Video reference for an animation I worked on in Arcane season 1

How to animate better with reference footage

What is reference footage for animation?

Reference footage is part of the planning process animators use when working on animations. Animators begin filming video reference at different stages in their animation process but the most common stage is during planning (before posing characters). While most reference footage is filmed during the planning process of an animation, sometimes it is necessary to film more reference footage in the spline or final polishing stages of an animation. For example it’s possible that certain actions performed in reference footage don’t look good on the animated character. If nobody realises until the last minute that something isn’t working, animators may decide to reshoot reference, delete part of their animation and animate that part again (this is part of what makes retake hell hellish).

Just as an artist might look at a photograph while painting a portrait, many animators look at video reference footage while animating. Reference footage for animation comes in two main varieties; videos that an animator records themselves and videos that an animator gets from somewhere else (eg a stock video website). Reference footage isn’t the same as motion capture and doesn’t provide any 3D data that can manipulate a character directly. Animators usually don’t trace their reference footage and the final animation can sometimes look very different to the referenced video.

A small note on artificial intelligence, because there are projects in early development that aim to use AI to turn video footage into motion data without the help of motion capture suits. I don’t currently know any animators in my industry that use AI to interpret reference footage for them. Maybe one day AI will take a more active role in feature animation but I doubt it will completely replace animators. Animators have to stylise the movement they work on, so even if they use motion capture, they need to heavily edit the animations they work on. I’m not going to get into a debate about AI here in this article but let’s just say… I don’t welcome it.

Simply put, video reference is used by animators to inspire and guide the animation they are working on. Some animators have their reference footage visible at all times while they animate and others only look at it occasionally. Usually the more realistic an animator’s style is, the more they use reference footage.

Is there more than one way of using reference footage?

In the most common animation workflow for reference footage, the animator records themselves or someone they know performing a scene, then they study the poses, timing and movement of the resulting video. The video reference used in this workflow will usually look very close to what the animator intends to do in terms of acting, timing and movement. Then the animator chooses major poses from the video and carefully positions their character accordingly. After the major poses are in and have been approved, the animator takes more poses from the video reference and slowly describes the whole movement through images.

Some animators dislike the usual way of using reference footage because it feels too much like copy and paste. While I don’t agree that following reference closely is copying and pasting, I understand that following it too closely can be intolerable at times. Animators who don’t need to follow reference extremely closely may start animating and then only do reference footage for parts of the animation they need it for. Other animators may start by filming video reference but only refer to it occasionally, rather than using it for every keyframe.

Another form of reference footage for animation is what I like to think of as a Frankenstein video. In a Frankenstein video reference, multiple videos are running simultaneously or one video may start a movement and another finish the movement. The reason animators create Frankenstein video reference is because sometimes it’s too difficult to get a performance exactly as wanted. Either it’s too difficult to get everything right in one single take or it’s too dangerous (characters falling or fighting, for example).

A final form of reference used in animation is still images. Some animators I know don’t use reference video as often but find still images to create the poses that they need. I’ve seen this mainly in cartoon style animation, where animators were looking for a graphic mouth shapes, head shapes, hand shapes, body postures etc. Even though I use reference video, I sometimes use still images for hand shapes, because it’s rarely possible to do a realistic performance while paying special attention to hand shape!

What is different between the animation and the reference footage?

Animated characters can move more quickly than their human counterparts can and also achieve perfectly balanced movement more often too. Animated movement can be heavily stylised even in a show as realistic as Arcane is. Animators are artists and so design the movement of their characters even if they’ve been studying a video. Animations look mesmerising precisely because every movement has been meticulously planned to achieve whatever message, narrative or emotion was intended.

Example of the differences between a final animation and the reference footage used

While I don’t think it’s appropriate to break down my work from Arcane, I’ll break down one of my old personal animations for you to show the typical differences there is between reference footage and the final animation. The differences I’m highlighting here are fairly typical of how animations done at studios differ from the reference footage too. By the time I did this animation at AnimSquad, I’d already had two years of professional experience at film studios. There are things about the animation I dislike now but it’s still a fairly good example of animation vs reference footage.

