Maya: Retiming Video Reference

This is a little tip I actually picked up after Animation Mentor but regularly use now, it simply allows you to retime your video reference using Maya’s Graph Editor. I’m not sure how mentors teach this, so thought I’d type it up and share.

Here I’ve gone through and imported an image sequence onto an image plane, with an offset of -100 frames to match my starting frame for the shot.
Retiming video reference in Maya

You’ll notice the Image Number is a purple colour, meaning it’s being controlled by an expression. My first frame for this shot is 101, and this value is also 101. My last frame is 224 and this value is also on 224, the frame number you’re currently on is in direct correlation the the number contained in this box.
Retiming video reference in Maya

What I like to do is right click and choose Delete the ExpressionRetiming video reference in Maya

This will set the value back to 1 and as the name implies, deletes the expression which was controlling the playback of the image sequence.

Now I can go to frame 101, type 101 into this box, right click on it and set a key. Then I can also key 224 into the final frame.

Retiming video reference in Maya

I’ve essentially re-entered the numbers that were already there. This time the numbers are being controlled by my keys, not an expression. You can visually see the difference now the box is red.

The beauty now is if I open my graph editor, I can now see a curve representing the playback of my image sequence.

Retiming video reference in Maya

If I set it to linear instead of the spline tangent above, it will play back at 1:1, as it did before.

Retiming video reference in Maya

But now within the graph editor I can add keys and slow sections down, speed others up, etc. I can retime my whole video reference or just sections I’d like.

Retiming video reference in Maya

This is great if you have video reference and an audio track you’d like to match actions more closely to, if you find your acting is a little too even and would like to add a bit extra texture in the timing before blocking or if you want to do some cartoony actions with timing that is not entirely based on reality.

TV animation workflow

I just checked in on the Animation Mentor community to see what was happening and saw a question about doing work for TV animation. Anyone who has gone from Animation Mentor into TV will probably agree that it’s quite different to what is taught in these online schools that prepare students for the film industry.

I’ve just wrapped up after almost 3 years of TV quality animation at Studio Soi, in that time I animated somewhere around 60 minutes of screen time (roughly 30 secs a week) on a new show being developed in-house. This post is about my personal workflow, different animators on the same production worked in their own different ways so it is by no means standard. Feel free to leave a comment if you have differing methods which might be of use to others.

Petzi, Studio Soi’s upcoming series

The “Tim Approach”
My approach to animating is to always see a shot in the context of what comes before and after. Before investing time on specific shots I would do a very rough first pass on the entire sequence, see how it all fits together and then go through with a finer comb. My goal was always to have something out as soon as possible and work it up rather than trying to show great animation all through the process.

On top of allowing me to see a shot in relation to what’s around it early, it also gives a chance for a director to come over earlier if something is very off and also helps reduce unnecessary tweaking; looking at the bigger picture helps focus on animation serving the story rather than endless tweaking of animation for animation sake, a luxury TV can’t afford much of.

Planning
Something that students might gasp at, animation planning was very minimal across the team. I went through a phase of drawing blocking ideas over the previs and showing the director early, which garnered a positive reaction. Eventually I found it actually didn’t affect much, it didn’t diminish the amount of feedback I received at blocking reviews and found I was still essentially rushing through planning rather than using it to explore ideas.

One thing I did use periodically was video reference. I would use it for acting shots or if there’s a unique movement the director was looking for. In all cases I used it, I would ask the director to act the shot out rather than doing it myself. My goal was always to find out what the director wanted as soon as possible and found this to be the most efficient way.

Blocking
Usually we would be assigned a 1 minute sequence, with a 2 week turn around time. After having the kick off meeting with the director, my first pass blocking is essentially following the animatic and/or previs. I would block rough and get the main beats, playblast to the server and then move on to the next shot. I’d get through 1 minute in 2 days doing this and would work so rough I wouldn’t check playblasts until I looked at all the shots in sequence.

