The Broken Tangent

Animation of Kurtis Paddock

Post 15 - Shooting Video Reference

*The contents below are my own opinions and not that of my employer*

Choosing Reference

Why did I go with that reference? Is it the feeling or the attitude? Is it the weight and timing? Or, better yet, is it the subtle eyebrow twitch that that you do in your tenth take without realizing it?

I was asked a while back if I could breakdown how I choose my reference and I honestly had never thought about it. What a great idea! Looking internally to figure out the “what and why” of certain things you do isn’t easy. So attempting to explain why I liked this live reference I shot versus the other twenty takes I shot of that same action was mind boggling to me.

What I’m going to attempt in this blog is to pick out and highlight certain aspects of my live reference. Then dissect the reasoning for using it in the final animation.

Find the Character

Above is a shot I animated where Artanis needed to act surprised/alarmed to the sudden presence of Kerrigan falling into the room. Otherwise known as a “reaction shot”.

A reaction shot is when a character or creature is literally reacting to something from the previous shot. These actions usually happen fast which doesn’t give you a lot of time to get your idea across to the your audience. I find a lot of great subtleties in my live reference to help bring these super short insert shots to life. 

Warning: StarCraft 2 Spoilers Below

Above is one of my reference takes for a shot in Legacy of the Void. This is where our Hero Zeratul says his last words to Artanis before he falls over out of the shot. Since Protoss do not have mouths, we focused a ton on expressions given through the eyebrows, eyes, and head. It felt like i was working on a silent film in some cases.

In this take, I really liked what my eyebrows were achieving with tensing up and then relaxing right before I fell over. The subtle head nods during the accents of the dialogue (which you won’t be able to hear) was also another highlight in this reference for me.

This take, on the same shot, was my most used. I really liked how it shows my head leading my entire body as it falls back in frame. Again, taking only the highlights from the take, this is how I start to develop what details I’m going to add into my animation.

The big takeaway is this: I wasn’t able to get 100% what I wanted from the live action so I’m taking my favorite bits over multiple live reference takes. Taking multiple things you like over multiple takes is not a bad thing to do. Don’t feel like you need to nail every character aspect in a single take.

Below is the final shot where you can see I really relied on his eyebrows, eyes, and head movement to sell the acting. Then, the fall back was heavily referenced from the take above.

Different Iterations & Angles


Above is reference I shot for Blaze’s “Combustion” ultimate ability. I knew that this massive Firebat was going to be mobile while charging up this attack. I just didn’t know what I was going to do to make it look like he was physically and visually charging too. I tried many different versions but these are the two where the movement and idea was really starting to come together.

What stood out to me was the charge up motion I was making with my upper body and arms. This was a great selling point to show what Blaze was building explosive energy. Creating this side by side edit allowed me to pick out little details unique to each take and apply them to the final animation.

If there’s one thing you can’t have enough of is different takes of the reference you’re making. Find your major beats and make different iterations of those beats. Happy, sad, mad, surprised, etc. Or maybe you already have the tone/personality of your character. In that case you can add small subtleties in each iteration with varied timing in-between your major acting beats.


I feel that when it comes to locking down your character’s actions, emotions, and reactions, you can never have too much reference. Especially reference that you act out yourself. By acting out the motion you can feel what your body is doing and then relate back to that when you watch the reference.

When In Doubt: collaborate


Then there are the animations where I don’t know where to begin with shooting reference. Creatures are always tricky. Unless you’ve got some grounded real life reference of the actual animal you're working on. In the case above, what do you do if you’ve got a small ferrie dragon as your creature? 

When I was first tasked with this animation I wasn’t sure if i was even going to shoot reference for this. I mean, it’s a Ferrie Dragon…where do I even begin? One of my mentors, Careena Kingdom, came up with the idea to just get some reference using my hand and a pen. This, at the very least, gave me some ideas for timing and overall feel for the motion we wanted.


This really taught me a lesson about collaboration when shooting reference. It never hurts to pull someone else into your reference shoot. As long as you treat it as an open forum of ideas. The potential of creativity increases!

In Conclusion

When I began this write up I wasn’t really sure myself what I looked for in reference. This has helped me look deeper into my director choices and in the end I feel reference can be broken into these four things:

  • Find the character

  • Do lots of takes and iterations

  • Improvise when needed; especially with creatures

  • Collaborate with your Team (when possible)

I hope this has been helpful and I hope that these ideas will bring more ideas into your reference shoots!