An example of how I draw over my reference to simplify it.

First watch through the animation a few times. My reference was essential to getting those characters started off but I wasn’t bound by the reference and there are plenty of differences. I’m going to talk mainly about posing and attitude differences because it’s easier to point those out but there are a lot of timing and spacing differences throughout the animation too. My mentor was Marlon Nowe while I worked on this animation so I credit him for supervising me on this animation, it wouldn’t be as good as it is without him.

Difference one

The first noticeable difference between my animation and the reference footage is the very first pose of each character. In my reference footage, I played the character as being very awkward to the point of rocking back and forth. Instead I ended up going for a simpler solution, with the character scratching his neck, ducking submissively and smiling very awkwardly.

My wife in the reference footage holds her phone within the silhouette of her body and uses the other hand to hold her head. It looks cool in the reference footage but in my animation it would look too contained and I needed to stop the hand from hiding the character’s facial expression. The final solution was for me to break the hand with the phone out from the character’s silhouette a little and rest the other hand on her knee instead.

Difference two

The next difference is when the woman looks at the guy for the first time. In my reference, I immediately bring my hand down and start walking slowly towards my wife. She keeps her body contained and doesn’t turn her head up very much. In my animation, I decided to keep the guy still for longer and hold his hand up for a painfully long time, while keeping that awkward smile on his face. As for the female character, I kept her phone out of her silhouette and turned her head upwards more to make it read more clearly that she’s looking at the guy. I also opened up the woman’s facial expression more to make her seem like less dismissive, because my wife played the character dismissive right from the start. Having the character seem open at first gives me a more interesting emotional arc later when she becomes confused before deciding she doesn’t know him.

Difference three

The next major difference is the way in which the woman in my animation reflects on whether or not she knows the guy. In the video reference, my wife looks away briefly while she considers if she remembers meeting him. In my animation, I decided to make this moment of reflection more obvious by turning the characters head away and doing several big eye darts to show that the character is thinking. The reflection process of the character begins sooner in my animation and lasts for a longer time, because this is an important storytelling moment of the two character’s interaction.

Difference four

You’ll notice a moment in my video above where a second piece of reference footage appears. This is due to a critique from my mentor at the time that it distracted from the woman’s final confused expression towards the man. Basically I was moving at the same time as my wife was performing, which isn’t good because it could cause the audience to miss the fact that the woman is confused and suspicious.

In my second reference, I wait longer to start moving again, which gives the audience more time to see the other character’s facial expression. I also enjoyed the fact that having the character walking forwards while gesturing and looking behind them looks even more awkward. I ended up playing a lot with the timing of animation after using this second piece of reference. You’ll notice in the animation that the character stops moving for awhile before sitting, which helps the audience read his pose. In my reference footage I’m constantly moving, which is a common difference between reference footage and animation.

Difference five

From the moment the character sits down, I use more of the first reference for the guy. I also keep a forced smile on his face to make the interaction more awkward.

The character that my wife played in the reference footage was quite dismissive and arrogant. That didn’t bother me so much at first but my mentor at the time felt like she should be a bit less mean in order for the man’s awkwardness to remain the focus of the shot. Basically if the woman becomes mean, we might focus on that rather than the man’s awkwardness. The entire shot is really about how awkward the man makes this situation, so my mentor was right to ask me to keep the woman open and normal until the end of the animation.

To reduce the woman’s dismissiveness, I kept her facial expressions open at the end of the shot and kept her looking at the guy. She also leans away from the guy less and keeps her body open.

What knowledge is needed to capture good reference footage?

There are several things you need in order to capture good and usable reference footage. Not every animator pays attention to all of these things but to capture something really useful, I recommend paying attention to all of this.