The next 2 days would be for refining the sequence based on my own notes. That would include blocking in new ideas, refining poses, reworking timing, adding extra keys and a few breakdowns. I generally wouldn’t go into much detail on blocking as the director will have thoughts or ideas that build upon what’s already there. Investing too much time early can be going down a rabbit hole and lost time if the director doesn’t approve.

The extra day for blocking would usually be eaten up by kick off meeting, director review, any extra touch ups or any outstanding notes a previous sequence.

Inbetweening
After the director has given his blocking review I would go straight into inbetweening, incorporating any changes into this pass. Again I go quick and rough first pass through, usually leaving out lip sync and on big shots sometimes just keeping it at keys and breakdowns. Again this first pass takes around 2 days, I make my own notes on the sequence and then spend another 2 days doing detailed inbetweening. The final day to round out 2 weeks for the minute of animation is for final notes from the director.

Tools
Some freely available Tools I used when animating:
Tween Machine. An animator’s best friend.
aTools. All our CG animators now use this, it has a great arc tracker and fake constraint tool which I would use sometimes in rough blocking before setting up proper constraints. aTools does make Tween Machine redundant as it has its own functionality, but I always preferred Tween Machine.
Locinator. Great if you’re using walk cycles from a library

aTools

Keyboard Shortcuts
This one will annoy anyone who comes to your computer, but I remap my keyboard shortcuts so almost everything is done with my left hand. I wrote about this a couple years ago and still haven’t changed the set up all that much.
Maya keyboard hotkeys

Scene Optimisation
One thing that helps to work fast is if your Maya scene is light. I would animate a lot with Isolate Select and even set up my own keyboard shortcut to Isolate Select a character or prop quickly. I also used a mel script that would place all characters and environments on unique display layers and then would put any heavy objects in their own layer, turning them off for most of my animation time.

I have never worked in Viewport 2.0 on a production and always kept everything in low res until it was time to check final animation for technical fixes.

Pose Libraries
I know some animators who swear by them, I found they often took the same amount of time as creating a pose from scratch and were a more boring way to work. Libraries get larger and slower over the server, it takes time to find what you want and then takes time to tweak it to how you like it. We did work with simplified facial rigs, for a more detailed rig my opinions there might be different.

I did however use it for hooking up poses over shots and also walk cycles. I’d apply the cycle, animating the layout control along the path. Once the speed and path looked roughly correct I would bake the movement from the layout control onto the Feet and COG controls using the Locinator tool mentioned above.

One point I do like about pose libraries is if you’re new to a project, well fleshed out libraries can be a great starting point to keeping a character on model.

Stepped or Splined Blocking
My general workflow on any production is always to block with stepped keys. For action shots, shots with very subtle movement or overlap I switch to splined blocking, using a mix of Pose to Pose and Straight Ahead workflows. It allows me to keep a better sense of how timing will work and at Studio Soi I found action shots generally had less notes from the director than acting shots, so wouldn’t hold back on detailed blocking on those shots.

Limited Animation
The style of animation for TV’s high quotas needs to be a more limited style than what’s used in film or taught in online schools. This may need a whole other post, but the general idea comes from 2D animation and having less pencil mileage by having less inbetweens. Key poses would be milked more, animation tends toward a snappier pose to pose style, any kind of keep alive may be limited to just blinks or eye darts and generally polish is minimal. Although this is a simpler style of animation, when you’ve been taught in a nuanced Disney or VFX style it actually takes getting used to and is something we would look for on a reel when hiring.

Check out any of your favourite TV series and compare with a Disney/Pixar style of animation to get an idea. I’d argue that the Peanuts Movie and Lego Movies are both a very polished type of limited animation.

