Before the finished animation is undertaken, there is yet another stage that assists in scene composition, blocking out the animation. Blocking is a term taken from theatrical stage direction and refers to a process where the positioning and movement of characters are planned and rehearsed well in advance of the actual performance of the play in order to create a coherent piece. Bringing together all the different elements, the actor’s position within the environment, the position of props, the lighting sources, and sound cues are very much like the choreography of dancers. The stage direction for this process is the responsibility of the director or perhaps the animation director or lead animator. It is important for the composition of the scene that the characters are positioned throughout the shot in such a manner that the audience is directed toward those aspects of the action and the elements of the shot the director deems to be of importance and that they are seen clearly without any distraction, and the shot is read by the audience with little ambiguity, or perhaps it would be truer to say with no unintended ambiguity. Blocking offers the opportunity to gain an insight into the dramatic effect of the performance before the animator has undertaken the final thing.
In its simplest form, blocking entails placing the character at particular places within the environment at various points on the timeline. Used in conjunction with any camera moves, it is then possible to ascertain almost exactly what the final outcome will be. It is particularly useful to see the blocked-out animation alongside the dialogue. This will help with the creation of body sync, the eye contact between characters, and the line of sight for the audience. This is very important at this stage to synchronize the movement of the characters to one another and to the movement of the camera and any lighting effects that you have in mind. The last thing you want is to create movement that obscures from the sight of your audience any element of the shot that is important. The movement of a number of characters in shot at the same time may, if not handled well, be very distracting.
A sequence in the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) illustrates how a scene can remain clear and unconfused despite a multitude of elements appearing on screen together and regardless of how busy with activity the entire screen seems to be. A grand parade of fools is lead into the city square by the Harlequin figure. It is a scene alive with action of one sort or another and there is hardly a square centimeter where nothing is happening. The main focus of the scene is the Harlequin who dances and sings his way through the sequence under a veritable snowstorm of confetti. But at no point does the attention of the audience wander from the important elements of the scene. By categorizing the animated action, it is possible to analyze how the composition of all this action makes possible a scene that remains clear.
The primary action is of the Harlequin. The parade characters represent secondary animation and are smaller in shot though all of their actions are still quite visible. They have their acting roles to play though they are not the focus of attention, they are doing interesting things and have their own distinctive movements and they do demonstrate variable dynamics throughout the duration of the shots. The crowd is split into two distinct categories, one animated and one still. The animated members of the crowd provide tertiary animation; they wave little flags, they wave their arms and some of them seem to dance on the spot moving to and fro. All this is undertaken through cyclical movements that are relatively short and simple; however, because there are so many of them and the actions of each cycle varies from that of their neighbors, they give the illusion of full animation. They provide the necessary background action to the entire scene, they demonstrate life without acting. Behind the active members of the crowd and in the background, there are other members of the onlookers that don’t move at all, they simply provide volume. If all of the crowd had have remained still, they would have been noticeable in their stillness, by composing the action in this way the scene looks sufficiently lively without distracting from even the secondary action of the additional characters in the parade. The confetti snowstorm could also be considered as tertiary action. It falls in such volume and each piece flutters with such action as to be believable and to provide a sense of public celebration and jubilation without ever obscuring any of the action.
In 2D classical animation, the blocking of animation may be achieved through the use of key drawings to make what is termed a key pose test. A key pose test is a process in which the key drawings are made and then shot in accordance with the animation timing that is created at the same time as the key drawings. Using these timings, it is possible to place the drawings along with the background on the timeline at the very point they will appear in the finished animation. Naturally they will appear as a series of stills with no animated movement, but even at this stage, they will provide a good indication of the phrasing of the animation and the flow of action before any in between drawings are made. It is a most effective and efficient way of testing the performance before committing to the very time-consuming work of creating in-betweens and cleaning up the drawings for the final animation.
FIG. 7.12 The key pose test serves the same purpose as blocking out animation, to test the movement of characters before undertaking more time consuming animation.
Blocking animation should be seen as one way of rehearsing for the final animation. As we have already seen rather like the stage directions in theatre, blocking-out animation will provide you with the bones of a performance, establish the phrasing of a sequence, and ensure that all is well before the creation of a character performance begins in earnest.
The huge advantage that blocking animation offers the animator is the ease and economy with which you can make any adjustments and changes to the animation at this stage rather than later on when it can become a rather costly exercise. Once the animation is blocked out to your satisfaction, it is with increased confidence that you can proceed to creating more polished and refined animation. The bottom line is that blocking can save you an awful lot of time and money.
Excerpt from Acting and Performance for Animators by Derek Hayes and Chris Webster © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.