Saturday, June 30, 2007

I’m calling baloney on this… runs a fluff piece (or should I say “recycles a press release”) about a brand new ‘invention’: Toon Shading in Maya.

A quote…

“Maakie-Mation is a new kind of animation that I invented to convey Tony’s vision,” said director and co-writer Eric Kaplan, who is also a writer for Futurama and honcho of CG animation production studio Mirari Films. “It uses the flexibility and power of CGI, but renders everything in 2-D so it looks like Tony’s strip. No one has done it before.”

I love that they even branded it- “Maakie-Mation”. Behold the genius at work…

YouTube Direkt

(Part of the pilot episode is on YouTube as well. Definitely not for the kiddos.)

Wow. We’ve never seen anything like that before. Nevermind that free toon shaders for Maya have been publicly available on for the last 7 years. And never mind that Maya itself has had built in toon shading solutions for the last 2 and a half years. Now, I admit that the cross hatch ink lines in the texture maps are a nice touch, but they’re hardly ground breaking.

As for the show itself, seems like your typical Adult Swim fare- not really my cup o’ tea.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Fast and Big- I love it!

This year’s Goeblins Annecy bumpers didn’t catch my eye as much as previous years, but I really liked the feel of energy in this one.

arche.jpg (click to play movie)

I think it has a great mix. The traditional media background elements combined with what seemed like CG matte painting manipulation give this a fantastic sense of energy. Very imaginative use of abstract shapes and colors at the right time really punch this out. I just love how they dip in and out of moments of lucidity and near drowning in energy. The timing is really strong. The animators did a very good job of capturing a sense of speed, energy and scale- all extremely tricky challenges in animation. Don’t look for any real deep character performance, but just soak up the flow of the energy. Very cool, very inspiring. I’ll be “borrowing” a few of those ideas myself in my own project.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Acting classes

I have a few hours this afternoon to myself, so I thought I’d do some sacred cow tipping and continue with the acting stuff as I sit here in a local Starbucks…

In a comment on my last post the idea was brought up that animators should just learn how to act in the classical sense (ie: take acting classes, engage in improv or theater groups, etc.) if they want to create sincere, believable and moving performances.

It sounds good on paper, but acting for theater or film is a completely different skillset than animating. It’s easy to get confused on this point, though because animating and acting share the same end goal: communicate believable and sincere performances that speak truth to the human condition and tell a larger story with effectiveness. However in most respects this is where the similarities end. Each one gets to this goal by different roads. The skills the actor develops to reach this goal are almost completely incongruent to the skills an animator needs to develop to reach the same goal. My thoughts on why after the jump…

I’ve taken enough acting classes over the years at various studios and on my own to have developed a decent idea of what they’re trying to accomplish. The basic goal of acting classes- regardless of which school of modern acting you subscribe to- is to learn how to “be in the moment”. Sounds great, right? Problem is, as acting teacher Ed Hooks has pointed out before in his writings and classes, animators don’t even have a moment to be in. The difference lies in the medium used to communicate the moment. The primary media the animator uses to communicate the illusion of a moment is a mere representation of a person- the drawing or the puppet. The entire craft of animation is about knowing how to manipulate that representation of a person to get the audience to buy into the illusion that there is a real person experiencing a real moment where only a stack of drawings or renderings that took weeks to create actually exists. All the principles of drawing, pose, weight, timing, motion - every animation principle- speaks to this task of manipulating this representation of a person in such a way as to imbue it with a sense of believability.

Actors also have a medium to communicate to the audience- their bodies. Actors use their bodies to express everything and the camera catches it all on film the very moment it happens. The body can be trained to behave certain ways via repetition and rehearsal. In modern acting this is considered a rather poor and mechanical approach to acting. The primary focus of modern acting training operates under the belief that the body will react naturally and sincerely to the situations the mind believes are real. Basically you get the reaction out of the puppet (ie: the actor’s body) that you desire by first tricking the actor’s mind into believing in something that doesn’t really exist. There are all manner of effective techniques to accomplish this, but they generally are simply ”mind games”. The actor essentially tricks their mind into thinking they’re really experiencing something that is not really happening. They fool themselves into believing that they are not on a film set with an unshaven keygrip holding a microphone 1 foot over their head as the script girl chews her bubblegum and the camera with its cameraman is literally inches away from their face. Either that or they trick themselves into believing that the woman hanging 2 feet above a green pad with a fan blowing their skirt is indeed dangling off a tall building or that the person accusing them of being insensitive isn’t another actor making believe but is really their scorned lover. The best actors are the ones who can fool themselves the best into believing that the make believe set of cirumstances is indeed real and the reality that surrounds them doesn’t exist. These are usually transcendant performances. In the end it’s all mind games and the body just comes along for the ride.

Actors are hardly EVER taught to be aware of their bodies. (Laban motion analysis is a different thing and actually does have some practical use to animators I think). Some older school animators from the British tradition will use physical techniques to portray a moment. Michael Caine has some well known videos where he discusses such tricks and Anthony Hopkins is an older school technician in some ways as well. But most American actors nowadays are taught to not think about the body at all. Get into the moment and trick your mind into believing the moment exists and the body will follow like a puppy on a leash. It really doesn’t matter what the acting technique is, it’s all about tricking the actor’s mind into believing in the moment, the body will follow orders from there.

Animators have no such luxury as an auto-responding medium (ie: the human body). We study motion and performance in order to externally recreate it in unique ways with our non-living representation of the person (the drawing or the puppet). In all acting classes I’ve taken (with the sole exception being Ed Hooks’ class) the relevance to my craft as an animator is quickly lost as we get into role playing, listening, word reflection and page reading exercises. These techniques for tricking the mind of the actor have practically no application to the animator who builds a performance from their mind and then constructs it from the outside in using an abstract representation of a real person. These techiques may have usefulness if you’re a big believer in using video reference of yourself acting out the scene as the basis for developing your acting performance, but if you ask me I think that’s an approach to animation that is handicapped from the very start. That’s another controversial post for another day, though.

Most acting classes that animators take are like teaching musical composers to dance. Learning how to dance will not give you many practical, concrete techniques to become a better musical composer. Will it be helpful in some more abstract or philosophical ways? Maybe, probably. But the physical techniques and exercises for doing a proper toe spin have absolutely no practical use to a composer as they try to arrange the woodwinds and strings for a symphony they are writing. Those skills just don’t translate at all. In the same way, the techniques learned in acting classes are for a totally different skillset than animating. They may be helpful in an abstract way to broaden your understanding of what goes into the skill of acting, but taking acting classes and becoming a good film actor is no sure fire shortcut to being a great animator anymore than taking dance classes will make you into the next Mozart.

I still think observation, and more importantly, living a life of real empathy (along with a mastery of the principles of animation) is the key to coming up with meaningful animated performances. I know animators who couldn’t act their way out of a wet paper sack and they make amazingly sincere performances in their work. And I know other animators who are very clever actors who are also very good, but certainly not vastly superior to the non-actors. So there is no real connection between animation performance sincerity and the ability to act on stage or in front of a camera. But every animator that I personally know who is genuinely sensitive toward the plight of their fellow man can make the most moving animation performances. Something about their acting performances just feels right and deep and very sincere.

For even more insightful thought on the animator’s dillemma in crafting a performance, I hope you’re reading Mark Mayerson’s discourse on his blog.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A thought about those acting ruts…

Often younger animators or students will write me asking for some ideas on how to avoid cliche’s in their acting choices. Well, the answer to that can be long winded or short.

The short answer is observe.

The longer answer usually doesn’t add anything to the short one- except words.

But there are things you can do that can help you develop your skills in seeing the difference between your own cliches and what’s more natural. In a recent email reply to a fellow animator I touched on the subject …

Sometimes to help me break out of acting ruts I will visit a site like and find a movie that I am sure I can rent or borrow, but that I haven’t seen before. Then I listen to several different audio clips from the film and I imagine they are scenes that have just been handed to me at work. I usually have a character rig or a character design in mind already- nothing special, just a specific character so that I can “see” that character acting out the scene in my mind when I listen to the audio. The idea is to develop the ability to see the performance in my head and to be as specific about it as I can be- I want to see the character doing the scene, not some generic idea of a character. Visualizing the performance is a powerful tool in animating.

Anyhoo, I listen to the selected audio clips over and over and I close my eyes and try and to see the character doing the scene. I’ll then maybe do some quick rough thumbs or notes on it and move on to another scene and do the same to that one. It’s all just planning- I don’t move on to actually animating the scenes. The point is forcing myself to get a clear idea in my mind first and then record what that idea is via thumbnails and notes. Maybe I’ll do 3 or 4 of these clips for a movie.

Then I’ll rent the movie and watch these scenes as they were shot and compare my ideas to how it was filmed. The point isn’t to see if I can guess how it was filmed, but to try and see how the professional actor approached the scene compared to how I did. I’m looking for things that maybe I missed or didn’t think of. Maybe my gestures in my imaginary blocking were all too overdone and the film scenes are more understated? Or maybe I underplayed it? Whatever, I’m looking for differences and I’m looking to understand those differences. The goal is to develop my ability to compare my stuff against natural acting and note the differences- and where applicable, adjust my acting to be more sincere and less cliche’d.

Anyhow, every once in a while I’ll do this exercise as a way to kick my acting ideas in the pants a bit. It’s a good tool for stretching my imagination as well as sharpening my observational skills and pushing the boundaries of what I normally think of for a performance.

I don’t know if that helps anybody, but over the years this little exercise has helped me. So there ya have it, for better or for worse. Enjoy!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Clay-styled CG fun!

From Cg-Talk….

Done in Maya to emulate stop motion clay. Very nicely done- it certainly passes for clay stop-motion. Of course this would have been quite a bit easier using clay, I bet. I understand the idea of experimenting and trying new things. I do it all the time. I’m still looking for a uniquely CG style of animation that isn’t an emulation of hand drawn, stop-motion, puppet, reality, After Effects, paper cutout, etc. Is it really true that Pixar found the one and only style of design & motion that is uniquely CG lo so many years hence? CG seems to be ever the Xerox of animation, a doppleganger. I still wonder if there isn’t another visual/motion style (othe than the one we already have) that can be specifically CG and can be no other. It’s alright if there isn’t another one, but I’m still curious.

New Academy Rules for Animated Features


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has approved several new rule changes to take effect starting with the 80th Annual Academy Awards. Among them is a change in the definition of an animated feature film. The revision appears to have been made to avoid any possible controversy with motion capture technology now being used in the production of some movies. The previous rule stated that “An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture created using a frame-by-frame technique of at least 70 minutes in running time with a significant number of the major characters animated, and in which animation figures in no less than 75% of the picture’s running time.” The new rule states that “An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture of at least 70 minutes in running time, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.”

Yeah, that really clears up the confusion.

So what does this mean? Motion capture is or is not a “frame by frame technique”? Seems to me it really isn’t, but I can see how folks would argue that it is if people “clean up” or “plus” the performance. So for all the cloudy wording that existed before, this new batch of wording seems just as cloudy. Oh well.

What a week…

Travelling in the U.S. this month I have had the following technical “issues”…

  • My homesite was hijacked by a spam site causing me no shortage of alarm and scrambling to get it back up and secured.
  • My primary workstation laptop was completely hosed by a virus (thankfully I had backups and didn’t lose any data). And this despite me having four different programs (anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-adware, firewall, etc.) to keep this from happening. Sometimes the bear eats you, ya know? I couldn’t do a system re-install because I didn’t bring the recovery discs with me. (dumb, i know). So the old laptop is down for the count. I needed a way to get work done since life doesn’t wait for the technically challenged, so I upgraded my computing a little earlier than planned. I’ve been getting this new laptop all set up to do work- all while borrowing wi-fi hotspots, friends and family’s internet connections. Starbucks has been a lifesaver so far. Fun!
  • My digital video camera bit the dust after 6 years- just as I was trying to make this month’s VTS video.
When it rains it pours, eh? heh. But the sunny side is this: if i had to replace a camera and a laptop in Brazil I would have spent 3x the money. Technology and electronics is expensive there. So I just upgraded some things before I planned on it. Sometimes you just gotta roll with the punches and smile.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Another good read from last week: online dist stuff

Cinematech’s Scott Kirsner shares some thoughts from an online indy-film distributor, Interesting reading, especially the revelation that their top selling film is a 20 year old 16 minute documentary that already had a strong underground cult following- and it’s still only moved 8000 units or so. My short take; online distribution is still a very unchartered bit of water for filmmakers. I’d sum it up as pretty much a “beer money” proposition. It’s better than letting the films sit idle, but you’re not gonna get much more than “beer money” from the deal. It just hasn’t broken into a place where it can be a highly profitable means of building revenue for filmmakers (especially for animators who’s cost of production is usually orders of magnitude higher than your typical digi-video hound). I wonder if it will? For musicians or audio recordings online digital distribution seems to be a bit more solid with the iPod and iTunes driving the market. Two years after its release the video iPod hasn’t kicked online distribution of video or film in the fanny as much as some had hoped, I don’t think. Unless a work is available on iTunes or it’s distributed by a traditional distribution company (via Netflix, et al.) it pretty much falls between the cracks. Fine if your digital film cost you 2 weekends and $1,000 to make with a Sony-cam. Not so fine if it took you 2 years of nights and weekends crafting full art and animation to flesh out that funny idea. The lotto mentality still applies to online distribution of animation- hope to get lucky and make something that just happens to resonate with the public and maybe you can make a few thousand bucks. In that paradigm production value has a highly risky return on investment component. Cheaper Flash product that relies more on verbal humor or extremely crude humor is a less expensive approach (and thus it has lower risks and will continue to dominate the online animated world). Even Jibjab’s famously popular musical riffs, while they hold a higher humor level than the shock-jock mindset, are still pretty low on the animation production value. They (wisely, it seems) put their money into different emphases. Same with Homestar Runner. The persistent theme so far in online distribution is that higher animation production values rarely translate into higher film views and thus, higher revenues. It seems that even advertisers and sponsors have figured this out as well. Why pay a lot for high quality production value in animation if cheap but verbally funny gets you the same amount of notice? By all appearances in the online world a funny 3 minute short film lovingly lit, professionally acted, shot on film, edited on an Avid and scored by professional composer has zero competitive advantage over a grainy 30 second mini-DV cam video of a kid crashing his skateboard on Ebaum’s World. Absolutely none. There’s next to no pay-off for visually rich online content right now.
The really scary idea: the price structure for online content has solidified at a position only slightly above free and it’s only going to go down from there. Those who would make content for this medium will need to find a way to get their production costs down to as close to zero as possible. In that world I think puppetry is a better online product than animation.

The slumbering demand for cartoons

I’ve been traveling a lot lately so I’m kinda behind on things. But last week Uncle Eddie had a great post on the slumbering, waiting market for funny, visually oriented cartoons. He makes a great point that other previously declared “DOA” ideas suddenly turned into giant money making machines. Add in the fact that the internet seems to be the preferred delivery medium for short funny laugh out loud video and the moment seems over-ripe for exploitation. The question is who will be brave enough to try it? Visually funny cartoons are expensive. The current crop of Flash output isn’t measuring up to the cartoon standards set 60 years ago. I think the high cost of entry is what’s keeping the lid on this movement and so we’ll still see a lot of talking head pun driven verbal humor. For now….

Flat space staging

I’m kicking around some ideas on backgrounds for a cartoon piece of animation that is less literal and more expressive. One of the things that’s been coming up in conversation with friends and colleagues is the trick of taking CG characters and using them more in a flat space camera arrangement. “Flat space” is a way of saying that the action primarily takes place on a single plane in depth with other objects/set pieces/visual elements used to define foreground planes and background planes. The concept is that the character action doesn’t move through those various depth planes but plays itself out on the single depth plane it starts on. This clip of Daffy and Bugs shows this concept really well. The foreground and background plates work to establish a scene with depth (stylized, but still with depth) while the character animation takes place on a primarily mid-plane level. Even when Bugs plays the xylophone he doesn’t really play the whole thing in depth, just a small part of it.

I forget where I found this clip online. If you know who originally posted this please leave a comment so they can get proper credit for taking the time to grab the footage.

If you look at a lot of the WB, Lantz, MGM cartoons they use almost all flat space staging except for specific shots meant for emphasis. You get into UPA and it’s almost all flat space. Seemingly only Disney bothered much with characters moving in depth in animation because only his shop could afford all the thrown away drawings it required to get a character moving in depth to look right. And even then the Disney shorts are almost all flat space work. I’m sure they didn’t have the budget to do too many fancy depth scenes in the shorts. Plus the multiplane camera rig did a lot of the heavy lifting of suggesting depth. Of course depth comes by default to CG so we don’t often worry about how to use CG without depth. For some the idea never even crosses their mind- why would you purposefully limit yourself? The challenges involved with a strict flat space staging paradigm are interesting to CG. CG tends to do better with literalism by default- build a static set, let your characters play out in the full depth of it and make them feel like they’re really “there”. In fact most of the rendering improvements in Cg over the last decade have been to heighten a sense of realism and “there-ness” to the objects and characters. Camera work has also had a greater emphasis on “there-ness”. Taking a look at CG animated films and VFX bonanzas more and more we see a heightened use of characters and objects moving in depth (specifically from depth to near camera) as a tool. Add in the latest hot buzz for 3d projection and you take this the next step. While it makes for cool theme park rides, I’m not fully convinced that full freedom in depth is inheirently superior. Overused it becomes a club to beat the audience with, I think- like putting too much sugar in a recipe.
In a flatter cartoon staging scenario the pedantic need for explicit “there-ness” is minimized. This flat approach is not literal, but it’s been highly effective for a long, long time. The trick in using a strong sense of flat space staging in CG I think is to get puppets that can be effectively pushed into shape for stronger flat space work and choosing a design and render style that from the first frame communicates that literalism is a lower priority in this world. Of course we’ll need to back this up with some pudding that has a hint of proof in it.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Stupid Spammers

For those who tried to come here to only to find some Find.FM front page crap, I offer my apologies. Seems they hijacked my site for a few hours. I was on the road and didn’t know about it til this afternoon. It’s fixed now and I’ll be doing a security upgrade through out the day to keep it from happening again. Ahh, the joys of the internet. *sigh*