Figure drawing

I’ve heard so many differing opinions on the importance of drawing by great animators, writing my own opinion seems almost pointless. It is however the number 1 skill I’m working to improve on, so I do find it to be a skill worth developing. I have a few books on drawing (mentioned below) but I find there’s enough online to work with, it’s just a matter of sitting down and doing it regularly.

New Masters Academy has some great over the shoulder videos of Glen Vilppu and Steve Huston drawing poses (both artists have taught at Disney and Dreamworks). Even if you have no intention of picking up a pencil they’re great to watch as they both talk about the essence and movement within a pose, a great way of thinking when analysing your video reference.

New Masters Academy offers 26 youtube videos of models posing, but On Air Video also offers a great library. Currently they have 150 model sessions of about 25 minutes each all for free on youtube.

Pixelovely offer a free tool for drawing reference. I like that it has expanded to include hand, animal and expression libraries.
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Drawing Force (4 parts) by Mike Mattesi

For those who are complete beginners, this thread might be worth a look. It documents the progress of Jonathan Hardesty who put himself through a fairly regimented program of teaching himself to draw over a few years. As his site shows he became quite successful, but I was interested to see how far he got in just one year:
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Some other links:
Why Disney sends its animators to life drawing classes 
Tuesday tips by Griz and Norm
John Kricfalusi, Can Life Drawing Help Your Animation
Jason Ryan, Stick Figure Tutorial
Rad how To
Aaron’s Art Tips

Books!
Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth Free Online | Printed
Simplified Drawing for Planning Animation
Drawn to Life
Dynamic Anatomy
Force: Dynamic Life Drawing for Animators
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
How to Draw Animals

Drawing cartoon figures
Tom Bancroft’s books
Christopher Hart’s books
Instruction: Preston Blair’s Advanced Animation

Control Pickers (updated)

*Just updated this post from last year so decided to bring it back to the top of the blog.

The A.M G.U.I picker can be a bit of a hassle to work with as  it’s quite large and doesn’t allow for shift selecting multiple controls. 2 alternatives I used in A.M are Awe Control Picker  and animSelector. Both are easy to set up, take less screen space, allow for controls to be grouped together and also shift selecting multiple controls. While they’re not visual pickers, I have found they are fast to work with.

Of the two I now prefer Awe Control Picker, it’s quicker to set up and found I had less hassles with it. It’s also developed by an A.M alumn who continues to improve on it.

Awe Control Picker:
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AnimSelect:
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In addition to those two, AnimSchool offers a  G.U.I Picker. It’s resizable, has the ability to zoom, is easy to set up and allows for selection sets and shift selecting. The only downside is that the Terms & Conditions prohibit the use of the picker with rigs from other animation schools.
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One other tool worth mentioning while on the topic is the Studio Library. It’s a pose library that is easy to set up and great if you use the same rig over many classes/shots (thus building a useful library over time). It’s also useful if you have many shots and need to hook up poses between them, if you work in a team and want share poses/animation cycles or like using pre-made phonemes when doing lip sync.
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Bill Tytla

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I recently saw a compilation of Bill Tytla shots on youtube (posted below) and decided it would be a spring board for possibly starting an “Animation History 101″ type series of posts. We’ll see how it goes.

To get an insight into the life of Bill TytlaJohn Canemaker wrote an amazing biography which can be downloaded/read on Animation Resources. I highly recommend it, it’s a well written and researched look at the ups and downs of Tytla’s life. I’ll just offer a brief overview of his career:

Tytla began his career in New York, painting title cards for Paramount animation studio before becoming a T.V animator for Raoul Barré and later joining Terrytoons. His passion though was fine art and he took an extended break from work to study painting and sculpture in Paris, which helped lead to his signature understanding of weight and mass in animation.

After returning to the States and working again at Terrytoons in New York, he was brought over to work at Disney by his friend Art Babbitt. There he became one of the most respected animators, animating on Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Fantasia and some Mickey + some war time shorts.

Tytla brought Stanislavsky’s acting approach to animation, performances that were driven by becoming the character and identifying with their inner emotions and thoughts. He had a style of animating “form not function”, basically allowing distortions and imprecise inbetweens into his work if he thought the movement as a whole felt natural. Most of all he was known for his powerful characters which showcased a great understanding of weight; Stromboli, Chernabog and the giant in the Mickey short ‘Brave Little Tailor’.

After becoming unsettled living in California and working at Disney, Tytla quit and moved back to the East coast to work in TV as an animator and director. He was known to become unhappy with his choice, unwilling to adapt to the changing in styles of TV animation, unable to properly manage his own studio and despite his talents and legacy, unable to get rehired at Disney.

