The trailer for the show I’ve been working on has just been released at the San Diego Comic Con, I’ve got one pretty simple shot in there. I think it’s a fun show, hope it does well and hope you enjoy.
I completed the Animation Mentor course a few weeks ago so wanted to offer my thoughts to those who are considering enrolling. I know there are quite a few write ups online, but I hope this post differs in some way. I should note that I went through Classic course, I haven’t experienced the collaborative classes or creature workshops.
Firstly I will say (and I know this does sounds cliché) I do feel my experience was amazing and what I got out of the course has indeed been life changing. My skills have exploded, the way I perceive animation + the industry has changed, it has already helped me kick off my career and I have made some great friends. It has been the most challenging, the most exhausting but also the most personally fulfilling period of my life.
The A.M curriculum definitely gives you what is needed to succeed in becoming a character animator. It’s a very well designed course, it’s not hard to get an amazing mentor and there is a strong sense of community + supporting each other.
I think the key point though, is what you get out of the course is entirely dependent on you. It depends on your motivations. It depends on your willingness to listen and apply what you’ve been advised. It depends on your amount of time, your amount of effort, and your willingness to help others.
A.M likes to promote the idea of ‘following your dreams’. I see A.M itself as being the sign posts along the road to a dream, or more realistically, to the goal of becoming a character animator. Actually travelling down that road and reaching that destination isn’t something that A.M – or any other school for that matter – will ever give you.
If I were asked if I would recommend Animation Mentor, then I think my answer would totally depend on who is asking. In general I will say the workload can get incredibly demanding, there are often decisions by the school you don’t agree with, I do think it needs to be supplemented with your own study (drawing, story, animation/art history, etc) and there are other cheaper + highly reputable schools online. A.M does have its flaws and limitations.
But I do think in terms of what it is – a course specifically focusing on character animation - it is very well structured, it can definitely help you reach new levels, challenge your abilities and be an all round fantastic experience. It’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to put into it that will determine how far it will take you.
Something I notice in a lot of student work is what I tend to think is a misunderstanding of the principle of exaggeration. I feel that many think the idea of exaggeration is just making every movement bigger and over the top, especially when trying to do a cartoony style. I think a different way of looking at the idea of exaggeration is not necessarily making things bigger, but to exaggerate the contrast between elements. Quick timing vs slow timing. Big movements vs smaller movements. Light vs dark. Pinky vs Brain. Etc.
There’s a few problems with making quick+bigger movements across an entire animation.
Firstly It doesn’t let the audience breathe and take in what is happening, it affects the clarity of your storytelling. But also without the smaller/slower movements, the bigger/faster movements lose their impact. Emphasis and texture in the shot are lost.
I just came across this deleted scene from Cloudy WIth A Chance of Meatballs 2. The style of the show makes great use of exaggeration and think we can take some things from even just 3 shots in this sequence.
Firstly we see Flint racing down the street in a very exaggerated way, big crazy movements and very fast. He then swings around the parking meter and bursts in through the door. A key point though is that he spends longer at the parking meter than he needs to, about 18 frames. Just having that extra little bit of time to pause gives the audience to take in the scene, what’s happening and also an idea of what’s going to happen next. So while his run is exaggerated, his pause is also exaggerated.
We see Flint in a hold, a super quick move in 2 frames but then another hold before he makes the mark across the calendar. This isn’t all just one big/quick movement that leaves the audience behind, there’s a deliberate use of fast vs slow that gives the audience information they need and texture to the timing.
I love these jump cuts. Take note that his arms are flailing in big/quick movements. But watch his body, there’s hardly any movement. That stillness gives us just enough to read what’s happening in such a short cut. Our eye doesn’t have to jump round the screen following his body in each shot, but we still get the emergency of the scene through the exaggerated arms and poses.
My most asked question from this blog is how I light/render my shots. My basic answer is I don’t render anymore, and I start with a simple 3 point lighting set up.
To render I just do a playblast. The quality isn’t as good as a render, but it allows me to easily touch up shots and continually update my reel. I think that’s more important than render quality.
I’ll use a more simple example to give a quick run down of how I light my shots. For this character it takes about 2 minutes and I can just simply do a screen grab for my assignment. I should note there should be a ground plane so the character casts a shadow, see below for turning on shadows:
Fill light brings some detail into the shadows, you can see here I like to add a fair bit of colour to it.
The rim light just helps separate the character from the background. It’s just a subtle touch.
That’s all there is to it, just 3 lights and a change in viewport rendering. Simple.
I don’t recommend working in Viewport 2.0, it’s more intensive and can be quite buggy at times
I was watching the Frozen teaser and noticed the first shot is very similar to what we do in class 4 in A.M, a single shot showing a character change emotional states. I quite like how Disney handled this shot, so will go through why I liked it.
