Animation Styles In CG

The other day I was watching some of the first shots I did on a production and could see one of the main problems I had early on was not fully understanding the style. At A.M shots tend to fall into a “Disney style” or very cartoony, but I think CG animation has become much wider than that and the industry more demanding.

I’m now working on my third production, each time a different style of animation has been required and each with little to no ramp up time. I think it’s a valuable exercise to not just study but try different styles of animation, I’ve found understanding and being able apply a style are two different things.

I’ve made a list of what I think are different styles with examples below, the categories are purely opinion and meant to be just food for thought, but feel free to comment if you think I’ve missed anything glaring.

Realistic
With motion capture

Without

Highly nuanced

“Disney/Pixar style”
A very loose way of describing it. Both studios use slightly different styles in different productions.

Cartoony

Exaggerated cartoony

Limited animation

Very limited animation

Stop Motion influenced

Claymation Style

Hand drawn influenced

Paper cut out influenced

Stop Motion/CG hybrid

Multiple animation styles in one production

2D Pan/Zoom and Isolate a character script

2 functions I use a lot in Maya:

1. 2D Pan/Zoom
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Often when animating things like lip sync, eyes or fingers I’d like to get a closer view of those body parts from the angle of my shot cam. Maya has a simple function that will allow you to zoom in, without actually changing your camera set up.

First, enable the 2D Pan/Zoom in your Viewport (the icon with the magnifying glass).
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Second, select your camera, open the Attribute Editor and adjust the settings under Display Options > 2D Pan/Zoom.
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Simply clicking the 2D Pan/Zoom icon in your Viewport will now let you flick between your normal camera set up and a close up view.

Update: Thanks to Iestyn in the comments for this tip!
If you really want to speed up your workflow, the ‘ \ ‘ key is the hotkey for 2d pan, if you hold it down (instead of the ‘alt’ key) you can use it to navigate, zoom in & out, pan etc with the normal mouse buttons.

2. Isolate Select
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At work I almost always animate with just my character Isolate Selected in the viewport, just for getting better playback speeds and for clarity without having to set up layers in every scene file/unload references. I’ve combined a few different scripts found online into one to make the process isolating a characters much quicker. Basically all I have to do is select one of the main controls (COG, Root, Head, Spine, IK hands), run the script and that character will now be Isolate Selected in the current viewport. The script includes a switch to turn the Isolate Select on/off and also works for all the Animation Mentor rigs I’ve tried.

string $myPanel = `getPanel -wf`;
$onOff=`isolateSelect -q -state $myPanel`;
if ($onOff>0){
isolateSelect -state 0 $myPanel;
isolateSelect -loadSelected $myPanel;
}
else{
int $i = 0;
string $n[] = `ls -sl`;
while($i == 0){
$n = `listRelatives -ap $n[0]`;
if(!`size($n)`){
$i = 1;
}
select -tgl $n;
}
enableIsolateSelect $myPanel true;
isolateSelect -state 1 $myPanel;
}

Jules Test

I was recently invited by Animation Mentor to do a shot with their new Jules rig as a way of both testing and showcasing it. It was a tight schedule of 3 weeks in just my spare time, but am happy with how it turned out.

Thanks to Albert Morrissey for his rendering, lighting and modelling skills. Always a pleasure to work with.

Playback range script

This is a simple script/keyboard shortcut I use daily, when setting up my work computer I couldn’t find it anywhere else online so am sharing it here.

All it does is change the playback range of your timeline. In a similar fashion to QuicktimePro, pressing “i” will change the playback range to start on the current frame, pressing “o” will make it end on the current frame. It doesn’t affect the length of your timeline, just what section will be played. It’s much quicker than dragging Time Slider or entering frame numbers.

Set the start of the playback range (assigned to the “i” key):
playbackOptions -min `currentTime -q`;

Set the end of the playback range (assigned to the “o” key):
playbackOptions -max `currentTime -q`;

Figure drawing

I’ve heard so many differing opinions on the importance of drawing by great CG animators, writing my own opinion seems almost pointless. It is however the number 1 skill I’m working to improve on for this year. I have a few books on drawing (mentioned below) but I find there’s enough online to work with, it’s more 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.
figureDrawing02

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:
figureDrawing01

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:
awePicker

AnimSelect:
animSelect

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.
animSchoolGUI

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.
studioLibrary

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
tytla01

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.”

__

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.