Finally, I’m a Director

Finally, I’m a Director

This is not how I thought this was going to go.

My first director’s credit was supposed to happen 30 years ago. That’s how I saw it all happening in my head, anyway. But I quickly found out that unless you’re born into the system at the right level of connectivity, that’s just not going to happen. If you have responsibilities to anyone but yourself, it’s just not in the cards, because you can’t risk letting them down.

And so it went, until I was 61, and I was finally in a position in my life to try something, because at this point I had to try something to move forward because nothing else was working anyway. And what I did was this.

Aphrodite and Ben from ‘Mighty Aphrodite!’

I created an animated web series almost on a whim, using a machinema engine that ran on my phone. We made a Kickstarter, it succeeded, and by the time we’re done we’ll have four animated episodes, about 3 minutes long each.

Gone with the Wind it is not. But it’s real, and it’s mine, and it’s my first producer’s credit, my first writer’s credit, my first director’s credit. As small a project as this thing is, I brought this into being by sheer force of will, and with the help of my wife Susan (without whose support it wouldn’t have been possible, and without whose participation it would have suffered from a character arc standpoint), and my actor and voice actor friends, we made a thing. It’s up on IMDB now, and it gives proper credits to everyone who worked on it.

The thing is, in my 20’s I thought I was going to be a director by the age of 30. I went to film school, graduated from UCLA, concentrated on screenwriting because it was cheaper than paying for all that film lab work, and I had a bunch of friends at the time who were all going into terrible debt paying for their student films. So I got my degree and out into the world I went.

And part of it was because UCLA at the time was not all that great a film school, and part of it was because I lacked the industry connections to make any impression on anybody, but my career foundered after that, and I went into computer programming and game development instead, and it was only after years of that that I finally came back full circle. Computers were now being used to make movies with, and I sort of slipped in the back door while nobody was looking and ended up with some 30 odd film credits. Unfortunately since I was working for an often neglected department in a very large studio, I almost never got screen credit for the work I did.

No matter. I still did the work, I still learned what a world class organization looked like from the inside, I still learned what world class artists and animators did every day and if not in every detail how they did it, at least what they did and where to look things up.

And now my lifelong dream of becoming a director and writer has come to pass, but it’s on the smallest project one could imagine. But it’s a commercial project, for a company – my own company, which I founded – and there’s an IMDB listing.

What more may come of Mighty Aphrodite! The Web Series? I have no idea, but I bet we can make some waves with it once I get the fourth episode done – and then we can release them all as a single piece, a ‘fifth episode’, if you will, which will be a good solid fifteen minutes of animated narrative.

I’m certainly humbled by the entire process. I imagined myself at the helm of much greater projects than this, but starting with literally nothing but an idea, I and my friends made something happen. We moved the needle.

I’ve always wanted a home at the Magic Store. I didn’t anticipate either that I’ve have to build the Magic Store myself, nor that the roof might be made of cardboard.

This year I’m hoping to put some shingles on that roof.

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Mighty Aphrodite: Animating is @#$#@ Hard Work.

Mighty Aphrodite: Animating is @#$#@ Hard Work.

This is probably obvious to everyone reading this, professionals and fans alike, but animation is hard work. I’m learning this the hard way. I’m in the middle of production of my first animated web series Mighty Aphrodite!, and I’m quickly finding out that there are a lot of hidden tasks involved in producing something like this that actually haven’t anything to do with animation at all.

It’s fundraising, yes, but after that it’s writing, and scheduling, and recording voice artists, and editing.

And then it’s design and animation (in my case nearly all the design work was done by somebody else, an artist at the company who makes Plotagon), and then you have to render it all out. It was supposed to be a short little thing, just a few quick inserts to cover things Plotagon couldn’t do.

Ben is holding a box. You can’t do this in Plotagon either.

And then reality hit. Plotagon, as neat as it is, really isn’t suited for dramatic storytelling. Not really. Your actors can stand or sit in interesting settings and talk to each other. And that’s it. No walking through the scene, no getting up or sitting down as a motion, no carrying anything, no hand props (unless you count a cell phone welded to their hand), no running, no falling down, no dancing (unless you count dancing in place doing a weird sort of Austin Powers dance move). Even something as simple as a character handing a bag of coins to another character requires special animation.

So, you do your best, and you light everything, and render it out, and then you discover that you haven’t checked your scene well enough before sending it to the render queue, and you’ve just wasted $100 of render farm resources, and you didn’t have it to spare. Vowing not to waste any more money, you render it on the one machine you have, and 216 frames takes 3.5 days. So you’re now trading dollars for time.

