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10 Rules of Animating Every Animator Needs to Know

ben marvazi 2020

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“When you learn animation, you will gain an incredible super power. The super power to create motion, emotion and life from nothing…”

Animator Island, Animators

As an animator, you need to know the tricks of the trade, and this includes the rules of animating. 

While there are several fundamental rules of animating, like the 12 principles of animation that every animator knows, there are a few other tips and tricks you can pick up along the way to improve your animation that will help make you a better freelance animator. 

As software and hardware improve, audiences and animation clients demand more sophisticated projects. As a result, you need to improve your animation skills to keep up with the times, and this involves learning some of the fundamental rules of animating, such as developing your character movements, creating a unique brand, creating subtext, and many more. 

While it’s true that many rules of animating will never change – like the 12 principles of animation that are etched n stone – animators need to keep up with the animation industry. Animators need to grow with the industry and try to continue to deliver work on time and within budget.

In this blog, we’ve put together a list of 10 rules of animating that every animator needs to know to improve their skills and become an all-around better animator. By the end of this blog, you’ll have enough knowledge to improve your animation business or start a freelance career of your own!

Top 10 Rules of Animating:

  • Don’t Over-Animate
one of the rules of animating is to never over animate

Image by Eric Vilas-Boas and John Maher via Vulture

One of the essential rules of animating is not to over-animate your animations. 

Many animators over-animate scenes because they want to show their great ideas and skills in a very limited amount of time. However, this tends to complicate animated videos, and your audience won’t be able to understand each scene or absorb any information you’re trying to convey.

Performance realism tends to suffer when you try to wedge too much information into a shot. 

While creating animations is about creating movement, you should always try to avoid the urge to make your characters move unnecessarily. This rule of animating will help you remember that the thing that makes a scene flow well is the moments of stillness in juxtaposition with the movement.

Cramming too much into a scene can also make it feel ‘forced’ or ‘fake’ because of the unrealistic amount of movement and dynamism in the scene. 

To help you determine when to include movement in a scene, think about the character’s emotional state. When that changes, their movements and poses can change to reflect their emotional shift. 

These emotional and mental states can and should be your character’s only main pose changes. 

Also, don’t change poses simply because there is a new emphasis in the dialogue. Dialogue doesn’t drive action on the part of the character, thought drives action.

Not over-animating your scenes is one of the fundamental rules of animating, and you should try keeping the activities in each scene to a minimum by only including the necessary actions for characters or objects. This will convey your message clearly to your audience in every scene.  Keeping it simple is always best when trying to improve your animation skills

  • Character Movements
mastering character movements are essential for animators

GIF via Skillshare

Let’s discuss one of the other fundamental rules of animating: character movement. 

The secret to creating great character movement is first to understand who your character is, what they feel, and what they think in every shot. Pay attention to the minor details, such as your characters’ eyes, hands, fingers, stance, etc.

To get more ideas about combining facial expressions with body movements, you can watch some movies and shows and observe how the actors sit, stand, and look.

Some animators start and stop the movements of a character or a character’s limb without adding the right ease-ins and ease-outs. You have to think about the object, size, height, and weight of an object or character when doing ease-ins and ease-outs.

If you are having a hard time finding the timing in a movement of an object while you animate, you can look at real-life items in your house or neighborhood and how they react to external forces.

To get a better understanding of how your characters should move, you can act it out yourself or observe other people as they walk and move their body parts. You can even record a video of yourself or others and use it as reference material during your character animation.

Once carefully observing movements in the real world, you can successfully make your characters more lifelike and fun to watch.

To follow this fundamental rule of animating, try to avoid having any random pops of movement in your scene, as these can destroy the sense of weight in your animation.

Another thing to look out for when thinking about the rules of animating is spacing issues. Spacing issues may not look noticeable to you, but they can be noticeable and distracting to the people who view your video.

If your character's arm keeps moving up and down in small movements, then goes back in a different direction with no connection to what the character does in the following scenes, your viewer will be confused.

Former characters' movements should prepare your video’s viewers for their following movements. Additionally, you always have to consider the intensity of the actions of your characters. Aiming for fluid and sequential character movements will make your animation appear more realistic.

It is also helpful to double-check your work frame by frame and reduce the number of keyframes used in your animation. It may be a tedious task, but it affects how people see your video.

