20 December, 2010

Animation Checklist! ~Mike Stern

This post is from the Animation Tips and Tricks Blog. Mike Stern is currently animating at DreamWorks and is responsible for the amazing short film Distraxion which is hitting film festivals everywhere! He gives some great insights to the process of going through an entire shot. It's a really good read. Thanks for sharing Mr. Stern.


Can You Tell Us About Your Animation Checklist?

What is on my animation checklist? I have a series of things that I need to consider at each point during the shot.

I don't always take all of these steps on every shot, but this will work as a nice master list to pull from depending on what is expected.

At the launch, my checklist is a series of questions. Most of the time, these questions are answered as we walk through the sequence with the directors.

If these questions aren't addressed, I ask about them when my shots are reviewed.

Checklist of Questions at the Launch:

1) What is the context? What happened directly before and what is going to happen directly after the shot?

2) What are the main story points that need to come through in the shot?

3) Is there a particular emotion that we should be feeling as audience members watching this shot?

4) How much room is there to work the idea? Some shots need to stick pretty close to the boards, while others leave a lot of space for the animator to work with. It's our responsibility to know what type of situation we are dealing with.

If I know the answer to all of these questions, than I am ready to start planning my shot.

Checklist for Planning my Shot:

I use different methods for planning out an acting shot versus a physical shot. For a physical shot, I will try to find some good reference of the movement and then jump right into thumbnailing.

For acting shots, I like to spend some time analyzing the line. My checklist is as follows:

1) Go for my gut instinct. I like to get my initial instinct out on paper and possibly on the camera. I may come back to this, but I may not. Sometimes it helps to get my idea out there so that I can clear it out of the way to make room for better ideas.

2) Analyze the dialog. There are a few things that I look for in the dialog when I am planning my acting:

Dynamics: Find the places where the line has inflections. These are great places to hang acting ideas.

Phrasing: I try to assign specific verbs to go along with parts of the line. If I can assign a verb to describe what the character is doing or thinking, it is easier for me to create a pose that communicates properly.

Meaning/Subtext: Many times, characters say something that implies something more meaningful. Digging out the true meaning of the line can lead to some really fresh acting choices.

3) Research:

Character Reference: I always try to think about the character. How would they react to this situation? If this character has been animated already, how did other animators handle this type of acting?

Film reference: See if this type of situation has been handled in other films. Sometimes this will help to inspire acting ideas in a different direction.

4) Video Reference. Now that I have analyzed the scene some more, I shoot some reference. I leave the camera running until I feel comfortable. I switch it up between acting and doing. When I am "acting" I am trying to feel the line out and see what comes naturally. When I am "doing" I have a specific idea in mind that I try to imitate with my body.

Get other animators involved in the reference. I find that if can get direct feedback as I am acting, it can help the ideas develop faster. I take turns acting and directing.

Analyze the reference, find the truths. Sometimes it helps to cut together a super take with what you feel are the best choices for each part of the shot.

Make your choices. At this point I usually pick one or two ideas that I like best for each beat and start to prep those ideas for blocking

5) Apply the Principles. I look for places to add physicality, reversals, lead and follow. I make sure to exaggerate the ideas in my reference and push the things that the reference is hinting at.

6) Thumbnail. Depending on the shot, I thumbnail instead of shooting reference. On certain shots, I thumbnail after doing the reference to make sure that I am pushing the poses and the physicality.


At this point, I have a pretty good idea of what I am going to work into the shot. It's time to start blocking. For most shots, I work in stepped mode for my blocking. This enables me to do detailed poses that communicate clearly without having to worry about the in-betweens.

1) Block in my keys.
These will be the main storytelling poses in my shot. I don't have any limit to how many keys I set on my first pass of blocking, but they tend to be pretty sparse. Sometimes I will leave as many as 10-12 frames between poses. I will block in a full pose including rough ideas for the hands and face.

2) Test it and time it.
I playback my pass of keys and move them around on the timeline until the beats feel like they are in the right places.

3) Break it down.
I add my breakdowns as a part of my blocking pass. I tend to break a shot down until I have a key on about every 3-4 frames. When I add my breakdowns, I think about which key that breakdown should favor. At times I even favor different body parts to different keys. I am also thinking about my paths of action.

Once I have a pass of blocking, I will ask some questions again:

1) Is it clear? Will someone get the idea of what I am going for without any explanation?

2) Did I push the posing and timing enough?

3) Do I like the idea? I try to be the first judge of my work before I get the supervisor and directors involved. Chances are, if I don't feel good about it, then they won't either.

Get Feedback

After I am happy with my blocking, I usually take one or more of these steps before moving into a first pass.

1) Show my peers. I will send out my work to other animators working on the film to get their opinions and check to see if the idea is reading clearly.