Aphrodite standing up from a seated position. You absolutely positively cannot do this in Plotagon.

Some people use a game engine to produce their animation. Some animate straight up in Blender, or Maya. I’m doing a hybridized approach, animating using something similar to a game engine, and then padding out its capabilities when I hit something in the script that I need to do that it can’t do. The next result is that, at most, I have to hand animate perhaps 500 frames out of the some 8000 frames that comprise the episode, which is an enormous savings of time and effort. I only have to animate about 6% of the completed episode, and while that sounds great, and it means my production costs are $300 to $400 per episode instead of $25,000, it’s still a daunting, soul sucking amount of work. The production literally owns you until it’s done.

So far my damned project is about four months behind schedule. Thank God my backers are all behind me and being patient. But boy, lesson learned. An errant line in a script can mean weeks of extra expense and production effort. I’m so looking forward to finishing this episode, so I can get to work on the next two. This is a story that needs to be told, and we need significantly more money than I got on the first Kickstarter to make it not painful to produce the next batch of episodes.

The payoff, though, should be pretty huge. I’m using Plotagon to save me 95% of my production costs and time, at least, but it’s something that isn’t likely to be spawning a hoard of imitators. My show is going to set some records, and hopefully be greater than the sum of its parts.

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The Patreon Quandry

The Patreon Quandry

Obi-Shawn’s t-shirt design for his morning show on Krypton Radio, “Good Morning, Tatooine!”

We use Patreon to keep our sci-fi radio station, Krypton Radio, fueled up and on the air, and it’s been working for years. However, it’s also a struggle, and we’re not doing anywhere near as well as we should be given the size of the market. Getting the word out is an enormous problem when what you do is a service, not putting 100% of your energy into a single one-shot incendiary mortar shell of a geeky project.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Patreon is Hard

The main issue with Patreon is that you have to live there to make it work. You can’t run your stuff out of your web site and visit only occasionally, you pretty much have to move into Patreon and run your entire operation from there.
For most creators, that’s a real problem, because they’ve spent years developing a following on the web and in social media, and it’s very hard to get your fans to follow you over to Patreon, and it’s hard to keep their attention once you do. Patreon is not social media, and it lacks all the things that make people hang around for extended periods. Once your patron is done reading your page, there’s nothing else to keep them there.
Very very recently Patreon has released a plugin for WordPress that makes it possible to post Patrons-only content on your own web site, so that lets you bring the Patreon to the fans instead of having to do it the other way around, and we’re about to start experimenting with members-only content that way. We have no idea how much or how little that will help yet, it’s totally uncharted territory for us.
One important factor with Patreon is that you have to be very very active in it or people will think you’re out of business. A post a week isn’t bad. Two a week is probably optimal.
Another important factor is that you’re going to have to plan your productivity to include creating assets specifically for Patreon that aren’t directly part of whatever creative thing it is that you do. You’ll need videos, graphics, short articles, sound bytes, all sorts of things specifically shaped to the needs of running a continuous crowdfunding campaign. It’s like running a Kickstarter, but you never get a break and it never stops.

But Does It Work?

Well – I can honestly say that we wouldn’t have a radio station if it didn’t work.
Advertising certainly doesn’t work. Nobody clicks on anything, and web browsers are built to filter them out by default. Kickstarters are a pain, and very stressful and make you crazy. Subscriberships are the only way to go if you want to be paid every month for what you do.

What About the Perks?

That’s one of the things we’re struggling with.
We produce audio, so there’s no finite physical product that we can send people. We have to come up with content specifically geared to being output in little parcels that our fans would want, so we’re exploring publishing fiction exclusively for our subscribers.
We’re also developing a sci-fi radio drama, and when that comes out we’ll have props and costumes, and challenge coins, and patches, but it’s a massive push to get it done, and it’s taking years longer than we planned to do this.
We also feature a line of sci-fi / geek t-shirts that we’ve designed ourselves that nobody else carries, and you’d think that would be an attractant, but to be completely honest, apparently nobody gives a @#$#@ about t-shirts. Like, at all. We’ve given away maybe two of them as perks in the last two years when people ask for them, despite the fact that half our patrons are eligible for them.

White Elephant? Why, Yes. Yes We Are.