The Amazing World of Gumball, co-produced at Studio Soi, is a clear example of limited animation

Check-Ins
At my previous studio we would do a morning check-in everyday, mainly to talk about any issues and to check on progress. It’s something we didn’t do so much at Soi seeing we were such a small team (4 animators for the majority of production). My only tip here is to always give realistic predictions on when you’ll be finished, don’t give an answer that the project manager is wanting to hear or what was written on the schedule. Having been on the management side of short films, I can say someone who is falling behind is much easier to manage than a schedule built on false promises.

Wrap up
I hope that helps get an insight into what might go into working with high quotas. It can be quite a change and a little stressful if you haven’t worked in that kind of environment before, but after pushing through that adjustment time and finding your own workflow it really does become quite manageable.

Comic: I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation

I just finished reading Natalie Nourigat’s independent comic “I Moved to LA to Work in Animation” after seeing this rave review from Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi:

“This is not a standard recommendation – Nourigat’s book is absolutely essential for anyone considering an animation career in Los Angeles.”

I do tend to agree, with my only comment being it is relevant to animation artists everywhere, not just Los Angeles. Even as an Australian living and working in Europe, I could relate to almost everything Natalie writes about.

But it’s more than just relating to her story that resonated with me, it’s that she touches on topics in such a truthful manner that I personally rarely saw before entering the industry, let alone before signing up for animation school. Our perceptions of the industry before we enter it are very much influenced by commerce; schools, studios, podcasts, conference presenters and even industry magazines paint a glossy picture of the industry as it’s often in their own interest to do so.

While Natalie does paint a success story – she documents going from no art school to working at Disney features as a story artist – she does manage to describe her hardships and struggles quite well, even admitting seeing a therapist at one point for depression related to her move.

On top of that she also touches on the demands of overtime work, how much she struggled to kick start a career, the downsides of living in a city for work rather than personal choice, difficulties of apartment hunting in a new city (surprisingly more stressful than it sounds) and also gender/race inequality in studios. All great things to be aware of, for people considering whether to make a career out of this industry and how they could approach doing so.

The comic covers plenty of positives and definitely shows the joy she gets from working in animation. It’s by no means a hard hitting critique on the industry, but it is one that documents the experience of being a new comer very accurately in a balanced while also enjoyable and visual way. You can buy the comic via gumroad.

A side note. If you do read the comic, just keep in mind:
– Natalie is a story artist, not an animator. L.A is known for pre-production, while a lot of animation is outsourced. If you’re a level entry animator thinking of moving to L.A to find a job, it might be best to talk to people already there about how many openings there are for junior animators or if somewhere like Vancouver is more viable.

– Natalie works at one of the biggest and most successful studios in history. A lot of the perks she and/or union workers experience aren’t universal or to be expected. For example the work hours, benefits and salary of a junior animator at a feature studio in L.A can be a lot different to a what would be experienced at a feature studio in London.

CTN quick tips

I’m starting to see questions about the CTN Animation Expo pop up on Facebook so thought I’d share some quick tips from the perspective of someone who has been there twice, both as a recent graduate and again as a ‘working professional’.

Getting in and out
– CTN is hosted next to Burbank airport and is a short walk away, if possible book your flights through that airport. What a lot of people don’t realise is how far CTN is from LAX. If you’re flying in or out on one of the days of the conference, be sure to factor in travel time. I’ve traveled by both shuttle bus and Uber, both taking a little under an hour.

Accommodation
– Staying at the Marriott is a big plus, if you’re tired you can easily pop upstairs for a break, drop bags off, etc. It does sell out fast (most probably months ago), but there is a facebook group for people looking for rooms to share.

– Nearby hotels are fine options too. I would suggest to load up Uber or Lyft on your phone so you can leave and go back when you want and not wait for the CTN shuttle bus. If you take group ride share options, you’ll most probably end up with other CTN attendees, another way to meet people and cut costs.

What to bring
– If you’re job hunting it’s best to bring your reel on a tablet and possibly even headphones. Lugging around a computer will be heavy and cumbersome over the course of the event. Don’t rely on having wi-fi, be sure to keep a link you can pass to recruiters, but keep your reel as a file on your tablet that you can instantly open up.

