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How to Animate Character "Takes"

By Morgan Williams
After EffectsPhotoshopIllustrator

Character animation is about more than just movement. You have to tell a story with every look and sell emotion in just a few frames. That's why a character take is so important!

Classic cartoon “takes” - while fun and useful to character animators in and of themselves - contain elements and formulas that can also improve the kinds of subtle animations more typical of explainer videos and other character-based motion design work.
MKT-1952_Animating-Character-Takes-20200827-Article.jpg
Let’s first learn how to create a “take”, and then look at some ways we can use the “take formula” to improve some more common, more subtle animations you may find yourself encountering.
If you want to dig into the Mogran rig and the animations created for this article, download the collected After Effects project folder here.

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Defining Terms

Takes

A classic cartoon “take” is really just an extreme reaction.  When we think of this kind of reaction in cartoons, we usually think of something crazy and exaggerated like this:
animating-character-takes-1.gif
Tiny Toon Adventures - Warner Bros. Animation and Amblin Entertainment
But a “take” can also be more subtle, like this less over the top reaction:
animating-character-takes-2.gif
Daffy Duck - Warner Bros. Animation
The most common emotion we see in the classic “take” is surprise, but a “take” can really be any kind of emotional reaction.  Here’s a “happy take”:
animating-character-takes-3.gif
Spongebob Squarepants - Nickelodeon
And here’s a “scared take”:
animating-character-takes-4.gif
The Amazing World of Gumball - Cartoon Network
Takes can even express very subtle emotional reactions like this “pleading take”:
animating-character-takes-5.gif
Tamako Market - by Kyoto Animation

Accents

A more general term in animation similar to an accent in music. It’s a moment of punctuation in the animation. Accents can be “hard” or “soft”. “Takes” usually employ “hard” accents. Hard accents are not necessarily moments we clearly see, sometimes an accent is more “felt” than seen. There’s three distinct accents in the series of takes below. Note in particular right when the racoon jumps up on the rock. There’s a little “pop” there that we barely see, but we definitely  “feel”. That “pop” is the “accent”. What we clearly see is him “settle” back to just sitting on the rock.  See if you can pick out all three accents!
animating-character-takes-6.gif
Animaniacs - Warner Bros. Animation and Amblin Entertainment

The 4 Basic Poses

Whether you’re animating a crazy or more subtle “take”, there are 4 basic poses in the typical “take” formula.  Now keep in mind that once you learn the structure of “takes”, you’ll be free to bend or break these “rules” as needed.  But it’s always important to completely understand the rules before we start to mess with them.
The 4 Basic Poses are:
  • Start
  • Anticipation
  • Accent
  • Settle
Also note that when we animate characters, we want to use the “pose to pose” method in almost every case.  If you’re unfamiliar with the “pose to pose” method, I recommend taking my Character Animation Bootcamp course here at School Of Motion to learn the basics of working with characters.

A Simple Take

Let’s have our character “Mogran” here demonstrate our basic “take” poses.  (You know, that Mogran character reminds me of someone…) This handsome collection of shapes is brought to you by the incredible Alex Pope!
animating-character-takes-7.png
1. Start - after the character has seen, heard or experienced something.
animating-character-takes-8.png
2. Anticipation - which is of course one of the 12 principles of animation!  Note that this pose is the “opposite” of the next pose.  Mogran’s head is down, the shoulders are up, the eyes are closed.  Remember an “anticipation” is a smaller movement in the opposite direction of a larger movement to come.
animating-character-takes-9.png
3. Accent - This is the main action of the “take” and the most exaggerated version of the expression we’re communicating with the “take”.  Note that Mogran’s head is up, the shoulders down, and the eyes are open.  As mentioned before, in many cases we’ll “feel” this pose more than we’ll clearly “see” it as we’ll just “pop” to this pose quickly before moving to the next pose.
animating-character-takes-a1.png
4. Settle - This is a less exaggerated version of the accent pose.  This is the pose that the audience will really “read” clearly as the new emotion or attitude of the character after the “take” accent has happened.
There are of course countless variations on this basic formula.  Let’s take a look at just a few...

Side Take (with head turn)

A take that includes a turn of the head is usually called a “side take”:
animating-character-takes-a2.png
1. Start
animating-character-takes-a3.png
2. Anticipation - Note we’re turning Mogran’s head in the opposite direction of the next pose.
animating-character-takes-a4.png
3. Accent
animating-character-takes-a5.png
4. Settle

Full Body Take

We can expand the “take” poses to include the entire body of the character for a more dramatic version of the “take”:
animating-character-takes-a6.png
1. Start
animating-character-takes-a7.png
2. Anticipation
animating-character-takes-a8.png
3. Accent
animating-character-takes-a9.png
4. Settle

Timing a Take

As with the poses, there’s a lot of potential variation when it comes to timing our take poses, but there are some basic formulas we can use as a starting point.  The general idea is to exaggerate the eases into and out of the anticipation pose and “pop” into and out of the “accent” pose.