Part of our problem stems from what we are. We’re a full time sci-fi fandom format radio station, and that makes us unique on the planet (one or two other stations lay claim to this, but they also do things like fill up 60% of their air time with metal or hiphop).  We don’t fit categories. In anything.
Most radio station listing services don’t even have a listing category for us, so we get stuck in “Other”, or “Eclectic”. Nobody searches for “other” when they’re looking for a radio station, and people don’t think to search for sci-fi radio because all they get is podcasts when they try it – so we’re hard to categorize, hard to find, and searched for much less than we’d like because people don’t even realize that full time sci-fi radio (as contrasted to a podcast) is a thing.
Our response for that is to hit as many distribution platforms as we can. We get another dozen patrons, and we will be able to get listed on iHeartRadio. Suddenly we’ll be exposed to 70 million iHeartRadio subscribers, and available in people’s cars, which is where most people listen to the radio in the first place. We’re hoping our fortunes will improve after that.

What’s Next?

Our biggest problem is that since nobody knows we’re here, relatively speaking, we have to maximize our exposure. We have to position ourselves so that the maximum number of people have a chance to find us by serendipitous search.  I can’t tip my hand just yet, but there’s another distribution network we’re looking at in addition to iHeartRadio, and between the two of them we’ll have exposure to a new potential audience of 190 million people that we didn’t have access to before. We’ve never made a jump this big before, and surprisingly, the two services we’re going after will make us big fish in a small pond despite the huge subscriber numbers for each service.
The reason is, once again, that Krypton Radio is unique. Literally nobody else in the world does what we do the way we do it. It’s not like regular radio stations. How many hip-hop stations are there across the country? About 250. Rock? About 360. Oldies? Oh my god, 500 plus of those. Metal?   You get the idea.
But full time sci-fi geek culture genre format stations?  There’s one. When people look for that, they find us, and that’s it. I’m hoping to improve our odds by expanding our “broadcast range” so to speak.
Nine tenths of success is not giving up. We’re already heard in 135 countries and we reach between 65,000 and 100,000 listeners a month depending on the season.
So far, so good.

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Snapshots versus Photography

Snapshots versus Photography

Yes, Virginia, there is a difference between taking snapshots and taking photographs. This is what the difference is:

A snapshot is something you take on the spur of the moment. It’s meant to capture an event, or a memory, to remind you of what it was like being there at that moment. It’s usually unplanned, and usually not designed.

A photograph, however, is an expression of photography as an art form. Every factor is taken into account by the photographer: the lighting, the mood, the color balance, the composition, the thematic elements, the story the photograph tells.

This is a snapshot. I took it spur of the moment with almost no planning. It’s a fun subject, but other than that it’s nothing special.

Two fellows I met at a Dr. Who convention in 2015 who happen to look like Roger Delgado and Tom Baker.

And this is a photograph. This was a very different endeavor. This one was taken at Gallifrey One over the weekend, and this tableau presented itself in the convention’s hospitality suite. The lighting, the wall, and the young lady all just happened to be exactly right for this photo.

The subject was seated beneath a single light source that produced some fantastic surface modeling on her hair, her face, the dress, the subsurface scattering in her skin and the scarf, and created a dramatic chiaroscuro effect. The point source lighting beautifully modeled the geometry of her face, shoulder and hands, and the eye is led in sweeping arcs from one to the next.

This is photography as art. This is a  photograph.

I’ve seen paintings by Degas and Rembrandt that used this technique to great effect, so when I saw this happening before my eyes, I had to have the picture.

By the way, no, unless you’re the subject Brenna Koneval, you can’t have a copy. I don’t have a contract with Brenna to sell her likeness, so that means you can’t use it either. That’s why this photo has a watermark on it in a place that it would be very difficult to remove.

Photographers live for moments like these. Keep your eyes open. What makes it art is constructing the image in your head, knowing exactly what each part of the image is for and how it works, and then getting the camera, setting and subject to do precisely that thing.

I had posted the latter image on Facebook asking for help on the possibility of starting a side career in photography. What I got was this comment: “I’ve seen nothing in the other snapshots you’ve posted online to suggest that you have what it takes. This image is has a great subject and composition – but it’s poorly lit.”

So I looked at the photos this guy had posted himself. Every single one was a snapshot, lit brightly and colorfully, without a single thought given to lighting other than getting a good exposure. He had apparently never taken a photograph where artistic expression was the goal.

Like this one. Shot the same day, by myself, at the same SF convention in 2014. This is Michael J. Galloway, known as “Scratch” in LASFS circles (that stands for “Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society”), shot in natural light.

Michael J. Galloway - photograph by Gene Turnbow
Michael J. Galloway – photography by Gene Turnbow

And that’s the difference between a snapshot and a photograph.

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The Twelve Principles of Animation

The Twelve Principles of Animation

Ever Wonder How All That Animation Gets Done?

