Character Layout Animator

Time for magic. Being an animator is the glory job in animation. It's also one of the hardest. Ask Dan Povenmire, who every week makes "The Simpsons" look alive.

Dan's job is to act out the action. He is really nothing more than an actor with a pencil. But we're not talking any type of Method here; we are talking about the key pose. We all know that animation is made up of thousands of single, static drawings that have been filmed to give the appearance of movement. Now the animator, especially on a weekly show or a feature, doesn't have the time to draw each frame—only the scenes where something changes, whether it's an expression, an emotion, or an action. These are the key poses, and this is where the acting comes in. A bad animator may not draw enough keys to properly convey the scene, and the performance of the animated character appears flat and lifeless. A good animator brings the character to life not only by doing enough key poses to show what's going on but also by adding little nuances, such as a bob of the head or a raised eyebrow, to give the performance the extra nudge needed to take it from the bland to the sublime.

Dan is a good animator, but then, he's been doing animation for a long time. He's had to learn the skills of his art the hard way, by trial and error, rather than by going to an art school. Not that learning on your own is the best way to go about it. Dan recommends art school, especially those that have animation programs, such as California Institute of the Arts or the Rhode Island School of Design. A lot of young animators are hired right out of schools like these. Tim Burton was. But if you don't want to go to school, here are some tips to help you learn.

Number one: draw.

Number two: draw a lot.

Number three: draw even more.

Draw things like flip books, which are series of drawings in corners of blank books or sketch pads, each one a little different, so that when the pages are rapidly turned, or flipped, it creates a basic animation. Dan used to create flip books in the corners of his school texts, but he doesn't recommend this, mostly because until you become famous, this does nothing for their resale value.

Another thing Dan did that he says helped him immeasurably was writing and drawing a comic strip, Life As a Fish, for his college newspaper. He says it taught him how to represent something in the least amount of lines.

When you're doing any type of animation and there's a deadline involved, knowing how to make something look like what you want it to look like in very little time, with as little detail as you can get away with, is a handy trick. Something that will help you to get a feel for drawing lines is reproducing other people's work. Learn how lines are used to construct and animate faces or hands—how, for example, by adding a little flourish to an eyebrow, you can make the character look happy or sad or angry. Once you can reproduce other people's work, throw it all away and create your own characters. You'll notice influences but, hopefully, the style you've developed will be uniquely your own.

Dan's last bit of advice: if someone will pay you to sit at a desk and doodle, and it's something you'd be doing anyway, you've got the makings of an animator. Now all you need is the initiative, and the work will be waiting for you.

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