Since I was a little kid I had the desire to tell stories and entertain people. In my adolescence, I discovered the animation portal Newgrounds and fell in love with animation as a storytelling medium, with its wacky, exaggerated possibilities for comedic timing, as well as the whole do-it-yourself vibe of early flash animation. I saw a possibility for self-expression combined with the potential of entertaining others. I knew it instantly: This is my medium!
Fast-forward 10 years — I am a studied computer scientist and make a living as a front-end developer. “What went wrong?”, you may ask — Nothing, really. I like programming, hanging out with computers and talking about techie stuff with colleagues and friends. Still, there came a time, sometimes around February last year, it was a long period of grey days, where I started feeling unfulfilled.
As I was reminiscing about my past, probably after watching a Hayao Miyazaki film, this old dream came back into my mind. I knew it was there all the time, yearning, I was just putting it off until later. But all men must die, and life is too short to pursue every dream, so I felt the urge to act now or forget it forever!
Some time before I found out about the 100-day challenge in a Medium article about 100 portraits of Nicolas Cage, and now was a perfect moment to accept the challenge. I decided I would do 100 walk cycles in 100 days. If I fail completely, or totally hate what I’m doing half-way through, I would throw in the towel on this dream and look back, knowing, it is nothing for me. If I’d be successful, at least I’d have already something to show for, to point people to. Thus began my endeavor…
Every big undertaking starts with the first step. And so I started with my first walk cycle, drawn purely from my head, without thinking too much about it. The good thing about starting out and with such daily challenges in general, it doesn’t have to be good, you just have to do it.
Now I had a reference point. Without the challenge in my back, I could’ve just said: “That’s it! I’m done. Moving on to the next. Check it off the list.”
Instead with the first achievement in my bag, I wanted to find out how to improve upon that and compare my first walk cycle to the academic perspective of how a walk cycle should be constructed. So I scoured through my extensive library of PDF’s on animation lying on my old hard drives, which I probably downloaded when I first wanted to learn animation but never bothered to read.
What I’ve found was something, that would soon reveal itself to me as the holy grail of animation knowledge: “The Animator’s Survival Kit” from Richard Williams. A first look inside brought to light that it consists of a lot of walk cycles, probably half of the book, if not more. That’s a lot of walk cycles, I thought. What could you possibly want with so many walk cycles?
One can actually learn a lot about a character, just based on its walk alone. You can read the mood of the person, their weight, their physical constitution, their intentions and sometimes even specific character traits. It doesn’t even need to be a completely rendered out person, it can be achieved even with simple figures.
The next day I studied a basic walk cycle from the “The Animator’s Survival Kit”. It was an inconvenient process reading of the screen, then switching back to the drawing application to draw, but this is what came out as my first walk cycle with the help of the book.
You can see, it was already a big improvement over my first one. It has more structure, more weight, it’s more dynamic and fluid. I knew instantly, I needed a physical copy of that book. Not only to make my animation process less cumbersome but also because I liked everything about it. It’s well written and simple to follow. The instructions to do the drawings could be followed by a kid, at the same time it mediates some advanced topics of animation. But it always stays down to earth and never sounds in any way pretentious. You will feel like a fellow animator learning from one of the industries greatest.
Long story short — I purchased the book from Amazon. If you want to try animation out you should definitely get that one, even with no prior experience. If you have already done some animations, but are not a proud owner of the book, you should probably get it, too. By the way one of Richard Williams’ animated movies, Prologue, was nominated this year for an Oscar. He didn’t win this time, but he won one for “Who framed Roger Rabbit?”.
The next two days I continued doing basic walk cycles and studying the physical copy of the book. When this got boring I started to try out special walk cycles, like sneaking, running or walking sexy or just silly ones to exaggerate some specific aspect.
I also started to study walks from other animated movies, like Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”.
This is probably a good time to break apart my chronological story and lose a few words about my process and the hardware & software I used.
The Animation Routine
You can read about the soft- and hardware I used for animation in this post, so I’m going to tell you a little bit more about my usual process.
Since I usually have to work or do other things, like most people, I don’t have unlimited time available during the day. But don’t let that fool you into thinking you have no time. There is always some time. Do you watch TV, or check Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr for half an hour? Take something off that time, you will be happier in the end. Or, you know, neglect your family and friends, who needs them anyway. Just kidding.
What I’m trying to say is that time constraints are often a good fuel for creativity. Only when creativity is constrained, it can thrive. Therefore I usually set myself a time limit of one hour. On some days I only had as little as 15 minutes, so I went with that, on other days, like weekends, I wouldn’t constrain myself so it took a few hours. The funny thing is that if it took over an hour it usually was not qualitatively better than when I needed exactly an hour. When there is no pressure to finish it on time, one is often indulged in doodling around or creating the right brush, for several hours, or other completely off-topic things that don’t have that much influence on the end result. Ergo, better stick with a time limit.
Before starting I usually already had a rough idea of what kind of cycle I wanted to do in my head. But sometimes I didn’t, which made me anxious about starting. That shouldn’t stop one from doing something. Even if it’s the same thing you did yesterday, it’s still better than breaking the chain. When you do something, it will stimulate your brain so you may come up with a better idea for the next day (or the same day if you have enough time and motivation). If it doesn’t it may still be better than what you did last day. If it is not. Well. Screw it. Move on! Everybody has bad days. There were days, even 60 days in, where I felt like I’m holding a pencil for the first time in my life. Were I couldn’t even draw a simple stick figure with humanly proportions. I hated those days, but you have to tell yourself, that it’s going to get better.
