Drawing Inspiration #1 – Have A Direction – Tom Bancroft & Tony Bancroft

Have A Direction

One summer day when my brother, Tony, and I were about 10, we were with a couple friends playing.  Soon, the games stopped and we sat there bored, trying to figure out what to do next.  Star Wars (the original film) had come out recently, so naturally one of us said, “Let’s build a robot!”  That led to a mad dash to our garage where (in our minds) tons of robot parts were laying around in the form of nuts, screws, and random pieces of machinery we could take a part and make into a working, talking, walking, friendly robot.  We just knew it was in that garage, just waiting to be put together and become our afternoon- or life long- entertainment!  We all sat at our workbenches with our pieces of junk, tools laid out in front of us, and excitement in our hearts.  I remember this part like it was yesterday: I looked at the tools and pieces and it took me about three seconds to think, “What am I doing?”  We HAD NO IDEA how to make a robot!   But it also hit us real quick that even with the tiny amount of knowledge we had about advanced robotics, the pieces of junk we had in front of us would NEVER make a robot.

I have often thought of that story in my animation career.  During those younger years, not having a direction defined my art.  I would often watch an animated cartoon or see a great comic strip, get inspired, and run to my sketchbook wanting to harness that passion and create something great!  I would start sketching and with each line I put down I got more confused.  With each stroke of the pencil, the drawing would get stranger and stranger, the character’s pose was unclear, the expression bland, and I would soon stop.  Frustrated, I would shut the sketchbook and stop drawing for the day.  It only takes that happening a handful of times before you stop for months, maybe years, and possibly the rest of your life.

Passion is one thing, but true art has a reason.  Whenever I sat down with an idea of what I wanted to draw- even something simple, like “a silly looking dog”- then the drawings often turned out much better.  It took me many years to learn this.  My first animation test at Disney, I got so excited to get it done and see it moving that I forsook finishing my thumbnails.  I started animating with no clear idea of where my character was going or what it was doing.  I started animating “straight ahead”, making it up in little chunks.  Even shooting those little chunks so I could “check” to see if it was moving okay.  I’d animate the character into a pose, then think what he could do next, then animate that action, then repeat, repeat, repeat.  I ended up with what I call “animated spaghetti”.  It was moving alright- it was moving all over the place- but it wasn’t coming to life!  I was 10 years old trying to make a robot.  I made the hard choice to throw everything away and start over.

I finally realized that the character wasn’t going to come to life unless I made a plan and took the steps – start to finish – to get there.  I thumbnailed out the entire scene and carefully acted out what that character should do.  I asked questions of “why” the character would do what he was doing.  I pushed myself to come up with funny situations for the character that hadn’t occurred to me yet.  Only once I had a real roadmap, still made with passion, did I sit down to start animating it.  I took a slight moment to do a few key poses throughout the animation so I could have something to animate “straight ahead” into.  They would be my reference to where I was going and would also help me not make the character grow and shrink as I moved him across the page. The animation flowed smoother than ever before!  As I animated, I did move away from my thumbnails here and there, but only because I had an even better idea or pose in the moment.  I could go back to the thumbnails for my original direction.  In the end, it turned out pretty good.  It got me promoted to animator also.   That animation test was a first step to truly learning that without a plan, its all a pile of nuts and bolts that will always just be junk.


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  • Stephanie Dryer

    That is just wonderful to learn about the difference between passion and true art. I draw various of character designs, fanbase or original, and most of the time, I’d get stumped with coming up stories for these major characters. The ideas are there in my mind, just hadn’t been written down or completed lately. Again, wonderful tip of inspiration that I might need to bring a character and story altogether to life and I have yet to be involve in the field of animation. Just taking baby steps at a time.

  • Earl Musick

    Great advice.

  • JazyLax

    True… Im starting my animation classes and I always try to go head on to my animation without thumbnails, although I can say im skilled in the motion of the characters I animate, the action is just a mess. I will keep this in mind 🙂

  • Aaron

    Very insightful story. I’ve been drawing for almost 19 years and I run into this issue all the time and seem too frequently forget that I need to come up with an actual direction for my art before starting it, otherwise I get bored/frustrated with the piece and walk away for varying amounts of time.