Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Setup Machine

Ahhh, bliss.

I'll tell ya what. Over the years I've learned a lot about rigging. I've rigged a ton of characters. I fancy myself a half way decent rigger when I need to be. It's been a necessary evil in my professional path. It's a knowledge that has served me well and I think it's good for animators to know how to do it. But to be honest, I only did it to get better animation controls for my own characters. I don't really like rigging. There's a certain tinkering aspect of finding a new solution in rigging that can be fun- like solving a tricky puzzle. But the actual work of rigging a whole character, including painting weights and all that rubbish- ugh! I find myself having less and less patience for the black art as the years roll by. So imagine my joy when I saw what Raf Anzovin was cooking up with his new The Setup Machine for Maya. I've had a chance to play with the beta version a bit and let me tell you, this is the thing to get if you have rigging to do. So many folks write me and ask about how to rig, or where they can get little known free rigs to animate with. Well now you can model your own character design (or better yet, get a modeler buddy to do it for you!) and The Setup Machine makes body rigging slickity splickity. AND- get this- it does a really spiffy job of auto weighting the skin to the joints. It's fully customizable, got great controls for animation, has a lot of mesh sculpting flexibility to shape the characters- Oh yeah. It's all good. And now it's been officially released. So head on over to Raf's site for all the details and to pick up your copy of TSM. It's the bee's knees. I'll never rig another character from scratch again. Joy!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Give Thanks...

I want to wish a great Thanksgiving Day to all of you folks in the U.S. Today is a day for us to stop and give simple thanks to the good Lord for all we've been blessed with. And then we get to enjoy some food! Yay! It has been said that the fastest way to become wealthy is to simply count your blessings. I challenge all of us to take it one step further- be a blessing to someone else today who's list of blessings might be a bit shorter than yours.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Pictures for Patrick: Bucky

Bucky likes to talk. I don't know who Bucky is. But this is a picture of him. Please don't feed Bucky. You will just get your monitor all messy.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Pictures for Patrick: Patrick

This is my picture OF Patrick. He's normally not wall-eyed. He does grin like that, though. He liked this picture. His wife Amila also liked at it. They sit together with me at work. Amila has sharp elbows. We are afraid of her elbows. She's also a really good animator. I hope you enjoy this Picture of Patrick.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Pictures for Patrick: Old Dude

This is perhaps my avorite way to draw. I don't know where I got the idea from, probably just from messing around in some boring meeting one day. I try to use a single line and let the pen wander over the paper, trying not to lift the pen and worry about stuff like line quality and all that. I think I do my best work when I use this kind of doodling method. It's also relaxing and very fun. Quite freeing indeed.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Bill Tytla nugget of gold

I was studying through my old Richard Wiliams Master Class notes (this was back when Richard was travelling the world offering a 3 day master course on animation. Pre- Animator's Survival Kit days. $900 for 3 days of animation training. Ahh, the good old days.)
Anyhow I came across a quote that Richard relayed from Bill Tytla, one of the early masters of animation. Bill said...
There's only 3 things to animation.
  1. Anticipation
  2. Action
  3. Reaction
Learn to do these well and you can animate anything well.
And another Bill Tytla nugget:
Be Simple
Be Direct
Be Clear
Be Very Simple
Make a statement and finish it clearly
Good stuff to be reminded of in an age where we can get all distracted by the possibilities of subtle micro movement in CG animation. It's true that Cg opens doors for adding those micro expressions and little flashes, but they alone cannot sustain a scene. This micro subtelty stuff is like a good spice. Just the right kind in just the right amount can elevate a meal from good to amazing. But put the wrong spice in a dish, or too much of the right spice and you can ruin a perfectly good meal. Same with animation. You can so overpack your animation with bits of micro movement in the name of subtlety that you lose the primary storytelling drive of the shot to start with. It's a pretty easy thing to make the face all muddy if we're not careful. The foundation must be clear, simple, strong and entertaining- then add a little spice. Let your posing, drawing, timing and acting choices be the power behind the scene, not the little flashes of motion or noise.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Acting & Animation

What if you stink as an actor? What if you've tried acting out your scenes on video and have ended up with absolute junk?

The craft of acting is about using your own body as the puppet for the camera. So acting classes and exercises are mostly about how to manipulate your mind/emotion/body into a reflexive response that is sincere so that what shows up on the camera is a genuine human reaction. You are the puppet, therefore you must manipulate yourself. The more that you can conjure up a non thinking reflexive response to a pretend moment, the better you are as an actor. The acting classes I've taken all orbit around this idea.

