Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Workflow Anxiety and Animator's Block Part 1

Verbose, yes but it's a tutorial of sorts. So let's get into it.


When you've looked at a scene (or in my case, a sequence of scenes) so many times that looking at it one more time will make you want to puke. Trying to clear your mind, you dig deep and hope that what comes out of your excavation is pure gold. Not really what usually happens, but I do have some workflow techniques that have a tendancy to eliminate this "Animator's Block."

One of the first articles that I read about 3D animation workflow was Keith Lango's Pose-to-Pose tutorial. Really good stuff. Great foundation for developing a technique. But after a while, I started to get the feeling that I was going thru a formula to try to get a result. This was not any fault of the tutorial, let me be blatantly clear about that. I owe a lot of the way I currently work to what I've learned from Keith. My problem is that when something works one time, I like it to work all of the time. When it doesn't I get frustrated. I heard once that the definition of ignorance is attempting the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result. I find myself following the steps of the p-t-p method very closely. When I first started, I'd have the page bookmarked and would literally go thru and decide whether or not I was ready to "change things from stepped to linear." I actually would get anxious about stuff like that and would get choked up artistically. (btw I get the same way when I'm learning anything new. You should have seen me when I took the test to get my license! Not pretty.) This leads us to the simple question of "what now?" Well there has to be some way to make it your own. There has to be a personal element the the equation of a+b+c=good performance and animation. This is, in part, an accumulation of what I've learned in studying animation. It's an evolving technique and one that has come as an amalgam of reading. It's pretty hard to cite where everything came from, but you can get a pretty good idea of that by looking at my "links" section. It is also not by any means something to be taken as "the right way." This is what I do and it seems to work for me. Maybe it will help others out.


I usually like to sit and think a lot about a scene or sequence that I'm working on. I ride the bus here in Denver and it's about a 45 minute ride one way. So having time to think about what I want to do is really not a problem. If I get stuck or really don't know what a move should look like, I'll shooot some reference to get the ball rolling. I lay out most of my scenes with Jason Schleifer's Grease Pencil and my little Graphire. It works really well for getting a quick and dirty idea (minds out of the gutter, people) of what you want to do in the scene. If there is any kind of major action, I'll scribble out some poses and get things going. For more subtle stuff, I'll forgo this step and jump right into Maya. I'll still think about the scene, but if the poses are really similar, I prefer to do my "sketching" with gimbals. It's sort of like sculpting. You just sort of move things around and get a feel for where things are rotating. This also gives you an edge on the dreaded gimbal lock. When you get your hands dirty and move the joints around right off the bat, you get a sense for where they should go next instead of blindly posing the character. Think of it as playing with G I Joes. You can't plan out what they're going to do for too long, or playing will be boring.


The next thing I like to do is something Bobby Beck said that he does when he starts a scene. Take the character and put him or her into some poses that reflect the point of the scene and the attitude that fits. Just do some experimenting and set keys sequentially so that you can scrub thru them to view them in context of one another. This is the equivilant of traditional "flipping" or "rolling" pages. I prefer this method to thumbnailing for a couple of reasons. The first is that it allows the animator to see the poses with some kind of motion instead of looking at them in tiles on a page and guessing whether or not they work together. Most of the traditional guys reading this will probably cringe because most of the ones that I've met have a really good eye for this stuff anyway and could tell right off the bat whether or not something is going to work. I'm not smart enough to see that. I really haven't developed an eye for being able make that kind of call. The other reason I like to do this is because you eliminate having to translate drawings from a page into data points on the compy. It's all done in one step.

Just Jumping In

I know that TONS of people say that you're supposed to plan out as much as you can before you even get into the scene. That is true in a lot of people's workflow, but I like Maya. Once I have the character in that 50% grey background, I feel like I have control. I feel like it's just a matter of time before I can find what I was looking for. I start deciding whether or not the poses I've made are communicative enough. If they have a sufficient line of action. I'll cover what I mean by sufficient later. The problem with a lot of animation does break down into problems with pose and timing. I hope Mr. Lango doesn't have a patent on that phrase... But truly, I think that having an idea of what the final action will look like is key. Not nailing the poses right off the bat. Afterall, Animation is performance and action. If you can establish those early on, you can clean up the poses later.

Time Doesn't Exist... Or Does It?

Once I have the poses pretty well established and in sequential order, I'll start messing around with timing. Now I'm not going to go into detail about timing and phrasing and all that. It would be really dull and I'd probably confuse you (and myself) into a tizzy. Suffice to say that I will make sure my splines are set to "clamped" in Maya. This keeps the feet where they are supposed to be for one, while also giving you a relative idea of what the computer thinks of the keys you've set. I'll shuffle around my keys establishing my holds and also the overall feel of the scene.

