centre for animation & interactive media

Animation Notes #6
Pose to Pose Animation
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Animation techniques such as cut-outs, clay, paint-on-glass, charcoal on paper etc, make use of a method loosely described as ‘straight-ahead animation' in which the animator starts at the beginning of a sequence and works through to the end. This method is often dictated by the medium which animator is using to create images - the paint or sand, or objects being manipulated. It is a technique which can produce great moments of inspired spontaneity. Ideas come as one plays around with the medium and these can be easily incorporated into the sequence mid-stream without the audience being any the wiser. The animated films of William Kentridge who draws with charcoal on larges sheets of paper are examples of this method. Drawing straight in to Flash with a graphics tablet using the 'light box' or 'onion skin' tool can also employ a ‘straight-ahead' animation method.

But what happens if our cut-outs or clay character misses its cue? Once the parts have been moved, the painted image smudged and destroyed or the plasticine deformed, it is extremely difficult to go back and correct mistakes. A completely different way of working to help solve this problem is the ‘key drawing’ animation method, also called 'pose to pose' animation.

'Key poses', ‘key drawings’ or just 'keys' are terms used to describe those critical positions of an animated character or an object which depict the extreme points in its path of motion, or accents in its expression or mood. For this reason they are also called 'extremes'.

This method of animating from one pose to the next, hence the term 'pose to pose' animation, allows the animator to map out the action in advance with ‘sign posts’ by charting up these key poses onto ‘exposure sheets’ or ‘dope sheets’, or indeed into the timeline of computer software. It is a particularly useful animation method when a character must perform certain tasks within a predetermined time or where a series of actions must synchronise accurately with a recorded sound track. The technique helps ensure that characters arrive at a particular place on screen at a precise point in time.

The ‘key pose’ technique is still the most widely used method of animating. It is also the method of choice within most 2D and 3D digital animation packages these days. Sequences can be tested and individual poses can be re-worked and the animation progressively improved. The exposure sheet or timeline is continually revised to provide an accurate record of how the animation is to be photographed or rendered. This production method also provides a logical way of breaking down work so that it can be handed on to other people in the production chain.

When developing key poses, its a good idea to experiment with thumb-nail sketches first to refine the poses and ideas. Initially, the animator’s key poses may be nothing more than rough scribbles to block out the action. This is often done with a blue pencil. There is no point doing lots and lots of highly finished drawings at this stage if the action does not work. Besides, working roughly and quickly sketching out the main shapes, forms and lines of action knowing that these drawings are just a first step in a bigger process, always leads to fresher animation.
An illustration showing how an animator might work in rough scribbles to find the key masses and shapes and then to refine various lines of action to give the drawing purpose and intent before finally fleshing in the character's final form.
This sequence is from Dann Dann the Dunny Man and is used with the kind permission of past graduate, Peter Viska, Viskatoons.

This is a fine example of working rough to get key poses sorted to describe the action in an expressive manner. This character is handled in a very dynamic way using lots of exaggeration, anticipation and squash and stretch. It also demonstrates how such tests can block out the action in both space and time.

"It occurred to me years ago that my animation process was a lot like my writing process — the first draft was never as good as what was in my head; the more passes I made, the better it got; repetitive phrasing was bad; clarity was good; specificity and authenticity were paramount, and so on. Both are solitary, time-consuming processes, requiring a solid command of a special language." - Kevin Koch 2007


Obviously when planning a set of key poses for a shot or scene, the animator needs to be acutely aware of the requirements of the script and the particular actions and events that are necessary to progress the storyline. Background layouts will define an 'acting space' while storyboard frames will indicate the 'business' of each shot. What is entirely under the animator's control is the way the character 'acts' out these events as informed by an understanding of the character's personality traits, visual design and current emotional state. The key pose planning process goes hand-in-hand with the idea of staging each action in such a way that it 'reads' well and communicates clearly. Several key drawings might be required to describe the sub-movements involved in even the most simple of actions - taking a pair of socks out of a drawer, for example. If we were to go straight from the first drawing of our character standing by the cupboard to the final position with socks in hand, the result would appear as if a pair of socks had just magically appeared in our hero’s hand. Obviously there is information missing which has to be seen by the audience to explain just how the socks got into the character’s hand.

Roll your mouse back and forth over the character above.

Consider the above information. The story may call for the character to get a pair of socks out of the drawer, but if these are the only poses we use, the effect is of the socks appearing out of thin air. We often need a number of key poses to adequately explain even the simplest of actions.

To tell the full story we need to break down this simple action into several steps. We need to see the character standing by the cupboard, reaching for the drawer, pulling open the drawer, dipping a hand in, and finally extracting the socks. Each of these poses, including squash and stretch, anticipations and any poses which use exaggeration, are treated as a separate ‘key pose.’

Roll you mouse onto the above image to see exactly how those socks got out of the drawer.


