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Animating Rhythm And Dance

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Animating dancing might seem intimidating, but it can be fun once you know how to do it. Animation expert George Maestri takes you through the basics of getting down to the beat.
George Maestri is the author of several animation books from New Riders Publishing, including [Digital] Character Animation 2, Volume I and [Digital] Character Animation 2, Volume II. He is also the series editor for New Riders' [Digital] series of books, including [Digital] Lighting and Rendering and [Digital] Texturing and Painting.

Dancing sometimes intimidates animators, but it actually can be quite fun. If the music is good, you get to listen to it all day, plus you get to dance in front of your computer and call it work. (Of course, if the music is lousy, you still have to listen to it all day.)

When you're animating dance moves, the key is make sure that everything happens to the beat. If your timing matches that of the music, then it should all sync up, regardless of where it is in relation to the music.

Understanding Tempo

The key to animating dance is to let the tempo of the music drive the animation. Determining the tempo simply requires a watch. Count the number of beats in six seconds of music. Multiply this by 10 to get the beats per minute (BPM). When you have this, you can determine how many frames you'll need per beat of music. For example, a common BPM is 120. At 24 frames per second (fps), the frames per beat would be this:

24 fps x 60 seconds = 1440 frames/minute (fpm)

1440 fpm/120 BPM = 12 frames/beat

Here's a quick table for a range of tempos.

 BPM 24 fps 30 fps 100 14.4 frames/beat 18 frames/beat 110 13 16.4 120 12 15 130 11 13.8 140 10.3 12.8

This table shows how, at some tempos, the frames per beat is a fractional number. This is one of the problems of a fixed frame rate. The best thing to do in this case is to round up or down to the nearest number and animate at that rate. Unless the shot is extremely long, the characters should sync up within a frame or two, which the audience will not notice.

Of course, if you want to be precise, or if the shot is particularly long, you can certainly read the track and mark down exactly which frames the beat hits. In this case, you will never be more than a half frame off on your sync.

It must be noted that characters can dance with or without music. If the character is dancing an unaccompanied jig of joy, then you can just pick a tempo and go with that. I usually pick 120 BPM, simply because it's easy at a half second per beat.

The classic animation studios used to record their music to a fixed metronome. By knowing the beat of the music, the animators could animate even without the soundtrack. Warner Brother cartoons were usually animated at 120 BPM, with most major moves occurring in multiples of 6 or 12 frames.

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