Refining the Poses

Once I get the flow for a scene and how the general timing will work, every time I will go back and revisit the poses. This is what I meant earlier by sufficient. I like to get an idea of how the character is going to move around in space before I spend a lot of time on the final poses that I will use. They are usually pretty close, but pushed to be more extreme and with a cleaner line. This may be a little backwards from most, but it gives me a fresh eye for what is going on and allows me to be a little more objective. You can ask other people for their opinion, but ultimately, it's your eye that is going to get the idea of a scene across. One of the keys to being able to do all this "shuffling around" is organizing your keys. For more info on that, see Keith's site. He's absolutely spot on.

In Closing

Well, it's late and I should be animating right now, but I hope that this helps a little bit. I like to think of it as a hybrid of methods. I would not call this "straight ahead" because I still use p-t-p methodology, but it isn't the same formula of steps as p-t-p. This is not to say that my way of working will work for anyone else or that it is in any way better than any other method, but it is what I have found to work pretty well for getting a good idea of where the scene is going in a sort of, shoot from the hip pose-to-pose method. A bit of a contradiction, but that's sort of my personality coming thru. I'll go more into what I do once things are established in the near future, but until then, any comments or thoughts are welcome on the subject.



Well this is cool. Just poking around as usual on Keith's site and much to my suprise, a link! Thanks Keith. And consequently, the "rockin beat" is German oompah music. The update looks nice there, sir.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

With a Little Help from My Friends Part 2

Like I've said before, I don't do shaders. Not well anyway. I don't have an understanding of that. I don't have an interest in them at all. I like animation. But also as an artist, I don't like things to look like whipped dog turds in a blender. So part of completing a project successfully is to realize what your strengths are and to realize the strengths of those around you. My friend Vern has a pretty good understanding of how shaders work and with some help from him, he completely tore apart my scene, rebuilt it and... voila! I'm posting both versions side by side to showcase the difference in our approach. I know that this is supposed to be an animation blog with helpful tips on stuff. But knowing that you don't have to do it all to be successful is a valuable piece of info.
Incidentally, I do know a little about shaders and was able to make some changes when he was done. Enjoy.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Thru the Eyes of a Child...

There are many times when animators get frustrated. When the technical crap gets in the way, when you can't figure out which curve is causing that awful pop in the elbow, when you've painted the weights just right in one area just to realize that you created a bigger problem somewhere else. There are other times when you doubt your ability to tell a story. When you have to rely on an untrained sense of story because entertainment isn't something you can get training in. Then there are times when things work. When you finish a scene and it is everything you hoped for. The arcs are there and the timing is just right. All of the terms that you have laboriously tried to memorize like spacing or overlap don't matter because the scene just works.

I just today experienced such inspiration. One of my instructors brought four of his five kids into class for a couple minutes. He lovingly pointed out "the Jimmy Neutron Baby" and the others as well. They promptly ask for candy from mom and wander about the classroom looking eagerly over everyone's shoulders. The oldest girl, Sarah who is six, sits down next to me as I play the scene that I had just finished up. The first thing she says is, "You're a good designer." Aww, that's cute. Thanks little girl. Kids, huh? The next thing that she says blew me away. She views the scene thoughtfully a few more times as it loops in Quicktime. "The bee stings him because there is a beehive right there. And he has a flower. Bees like flowers." Wow!!! She gets it. She understood the story and the reason for the conflict. I was absolutely blown away. Up until this point I've been hoping that the concept will get across. Hoping that I didn't put all this effort into something that is animated servicibly, but is weak in the story department. With no preconceptions about what "good animation" is, little Sarah with three sentences summed up what is happening. (Well actually, two sentences and a sentence fragment. You can't start a sentence with a conjunction, but hey, she's six and she liked my film, so I'll let it slide.)

Kids don't respond to pleasing arcs or realistic fur. They don't respond to sub-surface scattering or Global Illumination. Kids and grown up type people respond to story-telling. They respond to something that they can either relate to or that they recognize as truth. Bees like flowers. Whether Sarah discovered this from Discovery Kids or from looking at flowers in her mom's garden as bees swarmed around them doesn't really matter. What matters is being able to relate on a simple level. That is where story-telling comes from. That is why films become classics. Because they give the audience something that is familiar.

Thank you, Sarah.


Friday, February 10, 2006

Finally, A Full-Color Render!!!!

While some would argue that I should be working on the actual animation of this film, there is also something to be said for having a product that is not laboriously tedious to watch. Hopefully the work I've done in the last couple of weeks has been worth it. No more Maya gray. The trained eye will notice that all I am using to light the scene is the default Final Gather setting in Mental Ray. I'll have to wait for another boring day in one of my superfluous classes to do the final lighting and get into the UV editor to work out those pesky problems with the bump map on the tree.

I've also spent the time working out some issues with the rig and finishing a scene. I am posting a playblast of that scene as well right here. It is a little out of context, but I think it's one of the more successful scenes so far. It is the moment of confrontation. Enjoy and let me know what you think.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ajay's Hilarious!

But seriously, you need to check this out.