2) Show the animation supervisor. I always show my blocking to the animation supervisor to get feedback before showing the directors.

3) Show the director(s). Once I incorporate any blocking notes from the animation supervisor, I put my work up in front of the directors.

I present my idea through my blocking and see if it is in line with their objectives for the shot.

First Pass

If I get a buy-off on my blocking, or even if I receive some minor adjustments, I take my animation into a first pass.

During the first pass my checklist is as follows:

1) Switch my curves over to a version of spline and preview the animation.

2) Push full poses around to work out the timing.

3) Adjust full poses to work in some more overlap and try to solidify the mechanics as much as possible.

4) Tie down the curves. At this point I take a look under the hood and see how the curves are looking. I clean up the flow of the curves and any obvious hitches to ease the process of cleaning up the animation.

5) Keep my keys organized. At this point, I am still trying to keep my keys clean and aligned on full frames. Since the directors have only seen the shot once there is still a chance that I may get some feedback that will require me to rework parts of the animation. If I keep the shot clean, I can easily make those adjustments.

4) Face pass. I take a pass on the face at this point. I add the phonemes for my lip sync and start thinking about how the expressions will translate from one to the next.

Get More Feedback

Once again, when I have taken a first pass across my shot, I show it to the animation supervisor. Once I get the go ahead, I move the shot into polishing.

Checklist for polishing my shot:

So now that I have buy-off on the idea, I can feel comfortable taking my shot past the point of no return. I will use a series of different animation techniques, including layering and some straight ahead, to get the physicality working in my shot.

During the polishing phase I start to work heavily with curves. To make things more focused I crop my animation timeline and focus on 50-100 frames of work.

I use tons of checklists when polishing a shot. The all-encompassing checklist is as follows:

1) Find the driving force in the shot. In most cases, it is the center of gravity at the root of the character. I make sure to get the root movement working well because everything else depends on it.

2) Work from the root up and the head down. Once the root is working properly, I work my way up the torso into the chest, shoulders, neck, and then the head. I make sure that any movement on the root follows through these joints. If there are certain accents and inflections I want to hit with the head, I will animate those directly on the head, and make sure that movements are either led or followed by the rest of the torso.

3) The limbs. When I have the torso of the characters working correctly, I focus on the limbs. Sometimes the adjustments that I make to the torso can disrupt the original animation on the arms and legs. At this point, I feel comfortable blowing that old animation away and approaching the limbs straight ahead.

4) Additional Layering. At this point I should have the majority of the movement working properly. I go back through and do some additional layering to make the movement feel organic. I do this by comparing curves and offsetting. For human characters I like to take a layering pass on the shoulders and hips. For non-human characters this is where I consider overlapping on tails and wings etc.

5) Facial animation. I take a pass and really focus just on the face. I get into the eyes to make sure that the eyelines are correct. I like to get very specific about the eye movements by using linear curves and editing my darts down to the frame. Once the darts are working, I add lid movement to support them. I plus the shapes in the lip sync and make sure that the rest of the face is supporting the lip sync movement. I tend to treat the face as a unit. When the mouth opens and closes with the sync, I make sure that the cheeks, lids and brows are all affected. When I focus on the lip sync and facial movement, I also include the head in this equation. I add more texture to the movement of the head to fully support the beats in the sync.

6) Details. At this point, I should have the majority of my animation working, but I still make sure to take another pass for the things that take a little more love, such as areas of contact or IK switching. Sometimes I frame through my broad movements and see if I can add some scaling to enhance the way things transition.

That was the big list. Now I start to use some smaller lists.

I play my animation back and list out the things that still need more attention. There are usually a couple of things that are screaming pretty loud, so I hit those first. I continue to watch the animation, make a list of things to fix, fix them, and then repeat the process.

Pushing for final

Now that I have taken all of my passes on the animation, it's time to show for final. Once again, I hit a checklist to make sure that I have covered all of the bases:

1) Is there anything that stands out as unbelievable or possibly distracting from the point of the shot?

2) Does it still have all of the ideas from the approved blocking?

3) Is the physicality pushed far enough?

4) Is there enough texture in the movement?

5) Am I happy with it?

Now it’s time to show for final. I run it by the animation supervisor and then put it in front of the directors.

Ship it

Alright, I got the final call in dailies. Nice. There is just one more list I need to run through, and then this shot is headed down the pipeline.

1) Run and check all the simulations. If the character has hair or a tail or if I am using any type of simulation, I want to make sure that it has been run with the latest animation and is looking good.

2) Check the render. I run a full resolution render of my shot on the render farm to make sure that everything looks right. Sometimes environmental elements load differently in the animation software than they do on the render farm.