Animation usually operates in the realm of caricature in which exaggeration becomes an important factor in order to capture the spirit of the action being depicted. Good strong key poses emphasise and communicate the intent of an action more efficiently than ill-considered ones. Put simply, strong keys lead to strong animation. It is therefore vital to spend time and thought working out the key poses until they do their job as expressively as possible as it will pay dividends as if these work well. "Limited" styles of animation are based on keys only, and this labour saving technique does not necessarily affect the audience's enjoyment of a piece.

Although these drawings are perfectly static, they are nevertheless highly expressive, possessing a dynamic quality that suggests action. Such poses are the beginning of strong animated sequences.

As animators work out the key poses of a particular sequence, they also find it helpful to consider whether or not the action works well if reduced to a silhouette. Staging the action of hands gesturing immediately in front of the body may not be as effective as staging this action in profile where the various shapes and forms can be seen in a way that does not rely on the challenge of drawing complex foreshortening.

Poses should have both function - depicting the physical extreme of an action or setting up the character for an action to follow by loading its 'muscles', and impact - an expressive pose with a dynamic quality that implies what has gone before, what is about to come, and which registers and emphasises the inner emotional state of the character.

Animation is an illusion requiring the audience to suspend its disbelief. The audience can be absolutely engaged within the stories we tell and the world of characters that we create. However the illusion is a very delicate one, and alas, it is all too easy to remind the audience that they are merely looking at a series of drawings, a puppet, or a moving computer model.

To sustain this illusion, in a sense, we also have to infer the physical laws of our animated world in such a way that they are not in conflict with our day-to-day experience of natural laws we observe in the real world. These laws can be represented in an incidental way by how your character moves about its setting. Your key poses, therefore, should also show how the character carries its own weight - is one leg relaxed while the other supports the entire weight of its body? Is the body of the character under some physical strain from carrying, pushing or pulling a heavy object? Perhaps you need shift the character's weight off-centre to counter-balance the object it is carrying. What is its state of balance or indeed unbalance?
Consider the 'line of action', the main mass of the character and and what happens to these masses when your character propels itself from a resting position - there must be at least one firmly locked down a contact point with the ground (usually a foot) so that the forces involved in getting your character moving can be seen to pass through its body to this contact point making the action believable. The slippage of feet upon the ground at inappropriate times, is one sure way of shattering this illusion.

When learning how to animate for the first time, get up out of your chair and act out the action you are trying to represent. Feel where your limbs are space, what you muscles are using, the contact points you have with the stable environment, and how the weight of your body is being supported.

If your all your key poses are correctly thought out and timed, you will have no trouble in getting all your ideas across to an audience. Flick your key drawings from one to the next to ensure that the poses you have chosen work well together. It is usually only after all the key poses of a scene have been timed out on the exposure sheet and tested, that the animator or their assistant returns to add the ‘inbetween’ drawings.

In larger traditional animation studios, these numbered drawings are handed on to an assistant to further clean up and refine according to character model sheets. Once tested, an ‘inbetweener’ adds the required number of drawings between each key pose as prescribed by the animator’s dope sheets. A clean-up artist will tidy up all the drawings ready for tracing. In digital production, a computer software package can inbetween for you, but it does not follow that computer software understands how things move in the real world.

Key poses describe WHAT happens, but not necessarily HOW it happens.

"Sorry. I don't have time to stop and pose for you now. I'm too busy walking"


Roll your mouse back and forth over the character above to study its two key poses.

Consider the way the shapes and forms provide some interesting contrasts in movement. Note the plasticity of its face and that the character appears to remain in balance throughout this action with its feet firmly planted on the floor.


  Roll your mouse back and forth over the character above to study its two key poses.

Poses depicting extremes of exaggeration or distortion, in this case of squash and stretch, need to be considered as key poses too, as these drawings define the limits of these kinds of qualities. There is also an emotional change within this character from one of tiredness and fatigue to bright, sparky and alert.
  Roll you mouse onto the above image.

The nature of the action described in these poses, a jump, necessitates the use of a pose which anticipates the following major action. Anticipation poses are always 'key' poses as they describe the extreme of the movement.
  Roll you mouse onto the above image.

This example shows the effectiveness of an exaggerated pose within a sequence. In this case, a wide open mouth position using lots of stretch provides contrast to the following drawing of the mouth closed. This results in a 'punchy' snap since the difference between the two drawings is so great.
A 30 second television commercial for Devondale Cider, 1978

The brief for this TV commercial was required to visually back up the fact that this apple cider was made from 2.5 pounds of real apples. Some boffin worked out that this was about 8 apples in total. information. The sound track was created first, not only the voice-over, but including the biting and chewing noises of the apples being consumed, and the sound they made when hitting the floor. The sound track was then analysed which dictated when various actions had to occur. The pose-to-pose method of animating was essential in making the action synchronise with all the events imbedded in the sound track.
The above movie contains just the key poses. It is untimed and therefore rushes past quickly, but nevertheless, the story is still being communicated. There are about 70 key poses in this work.

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