Thursday, April 30, 2009

Hedgehog in the Fog

This is a pretty good quality copy of Yuri Norstein's short film.

There are times I'm mystified by how he does what he does. His technique is just amazing- the visuals are wonderful. I'd love to just watch how he makes some of these scenes. If Norstein ever made a "How To" DVD I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"Our jobs"

David Levy, president of the ASIFA-East in NYC, has a wonderful blog called Animondays. Each Monday he holds forth on the life of a freelance animator & teacher in the Big Apple. David's insights are always interesting and very well expressed. This week he touched on a number of topics, but one stood out to me. Here's a sample of what David had to say...
Furthermore at the panel discussion, some wondered what will happen as India and South Korea (and others) gear up to build strong animation industries. "They're going to take our jobs," many worried. I say, that's only possible if there's such a thing as "our jobs." I argue that there is NOT. There are no agreed upon jobs that are ours for the taking or that can be reserved for us like a rental car. Not on an individual level, nor a city-wide level, nor a national level. We have to reach out for those create them ourselves. There's no such thing as entitlement. Just because we decided to be journeymen animation artists doesn't mean the industry owes us squat. This can be empowering if you let it. That's how I think. Who can say I'm wrong? It's my view of the universe and it holds true in my own head, and it helps me survive and navigate this difficult industry.

I have had the unique pleasure of having many students from around the world taking part in my APT online animation training program, as well as benefit from my video tutorials in the VTS. Occasionally somebody asks me about my feelings regarding training folks over seas to take 'our jobs'. I've usually replied "Who said that only westerners can have animation jobs?". Nationalism is a dangerous mindset often found at the root of many evil deeds. Americans lament that over 4,000 US servicemen and women in the armed forces have died in Iraq since 2003. Most Americans haven't spend two seconds of thought over the 80,000+ Iraqis who have died as a direct result of our making a mess of their land for no justifiable reason. This parochial value-ism is immoral. A person is a person whom God made and that's that- no matter where they live. By my way of thinking I don't see the life and career of an American animator as having any greater or lesser value than an animator in Singapore, Mumbai, Seoul or Beijing. Both are human beings, both have hopes and dreams, both love what they do, both want a chance to succeed and-- if they are of suitable skill & talent for the tasks available to them- both can and will succeed. If you can't compete on price, then it's your job to provide value (tangible and intangible) that cannot be matched elsewhere. This requires you to be creative, to think, to grow and improve, to find new ways of getting things done. If the dinosaurs step left, then be nimble enough to know how to scamper to the right. The world is never static and nobody ever promised that everything will stay exactly the way you like it to (oh, how I wish it would have sometimes!). Adjust with the world or get left behind, because the world is not going to stop just because you're comfy with where it is right now.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Check out a clip from Shane Acker's animated film "9".

This looks interesting. From a visual construction standpoint the characters could stand out from each other and the environment a little better at times. A small color adjustment in their design would accomplish that. The animation works because the style of the world is visually detailed, but subjectively fantastical. This gives the animation some room to breathe- it doesn't have to be as tight or as highly polished as something that looks more 'normal' or recognizably real-ish. This was a very wise choice for a lower budget film because that other high polish style of CG animation is very expensive. The visual world and the motion work well together in a more interpretive and fantastical way. Never under-estimate the power of visual and motion harmony. Story-wise this isn't your typical fluffy talking animal movie. Which is a good thing. It remains to be seen how that fact will impact it in the box office. If it can make Coraline or Despereaux kind of money then I think it's a success and will mark the continuing expansion of what commercially viable CG animated films can be.

Behm's book

Friend, colleague, artist and animator Mark Behm has a book out called Nightwork. It's a collection of his paintings and such- all of which make me sick with envy and admiration.
Mark is also interviewed on the StrutYourReel website. In the interview he touches on a lot of topics, several of them directly about animation, even touching on photo or video reference and his preference to avoid using it. Having worked with him a few times over the years I know that Mark rarely ever used video reference of himself as the basis for his animation. The result is a kind of signature approach to his work. There are times I can pick out Mark's work from the films he's worked on. There's just a certain kind of "Behm-ness" to them that I recognize, not unlike being able to pick out the work of a 2d animator. I think that's a good thing- being able to see the artist coming through. It's such a hard thing to have happen in CG.