Years of study and practice go into each animated scene you’ll ever see. There are university degrees in it, and whole colleges dedicated to the study of animation. The foundation of it all was worked out by trial and error by working animators, making it up as they went, and they were first famously codified by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in The Illusion of LifeYou’ll find it on pages 47-69, and it’s called The 12 Principles of Animation.

I had spent a lot of my life studying animation informally, as a lot of fans of the work of Walt Disney tend to do. Then one day I found myself out of a job as a game developer, and needing something else to do professionally, and started working on it in earnest. My first animation was sold to Saachi & Saachi of New York, for a Lexus commercial. Partly on the strength of that work,  I got myself a position at a major motion picture studio (Rhythm & Hues) and for just shy of ten years I was immersed in the art, technology and culture of feature animation, teaching – and being taught by – some of the best animators on the entire planet.  I helped write the animation training curriculae during my time at the studio, and some of my students went on to win Academy Awards for their work.

One of the core topics I taught was the Twelve Principles of Animation, but I adjusted mine to more properly apply to modern 3D animation. Yes, there are some differences in approach, and to be honest there are a lot more principles to learn. Some say there are as many as 28 – yet, these are the main ones, and the first you learn in any animation school.

Let’s begin.


The 12 Principles of Animation, Updated for the Modern Age

The material here came originally from the “Illusion Of Life” by  Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston.(pp.47-69), and has been quoted and paraphrased by a number of other seasoned professional animators who know far more than I  (and I’ve added some of my own observations as well).  The original idea was to describe how animation ought to be done in hand-drawn animation, but most of them apply equally well in computer animation.Animation is animation regardless, of course, whether you use a pencil or a computer.   Computer animation isn’t 3D animation any more than hand drawn animation is 2D – we simply use different tools to achieve the same end, and the result is a two-dimensional representation of the action regardless of the method used to produce it.  Even now, with the push to make everything a 3D film, the same principles still apply.  Motion is motion, and in the end, it’s what we perceive from our fixed vantage point as an audience that really defines the art.

Squash and Stretch

This action gives the illusion of weight and volume to a character as it moves. Also squash and stretch is useful in animating dialogue and doing facial expressions. How extreme the use of squash and stretch is, depends on what is required in animating the scene. Usually it’s broader in a short style of picture and subtler in a feature. It is used in all forms of character animation from a bouncing ball to the body weight of a person walking. This is the most important element you will be required to master and will be used often.

Note here the difference between the rigid ball and the deformable one – the ball is considered not as a single mass, but as though it were a volume of fluid, confined by its skin. When you animate an object, every part has its own center of gravity, and moves accordingly. Every part has its own individual weight, and mass.

Three-dimensional squash and stretch can be implemented with a variety of techniques: skin and muscle, springs, direct mesh manipulation and morphing. It can also be  implemented in more experimental ways with weighting, especially for dynamics simulations, and unusual IK systems.

Anticipation

This movement prepares the audience for a major action the character is about to perform, such as, starting to run, jump or change expression. A dancer does not just leap off the floor. A backwards motion occurs before the forward action is executed, and that backward motion is the anticipation.

A comic effect can be done by not using anticipation after a series of gags that used anticipation. Almost all real action has major or minor anticipation such as a pitcher’s wind-up or a golfers’ back swing. Feature animation is often less broad than short animation unless a scene requires it to develop a character’s personality, but the concept of anticipation is always there.

The technique of anticipation helps to guide the audience’s eyes to where the action is about to occur. Anticipation, including motion holds, is great for “announcing the surprise.” In three-dimensional computer animation it can be fine-tuned using digital time-editing tools such as time sheets, timelines, and curves. More anticipation equals less suspense. Horror films, for example, switch back and forth from lots of anticipation to total surprise.

Staging

A pose or action should clearly communicate to the audience the attitude, mood, reaction or idea of the character as it relates to the story and continuity of the story line. The effective use of long, medium, or close up shots, as well as camera angles also helps in telling the story. There is a limited amount of time in a film, so each sequence, scene and frame of film must relate to the overall story. Do not confuse the audience with too many actions at once. Use one action clearly stated to get the idea across, unless you are animating a scene that is to depict clutter and confusion. Staging directs the audience’s attention to the story or idea being told. Care must be taken in background design so it isn’t obscuring the animation or competing with it due to excess detail behind the animation. Background and animation should work together as a pictorial unit in a scene.

[su_note note_color=”#70bcf3″ radius=”17″]An Important Gotcha:

This isn’t really an animation principle so much as a production-wise “don’t do this”: don’t just stage for the camera.  Stage for the lighting too.

