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.

Planning an acting shot

Currently working on a new acting shot for my reel, so while in the planning frame of mind I thought I’d make a post out of some tips I’ve gathered and now use as part of my workflow.

1. Searching for Audio Clips
Animation Mentor discourages audio clip web sites and I personally tend to agree with them. Find unique clips with decent audio quality. TV shows can be a reliable source, if you can think of a character you like then there will be plethora of lines if the show has run through a few seasons.

Some things to look for in clips:
– A story. A start, middle and end. A goal, conflict & resolution.
– Texture in timing and tone.
– A change in emotional states.
– Something that appeals to you.

You can also make the audio clip work better for you. Add sound effects, cut things out, add “white noise” so there isn’t complete silence before your clip starts, etc. Keep it simple though, playing with audio is a new can of worms.

One last thing to keep in mind, if your clip is 10 seconds long your animation could easily end up being 15 seconds. Sometimes you may need time before the dialogue starts in order to set the scene or some time after the dialogue to finish out actions. The length of your clip doesn’t always equal the length of your final animation, it’s something that’s easy to get caught out on.

2. Ideas
Build on what’s already there in the audio. Read into the subtext, change the context, bring something fresh to the table. Don’t just replicate the same scene as the film/tv show.

3. Animatics
Having basic drawings with timing and audio gives a much better sense if the idea will work. Even just having one quick storytelling image for each idea will give others a good sense of your idea in order to give feedback.

I like drawing in Photoshop with the timeline. If layering audio I’ll use After Effects to assemble the animatic. I’ve also used the Animation Desk iPad app for pantomime shots.
It doesn’t have to be all high tech though, a cheap option is Flipbook which Jason Ryan recommends and also Pencil which is free.

Some of my storytelling images for 3 different clips/ideas:
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4. Shooting reference
First, two breakdown vids that hopefully most have seen before, both from Blue Sky animators.

Epic Animation Tips – by Patrick Giusiano
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Epic Comparison Reel – by Jeff Gabor

Memorise the lines.
Amazing how many students don’t do this. Without knowing the lines and timing off heart, you’re not going to get into the performance.

Camera.
I like to use the FiLMiC Classic app as it lets you shoot in 24FPS and you can also lock off focus and exposure. I like the ease of reviewing shots with app but also the frame rate is a big plus, you can precisely count frames for the timing. If you’re using a dedicated camera try not shoot 30FPS, if you convert it later 6 frames of every second will have to be dropped, it just makes it a bit harder to analyse.

Set the camera up in the same position as the camera in your scene and occasionally check what you’ve been shooting.

Lighting.
Make sure your area is well lit so you can clearly see the reference. Just a quick comparison of what happens when you change the position of your lights.
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Clothes.
Patrick in the video above recommends getting into character, including similar clothing. Jeff in the 2nd does a mix, wearing the hoodie for Mary Katherine’s shots for example, but he also wears a plaid shirt in other shots. If you have them, plaid, striped, dotted clothes can make it a little easier to study the body mechanics in your acting.
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Clap.
Sometimes when acting you know you’ve done something spontaneous you like, or just felt it was a better performance than others. I like to clap at the end of the take, it just makes it easier to scrub through and find those specific takes later.

5. Mod your characters
Create new characters. Show their character traits in their design and have something that looks a bit different to other shots on other people’s reels. Some of how to do this was covered in the Bishop post and Texturing Tribes Rigs.
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6. Show people
Pretty simple, show others and get opinions before getting too deep into an idea. Facebook groups are great, I like to pick people whose work I like and mail them directly. Everybody is pretty open to helping out.

Loop de Loop 2

A year since doing our last Loop de Loop submission, my friend Albert and I decided to collaborate on a loop again. Only this time we ended up winning at the Sydney screening. Yay. The L.A screening this time was sponsored by Nickelodeon who held it at their studio in front of about 400 people. Great to see this little animation community grow. The idea is basically to create an animated loop based on a given theme, then get together in one of four cities and watch them with a few beers.

» Watch our clip here.

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I thought I’d break down a little bit of how we worked. It’s just 12 seconds of animation, so it’s not too different to any of the Animation Mentor assignments. But having to design the set, do final colour grading, give notes on the modeling/texturing, etc actually made the process a lot more fun. We busted it out from start to finish in about 3 weekends and has been one of my favourite projects.

Working with Albert.
Albert is in Australia, I’m in Tokyo so we did everything via email. He likes lighting, rendering, modelling, rigging and I like animation, designing and coming up with fun ideas so our skills and interests compliment each other well. The only thing I felt we are lacking is in the audio side of things, will have to find someone else if we do another clip.

The idea.
The theme for the Loop De Loop challenge was “childhood”. My aim was to do a shot without too much body mechanics so we could hit the deadline with some fairly decent animation. I found the clip of a child laughing on youtube and it essentially narrowed down the possibilities from the broad notion of “childhood” to just a child laughing at something. Having that, it was just a matter of coming up with an entertaining reason for the kid to laugh.

