Strange Sort of Love Letter


Today I would like to share a unique letter written by Clay Kaytis, animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Kaytis found this letter that he had written to himself years ago, and graciously offered me the opportunity to share it with all of you. He gives a great introduction to the letter below, giving it a little more context.

Kaytis’s feature film credits include Tangled, Bolt, Meet the Robinsons, Chicken Little, Home on the Range, Treasure Planet, The Emperor’s New Groove, Fantasia/2000, Tarzan, Mulan, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas. Kaytis is the creator of The Animation Podcast, where you can hear him interview top industry professionals. After you check out his podcast and read his letter, please be sure to follow him on Twitter @AnimPodcast.




Hi Willie,

It’s funny that I’d be writing to you on Valentine’s Day because I have a strange sort of love letter I’d like to share with you and your readers. It’s something I wrote to myself in 2000 during the production of Treasure Planet. It was my second film as a full-fledged Disney animator and I can see that I was still finding my way in terms of process. You’ll see that it starts out as a guide to animating a hand-drawn scene and grows into a pep talk on living a creative life. Finding notes like these is like opening a time capsule from a different version of myself. I encourage other people to do the same- get your thoughts and dreams down on paper. They are a hoot to read thirteen years later!


Clay Kaytis

(Letter written by Clay Kaytis to himself.)

When doing a scene just concentrate on roughing out the basic shapes to define head angles, expressions, squash & stretch and work to make arcs and paths of action work. If something is not in the right arc, repeg it. Work fast, flipping and making everything work together. This is the time to work loosely and not to worry about drawings. Just make the animation work. Do major keys, defining arcs and expression changes (e.g., if there is a hold and the character goes into some dialog, do a drawing for each, don’t just have a hold drawing of the mouth shape. For every change – be it arc, expression, squash, stretch – draw it. If it is not animated it will not be seen.) Put everything in the scene now. Make it work in a rough form and it will work later. Concentrate, however rough, on arcs and learn to know when to animate within a pose.

Do not be afraid to make a mistake! Now is the time to do it. Try different things and mistakes will happen but sometimes they will be good mistakes and lead to better ideas. Think of the way Chaplin worked towards a final idea. He gave himself room to work. Allow this for yourself. Now take a breath and really think about your scene. The phrasing, the tempo and rhythm, the amount of movement. Decide where it will go and then figure out how to get it there. It’s really very simple if you start simply.

Now is the frantic, rapid creative time of the scene. Get caught up in it. Let it absorb you and all your attentions and energies. Pour yourself into it until you reach an end. When you have arrived, take a look at it but don’t rest yet. Try to see it from a fresh perspective and start from the beginning, asking if everything is as it should be. If not, fix it now. It really isn’t that much work. A few loose drawings are all it will take to design a complete animated scene. Start now with a mind clear of all negativity with only the creative energy the scene requires. Find that energy and get more than you need. Now is your time to make a statement. Don’t stop until you have said everything.

Basically, the whole scene is worked out in this rough form with keys and breakdowns and breakdown partials of things like mouth shapes. Every change should be animated and the whole thing will probably be on 4s or sixes or more. For parts where very little is happening longer hold drawings will be used but wherever there is a drag, angle change, anything that is not a direct inbetween, a drawing needs to be done. Once it is all worked out as described above (with adjusting drawings, timing, etc.) then begin to tie it down.

All the keys and breakdowns will be tied down (including partials). (Simply put, if it all works and reads in this stage, all that are left are inbetweens to be done by a rough inbetweener.) So, do these tied down drawings and decide as you are doing them what needs to be pushed in the final version, what needs to be stronger, emphasized or tweaked. Shoot all these drawings together and look at the scene. Evaluate and fix/adjust if necessary. When it is all working and all the ideas you want to show are coming across, it is time to be inbetweened.

Once this is done, shoot the entire thing and evaluate again. Does everything still read? Does the timing work? Do drawings need to be removed, added, put on ones? After these changes does the dialog still work? Adjust to fit. Does the dialog on a whole work? If all the preparation has been done (thinking) beforehand, this last stage should fall into place. What is required for this to work is a commitment to do all those drawings – they are what make it alive compared to just 2 drawings and a chart. Granted the latter is what is called for sometimes, but when a scene calls for specific acting in angles, dragging, arcs, expression changes, extreme keys, if you don’t draw them and put them in, then no one will and the scene will be that much less unique and alive.

