Animators by day Animation teachers by night.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Power of Silhouette

Anyone who has read "The Illusion of Life", or went to a half-way decent art school has been drilled with the concept of "silhouette value" as it relates to the graphic strength and clarity of a pose. Being a student of classical 2D, we would sometimes be encouraged to visualize or actually color in our drawings to get a sense of our pose's silhouette value, and thus judge whether or not we had pushed a pose to it's fullest potential. One of the great things I've come to learn, now that I work on the computer, is the ability (in many animation applications) to render out work in silhouette. What an amazing tool!!

Mike Wu and I recently did an assignment in our Pixar 2 class at AAU this semester where we had students block out a dialogue assignment and render it in silhouette. As the students are just beginning to work with dialogue, we wanted an assignment that made the point that performing to dialogue is not about mouth shapes or lip sync, but about the global performance as it relates to body language, phrasing, and clarity. The students were amazed to find how much more aware they were of their posing and choice of gesture when everything was "blacked out" and the readablility of a pose was represented in such a pure form.

For those that have the luxury of using a software package that has such a feature, use it to your advantage. What does it take to block out a shot and playblast a silhouette render to see if your poses are as strong as they could be before moving forward? If the application you're using does not have such a feature, or if you're doing 2D work, take a moment to look at the graphic elements of your pose and ask yourself if it does justice to the character, the moment, and if it inspires your audience to feel what you want it to feel. Revisiting such a basic principle can not only inspire young minds learning animation for the first time, but also reinvigorate the work of the most seasoned veteran. I know at least one animator that will be looking at his work in black & white with a little more frequency from now on. Thanks for visiting the blog.



Blogger C.Fram said...

An easy way to check silhouettes in Maya is to open your animation in f-check and switch to alpha mode.

6:23 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honnestly, one of the things I appreciate the most from these tips is that it reminds me of things that are kind of easy to forget to do. I've heard plenty about "strong silhouettes" before, but somehow in the process, it's easy to get lazy and forget to really use these methods. So when I read these posts, it really brings to mind things that make me animate more carefully.

10:05 AM

Blogger Jean-Denis Haas said...

Actually, you don't even need to do an f-check, just click 7 on your keyboard. If you have no lights in your scene, then you'll get a silhouette effect as well.

But if your scene is heavy and it won't play in real time, then f-check is a neat feature.

1:50 PM

Blogger Bobby Pontillas said...

Great advice Adam. On that same note, another great trick to pull from traditional animation, to check the balance of a pose, is flipping the paper backwards and seeing if the drawing still works properly.

I think it'd be a good idea to implement that into your workflow in CG, by checking the "back side" of your cam view to see if the drawing still holds up. Although I can see that it'd be a little tricky setting up the cam to match exactly.

1:10 AM

Blogger 'stoph said...

There's a mirror behind my notebook that I use to act out ideas etc, AND it automatically flips the animation that's playing on my screen! ;->

3:19 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

We used to do this in college as well. Way back. We're talkin' Maya 4! So, you know, THAT long ago.

To be honest, I had completely forgotten the technique. Thanks for jogging my memory!

My studio only uses Max, however. Is anyone aware of an easy way to achieve this in 3ds?

7:11 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just touched on this concept last week in the class that I teach. It's SOOOO important, and we can always do with a reminder.

4:24 PM

Blogger Dr.Burke said...

Thanks, anonymous. It's always nice to receive feedback from another teacher. All the best.

7:17 PM

Blogger Emilie Goulet said...

I totally agree with this blog! It can be so easy to get caught up in the details of a 3D character... and get lazy! Laziness is the worst enemy.
I am a 3Ds user as well. Anybody has a clue how to do this in max?

Thank you and keep up the good work! ... and the cool podcasts! :)


1:26 PM

Blogger Skellybobbly said...


More great tips from the doctors, many thanks!

There's a silhouette script for max available here:



1:20 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey everyone, not really on the subject of silhouettes but i was wondering whether there could be a discussion about animal animation. I have been reading through the Illusion of Life and saying the Edward Muybridge is a quality guy to be looking at, but could you suggest a method of aniamting an animal with four legs? either straight ahead, build in your main poses and then work into them? any suggestions?

7:16 AM

Blogger Blake Johnson said...

I just want to second this method. I often play blast my animations in Maya in silhouette. It is a valuable tool in animation and shouldn't be abandon in 3D.

10:11 AM

Blogger Nick Vona said...

In animation for games working in silhouette mode for me is essential. Generally for in-game action you have very short animations that need to read clearly and from multiple angles , and mostly with a small screen space. Working with one window in silhouette is a great way to achieve clarity of pose and action so you are sure that it will read in engine.

Keep up the great blog...

11:30 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

with max, can't you go to the render elements tab and render out a seperate alpha channel element? that should work, although you might have to do it in targa/rpf format and compile it after...not sure. but yeah, silhouette animation = great tip. thanks doctors!

3:10 AM

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