The animatic.
It’s quick and rough, but you get the idea. I don’t think anything changed during our production process.
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The animation.
My aim was more on getting this done on time than having something for my showreel so there’s nothing special to mention here. I pretty much worked entirely in spline mode and got it pretty much close to done in a couple nights. There’s a lot of parent constraints going on to give the car suspension, so Stan can turn the wheel, give some bounce on the sunglasses and Pinky some eyes.

The rigs are from Animation Mentor, we basically just changed the textures on them and as just mentioned, gave eyes to the second kid in the back.

The environment.
I roughed this sketch out to get a sense of colour and environment design before hitting Maya. I spent a lot of time on colour variations in Photoshop but found I was getting nowhere so decided to finalise it once we had some of the set modelled.
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Hopefully here you can see how the set/design process went down as a collobaration.
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I liked that I could send simple sketches to Albert and he could come back with his own spin on them.
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Lighting/rendering.
Albert likes to work in Modo, so I supplied an alembic cache (basically it bakes out all the animation) of the character animation. He cleaned all the unnecessary parts that came with it, applied some sub surfacing scattering to the textures and then pulled it into the lit set he was working with. We rendered *almost* everything in the one go, the environment, characters, motion blur, etc.

Post production.
There’s not that much going on in post. To keep our rendering times down we had fairly low quality motion blur, which looked a bit extreme on the truck. So we rendered the truck separately and applied motion blur in After Effects. We also did some quick reflection fixes on things we hadn’t spotted before rendering and applied a bit of a colour grade. I find colour grading is incredibly complex, so not sure if I actually improved the renders by tweaking with it.

After Effects file, with truck and bad naming conventions :P
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The reflection + glowing seat we decided to fix in post:

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LoopdeLoop:
Loop de Loop is an awesome bit of fun. To enter something, to go to the screenings, etc is all free. They are currently raising funds to make it even bigger+better, so if you’re interested in the event be sure to through some support at it on Indiegogo.

Shaun the Sheep Teaser

Another analysis of something I enjoy, the work of Aardman Animations. They’ve just released a new trailer for their upcoming film, check it out:
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What is similar in Shaun the Sheep and Goodnight Mr Foot? (see previous post)

  1. Character introductions
    Shaun and Bigfoot are introduced on screen in the same way. It is a coincidence, but the movement is visually entertaining, cute and also gives a sense of vulnerability to the characters. In my opinion this introduction instantly gives the characters appeal.shaun12
  2. Flat perspective
    Both mainly use flat perspective throughout, only bringing depth to exaggerate dramatic points. Read this on flat vs deep staging or grab a copy of Visual Story for more on that idea.
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    Examples where depth is used to highlight drama.
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  3. Snappy animation
    In the Goodnight Mr Foot post I mentioned the characters go from starting pose -> anticipation -> pop to extreme -> settle over 6 – 8 frames. The same is done in Shaun the Sheep
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How is good and evil established?
The farmer and the Animal Containment officer’s goals are in direct conflict with Shaun’s but have a look at how the characters are presented differently.

The farmer has a stern face but we know he’s not a threatening character; there’s the warmth in the colours, he struggles to wake up, flower patterns on the bed cover and the wall, etc. But also the appealing design, he has no eyes. His blindness to Shaun is exemplified in his design, this also makes him a little goofy and appealing when he squashes the dog. He’s presented in humorous ways in his first 2 shots.
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In contrast the officer wears military style clothing, but also the neck tie, gloves and protective eyewear give us a sense that he’s a bit nuts, threatening and highly organised. There’s nothing fun or warming about him.
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Speaking of good/evil, a nice homage:
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How are thought processes shown?
In this shot watch closely as he detects something in the corner of his eye, blinks, sits up, eyes dart around and then finally turns.
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How is focus kept?
Watch how despite having so many characters, the dog is the only character that continues to move until the very of the shot. He obviously also stands out with the use of colour, but also the moving car starts form directly behind him.
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Is everything animated to a high level?
Basically, no. There is some amazing detail to some of the animation. The hen for example has feathers moving, a beak animated on 1’s and even the legs and feet move on the turn.
Also watch how the farmer’s toes wriggle while he is in bed. Very subtle.
Then compare this to the shot of the guys taking a photo, apart from the mechanical feel of the shoulders going up and down the characters basically just twist on the spot. More attention is paid to some shots than others.
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How are animation principles used?
There’s a lot in this one shot. The hand comes up and anticipates the action. It then tries to hit the alarm clock and misses. There is drag on the wrist, a nice arc and easing in/out. The hand comes back, pauses again and then jumps to the clock. Much greater spacing is used compared to first attempt to give impact to the slam and also give texture to the timing.
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What would I have changed?
Just a personal thing but I think the mouth positions to the side of the head don’t work so well, I often didn’t realise a mouth had appeared. Maybe that becomes less of a problem with longer viewing, but right now I feel it’s too disconnected/abnormal to be easily readable.
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