  • Time is Money
your time as an animator is valuable and deserves to be compensated

GIF by Odom Sok via Dribble

Moving on to one of the more business-oriented rules of animating, you should never forget that time is money in the animation industry. 

Being on top of your organizational and time-management game is key to following the rules of animating and being successful as an animator. You have to know how to plan, execute, and adapt.

Sticking to deadlines is crucial to not only ensuring a steady stream of income but also to ensure you impress your animation clients. 

Though they always seem to come too soon, deadlines are a necessary part of the business. This means that animators frequently have to speed up their animation times and submit their animated videos to clients as soon as possible.

Sometimes, marketing agencies, advertising agencies, animation studios, and businesses need a project several days or weeks before a deadline, so they can check and see if your product needs any revisions before sending it to their client.

This is why it’s so essential to develop critical time-management and organizational skills and why it’s one of the top rules of animating on our list. 

Unfortunately, taking frequent vacations and having every other day off of work doesn’t fit into an animator’s job description or timeline. You have to be dedicated to your craft and make sure that you plan well to stay on top of your workload. 

This can be hard, but there are countless online sources available to help you improve your time-management skills to earn a steady income as an animator.

  • Stick to Your Brand
some rules of animating requires you to establish your brand as an animator

Image via TopLine Film

Creating a brand as an animator is one of the essential rules of animating since this will help you get recognized in the industry. And this goes far beyond just your unique animation style – your color palettes, fonts, and characters need to represent your animation brand’s identity in some way.

Staying on-brand also goes beyond just your animation brand; it includes your animation clients’ brands. 

Some animators tend to go off-brand when creating animations for clients, and you need to remember that every little detail you put into your animations counts toward following the rules of animating. To avoid going off-brand, you should get a copy of your animation client’s branding and creative guidelines so that your client won’t ask for several revisions.

This way, you will have a smooth process from storyboarding to final video approval. You can also ask your client for the old, finished videos they have commissioned before as a reference while working on your animated video.

  • Create Subtext
animators should learn how to create subtext with their animations

Image by Victor Bogorad via Cartoon Movement

The following important rule in the rules of animating you need to know is the importance of creating subtext. By getting inside your characters’ heads, you will get a lot more out of a performance, and this will also open up the door to letting the audience inside the minds of your characters as well. 

To avoid one-dimensional animations, avoid animating directly to what a character’s dialogue is saying. You need to understand the emotion and deeper meaning behind the dialogue to create expressions and movements to help the audience experience the story as the character does.

Let your audience into the heads of your characters to help them better understand why characters do certain things. You need to make the audience feel the subtext of your animation. 

When a scene does have dialogue, a great trick to figuring out how to animate a character’s thoughts is to write out the actual dialogue on paper, leaving spaces between the lines. Then, in a different color, write what the character is thinking below what they’re saying. Now animate to those thoughts instead of just the words being said.

The character's thoughts will depend on the scene's context and it helps to consider what happened directly and what will be coming up after. Think about the inner-turmoil characters might be facing and animate that into your scenes. 

Creating subtext is crucial to following the rules of animating as this helps create a shot with complexity and range.

  • Don’t Compromise on Your Animation Setup
an animator should invest in themselves when creating their art

Image via Stopmotion Explosion

Investing in good-quality animation software and hardware is essential when thinking about the rules of animating. While this will cost you quite a bit of money upfront, you’ll ultimately save time and money because of faster processing and lead times. 

Your current combination of hardware and software might be slowing your computer down. You can try experimenting with other animation software. It might take you time to get used to using new animation software, but it will allow you to speed up your animation time.

Investing in a good quality rig is especially important since it is necessary to help you be more creative and free when animating. Not only that, but it will also help you have a faster animation time which will result in satisfied clients.

You should look for rigs that can make your character change poses easily. If possible, you can have someone help you develop a good rig for the key poses; then, you can do the additional animation yourself.

  • Recycle Your Animations
recycling animations is a common rule of animating for those who want to save time

Image by Daniel Piper via Creative Bloq

One of the most fundamental and time-saving rules of animating is to recycle your animations. 

Recycling elements from previous 3D animations is one of the easiest ways to speed up your production time. This is especially true if you’re working on a series or if characters appear in more than one animation. 

