Lesson: Tips for Creating, Finding, and Using Reference for Animation

Many of my students push back when I bring up using reference. For some reason they think it is “cheating.” Using reference for your animations is no more cheating than Norman Rockwell using photo references for his paintings.

Using reference for your animation to get an idea of timing, weight shifts, poses, and nuance is a time old tradition that goes back to the early days at Disney. Using reference is an industry standard today for working professionals.

When I first started out animating in the 90’s reference was not as easy to come by as it is today with smartphone cameras and youtube. Why not use every tools at your fingertips to get the best possible performance?

Reference provides you with:

  • Body mechanics solutions
  • Better planning & saves time
  • Acting choices
  • Appealing shapes
  • Assists in the learning process
  • Why not use it? Why not use every tool at your disposal
  • Observation will create a believable performance
  • Good reference is your road map!

Here are some tips on creating, finding, and using reference for animation:

1. Reference is your roadmap. If your reference is poorly executed or misses the mark for the performance, then your animation will as well.

  • Take the extra time to create good reference.
  • Plan by listening to the dialog until you understand the beats and subtext.
  • If the scene is body mechanics or pantomime driven, equally write down the emotional process behind each movement and record important beats.
  • Make sure your scene is lit well when recording.
  • If research involves finding content on youtube instead of trying to commit the action yourself, find many clips to choose from and study.
  • Frankenstein the clips that work best from your recording or content found online to create the best select to work from.


2. Have fun researching and explore every possibility for your scene to get to a genuine choice.

  • Sincerity comes from exploration.
  • Your first ideas will be trite and overused.
  • Film a friend and see what they give you that is outside of your baseline in acting.
  • Sit with a friend to choose the best clips. Sometimes you look at it too long and need a fresh eye.
  • Give any idea at least 15 minutes to breathe. Do not stand in the way of the creative flow while making reference.
  • You MUST stop and watch the reference recorded to asses what is working.
  • If you keep acting things out without stopping to watch, you will have the same take over and over again.
  • EXPLORE the possibilities!


3. Using reference does not mean copying exactly what is there.

  • Many times you have to plus the action beyond what is in the reference.
  • Do not copy frame by frame.
  • Understand the choices made in the reference and apply the same force to your character.
  • Too much of you in the scene can be bad. Stay true to your character’s baseline.
  • Most likely you will have different proportions than the character. Compensate.
  • Overacting = bad


4. Get all of the technical stuff out of the way.

  • 24 fps on camera, if possible. Phones are usually 30 fps, so convert before using.
  • Camera should be secured on a solid tripod.
  • Check the angle (similar to the shot), is there enough light? etc.
  • Take shades off lamps for better light.
  • Shoot a wider angle than the original staging in Maya.
  • Shoot a close up too, for facial acting.
  • It’s hard to get good acting when you have to stop to fix the lights, tripod, etc.
  • Create the stage, props and furniture first.
  • Set up camera, no lower than a 50 mm lens for camera if you have control.
  • Create marks to look at. Place a teddy bear in front of the actor to look at.
  • Costumes, wigs or clothing can help get into character.


5. Shoot A LOT of reference footage!

  • Try it where you are only speaking, not the actor.
  • Think about the subtext while acting the scene out. Write it down.
  • Speak the subtext and not the actual lines of dialog.
  • Take your best takes and compile them into one, if you don’t have one solid take.
  • Maybe film a friend, who is better and direct them?
  • Sometimes I ask friends to do a take or two for me.
  • Other people can come up with surprising acting ideas for a shot.
  • If it’s not working, maybe it’s not the right clip? Are you forcing it?
  • Reference is easy to make! Redo it if it’s not working.
  • Watch out for clichés. Do not overact!
  • Write down words as you watch that illustrate the emotions, verbs are best.


6. Thumbnail from your final cut of footage to figure out your story poses and work out the important reversals.

  • Study timing and adjust if needed. You can even change the timing in the video.
  • Timing can always be compressed and elongated to plus the action and heighten entertainment.
  • Study weight shifts in the video from hips to shoulders.
  • Analyze specific movements of the situation and idiosyncratic actions.
  • Simplify the movement if it makes the scene stronger, edit the video clip.

Below is a video explaining an approach to re-timing reference footage presented by Cameron Fielding that might work for you to get the timing you want for the scene. By simply bringing in the footage as an image sequence and animating the frames in the graph editor you can re-time the footage on the fly while animating. You could even figure out the blocking poses and re-time them before ever setting a keyframe on a puppet!

7. How to choose which take from all of that footage?

  • Critical eye, ask a friend to watch with you.
  • You will know the right take, trust your gut.
  • Look for specific actions that do not feel overused.
  • Learn your own idiosyncrasies. If you point a lot make sure that is something your character would do, too.
  • What is successful and how can you plus it?


MUSE Main Titles

Fernando Domínguez Cózar created this opening titles for the Jaume Balagueró´s new film “Muse”, a thriller based on the novel ” La Dama número 13 ” by José Carlos Somoza. The Dante´s Divide comedy has an strong presence on the “Muse” film since the main character, Samuel, has an special link with literature. The opening titles are based on one of the Divine comedy´s infernos: The fate of suicides.

Since the suicides have “denied the God-given sanctity of their bodies on earth,” they are deemed unfit for human form. The soul grows into an anguished and gnarled tree. The placement of the soul is haphazard and disordered – “anywhere that fortune tosses it” – analogous to how the Suicides treated their bodies.

The opening titles are a representation of this tate of suicides´s inferno, the human anatomy is the main character of the piece. Melted bodies forming abstract forms mixing and forming trees, nature elements and surrealist creatures inhabit this fiction.

Direction – Fernando Domínguez Cózar
Music – Arnau Bataller
Producers – Yukio Montilla, Fiona Vidal, Emília Fort, from “O”
Design, Animation, liquid simulation, lighting setup, render, comp & postproduction – Fernando Domínguez Cózar.
3D scanning – Leonstudio: Javier León Carrillo, Juan Carlos López Alba
Modeling & texturing – Fernando Domínguez Cózar & León studio: Esaú Pérez Guerrero, Javier Jaén Cavaín,
FX – Fernando Domínguez Cózar & Leónstudio: Manuel Martín Márquez.

Models –
Marta Rosendo Crespo
Juan Ignacio Sirviente González
Sara Fornell Chumilla
Cecilia Gatica López
Francisco López Rodríguez
Carmen Barrena Coello
Santiago Belizón Seguí


IN-SHADOW: A Modern Odyssey


Embark on a visionary journey through the fragmented unconscious of the West, and with courage face the Shadow. Through Shadow into Light.

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
-C.G. Jung

This film was created with earnest effort, diligence, and sacrifice. It is an urgent call to growth. If you are moved by the content, please SHARE.

Written, Directed & Produced by Lubomir Arsov
Original Soundtrack “Age of Wake” by Starward Projections
Composited by Sheldon Lisoy
Additional Compositing by Hiram Gifford
Art Directed & Edited by Lubomir Arsov

'IN-SHADOW' is an entirely independently funded, not-for-profit film. If you'd like to support the artist, DONATE here: https://goo.gl/GQZLaH

Gallery quality ART PRINTS available here: inprnt.com/gallery/inshadow/

Film Website: inshadow.net/
Facebook: facebook.com/inshadowmovie/
Music Composers: starwardprojections.com/
Contact: light@inshadow.net

© Lubomir Arsov 2017