Exaggerated naturalism (part 2)

A pretty good example of what I call exaggerated naturalism in motion (excluding facial animation)....

An example of motion that is not what I'd call exaggerated naturalism...

And an example of the two mixed together... (hint: Collette yes, Linguini no)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Exaggerated naturalism (part 1)

In a comment on my post on Henson's Sid the Science Kid, reader Mike said...
I think it's a fun show and have watched the animation in detail trying to determine if it was mocap or taken from video reference.

Interesting. I think it's safe to say that the goal for many Cg animators is to achieve a kind of 'hyper-real' sense of motion. I'll call it exaggerated naturalism. It seems obvious that this has been the prevailing trend in CG films for the last 15 years. Some films have done a better job of hitting that bar. None has done it consistently, but most aim for it (although occasional exceptions do exist).

When I see the work of a Henson puppeteer transposed onto a CG character, I see this exaggerated naturalism nearly perfected. It is exaggerated because a puppeteer has a keen sense of how to stage and present a performance in a way that reads clearly, pushes things a bit and is entertaining to watch. But due to the fact that it is mo-cap all the elusive goodies of natural motion -- things like barely noticeable weight shifts, subtle footwork, living holds, micro gestures, a sense of muscularity in action, a sense of physical presence (ie: weight), etc.-- these all come along for free. Meanwhile, to achieve something that even comes close to this many animators are relying on working from video reference of themselves acting out the scene. The basis of the performance and motion are highly derived from the video source material (we'll take up the artistic flaws of this approach in another post). But even if the animator is skilled enough to capture the nuances of the motion convincingly (based on a lot of scenes I see in films that is a mighty big "if"), it is an extremely time intensive task. This poses an interesting question: If the end result of animation taken from video reference is similar to well performed motion-capture, then why have animators animate from video reference? Why not just hire seasoned, trained stage performers to do the job in suits? The goal is naturalistic motion, right? (or an exaggerated variant thereof). Not only is it faster, but the physical performer can do many takes before lunch, providing the director with choices as well as the opportunity to improve on the performance quickly. Contrast this against having a highly skilled hand key CG animator do one take of similar quality (if they're really good) in about a week. Or longer, as is often the case. And I think it's a valid argument to say that if exaggerated naturalism is indeed the goal, then the resulting motion from the puppeteer is qualitatively superior. I've seen many a scene in high budget CG animated films from the biggest studios that would have been MUCH better had they been mo-capped by a Henson body puppeteer. Seriously. The goal of the scenes was to have a human(ish) character move in a slightly exaggerated, yet still highly naturalistic manner, doing some physical action. In every CG film there are any number of scenes where the animator was not able to meet that goal half as well as a Henson puppeteer could have. And the times they did match that goal with equal success, they did so at 50-100x the time investment.

In the past a major argument against mo-cap was that it didn't match stylistically to the types of motion and performances needed in animation. There was a time when that was a valid argument. But life is never static. As time has passed animators themselves have kept creeping ever closer to the very style of motion that mo-cap actually does better! Thus when you consider the continued improvements in mo-cap technology, plus improvements in understanding what kind of performance is needed for mo-cap to work, combined with mainstream CG animators' blind march toward an exaggerated naturalistic style of motion- that 'style-gap' has narrowed. Before much longer it will have narrowed to the point of insignificance.

This is why I think the current popular trend for exaggerated naturalism among CG animators is creatively a dead end street. Where you want to end up, a puppeteer already lives. The technology will only get better and the physical performers will only become more savvy as to how to use the medium. Time will not march backward just to appease our predilections. The question you might ask yourself is this: Do I want to be relevant as a performance artist, or do I just want to work on Hollywood 'animated' films? I firmly believe that if a CG animator wants to remain relevant as a performance artist in the years to come (relevancy as a performance artist is not the same as being employable in the animation business, by the way) they're going to need to develop a style of animation that cannot be achieved any other way than to hand key it. It may sound crazy now, but the time will come when I really do believe I will be proven correct.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Somewhere just a little north of a Muppet and VeggieTales, but well south of Ratatouille lies Otto.