Layout compositions and storyboard

In order to understand how you or your actors should move around in front of the camera, it’s important to understand the layout of your scene. If you work in a studio, it’s possible that there is both a storyboard and layout department. Storyboard artists draw pictures of each shot and indicate character positions, camera angles and compositions; therefore it’s always good to check the storyboard, particularly if that’s all you have.

The most useful thing to check is the layout department’s 3D render or file of the scene. The layout department organises character positions and sets up characters within scenes to match the storyboard of each shot. Before I film reference, I always open the layout of my 3D scene in order to understand where characters are in relation to the space and camera. The camera is also visible in 3D scenes and can tell me what focal angle is used. I use all of these details to try setting up my physical camera and positioning myself and/or other people within my reference footage.

Frame range

When working on animated productions, each shot has a specific frame range. In feature film animation, these frame ranges are very important both for the director’s vision and for production costs. It’s sometimes possible that the number of frames in a shot increases or decreases but most of the time, your shot needs to stay within the frame range.

It’s important to know the frame range of your shot before you shoot reference footage because if you do something in 100 frames that needs to fit into 24 frames, that often isn’t going to work. I sometimes speed footage up or cut parts together in order to fit reference into my frame range, however it often doesn’t look natural enough. Nine times out of ten I’ll reshoot my reference footage if it doesn’t fit into my frame range.

If I have an animatic or layout video of a scene, I’ll usually play it in the background while I film reference footage. This helps me stay in time and understand the intensity of any voices or sounds.

Surrounding shots (hookups / connections)

Before you film reference footage, it’s always a good idea to understand the shots that will surround yours. If you’re doing the surrounding shots yourself then that’s fine but in an animation studio it’s usual for other animators to be working on shots that surround yours. It’s important that the hookups between everyone’s shots works well within the sequence. For example if the character is moving forwards at the end of your shot and moving backwards at the start of the next animator’s shot, that’s a broken hookup.

Understanding the connecting actions between your shot and other animator’s shots right from when you film the reference footage will help reduce stress later on in the animation process. It’s important for you to communicate with your colleagues and find out what they’re planning to do in their scene. Even if their scene is three or four shots from yours, you should know what they’re doing. For example if you have a character sitting throughout an entire sequence of shots, it may be important for all animators to pose the sitting character in a similar way. If you’re filming reference with your legs up and your colleague films ref with their legs crossed or down, it might ruin the connections between your shots.

Character bible or profile and their situation

It is essential that you understand the character and what situation they are in. Usually a director will brief you on this but you need to ask questions if you don’t feel like you understand the character and their motivations properly. Each character has their own temperament and behaviours that make them recognisable. You should pay attention to the character’s profile, read anything you can about them and watch other shots where they are featured. Some studios collect external footage of actors or real people who match how they intend certain characters to be. Look at all of the reference you can before filming reference for a new character. If you understand what kind of person they are, it helps put you in the right mindset.

The next thing you should understand is the character’s situation and where they are in your story’s arc. Every character is affected by situations in different ways. Make sure you know how your character should react to the situation they find themselves in. If they are with other characters, understand what their relationship is with those characters and how that affects their interactions. Always be specific when it comes to story, characters and acting.

Read “Acting for Animators” by Ed Hooks

Ed Hooks wrote a seriously helpful guidebook on acting for animators. I’ve been to his live workshops twice and spoken to him a few times. He’s a super knowledgeable guy and makes learning acting accessible for us introverted animators. What makes Ed a good resource for us is that he’s a professional actor and on top of that, he has a history of going to animation studios to train animators how to act. Many of the techniques and knowledge he had on the subject of acting for animation went into his book; so get the book!

What things are needed to film good reference footage for animation?

Cameras

Most animated productions still run at 24 frames per second, so getting a camera or application with the ability to film at 24 fps is essential. I sometimes film reference footage at 30 or 60 fps by mistake and even though I can use software to convert it to 24 fps, it’s never as good because some frames will be doubles. It’s always better to film right from the start with 24 fps (unless your shot is slow-mo or has very fast moving action).