Animation is acting by proxy. We don't even say the lines of audio. We are greatly limited in our ability to define a role and the moments of a story are already defined for us in many ways. We are not the puppet, so acting exercises have a somewhat limited application to an animator. The one place where these tools come in handy is if we head off to an acting room and act out a scene in front of a video camera in order to help us see how we'd play the scene if we were the actor. Lots of folks are big proponents of this in helping you get better acting in your animation. It's certainly very helpful. That is, if it's at all helpful. By that I mean this: what if you're not a good actor and you know it?

Live action reference is an old tool. In years past at Disney less popular (and presumably less talented) actors were brought in to act out a scene for the animators to study. And the animators used that reference to one degree or another. Interestingly Milt Kahl decried the "lazy bastards" who just copied the performance off the photostats. He said you get "third rate acting from a third rate actor". Apparently Milt felt there was something more needed. Even so, third rate actors are still better actors than I am. With the advent of digital video many animators have taken great advantage of acting a scene out. There's been a push to get animators to become more like actors, in the real sense of having the animator act out their scenes in order to better tap into the emotion of the moment. Then they go back to their desk and study the tape for the golden nuggets that lie within. This is helpful, I'm sure. That is if you can get anything off the tape that's real and worth using.

There's a reason I'm an animator and not an actor. An honest man must know his limits and I know that as an actor I'm not all that good. I go to the acting room, run the video and what I have after 30 minutes is pretty much crap. I guess what I'm trying to say is: me acting it out in front of a video camera in a room alone is clearly not enough for me to succeed with a scene. And even if the 9 old men were inclined to act out a scene, there was no way to record it so they could study it later, so obviously they must have done something else. Does anybody who's ever worked with the modern greats like Glen Keane, James Baxter, Nick Park or Andres Dejas know if they go into an acting room to act out their scene in front of a camera? I've never read anything that indicates that is what these guys do. So how do they get such consistently amazing performances? There must be more than video tape at work there.

I turned to the Acting and Emotion chapter in The Illusion of Life for help. Here's something that really surprised me...
Usually this feeling of warmth cannot be structured in the Story Dept. and must depend entirely upon the animator for its portrayal, but it remains a very mercurial sensation. A note cannot be pinned to the storyboard saying "Get warmth through here", nor can it be written as an action on the exposure sheet, "Animate 3 feet of warmth". It cannot be analyzed, or acted out or represented in the same way as an expression or a passing thought, since it is more of a sentiment that grows within the viewer from the special way the business has been animated; actually it grows from the sensitivity of the animator who makes the drawings."
pg 491

Isn't it something to read that Frank Thomas (or Ollie, whoever wrote those words) said that developing that warmth in a character couldn't be acted out? Instead they indicate that there's something else going on- sensitivity of the animator. In another place they talk about the feelings the animator has for their drawings. You must have feelings for your character, your 'drawings'. The implication was that the very act of drawing was a cathartic moment for an animator. It's that word: sensitivity- that's what intrigues me.

How sensitive are you? Do you notice things? Are you a keen observer of people and how they behave? Are you moved when another person hurts? Do you rejoice when others succeed? Do emotional moments effect you deeply? Can you easily understand and tap into why another person would feel a certain way? Can you come alongside another person in their life and connect on a deep level with what's going on inside of them? Even if you do nothing with it, does it touch something inside of you? I know some really good animators and the best ones always seem to have this attribute, sensitivity. They're expert observers of people and their emotional states. They connect easily to others and their moments in life. Sad movies devastate them. Violent movies effect them. Real life tragedies touch them. They're sensitive people. I think in a significant sense that animation is about coming alongside of our characters in their moments and being sensitive enough to connect with them there, to be faithful in moving them in a way that is consistent with their emotions in the moment, not by shoehorning my own emotions and gestures onto them.

I realize that there are some very prominent advocates of the "acting it out in video" approach. I certainly can't argue with their success. Definitely if you're a halfway decent actor then you should by all means utilize that talent in such a way. Far be it from me to say that acting it out isn't good or helpful. I'm not saying that at all, so don't even go there. What I am saying is that for those of us who can't act (and have tried and know it) I think sensitivity is the key to getting to that point in our animation where we can be honest to our characters.

Character Supervisors revisited

I've talked about this a bit in the past but I've not been sure which way I go on the issue. If we have 25 animators then by nature we have 25 interpretations of the character. The goal is to have a single character on screen with a measure of consistency of performance so that we get to feel for them in their world. We really don't want 25 versions of a character, that doesn't serve the story very well. So what extra energies are required to keep all the interpretations in line? Would these energies be better spent elsewhere? Is there a better way than the way we've done things for the last little bit?