You can start by seeing what keyframes you can recycle. According to Skwigly Animation, animators shouldn’t waste time blocking a character again. You should copy and paste keyframes and modify them, especially when the poses are similar. 

Copying and pasting keyframes and tweaking them is faster than blocking everything and creating similar poses from scratch every time. 

You can recycle animations if you feel your deadlines are creeping up on you. This can also be done by simply copying and pasting keyframes. But keep in mind that you should only do this if it’s allowed, as some clients might feel that they were ripped off when receiving recycled animations. 

For example, for a walk cycle, you will need the character to walk and do something with its hand, like pointing at an object. You can recycle the walk cycle animation and make new keyframes for the other body parts of your character when necessary. Recycling animation will leave less work for you and save you a ton of time.

If you keep your old animations, you will most likely be able to use them again in the future for your animation projects.

You don't need to manually add all details in the timeline in a sequence of keyframes. Eye blinking is the most common example; instead of manually opening and closing the eyes in the timeline, simply copy and paste keyframes to reduce the work requirement.

You can also use your old animations as a reference if you’re unsure about how you animated something before. 

With all this said, it should be mentioned that this rule of animating requires you to walk a fine line. While recycling animations can save you a lot of time, you should only do it if it’s allowed and if it will benefit the project.

  • Mute Your Dialogue
the presence or absence of dialogue can be the difference maker in animating

GIF by creativecourage via Tenor

One of the most important rules of animating is knowing when to mute your dialogue. 

While it is important to listen to our dialogue over and over, you start a dialogue shot to get into the character, the subtext, the mood, and the performance; this can get in the way later in the animating process

When working through body mechanics and full-body gestures, it’s common to rely too heavily on dialogue to fill in a performance lacking in the body. For this reason, it’s sometimes helpful to mute your dialogue to rely on your intuition as an animator to add emotion to your characters’ movements. 

Always remember that the best dialogue shots work just as well with the sound muted. 

Diagnose the communication in your shots by muting them before showing your colleagues. If your colleagues don’t get a strong impression of the relationship between the characters and a good gist of what is being spoken, your body language is not developed or supportive enough.

At this point, you can go back into the body and reinforce your pose choices for the major points. For this rule of animating, speak the line with body language before unmuting the dialogue and working out the lip sync.

  • Layer Animation Techniques
the rules of animating apply to all layers of your animations

Image via EmeraldSong

When thinking about the rules of animating, none are as important as learning how to layer animation techniques. 

Think of your animation like a song – you need to layer different techniques on top of each other to create interesting texture and timing within your animation. These rhythms should support your acting choices and enhance the performance overall.

In animation, you need a wide range of elements to create a full composition; things such as movement, timing, staging, exaggeration, and creating anticipation are all things you can add to your animation to make it better. 

It might be a good idea to consult the 12 principles of animation and use them as a checklist of techniques to include in your animations. Doing this will make your animated projects feel more well-rounded and complete.

Keep the audio and dialogue in mind as well. The physical movements and the audio beats also need to dance around each other and occasionally hit close together when some emphasis is needed. Moments of stillness create punctuation in the performance.

  • Create Your Neutral Pose
creating a pose standby can save animators a lot of time

Image via Alexmlehman

Creating your neutral pose is one of the fundamental rules of animating that many professionals swear by. 

Many professional animators advise against animating from the default rigging pose as it can make your character feel generic and static.

Instead of using the default pose common in rigging, it might be a better idea to create your neutral pose and animate your character from there. 

Identify your character’s main traits and create a neutral pose for how the character, as an individual with a distinct personality, might stand or sit while just doing nothing. You can then animate the performance with the character’s emotions for the scene. 

This way, you’ll capture the character’s personality much more quickly and easily.

In other words, if you start animating a shot from a neutral pose already in character, you’ll get much more of a sense of that character’s personality in the movement, and it becomes much easier to stay in their head as you’re creating the performance.

Why Every Animator Needs These Rules of Animating

There are many foundational rules of animating that you need to keep in mind to create fantastic animations. 

However, there are also some rules of animating that can be considered more like tricks of the trade to not only help you build your skill as an animator but to help you build your animation business as well.

If you keep these rules of animating in mind, you’ll be creating award-winning animations in no time! You can also check out our free marketing handbook and master class, as well as our blog post on how to start your own animation studio.

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