Thursday, August 30, 2007

Stick Figure Fundamentals

“Do you need to know how to draw to be a CG animator?”

This question has been asked for years. The politically correct answer has been “No, you don’t need to know how to draw to be a CG animator, but it can’t hurt.” This answer developed because there are lots of working CG animators in film studios who either don’t draw much, or worse, who steadfastly refuse to draw and nobody wanted to offend them.

I used to agree with this answer, but a number of years ago I learned some things that changed my thinking. So I’m going to step out from under the politically correct umbrella for a moment and say that I do believe that to be a good CG animator it is absolutely vital to have a fundamental understanding of what makes a good drawing. After teaching, training and supervising animators (both students and working pros) for a number of years I’ve come to believe that the politically correct answer is robbing many CG animators of their chance at achieving greater success in their work. A large portion of my notes to my students and those I have supervised were related to the quality of the poses or breakdowns they were making. What has become manifestly evident to me is that to fix these problems demands an understanding of what makes a good drawing. What is needed is a solid grasp of what I call the Stick Figure Fundamentals of a good character drawing.

Whether we use Maya or a pencil when we animate, the one constant is that we are creating images- drawings if you will. You may not be using a pencil line made by your hand on paper, but you’re still making a drawing by manipulating a rigged puppet into shape. It’s only reasonable to think that if you’re going to be in the business of making drawings then you should want to make good ones. A good drawing has a sense of solidity, weight, internal tension, balance, force, line, silhouette, flow (leading the eye) and expression. These fundamental values of good drawing can be seen on something as simple as a stick figure. They are not exclusive to the domain of pencil and paper. They can and should be expressed in CG animation as well. This isn’t about doodling a few scratchy thumbnails on a sheet of paper for your scene planning. This about looking at your CG puppet’s poses right in the camera view and thinking about them as drawings!

Here’s an example. First, a relatively normal CG pose…. (click to see bigger if you like)

The draw over shows what I mean by “stick figure fundamentals”. This pose is OK-ish, I guess. But it just feels kinda awkward and stiff. There is some flow (line of action) in the torso, but not enough to overcome the sense of incongruity that nags at the mind of the viewer. The torso feels stiff and there’s not a sense of internal weight in the body. The sternum is pointing the same direction as the abdomen and the pelvis, thus there isn’t any torque or tension in the body. The angle of the right shoulder doesn’t add a lot of weight to the pose. The head is pretty much vertical, as is the neck. The neck doesn’t feel like it’s flowing out of the shoulders. The limbs aren’t guiding the viewer’s eye. The legs kinda just stop because they’re tucked back. The left arm is competing with the face for attention being up so high and strongly silhouetted. This wouldn’t be a problem if he were waving to someone, except that this character isn’t supposed to be waving. They’re just excited about the ball on the pedestal. Now you may be thinking “Well, you made it look like that on purpose!”. True. What I did was pretty much copied a pose I recently saw in a big budget CG feature film trailer that I downloaded. I was careful to mark out the angles and faithfully recreate them. No, I won’t show you the original pose from the trailer. I’m not out to make anyone look bad, I’m just trying to illustrate a point.

But maybe you’re not seeing the problem. Maybe you look at this and think “What’s he going on about? It looks perfectly fine to me.” So let’s see what this looks like when we apply some basic Stick Figure Fundamentals of good drawing to this pose… (again, click for bigger-ish)

See how much better that is? It has a sense of internal weight. The body feels organic, alive. You can sense the right arm and shoulder holding up the body weight. The chest is rotated a bit on its Y (up) axis to build some inner tension in the body. The character is using the available depth in the scene leaning forward, adding energy to the expression. The shoulders, ribs and hips are all showing the effect of gravity. The pose has better flow than before, leading the viewer’s eye from the limbs through to the face. The head and neck angles accentuate that flow. In general it feels more comfortable to look at while having a bit more energy. It really takes no more time to make this pose than the previous one. There are no special rig tricks here. The only difference is that we’re applying some basic Stick Figure Fundamentals. And I make no claims to being a good draughtsman by any means. Anybody who’s seen me draw knows full well that I’m no Marc Davis with a pencil, but I know enough to make these improvements. Here are the poses side by side in case you still can’t discern that much of a difference…

Many CG animators are so intimidated by the thought of drawing that they don’t bother to develop their ability on even a rudimentary level. But if you just get good enough to grasp the stick figure fundamentals it can’t help but improve your work. Focus on learning what makes a drawing have solidity, weight, tension, balance, force, silhouette, flow, etc. Don’t get caught up in details like curves vs. straights or cloth or shading or any of that stuff. We’re not trying to get jobs as character designers here- we’re just trying to express good poses and a sense of internal force in our characters.

My first exposure to the idea that CG images are just drawings was when I first had a 2d animation supervisor draw on top of print outs of my CG work. That was a real eye opener. So I got the idea to draw stick figures right on top of screen grabs of good poses from animated films. I did this quite a bit- I still do. I gain so much by literally drawing over the work of those who are much better than me and learning from their hands what they were thinking. (not coincidentally this is how assistant animators learned the craft back before computers- redrawing their lead animator’s work day after day, making inbetweens, etc.). Then I started taking screen grabs of my own CG poses and then drawing over them in Photoshop. The differences between the good stuff and my weak puppet poses were plain as day. So I worked to make the puppet look like a good drawing. I kept at it til I was satisfied. Just a few months of doing this and the quality of my animation improved so dramatically that I surprised myself. I also started seeing things in animation that I never saw before. It’s like I had gained access to a treasure chest of new animation understanding. All because I stopped thinking that CG animation was totally different than other forms of animation just because it was done with computers.

CG animators should never stop thinking that they are making drawings- ever. The drawing mindset should not stop after the thumbnail planning stage. It absolutely must be present in every stage of your work. There is no technical excuse for making weak, lifeless, weightless, stiff, off-balance, uninteresting and discombobulated poses for our characters. An understanding of the stick figure fundamentals of good drawing can be had in rather short order. There is no shortage of information to help us- there are all kinds of good books, courses, forums and blogs available that can help develop an understanding of the basic fundamentals of good drawing. By far the simplest and best way to learn is to get over your fear of the pencil and just start drawing. Don’t choose to live in self inflicted ignorance just because you use a computer to make your animation.

I wish I had someone like me writing this stuff 14 years ago when I was starting in CG animation. *sigh* I suppose I should get back under that umbrella now. I’m sure a storm’s a comin’.

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