Art Journal 002: Animation & Comics

Animation is a very powerful artistic tool, being able to create the illusion of life from shifting shapes opens a door to a universe of possibility: you're not bound by actors, props, location, time, weight, space or anything; you're creating it all and you can create anything your imagination can conjure, and people can see it come to life right before their eyes! On the other hand, not being bound by any sort of limitations means it's very easy to get lost in that vast universe, to go astray and create something so unbound that people can't relate to it or follow it at all.  You can do anything, which is why it's very important to have an internal navigator to guide you and lead you towards meaningful choices.  

Not being bound by real life isn't necessarily total liberation from real life, because real life is what colors our entire worldly understanding- we understand depth, we understand weight, space, time, motion, momentum and fluidity, and as viewers we have a much easier time digesting animation when the rules are bent within the realm of understanding that we grew up with; that heavy things have a heft to them, that dramatic changes in speed wind up or compress, that we stretch and squish to create the illusion that what we're seeing could be real, even though it isn't.  Creating the illusion isn't merely bending or breaking the rules on our end, we need to consider how the viewer's brain will unpack what we're packing.

The .gif format is my favorite format, personally. I've been experimenting with looping animation sequences for years, dating back to an old TI-82 I had in high school: it could store six image files so I would meticulously create duotone pixel art, save it, make changes and save as another file and then write a program that printed the six images in sequence, creating my first early animation (my earliest loop was a very basic battle scene inspired by Goldeneye 007, the N64 game). I spent years experimenting with looping animation- always inspired by the games I was playing- to see how I can make something end in a way that feeds directly into how it starts and not simply terminate upon completion, and when I started making comics for the Internet these experiments would inevitably find their way into the formula.  And like animation, comics have their own set of rules.  They don't enjoy the luxury of showing every minute element of motion and life to the viewer, but on that same note they don't require the artist to create every moment frame by frame. The way time flows between and within the panels is the power of comics, to create motion and depth where there is none; to feed the mind enough information that it can fill in the gaps and make unmoving art come alive. Adding animation to this formula requires very delicate hands, because if you want to add motion you'll want it to be meaningful and if you do add motion you don't want it to eclipse the inherent power of comics.

This week I'd like to talk about the curious intersection of animation and sequential art. A lot of what I've learned came from trial & error and experimentation, and I've developed a couple guidelines anyone can follow to add a splash of motion to the unique format of comics, or to explore your own way of playing with the concept. I'm gonna do it bullet-point style, so with your kind permission here are my five personal rules to adding animation to my comics:

1)  Preserve the narrative flow of your comic. My absolute number-one rule when I approach animating a strip is "the comic must be able to flow without the animation I'm adding".  It seems sort of paradoxical to start a project by figuring out how to keep your efforts unnecessary but because of the conflicting natures of how comics and animation works this is an absolutely crucial first step.  If the flow of your comic depends on using the motion you're adding then the whole strength of a comic is propped up on a crutch and it fails at its absolute most fundamental purpose in being a comic at all. Animation in a comic is best thought of as a highlight or an underscore, giving extra power to a particular panel or moment, rather than the core means of presenting that moment.  Animation is a spotlight, not a stage, and if the comic doesn't work without it then the comic doesn't work.

2)  Figure out what you want your animation to "do".  Every time I put animation into my comic I want it to do something different, but I always try to outline what it's actually doing before I dive into rigging it to work. Excluding the 100-page comics my objectives in order have been: "blurry unconsciousness vision" (p.120), "subtle finger-twitching" (p.135), "channel-surfing TV static" (p.163), "police sirens pulling you over" (p.228), "jolt of sharp internal pain" (p.282), "the threshold of madness" (p.322), "fun with a flashlight" (p.358), "power outage" (p.388), "eye-catching glint of light" (p.458), "the panel flow itself" (p.460), "driving fast to loud music" (p.476), "stereoscopic 3D without the glasses" (p.478), "foreshadowing" (p.499), "explosive force of impact" (p.518) and "sweating bullets" (p.533). They're all abstract concepts and they all mostly involve cycling layers or controlling opacity but they all have a specific meaning behind them.  Some are subtle, others are overt, but they're all planned for in the base, static comic art. The underlying art will still sell the concept but adding these bits of animation make the frames they're in have more impact.