3) Save and check in all of the files. I check all of the files into the server so that they can move on down the pipeline.

4) Let 'em know. Once everything is in the right place, I let the production staff know that the shot is ready to be sent on so that the next artist can start their work as soon as possible.

There you have it. These are some of the lists that I follow when working on a shot. By keeping these things in mind, I am able to keep my workflow organized and make sure that I am delivering my best animation in each shot that I take.

18 November, 2010

Perfect Imperfection ~Cameron Fielding

Wow, okay. So, I realize this post is a bit on the looooong side, but what a great post. It's funny too, because the other night I was watching (by watching I mean studying the acting) the movie Up in the Air with George Clooney and I was really studying his facial expressions, as well as the other characters in the movie and starting thinking about all the subtleties and imperfections in their movement. Funky arcs, long/short anticipations, weird eye darts, stuff like that. I was comparing it to animation and thinking about the major difference between the two. With animation you have all the power and total control over your character and everything they think and do. I understand that with the actors they get multiple takes, but with you get the problems of something turning out really good (like a head nod) on one part of the shot, but then there's a random blink in another part that you might not like (as the Director). As Animators, we get multiple iterations to get the shot just right... as Animators we're responsible we're making our shots believable to where the audience should NEVER think about the fact that they're watching animation. So I think that's where the term "Animation Ninja" comes into play. Well this post goes into great detail about bringing your shot to that next level. Think of it as un-polishing your shot, or making your shot 'dirty' to enhance it's believability yet still keeping it 'cartoony' or animated. So without anymore babbling from me.... Thanks for sharing Cameron.


Perfect Imperfection

I love animation that shows us something we recognize, and we all recognize imperfection.

I wanted to do a post on how it can be really great to add imperfection to your animation, and in this case specifically how sometimes things like a perfect ease-in or overshoot can add an element of falseness to your work when creating animation in a certain style. I say this because I was watching the shots of a particular animator here at DreamWorks who does a wonderful job of this, and wanted to understand this a little more and include it more frequently in my own work.

When I used to animated in Maya, I was never a curve editor animator. I would just look at everything in the shotCamera, and track arcs in 3D using my motionTrail script. Here at work, the software we have for manipulating curves is so good, I quickly started doing a lot of stuff in the curve editor and making a habit of smoothing stuff out cleanly and watching to make sure that everything was easing in and out nicely.

I really love using the curve editor, and probably wouldn't go back to doing it all in the viewport, but I recently noticed that my movements were becoming too smooth, too calculated and my animation was losing some of that naturalistic punch that I used to see in my older stuff.

I usually go back to live action to figure out how things really move and how it relates to animation, and below I've shared a few videos that show examples of where we may be tempted to oversimplify and oversmooth the movement. In reality there is a lot of "imperfection" that we see in the arcs of movement without really realizing it, but its part of constructing our perception concerning whether or not something is real.

You can see immediately that the arc and the spacing on the foot is not what you might expect if you just started animating this from scratch...

The arc above shows how the curve might turn out based on our assumptions, and what were used to implementing. Its pretty "perfect" and quite different to how the real foot travels through the air. This would probably result in a semi-decent looking animation, but with something looking not quite right or as if not enough detail existed in the movement.

Instead of going nice and smoothly over the top of the arc, the foot drops slightly before it rises up again at the peak. This is the natural arc as the lower leg swings forward.

Theres an interesting section here where the foot slows down before it begins to fall. If you click back on the video, we see this as a slight pause in the leg, and it illustrates thought in the characters mind... a moment of calculation as his brain thinks about the best place to land the foot.

Notice how the foot doesn't fall to the final contact pose with that perfectly accelerating downward motion, its spacing is almost linear after it starts to fall, then suddenly accelerated just before the contact. The foot is not an object freefalling through space - the leg above it can alter and "imperfect" the spacing as it falls.

As the woman gestures, she holds out her hand, and for a part of the gesture she appears to hold it relatively still as she moves it screen right...

When we track this "smooth" part, its clear how irregular the arc is. Despite the fact its not obvious when we watch the video above, its all going on under the hood, and adding to our perceptions of whether or not the character is real.

The movements of the head are a particularly ideal place to use this idea. When we start animating, we quickly learn about what can make head moves appealing - such as dipping the nose on a turn, a slight nod or twist in the opposite direction before a change etc. These are by all means valid, and used wisely can really add to head animation. Take a look at some of these videos below where I tracked the nose to see how the head is moving, and you quickly see how "wobbly" and unsmooth the curves are. I find this stuff really interesting to study.

Here's another curve we might normally be tempted to smooth out - reducing its subtle realism. I love the little bump at the top, and the small "glitch" in the deceleration at the bottom of the curve.

