Thursday, September 11, 2008

The A-Team

The Animation Team. Not the hit 80's action drama.

The A-Team is like my fantasy football team, except they create animated movies for cheap instead of raking in millions in endorsement money.

Since I've devoted several recent posts to the gathering of resources when attempting to pull off an animated production, I put some thought into the most important resources: human. (Is it just me, or does the business term "Human Resources" seem derogatory? It's like cattle ... if cattle could be outsourced. Okay, I stand corrected. It's worse than cattle.)

Join me now on a thought experiment: let's figure out the ideal number of people to work on a CG-animated short film. And by "ideal" I mean "minimum" because the fewer people the better: less people who have to agree on everything, less to have to attend every meeting, less to track and organize, and the perennial favorite: less to pay (if they aren't volunteering or stakeholders). Also, less is more when you want to maximize efficiency. The larger the team, the more people tend to expect others to pick up the slack. Most importantly, if you get too many on your core team, your project suddenly blooms because past a certain tipping point you suddenly need HR folks (moo), production managers, accountants, yawn. So the ideal number I came up with: 6.

A small team will always figure out how their talents compliment each other efficiently. The ideal production team consists of two focus groups: environment and character. We’ll call them the Char Crew and the Set Crew. For a typical 3-to-10 minute short, I would propose a minimum of 6 dedicated artists with the following task divisions:


Char crew

  • Modeler/Animator – a specialist in organic movement and character design. this person should have excellent drawing and caricature skills and would have taken part in storyboarding and visual development during pre-production. Can have several of these, as the extra modelers could also help out with the set crew.

  • Rigger/Technical Animator – someone to focus on the technical side of character rigs, to “own” the development of rigging systems. Should know anatomy inside and out and should be comfortable with modeling and cloth/hair simulations. They can also pitch in on animation, though they need not be as experienced in this since they will mostly be doing cycles for crowd sims, background characters, cleanup, etc. Should be comfortable with scripting and expressions.

  • Shading and Texture Specialist – should be a disturbing hybrid of computer scientist and fine artist. The resident Photoshop expert who paints photorealistic when need be but can also be painterly. Should know light and color theory and be willing to master shading networks and be able to procedurally simulate any surface type. Experience in fur and hair helpful.


Set crew

  • The DP/Head of Layout – ideally, this can be the same person is editing or directing the movie. should know classical cinematography techniques, lighting and some modeling. responsible to create the basic set design and “owns” the shot, controlling the webwork of file referencing and serving as gatekeeper of what is imported or updated in each shot.

  • Set Dresser – a wizzbang modeler and texture artist with lots of fine art and design experience, able to set dress and finalize any layout, interior or exterior. Should also be able to pitch in with lighting and effects. Prior research in architecture, graphic design and environmental sciences (like geology and botany) is helpful.

  • Head of Lighting – controls the color script of the film: continuity of hue, contrast and saturation in each sequence to heighten the dramatic impact of the story. Sets up key light rigs and render passes, maintains the render farm and serves as the main compositor on the film. A background in design and painting is ideal.


As you can see, the attempt is to consolidate everything that needs attention to as few “specialists” as possible. With these six working close to full-time (20-30 hours a week after their day jobs, assuming this is an unfunded short), you could pull off a fairly elaborate short film in a reasonable amount of time (6 months to a year from the time the story reel is locked?). Of course picking up volunteer help from outside the core crew is desirable, particularly in the areas of modeling, texturing and animation (because these are somewhat “portable” tasks, unlike, say, layout, which demands an insider’s full attention and access to the central data repository to maintain). You’ll notice I don’t include a full-time effects artist (assuming a combination of the Set Dresser and other technical artists can pull this off) but on a big effects-driven film, this could easily be a seventh key person. Also, if you are not so fortunate to have all of your artists technically proficient, the addition of a fulltime technical director (all-around tools programmer, system administrator and troubleshooter guy) would make an excellent addition to the core group; even better if he had artistic skills in one or more production areas to help during crunch times.



I throw this out there for debate. You're free to disagree. As long as we agree to disagree. Or else I'm filing a report with HR. Moo.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Software Part 2 -or- How to be Your Own Full-Service Animation Studio

Teach yourself animation:
http://www.thebeesneezeanimation.com/
The page belongs to Shawn Miller, animator at LucasFilm. Great links. Spend a day there.