3)  Plan how you actually intend to execute your idea.  This one might seem obvious on its face but it's easy to have big plans and when it comes time to make it happen you realize you dug yourself in a bit deeper than you planned.  I use Photoshop for all of my animation because I'm familiar with the tools.  For a lot of tricks I'll just use extra layers I turn on and off, or raise & lower the opacity on- this is an easy way to wrangle anything involving light.  For human figure animations I'll maybe have an eyelid or a tense mouth painted over on a layer above my art and just turn it on and off, or if it's something like fingers moving I'll separate the whole hand into its own layer cut out from the base art and cycle variants of that hand from frame to frame wherever I want.  For more complex bits like bobbing heads and bodies compressing I'll make copies of my entire figures, use a lasso tool to select areas and rotate or distort them with the Transform tool and then paint over the gaps in each frame.  For the most complex animation- and I've only started going this far recently- I'll actually draw and tween each individual frame on their own layers just like in traditional animation.  If you work in Photoshop, make generous use of Layer Groups (ctrl/cmd+G), they're folders in your layer window and they are an absolute savior.  The more animation you make the more tricks you learn, and the more tricks you learn the more ambitious animations you can attempt. Also worth noting: you can set up a layer mask on a Layer Group so if you slide something outside of your set boundaries- like off of a panel- it will become invisible and not overlap your other non-animated panels. It's a very handy tool for organizing your pieces and making your life easier.

4) Think mathematically, think Imperial!  Timing is important.  I prefer to use Photoshop's Filmstrip mode (when you open the Animation tab there's a button in the lower right which turns it into a frame-by-frame filmstrip) since I grew up learning with Ulead GIF Animator but I also find it's more intuitive for the sort of looping sequences you'd use in a comic.  When I pace out an animation sequence I like to think in Base 12 rather than Base 10, or Inches instead of Centimeters.  The advantage of working in Base 12 is there is more room for you to rig subloops of animation together and get them to synchronize by the time you reach the end of your sequence.  The way it works is like this:  Base 10 is evenly divisible by 2, 5 and 10, meaning if you have a two-frame loop, a five-frame loop and a 10-frame loop within an animation cycle you can add them all to the same animation and by the 10th frame you'll be able to seamlessly loop back to the start; but when you work in Base 12 you can divide by 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12! Not everything is going to move at the same pace, so if you have a two-frame light flicker, a three-frame walk cycle next to a four-frame walk cycle with both a six- and twelve-frame environmental loop playing in the background, you can coincide all of those things in one 12-frame loop and the viewer will see a lot more diversity than if you just based your timing in 2, 5 and 10.  As a rule three frames is a good minimum to work with, it'll look a lot less jarring than two frames and is the minimum number of frames needed to give an animation a specific direction of motion.

5) Cover up your seams wherever you can.  Part of the trick of getting something to loop endlessly is to make sure it doesn't have any moments that feel like an "end".  If you have a sequence that takes twelve frames, make sure frames 11, 12 and 1 flow as if they were frames 1, 2 and 3.  Sometimes this involves going back to your first frame and making adjustments to account for your last frame and sometimes you're adjusting the last three or four frames to make sure they align with the first, but however you need to do it it's very useful to blur the distinction between "beginning" and "end" when you're working in perpetual motion.  This is a simple rule as well but when you have a row of frames it's easy to think of the first and last as being distant because their graphical representations in your toolkit are distant, so it's worth mentioning to make sure those two ends blend together the same as any other two frames.

Those are the five rules I always keep in mind whenever I approach animating a comic- the five fingers of your right (or left!) hand, to borrow a graffiti term.  Bend them, but don't break them, and they'll help you navigate the crossroads of motion and implied motion, of speed and stillness.  Always remember: if you're making comics, you're making comics, not cartoons.  Err on the side of sequential panelwork rather than on the function of your animation.  At least, that's what I tell myself whenever I'm animating a page.

Thanks for your support, good luck and have a nice day!

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