Remember that your character is participating in the lighting solution for the scene as well as for the taking lens, and if it’s in the wrong position in the scene, your character will either cast shadows in the wrong places or it’ll be impossible to light correctly – or the pose you meant to be the centerpiece of the scene will be lost in shadows itself.[/su_note]

Remember that as light and form contribute to the composition of a scene, so does motion; you can create contrast and focus in a scene by using motion, or lack thereof, to draw the audience’s eye to a specific action or event on the screen.

Motion that takes place directly in front of the character tends to be lost. If at least part of the action can take place in profile or silhouette, it is much more readable.

Three-dimensional animatics are a great tool for previsualizing and blocking out the staging before the primary, secondary and facial animation. There are many staging techniques to tell the story visually: hiding or revealing the center of interest, and a chain reaction of actions-reactions are a couple of them. Staging can also be aided with contemporary cinematic techniques such as slow motion, frozen time, motion loops, and hand-held camera moves.

“Straight Ahead” and “Pose to Pose” Animation

Straight ahead animation starts at the first drawing and works drawing to drawing to the end of a scene. You can lose size, volume, and proportions with this method, but it does have spontaneity and freshness. Fast, wild action scenes are done this way. Pose to Pose is more planned out and charted with key drawings done at intervals throughout the scene. Size, volumes, and proportions are controlled better this way, as is the action. The lead animator will turn charting and keys over to his assistant. An assistant can be better used with this method so that the animator doesn’t have to draw every drawing in a scene. An animator can do more scenes this way and concentrate on the planning of the animation. Many scenes use a bit of both methods of animation.

However, at motion picture studios most scenes are blocked out pose to pose first, in order to get approval on the basic motion in the scene before too much time is spent on  actually animating it. Time spent animating before approval is given for the approach you’re using is usually time lost.

Follow-through and Overlapping Action

It is not necessary for an animator to take a character to one point, complete that action completely, and then turn to the following action as if he had never given it a thought until after completing the first action. When a character knows what he is going to do he doesn’t have to stop before each individual action and think to do it. He has it planned in advance in his mind. When the main body of the character stops all other parts continue to catch up to the main mass of the character, such as arms, long hair, clothing, coat tails or a dress, floppy ears or a long tail. Nothing stops all at once. This is “follow through.”

[su_note note_color=”#70bcf3″ radius=”17″]
Keep GoingYou’re not going to be an animator just by reading my regurgitation of the twelve principles of animation, but at least it gives you an idea of what animators think about when they do what they do, and what you should be thinking about. 

If you want to animate, then do it!  Don’t wait for somebody else to give you permission, or you’ll be waiting all your life.  If you need permission, then consider this your permission.If you want to be something, then be it.
— Gene Turnbow[/su_note]

An example of “overlapping action” is when the character changes direction while his clothes or hair continues forward. The character is going in a new direction, to be followed, a number of frames later, by his clothes in the new direction.

For example, when Snow White starts to dance, her dress does not begin to move with her immediately but catches up a few frames later. Long hair and animal tail will also be handled in the same manner. Timing becomes critical to the effectiveness of drag and theoverlapping action.

There seem to be five main categories of this kind of movement:

  1. If the character has any appendages or loose clothing, these continue to move after the rest of the figure has stopped. This is easy to see in real life. The movement of each must be timed carefully so it will have the correct feeling of weight, and it must continue to follow through in the pattern of action in a believable way, no matter how
    broad the motion is.
  2. The body itself does not move all at once, but instead it stretches, catches up, twists, turns and contracts as the forms work against each other. As one part arrives at the stopping point, others may still be in movement; an arm or hand may continue its action even after the body is in its pose.
  3. The soft parts of a character is more resistant to changes in speed than the solid parts are. They have more inertia. This trailing behind in an action is sometimes called “drag”, and it gives a looseness and a solidity to the figure that is vital to the feeling of life.
  4. The way in which an action is completed often tells us much about the character being portrayed. The anticipation sets up the action we expect (or is it the action the character expects?), the action whizzes past, and then we come to the “punch line” of the gag, the follow through, which tells us how the whole thing turned out.
  5. If an animated character we’ve accepted as being alive suddenly stops moving, it looks as though it’s died. In real life, no living thing is ever truly completely stationary. The moving hold takes the concepts of follow-through and overlapping action to keep the character subtly moving on the hold, so as to keep this from happening.

The Moving Hold

In hand-drawn animation, it is very common to animate an action, then slow into a pose and hold the drawing of that pose for several frames, then move into action again. Being two dimensional animation, the action stays alive even with the use of held drawings. The same goes for puppet and clay animation. But in 3-D computer animation, as
soon as you go into a held pose, the action dies immediately. I’ve seen it happen with every animator that came out of traditional animation.

It must be the combination of the dimensional, realistic look and the smooth motion (usually on “ones”) that makes a hold cause the motion to die. The eye picks it up immediately, it begins to look like robotic motion. To combat this, use a “moving hold.” Instead of having every part of the character stop, have some part continue to
move slightly in the same direction, like an arm, a head, or even have the whole body.

Even the slightest movement will keep your character alive. Sometimes an action that feels believable in traditional animation, looks too cartoony in computer animation. Because of the realistic look of computer animation, an animator need to be aware of how far to push the motion. The motion should match the design of the character and the world. Animating very cartoony motion with lots of squash and stretch on a realistic looking object may not look believable, as would realistic motion on a caricatured object.

This is the pitfall of using motion capture devices to create final animation. Motion capture from human actors will always look realistic… for a human. But apply that motion to a chicken and it will look like a human in a chicken suit. You can use the motion capture data as a starting place, tweak the timing and poses to make it more caricatured, then apply it to the chicken and the motion will match the design of the character.

Slow-In and Slow-Out (also called “Ease-In, Ease-Out”)

This principle all has to do with physics. Objects at rest need a constant thrust of energy applied to them to put them into motion, and moving objects require that same amount of energy applied over time to bring them to a stop. It is this, and how we manage it, that gives us visual cues about how the weight or mass of an object. The more time it takes for an object to come up to speed, the heavier it appears.

As action starts, we have more drawings near the starting pose, one or two in the middle, and more drawings near the next pose. Fewer drawings make the action faster and more drawings make the action slower. Slow-ins and slow-outs soften the action, making it more life-like. For a gag action, we may omit some slow-out or slow-ins for shock appeal or the surprise element. This will give more snap to the scene.

Arcs

All actions, with few exceptions (such as the animation of a mechanical device), follow an arc or slightly circular path. This is especially true of the human figure and the action of animals. Arcs give animation a more natural action and better flow. Think of natural movements in the terms of a pendulum swinging. All arm movement, head turns and even eye movements are executed on an arcs.

Arcs are often simply done for you as an animator if you’re working in 3D, but they’re still important – problems in the motion of a character can be diagnosed by turning on visualization of each body part’s motion path.  Little hitches and pops will show up visually as knots in the motion path, and you should be able to clean up those keys pretty easily once you can actually see them.

You can see here in this illustration how arcs define the movement of organic structures. Everything’s a pendulum, attached to something else. You can also see an example of overlapping action, where the swing of the hands on the wrists is slightly delayed due to the swing of the arm it’s attached to. The same is true of the foot in a walk cycle. The foot on the ankle lags behind the motion of the leg it’s attached to. Both respond to the swing of whatever they’re attached to, but in a slightly delayed fashion. Remember, every body part has its own relatively consistent mass and momentum.

Secondary Action

This action adds to and enriches the main action and adds more dimension to the character animation, supplementing and/or re-enforcing the main action. Example: A character is angrily walking toward another character. The walk is forceful, aggressive, and forward leaning. The leg action is just short of a stomping walk. The secondary action is a few strong gestures of the arms working with the walk. Also, the possibility of dialogue being delivered at the same time with tilts and turns of the head to accentuate the walk and dialogue, but not so much as to distract from the walk action. All of these actions should work together in support of one another. Think of the walk as the primary action and arm swings, head bounce and all other actions of the body as secondary or supporting action.

Timing

Expertise in timing comes best with experience and personal experimentation, using the trial and error method in refining technique. The basics are: more drawings between poses slow and smooth the action. Fewer drawings make the action faster and crisper. A variety of slow and fast timing within a scene adds texture and interest to the movement. Most animation is done on twos (one drawing photographed on two frames of film) or on ones (one drawing photographed on each frame of film). Twos are used most of the time,
and ones are used during camera moves such as trucks, pans and occasionally for subtle and quick dialogue animation. Also, there is timing in the acting of a character to establish mood, emotion, and reaction to another character or to a situation. Studying movement of actors and performers on stage and in films is useful when animating human or animal characters. This frame by frame examination of film footage will aid you in understanding timing for animation. This is a great way to learn from the others.

Exaggeration

Exaggeration is not extreme distortion of a drawing or extremely broad, violent action all the time. It¹s like a caricature of facial features, expressions, poses, attitudes and  actions. Action traced from live action film can be accurate, but stiff and mechanical. In feature animation, a character must move more broadly to look natural. The same is true of facial expressions, but the action should not be as broad as in a short cartoon style. Exaggeration in a walk or an eye movement or even a head turn will give your footage more appeal. Use good taste and common sense to keep from becoming too theatrical and excessively animated.

Exactly how much exaggeration to use will be dependent upon – and can help set – the tone and spirit of the overall animation. More exaggeration is more comedic and cartoony; less can sometimes border on too stiff and lifeless. How much to push the exaggeration in a given action will be an aesthetic decision, but it should always be a decision and not an accident or chosen at random.

Solid Drawing

From the Renaud Galand Sketchbook

The basic principles of drawing form, weight, volume solidity and the illusion of three dimension apply to animation as it does to academic drawing. The way you draw cartoons,  you draw in the classical sense, using pencil sketches and drawings for reproduction of life. You transform these into color and movement giving the characters the illusion of  three-and four-dimensional life. Three dimensional is movement in space. The fourth dimension is movement in time.

I realize that “solid drawing” doesn’t translate directly to computer animation.  In traditional animation, the drawing is the whole of it, but in computer animation you’re often given a prerigged model to work with, and you’re limited to whatever that rig will do.  It’s up to you to get the best out of that rig (which may include giving the rigger some constructive feedback on ways to make the rig more usable).

To me, “solid drawing” means creating your forms and poses with confidence and by specific intent, and not just hitting your marks by accident. The concepts of good design still apply, even if you’re not using a pencil to execute them. You can still create poses that tell a story and please the eye.  Remember that if you make the audience work to figure out what the character is doing, you’ve already blown it.  Everything has to be clear, clean and understandable in a split second.  Every part of the character’s pose has to make sense. Everything in the scene should be there by intent, not accident.

Appeal

Yzma from “The Emperor’s New Groove”. She’s an appealing character, but she’s also quite the villain.

A live performer has charisma. An animated character has appeal. Appealing animation does not mean just being cute and cuddly. All characters have to have appeal whether  they are heroic, villainous, comic or cute. Appeal, as you will use it, includes an easy to read design, clear drawing, and personality development that will capture and involve the audience¹s interest. Early cartoons were basically a series of gags strung together on a main theme. Over the years, the artists have learned that to produce a feature there was a need for story continuity, character development and a higher quality of artwork throughout the entire production. Like all forms of story telling, the feature has to appeal to the mind as well as to the eye.

Yes, but what is it?

The above paragraph comes more or less straight out of The Illusion of Life, but doesn’t really explain what “appeal” means.

So what is it?

An appealing character is one that the audience finds engaging and intriguing, as well as easy to interpret and understand, and to which the audience can personally relate. This has to work on a number of levels. The more of these levels are addressed, the more appealing a character will be. The audience must be able to make sense of what they’re looking at, while putting forth the least possible effort in order to do so.

The audience has a split second in each scene to size up everything the character or characters in it are doing, saying, thinking, feeling and planning, the context of the situation in which the character finds himself/herself/itself, and even what that character’s basic personality traits are. Anything that obstructs this detracts from the appeal of any given character.

In the end, a character is appealing if it can fully engage the audience to the point where it can take in the character as an experience, instead of having to work to analyze what they’re looking at. It is a seduction – the appealing character is made to be effortless to absorb and understand. An appealing character is the animator’s gift to the audience.

“Appeal” does not mean “likeable”. Villians and unpleasant characters can be appealing too – the same rules that make a positive or heroic characters appealing and interesting to the eye work for the negative or villainous ones.

Design

Here are 36 silhouettes of some famous cartoon characters. Note that they’re all immediately identifiable, even in silhouette. That’s some strong design. How many can you name?

Usually this won’t be controlled by the animator in a three-D environment, but an appealing character will consist of smooth, clear, uncomplicated lines and motions. Angular, complex lines and motion are harder to absorb and interpret from a visual standpoint than smooth, uncluttered ones. By the same token, if a character’s motion consists of smooth arcs, the various parts of the character’s body will move in an easy to anticipate, viewer friendly manner that reduces the amount of work it takes to understand what that character is doing. Design, then, is as much about designing the characteristic motions as it is about the character’s initial appearance.

Characters with unique phrasing or ways of moving will be more appealing, because the audience can quickly identify the character even if the character is in silhouette.

Profile (or “Silhouette”)

By now you should realize the importance of the character’s silhouette, but you probably hadn’t figured out the why of it.