Basic Timing 1

Here’s our first set of take key poses fully animated using a basic timing formula:
animating-character-takes-b1.gif
Here is the motion graph of this animation.  Note that this is the speed graph rather than the value graph:
animating-character-takes-b2.png
Now let's break down this timing:
  • About a 33% ease out of pose #1 (start)
  • About a 90% ease in to pose #2 (anticipation).  4 frames @ 24FPS.
  • About a 90% ease out of pose #2 (anticipation)
  • Into a linear keyframe at pose #3 (accent).  7 frames @ 24FPS.
  • Linear keyframe out of pose #3 (accent).
  • About a 70% ease in to pose #4 (settle).  7 frames @ 24FPS.

Basic Timing 2

Here’s just one variation on the basic timing that’s more of a “Warner Brothers” style.  In this version, Mogran literally “pops” from the anticipation to the accent with no frames in between.  You can see it’s much more “punchy” and cartoony:
animating-character-takes-b3.gif
Here’s the speed graph of this animation:
animating-character-takes-b4.png
Let’s break it down:
  • About a 33% ease out of pose #1 (start)
  • About a 90% ease in to pose #2 (anticipation).  6 frames @ 24FPS - note that we spend more time on the anticipation due to the “pop” to the accent.
  • Pop to pose #3 (accent).  1 frame @ 24FPS.
  • Linear keyframe out of pose #3 (accent).
  • About a 70% ease in to pose #4 (settle).  7 frames @ 24FPS.
Now, again, there are endless variations on these basic timing formulas.  Use these examples as a starting point and then experiment with the poses and timing to get the performance you’re looking for.

Take Variations

Just as there are many ways to think about timing a take, there are many possibilities for the take itself.  Let’s again just look at a few of those.

Adding anticipation to the anticipation

In this variation, by adding an “anticipation to the anticipation” we give the character an extra pose to more fully absorb whatever it is they're reacting to before the “take”.
animating-character-takes-b5.png
1. Start
animating-character-takes-b6.png
2. Anticipation to the anticipation - i.e Mogran moves forward, closer to whatever it is he’s reacting to.
animating-character-takes-b7.png
3. Anticipation
animating-character-takes-b8.png
4. Accent
animating-character-takes-b9.png
5. Settle
Breakdown of timing
  • About a 33% ease out of pose #1 (start)
  • About a 90% ease in to pose #2 (anticipation to the anticipation).  12 frames @ 24FPS
  • About a 33% ease out of pose #2
  • About a 90% ease in to pose #3 (anticipation).  4 frames @ 24FPS.
  • About a 90% ease out of pose #3 (anticipation)
  • Into a linear keyframe at pose #4 (accent).  7 frames @ 24FPS.
  • Linear keyframe out of pose #4 (accent).
  • About a 70% ease in to pose #5 (settle).  7 frames @ 24FPS.
animating-character-takes-c1.gif

Double Takes

A “double take” is where the head shakes back and forth as we move from the anticipation to the accent to exaggerate the reaction:
animating-character-takes-c2.png
1. Start
animating-character-takes-c3.png
2. Anticipation - note that Mogran’s head turns away from whatever he’s reacting to.
animating-character-takes-c4.png
3. Head turn 1 - now Mogran turns back again as the head starts to come up.
animating-character-takes-c5.png
4. Head turn 2 - The head turns away again right before the accent.
animating-character-takes-c6.png
5. Accent
animating-character-takes-c7.png
6. Settle
Breakdown of timing:
  • About a 33% ease out of pose #1 (start)
  • About a 90% ease in to pose #2 (anticipation).  4 frames @ 24FPS.
  • About a 90% ease out of pose #2 (anticipation)
  • During the animation from pose #2 to pose #5, insert head turn poses #3 & #4 spaced 3 frames apart.  About 33% ease out on the head turn out of #2, auto bezier keyframes into and out of the head turns #3 & #4, about 33% ease in on the head turn into #5.
  • Into a linear keyframe at pose #5 (accent).  9 frames @ 24FPS.
  • Linear keyframe out of pose #5 (accent).
  • About a 70% ease in to pose #6 (settle).  7 frames @ 24FPS.
animating-character-takes-c8.gif

Holding the Accent

This is a common variation - we can see a perfect example in the very first Tiny Toon gif at the top of the article - where we create a “moving hold” (a pose “held” with just a small amount of movement to keep it alive) on the accent pose instead of just popping in and out of it.  In this variation, the accent is more “seen” than “felt” as with a more basic “take”.  This variation tends to work better with “negative” emotions like fear or anger:
Breakdown of 5 poses
animating-character-takes-d1.png
1. Start
animating-character-takes-d2.png
2. Anticipation
animating-character-takes-d3.png
3. Accent #1
animating-character-takes-d4.png
4. Accent #2 - in this case a slightly less extreme version of the first accent pose to create a kind of “vibration” between the two for our “moving hold”.
animating-character-takes-d5.png
5. Settle
Breakdown of timing
  • About a 33% ease out of pose #1 (start)
  • About a 90% ease in to pose #2 (anticipation).  4 frames @ 24FPS.
  • About a 90% ease out of pose #2 (anticipation)
  • Into a linear keyframe at pose #3 (accent #1).  7 frames @ 24FPS.
  • Alternate between pose #3 and pose #4 4X (or more) with linear keyframes and 2 frames between each pose.
  • Linear keyframe out of pose #3 (accent).
  • About a 70% ease in to pose #4 (settle).  7 frames @ 24FPS.
animating-character-takes-d6.gif

All of the above!

