CAP 101 - Concept & Character Development

Lesson 6 - Acting with a Pencil and Intro to Flash


This lesson discusses thinking like an actor and introduces the Flash program. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Animators as actors
  2. Eyes, lips, and other expressive features
  3. Three animation methods
  4. Features of the Flash interface

In chapter five, The Art of Flash Animation discusses the fact that an animator needs the skills of an actor. As we saw in the special features on the Shrek DVD, an animator may be called on to make a pitch for a scene, not only using storyboards, but acting out the parts of key characters in the scene. The acting skill of the animator can sell the scene to the audience. This is great for that audience, but the rest of the world will probably never see his performance.

This is not the only application of acting for animators. Consider this short article by Bill Burnett about animators at Hanna-Barbera. (Looks like an intro to a book, actually.) He describes the animators at that studio acting out the scenes they drew, working out facial expression by deciding how they would act it out themselves. This short piece misquotes Shakespeare, but it is good advice for aspiring animators. An animator must make the transition from his own acting skill to his skill at depicting his movements, his expressions, and his attitude through the character. What if the animator is not an inspired actor? He should look for inspiration from the voice actor for the character, if there is one.

Mr. Smith makes another point, that "good animation" can stand alone as a silent movie. The Roadrunner cartoons are not the same without the music and sound effects, but you can still understand the stories. He contrasts that characteristic with animations that he calls "illustrated radio", in which the whole story is told in the sound track, and you can do without the animation if you have to. In ADA terms, "good animation" works for hearing impaired viewers, but not for visually impaired listeners. The reverse is true for "illustrated radio". Mr. Smith points to every episode of Scooby Doo as an example of "illustrated radio". For a combination of both, consider Hanna-Barbera's Jonny Quest. Watch a few minutes of "The Curse of Anubis" (episode 3, season 1), and you will see both kinds of animation.

Consider Pixar's short animations, which are typically done without dialog. The link to the left will take you to a site that features descriptions of several shorts. We see a few stills from each film, and a description that is less of a story treatment than an initial pitch. A point that is interesting to me is that we learn the names of characters in these pitches. These names are not known to the audience watching the shorts without dialog. The characters' names may have added to the information about the characters that the animators used in creating the films. Or do you think some of them were named as the animators developed the ideas that were used? Since I own a copy of the Pixar Short Films DVD, we'll take a look at some in class.

The next point to discuss from chapter five is the line of action. Mr. Smith points out that a lot of animation involves overacting, heavy movement, and broad expression. His concept of line of action refers to the body language of an animated character. Although he has only given us examples of broad acting, his point can carry over to more subtle characters as well. An animator will tend to use broader, more exaggerated movements and expressions when characters are excited and emotional, and for characters with lower levels of realism. In such cases, it is easy to draw strong body language for the characters. More subtle use takes art. Consider this sequence from Beauty and the Beast. The broad movements of the coat rack, Cogsworth, Lumière, and Mrs. Potts all show the concept, but so do the more subtle ballroom movements of Belle and the Beast. While we are on this magnificent scene, consider the cinematic quality of the dance sequence, especially the crane shot (looking down from the ceiling), camera tracking clockwise and dollying in, while the characters dance counter clockwise. Now remember: there is no ceiling, there is no crane, there is no dolly, and there are no actors. Think about creating this scene as an animator, and you get a new appreciation for it.

Mr. Smith concludes his discussion of acting with a mnemonic rule. When in doubt, use these three Rs: research, reference, and resources.

  • When you don't know about something you are animating, research it, learning about whatever it is.
  • When you are not sure how to do something that has been done before, look up a reference that explains the technique. You may use that technique, or you may develop a new one.
  • When you need to do either of the above, have a series of resources available. Sometimes the Internet is down, so it is nice to know a good librarian. Sometimes you want to own copies of reference works, and sometimes you just want them to be where you can find them. If you don't know or have a reference, know someone else who does. A story about Albert Einstein says that an interviewer was amazed that the professor did not know his own phone number. Professor Einstein replied that he saw no point in memorizing something he could easily look up. Use that idea from time to time: when you don't use a piece of information every day (he probably did not call himself) knowing where to find it is just as good.

Turning to advice about drawing expressions, Mr. Smith suggests that we need to animate various features: eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, and lips all add to an expression. He is particularly fond of the lower eyelid work on Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Take a look at the clip this link leads to, and you will see that it really is the whole face that matters.

The discussion of facial features leads to a discussion of mouth/lip positions for characters that speak. Some basic mouth positions are given for common sounds a character might make. Don't take the nine illustrations as more than a guide. You may want to draw these general poses for each character who speaks in your script, customizing each pose as needed for each character's face.

