dentry is an independent film journalist, animation producer, and the Director of thinkRED film & media in Melbourne, Australia.

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Steve Piscopo, Nectarine
Steve Piscopo, Nectarine