• “The Walk” part one

    There are many different ways to approach a scene which contains a character walking. The first thing you need to figure out is what the scene is about. Is it a one off shot of a character walking into frame and saying a line? Is it a series of scenes of one or more characters walking and talking. I have worked on both types and many variations. When I was working on The Incredibles, I got a bunch of shots with Edna and Bob walking through her home talking about the past when he brings his super suit to be repaired. The best way to approach a bunch of shots like that was to create two really good walk cycles and plop them on a path. Then layer the acting on top of the walk. The best way to layer the walk on top is to use controls that let you animate on top of what you already have. Obviously you have to alter things like the arms in order to gesture, and the head to hit accents of dialogue, but the cycle you create is the key ingredient.

    Now, what about a one off shot? A cycle is usually not the way to go, but I have seen it done well. An example of this was a shot in The Incredibles that animator Dave Devan did. It is of Dash in the cave with violet. He get up, says, “Well I’m gonna look around now” After he blocked in the character getting off the floor, he plopped in the walk cycle and showed the shot for a first pass to Brad. Once the basic idea and acting is approved, the walk cycle can be massaged so that the transition from the keyed animation to the cycle does not look bad. You never want the audience to see that the walk cycle is in fact, a cycle. You want to mess it up a bit and vary the timing of things and make it feel more organic.

    The last case scenario would be the shot where you are basically keying the walk from start to finish. I am working on a shot like that now. First, I try to figure out where I want my character to be walking. You can either use a path or straight X,Y, Z controls. Then I start blocking the key poses of the walk by doing the legs first. I usually block on 4′s. I am thinking about the stride pose, the passing pose and back to the stride again.  I inserted the images from Richard Williams book for a quick reference. Once I get that blocked in, then I can start thinking about the details of the push off and the timing of how the legs arrive at each key. It isn’t easy to do a good walk. In fact, its one of the more difficult things to pull off well. One of the most important things is making it feel in balance. You can only cheat so much. Your character really needs to feel like they are in the world. Once the legs are in then you can start getting into everything else like the acting, torso, arms, head, etc etc. In another post we can focus on the acting with a walk. This one is just a warm up to give you a tiny insight about how to approach 3 different types of shots that contain a walk. Again, no way is right. Its what works for you.


  • IK or FK?

    A Lot of time students ask if they should use Inverse kinematics or Forward kinematics on things like arms. It all has to do with the shot and what is going on. Lets say a character is leaning on a desk, then gestures and picks up a cup of coffee and drinks it. it makes sense to use inverse kinematics until his hand leaves the desk, then switch to FK for the gesture and picking the cup and drinking it. But this is not the only way to do it. Ultimately it will come down to making it look natural. We want to avoid the look of a puppet on strings. Sometimes IK on arms can cause this look. That is why the gesture is animated using FK. When the arm is on the table it makes sense to have the joint solved by IK. It would be a compositional nightmare to do it another way. Being able to control the pick up of the cup and putting it to the mouth is up for debate about when and if IK is really necessary. If you can pull it off with FK, then it is a good approach. Its important to keep things as simple as possible. Turning on and off IK can be difficult especially if you have to change the scene. Another thing to take into consideration is when to use arm alignment. Basically, arm align gives you a bit more control over the patterns of your acting. If you rotate the characters root, the arms will not be as affected by that rotation. It gives you a bit more control, especially for acting shots. I usually have this on. It tends to make the character look a bit more organic but can also cause a bit of a head ache if you are doing alot of rotations with the characters body.

    I used to know an animator who animated all his gestures using IK. I never understood how he did it. The point is that people will use what they feel comfortable with. There is no one way, but you can save yourself a lot of headaches if you use the right tool for the right project. I’d love to know how people work and what has worked for them.


  • Snap or not to Snap?

    On the opening day of Wall E and the Short film “Presto” which I had the pleasure to work on with two of my fellow Spline Doctors, Travis Hathaway and Mark Walsh, I thought it would be fun to talk a bit about snappy-ness in animation. When we think of snappy animation, we often think of Ren and Stimpy, or a host of other works such as Pocoyo. Its the way in which we get in and out of poses. In computer animation, snappy timing can be difficult to pull off in an appealing way. If the animation is snappy throughout, it becomes boring to look at and hard for the eye to follow. Some feature films have used this snappy style of animation which has worked for some and others not. I am not saying that we have figured anything out, but for Presto, we wanted an old school style which could be perceived as snappy. We looked back to the golden age of Warners, MGM and Disney. With the Warner cartoons, you have really great, funny drawings and wonderful timing of those drawings. The MGM style seemed to be similar with a bit more polish on the animation side, especially the Hannah Barbara Tom and Jerry’s. In CG, one thing you have going against you is motion blur. Motion blur can be your friend, or soften your work. Brad Bird would agree that motion blur still leaves some room for improvement. The big thing being that you sometimes want the blur to have arcs and its difficult to get that. Another thing is if you hit a pose in a snappy way, how does it settle? For Presto, we had to think about a few things. One was how snappy could you make the animation without it looking stiff and how could we break it up so that it was not always the typical snappy pose to pose. Another is thinking about how things settle naturally. You can have that snap, but how it comes to rest is an important detail that you will see in CG. Also, we thought about what aspect of the character to move. Maybe its a blink or maybe the overlap of the cloth dynamics will give me enough so that the character does not become wooden. Its always important to see how your cloth is simulated in order to adjust the animation to get it to behave correctly. All in all, snappy animation should be used like saffron. Too much will taint the recipe.  When its done right, it looks great in contrast with scenes that are animated around it. If the style of the film requires it, it has to fit into the context of the piece and the characters in the film. It was fun and challenging to animate in a style that hearkened back to the old classics. In doing it, I gained a whole new level of respect for the work done in the golden age of animated short films.


  • Subtlety in the Face

    In 3d animation, every detail can be seen. It is those small details that add a layer of complexity to our work and I wanted to talk a little about what interests me when I am trying to get that in my work. First off, not every scene calls for the smallest facial twitch. Sometimes many scene are basic and money spent on tiny details is lost. It is in those close ups that you want to add the proper amount of detail. I remember being an animator on a bugs life. John Lassiter wanted us to look at a film clip of two different eyes blinks on flick. One was a standard eye blink. It looked much like a camera shutter opening and closing. Not much ease out, the timing was the same and in general, when seen at such high rez, looked mechanical. The next example was a shot Mark Oftedahl did. The blinks he did were beautifully timed. The sides dragged , the shapes changes. They were perfectly polished and looked fleshy. Nowadays, this type of stuff is much more in the main stream of high end 3d feature animation, but back then it really opened our eyes (no pun intended). So what is in effect left in the realm of facial animation? Where can we push too? What improvements can we make? I think some of the answers lie in subtle animation. Yes, we work in a medium of exaggeration, but also one that lets us layer in detail. Of course, some of the examples I want to give are from the world of live action. Lets do a little action analysis of some of these clips…

    First, lets just look at some of the “controls” our face has…

    Interesting clip…. That one made the rounds in the department…

    This next clip from “There Will Be Blood” Shows a lot of facial details that really add to the acting and intensity of Daniel Day Lewis’s performance. Its the stuff he does between his lines that draws you in. How he pushes his lips up, the changes and micro expression. Its a great movie to watch for acting as well as everything else.

    That’s all for now. Look for some more stuff coming soon.


  • more on texture…

    Here’s a scene from the Robert Altman film, The Player. I had been thinking about this post for a while and after reading Gordon’s latest I thought this would be a perfect extension of his point, but more related to dialogue as opposed to pantomime.


    Watch Grant (the British dude) pitch part of his movie idea to Tim Robbins, a studio executive. Robbins’ performance is equally as interesting for all the subtext going on but I won’t spoil that for you. Here we’ll examine the texture of Grant’s performance in his body acting while he’s talking. Normally I wouldn’t advise hitting beats so “on-the-nose” as he does, as it tends to flatten a performance: why illustrate with the body exactly the words the character is saying? And certainly if all he had done was hit the obvious poses, the scene would be boring, or even worse, annoying. I want to talk not about the poses he hits, but what he does in between them that makes this scene so entertaining.

    Take, for example, the first close up scene of Grant as he explains the car accident investigation. An animator would find it very easy and tempting to skip right from the “brakes have been tampered with” to the pose for “murder.” But Grant makes it interesting and convincing by doing a hilarious anticipation before the line. I broke the beat down into the five keys I’d pose for his action:

    1) “brakes have been tampered with”

    2) eyes close, head up

    3) head down, hands up

    4) hands hit down: “it’s”

    5) head up to look at Tim Robbins: “murder”

    (You’ll probably note that he actually hits a slightly different pose for “murder” before arriving and holding at the one I picked.)

    Now he’s not just illustrating the line, he’s added a whole new urgency to it, and subtext that reads “no if’s, and’s or but’s, it’s murder!” And he’s broken up the action by having his hands follow his head as a second accent. He’s also acting within poses very economically; long holds with subtle texturizing movements. He’s covered all the principles! This whole scene is chock full of such juiciness (including preceding lines I cut for time). Look at the antic for the running action or the dramatic pause before “there’s not a dry eye…” And these are extreme examples; in animation even a two frame eye antic *before* your body antic can help show thought process and make a scene more entertaining. Bottom line: characters thinking = believability. Believability = entertainment.

    Look for places to do this in your work!