Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Don't Let the Machine Win

I was planning on having a bigger announcement this week, but I'm navigating the legal implications. So for now I'm pleased to announce that I'm launching a Patreon for this blog. If you enjoy this blog and want to contribute please hit the button on the right. Contributions will help support the blog and I have plans for the future, which include a Stylized Reality tool set and, given enough patrons, video tutorials based on my personal projects. Patrons will also be able to make requests and suggestions for topics they'd like to see covered in future blog posts.

Also, now that I've reached my self-imposed deadline of January 31, compounded with crunch time at work, I'm going to throttle back a bit and do one post a month. I may start doing one every two weeks when we're out of it. We'll see!

And now for a tip.

The computer, as inbetweener, is an idiot. It knows how things should move mathematically, but not naturally. When I block in stepped, I end up breaking my animation down to the point where I manually place keys every 2 to 4 frames, depending on the action. This gives greater control over the final product. There will need to be some massaging once splining begins, but it should all-in-all be a less painful process and give you the poses and breakdowns you want, rather than the ones the computer demands.

There are tools and techniques you can use to help you with inbetweening. To help you beat the computer.

- Arc trackers are vital. I use it even in stepped blocking. Using it early in the process, tracking all your arcs, helps to make sure everything will work down the line. I use toolChef's motion path tool as well as MorganLoomis' arc tracer at home.

- Space switching is hugely helpful. I almost always have FK arms in world space, as well as the rotations of the head. On some characters, like Kaa, the whole head is in world space. These kind of things reduce the amount of counter-animating you'll have to do because of something the body might be doing. Be in control of what the different parts are doing.

- Make use of rotation orders. Maya doesn't evaluate all of the rotation channels all at once. It does them in a certain order and it can change how one key transitions to another. Morgan Loomis has a great tool for changing rotation orders on something that has already been animated. It even gives you an analysis of which one will give you the best results. This helps you keep on top of the computer. 

Worse comes to worst, you'll have to key something every frame, but that is the last ditch effort. Don't let the machine win! The computer is a tool, it works for you. Don't let it bully you into inferior animation because of math.

Keep on keyframing!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Embrace Fear

I've been asked a few times what a person should do next as an animation piece. There are a few answers I could give to that question and all are valid. All could be combined into one super answer.

The first answer would involve looking at this person's reel, and assessing and saying, "you don't seem to have a lot of *blank* on your reel, you should do some more of that." This will help when it comes time to look for a job. It could also very well be the kind of advice that could cause growth in this theoretical person.

The second might be to tell this person to try a different style, if they do cartoony, try realistic and vice versa. This could help that person get a different handle and perspective on the principles of animation that they might not otherwise get. It will push them outside their comfort zone and they will grow.

I think there's an answer that encompasses all of these and one that is tailored to the animator and not external requirements or pressures.

Do what challenges you, do what scares you.

This is my thought whenever I start some new personal project, what scares me in terms of animation? What animation pieces have other people done where I think, I couldn't do that? What scenes in movies have I been impressed by?

It's good to be challenged at work, but I would take the bigger risks on personal projects. Even if you never show them to anyone else, this gives you the opportunity to fail and learn from it without negative reprecussions from a production. Personal projects allow you to focus on things that you either know you're not good at or don't even know how to start or do.

When I did my "King" animation piece, I wanted to do something I hadn't really done before. I chose a long dialogue, because the management of so many frames caused me anxiety. And I chose to do a subtle performance because 40 seconds of believable subtle performance scared me. But through it I learned techniques to handle lengthy animation pieces (a topic for another day!). It has helped me tackle really long shots at work as a result. Conversely my next piece is a bigger, funnier performance and has a female character, which I don't think I've done before (excluding Kaa).

It's important to note here, that when you are looking at another person's finished product, it's going to be daunting. The natural response will be, I couldn't do that, or do that as well, but you need to temper that with the fact that you're not seeing the process. The sleepless nights, the endless notes, the month or so of cleaning and tracking. Ultimately, with a finished piece, you're just seeing the tip of the ice berg. If you have a good workflow in place, solid ideas and a person you trust to give you feedback; there shouldn't be a limit to what you can do.

So as you are wondering what you should tackle next, keep recruiters and job requirements at the back of your mind, and think about the kind of animation piece that fills you with dread. And then do it. It doesn't matter whether you succeed or fail, or show it to anyone, you will grow from it.

Keep on keyframing!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Keepin' It Tidy

Cleanliness is next to godliness, or in this case, a well organized scene makes for an efficient animator.

Scenes in Maya can quickly become a mess in a few different ways. The time you spend searching for something, even if it's just a few seconds, is time that could have been spent making your animation great. I hold this mantra for most things, and I find that if I'm repeating the same action again and again then I should probably write a script that does it automatically. Save time wherever you can so you can focus on what's important.

Bloated scenes can actually slow down your fps, so the first thing I'd recommend is going up to File and clicking on Optimize Scene Size. I usually go through and activate everything except display layers (it has deleted layers I wanted to keep). It'll get rid of anything superfluous floating around your scene.

