Monday, September 21, 2009

Squiggles!

An old trick in the world of limited budget 2d animation is to cycle through two to four drawings for a hold. This way you can chew up the scene footage with as few drawings as possible. The result is animation that kinda squiggles as it holds, maintaining the illusion of life more by an expression of energy than literal movement. This is very cost effective and the image stays alive due to the cycling. Since the animation stays so rough the audience accepts it for what it is- as well as whatever other limitations of the animation that come along for the ride. It's surprising what an audience will take in and filter through once they perceive the internal rules of an animated universe- a task that takes perhaps all of two seconds of viewing. Certainly I think this attitude of getting by with the least possible effort can be way overdone, but in the right balance I think there's real potential for cost savings without surrendering richness. The richness just comes in a different form, that's all. Nina Paley used this technique in Flash while making her solo feature film Sita Sings the Blues. You can see what I mean in the very first scenes in the following segment of the film....

It's rough as heck, but it totally works. In fact, it more than works. It thrives on a level that is completely different than if it were tied down tight, tightly polished and had the holds all animated in like a typical big budget Disney 2d film. The rough look has a kind of vibrancy to it that actually adds to the film. I don't have a fancy explanation for how it works- I just know it does.

Since I have these little stories I want to make, but I don't have a huge budget (natch: I don't have any budget) to hire an expensive team of animators and CG technicians, I keep looking for creative ways to leverage lessons and tricks from other mediums of animation into my little CG toolbox. I've lost years of effort trying to be a one man band making short films employing the big-studio CG film style. Those were lessons learned the hard way. So I've been messing with this squiggly thing for a few years now (off and on). It's taken that long to find something that works. Due to the rigidity of the meshes and well established visual norms CG just doesn't like to do this sort of thing. And nothing looks worse in CG than a cycle- of any kind. So I'd try something, but it'd look like crud- like some kind of mechanical or technical error rather than a purposeful artistic style. So I'd leave it for a while and then come back and try something different after thinking of something in the shower. More failures each time, each coming closer to what I wanted but couldn't see in my head because it just wasn't being done anywhere else. CG is so picky when it comes to the imagery it makes. There's so little margin for error it seems. It's too demanding, too rigid an artform at times. But like Edison and his silly light bulb, I kept at it. I finally feel like I got it. Here's my version (watch it in HD for a better look. Or best yet- here's a link to a full res QT)....



This is really fast to animate because I'm using flat out 'dead holds' on the controls and letting the squiggly part keep the scene alive. I hit a pose and that's it. I hold it. No 'moving holds' or overdone overlapping business. This 4 second scene took maybe 15 or 20 minutes to animate (compare that to 4 sec. per week doing it the "right" way in feature films). In fact I over-animated it at first out of habit, so I had to go back and rip out the moving holds I had started to build in. I tell you, the hardest part is de-programming myself from doing CG the "right" way. It's not as easy as it sounds to embrace simplicity and then trust it. Anyhow, here's a screen grab of my f-curves to show the dead holds on the major controllers... (click to see it larger).


This is what it looks like without the squigglies....



You can see that it's super dry and just goes dead without the squiggles. The squiggling really keeps it feeling vibrant. So yeah. I'm really, really happy with where I've ended up with this.

30 comments:

Marshall Peterman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marshall Peterman said...

This is really interesting, I've been following you're updates closely since you've uploaded that teapot with a similar render. I'm excited to see more!

Yeray Díaz Díaz said...

Congrats Keith, it totally works! Great job on bending the CG rules all your test are looking really original and better yet, you must be blasting through animation. Great stuff. Please keep us posted!

Thanks!

Doug said...

The squiggle test looks very good, especially when compared to the non squiggle. Very interesting seeing someone explore limited animation in 3d. Limited anim gets a bad rep but I think it's a valuable tool.

lowlight said...

Color me interested. I suppose I'd have to look back through your blog archives, but is this a variation on the toon shader network in Maya, or something completely different? Whatever it is, it does work; great job Keith.

Brad said...

Hey Keith,

I'm working on a project at the moment which has a very tight deadline so I've developed something very similar to your squiggles.

I've done some quick tests that you can see here and here

I'm aiming for my characters (the cones were just for the tests) and animation to both sit well with this style so it's really useful to have some tips on what sort of animation works with it.

I'll have to try the 'dead holds' method you're using. As well as looking great it seems like, once you get you're head around it, it's a massive time saver!

Cheers.

Rik Goddard said...

This is Brilliant Keith I love the 2D drawn effect. (8-D

It reminds me of the style used on a show I loved in the 70s by Bob Godfrey on British TV called "Roohbarb".... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2_8pwo_Kd8&feature=related
this was drawn with highlighter marker pens.
They made a new version in 2005 called "Roohbarb and Custard Too" attempting to recreate the lively marker pen effect but with digital ink and paint I think they fell way short.... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8DVrenE2Is&feature=related


So how did you acheive the effect?

Ivan said...

Well Keith you are one of the greats. You seem to always send my mind into new territory with your work. Thanks for putting your great ideas up for us all to enjoy.

Ivan

Herman G said...

I love it..

Keith Lango said...

Thanks for the great feedback everybody!

@Brad: I like your tests! The style for your show looks like it will totally work.

As for how I did it: I'm using a noise deformer to distress the mesh a bit at the right amount/frequency. The toon line is Maya's toonline feature with some texture mapped into the line width map attribute. The texture is then animated a bit to break up the line weight. The noise deformer has a slightly different frequency on the color pass and the toon line pass. The color pass is rendered in Mental Ray to get the shading I want, and the toon line pass is rendered using Maya's renderer (MR doesn't handle the toon paintFX stuff well). Comp the layers together with some layer blending modes in After Effects. There's nothing earth shattering going on technologically. It just took a lot of noodling to find the right mix.

Galen said...

This looks really great!

I'm curious though about having the squiggling on the chair too. I've directed a couple of 2D films where we employed the squiggling line (or "boiling line" as we called it) and sort of came up with "rules" that inanimate objects don't boil unless they're being moved by animate objects.

Would you use the squiggling line on every CG-rendered element in a shot?

Lucas Martell said...

VERY cool stuff Keith. I've got another short I'd love to do that's a lot more "cartoony" and I'm going to do some tests mixing and matching different NPR techniques to see what works together.

BrandonBeckstead said...

Holy crap Keith......, I think you're on to something! I'm pretty intrigued.

Dave Blanchette said...

Keith - looks like you've found a great balance with this technique!

I've also been wondering about how to work on my own projects at home without the pressure of trying to live up to the big-studio visual standards.

Although I appreciate the amazing work these studios put out, I think it would be nice to focus on the content and spontaneity of a fun story rather than the time-consuming process of a polished 3D production.

Michael Cawood said...

Very interesting Keith. How are you wobbling the final render?

Michael Cawood said...

Doh... I just saw that you answered that. It sounds like a lot of steps. I wonder if it's something that can be automated to some degree so that achieving the look doesn't have to take up too much of your production cycle per shot. That's the key.. then you can afford to focus on performances and story with the look already in the bag. I used to complex Photoshop macro's to achieve certain natural media looks. That's a pretty easy way to go as you just run the macro on your folder of rendered images and sit back.

Keith Lango said...

@Galen:
I tried just boiling the characters and leaving the set pieces & props solid, but it looked wrong. That was one of the things I just had to learn by seeing. As the project evolved I decided to go with empty backgrounds/sets- no CG objects, just bgrd paintings. Once i did that the CG kinda stands on its own layer and to boil only some of it but not other parts felt like a technical glitch. I seriously doubt I'd be able to wobble everything if I went the usual CG route and built out the world 100% in CG. It would just look bad. But since it's just characters, props and a few isolated set pieces on bgrd paintings it worked best to boil all the CG elements. This was a very recent discovery (ie: last Saturday. heh).

@Michael:
It is/will be automated to a large degree. I am retro-fitting the characters and props to have the deformation & toon systems built in with adjustable attrs for animation adjustment, and I am writing a pre-render MEL script that will handle the render pass stuff. So the majority of the process will be built into each asset by default. The AE comps are very shallow and I have the template already, so it's a simple footage swap and export. Really the way this is set up once I animate a shot I will be able to render it and comp it the same day. Very light overall.

Graham Ross said...

Wow man. Nice rendering skills.

Remi The Rockstar said...

Hi Keith,

This is by far the best test you published so far!!! I love it!

Rob Cozzens said...

Cool.
When I watched the boiling line version I thought it looked good, but to be honest, I thought it would still look good with standard CG rendering...
Thank you for showing the standard CG--I was wrong. It totally looks dead without the boiling line.
Excellent job!

Abram said...

epic win keith! simple and effective :)

Paul said...

This stuff looks great! You have a fantastic style coming together.

Jesse Nelson said...

That's really, really cool stuff. I'm so glad you kept pressing forward with it all this time; the end result works very well.

Onymations said...

Hey Keith,

The test looks great! Really digging the style you are going for. It really feels like it's touched by an artist's hand. I'm starting to develop a 2d/3d short with a very painterly look...just tired of all that crisp, hard-edge cg. Can't wait to see more of your work!

juby said...

Wow ...
it is great.

rogerio said...

Hey Keith, thanks to share all your ideas and thoughts with us, it's a great idea.

Best.

westmunz said...

Hey Keith,
This technique looks awesome! I tend to agree with Galen as far as the chair seeming somehow not right. Maybe there is a way to tone down the squiggling on the chair? Either way, very promising technique! Love your blog!

Jais Bredsted - UNDO said...

Talk about being inspiring.
You make me wanna animate right this moment. Great style and love the lifelyness even despite its flat moving holds. You got yourself a fantastic toolbox.

Anonymous said...

Keith,

No doubt, the footage with the squigglies is the winner here. I think it's far more than just a subjective judgement, too. Seems like anyone would take to that version because it just "feels" alive. ...jittery and organic...

This is why people generally like to watch rough motion tests / flipbooks, etc.

AND I believe it's a huge reason for the appeal in Bill Plympton's cartoons.

You have to be feeling pretty good about this. Knowing the thought you put into your work, your attention to detail, and honing in on the look... it makes me look forward to your work that much more.

Great job, bro.

Mayec Rancel said...

Your result works great! You can be proud of it. It does breathe a lot of life into CG animation. I will certainly consider this idea for a CG shortfilm project I have in mind, where I want to achieve a very stylized 2D/non-CG look. The "squigglies" as you call them will be a nice thing to explore to make it live, and not just be a moving comic-book.