First off, apologies for how long it has taken me to get to this post. Things like contracts ending, getting a job, moving house and forgetting happened. But now that some of those things aren't happening any more, we can get on to the topic at hand. THUMBNAILS!!!
To explain why I wanted to write about thumbnails and get others involved we have to travel back in time. Imagine a world where dinosaurs walked the earth...sorry, not that far back. Back when I was working on LEGO: Lord of The Rings at TT Games I noticed that some people thumbnailed shots for their scenes and some didn't. It really interested me, especially how the use of planning appeared to change how shots/scenes were completed.
Personally I find a little bit of planning better than none at all. It helps me clear my head, get my ideas down and create goals for my shot. Without thumbnails I will often find myself flailing about, wasting time trying to find the right pose, trying to figure out how something should move and so on. Thumbnails help me to tie all of this down, drawing a few (or many) poses out is way faster than playing around in Maya. In short, it keeps me organised and on the right path. They might not be as helpful for everyone but thanks to some kind folk we have some examples to look at and opinions to ponder over.
Below are examples and opinions from animators of all skill levels and projects. They all show a valuable insight into how they work and break their shots down.
JAMAAL BRADLEY - http://www.jamaalbradley.com - https://twitter.com/JamaalBradley
"My process always begins with thumbnails. I like to start with drawings since I can play with things a little bit faster. It is kind of like shooting reference because I get up and act out to the dialogue but without the camera rolling. I hit body postures and then exaggerate them on paper. I then shoot reference to look for interesting nuances that I can add within my performance."
Prep And Landing thumbnails:
Dan was kind enough to share some thumbnail sketches he made whilst working on Hotel Transylvania at Sony Animation. Excellent examples of how you don't need complicated images to convey great poses, lines of actions and thought process.
Hotel Transylvania thumbnails:
"I didn't always plan things out with thumbnails (why add an extra step, right? Plus my drawing skill isn't great...) but once I made the switch I can't imagine going back. It allows for such freedom because you can try as many things as you like without committing to a finished drawing that you'd hate to throw away. Plus I've found the more I thumbnail the better I get at boiling down art to its essence, which really helps simplify things when I work on a complete piece.
I think what holds a lot of people back from doing thumbnails is just a lack of confidence drawing, especially in the realm of 3D animation. It wasn't until my late twenties that I really set myself to practice drawing in earnest, and then I was pretty terrible at it. Yes, it does take work, but it's absolutely worth it in the long run! I know folks often say "Well I know such-and-such animator who's amazing but can't draw! I'll just be like them." It's true you can take that route, but if you add drawing on TOP of your animation skills it only makes you that much more well rounded. Plus I've never spoken with a single animator who didn't draw well but still didn't wish they were better. (And honestly even the masters say they wish they could draw better!)
I once heard Glen Keane say that when he animates it's like he's living through the character. When I thumbnail, I get what he means. I'm drawing fast and really feeling the motion and action and emotion. Sadly once I get to roughing it out on keys I tend to become more technical and want to do it "right" instead of living it out through the character being drawn... And often the keys suffer for it.
The biggest benefit to my thumbnailing that I ever found was learning and practicing gesture drawing. When you have under a minute to get the feeling of a pose down on paper it makes you go straight for the story-telling jugular. You leave out the extra bits of fluff and rush to throw down sweeping lines that slap the audience in the face and say 'LET ME TELL YOU MY STORY!' Thumbnailing should be like that. Leave the fluff for later."
Mudasir shows us that he breaks his planning down into key pose thumbnails with notes based on the characters actions and motion.
"Thumbnailing is really useful since it reminds you to solve posing in CG animation in the way you would do it 2D."
LEGO: Lord of The Rings thumbnails:
SHAUN KEELING - http://www.sdkanimation.co.uk
Shaun shows us that he breaks his shot down by camera cuts and extreme poses paying lots of attention to line of action (S and C curves) and pushing poses.
"Unfortunately I usually toss my thumbnails when I'm done with them,but here are two pages I still have.
The first page is my attempt at solving how a young girl would act as she's being cornered by a more imposing figure. I wanted to balance fear, as well as confidence in her knowledge of self defence - which she's never had to act on before. I also have a few drawings used to explore what the menacing figure might look like. Should he be solemn? Angry? Sadistically grinning? And finally I did a few thumbnails to explore my staging.
The second page is a series of very loose thumbs for a thirty second scene I did. I wanted to create an apologetic looking female character, and a very defensive, upset male character. Skyscraper (the male character) is meant to be hurt, afraid, nervous as well as feeling betrayed by his significant other in her efforts to make him change his ways. He's firmly rooted in his current life and has no aspiration of moving beyond that."
