Onion Skin

Perhaps the most important tool in digital animation is the onion skin — the ghost of your previous drawing overlaid onto your current frame. In traditional hand drawn animation, light boxes allow animators to layer their drawings on top of each other to observe and draw the minuscule changes that over time create motion.

The first frames drawn in most animations are the keyframes — the highs and lows of motion, the tops of arcs, the landing of jumps. When first layered on top of each other, the distance between them can feel uncrossable.

Looking at one or two consecutive frames can also feel infuriating; a step so small, that it seems to bring you no closer to your desired destination.

Over a hundred frames laid one on top of the other, however, and a strange and wonderful palimpsest emerges — a different kind of story than when they are played as an animation.

Onion skinning of ~3 seconds of cel animation

The keyframes are typically considered the most important and defining drawings of animation and are typically drawn by the most senior animators, while all the frames in between (helpfully named “inbetweens”) are left to the junior artists. Yet, when all the frames are exposed at once, it’s almost impossible to identify which are keys and which are inbetweens. Most importantly, when animated on one’s and exposed 24 per second in order to create motion, each frame is on screen for the same amount of time.

With less than a week to go before the phased reopening of Belfast, and vaccinations on the horizon, I’ve found myself reflecting on the past eight months, and looking forward to my coming ones. The days have gotten longer, the weather warmer, and the virus increasingly contained. Looking back on this year, my education in animation has been deeply intertwined with my experience of living in lockdown. The growth and change I discovered through both have informed each other in ways that I am sure will be the basis of my art practice.

Animation has given me a framework to tackle the passing of time in lockdown. As a medium, animation is at times monotonous, relentless, and exhausting. The final products can at times feel a Phyrric victory when days of work culminate in seconds of film. Similarly, the milestone days in a pandemic feel few and far between. This year, it has been tempting to write off each day as an “inbetween” something less than a real day. Laid back to back, the changes imperceptible, the infection curve seemingly static forever, and “normality” hundreds of frames away. Yet, I feel immeasurably lucky to have had my my art to inform my life and vice versa.

It was the day-to-day talking, cooking, and drawing that has built lifelong friendships. And the daily walks that have made the Belfast cityscape feel like one I’ll know off the back of my hand. And most importantly, these months were the foundation on what I’m sure will be a fantastic summer of (safely) exploring more of Northern Ireland.

One of my favorite days was driving to an empty Glendalough to go hiking. I took this video of the incredible drive over (big Irish-country-road-driving-on-stick-shift appreciation and thanks to my friend Hannah). The Irish landscape, which I got to explore more thoroughly (thanks to lockdown) is the basis of my upcoming dissertation film.
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