The chapter moves on to three animation methods:

  • straight-ahead - Working through a sequence, drawing each frame to show each movement that is made by your character(s). A problem: this method may make the scenes run too long.
  • pose-to-pose - Drawing key-frames first, and filling in the in-betweens as needed. This method may not flow well, since you will be filling in gaps, and may lose a steady flow.
  • "best method" - Use the key-frame and in-between idea, but pay attention to the most important movements, then the next most important movements, and so on, to avoid losing a sense of motion.

The hardest thing to animate, according to Mr. Smith, is anything that the viewer is familiar with. If you don't get the animation right for something the viewer knows well (like seeing someone walk), you won't get a suspension of disbelief for anything in the film. This means that an animator should take extra care to model common actions on an actor's movements.

Assignment 11: Consider the vowel mouth positions from page 160 in The Art of Flash Animation. Make a sequence of five drawings of one of your characters, using these five drawings as a guide. To make this more relevant to more of the chapter, vary the eyes, eyebrows, etc. for each of the five drawings so that you are depicting a different emotion with each one. Label each drawing with the sound and the emotion you are depicting.

Chapter six starts the author's discussion of using Flash. Note that he uses a Macintosh computer. Many artists prefer one. The computers in our classroom use Windows. We also have a different version of Flash. This will lead to some differences between what he describes and what you see. Take his text as a general guide for what to do, instead of as explicit instructions.

When you start the Flash program, look for the interface features listed in Mr. Smith's overview:

  • stage - This will be the most obvious feature. It is the area where you will create or open files that will become frames in your animation.
  • toolbox - This is just a toolbar, similar to the ones seen in many graphics programs.
  • timeline - This tool gives you a way to control what frames are seen at what time and for how long in your animation. It is also used to add other features like sound to your animation.

Mr. Smith proceeds, describing a method for starting an animation project. His illogical narrative should be considered this way:

  1. He scanned several hand drawn scenes for his animation.
  2. He opened the scannned files and added color to them in PhotoShop. He then saved each file again with simple file names implying a sequence: Scene01, Scene02, etc.
    He makes a good point about using "zero fills" on filenames. If you expect to have numbers on your files that go over a hundred, but less than a thousand, use three digits for all numbers (e.g. 001, 006, 025, 097, 224). This will make it easier to sort the files in a folder and have them come out in order. In the examples using Scene01 and Scene02 above, I have filled with one zero. This method will only be good for less than a hundred files.
  3. He then opened Flash, and used the File, Import command to import his first file to the stage. He used the Selection tool (the arrow icon) to position the open file on the stage.
  4. He continued by placing layers in the project: one for his animation frames, and another for his soundtrack. He gave names to each layer.
  5. He demonstrated importing to the library by using the File, Import, Import to Library command. (He imported the soundtrack file.)

At this point, Mr. Smith pauses to calculate several things. His soundtrack runs 51 seconds long. He needs to decide on a frame rate to determine how many frames he will need for 51 seconds. He reminds us that he could "shoot on ones, or shoot on twos", meaning that each new frame may be shot once or twice. His decision about frame rate depends on how he plans to use his output:

Shooting on... Film Video
Ones (each frame once) 24 frames per second (for NTSC) 30 frames per second
Twos (each frame twice) 12 new frames per second, each one shown twice 15 new frames per second, each one shown twice
Threes (each frame three times) 8 new frames per second, each one shown three times 10 new frames per second, each one shown three times

He also remarks that you can get away with 12 frames per second for Internet presentation. This is something to experiment with, as this number relates more to bandwidth and to the capacity of the viewer's video card than to the Internet itself.

Back to the discussion: once you know how many new frames you need per second, you can calculate how many frames are needed for any number of seconds. His math at the bottom of page 197 has the units wrong. It should say 51 seconds times 15 frames per second equals 765 frames. (Seconds times frames divided by seconds equals frames.)

He shows how he sets the frame rate, then expands his soundtrack to a bit beyond the number of frames he calculated. When you do this in class, your figure for number of frames will differ, depending on how long your sound track is.

Other key points:

  • set the Sync sound option to Stream
  • import more images to the library
  • insert new blank frames in the timeline
  • insert new images at appropriate blank frames in the timeline (drag and drop)
  • use the File, Export command to export the movie to a Flash .swf file
  • make sure you choose Maintain aspect ratio if you change your screen size
  • export as a small movie to test it
  • use a medium quality setting to reduce file size, which affects download time

Adobe has posted lots of short lessons on using Flash (and their other products) in the section of their web site they call Adobe TV. Follow this link to a menu of lessons on Flash. As noted previously, do not run them in the classroom without using earbuds or a headset.

Assignment 12:
1. Think about the new character you created for assignment 10. Draw a short storyboard sequence to explain your version of what that character does in the story.
2. Scan your storyboards, saving them as files. Take the files to your computer. Import them into a Flash movie to make a pitch from. We will continue with this assignment next week as well.