The guy in the blue shirt above shows how erratic the arcs on a head can really be. Whether or not your shot would call for this kind of detail depends on many things, but its just really interesting to me to see how crazy it can get, on a move that isn't really that extreme at all.

Without getting into the subject of overlap and inherited motion, you can see clearly how a more complex action like sitting down and adjusting weight and balance can increase the scale of these direction changes.

Even movements that are supposed to appear smooth and elegant may contain these irregularities, they are just smaller and less noticeable.

The arcs are almost "smooth" but not quite. I might be tempted to round out the tops of the curves and even out the spacing, but these subtle effects can increase the believability.

As far as how to implement these irregularities, it is definitely something I would recommend doing right at the last stages of polish. You can do this by just playing with the curves and adding little bumps and notches, but it can be very hard to get it to look right, and not like you just screwed up smoothing your shot...The reason for calling this post "perfect imperfections" is because nature will always do this exactly right! If your software supports it, I would even recommend doing this on another animation layer, that way its easy to experiment and scale things bigger and smaller without changing your main acting underneath.

Its important to mention that in animation we don't strive for "realism", we strive for communication of the idea. If the idea is ultra realism, then yes we animate as realistically as we can, but normally we are extracting the essence of movement and simplifying it to make the statement clear. So then, are all these imperfections necessary? no, I don't think they are absolutely needed, but they do add a layer of information to the idea you are communicating - audiences all know instinctively that natural motion is varied and irregular, and by including this in your animation you help make your characters appear more lifelike - which may make the audience more likely to believe what they have to say.

27 October, 2010

Self Doubt Causes Stress ~Stephen Silver

I thought I would post this as a good reminder to all....
Stephen Silver is an amazing illustrator/artist. I get weekly emails from him and thought that this one is pretty important and should be passed on. He talks about self doubt and the stress that it causes. I think that everyone could benefit from reading this (not just you Animators). In my opinion, self doubt creates a low self-worth which leads to feelings and energy and that can lead to a negative spiraling effect that doesn't do anybody any good and your work will ultimately suffer. I think in any artistic field, especially animation, people tend to compare themselves to those that are better than them and think to themselves that they'll never be that good. I found this to be extremely motivating and inspirational.

SELF DOUBT that causes stress

“Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we often might win by fearing to


I think Self Doubt is one of the greatest causes of stress and non progression. Not believing in our own abilities creates fear in ourselves and causes us not to take the first step in accomplishing what we want. Self doubt is having that lack of confidence to believe in our own ability. Why do we create this pain within our minds? I believe that self doubt is based on the fact that we have simply not tried, it is the fear of the unknown, we are often caught up and focused on somebody else's belief, an experience they may have had, something we have heard about. Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that could happen if I try, if I just do it? I know my journey as an artist has brought a lot of self doubt about my abilities along the way. The fear of what other people may think about my work. It is natural to feel self doubt, if we could just let go of our doubts, change our thoughts into positives, relax and accept what is, then we will succeed. Always remember, do what you can do for yourself, other people don't run your life, you run your life, you are the sole creator of what it is you wish to achieve, you have full control. I love a quote I once read “You can either sit on the sidelines, or join in the dance.” Make the effort to not doubt, release your fear, believe in yourself, avoid the stress and enjoy all this wonderful life has to offer.

Follow your passion, be persistent, and live with enthusiasm.
Make it a great week!

My new book is coming out next month, if you pre-order this week and live in the U.S shipping is FREE

01 October, 2010

Acting, Breathing and Al Pacino ~Brendan Body

Ok wow! My buddy Kool Kamal posted this on his Facebook page and I had to repost it here! Breathing is one of those things when you're polishing your shot will give it that nice final touch and really bring your character to life. Brendan Body (such a cool name) talks about it here and uses Al Pacino as his reference. Brendan is an amazing Animator who's worked on a ton of movies (Harry Potter, Hellboy II, Happy Feet). This is definitely something I'll look back when I'm polishing a shot and wondering what I have left to do. Awesome stuff, Thanks Brendan!
Breathing is not something we are often conscious of, therefore animating a character breathing during dialogue is easily overlooked. Spending the time studying and adding this to your shot can really create a great sense of believability to your work. In fact, as we'll discover, breathing is something that can be used to drive a performance.

We first should take some time to understand how breathing works and what controls it.

Breathing, as I'm sure you're aware, is the expanding and shrinking of the lungs. This is primarily driven by the diaphragm which contracts, moving down and pulling air into your lungs, then during the exhale the diaphragm relaxes, moving up and expelling the air from our lungs. However, this is not the only force acting on the lungs. There are muscles around the ribs which contract, expanding the rib cage by swinging the ribs up, then on the exhale they expand and the ribs swing down causing the rib cage to get smaller.

