One of the things I get asked about quite often from new animators is “how do you come up with good acting ideas”.

My answer, of course, is “you think my acting ideas are good? aww, shucks!”

Actually, coming up with ideas is one of my favorite parts of the animation process. It’s something I think a lot of animators don’t spend enough time focusing on in the beginning of the shot-making process. They’ll usually spend a few minutes thumbnailing ideas, maybe acting things out in video reference, but they won’t really explore the multitude of possibilities. This is especially the case in production where you usually have a very limited amount of time to work on your shots.

What I recommend is trying to set aside some specific time to think about all the various things your characters can do before you even start thumbnailing or shooting video reference.  One way to do this that I heard about from legendary animator Simon Otto is to play the game of “What If”.

What is this magic game, you ask?  Simple.  It’s a technique used to help you free your mind (woah) and think of all the potential possibilities of any situation.  Let’s say, for example, you have a shot where your character has to tie their shoe.  You can either animate the character bending over to tie the shoe and be done with it.. or you can make it really special.

Here’s one way it could go.

What if the character were really old?  What if when they bent down to tie their shoe, their back went out?  What if they were then frozen halfway between standing up and sitting down?  What if just at that moment, a really beautiful woman walked by?  What if they tried to stand up, but only hurt themselves further?  What if they fell over?  What if they didn’t fall over, but fell on the beautiful woman?  What if instead of a beautiful woman coming by, their bus came?  What if A bus came, but they couldn’t tell what bus number it was?  What if they were trying to read the bus number?  What if the bus door closed, just as they realized it was their bus?  What if they were trying to run after the bus, but then tripped on their shoelase?

See how it goes?  Your mind just starts going crazy!  The cool thing is that many of the ideas won’t really be useful, but the exploration, the exercise of opening your mind most definitely will be.

So along with exploring the idea of playing “what if”, I’ve also been looking at using various mind mapping tools to do it.  If you’ve never used a mind mapping tool, they’re pretty cool.  Basicaly a mind map is a diagram representing a series of ideas or thoughts.  Check out more about them on wikipedia.  I’ve been looking into using them to play “what if”.  It’s actually really fun!

As a test, I spent 5 minutes on coming up with a quick mindmap for an example where someone drinks a cup of coffee.


As you can see, some paths I explored more than others.  It’s a pretty rediculous situation, but it does a really nice job of letting your mind kind of explore all options.  The cool thing is that you can really adjust the granularity to whatever makes the most sense for your situation.  For example, with the bending down to tie the shoe exercise, you can simply do:


See?  Some much more simple options.

In the end, you may end up making the exact same choices you would have made without this exercise, but at least if you do, you will know that you explored other options and really came up with the best solution.

Ah, and as an added bonus.. here’s a really cool blog conveniently titled.. “what if”.  It’s got some fun ideas, I recommend checking it out!


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