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The Illusion of Life: A Q&A with Cento Lodigiani

Caleb Ward

Traditional animation principles meets modern motion design software in ‘The Illusion of Life’ created by Cento Lodigiani.

Modern tools have made animation and motion graphic design much easier than ever before. Instead of having to draw each frame by hand, animators and designers can use computers to easily create amazing animations in no-time.

However, it can be really easy to jump straight into animation without having a good background to help you understand why certain things look good and other things do not. Over the years many artists have perfected the art of animation and along the way they’ve created a few principles that can help give life to your animated characters. These artists come from a variety of different animation studios but perhaps the most famous and innovative animation comes from Disney Animation Studios.

For decades Disney has been well known for their storytelling, art, and lifelike animation. Even a kid can tell the difference between an animated Disney film and a film created by another company, but why is that?

In their insightful book, The Illusion of Life,  Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston share their secrets as to how they perfected the ‘Disney’ look while working as animators at the Disney Animation Studios during the golden era of animation. The book has become required reading for those looking to get into character animation and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in taking their designs to the next level.

The book is loaded with tips and tricks to give the illusion of life to your characters, but one of the most helpful sections of the books comes in the form of 12 principles that can easily be applied to animations. The 12 principles are:

  1. Squash and Stretch
  2. Anticipation
  3. Staging
  4. Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose
  5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action
  6. Slow In and Slow Out
  7. Arcs
  8. Secondary Animation
  9. Timing
  10. Exaggeration
  11. Solid Drawing
  12. Appeal

All of these principles when combined create the charming ‘Disney’ style of animation that is so appealing to animators. These principles of animation are incredibly useful and important, but unfortunately until recently there weren’t any good online resources illustrating the principles in action. That was until New York based animator Cento Lodigiani decided to illustrate all 12 principles using a simple cube. The result is a short video that beautifully illustrates each principle.

If you haven’t seen the video here it is. Notice how easy it is to give life to such a simple shape using these principles.

Cento’s video was amazingly created entirely in After Effects, which absolutely blew my mind the first time I read that. With more questions regarding the animation, I reached out to Cento and he was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding ‘The Illusion of Life’ video.

Q&A with Cento Lodigiani

How did you come up with the idea?

It actually happened randomly, one day I was cleaning my room and I found the book. I started flipping through the book and found the 12 principles and thought they would be great to illustrate in a video. I was confident that there would be a video like that on the internet, but when I searched I couldn’t find anything at all. Which honestly surprised me.

I chose to do the cube character instead of a traditional character because I wanted the focus to be on the animation instead of the character. I thought it would be a fun challenge to give a personality to a simple shape.

Do you feel like learning the principles is crucial to learning to be a better animator?

I know the principles because I’ve always been into traditional animation. Since I was a kid I always was inspired by Disney animation principles. Even in the beginning when I didn’t know the 12 principles but I found myself using the 12 principles a lot. So when I ended up reading the Illusion of Life it really put into words what I had already been doing.

Currently it’s not like I sit down to animate and think about the 12 principles, but I do end up applying them to what I do.

I think it’s really good to stick to tradition in animation. Today you can have multiple designers with different styles and different education backgrounds and that’s good. New animation schools like those in Japan have begun simplifying real life and showing real-life through abstract elements instead of the 12 principles.

You said you did created this project with a combination of both cell drawn animation and After Effects. Could you walk us through the production process?

The little cube is a cube made with 6 3D layers. For most of the animation I was able to use that little element by stretching it. But there were parts that I had to draw frame by frame.

I changed the basic parameters of the cube like scale and rotation, but I honestly used deformation effects like bend to create the cube’s animation. I used a mixture of a lot of things because when you are trying to finalize a scene it has to be perfect.

The challenge with this project is if people are going to be using my video to reference the 12 principles than the animation had to be absolutely perfect. Since moving a keyframe a few frames forwards or backwards can change the entire scene I spent a lot of time perfecting the movements.

So when the cube arcs? That is an example of hand-drawn animation?

Exactly, because I couldn’t get the cube to deform that way, so I had to go frame by frame.

How long did it take you to create this video?

I was messing with it for about 3 months but I definitely wasn’t working on it full time. In the last few weeks I would say I almost was working on it full-time but I was working on a lot of different projects at the time.

Did you know the narrator?

No, but it turned out awesome. I found him in one of those online services that have a bunch of different voices. I just happened to find him and it was absolutely perfect.

How difficult was it to perfect the movement?

It was a big challenge. Again, if you are trying to make a piece about animation principles perfection of the movement is almost the whole point. There were other challenges like, finding the right action to explain each principle. I spent a lot of time perfecting each move, it was all a matter of frames, so it was really difficult. But, I saw that the animation was something I could be proud of so I wanted to put the time in to make it good. I was liking what I was doing so it was worth it.

Where did you learn how to do motion graphics?

I didn’t study animation in school, I actually studied design in Milan, Italy. So I would say I am a good example of learning by doing instead of studying. I was at a design university and I was doing other things, but while I was there I was able to talk to other people in animation. I approached it kinda by myself and I had this professor who invited me to one of his classes. Then I started working as an intern for his company. Then I just started studying a lot of stuff like books and animated movies and that was pretty much all my education.

Where do you go for creative inspiration?

Inspiration is all around me. I draw inspiration from everyday life. The city that I live in (New York), is a big source of inspiration. Good music is very inspiring and good films. Masters of animation including Saul Bass the father of motion graphics and Richard Williams who was the lead animator for Roger Rabbit give me inspiration. I spend a lot of time on the almighty internet. It’s a great source of inspiration.

A still from A Few Moments of Mess by Cento Lodogiani 

Do you have any specific websites you go to?

I have plenty. I follow a lot of tumblr’s and blogs of every kind. I can’t just name one blog because that would be unfair to the others. Tumblr is great because there are so many different artists that blow you away every day. You can look randomly for design artists everyday and it’s an endless source of inspiration.

What was the most helpful tip you can give aspiring animators and motion graphic artists?

Apply yourself and keep doing your own projects for fun. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the short-term goal of making money. It’s more rewarding to do your own personal projects and create a good body of work that is more for yourself than for a client. But of course work to pay your bills…

If you are interested in purchasing the book the 12 principles were based on you can pick it up ‘The Illusion of Life’ by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston from Amazon for around $40. You can see more of Cento Lodigiani’s work on his webiste CentoLodigiani.com.

Have any other questions for Cento? Do you reference the 12 principles in your animations? Let us know in the comments below.