Now, on with today's lesson. Software: what you'll need to survive. Or, a wishlist for the independent cg filmmaker. Last time we covered the all-important 3D app, so what else is there?

You need Photoshop. End of lesson. Seriously, if it's the only thing you buy outside of your 3D app, get Photoshop. Everything else is just icing on the cake. But this lesson would be boring if it was just cake, so on to the icing.

Painting on a 3D model is sooooo nice when texturing. By far the most intuitive way to handle things. Photoshop CS3 is teasing us with its ability to import 3D models, but we still do our painting on a 2D plane. Boo. (CS4? Fingers crossed?) Until recently, the choices for painting on a 3D model were twofold: Deep Paint 3D or BodyPaint 3D. And neither was perfect. BodyPaint 3D is probably the most vigorously updated of the two, but it has a learning curve for anyone who does not use Cinema 4D (which it is integrated with). Deep Paint has always been a bit wonky (and crashy) but it has some really awesome brushes. Trouble is, they moved the UV tools to a separate app, Deep UV, so now you need to buy a lot to get integrated functionality. For this reason, you may wish to just stick with Maya's own (limited) 3D paint tools until the industry puts up a stable, affordable, intuitive new standard. Any coders out there want to take this challenge? New industry standard 3D paint tool? Anyone? Here's a darkhorse candidate that was brought to my attention: Thirdbrush. Only thirty bucks. Haven't tried it yet. Send me your reviews if you use it.

Let's turn our attention to 2D apps. You'll need these for previs, storyboarding, conceptual art, matte painting and texturing, as well as fixes on final rendered frames. Corel Painter is the standard natural-media app, as it simulates watercolor, paint, pastels, etc. The main thing to note is that it is a painting tool, not a photo-retouch tool like Photoshop, so it does what you want it to: it mixes the pixels onscreen wet-on-wet style. Not too expensive, but check these cheap-to-free digital paint app alternatives:You can also get some quick-sketch tools to do storyboarding. Sketchbook Pro comes to mind, but if you already have Photoshop, this is redundant. And for 200 bucks, seems kinda lame. When you start doing animation thumbnails, you'll want a "flipbook"-style sketching app. Both Painter's stacks and Photoshop's animation palette can handle this, but if you want a FREE standalone I highly recommend Plastic Animation Papers. It's a full-fledged 2D animation app, but it's also perfect as a previs tool for cg character animators.

Now image organization tools. Adobe Bridge is wonderful, and if you have Photoshop, you probably already have it. But also cool, each in their unique way, is Irfanview, ACDSee, and IView MediaPro. I use them all. Also, get Flipbook Pro so you can play back sequences of frames without making movie files out of them.

You'll also need presentation tools. Your short film needs a website, some business cards and publishing materials, and you'll have to make pitches ad nauseum. (Even if you plan to do your own funding and distribution, you'll end up putting together project pitches and portfolios if only to obtain collaborators). To this end, besides Photoshop, you'll want Dreamweaver (or some web app), Flash (maybe), Acrobat Pro (slideshows and documents), or Keynote (on the Mac). And MsOffice or OpenOffice. And CD and DVD authoring tools.

You still want to make a short film?

Now for the production apps. Google Sketchup can be handy as a previs app - mainly because it's fast and intuitive. Mudbox or ZBrush would be nice for creating high-res displacement maps or just for cool-looking previs work. They are competing modelers in the 3d sculpting paradigm (works like digital clay). Mudbox is by far the easier to use, but purists insist ZBrush produces higher quality results.

Editorial. You'll want Quicktime Pro. No faster way to make little movie files to pass around. You'll also want some image-format and video-format converter utilities. Find some freeware for this. After Effects for compositing and post (or Shake or Fusion or Combustion or Toxik). I recommend Sony Vegas for editorial on the PC: the app that "puts it all together" in the work reel. I use it for audio compositing too. Speaking of audio, you need an audio editor like SoundForge or Adobe Audition. On the Mac, use ProTools LE as your sound mixer (instead of Vegas) and Final Cut for your editing.

Now you can make a short film. With all that money you have left over. Wait, we forgot about hardware. I'll save that for a later post.