I've used a 3d animation package to create a graph which represents how lung volume changes during a typical breath taken when at rest. The air fills quickly at first then slows as it reaches the apex, on the exhale, the air leaves the lungs quickly at first then slows as the lung volume reaches it's lowest point.

However when we speak, our breathing pattern is very different. The air is inhaled as before but is then compressed, the muscles around the ribs and the diaphragm working against each other to condense the air in our lungs to create a positive pressure there. The air is then steadily released as the the dialogue is spoken, then after the line of dialogue is finished, the diaphragm is relaxed. This causes the last of the air to empty quickly from the lungs, then we start to breathe in and the process can begin again.

Of course this is not a one way process, dialogue also affects the lung volume - if the dialogue has a particularly loud accent in it, that will affect the lung volume by creating a sudden drop. I've represented this above in my lung volume graph by showing a drop in the curve. As well as loud accents, often 'w' sounds use greater amounts of air and will also cause the above to happen.

Now we have looked at this in abstract, let's look at an example. I've selected a clip of Al Pacino from the start of the teaser trailer for Ocean's 13. Al Pacino's breathing is often quite apparent in his performances. I suspect this is because he was originally a stage actor and has learned how to use and exaggerate his breathing to help to project his voice. But in this case, I believe he's using it primarily to drive tension into his voice.

Ocean's 13 teaser trailer can be found here

transcript -
"I know people, highly invested in my survival and they are people who really know how to hurt in ways you can't even imagine."

First, let's talk about the performance in general. Al Pacino's character Willy Banks, is a powerful and ruthless casino owner and he has just learned of Danny Ocean's plans to disrupt his business. In this shot, he warns him that there would be violent consequences if Ocean carries out these plans.

"You're joking?"

Al's character is incensed at the idea that anyone would set out to damage his business, although the conversation is conducted in public, he doesn't want to draw attention to himself. He's also very clever and doesn't want to reveal that he is affected by this. Al Pacino's performance is very restrained, but it's charged with an intensity which leaves us in no doubt that he is deeply enraged. He keeps his face predominately impartial, at only one point does he let the anger he's feeling creep briefly onto his face - just before he says "really know how to hurt". This is known as a 'microexpression', to do this voluntarily, really shows Al Pacino's acting genius, they naturally occur when someone is trying to conceal or repress an emotion. This one flashes across his face, it is literally only there for one frame, hard to spot when the clip is played at full speed but we read it subconsciously.

Microexpression - incandescent rage

There is a wonderfully subtle texture as well as a change in tempo and tone through the piece. During the first line "I know people" his body is ever so slightly loose and there is a hint of a smile that says "you're joking, aren't you?". Then, as he says "highly invested in my survival...", his body tenses, the speed of his delivery increases and we get that glimpse of anger he's feeling, then at "you can't even imagine" his eyes widen and his speech slows down again to intimidate his opponent by suggesting that he could do something crazy.

"I could do something crazy"

Al Pacino's phonemes, like his performance, have been kept small but he's using his breathing to generate as much tension in his voice as possible as well as project what would otherwise be just a whisper. He's forcing as much air as he can through the narrow exit of his voice box. If you watch his throat you can see it tense as he speaks, then relax as he releases the pressure to breathe in.

Analysis of Al Pacino's Breathing from Brendan Body on Vimeo.

Here I've animated a representation of his lung volume on the right hand side of the screen. If you would like to step though this video and/or view it at larger size I have placed a quicktime version here

What's interesting is how almost all his movement is initiated or affected by his breathing. You can see his body tensing as he compresses the air before each line of dialogue, then you see his body relax slightly as he inhales. This causes his body to rock backwards a couple of times during this scene. There is only one small body and head movement during "even" that appears to be separate from his breathing.

Here is the animation curve of the bar in the movie above. We can see how the breathing pattern we cited above appears throughout the performance, note the way it varies too. We can also see how the rhythm of his breathing echos the intensity in the performance - at the start during "I know people" his breath is slower, drawing out the exhale in his 'almost laugh', but as his delivery gets more vehement during "highly invested in my survival ... who really know how to hurt" his breathing gets faster, shorter and we find small half-breaths. Then during that intimidating last line, we can see how he slows down again.

So, how can we use this? Well, if you were trying to create a subtle performance and wanted to keep the character still, but not so much that the character 'dies', and obviously we don't want the character just floating around randomly, we could base the character's movements around the breathing and can be sure it will work and add to the performance. Also, if you wanted to create an intensity in your performance you could exaggerate the breathing and seek to show the the tension in the body as the character compresses and holds the air in their lungs as they speak.

Thanks to James Cunliffe who helped me put this post together.