We can actually take all of the variations above and combine them together for a more fancy “take”:
animating-character-takes-d7.gif

Adapting the take formula to more subtle animations

As a motion designer, you may not have as many opportunities for the kind of more exaggerated takes we’ve been breaking down here, but when animating characters for explainer videos or other character based motion design work, you will probably need to create some of the more subtle animations described below.  Note how we can employ these basic “take formulas” we’ve learned to these more subtle types of animation to make them stronger and make our characters feel more alive!

Blinks

Even something as minimal as a blink can be strengthened with the basic “take formula”.
1. Plain Blink - Let’s start with a plain blink, with only Mogran’s eyes animated.  Note that the movement is not very strong, we barely see the movement when the little eyes - a very small part of the image of the character - are the only thing in motion:
animating-character-takes-e1.gif
2. Blink with Anticipation - Now, let’s add just one element of our take - the “anticipation”.  If we treat the blink itself as an “anticipation” of the eyes being opened and add some head motion to that anticipation, we get a much stronger version of our eyeblink:
animating-character-takes-e2.gif
3. Blink with Anticipation and Accent - Now let’s add an “accent” to our blink, as if this blink were really a reaction to something - which some blinks actually are.  So when the eyes open, we go to a slightly more exaggerated version of the main pose, with the head up a bit, the eyes open a little more than normal, and then “settle” to our starting pose.  We’re using the same kind of timing formula here as we did in our basic “take”, with a “pop” into and out of the accent.  Note now how we have a much stronger, more demonstrative blink - but it’s still just a blink.  We haven’t lost the subtlety, we’ve just gained more communication to our audience and a greater sense of the character being alive even when just standing and blinking.
animating-character-takes-e3.gif

Head Turns

A simple head turn is actually a kind of reaction- we turn to see something or someone we hear or to watch something going by, etc. Just as with our blink we can strengthen a simple head turn by adding elements of the “take”:
1. Plain Head Turn - Once again, let’s start with just a plain head turn.  We get the idea that Mogran is turning his head, but it’s pretty stiff and uninteresting and doesn’t really draw the eye of the viewer.
animating-character-takes-e4.gif
2. Head Turn with Anticipation - Now let’s add just an anticipation - so we’re going to treat the middle of the head turn as the “anticipation” of the head being completely turned.  We’ll dip the head down to anticipate it coming up to look the other way, and close the eyes to anticipate the eyes looking the other way.  Note how much stronger we’ve already made this head turn.  As a viewer, we’re much more drawn to follow this turn to see what Mogran is seeing:
animating-character-takes-e5.gif
3. Head Turn with Anticipation and Accent - Now let’s add our “accent” so the head and eyes pop up a little bit after the turn before settling to our final “turned” pose.  Note how clear and communicative this turn is compared to where we started.  We really feel the consciousness of the character as he reacts by turning his head:
animating-character-takes-e6.gif

Emotional Change

We started this article by talking about how “takes” were exaggerated reactions.  When a character’s emotion or attitude changes, it is always in reaction to some stimuli, and most “takes” include a change or heightening of an emotional state.  With a more subtle animation of a character’s emotion or attitude changing, we can also employ the “take formula” to make this kind of performance stronger, without going all the way to a full, exaggerated “take”.
1. Plain Emotion Change - So let’s start with our Mogran character just going from a sad attitude to a happy attitude.  We get what’s going on here, but it isn’t much of a performance - it feels pretty stiff and mechanical.
animating-character-takes-f1.gif
2. Emotion Change with Anticipation - Now let’s add that anticipation in the middle of the emotional change.  We’re again going to dip the head and close the eyes to “anticipate” the new emotion.  Note how much we’ve gained just by adding this anticipation:
animating-character-takes-f2.gif
3. Emotion Change with Anticipation and Accent - Now we’ll add the accent again.  Note how we’re really calling attention to Mogran’s new, happier attitude with the subtle accent on his happy pose.  Again, we feel more of a sense of the consciousness of the character as his emotion changes.
animating-character-takes-f3.gif

Putting It All Together

Now we can combine an accented head turn to “see” something with a more exaggerated “take” to react to what has been seen:
animating-character-takes-f4.gif
The “take formula” and the use of accents is so useful for enhancing both exaggerated and subtle character reactions and actions.  Once you master the basics, play around with variations and the poses and timings we’ve discussed here to create exactly the performance you need for your animation.  Remember that animation is a performing art, and our goal as character animators is to make our characters live and breathe and think and feel through their performances.  Takes and accents can really help bring your characters to life!

Continue Your Journey

Want to learn more? Are you ready to dive into the world of rigging and character animation?  Check out Morgan’s two courses, Rigging Academy and Character Animation Bootcamp!
Not sure what to take? Have a look at our full course list and decide what you want to learn next~