Monday, February 2, 2009

How We Animate: Part I: The Equipment

My inbox and the For Tax Reasons inbox have received a lot of emails asking about how we do our animation. "A lot" being a relative term. We've gotten more spammy notices about Comicon than questions about animation in our For Tax Reasons account. But whatever. I thought I'd do several posts about How We Animate. I decided not to say "How To Animate", because I think that's a bit too forceful if not completely arrogant. There are a lot of ways to animate, we're always looking to streamline and perfect our process- so the For Tax Reasons method is neither preferred nor perfect. It's just what we get away with. So if you can accept that into your heart- then we can begin.

The Equipment

Drawing Utensils. For the initial drawings, I use Col-Erase erasable colored pencils. They allow you to rough out out drawings and discern between multiple layers, and then roughly clean up with a black line over top. I sometimes use 2 HB Mirado Black Warrior pencils for the clean up, but lately I've been experimenting with these Rapidomatic mechanical pencils. They help me keep a thinner and more consistent line.

Peg bar.
In order to keep each drawing "registered" with one another, or in the same place, you're going to need specially punched paper that fits to a specially molded peg bar. These can be hard to come by in a brick and mortar art store. In NYC, I get mine from the the New York Central Art Supply, but you can find them online. Just do some searches. I use the plastic Acme peg bars.

Hole punch. These things can be fucking expensive. Most of these items, aside from the computer stuff, you can get for decent prices. But animation hole punches are such a niche product, so they always seem to be high priced. Ltd. has one for $599. There might be some cheaper ones out there, maybe on eBay. I'm lucky enough to be borrowing one from a co-worker.

The upside to having your own hole punch is you don't have to wait for a ream of punched paper to ship. And when you're pretty lax on stocking supplies like myself, it really helps to have a puncher at your side.

Paper. So if you don't feel like shelling out 600 bones for a punch, you'll have to buy pre-punched paper. (I could make a link again to Cartoonsupplies/Lightfood but I'm not sure if they have the best prices for punched paper).

If you're going the hole puncher route- any 81/2x 11 copy paper will do. I usually buy recycled, even though it sometimes has a rougher grain and some more flecks in it. It's worth it, planet wise, since I've resisted the jump to the paperless animation route- mostly due my lack of skill on a Wacom tablet and the expense of

Lightbox. You might be able to find Light Tracers and Porta-Trace's at some art stores around town since people can use them for photography and making stencils and stuff. If you search for these things on Amazon, they come up in weird categories like Home Improvement or Home & Garden. Strange.

I've got a Porta-Trace light box with two lights in it. It's great for seeing through 3 or more drawings, and I like not having a pegbar molded to the drawing surface. It gives you more free space and flexiblity. However, there are some great swivel light boxes that allow you to spin around your drawings; simulating a full on animation desk. Those are great for cleaning up. It's easiest for me to draw downward strokes, so having that option of spinning the drawing around so that I making the same general hand movements is great. It's a personal preference in the end.

If you're good with crafts and DIY building, you can make an animation desk with wood, a sheet of plastic and some flourescent lights. Works just the same. And you'll be much cooler or doing it on your own.

Camera & Tripod. To do pencil tests, you're going to need a tripod and any video camera that can send a feed to your computer. I use an old camera hooks up to my computer via firewire, and run the pencil tests using the demo of a program called FrameThief. I talk a a little bit about pencil tests in this blog post.

Scanner. Stores like Best Buy and the dying Circuit City barely have a selection of scanners that aren't those bigger print/fax/scan in one deals. It's kind of sad how electronic stores have turned into giant cell phone kiosks and TV dealers. Anyways, don't buy H.P. scanners. I'm sure they're just as high quality as any other scanner, but their scanning interface sucks.

Even if you're using Photoshop, you have to capture a scan via the scanners own interface. Since you're scanning hundreds of drawings, that have to line up with one another, you're going to want your scan marquee and settings to be the same each time- so you can just keep hitting SCAN. With the H.P. interface, the scan settings reset each time. If you want to save your scan settings, you have to make a little scan profile and load it each time you scan. It's just an extra, annoying step, and you've already got enough clicking to do.

I use an Epson Perfection. It's Advanced User interface allows for a good amount of tweaking, it saves the most recently used scan marquee and doesn't create some blown out auto setting each time you preview a new scan.

Microphone. If you're going to record dialogue for your shorts, you might want to invest in a semi decent microphone. I went down to Guitar Center and bought this AT4040 Cardioid Condensor mic at the advice of some sound engineers at my work. It's been working well for me, but I'm sure there's a myriad of models that'd do just fine.

MBox2 Mini. This piece of hardware allows you to record and edit in Pro Tools LE. It's the cheapest and smallest of their systems, but does in no way lack in quality. If you really need to, you could probably record using some shareware programs, like ones for podcasting, to capture and roughyl edit audio. I know that Final Cut has a Voice Over tool you could probably use to the same end. However Pro Tools is premiere audio program, and I make everyone do a billion takes and like to throw fancy ass compressors on my tracks to sweeten them up like sugar- so it's good for me.