click to see bigger-ish
 The parameters for success for me are:
  • appealing & simple character design
  • minimal visual & technical fussiness
  • fun to animate (fast rig)
  • reasonable expressive range without adding too much complexity
  • basically, this needs to be the Anti-Fool's Errand

click to see bigger-ish
The rig still need some adjustments to get just a tiny bit more emotional range. Motion tests coming soon.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

More Italian tutorial translations

Many more thanks go out to Andrea Perrone for translating two more tutorials into Italian:

Exploring Power Centers for Personality


Cartoon Snappy Motion

So pour yourself some vino, relax and enjoy some animation tutorials in Italian. Ciao!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

This totally makes sense

And, no- I'm not joking.

Leaving behind the overly sweet and condescending kiddie nature of the show and performances, I think this is a sensible and successful use of full body puppeteering applied to CG rendered content. The conventional wisdom on mo-cap has been that it was only good for realistic stuff like VFX and for Zemeckis' zombies, and that it looks like crud when applied to a more cartoony style. And true enough there have been very poorly performed mo-cap driven CG shows and projects over the years. But sooner or later I knew we'd see somebody do it right. Henson's artists have been performing in body suits for 40 years and they know what they're doing. You can't play the old bitter animator card and say that it's done by a bunch of talentless hacks, either. Anybody who's ever seen the muppeteers at work can attest that they are performance artists of the highest order. I worked at DNA a few years ago with Karen Prell (an animator who was a former Henson muppeteer). On those occasions when she would walk around the animation department with a puppet it was nothing short of pure magic to behold. In general Henson's pupeteers are great performance artists. And that's what the audience buys into- the performance. By merging the pupeteers' skills and talents with the CG rendering you can start to feel the humanity and the individuality involved. A sense of human weight and presence begins to shine through. That has a kind of appeal that's attractive.

Monday, April 06, 2009

APT Student Profile: Gary Macarevich

Here's another look at a student of my Animation Personal Trainer program (see previous APT student spotlights here, here and here). This time I want to highlight the work of Gary Macarevich. Gary had been working as a professional animator, but wanted to improve his skill level. He first took the APT last summer and then took a follow up session in January. His progress has been steady and solid and his hard work has been well rewarded. First here's a quick sample of some of Gary's work before he participated in the APT...

I determined that Gary needed to work on loosening up his characters and add weight to the animation-- a problem all too common in CG animation. Stiffness and a lack of weight tend to go hand in hand. Thus the plan was to liven up his character's movements by adding more drag and overlap, putting some balance and weight in the torso posing, along with cleaner arcs. Gary also wanted to focus on acting since his reel was a bit short on that. So by putting all that together we made a custom curriculum that targeted Gary's weaker areas while developing his acting skills at the same time. After his time in the APT here's what he was able to accomplish...

Definitely solid improvement. There's a lot more weight and flow in the performance. The tracking on the arcs are clean and add a lot of strength to the motion. The torso is looser and filled with a sense of life. His drag and overlap are much better and the acting picked up, too. As with everybody (myself included) there's still room for improvement, but Gary is definitely on  the way.

Gary's progress shows why I enjoy coming up with customized lesson plans for each animator that comes to the APT. Targeted training is a powerful teaching method and I think it's a great way to get a lot of growth and improvement in a short amount of time. Here's what Gary shared with me after his second session..
I've noticed an improvement at work and find myself finally realizing why my lead was getting frustrated trying to explain and re-explain concepts that just weren't sinking in.  Some "ah ha" moments for sure. Thanks so much Keith, please keep me in the loop on upcoming APT's... I'm definitely interested in doing this again.

If the Animation Personal Trainer sounds like the kind of animation training experience that you'd like to try,  now is a great time for you. I have a new session starting in a few weeks, and due to some late cancellations I have a few spots available. So if you're interested take a moment to email me to learn more about getting involved in the next APT session.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


Any attempt on my part to describe this will ultimately fail, but I'll try all the same.
Sheep, LEDs, time lapse filming, Pong, fireworks and the Mona Lisa. Just watch, you'll love it. I promise!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

We're all doomed

You can kiss your comfy animation job good-bye, kids. Once the execs get a hold of this you'll be out on the street. And you TDs better not get all uppity, either. Even mo-cap can't compete with this.