As it turns out, the human eye sees the outline of a shape first, and the detail within that outline afterwards. Action clearly seen from a character’s silhouette will make the  character and his actions easier to absorb and understand. Overlapping limbs, or limbs that overlap the body, create a visually confusing presentation that the viewer must then sort out. One of the most important rules of animation is, “don’t abuse the audience”. Don’t make them work harder than absolutely necessary to understand what it is you’re trying to show them.

Animators frequently rig up a button in their animation software interface that lets them turn off all the lights and check the profile of the character they’re working on with respect to the camera, and this is the reason they do it.

Emotion

If a character’s emotional state cannot be immediately read and understood by the audience – if one cannot tell by looking at the character precisely what he’s  thinking as he moves through the scene – the character loses appeal very quickly. The audience wants to know the character’s state of mind. If you don’t provide some strong clues, the emotional state cannot be resolved, and unless the character is understood to be an unthinking machine, the audience’s interpretative process comes to a screeching halt.

Intent

What the character intends to do in a given scene must be understood. It doesn’t have to be laid out all at once at the beginning of the scene, but the motivation of the character should be clear. It can be something simple, like “Run away from the giant boulder to avoid being crushed.” or “Take the hand out of the open flame before the rest of the fingers burn off.” At the other extreme, it can be some major plot point the character is thinking or scheming about, and what is likely to happen in the next two or three scenes after the current one. If the character does not have at least one clear motivation in a scene (it can have several), he ceases to be interesting and his appeal is greatly diminished.

That’s a Wrap

Now you know a little something about what goes through an animator’s head each time they sit down to animate a scene, whether it’s on paper, or using clay or table models, or on a computer. All the same principles apply.

If you’d like to try your hand at it, learning to draw is a good first step – but if you can’t do that, or you’re impatient to begin, you can try Blender. It’s free, sophisticated, and comes with a staggeringly enormous fan and user base who will be more than happy to help you along your way, including providing you with free, pre built animation rigs to play with.

There are also online communities of animators. A really good one is the 11 Second Club, and they have weekly competitions to animate scenes to the audio clips they supply. It’s a great deal of fun even just watching the different approaches each animator makes, and you can learn a great deal from not only the pro’s that partake in it, but the amateurs as well.

Just so you know I know what I’m talking about, here are three short animations I did, one a hand drawn animatic called The Ant, and one a dialog challenge from the Ghostbusters, a scene you may recognize, and a very short silent clip called When Slots Attack that demonstrates all the principles I have outlined above.

Now that you have some basic direction, go animate! Of course you’ll suck at first, but everyone does. Don’t let that slow you down. The studios are full of animators who didn’t.

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I’ve Made a Commercial, for My Own Radio Station!

I’ve Made a Commercial, for My Own Radio Station!

Of course, it’s always a team effort making something like this, but I took a template provided by Iggy Matthews of Let’s Get Reelz, with voice acting by Christian Basel, and produced a 30 second television spot that will air on Bright House Cable in central Florida for the September 19 debut of the new series of Doctor Who. It’ll air twice, and thousands of people will see my work all at once.

What’s more exciting is that once I got the materials I was able to bang this thing out in just three days start to finish, and that’s in the midst of doing my other work for my science fiction radio station as its station manager and head writer.

It was made to promote the award winning The New MarkWho42, the widely popular Doctor Who themed radio talk show that airs each Wednesday and Friday on Krypton Radio. The New MarkWHO42 is produced by Mark Baumgarten, and features weekly panelists Mark Baumgarten, Patricia Helm, Eduardo M. Freyre, Patrick Hawkins and Christian Basel.

The commercial, produced in full 1080i HD, will air twice this September 19 on Bright House Cable, serving central Florida, in conjunction with the airing of The Magician’s Apprentice, the first episode of the 9th series of Doctor Who, starring Peter Capaldi.

The original spot concept did not include Daleks. That was my idea, and I got some Dalek models, fixed them so they’d look good on HD, rigged them, lit them, animated them, then recomposited the entire spot in After Effects, replacing every single element, but using the original animatic as a guide.

The Dalek voices? Yeah, those were me too.

The ramifications of this are:

  • I got to do one of those time crunch, “failure is not an option” jobs I used to be known for.
  • I got to reacquaint myself with Maya, and I’d gotten a bit rusty and hadn’t realized just how rusty – but I’m back up to speed now.
  • I got to do this for a radio show on my own radio station, and for friends of mine who produce one of our best shows. This will help them sell advertising for their show, which will help not only them, but the station, and then by proxy, me.

Pretty good start to the week.

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