- the setting is established. In this case the character isn’t even in the frame. Everything is fairly muted except for the flower. There’s also no texture behind it, it sits on the rule of 3rds and is the only object in the foreground. The flower draws our attention straight away.
- the character notices the flower. Key point here is how Disney showed the character is thinking. He sees the flower, but doesn’t react instantly. The animators gave him time for him to process what he’s seeing, blink and then change expression. Now he’s excited. Notice the squash and stretch in his face during this process and also the character does a couple half steps, his walk changes slightly along with this facial expression.
- the character becomes enchanted. They almost spent 40 frames of the character just looking at the flower. It really gives us time to absorb the situation. There’s some nice touches with secondary action, which aren’t all that important to the story but help establish character and appeal. The posing is clear, we know what he’s looking at, we know how he’s feeling, there’s some nice negative space between him and the flower and they’re also angled towards each other, marking a visual relationship.
- the character smells the flower. He doesn’t just give it a quick sniff, it’s another good 40 frames. Compare that to going from standing pose to smelling only taking only 5 frames. The use of timing helps highlight what’s important for the story.
- the character becomes satisfied. Is the flower important anymore? No, it has done its job, now the focus is completely on the character’s reaction. You can see the film makers tried to reduce the importance of the flower with a subtle change in composition, it’s now half out of frame. Throughout the shot they are only keeping objects in frame that are necessary. There’s nothing extra.
- the character sneezes and loses his nose. I love the build up here, he doesn’t instantly just sneeze. Again we’re being spoon fed, the film makers are giving us time to understand what’s going on. There’s some nice timing to the build up, there is a bit of a rhythm in his breaths which are broken when he completely loses control of the sneeze. The timing and posing of this is completely different to the start of the shot, he has clearly changed emotional states and his driven the story forward with a new conflict.
I’ve been working at Polygon Pictures here in Tokyo for the past couple months as a full time freelance character animator, so I thought I’d write up a blog post about my experience transitioning from A.M to a studio.
I’m working on an international TV series and while it has just been announced, I’m not quite sure how much I can publicly say here about my project so won’t go into it.
The studio is also working on a TV series for Studio Ghibli and in the past worked on Transformers Prime, Star Wars:Clone Wars, Street Fighter IV and Tron Uprising. They have also just released their own anime TV series, Knights of Sidonia (シドニアの騎士). There are currently around 300 people, with the animation department taking up about 50 – 60 people. I think there are 3 others who have been through A.M.
Thoughts on working on a TV series and not a film:
The plus is the variety of work you get. All kinds of shots, characters, etc. There’s a high turnover so you’re always working on something new and different. I think it’ll also help to make you more confident in your choices, there’s no time to noodle things around. You really have to push things too far and bring them back, rip parts of animation out, trust your instincts, etc.
The downside is there’s no time to really go deep into planning or polishing. I haven’t seen anyone doing thumbnails or shooting reference. The other downside to the high turnover is I can see how it could be easy to become lazy in your animation.
What’s different between work and school:
Time. This isn’t a film studio and A.M is definitely gearing students towards film so a difference is to be expected. But working with TV quotas (30 – 40 seconds a week) is a massive difference to what we get in school.
Note taking. There’s no video playback on the notes you get Depending on priorities or even just weekends, sometimes you might not work on the notes for a couple days so they’re no longer fresh in your mind. Taking notes quickly & properly and also asking questions is really important, supervisors are busy people.
What I found useful from the A.M course:
Surprisingly one thing I noticed was having animated a quadruped was a huge help, I was animating one in my first week on the project. Taking time to study the mechanics really made the process easier and it was something my supervisor actually commented on.
The way A.M is set up is really quite similar to how the studio runs, so it was quite easy to adjust. Feedback is similar, workflow is similar, rigs are similar, etc.
My thoughts on A.M’s collaboration classes:
Now being in team environment, I can say I don’t feel any disadvantage in taking A.M’s classic classes instead of their new collaborative classes. If anything I feel my reel is stronger and was a bigger help in landing the job in the first place. I would however love access to that line up of new lectures on story they’ve created.
Repetitive strain injury. I spend way too much time on a computer now that I work in a studio and do A.M on the weekends. Luckily i haven’t had any serious pain, but did feel a bit of wrist strain in the first couple weeks. Stretching and making sure to take breaks has sorted out those problems.
Procrastination. Wanting to check Facebook, email or whatever doesn’t simply just disappear because you’re at work. I have a workflow where I do blocks of time, purely doing animation and then set aside short breaks for anything else, from writing an email to grabbing a snack. It works pretty well. There are people who leave at 7pm and there are people who leave after 10pm. I want to be one of the former.