Your outliner can quickly become cluttered with all manner of things and you have to peruse a list to find what you're looking for. I know some people use groups to organise things, which is viable but make sure to check if it will screw up things in your pipeline. What I'd recommend is using outliner colours, and have a system behind it, blue for characters, yellow for lights, etc. You can find this in your attribute editor under Display.

I used to find the amount of red ticks in the timeline a bit daunting, they didn't tell me anything about my timing except when I was blocking out my key poses. And if you bake something out on every frame, it quickly becomes a red bar, telling you nothing.

I use the special tick draw to colour my key poses yellow, my golden keys, so that I can quickly have context in my timeline. I'll even set these kind of keys if I'm using mocap, just so I can kind of see how these poses relate to one another timing-wise.

You can quickly set these kind of keys using this line of MEL, I recommend setting it as a hotkey:
$now=`currentTime -q`; setKeyframe `ls -sl`; keyframe -time `currentTime -q` -tds 1 `ls -sl`;

Lastly, I've also been enjoying using a tool called "Maya Timeline Marker," by Robert Joosten, that allows you to select frames in the timeline and assign a background colour to them. I used this a lot on The Jungle Book and Last Jedi to colour words in a dialogue or where breaths were in the reference. It's an additional way to make your timeline really mean something other than how long is it and where am I in it.

All of these things shave off a bit of time. They clear away technical hinderances and allow you focus on doing what you want to do: animate.

Keep on keyframing!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Importance of the Internal Silhouette

When I work, personal or professional, especially in my first pass, I'm dealing with poses.

Having clear posing is vital to having an action or attitude being understood by the audience the first time they watch a piece of animation. Especially in visual effects, shots go by too quickly for any hint of confusion. In Maya, it's beneficial to turn off all the lights to see the silhouette of your creature or character and how well it reads. The problem with this method is that it doesn't take into account a character's internal silhouette, how contrast and shape within the character's outline make a pose readable.

If we only relied on the external silhouette we wouldn't get very naturalistic animation with arms always out and away from the body. Poses like this can and do work, obviously, but it shouldn't be the only way we assess a pose.

In order to combat this I came up with a script while I was working on Guardians of the Galaxy. It takes the low res proxy geo for a character, sorts it out into display layers based on the body part names (torso, leg, etc.) and then applies flat coloured shaders to those parts on a new render layer. I wish I could release this one to the public but naming conventions are impossible to predict from rig to rig, so I'll have to stick with the broad concept (though I am looking at ways to package this into a tool I can share).

This not only helps with internal silhouette visibility, but with what I was talking about last week; seeing your animation with fresh eyes. Because all of the body parts are wildly different colours it is that much easier to pick them out visually as the animation is playing. You can also use the display layers to focus on one thing, like hips and legs for instance, or just an arm. I use this all the time, and will some times work in this mode for hours despite its eye searing nature. 

It's important to note that this is just one tool in the toolbox. It works quite well with the lights off silhouette I mentioned earlier, and the flat shading from last week. It's especially important to avoid tunnel vision while working, as it could result in a character made up of separate parts that have no relation to one another. Nothing moves in complete isolation in the body and it is vital to remember the other parts even though they might be hidden.

Strong, effective posing is more than an outline. Being aware of internal shapes and how they relate to the external silhouette expands how an animator is able to communicate with the audience, making room for more nuanced and authentic performances.

Keep on keyframing!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Benefits of Flat Lighting

Happy New Year! I hope 2017 has treated you well. You may have noticed that this blog was silent through the entirety of it.

I've been pretty busy at ILM since I joined. The past year I've had the great honour of being one of the lead animators on the latest installment of the Star Wars Saga. Star Wars has always held a special place in my heart and it's one of the reasons I got into animation in the first place, so there's something truly special seeing my name against a starry background. I hope as the weeks and months wear on and ILM releases official behind the scenes videos, I can share with you a bit of the hard work that went into this movie.

It's shaping up to be a pretty divisive film for the moment, but either way I'm proud of the work that we were able to bring to the silver screen.

And now, an animation tip. As I'm animating I'm always trying to look at my work with fresh eyes; I flip and I flop in RV or invert the colours, I zoom way out so it's tiny, I'll even rotate it. I remember running into an animator that would sit away from his machine and look at a mirror to get a new angle.

Something that's been helping me lately is flat lighting.

It breaks down a shot into it's most graphic shapes and provides a different perspective on your animation. I leave ambient occlusion on so I still get some definition and separation between shapes, but all in all, it helps me get a better handle on how poses are working and especially how they're working in motion.

I found at work that I was using it so much that I was getting annoyed with having to use a drop down menu. I started looking into making a toggle script, but couldn't immediately find the mel commands necessary to do it. Luckily, Google is my friend and I found out that some one else had already made a script, which you can find here. I've assigned this to Shift + 7 in my hotkey editor and I use it all the time.

I have a few other ways to refresh my eyes but I think I'll cover those in another post.

 Keep an eye on this space for more posts. My plan for January is to post weekly on Wednesdays leading up to an announcement at the end of the month.

Keep on key framing!