Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Video Reference

Video reference has always been a very important part of the animation process and has become much more of an understood tool with people like Jeff Garbor and his great reference for Blue Sky's Horton Hears A Who and Ice Age. Interestingly, it is something that has not really been spoken about or seen in the same light in relation to 2D animation. 

But i think with further research and understanding, the way in which video reference was often used by Disney in the old days is very similar to how it can be used today in 2D or CGI animation. 
(Once again, please remember I am also just an animation student and I am still learning like you. These are just things I have found that have worked for me and I am sure there are many other great ways of working.)

The first person to make use of and come up with the idea to use video reference for animation was Art Babbitt. In the mid-1930's, Babbitt was working at the Walt Disney Studio on the original lot in Hyperion Avenue (which is unfortunately now a parking lot for a grocery store!). These guys were creating an art form and where pushing each other to constantly improve. This included Babbitt bringing in an art teacher (more on that in a future post) and purchasing a 16mm camera for him to shoot film reference to study movement. 

Frank Thomas and Art Babbitt talking about video reference. 
From the fantastic Babbitt Blog.

Often at Disney comedians, vaudeville actors, and the voice actors themselves where shot on a stage in costume for the animators reference (Cinderella was the first Disney feature where the whole film was shot in live action prior to animation). However, when the frames of the reference was traced, the resulting animation was lacking in life and felt flat (which is the same result you get when importing the video reference into a CG package and positioning the character over the reference). 

Snow White Video Reference

But the animators found it extremely helpful in coming up with different or unique acting choices, understanding how difficult shapes turn in space, costume follow through and overlap and to study the body mechanics. 

I love these two clips from Alice In Wonderland which show the comparison between the live action reference footage and the final animation. This really made me understand how I could best use video reference. You can see in the first clip (at 20 seconds) where the animator has found great inspiration in how the foot drags along the floor, the hands coming up and then dropping to her lap in frustration and the little head shake. But you can also see where they have pushed the poses, made the hands clearer as she holds them up before dropping them back into her lap and how the timing and spacing is different to get more spark and life. 

This second clip from the mad hatter tea party is fantastic (they actually ended up using the audio recorded from this session for the film as it was better than when they got the actors back in to record it in the booth). Its also great to see animators like Freddie Moore and Ward Kimball working away on set. 

Another great clip of reference is from Sleeping Beauty with Marc Davis and Milt Kahl drawing at the boards and doing studies of the hands, poses and dress movements of the actress. 

Video reference continued to be used in the more recent Disney 2D features including The Little Mermaid. This clip shows Glen Keane directing an actress on what he wants and he talks about what he was able to utilise from the reference in his Ariel scenes. 

This is a process I have found really helpful in my animation where I shoot video reference (sometimes of myself, and sometimes of a person I know that I think has qualities similar to the character I want to create). I then go through the following steps:

• I take screen grabs from the reference of the keys where there accents in the dialogue, changes in emotion, contacts and changes in direction in the movements. 

• I draw out these key poses and really try to push them. I find the line of action and go further. I tilt the head more, I push the shoulders etc. I usually do quite a few drawings of each pose and simplify and exaggerate the pose until it is as clear as possible. 

• I then use the drawings as my reference in Maya to pose out my animation.

Lots more to come in the coming days with some very cool Disney pencil tests. 


  1. Great post Mike. I love how pushed the tea party got!

  2. Really great footage. I had never seen the Disney footage before.

  3. Awesome stuff - thanks for that video references...