A commitment to drawing all of the things is a commitment to what you want to say. Decide what you want to tell the world and have the conviction to say it all – loudly and clearly – with a distinct voice. Then you will be heard and recognized as a contributor with value to offer. A person with something to say is far more interesting than a non-committal, or non-confrontational person. The same goes for animated scenes. They need to explode off the screen with individuality – LIFE – and the only way to achieve this is by complete commitment to the finished product. But this commitment needs to start at the beginning and last through the bad ideas, bad drawings, blocks, other people’s opinions, everything that can discourage or dissuade you from your ultimate goal and that is to create a stack of drawings that, when projected on a screen in a darkened theater, fool people the entire world over so much that they believe this is an actual living thing that they can love, hate, root for, wish against, care for, or fear. When that happens, your job is done. It will not be easy and it will require torturous hard work and that is why the commitment is so important.

Again – reckless, unrelenting commitment to the message, the idea, the voice and also the fact that this includes a commitment to do every bit of work to get there. The work is the hardest part. But in the end it will have been worth it. Imagine working all your life without this commitment only to look back and realize that you never were capable of saying what you had to tell the world. That your work was just a truncated, watered-down, scared version of the real you. Why bother? This version will never make a great animator or entertainment – just filler, also-ran scenes that lead people to remember that their favorite part is coming up. You be the one to make those favorite parts. People have made whole careers of favorite parts because of their commitment to tell what they had to say. Decide now that no matter what crosses your path, you will run through it like a locomotive with your eyes on the goal, never slowing down until you reach the target. This will make greatness in your work and satisfaction in your professional life. Take the brakes off now, there is no need to ever use them again.


  1. Absolutely wonderful – he describes the animator I want to be. I’ve noticed that as I dig through shot ideas for something to be passionate about, my work is indeed progressively better, filled with more pathos. I love his line “Take the brakes off…” because animation is not about doing the easiest, it’s about doing the best – sounds like BEST is the way to PROGRESS. Thanks for the letter Clay, it’s as inspiring as your podcasts.

    • I am so glad you were inspired by Clay’s letter! I’m honored that he offered to share his letter on this site- it’s a true treasure. I believe he describes the animator that we all want to become, at least I know that’s true for myself. Keep up the hard work Scott, it will all pay off in the end. You are an awesome guy with a lot of skill, so don’t give up! :)

  2. wow this is so awesome !!!!!!! i have now taken the brakes off my life :)

  3. Do you still have the same work flow while animating character in CG. Can you little bit talk about your workflow in Maya. Do you put the key and breakdown and polish in graph editor or do you use the layer approach? while blocking keys and breakdowns, do you touch facial or it just when you at polishing stage? do you move keys for overlap or you built overlap in your breakdown.

    thanks Clay, this letter was very inspiring and useful!

