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How To Use Secondary Action Animation For Enhanced Realism

ben marvazi 2020

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Bring Your Characters To Life With Secondary Action Animation

In the world of animation, realism and engagement are the cornerstones of captivating storytelling. Animators strive to breathe life into their characters, to imbue them with a soul that resonates with the audience.

This, to be frank, isn’t always easy. It requires a keen understanding of movement and timing and a mastery of nuanced details that make animations feel less like a series of drawings and more like living entities. 

One such detail, often overlooked yet pivotal in crafting lifelike animations, is the use of secondary actions. 

A dachshund on a skateboard with a bouncing cupcake attached to its back

Cover GIF by Heather via GIPHY

This blog delves into the art of secondary action animation, guiding you through its importance, application, and refinement to elevate your animation from the mundane to the extraordinary.

How Does It Work?

Secondary action animation is akin to the delicate brushstrokes of a master painter; they don't necessarily command the central focus but without them, the scene feels incomplete, the characters less vibrant, and the story a bit less compelling. 

These actions function as the nuanced layers that give depth to the primary movements, much like a harmony to a melody in music. They are not merely additional movements; they are integral elements that enhance the overall perception of life and realism within the animation.

To truly capture the essence of secondary actions, it is essential to consider secondary action animation within the context of the 12 fundamental principles of animation

As you might know, these are a set of guidelines first coined by Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. These principles are not just techniques but the language through which animators communicate the weight, dynamics, and emotions of characters and their environments.

an anime character dodging energy beams with excessive body contortion


Secondary actions work in concert with these principles to enrich the narrative tapestry of your animation. Secondary action animation serves to infuse movements with meaning beyond just physicality. 

They are the subtle adjustments a character makes as they settle into a chair, the way their eyes dart to the side when contemplating a decision, or the involuntary shiver in response to a cold breeze. These are the details that transform a series of frames into a mirror of the real world.

Secondary action animation also includes the gestures and expressions that endow characters with personality and individuality. These include unconscious habits, emotional reactions, and interactions with the world around them that communicate who they are beyond their appearance

Understanding and implementing secondary action animation is about recognizing the moments where a subtle addition can add significant value to the scene and knowing how to execute that addition in a way that feels organic and seamless. This, of course, is all with the goal of making animation more believable.

Creating Believable Animation

One Punch Man hurling his fist towards the camera


Believability in animation isn't just about replicating the real world; it's about convincing the viewer that the world you've created operates under a set of consistent rules. 

Secondary action animation is critical to create this illusion. They provide subtle hints of physics at work, the suggestion of weight and flexibility, and the interplay between a character and their environment. 

When a character runs and their hair bounces in response, or when they stop abruptly and their clothes continue to move with momentum, this is secondary action animation at play. 

They validate the primary movements, grounding them in a reality that, while not our own, feels just as tangible. Secondary action animation not only helps create realism but can also help flesh out a character from a moving animation to a lifelike entity.

Character Development

a walking amalgamation of shapes changing form as the background changes color

GIF by Zublime via GIPHY

Secondary action animation is also a powerful tool in character development. They can be used to express a character's personality without a single word of dialogue. 

A character's nervousness shown through the tapping of a foot, the excitement in the wagging of a tail, or the sadness in a drooping posture is all secondary action animation that speaks volumes. 

These actions give animators the ability to show rather than tell, to build empathy and understanding through movement alone.

Techniques Animators Should Learn

To achieve great secondary action animation, animators must hone a specific set of techniques and practices that elevate their work from mechanically sound to emotionally resonant. Here are some strategies to master the art of secondary action animation:

1. Observation and Analysis 
A fly on a wall with binoculars above the text "on a wall"

GIF by Barbara Pozzi via GIPHY

Spend time observing real-life interactions and movements. Watch animated films and break down scenes frame by frame to analyze how secondary actions are used effectively. Pay attention to the timing and how these actions influence the primary movement.

2. Timing and Spacing

Practice the timing of secondary action animation by creating simple animations where the main action is followed by a secondary one, like a character jumping (primary) and then their hair settling (secondary). 

