Bro’Town animation directors Maka & Ali were at the Museum recently imparting their skills and knowledge to students wanting to learn the art of animation. Over two workshops they taught everything from how to draw a character to the importance of storytelling. Maka & Ali were here as part of our annual I AM Making Movies competition.
The competition is aimed at schools in the wider Auckland region (find out all about it here), and the two three hour Animator’s Apprentice workshops aimed to help students get up to speed with animation and provide them with skills and knowledge to set them apart from their competition – while having a lot of fun on the way!
Maka & Ali began by taking the students back in time to the beginnings of moving pictures (even before Mickey Mouse made his first appearance as Disney’s Steamboat Willie
in 1928) and giving them the basics about what makes a good character.
Ali explains that a unique silhouette is key to a strong character.
What makes a good character?
A good character needs to be recognisable by its silhouette alone – think of Bugs Bunny’s ears. This important insight allows you to break down a character into a number of basic shapes (such as lines, curves, circles) without worrying too much about the details, making it much easier to focus on the animation. Students were asked to come up with their own characters, and it was a fun exercise. My personal favourite was the always amazing but ever-dreaded Fourswords! A mean lookin’ fella with, well, four swords. Good one.
A little history of animation
The first thing to understand about animated films is that they are in fact a number of static images, or frames, which change slightly from one image to the next but on their own do not have any inherent movement. But when viewed in fast succession the still images magically come to life! A simple flip book is a good example of this effect.
To learn about animation we need to understand it's history
While this might be a bit old hat for the most of us the discovery of this illusion was breaking news when the zoetrope was invented some 180 years ago. A zoetrope, meaning “wheel of life”, is a cylindrical drum that is spun on it’s own axis and has a number of regular slits cut into it’s upper third. Single images, usually on a long strip of paper, are placed into the lower third of the drum and the viewer looks at the strip through the slits. Spinning the drum will create the illusion of motion and the faster it is spun, the smoother the motion will appear.
Could there be any better way to teach students about the principles of animation than drawing their own static images and magically seeing them come to life in a zoetrope?
The magic of a zoetrope
Nils obviously knows what he's talking about... thanks Maka!
Time, space & motion
To get to this stage first we needed to learn about the relationship of movement over time. If in animation – or any moving image as a matter of fact – time is broken down into a number of single static images (frames) how does a moving object such as a ball look on each frame to support the illusion of movement when the frames are played back in succession? Or in other words, if a jellyfish needs to get from position A on frame 1 to position B on frame 12 what happens in the 10 frames in between? Quite technical, huh? If you think you look puzzled now you should have seen our participants’ faces – they were actually far from puzzled!
Splitting the lines... animating takes time!
Animator's Apprentice at work
The reason for this was that we started off small: instead of a jellyfish the students had to first work out what it takes for a straight line to turn into a curved one over a number of frames. The first big secret weapon from any animator’s toolkit is to “split the lines”: to look at the starting and the ending shape of the line and try to draw a new line perfectly in the middle. Then split those lines again, and again, and again. These lines then need to be arranged in sequence, in our case by copying them – one line per frame – onto animation strip templates that would go into the zoetrope.
So, during the exercise sessions there was lots of pencilling, rubbing out, copying and comparing happening as everybody concentrated on splitting the increasingly complicated lines and squiggles onto the animation strips.
Avid animators working the light table
Before long the students were so good at the job that they could easily draw the “in-betweens” for their own jellyfish. And voila, as soon as these strips were inserted into the zoetrope and spun around the jellyfish were happily swimming along in a perfectly smooth motion. The magical moment caused plenty of wide-eyes and glowing smiles in the classroom, making the hard work and concentrated efforts well worth it.
Pt. England School student's witnessing the magic
This first workshop finished with a treat for the students in the form of a special Animator’s Apprentice pack: their very own zoetrope and animation templates to take home and polish those newly acquired skills.
The significance of a good story
A week later we followed up with the second workshop, this time focusing primarily on two things: developing a good story and bringing the animations onto a computer.
While it is important to get the technical aspects of animation right and understand how and why they work, more important by far is the story. Maka came prepared with a bag of awesome fill-the-gaps stories involving parrot pies, guinea pig wigs, and – of course – farts. The students would then personalise their stories and create what is called a model sheet.
Daisy's model sheet
This sheet of paper captures the look of all the important characters and props in the story and acts as a style reference for the storyboard and, eventually, the final animated film. Historically, these sheets would be created by the Lead Designer and then copied by the Storyboard Artists and Animators. However, in our case the students would have to do all this hard work themselves…
After having created their individual storyboards the students presented their stories in front of the group using a projector. These images were then finally brought into the computer to create a so-called animatic, basically the backbones of the final film, by arranging the individual frames from the storyboard on a timeline and adding sound (or narration) to the playback.
The next step would have been to take each scene from the storyboard and animate it properly using the line-splitting and “in-betweening” techniques outlined above. But of course, this was out of scope for our workshops – just to put things into perspective: it can take several weeks to finish a single bro’Town episode!
So instead we used a number of prepared drawings to really get an understanding of how to work with them in an animation software (we used the free MonkeyJam program), how to add color and sound, and how to export a movie. This left the participants with a very good idea of what traditional hands-on animation involves a strong character and good story, and how to bring it all together on the computer.
Reflecting on these workshops it was fascinating to see that even though many of the kids had been exposed to creating animations and movies on a computer they still learned a lot about what happens behind the scenes, on physical, cognitive, and creative levels. Many did not even know that there was a way to create a moving image without the help of a software. And as Ali put it, “really, would it not be any kids dream job to spend the whole day drawing and even get paid for it? As an animator, that is just what you do!”
From July to August 2012 we ran a total of 12 workshops, partly as school field trips and holiday / weekend activities at the Museum but also at partnering lower decile schools in Glenn Innes (Pt. England School) and South Auckland (Manurewa Intermediate School).
To see the workshops in action check out these student videos:
Please make sure to also visit some of the student blogs below and show your support, they are just fantastic: