Reflections: End of 2012

December 28, 2012

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So here we are, just days away from 2013. So what have we done this whole year?

In the first quarter of the year, Ben 10: Destroy All Aliens aired on Cartoon Network, I got up real early to catch it. In the same day we had an internal screening for all the staff. Needless to say this was a ground-breaking event for us – the biggest and most ambitious project so far. From layout to final composite we had a little less then a year to finish everything. Animation itself wasn’t finaled till the very last month(week?). The entire process was nerve wrecking, exhausting. It seemed like it would -never- end.

And this month, at the Asian Television Awards, Ben10 won in every category it was nominated for.

Bravo, team :), this would not have been possible without each and everyone of you!

Now, what’s next?

In September, I’ve ended an amazing 5 year run with Tiny Island Productions. Through them I’ve been allowed to wear many hats – Animator, Animation Instructor, Animation Supervisor, even Project Manager. I’m blessed to have had the chance to experience all of these, thanks so much everyone! Thanks Dave!

Now I’m on to my next Adventure! What does the future hold? Who knows??

But I’m pretty sure it’ll be just as awesome 😀

 

Happy 2013 everyone!

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Recent events

December 18, 2010

So many things happened recently, Dream Defenders had a cinema premiere earlier this month. (Tickets pictured) I’ve always wanted to work on features, to do something I’m proud of and see our names on the big screen. This is one solid step towards that direction!

But some bad news, another local studio has closed their doors,.I’ve heard rumblings about the problems they’ve face since two years ago. But I never thought they’ll close down, their pet project  is Kung Fu Gecko, slated to come out before Dreamwork’s Kung Fu Panda. But Panda came and went, and still no Gecko in sight.

I’ll leave you guys with a fantastic write up by Keith Lango about running a team of animators. I cut my animation teeth on his video tutorials until he stopped the subscription earlier this year. Check out his site!

Strength in Posing

August 12, 2010

I’ve been doing more self-study recently, a “refresher” you might say. Here are their key points;

Just as there are principles in animation, there are also principles in posing, good posing has weight, solid line of action, clear silhouette, contrast in shapes, and asymmetry.

“C” is obviously the strongest pose, it fufills all of the above. Lets see a breakdown why it is the strongest.

“B” and “C” has similar line of action,

But “C” has contrast in shapes, every complex shape is balanced by a simple shape, this makes the pose more visually appealing.

I’m going to go off a little on a tangent here, bear with me – The kind of shapes you produce in the poses effects the feel of the pose. On the most basic level it’s basic vs complex shapes. On a higher level, you have to consider the kind of emotions the shapes might invoke in your audience. Example, pose your character with a lot of sharp angles and and elbow bents, chances are they are going to look more aggressive and threatening.  And round smooth shapes in your poses give a more inviting feel to it. If this sounds a lot like the shapes theory in concept art, it is. The same principles behind making a character design looks aggressive/friendly works just as well for us.

Ok back on topic-

Not only are the shapes balanced, they play off each other by opposing each other in positions as well, see how much weaker it is if we didn’t have asymmetry in their positions. However, that does not mean it always have to oppose each other, if the silhouette of the pose has enough asymmetry, it works just as well, like so-

It’s very very easy to over-do the things mentioned here and end up with a pose that’s way too broad. Control is key, remember less is more, don’t go so crazy pushing the silhouette values you forget about the purpose of the pose.

There’s another thing that makes your poses stronger, Tension. By introducing torque to your posing you give increased tension to your pose, I’ll probably have a separate pose about that.

image credit

 

The idea of Animating Forces vs Animating forms is something that flipped a switch in my head when I first encountered it, I can’t remember exactly who or where I heard it from, but once I understood it, it completely changed the way I animate. Years of established techniques thrown away just like that.

It’s one of the more abstract concepts of animation, and one rarely explained, I shall attempt to explain that here, and how I use it in my workflow. I’ll go over the general idea, I’ll focus on the techniques in future write ups.

When learning animation, especially 3D animation, we get so absorbed moving the rig/character around, posing it. It’s so natural to focus on the pose of the character, that once we learn the importance of silhouette values, we try to put that into every single shot. All the above is important, but even when doing it on an instinctive level, it’s hard to -really- focus on the force behind the action, instead of the form. This is also the reason why so many new animators like to animate straight-ahead – it’s easier to “feel” the motion that way.  I do it too.

How do you focus on animating forces instead of the forms of the character then? If you’ve ever animated straight-ahead like mentioned before, relying on your gut instincts to guide you through your shot, you’ve probably done it – animating forces instead of forms. When animating straight ahead, the previous pose determines the next pose, the only way forward is to flip through the poses and see how the weight/force is travelling, and make adjustments to the next pose, your focus is less on the overall form of the character, more on the force.

The end result is usually wonky, the poses aren’t pushed far enough, and it’s difficult to makes changes to any pose – it will ruin every pose down the line.

But then you can try using pose to pose right? However;

1) Pose to pose requires you to know exactly what is going to happen next, no more scrubbing through the splined animation and looking at what the computer gives you before you decide on the next pose.

2) Because of the above, pose to pose animation easily lose the “energy” found in straight-ahead animation.

3) You’re back to animating forms instead of forces.

What then?

The best way to correct this is to adapt a workflow that uses both straight-ahead and pose to pose.

I block my animation in stepped, the focus is on the poses. Here I will push my poses as far as I need, free from the constrains of figuring out how the poses are going to connect. It’s not important at this stage. I might have it planned out on paper, but I’m not going to bother with it in 3D just yet. This is the first blocking pass.

2nd blocking pass, now I start to add in the break-downs, get a good picture on how the poses are going to connect. This is where the concept of Forces vs Forms need to start coming in. Add breakdowns and feel the force of the motion going through your animation.

Using the key poses as a guide, make the breakdowns work with them. If you get through this unscathed, you will have something that has strong poses, and forceful motion. (Note: forceful does not mean “Strong”, it simply means appropriate force for the shot)

3rd blocking pass, refine the arcs, tweak the weight shifts, flesh in the finger poses. It might different for other people, but I stay in blocking as long as I can. That way I can do my changes quickly and have very little to change when I go into splinning.

Splinning, I have one huge pass for this. And this is where I go back to straight-ahead, all the odd twitches and movement have to be smoothed out. Using my blocking as a guide, I go back to using my gut instinct to “feel” the motion in spline. This way I get to keep my pushed poses, and still get a pass that focused on the Force of the motion. Minor tweaks to key poses is necessary.

Lastly polish, this can be tricky, polish too far and your animation looks smooth, fluid, and devoid of any sense of weight. You’ll lose the poses you’ve so carefully preserved and the motion you’ve carefully tweaked. Keep in mind the force of the motion, sometimes I might favour the force in motion over the form of the poses. This is especially true in an action heavy sequence.

The gist of it is quite simple, keep in mind the motion of the force at all times, don’t lose sight of it when you’re too busy pushing your poses. I was doing that for the longest time, and I couldn’t figure out why my animation look so stiff, the only way to make it more fluid is to do it straight-ahead. And I’ll wonder why I don’t have those awesome poses I see in other people’s animation. This is my remedy, it’s not the only way, and I still think my poses could be much stronger. But I do wish someone told me when I started learning animation, so here it is. I hope that’s useful to someone.

Part II I’ll talk about using Change in Shapes to animate forces.

Fluidity in animation

June 28, 2010

Here’s some observations I’ve made regarding fluid motion;

Arcs – The number one reason why your nicely timed animation looks stiff and odd, it’s one of the core principles of animation, but not pushed often enough. Not just the major arcs, that’s easy to spot. Its the small arcs in a small anticipate, or a tilt of a head that often goes forgotten. It’s amazing what it does to one’s animation when detailed attention is paid to them.

Squash and Stretch – For some reason, many still relate squash and stretch to cartoony movement. It’s present everywhere! Using it as a way of pushing overlap and follow-through gives incredible softness and organic feel to the animation.

Overlap and Follow-through – Use these as a way to cushion into a moving hold, and push it for as long as you can get away with. Don’t let your moving holds die, use these to keep them alive.

Breathing – And breathing too, use them in conjunction with overlaps and follow-through to give your holds more life! Very easy to forget, and harder to animate then it sounds.

Why am I posting these? I’m posting these because most of the notes I’ve got from the director during the recent animation test was to “make it more fluid“, and committing my thought process to this blog should help me remember it better. I have horrible memory.

For my next workflow post I’ve decided to do a dance, Napolean Dynamite’s dance to be exact. I’ll be posting my progress in the coming weeks.First off, my video reference, followed by the planning thumbnails.

The original video grabbed off youtube is here.

Followed by my edited clip to fill in the blanks where the camera cuts to the audience. Final length – 34 Seconds

Next are the thumbnails I’ve done as planning for this clip.

Before I started, I never knew how much planning I needed to do! 15 pages later, I’m finally ready to start blocking. Updates to come.