Tytla was known to be heavily impressed by Pieter Bruegel while living in Europe, his paintings becoming inspiration for Tytla’s work on The Seven Dwarfs
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Tytla animation before Disney. Browse through more on Mike Knight’s youtube page.

Stromboli pencil test:

Montage of some of his work at Disney:

Michael Sporn posted some amazing scans of Tytla’s work, breaking down some of his use of distortions
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And also posted this youthful run by Dumbo
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Check out the 1:22 mark, an amazing dance scene from his Terrytoon days after Disney. According to Classic Cartoons here it may have also been animated together with Carlo Vinci.

A Chernabog influence on his animation here in Mighty Mouse?
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Some of the shorts he directed post-Disney:

Yellowbird & TeamTo

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Yellowbird, the first independent feature film created by French studio TeamTo debuted at the London International Film Festival late last year. The film and was directed by Christian De Vita (lead storyboard artist on Fantastic Mr Fox), designed by Benjamin Renner (co-director of Ernest and Celestine) and voiced by stars including Seth Green, Dakota Fanning and Danny Glover.

I had the opportunity to see the film and also interview TeamTo founder Guillaume Hellouin and director Christian De Vita at their Paris studio. We talked about the process of creating an independent feature, changes in the industry and their advice for those early in their careers.

So how did the Yellowbird project get started?
Guillaume: “It started a long time ago. We wanted to produce a feature film because as a CG studio it’s been a dream for so long, so at a certain point we decided we needed to commission a script. We had worked with Antoine Barraud before so we told him that we would like him to pitch us ideas for a feature film and if we liked one we’d do it.

Antoine worked for a while then came back with different ideas, one of which he pitched like this: ‘Imagine a father and his son fishing by a river and see some birds fly by. The father explains to his son, ‘that’s migration, they go south to Africa. Then at a certain point a flock of birds fly in the opposite direction’. That was basically the start and we thought that was very original and had great potential for comedy. So we picked up this idea and started working with him and he started writing the script. We did many versions and it’s been a long journey.”

As an independent feature was it hard to find financing and distribution?
Guillaume: “Yes. Actually the biggest challenge was the financing. It took a very long time, it took years to put in place not all the financing but enough to green-light the film.

Also finding the right distribution channel was quite tough. We talked with many distributors. In France actually it went rather quickly because we pitched the project at Cartoon Movie. I remember one of the magazines, I think it was Film Français, they released a special issue for Cartoon Movie and put a very tiny picture of Gus (Yellowbird), which was still in design at that time. Laurence from Haut et Court was attending Cartoon Movie, she saw that picture and fell in love with the project. From a picture that was the size of a stamp, she said “yeah I want to do it!”.

But then we needed to find international partners and we talked to many distributors and sales agents. That was really tough. At some point, I don’t know how we came to this decision, but we had an English translation and we felt the translation was not reflecting the potential of the film. So we decided to find a U.S writer to do a comedy punch-up. We had Cory Edwards do it, Cory was very well known for the success of Hoodwinked and he helped a lot. Antoine was fully fluent in English, so he could work with Cory. We sent him for 3 weeks to L.A and together they did an English version that was really convincing. With that we could go back to some places that had previously refused the film.

Finally we found a very good sales agent, Simon Crowe from SC Film in London. Basically with that version of the script, plus the cast we had secured at the time, plus some design, it could pre-sale 20 countries at Cannes. That was a major step forward, from there we could start the production.”

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We’re seeing Russia and China becoming bigger markets along with the rise in online distribution. How do you think that’s going to affect animated features?
Guillaume: “I think the fact that as an independent studio in France we can produce movies that – from a U.S point of view – could be considered extremely low cost and still be released almost worldwide. It’s definitely a change in the paradigms, because honestly we didn’t imagine having such a wide release in Russia. But also we didn’t imagine that the film could be sold to virtually any country in the world, even if in most of them it will be a DVD release.

But yes, definitely it’s very exciting. It means there’s room for independent producers. We can produce films that don’t really compete with blockbusters but we can give artists, authors, directors an opportunity to express a vision that’s different.”

Christian, you’ve directed short films and I think also TV..
Christian: “Yeah some TV series, music videos and commercials..”

How was directing a feature film different from these formats?
Christian: “Well there’s more work and more hours, to put it in a concise form. I mean I’ve worked in films for years, I know the process and have seen how other directors work, how the artists work and all the interactions between the different departments. From a personal point of view it’s great to have the artistic control of the project but also it’s quite heavy, the amount of responsibility that’s put on your shoulders.

At the same time it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Every project is different but it’s all been leading to the opportunity to direct a film really. So it’s where I want to be and it’s a great opportunity.”

