Let me start this post out with the comment that this is only ONE way of animating. there are as many ways of animating a shot as there are animators! So, find what works best for you and then modify it. The wonderful thing about art and animation is that it is so very personal-- make it your own! I can't say that i use even my own methods all the time. Sometimes certain scenes are very simple shots that don't need elaborate planning. I am doing a 30 frame shot for a commercial right now-- very very simple, i didn't even thumbnail it. However, i find when a shot is "lengthyer" and more specifically offers certain acting/staging challenges I NEED to explore on paper. but before any thumbnailing happens i am going to tell you to do something that a Production Manager would HATE me for, but here it is: THINK! The last thing you should do when starting a new shot is pick up your pencil. You HAVE to internalize what you are about to execute. If you can't do either one of these things you're scene will not be successful.
Ollie Johnston has been qouted as saying "If you can't see it, you won't be able to draw it. I believe that seeing it and feeling it (internalizing it) are related but not necessarily the same. I think they are related in that if you can't feel it, then you won't be able to invision it clearly in your head. So, think about your scene. Ask questions: who is he what's his personality, where does this shot take place in the arc of the story, who did he just talk to and what was the last emotion he/she felt, what's the arc of the scene, where's the entertainment value in this shot. BE RUTHLESS with yourselves in your exploration... if you find yourselves slavishly applying Preston Blair formulas to your shots then your scene is already dead. Yes, sometimes books like that help with technical things but right now i'm talking about conception of a shot! Get OUT of your studio, take a walk, ride your bike, read, whatever inspires you!
I personally like to take walks and really think through my shots... by the time i'm done with my walk i am ready to start writting down some ideas. Also, this is a great time for research. Now this i will say with no apollogy... everyone needs to research. I don't care who you are but so much comes from studying and researching that you couldn't possibly have brought to it any other way.
So to sum it all up-- get juiced up and excited about what your gonna do. I know that i cannot animate something unless i believe in it wholeheartedly! Have the guts to challenge and idea you think is weak (with grace of course) and be willing to be wrong. that's the big one, throw your pride out the window man! I learned that one the hard way!
So... now that you've though all about your shot and have conviction and just KNOW that your scene is going to be revered through the anals of time you can begin to plan and thumbnail! Ideally before you start thumnailing or even thinking about your shot you should have your dialogue memorized. All of the ups and downs... where the accents are. KNow it in and out. What i start doing at this point is finding some gestures that tell the main key points of the scene. It doesn't have to be many poses, in fact it's usually better when you simplify. Tony DeRosa's main comment on most of my animation has been to simplify it-- so start scribbling and finding those gestures that explain what the character is feeling and thinking.
Here are some pages of thumbnails i did for the shot i will be animating. It is here where you find your gesture, plan your staging, write down ideas... let it all out. Try things that are outrageous-- you never know where your thoughts might carry you. Oh, and don't worry about making pretty drawings-- these are just thoughts, i use stick figures a lot when i am thumbnailing. Especially when i don't know the character too well yet.
The line of Dialogue reads: Deer:"So whats the flight situation?" Bear: "Simple (pause)... there's no way on earth we're getting out of here tonight(pause and laughs). we'd have more luck playing pick up sticks with our butt cheeks that we would getting a flight out of here before midnight" ( i tried posting the dialogue put could not)
I mean come on, look at these drawings! they suck! They're not meant to be pretty, they are meant to be honest. I think sometimes it can be a downfall of animators to mistakes nice poses for "thinking". I've done it for sure-- certainly poses can evoke thinking, but i really feel like think is shown mainly in change. i.e A character is in a situation where he is being asked to make a difficult decision. He is tense, shoulders up, chest inflated, brows down-- he realized he needs to make a certain decision and is at ease with it. He relaxes his shoulders and exhales and lifts his brows. There is not a huge pose change in there, just a change of shape that shows us his thinking. You are working within a pose with something like this-- now sometimes you want to have some sort of change of line of action to make your idea clear it's just knowing where to do it. I am only skipping around these topics because i will cover more once we get into the animating portion of the posts (the FUN part).
I hope that's a fine start for everyone! Please please feel free to ask question if you have them either e-mail me or just post it and i'll reply. So get excited, get inspired and have fun everyone!