I’ve animated a simple backflip to better illustrate my current (and ever changing) workflow, to put it simply, I got hold of a video reference, did some thumbnails to figure out the key poses, then threw it into Maya for blocking, splining and polishing. (Note: youtube is cutting off the last second of my animation for some strange reason. I’ll have to re-upload them later, or switch to Vimeo)

Video Reference


I downloaded this clip and covert it to .mov format so I can frame through it. Then I watch the clip over and over again taking note of the weight shifts, overall timing and whatever nuances it has.

Planning

I thumbnailed the key poses to get a better sense of the overall action. This step is really important, thumbnailing lets you sift out the “noise” present in all video reference, condensing it down to simple shapes, and in doing it you get a better sense of the poses and body mechanics involved. Don’t get over eager and skip this stage, I cannot emphasize enough how useful this is.

Blocking

I usually work in stepped mode, that is, with stepped default tangents. This allows me to quickly make any changes I need and allows me to keep my focus on the poses. Depending on the animation, sometimes I go down to keying on twos to get the animation to read. I used to rush through this stage, getting into splining as fast as I can, that’s where all the animation takes place right? No. Blocking is animation, and it’s the foundation you build your shot on. Don’t fall into the trap of going “I’ll fix this in splining/polish”

Splining

I hate moving from blocking into splining from blocking. It makes my carefully crafted poses go nuts.

Holy crap. What. Happened.

Thing is, it’s normal for the animation to look a little crap when it goes into splining. Especially in Maya, the default tangents don’t work too good. Now we just need to go into the graph editor and start cleaning up the tangents, all the time keeping a close eye on the resulting animation.  But first, lets work on the hips and the legs. I’ve kept it fairly simple, it’s not final but we’re on the right track, moving along..

Now that that’s done, lets move on to the arms. Again, it’s not final, there’s some weird gimbal or strobbing at certain places but we can fix that later.

Then the head, and we’re done. I didn’t really do a polish pass this time round. Only fixed up some pops and weird gimbals, other then that I’ve left it as it is. It looks ok-ish to me now, so I’m just gonna stop here and move on to another clip 😀 In all it took me about 7 hours(including planning) to get to this stage. I’ll definitely want to do it faster the next time round, hopefully I won’t get too many gimbal issues tripping me up.

The following is from Ed Hook’s monthly newsletter, you can subscribe to it Here.

David Brooks, a prominent New York Times political columnist, headlined his March 16th column “The Spirit of Sympathy”. What drew my attention was not his political views, but the way he misused that word “sympathy”. Take a look at the second paragraph from the article.

“To help us in this social world, God, nature and culture have equipped us with a spirit of sympathy. We instinctively feel a tinge of pain when we observe another in pain (at least most of us do). We instinctively mimic, even to a small extent, the mood, manners, yawns and actions of the people around us.”

The innate attribute Mr. Brooks is describing is empathy, not sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for somebody, and it may or may not be accompanied by empathy. Empathy is when you identify with another person’s feeling, recognizing that same feeling in yourself. The word “empathy”, which was coined in the 1920’s, literally means “feeling into”; “sympathy”, which has been in use much longer, literally means “feeling for”. Confusing the two is not a benign mistake for someone as influential as David Brooks.

An understanding of the distinction between empathy and sympathy is intrinsic and essential to my personal approach to acting and acting training. An actor’s job is to create in the audience a sense of empathy with the character she is portraying. Yes, of course there are times when an audience will feel sympathy, but if sympathy is what they feel at the final curtain, they’re not going to be satisfied. Theatre, at its root, is a shamanistic activity, similar in purpose to organized religions. Both theatre and religion aim to help the tribe stay together through hard times and good, so that its members will survive into the next generation. We humans are bound together by our effort to survive, and it has been that way throughout history.

Empathy is an essential attribute for human survival, and terrible things happen in its absence. Serial killers – sociopaths – for example, do not empathize with their victims. Studies have shown that the part of a sociopath’s brain associated with empathy is literally broken. That is why he can murder a person and then stop off for a burger and beer on the way home. And then there is Hitler. There are smart and responsible leaders in the Jewish community who become outraged at any attempt a performer makes to create empathy for Hitler. Yes, the man was evil and did horrible things but, if we do not try to understand where he was erronerously coming from emotionally, then we open ourselves to the unwitting acceptance of another just like him.