Use animation software to play with the spacing of the frames in secondary actions. Adjust the spacing to create the right rhythm that complements the primary action without competing for attention.

3. Exaggeration and Restraint

 Experiment with exaggeration to find the right balance. Push the secondary action animation to an extreme, then dial it back until it feels natural and enhances the primary action.

a purple character exaggerating the word wow with its mouth above the text "wow!"

GIF by Moving Picture Show via GIPHY

4. Layering Movements

Start with the primary action and get it polished. Then, on a new layer or pass, add the secondary action animation, ensuring it reacts appropriately to the primary movement.

Use layers to experiment with different secondary actions without affecting the primary animation, allowing for flexibility in the creative process.

5. Use of Reference Material

Create or source a library of reference materials. This can include videos of real-life actions, animated sequences, or even your own acted-out motions captured on video.

Refer to these materials when animating to ensure your secondary action animation is grounded in reality, even when the animation style is more stylized or exaggerated.

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6. Feedback Loops

Regularly seek feedback on your secondary action animation from peers or mentors. Fresh eyes can often catch when a secondary action is too pronounced or too subtle.

7. Continuous Practice

Set aside time for daily practice, focusing on different types of secondary actions, such as cloth simulation, hair dynamics, or facial expressions. Challenge yourself with quick exercises.

James Sullivan from monsters Inc animated movie practising his scare

GIF by Disney Pixar via GIPHY

Tips for Practicing Secondary Actions as an Animator

Practicing secondary action animation is about experimentation and iteration. 

Start by adding them to your animations in small doses, review your work, and seek feedback. Use reference footage to understand how secondary actions work in real life and apply those observations to your animations. 

Keep refining, keep experimenting, and over time, your ability to craft realistic, nuanced animations will grow. And while you’re refining, there are certain dos and don’ts that you need to keep in mind. Remember, perfect practice makes perfect.

The Dos and Don'ts

Tips for Mastering Secondary Action Animation

1. Focus on timing. Time your secondary actions so they complement, rather than compete with, the primary actions.

2. Keep it subtle. Secondary actions should be nuanced and not overly exaggerated unless stylistically appropriate for the scene.

3. Maintain consistency. Ensure that your secondary action animation is consistent with the established physics and logic of your animation world.

Clippy from Microsoft Word ticking off a paper with black check marks and a pencil

GIF by Microsoft Cloud via GIPHY

Don’ts in Secondary Action Animation

1. Don't overshadow the primary action. Avoid making secondary actions so prominent that they distract from the main action.

2. Don't overcomplicate. Resist the urge to add secondary action animation if it does not serve the story or the character's portrayal.

3. Don't neglect body mechanics. Ensure that secondary actions follow the principles of anatomy and physics for believability.

By adhering to these dos and don'ts, animators can effectively utilize secondary action animation to create more engaging, dynamic, and believable animations that serve the story and its characters.

Use Secondary Action Animation To Boost Your Business

A penguin with a bowtie and sunglasses throwing dollar bills into the air

GIF by Pudgy Penguins via GIPHY

Mastering secondary actions in animation is a journey in its own right—one that requires not only continuous learning but also an unwavering passion for the craft. 

It's about understanding that the smallest details can have the most significant impact, transforming your work from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Secondary action animation is the subtle thread that weaves depth and life into the tapestry of your animations, making them stand out in a crowded marketplace.

In the competitive field of animation, where attention to detail and quality of work is paramount, the ability to effectively employ secondary action animation can set you apart. It's these intricacies that can captivate potential clients, showcasing your expertise and dedication to your art.

So, if you’re serious about using skills like these to take your animation career to the next level, our Animation Business Accelerator Program provides insights, resources, and a supportive community to help professionals navigate the evolving landscape. 

If you’re an animator who’s looking to start your own studio or grow your career, check out our blog on How to Start an Animation Studio to kickstart your animation career today or give our free Masterclass a try first if you’re curious.

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