I’ve all sorts of cameras to film reference footage and never had too many issues. Nowadays I use an iPhone most of the time, because the camera on those is good enough for me. When I need a lot of detail, I use SLR cameras. Occasionally I also use a GoPro to capture footage. GoPro style cameras aren’t ideal for capturing the main reference footage because the lens angle is very wide and the image sensor is small. Seeing as I always have my GoPro with me for my bicycle, I mainly use it as a second angle camera. For example I’ll set my iPhone up as my main camera and then my GoPro will film me from a different angle to help me understand movements better.

If the lens angle of my shot is quite extreme, I’ll sometimes try to choose an appropriate lens and use an SLR or mirrorless camera. For example if my shot has a very wide camera angle (8 – 20mm), I’ll sometimes use a wide angle lens so that I can capture everything I need and with the right kind of lens distortion. Telescopic lenses of over 85mm are less important in my experience but I wouldn’t shoot a closeup acting shot with a very wide lens purely because it will distort the face more than a 35 – 50mm lens would.

Tripods and camera supports

Getting a good tripod for the reference camera is also essential. I avoid plastic and other lightweight tripods, because when I walk or jump in front of them they make the camera shake. When I need tripods I go for heavy metal ones that have hooks at the bottom. Usually the weight of the thick metal tripods will stop them from vibrating or sliding but if I get problems with that, I hook a bag with some weight in it to the bottom. Heavier tripods are also important for SLRs with big lenses.

For GoPros and camera phones, I sometimes use smaller tripods that have bending legs that I can wrap around things. Miniature tripods are also very useful for extreme low angle shots. There are also clamp camera supports that can be clamped onto door handles, chairs, tables and curtain rails, which is useful when I need to film a birds-eye view. Another thing I find useful is a tripod mount that holds phones.

Clothing and footwear

When I first started to film reference footage I’d wear whatever clothes and footwear I had. If I happened to be at home, I’d be in socks or barefoot. It wasn’t until a supervisor of mine mentioned my footwear that I realised how important it could be.

Footwear for reference footage

Being barefoot or in socks is a bad idea if the character is meant to be wearing boots or shoes. Someone in boots walks differently to someone in trainers/sneakers and even more differently to someone barefoot. While you walk barefoot, you won’t put as much impact on your heels because it hurts more. Your bare feet can also flex more easily and don’t have the resistance of the material of shoes. Sliding is also an issue when barefoot or wearing socks. Shoes have grips that lock your feet to the floor, so not having that support will change your body’s movement.

Above is an image of reference footage I did for a shot of Singed in Arcane season one. In it, you’ll see I’m making the mistake that I’m describing here. Singed is wearing shoes, so I should be as well. In this scene, he walked very slowly so it didn’t matter as much. If he’d been moving around more quickly, my reference footage probably wouldn’t have been validated. By the way, although my cat is in this reference image, I didn’t use him to animate the creature (Rio). I put my cat where he was because he likes being the centre of attention and was walking around my feet meowing.

Clothing for reference footage

Scene related clothing is usually less important than footwear, however it can be useful sometimes. Usually I’ll try to film reference footage without big coats or capes that hide my body, even if my character is wearing them in my scene. However if part of what I’m animating is to throw a cape over my shoulder or some other substantial interaction, I’ll try to find a cape to wear.

Clothing or worn accessories are more important when they weigh a lot. So for example I wore a bag with weights in it to film this reference of Echo carrying his hover board in Arcane season one. I use rucksacks filled with weights when capturing reference of people wearing heavy armour etc too. The main thing here is trying to replicate the weight of a worn object even if I can’t find an identical object.

