I found this on SyncroLux, a blog by Kevin Koch who is at Warner Bros. and a Mentor at Animation Mentor. Really good stuff, thanks for sharing Mr. Koch.
In a sense, video reference isn’t any different than using reference like Muybridge, or finding a great clip of animal action on a nature show. On the other hand, if you can’t work out of your own head, then you’re going to be limited to what you personally can act out. Then a tool becomes a straight jacket.Here are the few tips I have for effectively doing video reference. First, if you’re too shy, you should probably not bother. I used to be so inhibited that I could only shoot reference if no one else was around, and even then it was crummy reference. It took animating at a 10-20 seconds/week pace, in a studio with nothing but open cubicles, to get me over most of my inhibitions.
Second, make it super simple. If your production allows a webcam and appropriate software on your computer, great. If not, consider a notebook computer with a webcam or a digital camcorder. If the process is simple enough, you won’t get precious with the process. I found when I had to go to a production coordinator to get the key to get into the dedicated video room, and when I was done filming then had to spend several minutes encoding the video and transferring it to my computer, I tended just skip the whole process. It needs to be as easy as standing up from your chair and acting things out, as we do all the time, whether we’re shooting reference or not.
Third, grab a friend or two if they’re likely to be better actors or better at a certain behavior. Know your limitations. If you really, really can’t act, then you’re risking a garbage-in/garbage-out scenario.
Forth, I find it necessary to trick myself, by planning to do 4 or 5 consecutive takes in rapid succession. I figure that by the third or fourth take, I’ll be relaxed and natural. Ironically, I usually find that my first take is the best, but if I try to do it in one take I always over-think, or tighten up. And if the first passes aren’t any good, delete the file and start over. There’s also nothing to stop you from editing parts of different takes together.
Fifth, use props. Jeff does a nice job of that. I find I need to set up ‘prop heads’ if I want to appear to look at other characters. If I don’t set up a fake head or two, I have to consciously think about where to direct my gaze, which kills my meager acting. Set things up to be as natural as possible.
Finally, I actually prefer the low resolution and low frame rate of a cheap webcam. For me video reference works best when I’m using it to get the basic gesture and timing of the movement. I know I’ll need to exaggerate, and I find it easier to exaggerate from a fuzzy image where everything isn’t perfectly clear (just remember to convert everything to 24 fps!). The exception is closeup facial shots, where I make sure the lighting is decent to get as good an image as possible.
In those close-up scenes, I try to be ‘in the moment’ (which is frankly something you can’t really try to do, but you know what I mean) and let the chips fall where they may. If I focus on saying and feeling the dialog, I tend to get a fairly natural performance in the eyes and brows. If I think about facial expressions, it all becomes contrived. It’s important to know the dialog cold, and to know just where the accents are and what kind of emotional tone the voice actor used. It’s also crucial to actually say the line out loud, and not try to lip-sync it, or your facial performance will be hesitant and restrained.