There is a dramatic-yet-humorous scene in Osmosis Jones where the main characters are drowned in a wave of snot. I wouldn’t call it “beautiful” per se – it’s still snot. But it has an energy and a fluidity that stood out to me even as a child. When, as a student, I’d discovered a pencil-test version of this scene and several others in someone’s several-years-old demo reel, I loved it so much that I saved the video to study later. Two years ago, I saw a short animation called Thought of You. Everything about it was stunning – graceful character animation, subtle but impactful special effects, and a unique and beautiful style I’d never seen before – or so I thought. It only took about thirty seconds of research to figure out that this animated short and the special effects reel I’d fallen in love with at least two years previously were both by the same artist.
Ryan Woodward is responsible for some exceptionally beautiful animations. I’ve done a lot of 2D character animation throughout my still-young career, often working in effects like smoke, rain or water for some added practice. Despite studying books and hounding old teachers for feedback, and despite the countless hours put into these personal projects, all of my own animations came out somewhat… lacking. I feel like there is a certain static quality to everything I’ve done over the last two years.
During the 2012 CTN Animation Expo, I was fortunate to stumble upon Ryan doing a 2D animation demonstration for an eager crowd. I honestly feel like I learned much more in the single hour I spent watching him work than I did in some of my 3-month courses in school. In books and online tutorials, and even in a lot of demonstrations, it is hard to understand the artist’s thought process. Hearing Ryan talk about the his thoughts on movement of the character as it came into existence on his screen added a new depth to the way that I will think about my own characters from here on out.
Seeing Ryan work in this manner also helped me let go of some of my insecurities as an artist. For years, I’ve had a constant daunting feeling that I had to measure up to a lot of hugely talented animators who never made mistakes and who didn’t struggle to figure out the “right way” for their character to move. I’ve often had to go back and redo or trash a few frames, and I always felt an uncertainty about whether my characters were moving correctly. I thought this was due to a lack of experience, and that I needed to work towards having TOTAL CERTAINTY for each drawing, every time. Watching Ryan work, I felt a lot of these worries dissipate. As Ryan animated, it seemed that each new frame was an exploration of possibilities. “Maybe the character should do this,” he’d think out loud, “Or maybe… Nah, that’s too weird. Let’s try it anyway! Oh hey, that looks awesome!” He allowed himself to experiment with each frame. He didn’t tie himself down to what was “correct,” and if he wanted to throw in a movement that was unrealistic, there was nothing wrong with it.
There was never a point when he asked, “Is this how a real person moves?” It was all about the energy of the motion and the impact he could add, regardless of how accurate the movement was. Ryan’s background in special effects has had a definite influence on his character animation. When he talks about how his characters move, he speaks less of body mechanics and more about the transfer of energy. When he is drawing the actual frames, you’re not seeing a character move. You’re seeing a point of energy move from a character’s feet, up to their hips, their waist and shoulders and arms, manipulating solid forms into something more malleable. You see the buildup start in one point of the body, then travel through the character to create a sudden release of energy elsewhere. Characters in motion are not limited to their physical forms – body parts blur and shift as if they were made of water.
After years of struggling with my animation, I felt something click. There was a moment of clarity where I thought, “Oh. I get it now.” In this single hour, I feel I’ve started seeing things differently. I feel that I can let go of the rigidity of my characters and allow the animation to flow. There’s no reason not to experiment.