– Business cards are a big plus. Companies like Moo allow you to set up and print your cards easily over the internet. If a recruiter likes your reel, they’ll ask for one. Also when chatting with people around the event, it’s easy to whip them out and follow up later. I would toss up between having 50 or 100 cards printed.

– You’ll be on your feet a lot, so comfortable shoes are also a plus.

What to do
– If possible pick up your pass on the night before, otherwise go early on the opening day. I remember we the official kick for CTN 2016 being around 12pm on the Friday, but there were still hundreds of people waiting in line to pick up their passes to enter.

– For talks, book the ones you absolutely want to go to. I’d recommend max of 3 per day and then see on the day which extra talks you might want to squeeze into. Anything by well known animators fills up fast and probably won’t have extra room for those who haven’t reserved entry.

– Visit studio booths early on the first day, if you’re looking for a reel review they’ll often hand out tickets with times for you to come back. Saturday is the busiest day of the conference and Sunday things start to slow down/wrap up as people start catching flights.

– Be sociable. If you’re standing in line, say hello to the person behind you. Everyone has something in common and are hoping to meet likeminded people.

– If you had mentors or know people in LA, let them know you’ll be at CTN. Some will be open to having a drink or doing studio tours. When going in my graduation year, I met up with 3 of my 6 mentors during my first CTN trip.

– Party. Friday and Saturday are the nights to have a drink and meet a few people. The hotel bars are safe options, but would keep an ear out for any other events. By Sunday everyone is exhausted or leaving. I’m a big believer in not going to events with the intention to ‘network’, but just to have a good time and meet others irrespective of their position in the industry. I also think building honest friendships with those around you is the real key to growing your network.

– Follow up. When you get home, go through the cards you’ve collected, facebook/linkedin connections you’ve made, recruiters you’ve met and send them a quick message. Say where you met, that you enjoyed the opportunity and maybe follow up with a question for more info on what you discussed.

VIP or regular pass?
– I’ve had both and would say for an animation graduate there’s no reason to splash out on a VIP pass. Anyone you would like to meet is accessible on the floors or after their talks. I would suggest taking the savings from the cheaper pass and put it into more studies, you’ll get more out of it.

What to expect
Expect chaos. : )
It is a fairly large event, probably held in an event space not best suited for its size and is filled with recent graduates trying to get any kind of leg up in the industry. A lot of the people helping out at the event are volunteers who may not be fully aware of everything that will be happening. Keep respectful, get to events you want to attend early, don’t expect to come away with a job offer, but do expect to have fun and meet some likeminded people.

What if I can’t go
One thing I do like about CTN is they record their talks in the bigger rooms. Some are freely available online, others are on their CTN TV web site as part of a yearly membership. Currently the site is charging $5.99 for a year long access. I do have access to this and while it doesn’t have every talk you might have wanted to see, I would say it is worth that small amount. I’d just be sure to check if it is a recurring yearly payment or if it’s a one off payment for a year.

Feel free to throw any other questions or tips in the comments.

Personal Tests

Something mentors in later classes of Animation Mentor often said is “keep doing your own personal shots”. It’s a no brainer for graduates still looking to get their start, but also good advice for animators in the industry who may not always be getting shots that will progress their skills or fulfil their creative itches.

Something I soon realised after Animation Mentor is very few people follow through on that advice. In my personal experience I have never finished an acting shot on my own, there’s been multiple attempts but all end up gathering dust after some time.

Why?

One thing I’ve found is I personally can’t work without an outside expectation on me to deliver a large amount of work. In a class you have expectations of your mentor/teacher to meet, you have weekly deadlines, grades to uphold, a financial outlay you’re trying to get the most out of and classmates to compare your progress against. Once you take all those elements away, you’re down to just self discipline to to go through a shot from start to finish. When a shot takes weeks to complete, it’s not hard to fall off the bandwagon and stay off it.