And now you’ve had that opportunity to direct a feature film, what’s the next step for you?
Christian: “Well at the moment we’re working on a TV series for Disney and eOne Family which is being produced here at TeamTo, so I’m directing that. Beyond that I haven’t really made any plans. I’m comfortable in Paris, it’s a nice city to be in and the studio is a nice place to work, so we’ll see.”

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Apart from building a solid reel or portfolio, what advice would you give to students who would like to work at TeamTo or on a feature film?
Christian: “Well from my perspective – I’ve worked in schools so I’ve taught a bit as well – it depends on what aspect of animation they’d like to work in. Coming from storyboarding and traditional animation I always put it down to good drawing skills, a lot of life drawing and quick poses for me is always a necessity, especially if you want to storyboard or direct. I think a sketch or a drawing tells more than a 5 page Word document sometimes, even if it’s a crude drawing.

I aimed my portfolio and showreel to look quite commercial when I came out of school. Experimental animation has its place, and it’s good to experiment when you’re at film school or animation school, but when it’s time to leave make sure your portfolio and showreel looks like the style of animation you see on a television series or on commercials. It’s what studios are looking for, that style, that talent, that technique and seeing that you’re knowledgeable in what the studios want.”


(Above image from Yellowbird… a director’s journey)

Coming from a story background, what advice would you give an animator to help improve their understanding of story?
Christian: “It’s an interesting question, it sometimes happens that animators are not aware of the overall story, just the scene they’re given or the sequence that the scene belongs to. It’s always a good idea to obviously read the scripts, but also watch the animatics and be aware of what the other animators are doing. You need to know what the story is, it comes from the script and animatic. The intentions of each character is born out of the director’s vision – well the writer first then the director – and then the storyboard artists apply the characteristics and mannerisms to each character. So an animator could be animating a scene and be completely unaware of the character’s evolution and journey through the story. So it’s very important to know the story and the visual narrative, not just that little moment of a film or TV series you’re doing.

I mean that’s the reason I wanted to move to storyboards from being an animator, it’s to tell a story and not to focus on just a scene. That and the fact I wasn’t a great animator, there were a lot of people at school that were way beyond what I would ever achieve with 20 years of practice. So I think telling stories, it’s all inter-connected.”

Being an independent studio and now getting into feature films, do you find it’s hard to find talent when competing with major studios?
Guillaume: “Access to talent is always a challenge. But we manage to gather quite a talented crew in the time available. I think what makes a difference is 3 things: the quality of projects, the quality of management and the quality of the work conditions. So we invested a lot to have a studio that’s pleasant, and that gives the highest level of ergonomics to the artist. We try to have the best projects, but you know, the projects are the projects.

But we make sure we don’t go under a certain level of ambition for everything we do. We work a lot on the management and with this mix we can reach a certain level. Of course you can always improve things, but there are some artists that are more interested in being in a smaller studio in which they’ll have greater and wider responsibilities, a wider vision and can be involved at a wider level. So there are opportunities that we can benefit from when we compete with bigger studios either in France – because there are much bigger studios in France – and of course big studios in the United States.”

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I’d like to thank Guillaume and Christian for taking the time to answer my questions and to congratulate TeamTo on their first feature. More information on the film can be found at:
» The film’s official web site in English and French
» Interview with Guillaume Hellouin on AWN
» Production art blog by Christian De Vita

 

New job

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Finished up my contract at the end of the year and have already hopped on a plane to Germany and started working at one of my favourite companies, Studio Soi (site requires Flash). They’re most well known for the oscar nominated shorts The Gruffalo and Room On The Broom. They also co-produce one of my favourite TV cartoons, The Amazing World of Gumball.

Working Smarter & 99U

For those who don’t know of the site 99U, it’s similar to Ted Talks but with a focus on “Making Ideas Happen”. I went through most of the talks a couple months ago and while none deal directly with the topic of animation I think a lot of the information and theories can be applied to animators. I’ve picked out the four that have stuck in my mind since watching them:

Tony Schwartz: The Myths of the Overworked Creative

Heidi Grant Halvorson: The Incredible Benefits of a “Get Better” Mindset

Gretchen Rubin: The 4 Ways to Successfully Adopt New Habits

Cal Newport: “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice

Personality in posing

It seems this character study of Big Hero 6 has gone pretty viral in the community. The character differences are amazingly clear, be sure to check it out if you haven’t.
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I just noticed the poses in this image and thought they tell us a similar thing in just one frame. We can tell a lot about attitude, confidence, goofiness, etc. Even Baymax’s symmetrical pose tells us a lot about his nature.