Stephen not only sent a picture of his thumbnailing process but also included a video that he'd made where he describes exactly what he does. He calls it "stickyboarding" Check them out:
"My school Head-Mistress always said, "Life is like a jam sandwich. The more you put in, the more you get out of it."
Now, while I wouldn't particularly want to eat a sandwich that had about six-jars-worth of jam in it... that's just asking for a heart-attack surely!... I do see what she was trying to say.
And nothing is more true about Animation. Preparation, preparation, preparation! The more you put into your ideas, concepts, design, story and characters, the richer and more rewarding your final creation will be.Even if what you come up with is total garbage, you know what your idea is not meant to be.
However, all of this does kind of depend on what your working on, and who you're working with.
If you're working solo, while it's still very important you sketch down your ideas first, it only really matters that you understand them. If you can remember the exact emotion you're looking to convery with nothing more than a crude stick-figure, then no problem! But if you're working with a team of people on a single project, in many ways you face some more difficult challenges. You may have everything from start to finish mapped out crystal clearly in your own head - but nobody else can see that. No one can crawl into your brain and see exactly what it is that you see. So, you have to illustrate your ideas and show them to people, and your drawings have to be so good, that they can see exactly what it is that you see.
Pixar are the Gods of this. If you haven't already, pick up a copy of "The Art of (insert name of any Pixar Movie here)" and you'll see just how much hard work, time and perpetration they devote to telling stories. It's almost as though they make the movie before they actually make the movie.
But that's not to say that your thumbnails have to be a masterpiece. Take the thumbnails from Ratatouille as an example, simple, yet extremely effective.
Just from these sketches we as animators can get the perfect idea of Remy's weight, flexibility and movements. Now imagine trying to animate Remy without having seen these first. Where on Earth would you start?
It could be argued that putting more time into your preparation actually saves time in the long run.
I'd like to include some of my own work as an example too. Back in 2008, when I was still fresh out of Uni, I made a music video for an up-and-coming Dance Music artist, Jess Carroll. The video follows the story of a young girl who has lost her true love as she travels through the city. Not a huge project, but fairly big for me as I was working by myself.
I found using thumbnails extremely helpful for timing, camera angels, and progress management - but it was also very nice to be able to see the entire video mapped out right there in front of me.
It keeps you able to see the big picture."
D.K.UPSHAW - http://www.dkladytooner.com
"Doing thumbnail sketches really loosens me up; when I sketch, I get new ideas on how to play the next scene, or come up with a whole new plotline altogether, which was the case with this cartoon.
I also get an idea of what new props to create, and which sound and visual effects to use."
LAUREN ORRELLS - http://www.biscuitofdoom.net
"I tend to draw stick figures more than actual thumbnails.
Pages 1 and 2 are from an animation I did during my MA called Fear. Probably the best example I have of my animation planning. Page 1 is mainly a page of rough poses I could use for the character to try and show this feeling and considering his actions throughout the scene. The second page, is a very rough storyboard of the character moving through the scene and a plan of the route.
Page 3 is some poses for a dance animation."
"You absolutely HAVE to storyboard/thumbnail/scribble and sketch down your ideas. It can be one thing in your head but it never really sticks till it's on paper, wether traditional or digital. It's also a great way to visually test if what works in your head actually does work. And an acidental stroke, or even an intentional one can be interperted in new ways after stepping away from it and coming back. A half finshed, quick sketch can spawn new ideas and solutions to problems you've had. I always do tons of small thumbnails with pen paper when brainstorming. Then move on to create more fleshed out storyboards digitally. The ones attached are by no means perfect, as this was just a project for myself and done in maybe a very short while. If it's a personal project as long as YOU understand it, that's all that matters. The storyboards below pretty closely resemble the final piece, in this case. But it doesn't have to be that way. A lot of the time (for non client work) the storyboards can just be a good jumping off point and you can transform and morph them into something completely differnet throughout the journey of creating the project.
For client work it's also veery important to storyboard before hand. The drawings definetly don't have to be perfectly rendered beautiful drawings here either but it's important that they are clear. So the client knows exactly what you mean and can comment on it early in the process. THis is a great step to do before going in 100mph on a project and then get a ton of changes from the client because you hadn't been clear enough in the begining when discussing the project."
"Thumbnailing helps me to throw all of my ideas down on to paper/photoshop so that I am free to worry about the animation side. I like to work out my ideas first so that I know exactly where I am going with my shot. This is especially important for me in a professional setting as it means I will be more efficient with my time.
My thumbnails are nothing fancy, mainly stick figures but they give me more than enough information about what I want to do. I usually draw the key poses I'd like to hit and often draw out arcs across the image. You can see in the second image I have arrows pointing in opposite directions on certain sketches. These are opposite action notes that come from acting it out at my desk or visualising the pose."
LEGO: Lord of The Rings thumbnails:
iAnimate shot planning thumbnails: