Thursday, March 31, 2005

Moving Day!

I've been working from home today and will be tomorrow as well. ReelFX is in the middle of moving to our new facility a few miles down the road from our old location. We're moving to Mark Cuban's old Yahoo/ building. The place is pretty big. Lots of room to grow. A little sterile, though. We'll need to do something about that.

I worked at Big Idea when we made a big move from downtown out to the suburbs. It had the same kind of feel. We moved from a scrambled mess across several floors of a fringe downtown converted warehouse to a more open floor space that was cubicle/office furniture friendly. When we moved into our new space at Big Idea my good friend Bryan Ballinger and I decided to add some color to the dreadful corporate grey cubism that greeted us. We had an edict from the powers that be that we were not allowed to put anything on the walls above a certain height. They were trying to keep it from looking like the ecclectic mess downtown. So instead we strung a clothes line above the entrance to our little section of cube land (not on a wall, ust suported by a building beam and a 2x6 plank) and proceeded to drape hundreds of the ugliest, stupidest, gaudiest neck ties you've ever seen from it. I mean these things were criminally bad. I think we did that the second day we were there. I still remember seeing the founder of the company slowly walking into his office, just looking at us while we were up on a step ladder hanging hundreds of ugly ties on a line in his brand new, clean, well ordered facility. Directly across from his office. We said "Hi, Phil" and kept right on hanging the ties. Welcome to your animation studio, I thought.

I think that was OK. When we accidentally blew off the Yoohoo chocloate drink bomb, spraying fermented Yoohoo all over the office like a geyser, we feared for our jobs. That's another story I'll tell someday. It's a classic. But after a while people grew to love the ties. They were a regular stop on tours through the studio. They added personality to the place.

So in that spirit here a few of us ReelFX animators will be hitting the garage sales this weekend to try and scare up some cheesy furnishings for the lounge. Desk toys aren't gonna cut it, kids. I'll be bringing my futon from home. Might bring my super el cheapo pool table as well (complete with warped cues). We had a pretty decent pool table at Blur. It was a great way to get away from the work and relax for a bit. Of course I didn't like losing to Jason Taylor everyday, but I made up for it during Quake games. Heh. Anyhow, John Berry's bringing his alligator statue. I might do some shopping on eBay to pick up some odd decorations to spruce things up a bit. Found some blindingly yellow felt fabric the other day that I'll probably scarf up and use to dress up the skyline. Yeah, we're gonna make sure we have a lounge kickin'. We're looking for a circa 1980 cheap-o keyboard and a purple crushed velvet pimp jacket. We'd like to have it so that any visitors will be required to do their best Robert Goulet impersonation. Either that or they have to leave a tip in the martinni glass. We've already got our eye on a spot in the new building for the animator's lounge. One thing I learned from the Big Idea move back in the day is that in the chaos it's squatter's rules. First one to pee on the fire hydrant owns the fire hydrant. Metaphorically speaking, I mean.

I'm sure if any management people are reading this they're getting ready to shut me down. ;o)

Heh. I wonder why they put us animators waaaaaay in the back away from everybody else at the opposite end of the building from the client suites? We're not that loud and crazy. Oh wait, yes we are. Heh. Should be fun. I'll try and grab some pix of the new space next week. I wanna wait til we have it all decked out first.


Sunday, March 27, 2005

Supervising animator?

Here's something interesting. Or at least I think it's interesting.

A while back I had a conversation with a (remote) co-worker. Fella named Ken Duncan. Good egg, been around the animation scene a long time. Good Canadian stock, too. Highly regarded in the field for his talent and really, really great animation. You know his work even if you don't know his name. He was the supervising animator for Meg in Hercules, Jane in Tarzan and other fun Disney films. He was at WDFA from nearly the beginning of the 90's rennaissance of animation. He most recently was a sequence lead on Sharktale where he brought his skill to the Angie character, for which he received an Annie nom this year. Anyhow, Ken knows his stuff. His work methods make some Cg animators cringe in fear (that's an entire series of posts in itself!), but you cannot deny- dude knows how to animate a character really, really well.

Anyhow, he was in Dallas for a short animator's training session a while back. We were talking about ways to structure a feature film crew for a potential film project we have brewing at the studio. The interesting thing he brought up was how traditional animation and CG animation have completely different views on the roles of supervising animators. Here's a quick breakdown:
For decades upon decades in traditional animation, the supervising animator was the person who led a team of other animators in animating a single character. A former workmate of mine from Big Idea days, Tom Bancroft, was the Mushu supervisor on Mulan when he was at Disney. (sidenote: Tom's twin brother Tony was the co-director of Mulan. How would you like to have your brother as your boss? Tony went on to be the animaton director for Stewart Little 2. But the weird thing for me was seeing two men, 6'4" tall in their mid 30's who look exactly the same! We're used to seeing twins as kids now and then. But when you see them as adults, it boggles the mind. Well, it boggled this mind.) Anyhow all he did was Mushu. Mushu, Mushu, Mushu. The Mushu Team was maybe 10-15 people (including assistants). In traditional animation the supervising animator is the de facto expert on the character they are in charge of. In essence, they are the character. They define how to draw the character, often times they even design the character (Andreas Dejas designed many of the characters he supervised). They help discover and set forth who the character is, how they act- everything. No other supervising animator is responsible for that character (unless it was a major major character that needed more than one team to do) and except for the odd occasion, no animator who wasn't on the team animated that character. It's a pretty single minded focus. If you're on the "team", you also have this single minded focus of character. You do Mushu. Everyday. Occasionally you'd do another character, but I've been told it felt awkward when that happened. Maybe Tom was expressing the awkwardness of being one of twins who both went into feature animation for Disney. Who knows...

In CG films, it's not quite the same. A supervising animator (in most CG shops) is a person who has a team and they're responsible usually for a chunk of the project as a whole. Or maybe no particular chunk of the film at all. That's been my experience. Here's a team. Here's some mix-mash of scenes, make sure the stuff looks good and is in on time. At best maybe they're a sequence lead or somesuch. But then they and their team are responsible for all the characters in that section of film. The number of animators "touching" a character is much higher. There may be character leads (example: Bobby Beck, formerly of Pixar now of Animation Mentor, was the character lead for Boo in Monsters Inc. and Nemo in Finding Nemo), but the character leads are often just resource guys. They don't focus only on their character. They also animate just about every character in the film. (a quick look at Bobby's reel points this out to be the case).

Now based on the brief explanation of the two systems, which one do you think will yield more consistent character performances?

We'll pick this discussion up again in a bit. There might be something here.


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Take it for what it's worth

We had this interesting conversation at work today about the temptation to try and make every scene be the most incrediblest amzingest scene you'd ever done in your life. Shoot, I've done that before. Guilty as charged, yer honor. While the goal is admirable (striving to be and do the best), I think the end result of that desire is to force things out of what they ought to be. Some scenes come with a certain groove to them before they ever end up on your desk. Trying to turn them into something else in some effort to prove you're worth your salt as an animator is a bit misguided. Generally folks aren't coming to the movies to bask in the glow of you, the genius animator. They're coming to enjoy the ride of the story and the characters. Don't jump the car off the rails by doing something out of place just because you've got something to prove. You've got a story to tell first and foremost. Take what the story gives you, turn the character where they need to go naturally. Our job is to guide the ride where it needs to be.

Linking animation to another art form- singing, I came up with this analogy. We've all heard singers who are trying to impress you with their voice and their ability to ramble through the notes. A simple, elegant song is turned into a painful beating on the ears when Ms. Pop-Star decides to run scales on every stinking lyric. National anthems seem to be abused the worst. "Home of the free" is 5 notes on the music sheet. Invariably some singer decides she needs to run that into 23 notes. The audience is left cringing. Just sing the song already! I can see this temptation in animation, too. It whispers to me with it's cool silky voice of doom. We want to show the world how amaaaaaazing this shot is. But if it's supposed to be something subtle, sublime, in context, well, that's where the fruit is. Shoot, this stuff is hard enough as it is without trying to do animation acrobatics on top of it.

If you feel like looking at some really sublime, masterful animation take a gander at the work of James Baxter. His work on characters like Belle, Rafiki, Quasimodo are stunning in their elegance. I love his work for how clean and simple it is. Simple, but so darned good! The point isn't showing us how many notes you can hit. The point is knowing just which ones to hit and hitting only those with style, grace, elegance. Sometimes a 3 note scene is just a 3 note scene. Hitting 10 notes in there doesn't make it better. Quite the opposite I think.


VTS Now Open for taking subscriptions

Well, after a bunch of hustling, I finally got the VTS open for taking subscriptions. Click the link you see on the left to enter the subscription process. Just follow the directions and nobody will get hurt. heh.

Additionally, I've made a free "sample" video based on the march tutorial topic of Moving Holds. It's a very basic little 4 minute thing that barely scratches the surface compared to the full on videos that will come in the VTS starting in April. Think of it as the digital equivalent of the chunk of orange chicken on a toothpick you get at the mall foodcourt. :) The link for that is down below.

One last thing, I noticed a hitch in my plans. (ain't that always the case?). Anyhow, those who subscribe here in March will be charged in March for the April video. That's because the way PayPal works it must initiate the subscription with a payment. The problem is that you'll also see a charge in April. I don't want people to pay twice for the same thing- so to even out the scales those who subscribe here in March will get 2 videos in April. Yup, you'll get twice the goodness next month if you sign up in March. That way you don't pay twice for April's video, but will instead get a bonus video in April. I realized this mistake too late to change the opening date, but I do want to make it right by the folks who subscribe here in March. So yes, I'm human, I screw up. Just ask my wife and kids. :)

Anyhow, thanks again for all the great feedback, kind words and interest in the VTS. Together we can all make an impact here in the world.


Monday, March 21, 2005

Language of Animation: Part III

Carrying on with the metaphor of animaton as writing.... If you have a series of scenes in sequence to work on, then you need to keep in mind the larger narrative flow of the film. Even if you're only asked to do one scene in the middle of a sequence, you need to understand the context. This is like paragraph structure. A paragraph generally has a singular topic. Likewise a sequence of animation is building to a singular narative point in the story. So as animators it's our job to understand the context of our work, to manage the character arcs, to grasp and master the character negotiations and to use the appropriate emphases on things at the right time. So if Bob gets really angry at the end of the sequence and you're animating a scene early on, you need to know how to deftly show Bob getting miffed or annoyed, but you can't go full on PO'd. It's not time yet.

But the larger context overall is this: Who is this character? What is their story? Can we believe this character? Do we care about them? Are they being true to themselves? True to the moment?

Last year I was lucky enough to be loaned a copy of a videotaped presentation by Glen Keane at WDFA (any WDFA legal hawks, don't worry, I gave it back! Sheesh!). He was doing an introductory lecture to folks being added to the John Silver crew for Treasure Planet. The whole 2 hr tape was filled with great stuff for sure, but the thing that struck me is how much he knew this John Silver fella. I'm not talking about how much he knew how to draw him or even his mannerisms. I'm talking that dude knew Silver's soul. I get the idea he knew him even better than the directors did. I recall (roughly, the particulars of it elude me) a moment where he recounted a point in pre-production where he felt that the storyboard treatment of Silver wasn't as true to Silver as it could have been. He took his concerns (along with a proposed alternative I believe) to the directors. His solution would have required more screen time, which means more money of course. Rebuffed initially, he pressed on. As the scene was put together in story it wasn't being true to Silver. He eventually convinced the directors. The scene was expanded, the time added, the boards re-written to match his vision- his knowledge of John Silver as a character.

Now while that story is as cool as ice-cream in Alaska, I initially dismissed this as "Well, shoot. He's Glen Freaking Keane. Of course he'll win that one." But recently I revisited this thing in my mind and thought about it. Initially he hadn't won. But he pressed on, pushed back. He believed in having something worth saying for that scene, something sincere and true to Silver. He wasn't easily dissuaded. And then I thought of the scenes I had done where I felt like the boards were just not right. I may have brought up my concerns to the director, but if I was told "No", what did I do? Did I believe in the character enough to bring it up again? More often than I'd like to admit, I didn't. Why not? Is that being too bold? Don't rock the boat? Know your place? I concluded that the reason I didn't push is because I didn't know my characters well enough to care about being true to them.

To me that's not acceptable.


Sunday, March 20, 2005

It's Been a Good Day

This is just something I feel I need to share.
Today I just really felt blessed by the Lord. When I look at my life, my beautiful wife, my wonderful kids, my health, my cool way to make a living - just everything, I feel really humbled and thankful. The Lord's been very good to me indeed.
Now some of you may not be interested in hearing that. Well, sorry if this post is a waste of your time, but it's just something I needed to get out there. Anyhow, if you want to have a great day yourself, just take a moment to look at your life, and instead of focusing on the things that irritate you (like we usually do, I'm guilty of that as well) go ahead and find the good things you're thankful for and offer up a quick "Thanks!" to heaven above and the God who lives there. I promise it won't hurt a bit. ;)


Friday, March 18, 2005

March's Free Web Tutorial Online!

Hey kids! The first of the new monthly free web tutorials is online and available. This month's topic, as noted before, is the Moving Hold. Hopefully this one is useful to folks.

While I'm here, I feel like I need to kinda explain the krunky animation quality for these tutorials. I admit the stuff is kinda... um... rough around the egdes. That's on purpose, really. If I took the time to noodle these things out to the max I'd never get them done. The point is to illustrate a singular principle or example in motion, not to wow you with my mad ninja skillz as an animation polisher. I've been in training sessions with world renowned traditional animators who can draw like nobody's business. I mean like crazy great draughtsmen. But the funny thing is that their drawings on the whiteboard when teaching are usually horrible! Heheh. That's because they're not trying to prove anything. They're trying to teach. So in that same vein my "animation sketches" in these tutorials will be just that- sketches to get a point across.

At any rate, enough of me covering my butt. Go download the tutorial and enjoy mocking my slop-imation. Heh.


Language of Animation: Part II

The cool thing about thinking of animation as a language is it helps me break down what I'm trying to do. First off, an admission. I love metaphors and allegories. Just love 'em. They help me understand things. I think they're great teaching tools. Anyhow, the allegory I have in mind here is that animation is like writing. You have handwriting, spelling, sentence structure, paragraph and story structure. Each level is a slightly more global look at things, but it always comes back to my earlier point: having something worth saying in the first place.

I think of my clean up and polish stages as basically akin to the effort to make your handwriting clean, smooth, easy on the eyes- pretty. Great handwriting can't fix poor spelling or bad sentence structure, but it looks nice. Just like great polish on a scene can't rescue poor acting choices or weak poses, etc. Clean up is only as good as the foundation upon which it's built. Which is why I think of it as handwriting. But bad handwriting can make a great idea illegible, so you can't scrimp on it, either. Still, it ought not be the focus of what you're doing, merely the product of a professionalism that drives you toward excellence. Polish/handwriting can't rescue bad ideas. It just makes bad ideas pretty to look at.

Spelling is similar. You can comunicate an idea with misspelled words. Its just distracting. So weak poses, funky arcs, odd motions or less than great timing show the same kind of lack of professionalism that misspelled words do. People still get the idea, but it just feels amateurish, rushed or sloppy. It certainly helps to spell things correctly. But again, spelling doesn't rescue bad ideas. It just makes bad ideas easier to read.

When it comes to unique and sincere acting choices, masterful timing and great poses I think of these elements like sentence structure. It is foundational to what you're saying. The stuff has to flow. Your acting choices, your pacing- it all needs to work together, one idea flowing naturally and seamlessly into the next. It has to be easy to read, natural, concise, clear. (unlike this post!) Avoid run-on sentences (timing with no texture), wrong words ("don't jump to contusions"- a pose that isn't appropriate for the moment), poor structure (acting choices that don't flow), etc. Here we're starting to get to the point. This is where you need to focus your energy because this is the core stuff of what you're saying. Choose your words carefully. A poor choice of words can cause wars. By skimping here you can utterly ruin what could be a golden moment. Choose the wrong words and state them in the wrong way and it'd be like proposing to your girlfriend as if you were Andrew Dice Clay. You dropped the ball, buddy.


Thursday, March 17, 2005

Schleifer needs more work...

You guys gotta check this out. Jason Schleifer, disgustingly talented animator type dude at PDI/DW and all around cool hep-cat, has his own blog. He's just wrapped up production on Madagascar (congrats!). But it now seems that all he does is sit around and post to his blog. Like.... 8 times a day! How can I keep up with that? Dude, get to work! Heh. Seriously, great guy, great blog, great read, fun stuff. Another one for the reading list for sure!


Video Tutorial Service - Yay!

This is just a quick update post on my recently announced Video Tutorial Service. Thanks for all the great interest and feedback. You can find the answers to a few questions on the thread at Cg-Talk and the thread over at CG-Char. I'm glad to see that folks think this is a good idea and that I'm filling a need in the animation education market. Cool stuff!

Anyhow, I've made it easier to keep up with the developments for the VTS by creating a mailing list. It's a no obligation thing. Just sign up and get info about the VTS including announcements, news and special insider info (not that there's really any insider info, it just sounds cool!). Anyhow, enough rambling from me. Click here to get on the info mailing list.

And thanks again for all the great feedback, ideas and support. The plan is on track for us to go live in taking subscriptions on Monday the 21st. So keep your eyes on this site, or better yet, sign up for my mailing list to find out when we're open for business. Thanks!!


Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Language of Animation : Part I

This is gonna be a multi-post topic, but it should be fun.
Animation is a communicative tool. In fact I like to think of animation as a language all its own- a language that is universally understood across cultures and eras. Animation has the unique ability to cut through the cultural and societal clutter and deliver its message with a decisive clarity that other visual mediums can't even begin to touch. But like all languages, animation must be mastered in order for it to be used to the greatest effect. And then once the language is mastered we are left with the even larger challenge of having anything worth saying.

I tend to think of animation as an intertwined symbiosis of artistic expression and technical accuity. To follow the language metaphor- What to say and how to say it well? Somehow through the years the bulk of the educational emphasis in animation training has focused disproportionately on the technical, especially in recent years and in CG centric circles. The easiest thing to do is focus on the technical side. It holds out the promise of easily divisible measurable steps that make for good multiple choice questions on tests. Software is a very techie thing and it is easier to talk about buttons and functions, features and procedures than the nature of what's being said. And I'll be up front and admit that many of my own tutorials on this site focus on the technical side of animation (not the software techie stuff, but the technicals of motion). Topics are typically about how to accomplish a particular look, how to construct a desired result, how to appropriate the foundational discoveries of animation into your own work so that your animation doesn't just suck. Heh. We all want to get good at the craft of animation. We want our work to have weight, good balance, force, clean movement, easy-on-the-eye posing and motion, etc. I look at Richard Williams' book The Animator's Survival Kit as a primarily technical textbook on the craft of animation. A very, very useful and exhaustive textbook, but a technical textbook nonetheless. But in the end all of this focus is on "how to say something well". It's clinical, dry, scientific to an extent. Easily parsed into rules or steps or procedures, terribly succeptible to formula. It doesn't come anywhere close to addressing the other side of the animation coin- namely, What do we have to say in the first place?

That's the artistic side. Are we playing a song that moves people or are we playing meticulously mastered scales? I've never seen anyone moved to tears by scales, no matter how impressively performed, but I have seen plenty moved by music that touches their heart. What are we saying? So few people are having this conversation. The studios have almost all but abdicated any responsibility to do anything but make us laugh or to generate profit for the shareholders. Enter bathroom humor, lazy pop culture references and tired stand up comedy sketches. Game designers/writers struggle to understand this stuff and fall back on the threadbare old stand by's of shooting things and watching body parts fly. Institutionally there are very few organizations that are committed to saying something worth listening to.

But we're animators, we're not "the studio". What are we saying? Again, to follow our language track- there's a lot of energy being put into making pretty handwriting, solid sentence structure, proper spelling and meticulous punctuation within the animation industry. But is anything worthwhile being said? Is this a diatribe against blockbuster animated films? Heck no. I'm just saying that we could do better. I think we, the animators, need to step up and ask our supervisors, our story people, our directors to have a sense of understanding about what is being said. Instead of just trying to ride along and survive as we're pulled from the top we need to push up from the bottom. We are the performers, not the big name actors on the billboards. We dive into the character, the story, the motivations for the moment deeper than anybody else. We get inside these characters' skins, see the world through their eyes, feel the world through their heart. And even if the rest of the film is a cynical hopeless schlockfest we owe it to ourselves, to our audiences and yes, to our characters to find something worth saying in each scene. This doesn't need to be a massive cultural revolution- this can be a grass roots animator driven activity that we can begin every day, every scene, every project. What are our characters saying? Do our directors know? Do we ask them to know? Do we care?

We ought to.


Welcome to the neighborhood

A little shout out to those of you who have stumbled across my humble little blog/site in recent days. Another special thanks to the lovely and talented Jim Hull of the noble Seward Street animation blog. Welcome to the neighborhood, folks! Feel free to pull up a lawn chair, grab a cold one and enjoy the bar-b-q while we kick around the groovy cool topics of character animation, animated films and the finer points of pooper-scooper laws. :o)


Coming Very Soon!

Just a quick note to let folks know that I'm putting the finishing touches on this month's new free animation tutorial. This will be the first in my new campaign to provide a new free animation tutorial on my site each month. This month's topic will be the uniquely CG creature we all know as Moving Holds. We'll cover what they are, what makes for good ones, key things to keep in mind when building them and some nifty tips on how to diagnose what a particular moving hold ought to look like. There's gonna be a number of sample clips in this one, so hopefully it'll be handy. I know that I learned a good bit putting it together. This should be up before the end of the week, so check back regularly to see when it goes online.

In addition I will be providing a very small teaser video tutorial sample on the Moving Holds topic. This will be a free (and by necessity, short) sample of what to expect from my upcoming video tutorial series. Which brings me to the announcement that the Video Tutorial Service will indeed be going live in April. Here are the basics: in addition to my free web tutorial each month I will be providing a very low cost video tutorial for those who subscribe to the video tutorial service. These video tutes will provide additional in depth information that relates to the monthly tutorial topic, stuff that can't be covered as easily in text. The videos will cover deeper concepts and provide real world practical tips and examples for executing the covered topic solutions in your own work. The videos will run approx 10-15 min each and subscribers will get a new one each month. The subscription service will be taking subscribers on or about March 21st, provided that all the technical mechanisms check out as solid.

But by far the thing that most excites me about this new Video Tutorial Service is that at least 40% of the proceeds from this video tutorial subscription service will be donated to several charities that benefit the less fortunate around the world. It's the best of everything- you can boost your animation education and help out the needy all at the same time!

The goal is to get even deeper into the material and provide a very cost effective, yet still highly informative and useful resource for advancing your animation studies and career. Yes, I know there are other absolutely wonderful online animation training resources out there and I can't recommend them enough. The guys over at Animation Mentor are uber groovy cool cats and I think the world of them and their work. Their mentors are all top notch and again, I call many of them friends. If you can swing it you should definitely try to get involved with their program. But I also realize that for many people out there the cost and time investment of fulltime schooling just isn't an option (it never was for me). So to help those who aren't able to participate in these other excellent programs, I want to provide something that they can still use and grow from without busting the bank.

I'm really excited about being able to offer this video tutorial service. I hope it will be as helpful to you as my previous tutorials have been. So click here to find out more. And if you're of the mind to do so, feel free to spread the news to your animation buddies. I want this to be open to any and all, so first click this link for details and then once you've committed them to memory go tell a friend! Heh. ;o)


Thursday, March 10, 2005

Principles vs. Rules

It's a deep part of human nature to try and reduce things to rules, principles or items on a checklist. To reduce something down to its List is to hold out hope that yes, you too can achieve the results you desire with less thought. Just do these magical steps and voila! Instant success! Formulas hold out the allure of surety, consistency, homogeny of result. Which is, as any thinking person understands, rubbish. Doesn't matter if the topic is religion, politics, baking, writing or animation. People everywhere want the easy way. They like the List of Rules. They like the Formulas.

The greatest injustice ever done to the 12 Animation Principles as noted in "The Illusion of Life" has been a sort of calcification of the principles into these unbending rules over the years. Now this isn't universal, but the notion does exist in the mind of many. I hear it in comments often. These 12 items have been taught, memorized, ingrained. Students across the world for decades have made them a mantra for their work. The allure is there. Just get these 12 things right and your animation will be perfect. As if you somehow shoe horn these 12 ingredients into your work you'll have award winning animation.

Of course nothing could be further from the truth. You can't apply these things without thought. And there's a reason why the writers chose the word principles and not rules. Principles are a guiding thing. Rules dictate. Principles leave room for thought, exploration, advancement. Rules demand obedience. This is true for the Big-12, and it's true for any process or method noted or recorded. Don't fall back into formula thinking. Formulas are seductive. Homogeny of result isn't really what you want. If you always "do walks" like A, or if you always "do a take" like B, or if you always "do blinks" like C, well, you'll end up with stuff that looks like color by numbers animation. (Formulamation was the joking name we came up for it at work the other day.) Great animation, like all great art, isn't color by numbers. There is no formula. Just principles.

Anything I write about on this site or in a tutorial will, by necessity, be broken down into sub-sets of information for easy processing. The nature of describing thing requires this kind of analytical approach. I'm sure it's what begat the 12 Principles in the first place. However, don't fall into the trap of thinking that anything said is a Rule or a Formula for success. It's not. It's just meant to help. The real progress comes from you, your thought, your observation, your effort. So read what you like, disagree as much as you like. Use what's helpful, toss the rest. I'm certainly no master by any stretch of the imagination.

Animation principles are tools to give you guidance, not masters that demand utter unthinking obedience in their application.


Monday, March 07, 2005

Another log on the fire..

While I'm on a roll with this whole CG-animators-had-better-learn-to-get-comfy-with-
a-pencil-in-their-hand kick
, I strolled on by Jim Hull's uber groovy Seward Street blog and came across this note from Glen Keane....

The question asked of Glen was, "If you were to be starting today trying to become an animator, what do you think you would need to do?" And his answer was...

Well, if I was just starting as an animator I would take drawing really seriously. A lot more seriously than probably a lot of other animators would say, but that's me; that's how I approach it..... To me, if I feel like if you're going to really push into where I think acting needs to go, and we're going to really compete with live action, then our acting needs to go to levels where you're really dealing with subtle, deeper human emotions. The only way you can really capture that, besides being in touch with your own heart in your acting, is to be able to draw how you feel. It requires a real understanding of anatomy and to be able to draw really well, to communicate.

Safe to say Glen's a guy worth listening to on this whole burrito. And it's also safe to say that Jim's got a killer blog running. In case you didn't know he's the fella who put up those tasty Milt Kahl MP3's a while back. My favorite track is #4 about Getting the Most Out of a Scene. Good stuff!


Saturday, March 05, 2005


If you've not yet done so, or if it's been a while, head on over to
These guys have a wealth of treasures stored up for perusing. It's a great way to blow a weekend. I've been digesting the notes from Eric Larson about Entertainment. (part 4 here and part 5 here)
One may read those two Larson links and say "He's just talking about drawing. I don't draw my animation, I'm a computer animator. The computer does the drawing." Fool!! Who decides what the arrangement of controls should be? Who determines how the pose should look? Who determines the relationship of volumes? It's you, the animator. If you think that notes from old timers about drawing don't apply to CG animation then you're sunk before you even begin.
I've been taking the word "drawing" that Mr. Larson talks about and translating it's purpose into my work in animation. Ask the guys at work and they'll tell you. "Yeah, Keith's always going on about 'drawing the puppet into shape'". That's how I see our work as computer animators- our job is to arrange this puppet rig of a character and it's various control systems into pleasing drawings. In the end CG animation is exactly the same as traditional- flat images on a flat screen. The characters are the same results- flat shapes on a flat screen. So if this is true (and it is) then we as CG animators need to put as much thought, care and effort into our "drawings" as anybody with a pencil must. If we don't, then we neglect the fundamental nature of our craft and we get lazy, relying on the rig or the model to do too much of our thinking. The result is what some have called "stiff animation". Why stiff? Because we let the default shape of the model and rig define too much of what we're doing. The evidence is all around us- stiff poses that have upright vertical torsos, arm flailing, palms and pointing gestures, feet planted in cement, IK floaty movements, poor use of volumes, poses that have no sense of kinetic movement in them, odd and clunky relationships within the body, etc. It's all around us- see it. We need to get beyond the pixels and realize that Cg animators are making drawings. We just use a far more expensive pencil than in the past.
With the advent of more free-form character rigs (for examples see the 2004 SIGGRAPH sketches showcasing the tools that Disney Feature has developed or see the experimental rigging work being done by Jason Osipa) it's going to become more and more vital that CG animators understand the need for expressing solid "drawing" in their poses and in their work. And when the day comes (and it is coming) when we're no longer constrained to positioning these arbitrary rig controllers one at a time in the old click and pick paradigm, when the tools for posing will be a drawing a line on screen with a Wacom and not mugling things into position with a mouse - then those who understand the primary elements of what makes for a pleasing drawing are gonna be the ones who survive. The more the technology moves forward with Cg animation, the more we as animators need to move backward- back into the foundational aspects of our craft. We need to diligently search out and crave those fundamental principles established decades ago so that we can be prepared to take full advantage of the freedom of expression being afforded by our technical brethren. We need to know how to draw our characters into shape. More and more the rigs will be able to allow this level of freedom. If you're not prepared for it, you'll be left in the dust.


Language Barrier

When I discuss planning a scene with many CG animators I find that there is a kind of communication breakdown happening between those who have a understanding of the traditional background of the craft and those who don't. Folks will use the same words, but often these words won't mean the same thing to all parties in the conversation. Animators who have come from a purely CG background (through no fault of their own) hold different meanings to certain words and phrases than have been in use in animation for 80+ years. I'll admit, I used to be one of these people. Earlier in my animation career when I had conversations with traditional guys I didn't understand what they were on about sometimes. They seemed frustrated with me and my lack of understanding of the basic language of the trade. It's almost like a person from the Bronx was talking to a person from Edinborough. They're supposedly speaking the same language, but I'd be willing to bet good money that they'd have a hard time understanding each other. Such is often the case between animators with only a CG background and those with some measure of experience in traditional animation.

One of the earliest and most significant language casualties of the CG animation era has been the term "key frame". When you're just plugging along as an animator on the box, "setting keys" as often as you blink, the meaning of this term "key frame" gets washed away. It's not the animator's fault. Some programmer some many years back needed a way to describe the function of telling the computer to remember a given value for a given object at a given frame in time- a vital foundation of the entire computer animation activity. Being a programmer (and a very bright fellow to be sure) this person must have looked across the animation lexicon and settled on the term "key frame" to describe this function. A good try, but an unfortunate misuse of the original term. Still, it stuck and here 15-20 years later we have a legion of CG animators who have adopted this new computerized meaning for the term "key frame". So ask any CG animator who hasn't had any experience in traditional animation what the meaning of the term "key frame" is and they'll tell you this: it's when you tell the computer to remember an object's values at a place in time. Ask them how many keyframes are in a scene and they'll likely say "Well, hundreds, perhaps thousands." In the language of CG, all of this is correct.

But what is the original meaning of "key frame"? If you ask an old timer traditional animator what the meaning of a "key frame" is you might hear this: It's a defining moment in a scene that is the foundation of the performance. Ask them how many are in a scene and they'll likely say: Sometimes as few as 1, maybe as many as 4 or 5 for a longer more complex scene.
Now wait... if there's only 1 key frame, then how does the character move? The key to the term is the word "key". See? There are doubtless many frames and poses in any given scene. But only a very few of them are KEY frames. They are the foundation of the performance. Change one key frame (the drawing is called the key pose, where it occurs in your scene- based on your scene break out- is the key frame) and the entire flavor of the scene changes. A KEY frame is just that- it is the key to unlock the entire thing. And so yes, sometimes there is only 1 key frame in a scene. There are plenty of pose drawings and breakdown drawings and inbetween drawings, but very few key drawings.

So why go on about this? Isn't this just some blathering about semantics? I mean, CG is the new paradigm, it rules the feature film landscape. Stop clinging to the past like some old fart, you may say. Well, I think it is important because if we are going to move forward as CG animators we had better come to understand our past animation heritage. I started this post off by saying this language barrier comes up during scene planning discussions. At work as a supervisor I'll often get together and help an animator break down their scene, check each the thumbnials and pose ideas, etc. One of the first questions I ask when looking at the thumbnails or pose test is "Which one of these are key frames?" I used to get the head tilted curious dog look. "Keyframes? There's gonna be tons of 'em by the time I'm done." No, no. I mean, which of these poses, which of these thumbs- which idea am I looking at here is the one or two or maybe 3 that define the entire peformance? Which pose- if changed or taken out- causes the entire scene to change down at the core level? If you as an animator cannot answer that question when you're planning your scene, you're lost before you even leave your house. You have no map to guide you. If nothing is key, then everything is just bleh. Down the road you may end up noodling the snot out of your ideas and the end result will be a performance that is a complete mystery to understand. It's locked up in a mystery because you never found the keys to unlock it in your planning stage.


Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Ahhh, wisdom!

I found this beautiful gem from an interview here with Pixar supervising animator Alan Barillaro...

3DA - When one animator get his shot the camera, timing,...used to be set so, which are the more common problems an animator have to deal with?

Alan - Often times I think inexperienced animators jump too quickly into the computer. Computers are a dangerous medium. You can "feel" like you're animating when you really aren't. What I mean to say is, it's easy enough to make something move around, but what about your acting in the scene? ?Who is this character, and where is he in the emotional arc of the film? Are you handling this shot in the most entertaining way possible? You know, there's a whole slew of questions that you need to ask yourself before you begin a scene. I think keeping yourself very disciplined as an actor and an artist is the most important thing to keep in mind. Anything decent I've figured out in a scene has come from doing a lot of homework up front. Nothing is going to come for free, especially on the computer.

Of course all this is far too true. I see a lot of animation, much of it sent to me by younger animators and even folks who are making a living from animation. So often I can see the evidences of this "Illusion of Progress" (to borrow and pervert a book title) in the work I'm shown.

To the best of my knowledge the computer is the first animation medium that allows animators to see things moving without any real work. You can literally see something move within a minute of opening and working on a scene on the computer. By contrast in hand drawn the animator has no timeline and no realtime rendered puppets. They must plan their scenes before they do anything. I mean really, really plan. Think of the timings, the poses, the actions, the acting- all of it must be planned. That's because every single key frame must be physically drawn to define the performance. You can't draw something of any use without a plan. It's not until after a bunch of planning and then a bunch of drawing (which forces thinking) that a traditional animator can go shoot the drawings and time them in a pencil shooter to even begin to see the characters in pose and in time. The magic of seeing their decisions play out in glorious movement in front of a 2d animator is delayed by hours, often days! And even then there's no 'tweens, just held drawings- no cheap and easy spline interps. All this manual effort and delayed gratification absolutely forces thinking and planning. And that's a good thing- probably the best thing.

However with a computer it's as easy as grabbing and moving a control, setting a few keys and hitting "play". If you have a fast graphics card, a light rig and are a big fan of autokey you can slop in a lot of movement and see it played back within minutes. Speed! But at what cost? Not much thought is required to do that. We're impatient. I know I was in the beginning. But I am thankful that I learned Cg animation on slow computers lo these many years past. It forced me to have the discipline necessary to think my scene through. And even then I didn't think enough. So yes, we CG animators are an impatient lot. As a result, we tend to get a bit lazy. We see results that don't have much thought behind them and we're mesmerized by the movement. Loooooook. It moves! Cool! Here let me fix this little thing. Play again. Oooh! It looks so pretty when it moves. Here, lemme tweak this bit here. Play. Ooooo! Repeat ad infinitum. Next thing you know it's 3 days later and we've laid in a ton of work on top of a horribly weak foundation. We get sucked down a rabbit hole, tweaking poorly planned motion on un-thinking acting choices. We polish tin. This is the horrible thing about tin- no matter how much you polish it, you can polish it so you can see your reflection- it's still cheap, thin, tin. But gold is found by digging deep, and the digging is in planning your scene.

First spend time thinking about your character's motivations, their story, their drive, their negotiation. Then think how that looks for the key frames (a tragic language casualty in the computer age, but that's a post for another day). Then think how to get into those key storytelling moments. Break it down. Think it through. Sketch. Find the poses, try alternates, push them, try variations. All with a pencil. I don't care if you think you "can't draw". Do it anyway. It'll force you to think, and that's the goal. With time you'll get better, so just stop hemming and hawing and just pick up a stupid pencil already. (I swear if i read one more thread in some forum on whether it's important for a computer animator to know how to draw I'm gonna go to the corner store buy a gallon of bleach and drink it). Then think of the breakdowns- yes, try and plan/sketch the breakdowns. Think, dig, search, plan, explore, decide, analyze, deconstruct, express, execute. In that order. Perhaps some of the best advice I've heard from an old time traditional animator (and I forget who said it) is this: Spend half your time planning, the other half you time doing. The first reaction to that is "Half?! I can't afford half. How about ten minutes?" I'll be honest, for many of us we don't even take that ten minutes and it shows in the work.

I dunno. The longer I have been animating the more I see that planning is doing. The best technique, the finest polish, the tightest arcs and sweetest technicals in motion are all for nothing if you spend your time pouring all that energy into acting and performance that hasn't been thoroughly searched, pushed, explored, explained and planned.
Anyhow, something to chew on.


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Work in progress

Here are some work in progress images from my current short film project. I've been working on this in my spare time for the last year. I hope to be moving into animation production in the next month or so (after another story tightening pass and some major rig fixes). These aren't the final -final look, but do give a good indication of what I'm trying to do in these spaces. Anyhow, I hope they meet with your satisfaction.

room 01

room 02

room 03

room 01