The most useful clothing for normal animations are those that will show rotations and limb placement easily. For example wearing dark coloured clothing isn’t ideal because you won’t be able to see light and shadows on it as easily. Not seeing the light and shadows on your clothing is a problem because it might prevent you from seeing the exact angle of your chest, torso and hips. If you’re wearing long sleeves, dark clothing is even more problematic because it might hide your arms as they cross your body.

Clothing with lines or chequered patterns are great for reference footage, because that will really help you see the angles of parts of your body. Tight fitting clothing rather than baggy clothing is also better, because baggy clothing hides too much. Short sleeves are better because it will usually help you see your arms as they cross your body. Choosing clothes with a different colour to your skin also helps.

One last hack I found helpful when studying animation was to put bits of bright coloured masking tape on different spots of my body. If the clothing I had on wasn’t ideal, the masking tape helped me see in which ways my arms, torso and shoulders were rotating.

Protection

When filming reference for action shots, I always consider my safety but still hurt myself on occasion. For example while I was shooting reference at a studio once, I fell backwards onto a foam mat but it wasn’t thick enough to absorb the shock of my body falling. I had a sore back for a few days after that. Another time I filmed reference with a colleague for two characters fighting with sticks. We used real wooden sticks and didn’t hurt each other very badly. Repeated shock vibration from wooden sticks hitting together still hurt my wrists though and one of my fingers got hit lightly too. It’s common to have muscle pains after doing extreme body movements too, so usually I try to limit the amount of takes I do and warm up my body first.

Whenever you plan to film footage for an animation, ask yourself what protective gear you need. You should never injure yourself while filming reference footage. If your character has to fall to their knees, put a big pillow where you’ll fall and test it by dropping your body gently first. In studio environments, ask you production managers to buy you protective equipment if nothing is available. For example if you have to fall or use striking weapons, you need mats to absorb shocks and things like shin pads, arm pads, protective gloves and helmets. Foam sticks and padded boxing gloves are also useful. Never hurt yourself for reference footage!

Spare clothes, deodorant and some wash cloths

If you know you’ll film reference footage for action shots at work, bring spare clothes and something to wash yourself. Even in winter, you’ll sweat a lot if you’re jumping around for 30 to 60 minutes. Don’t be a sweaty animator stinking the office out!

Optional extras that are good for reference footage

The minimum I do is to get one solid piece of reference footage that captures closely what I’ll do in my scene. There are times when I have either the need or opportunity to make some extra efforts and it always pays off.

Film extra camera angles

Sometimes, after I’ve had my main reference footage approved, I make more reference footage of that same action from different angles. I usually only do this for complicated body mechanics or acting. It’s sometimes easy to bend the spine in the wrong direction if the camera hides that information for example, so the extra camera angle can give me more clarity and prevent mistakes. The more information I have, the better my animation turns out.

Asking real actors to do the reference footage

An example of how I draw over my reference to simplify it.

My wife is a trained actress and worked professionally in theatre for several years. As a result, she’s almost always the best person I can ask to do reference footage for me. I used her acting in many of my scenes from season one of Arcane. She isn’t always available when I need to film the reference footage but when she is available, I take the opportunity to use her acting skills.

Untrained people can still act well but it usually takes them a lot of time to get into character and even then, they risk either overacting or behaving too much like themselves. In my experience, trained actors can get into character in as little as five minutes if they’ve been given a good description of who they’re meant to be and what situation they’re meant to be in. Even though I’ve gone to acting workshops and spent years doing feature animation, it can still take me over an hour or more to get my acting believable.

Actors are more spontaneous in their acting than untrained people too, so while it’s possible for an animator to do ten different takes that look exactly the same, the trained actor will usually give significant variation.

In short, use actors for your reference footage if you can. As a second best, go to acting lessons or marry an actress that can guide you like I did!

Ask real stunt artists / martial artists to film reference for you

Like actors, martial artists are better at fighting than untrained people… it’s obvious. Stunt artists like parkour experts are also going to make better reference subjects than animators trying to copy YouTube videos they’ve seen. Always use pros if you have the opportunity.

