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Animation Guides

I wanted to glance over an area of animation that is often overlooked, and sometimes even deemed a bit of a 'cheat' in the animation world, and that is the use of 'guides'. Now I'm not talking about the blue guides you pull from the rulers in After Effects, I'm referring to the use of reference guides to help with animating certain character movements, or even dynamic camera moves and extreme lens effects.

You see this in a lot of hand-drawn cell animation, super wide 'camera' angles and seemingly impossible 3D movements in a 2D scene. How do they do it?

For a long time, I couldn't get my head around how these extreme movements and angles could be achieved in 2D, how on earth do you figure out what a skater looks like when viewed from street level, with a fish eye lens?! Surely they're magicians? Almost, but not quite.

Then it clicked… guides!

Just because you're embarking on a massive 2D character project doesn't mean you have to actually stick to 2D. Jump into a 3D program if your vision is bigger than a simple 2D character rig. Using a 3D program can help you achieve things that are almost impossible to do by eye. Even using the basic default character rig in a program like Cinema 4D, you can create complex movements, recorded from creative camera angles, and then simply use the subsequent render as a guide for your 2D animation.

Take a look at this Wonder Woman animation I created alongside a couple awesome animators:

Our vision for this project far exceeded what we could achieve in After Effects alone. I wanted to utilise extreme camera angles to push the depth of the scenes as far as they would go. The only feasible way to achieve this while keeping a 2D style, was to render guides out of C4D.

Below is a breakdown of how this method worked:

After I animated the simple character rigs in Cinema 4D, I used the renders to help animate shape layers over each body part by hand. It was a fairly tedious process, but one that ultimately kept the 2D 'hand-made' feel, yet gave it an almost 'filmic' edge. Since the guides were tracked by hand, nothing was quite perfect, and the animation still felt very two-dimensional.

This method of using guides isn't a new one, in fact it is commonly used through the recording of crude reference footage. This is a great, quick way of visualising a particular action to use as the basis for an animation. It's no secret that Pixar's animators use this technique regularly to help them block out difficult movements.

I actually utilised this technique when trying to visualise a realistic ball-catch action for the Serena Williams section of the Wonder Women animation. Animator Tom Stratford (who created the entire Maryam Mirzakhani section) helped me out:

So grab your camera, and stretch out your acting muscles, because there's no better way to visualise a characters movements than to just do it yourself.


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