Sometimes looking back on those days I don’t even see, that I was not in top form. Even one of my favorite animations came out of such a day.
Often it is just our own perception and mood that colors the judgement of our ability.
After about 42 days, my streak broke. Partly it was because I spent a few consecutive days on a single animation. Also I was wasting time on doodling around and not focusing on finishing just the single animation. What’s the big deal, I thought at first, one missed day. That’s exactly the mindset that sets you up for failing. Breaking the chain usually does that. It lets you get complacent. It feels as if a magic bond was broken. It’s the same thing when you skip a class, and the next time you have to decide, you’re more likely to do it again, because you think, what’s the harm, it didn’t hurt me last time. Probably also the same phenomenon with most other things like eating healthy, stopping to smoke, drinking only one drink, getting fit, and every other habit you know you’d like to have or get rid of.
So, let me tell you this, and by you, I’m also referring to me — breaking the chain is a big deal. It’s the deciding factor between failure and success. The hardest part is not keeping up the streak, but continuing after you once interrupted it. If you don’t have enough motivation one day — do it quick and dirty, or you’re just betraying yourself. Your future self.
After I broke the chain I started to produce slower, at first I was just missing a few days, but suddenly almost months have gone past until the next animation. Other chores of daily life crept in and it suddenly did not feel important anymore. In my head, it already felt like a failure, although I didn’t officially give up and was having fun doing it. So there were several attempts to restart. Some of the time I wished someone would be there to push me to finish it. Often you have to rely on yourself for that. You should be a person that cannot stand to let yourself down. Be your own boss. But always know: you can’t fire yourself. So, don’t burn yourself out.
It took me until December to decide that I seriously wanted to finish it at the end of the year. The days were running out, and I had to do a drawing every day or I would fail. I pulled myself together, took a big sheet of paper, drew 30 boxes on it and ticked one of every day. Wasn’t easy with the holidays around.
I finished the 100, eventually.
On 10th January.
Conclusion — What did I learn from all of this?
Principles of animation. I haven’t talked much about the technicalities of animation in this article, but I learned quite a lot about timing, spacing, squash & stretch, bounce, anticipation, you name it. I already found use cases where I can apply this knowledge in my current line of work, in web animations for example. If you have further interest in web animation, I can recommend you the Web Animation Weekly newsletter by Rachel Nabors and the slack community created by her.
Planning in animation is key. Animation is like a game of “Whisper down the lane” or “Stille Post” (in German). When you start out without some guides your last frame will have other proportions. Even in short animations when you don’t plan your walk cycle accordingly you are going to end up with something different. But that’s part of the fun sometimes!
Discipline is important. Don’t break the chain and you can achieve anything!
Appreciation for the art form. I can appreciate animation even more now, especially frame by frame, traditional animation and also stop-motion animation.
100 day challenges can be long. At least if you break the chain. You can pick an arbitrary number of days actually. I also tried a 30 day challenge once. Those can be as effective. If you want a habit that sticks forever, you don’t need a challenge for it.
There’s so much more to learn! I still have to get better at perspective drawing, figure drawing, special effects drawing like water splashes or fire and so on!
People will approach you. When you do something long enough people will want to collaborate with you. Ask you for advice. So if you have a dream of doing something, stop procrastinating and start doing it for a week, a month or 100 days.
Am I an Animator now?
I’d sure like the sound of that. But calling myself an animator is probably an insult to anyone who studied it for 3 or more years. I’m as much an animator as Skrillex is a classically trained musician. I’d probably label myself that after I completed at least a short movie or was part of something commercially viable as an animator.
Speaking of commercially viable — I’d sure like to work with you if you’re looking for someone with some animation knowledge in the realm of web animation, games or entertainment. Or, if you are someone with much greater animation knowledge — a mentor! If my programming skills wouldn’t go to waste would be even better.
What’s your childhood dream you were always too afraid to try? Write a response and share your story, if you like!
Finally, here’s a video of most of the animations!
Inspired to start drawing yourself? I’ve written about the right apps to get you started:
And one last thing…
Get the Animations Assets on Gumroad… and use it for whatever you like!
I’ve compiled all my 100 animations into a bundle that you can buy on Gumroad and use for whatever you like, even commercially.
I imagine it being a great resource for:
Game Creators: Quickly trace over a walk or run cycle and create your own sprites based on it.
Animators: As reference, for learning or inspiration
GIF enthusiasts: Like to use a GIF for a social media post, or something similar? Go for it!
Video Content Producers: Put some effects on those animations, cut them into your videos or just use them as is. Knock yourself out!
Writers, Bloggers: Use corresponding GIFs or video to get your message across!
The bundle consists of:
- PNG sequence (in 24fps) of all the animations
- Original PSD for most of the animations (except those made with Krita)
- MP4-Video file of all the animations (h264 encoded)
You get all of the animations for just $30. That’s less than 30 cent for every hour of my time spent animating! (not counting in all the post-production and bundling time).