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The simplest of things – standing naturally for example – show character. It’s easy to get used to defaults: a standing pose, an angry hand clench, a sad face, the action of sitting down, a vanilla walk, etc. But the question we need to remember is how does our character, in their current state of mind do things.

While looking for another example I came across this Disney character line up. While it doesn’t quite show characters in a neutral standing position I think we can still gain a lot from the elements of these silhouettes when posing our characters to show personality. Credit goes to Juan Pablo Bravo for this lineup.

Why do these give a sense of strength and power?

And why don’t these poses which traditionally show strength feel as strong?:

Why would I not trust someone in these poses?:

Why do these have a greater sense of innocence?:

And these a greater sense of confidence?:

What do the way the feet are posed here say about these characters?:

Why does a simple change in Line of Action give Arthur and Mowgli 2 clearly different personalities?

How are 2 characters in the same file contrasted with each other?:

Check out Juan’s other line ups and see what you can gain from them:
600 Hanna Barbera characters
70 Disney villains
200 Pixar Characters

Bouncing Ball

I had to animate a ball bouncing in one of my shots at work this week and it gave me the idea of writing a post on the topic. I think the bouncing ball is the foundation of animation and is absolutely worth spending time to get it down to perfection.  Just browsing through the Class 1 Assignments on A.M, I can see a lot of people can pull it off, but for those who haven’t quite got the hang of it I tend to think there are 2 areas where they trip up: planning and understanding how the graph editor relates to the viewport.

1. Planning.
If we can’t demonstrate with pencil and paper the arc, spacing and timing, we’re never magically going to get it right in Maya. Take the time to check out the Survival Kit on how a ball bounces and then draw it yourself with all the information.

This is not enough:
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I noticed a lot of people show planning like this. While it shows arcs and the fall off in height, it misses spacing and timing. Spacing is key in a ball bounce. Just simple ticks is enough to show the idea that a ball doesn’t have even spacing.

Better:
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That’s all it takes. It’s not perfect, it’s rough planning but it clearly shows the concepts and gives us time to figure out how things should move before adding all the complexities of working in Maya.

Assuming the above planning is for a basketball, there are also two points to clarify:
1. What is the drop off rate on the bounce height for a basketball? Successive bounces are usually lower by the same percentage, different balls with different weights will have different percentages.
2. How long does a bounce take? Shoot or get some reference and count the frames (if it’s at 24fps). How long is the first bounce, then the second, the third, etc.

Mark both down on the planning sketches. Basketballs take a long time to come to rest, when animating one we’re not going to be aiming for real life precision. We’ll be able to get something more believable though having that information as a starting point.

Graph Editor vs Viewport.
The graph editor takes getting used to, but trial and error will get us a long way. One easier way to get a grasp of it is by having more visual feedback of what the animation is looking like and how changes in the graph editor are affecting it. I’ll point out 3 ways of doing this:

1. Arc Tracking.
In this case I’ve laid down 3 keys and animated a quick bounce just as an example. Now if we turn on Motion Trails within Maya we can see the arc the ball is moving on. To do so, make sure we are in the Animation menu bar (hit F2), select the ball, then go to Animate > Create Editable Motion Trail
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What we also would like to see is a representation of the position of the ball on each frame. To do that we can select the curve and in the Attribute Editor turn on Show Frame Markers. Now we can see our arc and our spacing.

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Notice how our visual feedback in Maya is looking a lot like how we drew our planning ; ) To delete the motion trail, just select it and press delete.

2. Ghosting
Another way of visually seeing more of your animation is by using ghosting.
In this case Maya will show where your object will be in the frames following and preceding the current frame. To turn this function on, select your ball, go to Animate > Ghost Selected
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I prefer to turn the options on and choose Custom Frame Steps. In this way I can choose the number of frames to show before and after the current frame.
To turn ghosting off, simply go to Animate > Unghost All

3. Screen Drawing.
The last way is to literally draw on your screen. There are two ways, find a screen drawing application or use an erasable whiteboard marker. Screen drawing software ranges from free to about $20 (I will say without hesitation $20 is definitely worth it). At work we can’t just install our own apps, so a lot of animators will have a piece of perspex they put over their screen and then draw on it with a white board marker.

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While more time intensive the advantage of this method is I can draw the arc from my current animation and also I can also draw the arc I intend the ball to take. Motion Trails and Ghosting are only able to show what your animation is currently doing, while drawing on your screen gives you the advantage of being able to draw the arcs, spacing, keys, poses, etc that you want to achieve. It can act as a guide as much as it can as visual feedback.

I hope that helps in some ways. To recap: don’t skimp on planning. Planning = getting the concepts figured out before adding the complexities of Maya. And secondly, use some way of visually seeing your arcs+spacing to gain a better sense of how changes in the graph editor will impact the animation.