Insights for Non Artists:
It's All About Timing
timing, until recently, was one of those areas where I thought
you had to be an artist to do it. Don't get me wrong, being one
helps, because sometimes you have to draw rough ideas of character
information sometimes not covered in the storyboard. However,
my understanding is as long as you can draw well enough to convey
the information (not necessarily be on-model), then it is sufficient.
The materials a timer uses are created by artists -- the storyboard,
mouth charts, and model packs are a few examples -- but ultimately
assembling what becomes the step-by-step animation blueprint is
a non-artist job.
Feet and frames
are the language of animation timing. There are standard forms
called exposure sheets, where the information on character animation,
dialogue, and camera movements is described in common terms using
feet and frames -- information for up to five feet of film can
be written up on a single exposure sheet. One foot of film equals
two-thirds of a second. One second of screen time is one foot
and eight frames of film. Converting back and forth between feet
and frames versus screen time serves as the crux of animation
timing, and can take a lot of practice. I know it has for me!
time on Invader Zim, I took a course in Introduction to Animation
Timing. This experience enlightened me on the science and art
of animation timing. I think timing seems to be largely a science,
because many of the standard elements stay the same from show
to show. Walk cycles are a common area, where the amount of frames
used for a character to make a complete cycle of steps is defined;
walk cycles for kids and small characters take a shorter time
than for adults, usually averaging 8 frames-12 frames for adults
and 6 frames-8 frames for kids.
(the diagrams that tell what character mouth shapes correspond
to what sound, which are made for timers by artists), where practically
every show has identical mouth positions for what are called the
"A" to "G" mouths. Don't let that confuse
you, since the letters don't refer to those specific letters of
the alphabet, but a type of mouth that can fit a range of letters.
For example, a closed "A" mouth commonly is used for
the sounds M, P, and B (at least in US animation, which I'm trained
in; I honestly don't know what differences exist internationally).
Characters bite their lower lip for the F and V sounds, which
is mouth type "G," and open their mouth wide for the
AH sound of mouth type "D." These common foundations
also make it easier to go from studio to studio and lessen the
The art comes
regarding the latitude of ways to use the basic foundation. Let's
talk about mouth charts again for a second. Sometimes the look
and feel of a show requires that extreme versions of mouths have
modifications on the standard mouth chart. Most commonly, an extreme
AH-sound look is desired, creating what is often called a "DD"
or "H" mouth type (though on Invader Zim, this was a
"K" mouth type). Invader Zim also had extreme positions
for the EE sound, and special mouth types for the L and TH-sounds,
because it was a very stylized show. Depending on the show, the
speed of walk cycles can vary as well -- from very slow to extremely
fast, depending on the character size and personality. Also, how
fast each character would perform a given action (like reaching
down to pick up a pencil) would vary depending on the same factors.
Stopwatches are used, and timers act out the action themselves
the way they think the character would behave and then map it
out on the exposure sheet.
All of these
instructions tell the studio producing the animation (often a
subcontracted studio not involved in the pre-production) exactly
how the director envisions the final product to turn out, and
a blueprint of how to achieve it. However, if information is transferred
on to the exposure sheet incorrectly, or it is misread, animation
errors will result that require retakes. That's why animation
checkers exist to proof the work of the timers before shipping,
especially since given the workload on a television animation
series, one episode's timing may be split up amongst several people.
The checker, working in conjunction with the head of the timing
department, must make sure all parts are consistent and error-free
before they are shipped.
only scratches the surface of animation timing. Many things, such
as camera movements and character animation, cannot be adequately
explained without actually seeing exposure sheet examples. Luckily,
this information is found in many books on the animation process,
though many are geared to artists who might produce their own
work. Just look for the chapter on the exposure sheet, or animation
timing, if I've whetted your appetite to learn more. I hope I've
given you insight on how crucial timers are to the animation process.
here to discuss this column in the dFX
is known in the animation industry for her work as a production
coordinator for Nickelodeon's Invader Zim. She also served as
a Production Coordinator for Extreme Ghostbusters and a Production
Assistant for Jumanji: The Animated Series. Muir is an accomplished
writer and often participates on panels or as a guest speaker
at conventions like Comic Con International.
to Los Angeles in 1996 from Cheney, WA (population approximately
8,000), knowing she wanted to be part of the animation business.
Since then, she's never strayed far from making that dream reality,
whether it be actively working on a production or writing articles
about the industry.
You can email
Shannon Muir at email@example.com.
columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are
not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX,
its partner sites, and its advertisers.
a Printable Version of this Column.
to Shannon Muir's Main Page.
> Return to Columns
> Return to Digital
Media FX Front Page.