Don't cry. Think of all that money your short film will make. Oh, wait. Shorts don't make money. Well, it's still a small price to pay to be a YouTube hero. Have you considered sock puppets?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stuff You Guerrilla Shortfilmers Need vol 63: Software! Part 1 - The 3D App

Hey check this out:
http://www.bigbuckbunny.org/
Saw these guys at work, and again at SIGGRAPH, showing what they did with free open-source animation software (Blender).
Funky thing is, you can browse their entire production repo here. This is wonderfully informative from a production management standpoint, as it shows how one group of guerrilla animators organized their stuff. You can even download the entire 200 Gig studio backup! Now that's what I call Open Source: even their techniques are transparently shared. The bigwigs here in Hollywood could learn a thing or two. Alas, we still barter in the antiquated currency of "ideas", as if a simple idea can make or break a film. Part of Catmull's keynote at SIGGRAPH addressed this issue. At Pixar, they build teams, and teams are their currency. Ideas are worth nothing in the hands of an inept team, but a good team can wrangle the gold out of any old idea. To reiterate: ideas are worthless. So we should all quit hording them. Let's open-source knowledge! It's the rising tide lifting all ships thing.

So here's the meat of this post: you need software. From the results of Big Buck Bunny it appears that free animation software has come of age. Put this with my previous post on production tools ("How do You Manage?") wherein I list free ftp services and the like, and you have a 100% no-overhead production. Except, of course, for the emotional overhead of sleep loss, eye strain, loss of family and friends from your withdrawal into the long-hours world of computer animation; not to mention all the hardware to purchase and maintain. But hey, nobody said filmmaking was easy; if it was, everybody would do it.

If you have a few ducats to spend on your labor of love, however, you can make your life much easier. In the following posts I will provide a rundown of the barebones software you'll need to think about when contemplating creating a CG film.

First: decide on the 3D app. This will serve as the hub of your data pipeline, so choose wisely, as it will effect all your subsequent decisions. The big contenders include the aforementioned Blender (pluses include that it's free and seems to be well-supported; the minus is there's not a huge existing base of users so expect a learning curve). For a small investment look into Animation:Master - you can get a web-based license for 50 bucks a year! It is purported to be oriented toward character animators - rare for cheap-end 3d software. Next step up would be Maxon's Cinema4d. Still cheap, although how cheap is hard to discern since they don't list pricing on their website. The brag the fastest renderer in the biz, and they have the schweetest 3d paint system with full Bodypaint3D integration. Some award-winning shorts have been done with it, but I don't know much else. At the next pricing tier we move into the ones aimed at the professional market: Lightwave3d, SoftImage, 3dsMax, Maya and Houdini.

Lightwave3D has excellent modeling and lighting tools, but with character animation tools that leave something to be desired.

For a higher price point, you can try Houdini, which is the de facto standard for visual effects, so it would be the appropriate choice if you have an abstract or effects-laden project. The downside is, again, weak character tools. Also a big learning curve. The full version is pricey, as in 8 thousand dollars -ish pricey, but you can get a stripped down learning edition for free, and a watermark-free version for only 99 dollars!

Next there's Softimage. I always forget about Softimage (almost forgot to include it) which is a shame because it is as full-featured and easy to use as any other, but for some reason hasn't caught on big in the industry yet (they were late arriving in the game with their XSI version, by which time most companies had gone with Maya). Comes in a variety of price points ranging from 6000-ish to a 500-ish educational version.

Lastly, I'll talk about the two I recommend for most serious projects: 3dsMax and Maya, both from Autodesk. Max is the industry standard in games, Maya the same for films, but they crossover everywhere so don't focus on that. From extended personal experience in the two apps, I'll say that Max trumps Maya in the realms of modeling and layout, whereas Maya is better for character rigging and animation. Neither has the best on-board renderer so they both rely on mental ray to be their "full featured" renderer - so I'd say that's a draw. Maya is more configurable and transparent, so it's better for those that like to drill down into the guts of the software; this is also its drawback, as it has the steeper learning curve. Max has a more logical interface, and lots of funky built-in effects and dynamics. Maya has Paint Effects, which is not comparable to anything else in any package. In the end, it's somewhat of a draw. Even price-wise, they have similar versions, and the obligatory free version for learning. I'm not going to start a flame-war by picking my favorite of these two giants: download the free versions of each and decide what's right for you. Alright I'll tell you: Maya. And Netflix is better than Blockbuster.