28 September, 2010

Spying for Lying.... Huh?

I found a link to this on the Spline Doctors' blog and found it rather interesting! The Spying for Lying blog goes into great depths of non-verbal communication and facial emotions. It's an interesting site for anyone into Character Animation. Check it out.

The second link is about capturing emotion through their gestures/body language... a great source of reference.



What Takes a Demo Reel From Good to Great? ~Nelson Brown

I was fortunate enough to meet Nelson while attending Animation Mentor since graduating last year he went to Reel FX to work on Open Season 3 and now he is working at Dreamworks on their latest and greatest movie Megamind. He talks about taking your demo reel to the next level and making it awesome! Thanks Nelson for your insights!

For me, it's the little things.

As animators, our goal is to make the audience believe that the character is alive. For me, a big part of that is a convincing secondary action. Don't get me wrong - clear acting, good body mechanics, strong poses, etc. are all crucial and are all necessary in a good reel. However, once those things are there, it's those subtle human imperfections that take it to the next level.

Something as simple as breathing, blinking at the right moment, fidgeting, darting the eyes, if done right, can be so powerful by adding another layer of human believability to your character. These are just examples, of course, and it's important to remember not to pull the focus from your primary action. I like to think of secondary action as a "spice" that can be used carefully to add some extra interest to your shot or reel.

This is a big reason why I like video reference. If I only plan out in my head every motion that my character will make, I find it often results in an overly "choreographed" look. However, if I act out my shot in front of the camera, I often notice all kinds of little things my body does that I never would have consciously noticed.

In my opinion, the best reels are the ones that make me forget I'm watching cartoon characters and make me truly believe that I'm watching a living being.


18 August, 2010

Describe Your Workflow When You Start Animating a Shot. Is There a Right or Wrong Way? Travis Tohill

This was in the latest and greatest Animation Mentor newsletter... as far as work flow goes, trying to explain proper work flow to someone who is learning to animate is nearly impossible. Every Animator animates different (I know that I've mentioned that before in my posts) and it takes a lot of time to hone in your own personal work flow. Here are some great insights from Travis Tohill. He talks about the importance of planning out your shots, I recently posted the free Plastic Animation Paper which is a great tool.... not to be too redundant here, so here it is....
I've definitely learned that there is no "right way" to animate a shot. I've seen people animate in ways that seem insane to me, but somehow they get amazing results. I've also had some co-workers look at my method with puzzled looks in their eyes, but it works for me. So anyone that tells you there is one way to animate hasn't been exposed to enough animators yet.

However, there is a right and a wrong way to plan your shots. It's very simple. ALWAYS PLAN YOUR SHOTS!!! I have been guilty in the past of trying to rush through my planning and start on a shot to save time. Inevitably, I end up wasting more time stumbling through my animation, and my work never looks as good.

My work flow has become pretty consistent since I've started working. If my shot has dialogue, I will listen to it repeatedly until I have a very solid feel for the timing and dynamics. No matter what kind of shot it is, I always shoot video reference. I try to take the time to do many different takes so that I have a lot of options to choose from. It is a lot quicker to explore ideas in front of a camera than it is to animate them. One thing I always try to keep in mind when filming myself is to try to not be too conscious of what I'm going to look like on screen. I've found that if I am thinking about how I am posing myself my reference will end up looking unnatural and will also be filled with generic animation ideas. However, if I simply try to put myself in the mindset of the character, forget the camera, and actually react to the situation in a natural way, my reference will be full of little ticks and behaviors that I probably wouldn't have thought of. It makes for more believable and interesting animation.

Once I have a direction that I am happy with, I thumbnail out my key poses and take notes for myself. I don't worry about whether the drawings are good or whether anyone else can understand my notes. They are a blueprint for me to be able to build my shot, and the process of drawing them forces me to really study what is happening in the reference. I always make sure to pay attention to not only the main poses, but how the different body parts move from pose to pose. I often find it is the spaces between the poses that can make the difference between a character feeling real or animated. Clean arcs are of course one of the fundamentals of animation, but sometimes you need a little messiness in the movement. This is especially true in visual effects animation for live action films.

At this point, I can finally jump onto the computer and start my blocking. My first blocking pass usually sticks very close to the thumbnails and reference. I personally like to have my first set of keys be a performance that I know is already solid before I start deviating. My final animation may end up vastly different than my original reference, but it gives me a great foundation to start with. Once I feel like that is working, I will begin pushing the poses, tweaking the timing, and exploring ideas. Also, this is around the point when I try to get feedback from my leads or co-workers to see what they feel is or isn't working well.

After that, it is hopefully (but not always) a painless process of getting notes and making revisions until you end up with a fantastic final product!