Chicken Little was run in the standard Disney shop style where animators were put into teams that were dedicated to a specific character with character supervisors over those teams. Many other shops work where the animator does every character in a scene. But Disney stuck with their old way of having dedicated teams of animators working on a single character with a character supervisor who is the expert and master of that character. From what I saw on the screen with Chicken Little I thought they were very successful in getting consistent performances from their characters, especially Buck Cluck. Runt as well, very solid, very consistent from an emotional and mannerisms standpoint. And I felt that this consistency actually opened doors for depth of performance. It appeared to me that the energies that would otherwise be spent to keep the character performances consistent were now free to be spent in digging deeper. Those emotional scenes with Buck were flat out awe inspiring. I am willing to go out on a limb here and say that those are perhaps some of the best animated scenes (from an acting standpoint) as we have seen in the last 30 years.

I think my preference is definitely starting to tip toward the Character Team approach. We've seen it work for decades in the old Disney studio. Now I'm seeing how much it brings to the table in CG. I think that all things considered that this is a good system. It understands one of the more troubling challenges in animation and mitigates it some by reducing the number of "interpretations" of a character by limiting the number of animators responsible for portaying that character.

Sony Picture Animation is apparently following the same cue with their film Open Season. I'm curious to see how well they do with this. But the success with the animation in Chicken Little has certainly done its part in making me lean toward the character team approach.
Let the disagreeing comments begin. :)

Pictures for Patrick: Sluggo

My favorite medium is ballpoint pen on Post-It Notes. Why? Because they're unassuming materials. You're not "supposed" to draw with a ballpoint pen and Post-It's aren't "real" drawing paper. Which is cool because then I'm free to screw up. Make a crap drawing? No problem, just peel it off the pad and chuck it. No biggie. But put a Col-Erase in my hand and give me sheets of drawing paper with great tooth and I start to freeze up. Performance anxiety. Patrick liked this picture. I think it's fun, too.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Pictures for Patrick: Grumpy

This is another picture I drew for Patrick. It is not a picture of Patrick. I do have a picture of Patrick. I will share that with you some day. Today is not that day. Today is just a picture for Patrick, not a picture of Patrick.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Pictures for Patrick: Puzzled

I work with a fellow named Patrick Puhala. (pronounced "poo-hall-ahh") He has a funny name. He has an even funnier face. Patrick is an animator. Patrick is a good animator. Patrick likes it when I draw pictures for him. Here is a picture I drew for Patrick in dailies. I like to show you my Pictures for Patrick.

EDIT: You guys! It's a picture for Patrick. Not a picture of Patrick. Secondly, here's a color version of the sketch. Seems the original black and white impressed folks as being a drawing of a lady's torso instead of a noseless sad brocolli haired fella. Hopefully this edit clears things up. :)

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Tastes Like Chicken...

It's really funny to see Hollywood implode on itself. They play so many games trying to guess their way around what people will or won't like it's a wonder they're able to decide what to eat for breakfast each morning. To read some internet sites you'd get the impression that every Disney executive was having a hyperventilation fit earlier this week. Add in some bad reviews from snarky Hollywood movie critics about their latest film Chicken Little and there's apparently a mad scramble to duck for cover.

Well, seems a lot of their worries were about nothing. Chicken Little is doing a healthy opening weekend business. Families are responding well to the little movie. I have to say I'm one of them. It's a fun flick. Not overly deep, but it has some heart, it's entertaining, it's funny. It's got some very fun characters and memorable moments. Is it a perfect film? There is no such beast if you ask me. It's a solid film that earns your smiles and attention. All that Pixar/Disney/2d/3d political crap aside, I'm glad the film is doing well so far. Good job to you folks at WDFA.

And on an animation front I have to say that I'm really jealous of those animators. Cartoons! Yay! I love cartoon animation. It's such a fun and freeing way to make things come alive. Seeing all those older 2d techniques brought to bear in Cg makes me very happy for the future of the medium. And the acting on Buck Cluck! Wow. The dad in CL had some of the absolute best acting I've ever seen in animation, 2d, 3d or 99758D. If for nothing else go watch CL and study how they handled the dad character in those quieter moments. His best performances came when he wasn't saying anything. Kudos to the director for letting the character and those moments breathe. Sometimes you can cut a movie too tight and not give the characters room to breathe. It's these moments of silence that let the animator really dig deep to find some great acting performances.