  4. Thanks for the positive feedback, guys.
    To answer Bhavin’s comment:
    I have a similar workflow for cg, but it IS modified for sure. Also, as I eventually learned in hand-drawn animation, there are different approaches for different situations. Here’s a general outline that may not make a lot of sense if you don’t use Maya, but for those who do, maybe it will help.
    – I block out the character in the major poses of the scene, keying all the body controls for each key. Usually, I’ll start with about three poses and do my best to get the subtleties of the poses to project the specific attitude – shoulder slouch, spine posture, head & neck position, hand poses.
    – I’ll also at least give the face an expression (keying everything) that is in the attitude of the scene – angry, hopeful, determined, worried. I expect to see blocking that doesn’t have any default (zero) poses, especially in the hands & face. Some indication is always better than nothing.
    – I step between these few poses quickly to make sure the spacing and weight shifts make sense. It’s best to make adjustments on these poses rather than an entire shot.
    – Autokey is on so I can adjust quickly and keep stepping between the keys. Move an arm here, the hips there, until the poses flow and show enough change from one to the other. This is why keying everything at the start is useful.
    – Now I’ll start adding “breakdown” keys. I will either make all my curves linear or keep them stepped, depending on how much the rig is freaking out on the inbetween frames. I usually don’t like what linear curves give me, so I find I pose the character myself a lot of the time.
    – I make enough new keys to define two things – the action and the timing. For example, if I need to show a character leaping and one “up” pose doesn’t give the feeling I want when I shoot it, I’ll put in some surrouding poses on either side of that “up.” Sometimes for holds, I will set the same key on different frames so I can see the hold in the curves (where values stay constant).
    – I’ll shoot the keys only (no inbetweens) and check the timing and adjust the timing of the keys to work.
    – I show in dailies for feedback.
    – This is where my approach start to match the hand-drawn one. I like to be very strict about keying in all my actions. If something I want is not an inbetween I put it in now – anticipations, ups and downs, arcs, drags, overshoots. These things can be added later, but I feel that building them in now makes a stronger foundation and allows me to design flow and change of shape more specifically. Again, autokey is on and I step through my keys, moving things that need it for flow and stronger poses.
    – One thing I’ll always do: if I move one part of the body, I move everything. If the hand gestures, it affects the upper arm, shoulder, chest, head, hips in one way or another. Everything should be connected, balanced, in chorus. Moving just one part of the rig and nothing else is lazy.
    – I’ll keep making keys on everything until it starts to feel like I only need to be moving single parts, like a hand for a specific arc. I shoot it all and if the initial facial poses don’t carry the shot, I’ll hit important moments with facial poses. It’s important to make the expression part of the pose. They are not separate. If I am diligent, the face will get pretty blocked out here. (I don’t worry about making the face poses match the frames of the body poses if there is dialog.) I’ll set all the curves to stepped and shoot it all.
    – I show in dailies again to make sure there are no surprises.
    – When I reach this point, I get in the graph editor to adjust the handles of curves. I start with auto tangents and look for where I have slow ins/outs and make those flat. In the spots where I’ve indicated a hold with two different keys with the same values, I’ll adjust the first key (for a slow in) so the curves can settle.
    – I like weighted tangents. I use hotkeys to weight, break, unbreak them so I can work quickly. I put in all the slow ins/outs, linear sections, flat sections, wholesale on each key. I’ll shoot this on ones and retime my keys if needed or add more keys if any action is missing.
    – Once I have the feeling of timing I want from the curves, I start polishing from the body out. I throw out the idea of holding onto my “key” frames. It’s the wild west now – whatever takes me to the end. The good thing is, I’ll have a strong foundation of keys that tell the whole story and the idea of the shot has been bought off in dailies by now.
    – I polish the hips, chest, legs. I’ve found that if you start fixing from here, the rest seems to follow and needs little fixing. If you start from the head and polish, changes in the body will destroy your work.
    – I only shoot after I’ve done a pass of all the changes I know I want to make. If you shoot every time you make a change, you’re wasting valuable time. Reducing the shooting also takes your focus off the little change you just made to the whole action of the shot.
    – I work on polishing the arms, hands, head. By now, any resemblance to keys is by coincidence. I usually have random keys all over the place.
    – It’s usually about this point that I look at it and think “something is missing.” It is – the facial. I dig in and do a complete facial pass. Usually when that hole is filled, the other things that didn’t work seem to fade away.
    – I shoot this and show in dailies again for notes.
    – If there are major changes, I’ll pick all of the body, key it off at a start and end point of surgery and make drastic changes. It’s much easier to throw away work and recreate it quickly than to try to do the bookkeeping of salvaging something.
    – If the direction is “wrap it up” then I’ll keep polishing until everything is the way I want it to feel.

    Even though in the end I’m moving keys where ever I need, I wouldn’t call it a layered approach because I put so much value on the keys at the start. They are the poses that define your scene. I think strong poses are harder to find with layering. It’s all a matter of taste and the goal of the end product.

    I hope you find this useful!

  5. Thanks Clay, that is really helpful.
    thanks for your reply :)
    I will try this method for my next animation test
    – Bhavin

  6. Hi Clay,

    Thanks for all the detailed information on your workflow. Great Stuff!

    Just started listening to you Podcasts. I had been meaning to for a while and finally got started. In your detailed post above you mentioned

    “– One thing I’ll always do: if I move one part of the body, I move everything. If the hand gestures, it affects the upper arm, shoulder, chest, head, hips in one way or another. Everything should be connected, balanced, in chorus. Moving just one part of the rig and nothing else is lazy.”

    I think I recall in Part 2 of your Podcast with Eric Goldberg he mentioned that was one of the things he disliked about CG was when a movement didn’t work like you explained above.

    Thanks for all the Podcasts!



  1. […] it might better serve Willie Downs’ Animator Letters Project and he was gracious enough to post it there. I got a kick out of reading it all these years later and I hope someone else does too. If you have […]

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