Trade Show Wrap-up

Just got back from SIGGRAPH where this little flick won Best of Show:
http://www.oktapodi.com/
This "making of" short is worth a watch:
http://www.oktapodi.com/makingof.html
As you can see, the look of the film is superb, and I'm becoming more and more convinced there's something in the Kool-Aid at Gobelins - year after year the students from this, Supinfocom and the Filmakademie totally rule. European schools have a connection between education, art and industry that we just don't "get" here.

Other highlights from the 'GRAPH included a visionary speech by my boss and my boy Ed Catmull - "Ecat" to us Mouse-ears. His corporate work ethos is so visionary that it made me want to work at his company - and then I remembered that I DO. If only middle management would pay attention, we'd have a little filmmaking utopia here. But I digress.

So festival season draws to a close - I also hit Comic-Con this year for the sheer spectacle of it all. My main purpose was to find European graphic novels - but the vendor wasn't there this year! Must have been muscled out to make way for the encroaching Hollywood studios that have seemingly taken over. Shame, because European comic artists have raised the genre to new artistic heights of late - another way they're schooling us across the pond. Check out the blog of one Mr. Enrique Fernandez for example. Here's a publisher of such wares:
http://www.paquet.li/paquet/
Speaking of Wares, here's a shout-out to my all-time favorite comic book creator, Chris Ware, a fellow yank. If you don't yet own a copy of Quimby the Mouse, walk don't run to your local Biblioplex and grab two copies. One for each head. You Quimby-the-Mousketeers got that last joke.
See? Real comic art innovation isn't dead. It's just not at Comic-Con.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sampler Info Usage: Facing Ratio Action Baby

A Poem/Tutorial

  • Create a ramp texture
  • Create a sampler info node
  • MMB+drag sampler info onto ramp – choose other (or shift drag)
  • connect facing ratio to v coordinate (UV coords will be greyed out – no worries – open it anyway)
  • now you frickin gots facing ratio boooooyyyyy (defined as the cosine of the angle between Ray Direction and the Normal Camera or some such nonsense)

This is important because:

Facing Ratio Effects

  • Fuzziness – softness at edges
  • Opalescence – lightness at edges
  • Fresnel – reflectivity at edges

Friday, June 27, 2008

How Do You Manage?

Now here’s the most important consideration when creating an animated film. The absolute, numero uno most important thing. What is it? A good story? Compelling characters? Appealing design? WrongWrongWrong!

The most important consideration when making an animated film ... is ... I’m going to say it ... wait .... for .... it .....

Production Management.

There. Now I'll never get a gig as a project consultant. Because that’s definitely not what artists and filmmakers want to hear. Production Management is boring. Probably the most boring thing you’ll ever get involved in. I just spent the last week sorting files, renaming folders, drawing myself little bar charts and documenting compulsively. It’s like spring cleaning, except you have to do it at least once a month. But it has to be done, thoroughly and often. And if you get involved in a group project, forget about it. Then you have to keep running documentation not only of WHAT, but WHO and for HOW LONG. But understand this: most glitches in production happen because of poor production management. And for some strange reason it’s about the only aspect of production that isn’t even taught in colleges! The most important one! Sure, they’ll teach you how to run a hair simulation, but nothing about how to document and organize hair sim data to pass it downstream to another artist.

Even if you are only attempting a two-minute solo short film, the first thing you have to think about is production management. How are you going to keep track of all that data? All of it has to be iterated, so there will be many versions. And some versions only work with specific versions of other upstream and downstream bits. At the very least, focus on the twin pillars of good data management: naming conventions and directory structure. And please have at least a spreadsheet (if not Microsoft Project or Quickbase) keeping track of Project Management: who’s doing what when.

So I speak of Production Management as an umbrella concept encompassing both the priorities of data management and project management. You can use different software solutions for each, but they feed into each other all over the place, so an integrated solution is the most elegant one.

Some tools that may help you keep track of assets and milestones are actually free. As an indy, I’ll focus on those. First there’s Toontrack (http://toontrack.toonstruck.com/) which used to be kinda cool but I’m not sure if it’s being supported any more. Joomla (http://www.joomla.org/) is an open-source community with lots of extensions for project management and online collaboration – a good solution for people collaborating remotely because you can use secure logins, ftp files to a repository, create a notes and tasks database, basic version control functionality like check-in/check-out, etc. Here’s a link to some samples: http://extensions.joomla.org/index.php?option=com_mtree&task=listcats&cat_id=1863&Itemid=35

For something simpler to maintain, and especially for smaller online collaborations (but scalable) you could try Google Groups (http://groups.google.com/) or Yahoo! Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com/). They offer message boards, mailing lists, file sharing, secure logins, docs and spreadsheets, etc. We used Google Groups to some success with a recent class project at CalState (shout out to the Forest Detail Crew!)

Other tools that will help your management tasks: good, free FTP clients (Core FTP LE on Windows, Cyberduck on the Mac), and ftp hosting (1 GB free at ftp.drivehq.com; also check out the discussion here), file syncing software like Fsync ( http://www.fileware.com/), free image album webware (http://gallery.menalto.com/), animation communities to provide people and resources (like the Animation Co-op: http://www.animationcoop.org/) and all that you can glean from the various animation forums. Online tools have genuinely made it possible for zero-budget animation productions to take place, even collaborating remotely.

Finally, there’s a plethora of non-free alternatives like Basecamp, or if you prefer, this impressive list of Basecamp alternatives: http://www.whybasecampsux.org/#alternatives

So that was today’s brain-dump. These long-winded entries may someday be gathered in the coffee table compendium “Erik’s Big Book of Random Dorky Yammering.” Till then, I’m outré.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Character Design Pt. III: The Message is the Medium


When designing a character, it’s good to have a couple of things in mind. The medium is one of the most obvious: 2D animation? CG? Children’s book illustration? The medium dictates, to some extent, the limitations of what you can get away with (Charlie Brown: the quintessential 2D design. In CG he would appear as a balloon-headed ogre).

It's a well-known fact in the industry that the old Disney designs don't hold up too well in cg, and neither do the old Fleischers.

However, here's an old Disney 'type" that seems well-suited for today's bone-and-skin driven CG characters:


So there’s truth to the idea that not all designs work for all media. It’s good not to overthink this point, though, since it can be a bit restrictive in the first phase of character design. I like to keep the early phase “blue sky,” that is, anything goes, so put the pencil to the paper and don’t mind the media. Adapting to the medium can come at the finesse stage, for the most part.

Sometimes it’s even wise design against the medium. Playing up spiky, sharp lines within the usually soft and curvy CG medium can give your design distinction. This was done to some success in the designs for Open Season and Madagascar, who took the pencil line of 2D into the round for an unusual look.

The other biggy to keep in mind when beginning the process is the degree of realism your message demands. Is your story a slapstick comedy? Maybe something inspired by the “screwball” designs of the forties might be your jumping-off point. Need to evoke pathos? Dig up some scribbly-line Euro-arthouse shorts for a dose of inspiration.

There’s a pretty good breakdown of the major types in Tom Bancroft’s "Creating Characters with Personality."

where he lists the following scale of realism in animated characters:

    • Iconic (UPA to powerpuff girls)
    • Simple(TV/web anim)
    • Broad (Tex Avery)
    • Comedy relief (Disney sidekicks)
    • Lead Character (Aladdin, Ariel)
    • Realistic (Beowulf)

Here are some other random notes about the character design process based on a class I taught at Disney:

Character Design Process

two phases to character design:

  • blue sky development
    • create tons of looses sketches, explore variations on themes, experimentation (trying out different shapes and sizes, substitution of different costumes or physical features)
    • lots of R&D work – literature, studying nature, observing people, surfing the web – pull information from many different sources
  • polishing
    • take an inspired design and refine through a number of the following stages:
    1. “ink” the loose sketch to give it a finished quality
    2. paint the inked sketch to develop one or more color/texture schemes
    3. do pose and expression sheets
    4. do “model sheets" that may include turnarounds, anatomical breakdowns, orthographic views, etc.

Conceptualization and Development

  • 2 Ways to concoct a character:
    • Derived from a plot (normal for film)
    • Whole cloth (no connection to narrative) - good for practice; often leads to story ideas
  • Characters have a reciprocal relationship with story (story drives character design which drives story)

  • methods of development
    • - driven by story
    • - driven by archetype or genre, playing toward or against type
    • - driven by character’s backstory or personality
    • - driven by design factors (color, shape and size)
    • - driven by serendipity (stream of consciousness methods) – good for “whole cloth” designing

  • When designing for a story, ask the big three questions first:
  1. What is the character’s place in the film? (hero, villain, comic foil, etc)
  2. What is the character’s personality?
  3. Are there plot points within the storyline that affect the design? (Dumbo’s ears)

  • Character qualities
    • Type (animal, humanoid, mutant)
    • Scale or relative size
    • Costume/props
    • Color/texture
    • Gender
    • Level of realism
    • Role in story
    • Locomotion

  • Character design can drive overall art design for a work - good to tackle first!

Shape

  • Try to build your characters out of a few main basic shapes. This applies to clothing and accessories too. Think about how much you can get across with the least amount of detail.
  • Characters that have been condensed into their essence show up better on the screen anyway, so no matter what medium, traditional or computer animation, simplify your characters to what they really need to express themselves
  • Circles
    • Likable/cute
    • Soft, rounded shapes

  • Triangles
    • Villains
    • angular, sharp angles

  • Squares
    • Solid/Dependable/Wise characters
  • Combine shapes for more complex characters
  • Should be able to break down even the most complex characters to simple shapes – helps to visualize character from any angle (not to mention overall appeal)

Size and Contrast

  • Character’s role will often dictate size

- should the villain be taller than the hero, for more menace?

- should the sidekick be an extreme contrast to the hero (very small like Timothy or very large like Baloo?)

  • Contrast is one of the most important things to consider when designing characters. Often a good idea is to contrast a large bulky character with a small thin one. Or a very young character with a very old one.
  • May help to do a preliminary character lineup (just silhouettes/basic shapes) of entire cast before you begin designing.

Shapes and Proportions

  • It’s all about shapes: only think about cool shapes
  • Balance straights against curves
  • Variety of big/med/small shapes
  • Put down free flowing intuitive strokes (Long strokes important for 2D)
  • Rhythm: create a visual theme with recurring shapes
  • Create a harmony of positive/negative shapes
  • Avoid symmetry
  • PUSH the character - never stop with your first success: take all the same elements and apply variations
Further Reading

For starters, check out Kricfalusi's take on the subject.

Here's the hub of a lot of the cutting-edge character design on the web: http://characterdesign.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Character Design Part 1: Story and Realism

Story is all about characters. With storytelling, a tree falling alone in the forest does make a sound, because the storyteller told us about it. The third-person omniscient narrator is the main character here, but the tree also plays a leading role. After all, whatever is at the center of action becomes the subject of our empathy. So the tree gets anthropomorphized to become us; it becomes a metaphoric emblem for the rise-and-fall nature of this transient existence, the human condition. We can't help it. Try to tell a story without characters, and they show up in there anyway. As long as we can be cognizant of this fact, we can take charge, as storytellers, and mold our characters to tell the right story; the one we wish to convey. Mold the character, mold the story. Save the cheerleader, save the ... nevermind. Point is, character design. Super important. Concentrate on this one thing, if nothing else, and you will eventually master story.
When you speak of Character Design with a capital CD, you may be referring to the art of designing physical characteristics (root word: character - I'll shut up). But as we’ll see, the physical is wrapped up in the psychological; so much character design can be done with words alone. Take my aforementioned example of the Hobbit (last post). There is perhaps no book in recent history quite so visual, yet there isn’t a picture within! (Okay, a crudely drawn map in the appendix.) It is therefore good practice to write your initial character design – a list of adjectives, perhaps, that describe the physical and cerebral faculties of your character. Often, this exercise will dictate the drawn sketch to follow. A backstory is also a lovely way to kick off the process. Write the character’s hidden shady past, the part that isn’t even going to be in the story, or will be revealed slowly, for this “secret diary’ of the character will color their creation and role in the story, lending much depth to what may otherwise be a rather flat “generic” role. It’s good to do this for every character in the story, even the bit parts, so that it prescribes their motivation. Acting books are good research in preparation for the character development task, as actors are all about motivation. some of the better ones are Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares, Michael Shurtleff’s Audition, and Acting for Animators by Ed Hooks.