Computer. Sorry Luddites, you're gonna need to borrow or buy one to do what we do, and it should probably be a Mac. I come from a Mac Family. Even though we started with a Commodore 64 (moving next to an archaic orange text on black screen laptop, then an Emerson IBM Compatible) we eventually made the switch to Apple and never looked back.

It was part of an entire childhood and adolescence as the secondary option underdog. I was a Jew, who owned a Sega Genesis and had Mac computers. How much more of an outcast can you get? My people suffered for years. I was persecuted in C++ class. The PC kids wrote "SMACK THE MAC" in binary on the white board. It was traumatic, but I made it through. And now I can stand proud and tall without fear of ridicule for my Apple Heritage. Complain about coffee shop hipsters all you want- we have survived.

Books. Ok, the last but most important part. If you're going to make animation like we do, you're going to need to LEARN TO ANIMATE. I can't go into detail on how to do that, I'm not smart enough. But if you want to learn, check out these books:

The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams
Cartoon Animation by Preston Blair

Or Animation Meat, as Smo pointed out to me. Other blogs and forums have some notes and practice stuff posted on them, all from much more reputable sources than myself. So search those out too.

Ok so that's part one. Sorry it was so long. The next step will be about scanning, cleaning and coloring your work. So look out for it soon. And sorry for all the unintentional product endorsements. If anyone asks, I told you to steal everything.

Everything but the peg bars.


Zachary Scheer said...

Wait, so which part is done in Flash?
And that was a joke, by zachary scheer.

Pride said...

So here's a question: How do you make sure that you have the image lined up perfectly each time you scan? That is, without peg bars on your scanner, how do you guarantee registration?

Ben said...

I tape the peg bar to the scanner. I guess I'll have to address that in the next tutorial post.

Since I'm not using a program which corrects the image's position based on the registration holes, I have to scan one drawing at a time, and use a peg bar.

Nino De Pan Blanco said...

woof man talk about dedication, you guys are crazy man, have you guys tried plastic animation paper? or toonboom?

plastic animation paper

heres an example of work done in plastic aniation paper

Ben said...

I have not heard about Plastic Animation Paper before. I just checked it out though.

Our main issue is getting a good looking drawing into the computer. Once everything is digital, we have developed a pretty decent system for coloring and compositing using Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects. I'll be posting about this soon.

My problem with getting a drawing into the computer, of course, is that I'm not good at drawing with a Wacom tablet. So I still go with the paper route for the actual animating.

If I invested in a Cintiq, then I maybe could use programs like Photoshop, Flash or Toon Boom, to draw directly into the computer. Cintiq's are still pretty expensive, though it looks like the prices get lower as time goes on. I wonder if the Cintiq 12WX is worth the investment? Has anyone out there tried it?

(Side note: I remember first hearing about Cintiq's and thinking, oh man someday in the future when we're all wearing jetpacks, we'll be able to draw on Cintiqs. But recently, on one of my recent trips back to NYU, I realized the whole animation floor is now PACKED with Cintiqs. I'm like- what the hell- I missed the revolution! And where's my jetpack?)

Anyways, I'd like to look more into creating a paperless workflow. Thanks for the links. I just figured I'd share my paper workflow, since some people out there who are getting into animation might not have Cintiqs or Toon Boom, but may have scanners and pirated Adobe programs.

Ben said...

Have you had good experiences with Toon Boom or PAP?

Nino De Pan Blanco said...

yea its fun to but like you said im still shaky as hell when i draw digitally. they have wacoms now that are supposed to have the texture of paper on it now so i dunno...

but yea they are fun to use
toon boom has a free learning edition on their web site. so its fun
i still hand draw stuff and then scan it. i havent done animation in a while tho been trying to focus on animation production design and storyboarding + learning the damn box ruined animation for me for a while... ok

[ rant time ]
as for your man missing the revolution...
i went to a horrible mcschool after going to suny stonybrook, called the art institues of california san francico [ they're all over the place ] and their computers barely had a gig of ram in it, all the programs where 2 years behind maya was in 4th edition at school when we had 6 or seven comming out.
so i hear you learning in the wilds of the animation woods [ our animation labs has over 300 students using 1 lunch box]

:: smo :: said...


i love that you've got this operation going, i'm feeling pretty stuck being in a studio not drawing my stuff, not drawing on paper, and not getting any better.


also, if you're interested in getting a bulk scanner an old professor of mine made a peg hole registration program. the only trick to it was you had to sharpie in some black on the bulk scanner feeder thing so that there would be black behind the pegs.

if it's ever something you're interested in i can give you more info. i've got a lonely light table right now. but reading your blog is getting me antsy to get back to it! thanks!

also, have you ever encountered this?:

it's what started me on my checkered path.

Ben said...

Oy vey, that school sounds rough. It sounds like some tale from an old timer. "We walked five miles in the snow to use ONE lunch box, and the WHOLE family had to share it..."

Smo- your professor MADE a peg hole registration program!? Wow, did it work well?

Yeah, it's fun having this whole set up. Though I'm sure it's kinda of stupid that I'm not investing more attention to learning Flash and everything. But hey man, if you ever want to come to Queens and hang out on one of the light tables, your more than welcome.