A Beginners Guide To Animating Speech

Language is hard to understand, so the animators of the past had a lot of work to do. After many years of trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t, more than a few logical ways of animating dialogue have been found.

It’s easy to use this kind of reasoning in your own work. If you’ve done a good job designing your character and have your script handy, animating speech can be a fun puzzle to solve.

How Lip-Syncing Works in Animation

Timmy Turner will help us show you what we mean so you can see what we mean. Butch Hartman’s animation style is known for being quirky and “flat.” It’s a good place to start when learning how to animate speech for the first time.

If you’ve seen The Fairly Oddparents, you already know that Timmy’s mouth does a lot more than just this one pose. Take a moment to make every sound you know how to make, and for each syllable, draw a Timmy mouth.

That’s a lot of mouths, wow. When they’re all thrown together in one big pile, they look like a mess, don’t they?

You should try animating speech like the pros do instead of guessing, hunting, and pecking. How? First, you have to get things in order.

Even though you don’t need a plan to animate speech, there are a few tools you can use to make it easier to get through a lot of dialogue that you need to animate. Two of them are exposure sheets and mouth charts.

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What is an Animation Exposure Sheet?

Exposure sheets, also called X-sheets or dope sheets, are used in animation to break a shot into frames.

They make the intangible clear and easy for the artist to understand, just like the musical staff does. If the exposure sheet goes along with pre-recorded dialogue, the timing has already been set. At this point, all you’re doing is writing down what people are saying and how long each sound lasts.

On exposure sheets for animation, there is a column for the frame number, the action, and, of course, any dialogue that can be heard. Exposure sheets for traditional animation also have camera notes that tell how each stack of cels should be photographed (in a close-up or as a wide shot, for example).

Also on the exposure sheet will be the name of the show, the number of the episode, the number of the scene and shot, and the name or names of the animators who worked on the scene or shots.

The idea isn’t hard to understand. A scene is mapped out on an exposure sheet. All you have to do is follow where it takes you. If the exposure sheet was carefully written and followed to the letter, even the first try is likely to be close. Most of the time, the dialogue is broken up by the letter, especially when the speech is “wacky” or dramatic.

To make an exposure sheet, all you have to do is look at your voiceover closely and read it word by word. You can do this with digital animation software and other creative video apps that let you scrub while the sound is on. You can write down or keep track of your results in a separate Excel or Google Sheets file.

Once you’ve done your homework, all you need to move on is a mouth chart.

What is an Animation Mouth Chart?

You can think of an animation mouth chart as a “keyboard” for a character’s facial expressions. Each one makes different phonetic sounds come to life. When you have your exposure sheet, it’s easy to put the pieces together.

Here, we’ve put all of Timmy’s words and phrases into a generic pool. When all of these groups are taken into account, it should be enough to meet most normal needs.

With this tool, the animator can set up the scene in a general way. Once the whole section of dialogue has been roughly animated, it can be improved with in-betweens and even original key poses to highlight important parts.

If you’re having trouble figuring out how to animate certain words or how to say them, there’s good news: we all have mouths that can be used as a quick reference. Sometimes you should say a “O” more like a long “U,” and that’s how you should move it.

In this example, you’ll also see that some of the categories are the same. Timmy is happy some of the time. Timmy is sad sometimes. The last thing you want is for a character to be smiling from ear to ear when he should be sad and out of ideas. If you know how your character usually feels, it’s easy to animate any scene quickly and without a lot of trouble.

Putting it All Together

At first, dialogue animation may seem like a nightmare you can’t understand. Once you realize that all words and sounds can be broken down into one of only a few mouths to draw, the task becomes much easier to understand. If you can say it, you can do it.