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Animated Insights for Non Artists:
It's All About Timing
by Shannon Muir

Animation 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!

During my 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.

Mouth charts (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 learning curve.

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.

This column 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.


Shannon Muir 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.

Muir moved 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 shanemuir@aol.com.

All editorialized 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.

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