The Animatress Pipeline

Filmmaking Adventures

Character Layout

Character layout is the process of establishing characters within their environment with the use of perspective and placement for the camera. Whether you have perspective anxiety or hidden dyslexia will determine which aspect of the job will be the greatest challenge to you. Just be thankful that you are conquering these demons while you’re in school on not on the job. Character layout is a short, but vicious learning curve.


Here are some guidelines. I would’ve liked to have known #3 straight out in the 90’s Now, gladly the pass the wisdom on to you.

1. Stay on model. Everyone says don’t trace the model sheets, but artists do it anyway. The trick is not make the character look like a model sheet cut out as it moves across the screen. Eyeball your scenes and then enlarge of reduce the turn arounds on the model sheets and “pull” the character on model by comparing the proportions. Lucky for you all, you are working on your own characters and already have your characters design imprinted on your brains.

2. Character within it’s environment. Perspective. No, it’s not over. Perspective is more than a tool for BG’s and vehicles, it applies to characters as well. Make sure all the areas on the character that appear above the horizon line arch upwards and what lies below the horizon line, arc downwards. Don’t be too drastic with this technique. Compare the arcs with the rest of the vanishing points in the BG so that the sweep of the arcs will be gradual as they lessen and deepen above to below the horizon line.

3. Do not animate for the animator. I was often guilty of this, See examples below. Layouts are just poses. In regards to your films and working on televisions, layout poses are keys, but in any situation, the animator has the power to change your acting or even the pose. It’s the perspective and position in the scene the animator needs. Just do the basic poses with animation principles applied. If you do more in layout and find that you have changed your mind in the animation stage, you will have completed a lot of useless drawings. Be thrifty and meet or deadlines with fewer drawings.

4. Overlays. Is your character interacting with anything? I glass of water, or sitting on a couch with cushions that move with the character’s weight? These are called overlays and underlays. Their names coincide with which side of the character they are on. A glass grasped with the inside hand showing is an overlay. A couch cushion is an underlay.

5. Labeling. You’ll drive your director insane if you aren’t detailed oriented enough to label your scenes and everything in it. Just think of the scenario of the animator who does not number his drawings, animates a 18 foot scene and drops his stack of paper on the way to the pencil test machine. A good two hours of time will be wasted putting that stack back in order and the pennywise producer is watching!
Scene labels go as follows:

Scene numbers
Frame or key numbers
w/w: Works with; this is used mainly of overlays and underlays. w/w scene_42_03
OL: overlay
UL: underlay
Fry_01: Character distinction in a scene with multiple characters.

Camera
This is one mean machine. Thank heavens for After Effects! You may not get that marvelous film grain ( unless you apply a filter) but you don’t have to worry about whether you interpreted the story artists instructions correctly when you hand your scenes off to a camera person. Pans, dollies and zooms are easy to layout, but there is one camera move that all layout artists hate to work with no matter how cool the effect is: the adjust.

The camera adjust occurs when a camera is focused on area in the scene, but shot at a smaller aperture or in animation talk, field size. In 4:3 television aspect ratio, the largest field size or wide shot is a 12 field, the smallest 6. What an adjust will do is shoot an area of the scene in 6 field or some other field smaller than 12 and follow the character around the scene within the 12 field size.
This process is really simple nowadays with Flash and After Effects, but in the days of analog and multilane/motion control cameras, it dredged up dyslexia that a person did not know they had. The best way to get over it is to shoot your own film, which we are doing now. Try an adjust to get a visual of what the camera is doing. This is a kinesthetic lesson for sure. You may be one of those people who passed algebra and calculus and can process this concept entirely in your head, but for everyone else, learn by seeing and doing. Visual and kinesthetic practice with the camera will save you a lot of grief on the job and save you time and help you meet the Spring Show deadline.

So, that’s the whole of character layout. After this process is complete you can ANIMATE, which will be like connecting the dots if you’re working on your own film. Character layout only takes about three weeks to learn, but it takes about two seasons on a show to master. By the time you practice character layout on your films, you’ll be broken in at least. Push yourself with cameras and perspective and produce an ambitious piece within your current skill set. Doing so will give you an advantage in storyboard revisionist positions, for layout is the precursor to storyboard, and the industry directors will be forever grateful that you have prepared wisely. Good luck!

As always, let me know when you get stuck!

-Ashanti

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