Not long ago, I asked a beginning actor in my workshop how he felt about the character he was rehearsing. “I don’t like him. He does stupid things,” he replied. A judgment like that is fair enough, and the actor is entitled to it. However, as I quickly advised him, he would have to find a way to love and empathize with that character if he wanted a successful portrayal. Every person on earth and in literature is a hero in his or her own life, even the stupid ones. Humans are fallible. We can make bad choices, and that is the reason we have theatre in the first place. If humans were instinctual like lions and tigers, there would not be an option for acting against our own survival and best interest. When an actor plays a character, she is saying to the audience, in effect, “This is how I personally think this character is surviving in the world.” When the audience laughs, cries and applauds, it is saying, in effect, “I see what you mean. I never looked at it that way before.”

We all have different strategies, but we are all trying to survive. Each of us is part of a tribe that is, in turn, part of a larger global tribe. We universally empathize only with emotion, never with thinking, and we empathize with all seven of them – happy, fear, anger, comtempt, disgust, surprise and, yes, sad. I visited China for the first time last year and saw immediately that the Chinese culture encourages radically different survival strategies than the ones I personally pursue. It doesn’t matter because we are all humans, and we are all marching in the same direction.

We humans now possess the power to destroy one another along with the planet we live on. If our many tribes manage to survive, it will be because the members of each tribe have learned to empathize with the members of other tribes, not sympathize. With all due respect, I will now send this column to David Brooks.

Until next month …

Be safe!

On Editing – Part II

March 16, 2010

Continuing from where I left off the last time, I’ll continue with the the lower order principles, Eye-trace, Two-dimensional plane of screen, and Three-dimensional space of screen.

Eye-trace – This is the concern of the audience’s point of interest within a shot. Good eye-trace has each shot maintaining the point of interest close the shot preceding it. It helps the audience focus without having them scanning across the entire screen for the point of interest. Eg: If the focal point of the shot is the upper right corner of the screen, have the next shot’s starting focal point near the same area. It’s essential in chase sequences, to let the audience make sense of the sequence of actions in the midst of rapid cuts.

Two-dimensional plane of screen – Also known as planarity, a shot with good planarity utilizes good stage lines. It respects the esthetic of two dimensional lines. It’s a little more involved in composition then editing. The rule of thirds comes into play here.

Three-dimensional space of screen – Also known as spatial continuity, the concept is the same as planarity except in three dimensions instead of two. If the placement between various elements on screen can be viewed as a harmonious whole, it has good spatial continuity.

These three principles are lower order for a reason, if a shot has good eye-trace, planarity and spatial continuity, but is not true to the emotion to the shot, isn’t advancing the story and is occurring at the wrong time, it will feel false to the audience. That’s it for editing for now, if anyone missed the previous post, this is covered in greater detail from the book In the Blink of an Eye.

Confusing principles

March 12, 2010

Alot of new animators often get confused between the meaning of Overlap, Follow-through and Secondary Action. They might sound similar, but they mean different things.
I’ll try to clear this up a bit.

Overlap – Usually used to describe movements motivated by a external source. Example: flag flapping in the wind, feather bobbing on a hat, wrists overlap as the character goes into a point, chest overlaps as a character stands up from a bended position.

The important thing to note here is that none of the above motions is the main movement, and they occur before the main motion finishes, hence – overlap.

Follow-through – This occurs when a motion reach it’s intended position, and then overshoots due to inertia or other forces. Example: A Boxer punching another, upon impact, follows-through the action and continues the swing.

If this sounds similar to ease in/ease out, it is. They’re connected and is often used together just as how Stretch and Squash are also used as a way of doing overlaps and follow-through.

Secondary Actions – When you scratch your nose while talking to someone, the nose scratching is a secondary action. Secondary because it’s not the main action you’re pursuing at the moment (talking is).

This is the crux of good acting, through secondary actions we can see the character’s thought process and personality. A girl nervously twirls her hair as she talks to her teacher, a boss talks to his subordinates while tapping impatiently on his feet.