My impressions of working in a Japanese studio:
It’s quiet. Japanese animators from what I’ve seen so far are incredibly introverted. Put a beer in their hand and they’ll be quite open and willing to talk, but the next morning they’ll be back to being very introverted.
The studio has about 8 or 9 translators in house, so people have widely varying degrees of English and Japanese fluency. The pay is quite a bit lower than what I would expect in a western country. Contrary to what some might believe, working long hours is actually discouraged.
You quickly get a sense of how lucky you are to be an English speaker. You don’t have to look far to find someone who dreams of working at a top Hollywood film studio but can’t speak a word of English. It also explains why there are so few Japanese students in schools like A.M, I’ve met a few animators who’ve said they’re mainly self taught.
The application process:
I applied directly through their site and actually just sent shots just from classes 2 and 3. From there I was asked to do an animation test. All applicants receive one round of feedback and are asked to refine it. From there I had an interview with HR, an Animation Director, Animation Supervisor and Line Producer. I also showed work which I had just completed from class 4 around the time I sent in my animation test. It took a few weeks from applying to receiving an offer (I should note I was already living in Tokyo).
About working in a studio while studying:
It’s hard. Really hard. To balance work, putting in the time and effort into assignments while having some kind of social life is actually harder than it sounds. 80 hour weeks and getting to bed at 4am on assignment days are a norm. Doable for short stints, but definitely not healthy. It affects the way you eat, sleep, socialise and simply move your body.
It also affects your quality of work. To do one well you have to sacrifice the other, or you have to do both at a level that isn’t your best. Working a full time job (especially any kind of demanding job) while doing A.M is not something I recommend. Luckily I’m near the end of the course.
This is an incredibly simple thing, but something I use almost everyday. The code will set a key and make the tick in your timeline green instead of the red.
setKeyframe; keyframe -time `currentTime -q` -tds 1;
It’s great when you’re past the blocking stage and either have a section where you want to either completely re-do the animation or just clean up your keys so they’re easier to work with. Changing to green just helps make the process clearer, sometimes I might set up to 4 of them and delete what’s in between. To change back to red you can just key the frames again and they will automatically switch back.
There’s more to animation than the 12 principles, so I’ve been doing less reading on animation itself and more in other related areas.
Just click on the images to find out more, I’m not the greatest of book reviewers. All I’ll say it The Visual Story is an absolute must have, Invisible Ink is a great (Kindle) bargain, still reading Story and Shot to Shot.
I think you’ll find these on a lot of recommended reading lists. A lot of people also recommend The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expression and Emotions Revealed when recommending books about understanding the face. The Emotions Revealed book is a very interesting read, but I found them both to be a bit too detailed for learning how to animate a face. I thought a great explanation was in Scott McCloud’s Making Comics book. He goes over the anatomy of the face and Paul Ekman’s research in a super concise and visual way. If you’re lucky you might be able to google for those specific pages.
Another common one is Acing The First Six Lessons. Again I don’t highly recommend it, I think body language has more relevance to what we do than books on traditional acting.
Personally have a love/hate relationship with the rig. Love that it doesn’t come as a pre-defined character like other schools, and have seen some amazing animation done with it. But in quite a few ways it can be a bit of a hassle to work with. Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up and use frequently:
1. Channel Box.
Middle mouse clicking and dragging to change values is almost an impossible way to shape Bishop’s face, the increments are just too big to fine tune things. Luckily you can change the sensitivity of the Channel Box to make it more workable. One way is to make it a lasting change by clicking in the top right corner:
Or you can simply hold down Ctrl or Shift while dragging. Ctrl will increase the sensitivity, Shift will decrease it.
With the default controller you have to select the hand, scroll through the channel box, find the joint you’re after, middle mouse click, drag.. arrgh! Luckily though you can switch to FK fingers and make the process much simpler.
Select the root layout controller, press your right arrow key and you’ll see a bunch of extra attributes. Set FKfinger to Curve. I’ve gone through and delete all the peaks off the pyramid shaped curves, so I’m left with cleaner looking squares.
If you want to make the body selectable, follow the same steps and change Geo Display to normal.
3. Selecting teeth/eyes
For my shot I want to have more control over the teeth than the rig affords me. You can easily go into the rig and unlock teeth or the eyes so you have full control over them. First find them in the Outliner and then in the Attribute Editor change the Drawing Overrides to Normal. Your teeth should now be selectable in the viewport. For the eyes you’ll need to unlock the attributes just by right clicking in the Channel Box.
*For my Batman mod I actually used a wrap deformer for his mask.
7. Viewport display problems
Noticed this in my shot and also some other shots with Bishop. Pretty simple fix.
8. Shoulder mesh deformations
One of my biggest gripes with this rig is the shoulders. They’re hard to work with, but are buggy if you use Follow Align. This solution isn’t as simple as it seems in the below image, but it does the job.