How Contrast Will Improve Your Animation

Posted Nov 9th, 2015

I'm in the thick of a 6 week  Animation Bootcamp that is all about characters. I am getting so much value out of this course, it’s ridiculous. If you are a motion designer, at any level, and wondering if character animation will help your work, the answer is yes, yes and definitely YES. For me, the course is a game changer. The instructor, Morgan Williams, is a character animation guru and he’s digging into so much detail with animation techniques and principles, I find myself watching each video 3 or 4 times! I want all his animation knowledge to just seep into every aspect of my brain.

One thing that Morgan is constantly bringing up is the importance of contrast in our work. In animation, contrast is the key to pushing your work from an amateur collection of floaty key frames to believable animation, with memorable characters and story. Although it is a huge work in progress, I have grasped onto this concept and I'm trying to apply it to all my work going forward. I wanted to share what I've learned about contrast, so I've broken down how contrast can improve each area of your animation

Contrast in poses

In character animation, you always start with a key test (or a pencil test in traditional animation). This means, setting the character up in each pose and placing these poses along the timeline. This helps to establish the timing and readability of the action. A strong character pose is the foundation of every successful animation. This step is crucial and when your animation just doesn't feel right, it’s best to go back and evaluate the actual pose. Is it reading properly? Does it have a good silhouette? Does the pose feel believable for that character and does it work with the limitations of the rig? These are all important questions to ask when evaluating poses.


Once your poses are strong and placed together in the timeline, contrast is a huge part of making them work in as a story. Exaggeration is usually required to push the contrast of poses. At first it may feel unnatural to bend or stretch a character into such extreme poses. For a jump, the character might crouch down, squash and look almost like a pancake. When he pushes up, he stretches out like spaghetti. Yes, it’s unnatural, but it works. A series of poses that display strong contrast will be interesting, full of life and character.

Contrast in timing

This brings us to the timeline. When working with a series of movements and keyframes, you can use contrast in your timing to add interest with deliberate spacing in time. When you have your basic timing set up, it’s helpful to step back a moment and take note of the spacing in the timeline.
keys with no contrast in timing
If the keyframes are looking too uniform, your animation will likely be pretty standard and boring. Try exaggerating the timing by contrasting the spacing between the keyframes. Push holds a little longer and the quick movements snappier. Even if it is just by a frame or two, you’d be surprised how much of a difference this can make.
Keys have good contrast in spacing

Contrast in Staging (Foreground vs. Background)

This tip applies to the composition and frame of your animation, not so much the actual keyframe animation. But I bring this up because a lot of us are doing every part of our projects: storyboards, style frames, character design along with animation and output.

When you are planning your scenes, remember you always want your character to pop. A good separation between foreground and background will set the stage for your animation and strengthen your visual story.

The contrast here can be achieved in numerous ways such as colour hue and temperature, colour value, and depth of field. The folks at School of Motion have done a fantastic job with this concept and below I've displayed a few examples from the exercise projects we are working with as others.

Above: this is  great example of using colour value to push the character forward. Notice how the background appears faded and light, which pushes the bright, saturated blue character forward. 

Above: As Dolly is running through the lab, she really pops from the composition due to the contrast in colour temperature. Her orange pants compliment the turquoise blue background and help to stage her successfully.

Above: In the Pixar short, "The Blue Umbrella", the team has really pushed the contrast through depth of field and color. Obviously the blue and red pop out from the background, but the added use of depth of field, blurring out the foreground and background, draws our attention even further towards the expressions of these umbrellas. 

In Conclusion…

So, the next time you are struggling with an animation or motion graphics project, perhaps take a moment and consider how pushing your use of contrast may help improve the story or action. Play around with poses, timing and composition. It may sound strange, but if you are unsure, push it further than what you believe to be the limit. Exaggerate and make it extreme, until it seems “unnatural”. Over the years I've learned that it’s always easier to pull back when you've gone too far. It’s far more tedious and time consuming to push a little bit at a time. Don’t be timid about contrast, have fun and push the limits!

If you found this post helpful, I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or shoot me an email. I’d love to hear what you are struggling with in animation (or anything else!) Have a wonderful day and Animate On!

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