After your initial research into character craft from a psychological standpoint, it’s time to get specific. The medium and the message will dictate what TYPE of character is appropriate for your story.


Character Types: The Hierarchy of Realism

Types of character design run from iconic to hyperreal, with full animated cartoons falling about halfway along the scale. Some forms of limited animation from Powerpuff Girls to Ward Kimball/UPA design skew more toward the iconic. The nature of the project will dictate what is appropriate on this scale. Obviously, a thriller would be best served by relatively realistic characters, while a slapstick comedy could benefit from the exaggeration afforded by less realistic, more “toony” styles.
In his seminal effort on the subject, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud points out the universal appeal of the icon vs. the specificity of hyperreal. The reason the Sunday funnies work so well for such a broad audience is their “everyman” nature - their designs are generic enough to become iconic, symbolic stand-ins for the viewer. We feel connected to the iconic character because we aren’t just a passive audience, but a participant in the action. When Lucy pulls the football away, it is we who fall on our collective back. Charlie Brown is the ultimate everyman. No coincidence that his character design is so elegantly … generic. He’s practically a walking smiley-face, except he’s always frowning.


One last thought on the hierarchy of realism, concerning design for 3D animation in particular. Always avoid the “uncanny valley’, or the area in which an animated character starts to get so realistic it’s unintentionally creepy (here’s lookin’ at you, Polar Express kids!) The concept was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970 and has been internalized by the computer gaming industry as an area to avoid. The better CG animation also skillfully avoids the valley – check Brad Bird’s approved designs in the “Incredibles” or “Ratatouille” and you see they intentionally stop short of realism in character design, even though in CG much of the lighting and surface textures tend to be hyperreal. It is possible to carefully land on the other side of the valley, too – look at Gollum or Davey Jones for incredibly realistic CG characters with appeal. Creepy, yes, but an intentional creepiness. Character appeal is the key, and it’s one of Frank and Ollie’s Twelve Principles. Get this right before the animation begins.

Next time: the character design process …

Characters: Preamble

Hey, gang. Lots going on. I haven't posted a lot because of the *ahem* proprietary nature of a lot of the stuff I'm working on. So unfortunately I can't show you how a lot of the production art is shaping up. Yet. What I can do, in the meantime, is talk about some methods I've used and share some of my general ideas about animation production. So to kick off this new series of posts I'll start with a whole spiel on the most fundamental exploratory process for all budding young animators - character design. Fundamental, I say, because this is arguably the first thing you do on a short film, often times even before - dare I say it - story. Because story often evolves directly from character design. Many of our most beloved treasures in the lexicon of animation started with a simple character sketch: the Aardman shorts, for example. The simple character designs almost demand a story to be told with them. Often you will jot down a scribble, a quick sketch of a character, and those little eyes looking back at you from the page will start to tug at you: "Paweeez tell my story! Paweeeeez!" And you just can't say no to your character. After all, this is your creation. Your offspring. You've got responsibilities, buddy. Nodody's gonna tell this character's story if not you. Can you really say no to those eyes? The inimitable Jim Woodring said as much happened to him when his most famous creation Frank came into the world. Suddenly, there was Frank, staring at him from some soiled diner napkin, filling Jim with a sense of wonder. He began to tell Frank's story if only to find out for himself where this creature came from. The same may happen to you, as long as you follow the first cardinal rule of art: doodle incessantly, with both words and pictures. Leave a trail of ravaged napkins in your wake like a creative slug leaving brain-slime. Don't worry about the environmental impact: the folks at Found Magazine will recycle your goods, if nothing else. If you do this, someday you will have your own "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit..." - ten doodled words that gave one creator direction for the rest of his life.

Next post: Character Design!

Friday, February 1, 2008

A Quick One (While He's Away)

In the blogosphere it’s become somewhat of a cliché to waste valuable blogspace apologizing for not posting for so long, so I won’t. Let’s just say it’s been a busy month. Had a holiday or two, visited the whole fam damly, went down to Shepherdstown West Virginia to party like a rock star, and then came back and plunged head first into the world of Sinister. I’ve been plugging away with some help from my friends and the world is taking shape. There are three sets in production and six or seven characters. Here’s a pic of the valley that most of the action takes place in.



I’m currently working on a couple of shots, so I’ll get back to work.
For now, Sinizens,
out.