Get real animals in to study

Some productions that have a lot of animal scenes bring in animals to the studio to film at least for a short while. It’s always helpful to study from the real thing rather than animating it from your head. A second best is looking on stock video websites for animal videos. Sometimes it’s possible to frankstein a complete reference video from several different clips of animals.

How to use reference footage to animate

After filming some kick-ass reference footage for your animation, the next job is interpreting that video and using it to pose and animate your characters.

Some animators simply put their reference footage by the side of their workspace and start animating directly from it which is fine. These are animators who analyse their reference video on the fly and find which poses they’re going to do next while animating. Other animators are more organised and analyse their reference video in advance. I use both methods but I’ll be focusing on the organisational workflow here because it better describes how to interpret reference. Animators who can analyse reference footage well on the fly usually already understand how to do everything in the organisational workflow.

Note extreme poses and breakdown poses

At a minimum, it’s important to note where major story telling poses are in reference footage as well as where extremes and breakdowns are. I also note down where contact poses happen and when any body part changes direction. When I have that minimum bit of information, I start animating the golden poses first, then work my way through the animation several times, each time adding more detail.

Body mechanic changes are easy to spot but facial expression changes can be very subtle. I recommend noting when the main muscle groups start moving as well as when smaller facial elements like brows contract etc. Just noting down the frames when certain expressions happen in your reference can help later while animating.

Examples of golden poses from the personal animation I showed above

A bit further up this page I showed a personal animation and the differences between that and my final animation. When working on that animation, I didn’t used to take so many notes before animating as I do now. I would have noted down the golden poses and started with those however, which I’m going to put here for you to see. If you want to watch the video through, it’s further up the page.

The second golden pose is the moment the guy awkwardly waves and starts speaking to the woman, who is minding her own business and looking at her phone. The reason I’m not showing the first golden pose is because I completely changed it in my animation (the moment the guy hold’s his neck while smiling awkwardly).

The next golden pose mainly involves the woman, looking towards the man surprised. I ended up changing a few things for the woman in this and completely changed the pose of the man to make him even more awkward than I am in this video. The whole point of this pose however is to have the woman realise someone is talking to her and for the man to stand waiting for her to remember him.

The next storytelling moment is when my wife starts looking confused. The guy just told her that they’d met earlier in the evening but she doesn’t remember him. For that reason, the confused look is an important storytelling moment. Again, I ended up completely changing the guy’s pose during this.

The guy in my animation changed a lot compared to the reference footage but one idea I kept hold of was him gesturing backwards while looking forwards and explaining they had met. Gesturing backwards while looking forwards is a super awkward thing to do in real life and that’s why I kept the idea. In the animation I even have him walking forwards while still gesturing and looking backwards, to exaggerate this awkward interaction. As the awkwardness of the interaction is what this shot is about, this moment is a storytelling pose.

Even though I ended up changing both the woman and man’s final reactions a lot in my animation, this moment in the reference footage is still a major storytelling pose. The woman is looking away like “nope, definitely don’t remember you loser”. The man meanwhile is frozen in his awkward pose, not knowing how to handle the mess he’s just gotten himself into.

The final storytelling pose of the image is the man getting up to leave the situation. It’s finally become so awkward that he wants to escape. In the final animation I made the woman less dismissive and kept her looking at the guy until the end. The original idea I had was to make her go back to what she was doing, which while a more normal reaction wasn’t as funny as her sweetly watch the man escape the interaction.

Notice how the three balls are moving (head, chest and hips)

The three balls of character animation are the head, chest and hips. Most of the weight our characters carry around while moving are in those three areas and the majority of the time their centre of gravity is located in one of the three balls too. Even if you don’t pay attention to every rotation and translation of every body part, you should pay special attention to the three balls.