10 August, 2010

Plastic Animation Paper 4.0!! For FREE!

If you're an Animator, this is something you MUST have in your 'Animation Toolbox'. It's a completely FREE software that is ideal for thumb-nailing and planning out your shots (heck, you could even create an entire animation with it!). It's called Plastic Animation Paper v4.0. Fully customizable interface, very intuitive design, take your animation planning to the next level and endless possibilities and what you can do with it!


Go through the tutorials and learn about all this awesome software can do!!


One thing that they recommend is that you have a Wacom tablet, but you can still use a mouse if you don't have one (I recommend getting one anyway, another "tool" for you arsenal). This is amazing stuff, it does a lot and it could really help save time when you're in the planning stage of animation!! I recommend it, and I'm definitely going to be using it on my next shot!

Thanks PAP!!

30 July, 2010

Workflow ~Mike Walling

Alright, I know that I've posted work flow threads before. But work flow is one thing when you're learning animation is definitely a 'growing pain'. Each animator has their own unique work flow and determining what that is is a 'to each their own' type method is what it's all about. I get asked a lot by students that I've been lucky enough to Peer Buddy at Animation Mentor regarding work flow and what work flow is the right one. There's really no definitive answer, because every ones' work flow is different. This is why I'm posting yet another interpretation of another awesome Animator's work flow. Hopefully it will give you some tips in honing your own work flow. I've been animating for about 2.5 years now and I feel like I've developed my own work flow that works for me. Thanks Mr. Walling for sharing!

Workflow (shot progression)

By Mike Walling

This is the simple process I use to break down a shot from concept to finished piece. It is based on the step curve method of animation and is in my opinion the closest to 2d you can get in 3d.

  • The Kickoff – Getting direction and thinking about continuity.- The kickoff is where the director discusses the sequence to all of the animators and covers the content of each shot. This is your chance to see your shot in continuity and ask the director any questions you may have about your shot or the sequence.
  • Preparation

a. listen to the audio track about a hundred times listening for the beats and inflections in the voice. I like to write out the dialog on paper or a dope sheet and then draw little arrows to get a visual of what the voice is doing.

b. Thumbnail out some story telling poses or shoot reference. I have found that for complex acting or action shots reference is the only way to go. Without it you will never get the dynamics of the action. Thunbnails are also a great way to start thinking about poses you might want to use. I was always taught that animation is 90% preparation and 10% execution; although I have to admit that most times for me it is about 40% prep and 60% execution out of fear of the ever looming deadline.

  • Time management.

- This is a pretty big one to me. As an animator at a major studio you have two major responsibilities. The first one is to produce quality animation. After all that is what you were hired to do right? The other is to get the work done on time. This is what I call “walking the line” or “pleasing administrative and creative”. Animators that have a hard time with this don’t usually last long in a feature production because they just can’t adjust to the constant changes from the director and getting the work done on time with the quality that is expected from the supervising animators, not to mention that the team you work with is a competitive team and everybody wants the ‘good shots”. This leads me to….

  • Workflow

- What steps do you take to get your shot done? Well we have covered some of them already. We already talked about listening to the audio track and shooting reference footage and drawing thumbnails. Now what?

- Blocking! When I start blocking my shot I’m only concerned with the story telling poses. We will put all of the details in later. For now we are just interested in making the poses feel right when we run a playblast.

- Put everything you want in the acting. Don’t hold back because you’re not sure how to get from pose to pose. Just go for it!!

- Key the whole character! Why? Because later when you start splining you might miss stray keys and it’s a pain to wrangle them when you could just lock everything down on each pose. It also makes it easy to shift timing around on the fly. One other reason is when it comes time to spline the shot it is easy for me to spline sections of the shot instead of the whole thing at once.

- Your blocking should include finger poses and good facial. Don’t worry about lip sync; this should be done almost last!

Now that you have blocked out some poses it’s time to flip your animation and see what you have. This is the time to adjust your timing since you have all of your poses on one frame each. Now that you are happy hopefully) with your blocking it is time to start thinking about the transitional keys (breakdowns). Don’t let the computer do too much of the work for you and have an idea of what character will look like going from pose to pose. Remember we are still in step curve mode. No splining yet!

- Put breakdowns where needed. I usually put them in to describe a move

between poses or an antic. I learned from my friend Mike Thurmeier to put

a anticipation key and then a stretch key.

- Start thinking about your slo-in’s and slo-out’s. For example if my pose is

on frame 120 and I want my pose change to take place over 8 frames then

I’ll key the whole body at 116 and at 124. Then I’ll back off the pose on

frame 120 which will cause a slow-in from frame 120 to 124.