For those who find themselves in a situation like this and would like to keep adding to their reel, here some suggestions to combat the problem:

  • Offer to help out on a short film.
    This brings back deadlines, meeting a director’s expectations and comparing your own progress against your peers. If you’re able to jump on a project with a director from an animation background you’re also able to gain useful feedback that pushes your skills and understanding of animation. I’ve helped out on shorts for former Pixar animators Carlos Baena, Bobby Beck and Everett Downing and have enjoyed all experiences. From the various projects I have about 2 minutes of completed animation, way more than I would be able to complete on my own. If you’re looking for projects to join, check out Artella or Nimble Collective. Tip: before jumping on a project ask about adding your completed shots to a private reel. Side projects take years to complete, when you’ll be able to show your shots publicly is anyone’s guess.
     
  • Loop De Loop
    Loop De Loop is an online animation challenge which offers a theme, a 2 month deadline and screenings in multiple cities. The 2 month deadline is adequate time, there’s no minimum time frame for your shot, there’s a guaranteed audience and is also a great step to challenge yourself in a bit of directing a shot/concept development. Here is a post breaking down how I collaborated on a Loop De Loop with an old university friend.
     
  • 11 Second Club
    Well known within the industry, a line of dialogue about 11 seconds in length is supplied and a 1 month deadline is given to complete the shot. Shots are voted on and winners are announced. Completing an 11 second dialogue shot in 4 weeks is tough, but definitely doable, the short time frame means the ball has to be continually rolling and helps stop the “I can do it later” excuse.
     
  • Find a mentor
    This can be as simple as approaching someone you look up to and saying “do you have time to look at my shot?”. Be sure to apply their feedback before showing them again, if they see you’re not applying their notes then it won’t be long before they stop replying. I’ve approached various people I’ve met for their advice, and always have received replies/notes to work on. Tip: think of people you know or may have met personally rather than reaching out to complete strangers. Have something ready to show and don’t approach them saying “can you be my mentor?”
    Some animators such as Jean-Denis Haas also mentor for a fee much lower than schools. If you’re paying money always check reels, not just credentials of the mentor. I have seen junior level animators offering mentoring for a fee, something I’m quite skeptical of.
     
  • Take More Classes
    This is very common, even for animators who already have their foot in the door. The structure of a reputable school in my mind beats all the above options, but obviously comes with a high price tag. Animation Mentor offers discounts for alumni retaking classes, Animsquad, iAnimate, AnimSchool, CGtarians and Animation Collaborative are all great as well. I know numerous animators who have tried a mix of the schools to find the best solution for what they wish to work on. Some offer specific classes in cartoony animation, creatures, facial performance, etc.

I should mention, for current students it might be best to hold off trying any of these until after graduation. I often had students asking to help on DUEL and often see students taking multiple classes, try an extra shot on the side, etc. In my mind it’s spreading yourself too thinly and not getting the most out of your education.

New Project


I’m happy to announce I’ve been directing another project, this time a VR short film as a collaboration between Artella and Sketchfab. We’ve got a tight team, a budget for the artists and a goal to produce the short form start to finish in under 8 weeks, everyone working on it as a side project. It’s a huge undertaking, but so far everything has been completely on schedule.

Our crew is split between members of both communities, spread across 8 countries and most of the Artella community members have come from our DUEL team.  The working title is Petrified and you can see an overview of the project + updates on our Artella page.

Concept art by Hyuna Lee:

Character design by Carlos Quintero.

The team:

Industry Life

I recently heard about Double Fine’s documentary on the making of their Broken Age game. It’s quite long but I thought it gives one of the best insights into working in a creative field, being valuable for both people looking to enter into the games or animation industry and also experienced animators looking to develop their own projects. Here is a link to the documentary and below it some take aways that I thought might be of interest.