The three balls are the main elements that are needed to show weight in your character. If you can get the weight of those three balls working throughout your scene, you’re already halfway there for the rest. What I often do in body mechanics scenes is to set up square boxes for the head, chest and hips, then I parent those boxes to the appropriate character controls. This helps me diagnose issues in my animation but also focus on the three balls while working.

The reason we call them the three balls is because most animators begin their education by learning how to animate a bouncing ball. By reducing major body parts to the idea of bouncing balls, we turn a complex object into something easier to understand. Even though in my case I use boxes more than balls to represent these body parts, I still call them the three balls!

The rotations of the three balls will usually oppose one another and in part determine the line of action that your character has. Pay attention to where the three balls are pointing as well as to which side of the body they are falling. Simplifying the forms in your reference footage like this is very helpful.

Notice the line of action in your reference footage

Whenever working on a pose, always pay attention to the line of action and how the forms of the person in your reference video flow. A body pose can usually be simplified to a curved line. The curved line represents the force, direction and flow of the body. Understanding what the line of action in your reference pose is will help you exaggerate and push the pose in your animation.

Analysing poses and movements in terms of the line of action and the three balls (head, chest and hips) really helps simplify complicated body mechanics.

Draw over your reference footage

An example of how I draw over my reference to simplify it.

I like to draw over the top of my reference footage sometimes. Not many animators do this but I find it incredibly useful. If a shot seems particularly complicated or subtle, I draw simplified forms over the top of my video to show where important changes happen. I also note spacing changes for very subtle shots.

In the above example, you’ll see a video where I drew lines on every frame of a big cat video. I don’t usually draw on every frame like that but it was the first time I animated a big cat walk cycle, so I wanted to make sure I understood everything. In the video, you’ll see I used different colours to help me later distinguish different things. Most character rigs have blue and red controllers for the different sides of the character, so I usually use those colours while drawing over my reference too.

The reason I find drawing over reference useful is because while I’m actually posing a character and animating, I like focusing mostly on my character. Analysing my reference video in advance means I can focus on my poses and animation, with my drawn notes telling me quickly what I need to do next. Analysing my video in advance saves me energy while animating, which is important to me.

Tracing

Personally I don’t put my 3D characters directly in front of my reference footage and pose them as though I’m tracing it but I’ve known some animators who do. I don’t usually find animators on feature films who use their video footage in that way because they know they’ll need to push it and exaggerate it anyway. It’s mostly useless anyway because most characters I animate are much taller than me! I always prefer interpreting my reference footage rather than posing my characters directly on top of it.

Be aware of limb length by the way, it can cause problems if you rely too much on copying the reference footage exactly as it appears.

At what point do animators stop looking at their reference footage?

Reference footage is extremely useful for blocking, blocking plus and even the first few passes of spline. Some animators I know use no reference footage at all and the ones who do use it sometimes only use it for major poses. Most animators I know who go to the trouble of making reference footage usually keep looking at it until at least their first spline pass is done.

I usually stop looking at my reference footage after my second spline pass. Usually by my second spline pass, I’ve gotten everything I need from my reference. In the polish phase of my animation, I’ll usually be working without my reference footage and even trying to push the animation further.

Directors and supervisors can also be a big influence on when animators stop using their reference footage. For example it’s common to get a big change that requires an animator to either reshoot part of their reference footage or to start working in changes from their imagination. It’s also common for animation supervisors and directors to refer to reference footage right up until animators polish their animations. Some supervisors on shows that are in a heavy cartoon style don’t bother looking at their animator’s reference footage (I’ve even met some who dislike the idea of reference… I don’t agree with that attitude).

Doesn’t reference footage lead to animation problems?

I’ve met plenty of animators who are against reference footage. Some were experienced animators and some were novices or students who never learned how to use it properly. The majority opinion is that the benefits of reference footage outweigh the problems it can bring up in animation. Reference footage can lead to some animation problems though, so I’ve prepared another post here on what those problems are and how to combat them.

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