- Splining! To me this is the hardest part because you have this nice neat

tight package of poses and now you have to tear it all down into fluid

motion. I think the key is to take things in small chunks and work through it.

- I think the best way to go is to spline the gross movement of the

Character first. Usually the torso, neck and head. I like to make layers in

Maya so I can hide the limbs. This way I can see only the parts that I’m

animating. Once I feel like the torso is tight I will turn on the limbs and start

working through them.

- Your animation might look a little strange now, with lots of holds and

simple transitions but that’s ok because now your going to go into more

detail and start breaking things up big time.

- Start to drag spline curves of movers that you want to overlap.

- Insert more breakdown keys on individual movers (not on the whole body)

- Start to get the fluidity in the motion breading away from the pose to pose


- This is a great time to start to add little moves and gestures that you didn’t

put into the blocking. We are moving past the story telling poses to fluid

movement. You want you acting to feel natural and human so don’t be

afraid to tear down the old keys to make new ones.

- Listen for the littlest of inflections in the voice and add little accents and

moves that will add to the performance. ( I’m still only working on the

torso, neck and head.)

At this point you should step back, watch your playblast (movie file) over and over

and ask your self these questions.

1. Is the timing feeling right?

2. Do I have good slow-in’s and slow-out’s?

3. Are there “dead zones” where I’ve gotten lazy and under-animated my character’s nuances.

4. Is the animation stiff or fluid? If it is stiff, do I have the keys of the body all landing on the same frame too often? Is it floaty, is my timing too spread out?

Now it’s time to do the same thing for the arms and legs.

- Follow the same procedure outlined previously. You will put more overlap

in the arms and legs in general and make sure you beef up the arcs and

transitions to make them look a little more interesting.

  • Facial animation

- I follow pretty much the same principles for the face and lip sync as I do for

the rest of the body.

- Since you have the face blocked in from earlier and is now simple splines

you can easily go in and tweak the timing for your facial transitions. Of

course the face will be much more subtle so you will have to be sensitive to

the acting and emotion you are trying to convey, after all this is what it is all

about right?

- As far as lip sync is concerned you will have to start at frame one and set a

pose on all of the mouth movers for the shape you want. Work your way

down shape by shape until you are done and then run a playblast. Now you

can look at it a few times looking for problem areas you can tweak. I find

this to be fairly easy but spend them most time tweaking. Over all if my shot

is scheduled for 5 days I will try to spend at least one day or more on the

face and lip sync.

What Seperates a Good Animator From a Bad One? ~Travis Tohill

As I make my way through this journey called Animation I see awesome animation/animators everywhere I'm look! I get blown away with every feature film that I see now days. Look at Toy Story 3 or How To Train Your Dragon, absolutely beautiful work. Throughout the whole movie I'm asking myself what is separating these animators from one another? Why am I not this good yet? What does it take to animate for one of these awesome movies? I found this on the Animation Tips and Tricks blog and thought it was worth remembering! It's about going the extra mile. When you think your shot is finished go through it one more time and really look at the fine details. There's a fine line between over working a shot, and putting just the right amount of polish in it.

There are a lot of things that separate a good animator and a bad animator. I will skip the obvious things like talent, speed, good mechanics, fundamentals, etc. There are a lot of animators out there that have all of those qualities. I know for me, two things that inspire me are an animator's attention to detail and creativity. Of course, all shots have to tell the story, sell the emotion, have good body mechanics, timing, weight, etc. What is unfortunate is that a lot of times a shot will have all of those elements, and then the animator will consider it done. I've been guilty of it myself.

A good animator will work his shots until they are good enough to be in the film. A great animator will take it that extra 5 percent past what is required and make it amazing. Feet don't land square to the floor most of the time, and fingers don't grab an object and then stop moving. Eye lids are constantly reacting to what is happening in the eyes, and the face has so many ticks and tiny oddities that it is overwhelming. The animators that blow me away always seem to take the time to add the small imperfections that make a shot feel real. Sometimes there are small details that you feel more than you see. However, if they weren't there it wouldn't feel nearly as sweet.

The other thing that really gets me pumped about a shot is an acting choice that I would never have thought of. Some animators are able to come up with ways of expressing an emotion or an idea that are wildly original but seem to not be out of place for the character. It is very obvious in those moments that the animator put in the effort to avoid the cliches and brainstormed until they had something special.

So, I guess I could sum up my view of a good animator as someone who has all of the skills but also takes real pride in their work. They aren't just trying to get their shots approved by the director, and they aren't running with the first idea that will work. They are not just trying to get four seconds of footage into the film. They are trying to create four seconds of inspired animation that will help elevate the film. I've seen animators that have been in the industry for many, many years and still labor over their shots that way. I am hoping that I can end up being one of them even after I've been doing this for a few decades.