Thanks to Ellen Woodberry for coming and teaching a workshop on drawing animals at Calarts. She was lead animator for Pegasus in Hercules. Some of the concepts in the article were pulled from her class.
Let’s say for instance that you were given the assignment to animate a beagle. The first mistake would probably be to go through animation archives and look for an animated beagle. Note that I said “mistake”. If you use that for your inspiration, the maximum that you can do is do something as well as them. You’re making a low ceiling for yourself. Besides that, what you’re creating becomes a copy of a copy (usually a poor degraded copy at that! no matter how good an artist you are!)
However, if you go back to the original source you’ll be able to catch much more of the essence of the animal you are animating, not to mention if you’re lucky you might just get even more of that force than the other animators who have attempted it! (hey it’s possible! And by going back to the original source you aren’t limiting yourself!)
One great thing you can go to for referrence are national geographic programs (just watch your tv guide, this is like a GOLDMINE!). Also alot of video stores (and libraries!) now actually allow you to rent national geographic videos (and other similar videos). Check them out! And while you’re at the library see if you can find any books on the behavior or lives of your animal.
Another thing to remember though is that if at all possible you should try to observe and TOUCH the animal in person. Be able to see how they really move, how they behave, and actually feel the muscles. In a way its like feeling how they work so that you can translate them into your own feelings and actions when you are animating.(and that’s the most important thing about it right? Learning to get yourself into character?) It becomes tough when animating animals, since obviously you are human and your joints aren’t in the same place. Alot of the time however you can find cooresponding joints in the animals that are similar to humans. Cats for example walk on their toes (if a human were to attempt a cats standing posture, he would have to be on all fours with knees bent and standing on his toes). Look for these kind of parrallels in whatever you are trying to draw or animate. This way you’ll be able to understand the motion better.
Think about WHY an animal is built the way it is. Why does it have big or small feet, what does it’s posture tell you about it’s life style? Is it a meat-eater or a herbavore? Even the possitioning of the animals’ eyes can tell you alot about it’s life style. Animals have different size ears and different shaped legs for reasons, see if you can figure out the reasons behind those funny shapes and sizes.