Comedy for Animators: Don't Be That Guy


Funny Reference Footage from Comedy for Animators

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?

Duality Redux | Slow Motion Cats Phantom Camera Series

A study in duality, a domestic cat and a jungle cat embody the civilized and the wild.

Great reference for animators.

100 Walks

100 Walks (Link to full video in bio)

A post shared by Kevin Parry (@kevinbparry) on

Ink In Motion

The hypnotising beauty of colored ink in water and the interaction of this substance with different elements.

Direct Registering Cat Gait

Cats are capable of walking very precisely because, like all felines, they directly register; that is, they place each hind paw (almost) directly in the print of the corresponding fore paw, minimizing noise and visible tracks. This also provides sure footing for their hind paws when they navigate rough terrain.

Jolmood with his Reference

From Omar Labbad:

This loop is a part of animated poem called "In arabic world" that I did it with AJ+ Arabi.
I worked more on it and developed it,
This Arabian man called "Jolmood"
Big thanks for "Vahva Fitness" for this great reference.
you can watch the original reference here:

Hedgehog Walking in Slo Mo Looks Epic

Great Video Resource for Motion Analysis

Michelle C. Smith Weapons Reel Stuntwoman


Michelle C. Smith - Weapons Reel from Michelle C. Smith on Vimeo.

Great reference for a body mechanics piece.

Michelle C. Smith Weapons Reel Stuntwoman

Rodney Mullen Debuts New Tricks, Captured in 360 Degrees | Vogue

Beautiful Reference and motion studies – Look at the weight absorbed at his knees!

Anilyzer Tool - Frame by Frame Youtube Videos

Impressive tool from Paolo Cogliati a 3D animator at The Mill, previously LAIKA, creator of Serial Taxi short film and AniRef app.

Anilyzer is a new free tool for animators to view Youtube+Vimeo links frame by frame and slow motion.

You can also see what other animators are analyzing and discover new works. 

The Shinning - Jack Nicholson preppin' for The Shining

Jack Nicholson preppin' for The Shining

Get into character before you record your reference footage!

The Human Torch Drone

The Human Torch Drone

just gonna leave this here...
The Human Torch Drone lights up the night sky in Fantastic Four PR stunt.

Milky eagle owl in slow motion

Video Reference - Milky eagle owl in slow motion

Milky eagle owl Sarabi flying in slow motion... great animation reference.

Sochi Olympics frame by frame

Sochi Olympics frame by frame

Article in the NY Times with multiple exposure photos. Great reference for arcs and spacing!

Animation basics: The art of timing and spacing - TED-Ed

The most important facet of movement and animator can understand:  Timing and Spacing

Tangled Concept Art by Lisa Keene

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard 
Tangled Concept Art by Lisa Keene

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 Featurette - Split Screens

Featurette for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 takes a behind the scenes look at the voice-overs using a split screen with the actual animation. 

Be More Dog

Amazing study of dog cats placed on a cat...funny!

Shinichi Maruyama

NY-based photographer Shinichi Maruyama created these lovely photographs using nearly 10,000 individual photographs of a nude dancer in motion.  How's that for arcs?

Peregrine falcon hunts downhill rider

up the quality to 1080p, oh yeah...

How to Create Lipsync in Maya

I have added a video section to the blog with two free videos and 6 lectures you can purchase at

This tutorial instructs you to the 15 facial poses I find most common in creating dialog for animation in CG. I describe each pose and the basic lines of action that happen in the face for these poses. I also offer some notes on what not to do when creating these poses. Once you create the 15 poses, you are ready to generate a shelf for your character. My students over the years have loved this part of my lectures, most... and I hope you do too. There is a .pdf attached with the poses provided as a guide.

I am very proud to announce some new videos I have been working on to help animators create better lip synch.  I added two free videos and five more that are at the low, low price of $9.90 each at
The two free videos explain how to download, install and source the pose2Shelf.mel script for use in creating facial libraries for your characters.  I prefer the shelves over plug ins, since most studios frown on your installing plugins on their computers.  Shelves are a quick and easy way to use the automation that computers do best to repeat actions you do all the time and simplify moving so many controls for one pose.
The videos for sale ($9.90 - what a steal!) cover my work flow when mapping out where poses go for setting up a first pass on dialog in Maya.  I go in more detail about which poses to drop out of the dialog and which to keep. This is a vanilla pass at animation.  No asymmetry or special shapes are created at first, only the 15 basic poses (along with .pdfs for you to follow when creating these poses) are used.   In the later videos I add asymmetry and a smile overall of the dialog, as well as a few poses for the blinks and eye darts.

The videos contain detailed instruction on one of my most popular lectures when I teach.  I broke it up into sections, so you can purchase what you think you need... or you can buy the whole series here.


Links to the individual lectures can be found here...


Goshawk hunts in slow motion

Great video reference...