Hopefully that isn’t too confusing, if I’m not feeling lazy I’ll probably post up some video examples in the coming days. (Edit: I’m feeling lazy)

On Editing – part I

March 10, 2010

Recently I’ve read the excellent book on editing – In The Blink Of An Eye, and came away much enlightened about the considerations and techniques of editing. I’ll share some of those knowledge here –

The Rule of Six

Emotion
Story Rhythm
Eye-Trace
Two-dimensional plane of screen
Three-dimensional space of action

These are to editing as the 12 principles are to animation. They serve the same purpose, a guide to better editing/animation, something to take into consideration while pursing the mastery of technique. The placement of the 6 items on this list is crucial, each of the principles are ranked on this list in order of importance. Story Rhythm is more important then Eye-Trace, just as Emotion is more important then Story Rhythm. The perfect cut would be one that satisfy all 6 principles, in lieu of that, a cut that is truer to the Emotion of the moment should be chosen over a cut that has better Story Rhythm. I’ll explore each of them in greater detail below

Emotion – This is the hardest principle to define and deal with. Yet it is the most important, its the one principle that must be preserved at all costs. It asks a simple question. “How do you want the audience to feel?” At the end of the film the audience will not remember the superb editing or creative cuts, they will remember how they felt. When choosing a cut, ask if it is true to the emotion of the moment. If it rings false, cut it.

Story – This refers to the advancement of the story. This rates second in importance only to Emotion. Cuts that satisfies this criteria advances the story, they move it forward in terms of plot or story. Sometimes a shot fulfills only one or the other of the principles. It might be true to the emotion of the moment, but it does not advance the story. In cases like this, the next principle comes into play.

Rhythm – If the shot occurs at the right “time”, providing proper pacing and is rhythmically interesting, that shot is crucial. These are the kind of shots that control the pacing of the film, it cannot stressed enough how important is pacing to a film. A brilliant story can be marred by poorly paced editing to the point of incoherency.

These three principles are the most important in editing, they also have the synergy to work together in tandem, to the point of exclusion to the rest of the principles. If a shot has the right emotion, advances the story and occurs at the right time, the audience will forgive a disconnect in eye-trace, two-dimensional plane or three-dimensional space. I’ll talk more about the other 3 principles in Part II.

Workflow methodologies

February 2, 2010

Of the many methods used for blocking animation, stepped mode is probably my favourite. You concentrate on making strong poses, then getting the timing right, then getting the breakdowns to read clearly, and even before you get into spline, the whole performance can already be finessed to a high level, all without even touching the graph editor.

Its linear, predictable, and gives me all the control I need.

Things get trickier once complex movements kicks in, because the weight and force of the motion is critical, and despite the amount of control stepped mode gives me, it can be hard to judge how the weight reads when it goes into spline. This is when I use a combination of layered and stepped mode for the quickest results.

Starting with the root of the character – typically the hips, I’ll animate the entire motion in spline. Just the hips, nothing else. I’ll have the legs hidden and concentrate on getting the force and weight of the motion right. Because it’s in spline there’s no surprises later, whatever I see now will be what I get when I get the rest of the body moving. It’s a simple matter of placing the feet where it needs to be for it to sync with the hips movement, there will be some back and forth of course but most of the work (the hips) is already done. There’s no need to second guess yourself if you’ve screwed up the weight or not.

The video reference comes in next, at this stage I’ll usually key every control on the character every 4th frame, then convert the whole animation to stepped. Back to stepped? Yes, the whole point of animating the hips first in spline is to get the weight right. Now that that’s done I move back into step and make sure that all the strong poses I have in my video reference is in, and push those poses that isn’t strong enough more. This doesn’t meant this the first time I’m actually referencing my video, I use it when animating I’m the root of the character in spline, just to be sure I don’t veer too far off from what I want. I’m simply pushing the poses and adding in the rest of the character, having the whole piece in stepped mode is just the way I do it. I could do it in copied pairs too, I’m just more comfortable with stepped in this case.

Once that part is done I’ll move the whole animation into spline, if I haven’t screw too much with the hips in stepped, it should look fairly close to what I had previously. This is critical, losing the weight and force of the movement after going into spline is very common if the blocking wasn’t done properly. And even then chances are it’ll still be a little off, you’ll spend most of the time trying to fix this. If you’ve done it properly in spline earlier, that’s a lot of the work done. It’s mostly just the legs and making sure the torso has enough torque, compression, and decompression. And unless you have the arms playing a large part in the animation (climbing and whatnot) it’s just polishing and finessing it from here now. If the arms are important to the overall motion, I’ll start getting them involved during the hips animation. Not the whole stretch of the animation, just the part where the source of the force changes from the hips to the arms. Earlier I mentioned animating the root of the character, now that the arms are pulling the character up, the root is no longer the hip, its the arms and we need to readjust the animation accordingly.

I still prefer the full stepped mode method for performance, usually because you don’t move around as much, hence easier to get the weight right even in stepped. I’ll be animating a new piece of animation for my next assignment from Animation Mentor soon, maybe I’ll experiment using the spline/stepped combo method for that. It’s a two character performance piece, but it should still work well enough. Lets see how that goes.

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