Generating ideas
I thoroughly enjoyed how much time the documentary spent on Tim’s idea process, it seems to be a topic that I don’t see covered all that much. The depth he goes to in brainstorming ideas was great to see, literally showing endless titles before landing on “Grim Fandango” as a name for his game for example and not being afraid to shoot out fairly random/bad ideas to get it. I was also intrigued about his process of free writing as a warm up before getting into generating ideas specifically for the project and also that he still brainstorms offline, with pen and paper in his office, library or cafe. If you’re working on a shot or a short film, how in depth do you go before starting up Maya?

Listening to notes
One of the earlier episodes features an intern, who later in the production is employed to do some remote contract work. Tim states one of the reasons the intern became so valuable wasn’t so much because he did amazing work in the first pass, but because he was able to listen to the director notes and apply them well in the second pass. It’s a nice reminder that being a great animator isn’t just about talent or skills, but the ability to listen and achieve the director’s vision.

Unfavourable notes
To delve deeper on that same point, there was another stage of production where an animator was screening for director approval, only to be told that the scene needed a complete reworking from the ground up. The animator later mentions to camera that the scene is 4,000 frames long, a huge amount of work to delete and redo. The thing to take note of is how he handles himself in that situation, there is a brief back and forth between himself, his lead and the director, but there was never a complaint or bitterness voiced. In a similar point to the above, being professional and easy to work with in my opinion is as important as how good your showreel is.

Productions are tough
One of my take aways from directing DUEL was the realisation that everything goes wrong. Everyday there’s a new problem to solve and the process of delivering a project is tackling those problems one by one until it’s finished. It seems the Broken Age project was particularly hard and it shows. There were mentions of people sleeping in the office, Tim mentions stress maybe helped lead to gallstones being removed, one programmer was forced off work for a week during the intense crunch and the audio engineer was close to tears when looking back on the project. We’re often given a pretty image of the industry on production documentaries, it was nice to see this one not being afraid to show that productions can physically and mentally affect those working on it.

Business drives decisions
Throughout the documentary we get insight into seeing how the business side of a company affects a project, one of the reasons of starting the project in the first place was to avoid laying off members of staff. It is nice to think that we choose to work in a creative industry, but at the end of the day the work we do is largely influenced economics. One example being the decision to split the game into two acts in order to have enough funds to complete the project, but it also later becomes depressingly clear when the studio does indeed go through lay offs due to a project cancellation. Just how dire the financial positions of some studios can become is something that few talk about while studying.

Finishing a project
One moment I particularly liked in the documentary was when the trailer was screened for the first time. The smiles on the crew’s face as it played on a big screen in an industry event is a great feeling and I think the film makers captured that well.
I thought the documentary also captured the strange feeling of releasing a project out to the public. There was a lot of reading comments on forums, watching analytics and generally.. just sitting in front of a computer. Premiere screenings are a great experience, but after that, the feeling of releasing a huge project can be somewhat anti-climactic. The amount of effort vs instant gratification is severely mismatched and the cliche of “enjoy the process” starts to hold a lot more meaning.

They were just some moments that stood out to me, hopefully you can also enjoy and find your own takeaways from the documentary. Kudos to the Double Fine crew for being so open about the production process.

Making of DUEL

DUEL was the first project to be completed using Artella, as such we were invited to do a 1 hour Q&A about the process and making of. Some topics we covered
– Coming up with ideas
– Hair without simulation
– Problems encountered
– Keeping a team engaged on a distributed project

Watch below:

DUEL

Proud to finally share our short film DUEL. It marked my first time directing, an amazing experience working with 46 artists around the world. The short premiered at the CTN Animation Expo as its opening animation, followed up by a fun panel talk and a Cartoon Brew exclusive online release.

The level of support and enthusiasm my the short was inspiring, thank you to all those involved. We’ll be doing an online Q&A on Wednesday December 14th, 9pm Pacific Time. Come and say hello!

06_still01 07_still02 08_still03