A lot of us are guilty of having motionless characters or animals on screen at one time or another in our animation journey. Usually, it’s when we are fairly new to the idea of animation and absorbing 2D, 3D, polys, and all the other stuff that goes with animation.
It’s not something to be ashamed of, as it's simply a part of the journey of becoming an animator. Drag and Drop motions are partly responsible as they make it so easy to just drop in a few seconds of animation, then skip a bit for the next animation and so on.
It’s that “skip a bit” on the timeline that comes back to freeze the scene between motions. While we all work hard to animate the dialog and action, we sometimes forget about those spaces between motions. Those skipped spaces we created are now dead space.
For an example:
You have two people in a conversation within a small crowd, and they are the focus of the shot. The principal characters are animated … at least until they quit speaking, at which point they freeze. You then notice that everyone in close proximity is not moving either. This kills the mood because they now look like mannequins instead of people.
Generally, few people, if any, are completely still at any given time.
While there are exceptions to all rules, the camera captures everything… including motionless characters in the background or in the scene focus. They don’t have to be primary characters to kill the vibe you worked so hard to create. Motionless characters WILL stand out to the discerning viewer.
Idle motions are not just for main camera focus, but for any character that will be in camera view, whether they are engaged in the scene. No one moves while talking then freezes when they finish speaking, and no character in-camera shot should ever be completely still. This includes breathing.
Yes, breathing. When we leave out filler animation between the drag and drop motions, we are taking the life out of the scene. It doesn’t take long before some viewers will tire of this error while others will be a bit more forgiving, but even they may not make it to the end.
A live human or animal is never completely still. Breathing is just one aspect, as the same goes for pets or animals. It’s better to not have them on screen than to show them dead to the world with a lack of animation.
Slow down, cut, edit, add more motions, and more importantly use the best tool you have to buy time… the camera.
The camera is much more than framing a scene. Because it controls and directs the attention of the viewers, you can use this to cut or jump to shots that are clearly in the same location but interesting enough to highlight. Things like a framed picture on a hearth of a young child or an old baseball cap hanging on an equally old bat and glove in the corner.
Anything that will add flavor or deeper backstory to a scene without the need for further explanation. These cuts and jumps take up the time that was needed for the scene to flow while not losing focus on the storyline. They can be used to mask a lack of movement or animation in the scene.
The best method is to animate everything in the camera view with some sort of idle motion or edited motion that keeps movement (life) in a scene. Sprinkle around the motions, and try not to use the same motion on multiple characters in the same camera shot. This is where clip speed, breaking (splitting) the clip adding or removing parts, and keyframes can provide a variety of motions from the same base motion.
Just keep in mind that characters and animals in the camera view need to be animated at all times. It’s a simple rule and after a while, you will build up a library of edited, stretched, and re-timed motions clips to make sure everyone is moving, breathing, and generally life-like.
M.D. McCallum, aka WarLord, is an international award-winning commercial graphics artist, 3D animator, published author, project director, and webmaster with a freelance career that spans over 20 years. Now retired, M.D. is currently working part-time on writing and select character development projects. You can learn more about MD on his website.