The following is an excerpt from Animated Life. Written with wit and verve, Animated Life is a guided tour through an entire lifetime of techniques, practical hands-on advice and insight into an entire industry. Here, Disney animator, Floyd Norman teaches you the step you need in order to climb up the industry ladder.
The Assistant Animator
You’ve finally finished your animation apprenticeship, and you’ve learned the ropes as a fledgling inbetweener and breakdown artist. Now that the cartoon basics have been instilled, you’re ready to take the next big step. No, don’t get too anxious. You’re not an animator yet. You’ve another important role to fill before continuing your climb up the ladder. It’s time to become an assistant animator.
I was apprehensive when my boss, Andy Engman, informed me of my promotion. It was a mixture of delight and terror. Now I would be assuming responsibility for the animator’s scene, and I wondered if I was up to the task. Was my drawing strong enough, and did I have the animation chops? I picked up my first scene, headed back to the drawing board, and this is what I learned in the process.
This is how it begins. You remove the stack of rough drawings sandwiched between the stiff cardboard. Holding the drawings in one hand, you “roll” the scene and immediately get a sense of the action and the animator’s timing. The moment of truth comes once you’ve placed the drawings on your disk and picked up your pencil.
The job of the assistant animator will be to clean up or finalize the animator’s rough scenes. You may have follow-up artists such as breakdown and inbetweeners, or you might complete all the drawings yourself. Naturally, the challenge facing the assistant is to give each drawing a finished line without losing the energy and vitality of the rough animation. The purpose of animation is to create the illusion of life, and your pencil sketches need to remain “alive.” While you’re cleaning up, keep in mind the basic animation principles you’ve learned, such as squash and stretch and overlap and followthrough. Remember the “path of action” while you’re doing your drawings, because the animator will be focusing on these things as he or she examines the completed scene.
Don’t ignore the timing charts, because the animator will expect them to be followed. Some animators, such as Eric Larson, love to time drawings on thirds. So instead of creating drawings by calculating the mid-distance between the character’s two extreme poses, you had to estimate what the distance one-third to the next pose might look like. This often made inbetweening more of a challenge, but Eric thought it added to his animation. One thing is sure: you’ll find that all animators are not all alike, and you’ll have to continually adjust if you hope to be a good fit.
All this is a good thing, of course. After serving under several bosses, you’ll learn what works for you. Regardless of their technique or work style, glean what you can. These things will serve you well once you pick up the animator’s pencil.
Learn to Draw
The first word of advice received from veteran animators was always the same. “Learn to draw,” they would say. Along with all the other things a young animation artist should know, learning to draw was always paramount. In fact, these were the words Walt Disney gave a young aspiring animator while visiting the Midwest. The young student approached the Old Maestro and asked, “Mr. Disney, how can I get a job at your studio?” Walt’s reply was gruff and direct. “Learn to draw, kid! Learn to draw!”
Learning to draw requires decades, not days. Unless you’re one of the gifted individuals in this business (and there are a few), you’ll be working at this for a while. I have done so throughout my career. After some 50 years or so, my drawings are beginning to show signs of improvement, but there’s still a long way to go.
Animators Are Unique
In the traditional system of animation production, an assistant animator got the chance to work in close collaboration with an animator. Chances are good that you’ll be working with more than one animator during your career, which is a good thing. Take advantage of the opportunities, because you’ll learn a lot. Each animator you assist will have his or her own particular style or technique. Though you’ll find some more appealing than others, pay attention and use all you learn. This knowledge will help make you a better animator one day. During my years as an assistant at the House of Mouse, I was fortunate enough to be teamed with some of the finest animators who ever sharpened a pencil. And each partnership was an object lesson in technique and discipline.
Excerpt from Animated Life by Floyd Norman © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved. Animated Life can be purchased on Amazon, B&N, or your favorite online reseller.