Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Right Approach

In this post, I'd like to talk about how I approach animation and how it's changed over the years. I'll start off with some history of how I got into animation and some of my insights. 

My History in Learning Animation
As a kid, I never knew what animation really was. When I saw cartoons on TV, I'd never think much of it as a medium, but more so for the entertainment value that I got out of it - as I would with any other medium such as live action. So back then, I had no clue what animation was or how it was done. 

At age 11, I was introduced to Macromedia Flash (Now Adobe) by my brother. We had just seen some Counter Strike Flash animations on a Flash Website called I instantly fell in love with the animation software, Flash as it gave me the freedom to create my own animations - my own visions, my perspective of the world for the rest of the world to enjoy. From then on, I began my first step into learning animation. I would watch lots of Flash animations on the web and as much I could try to decipher the animation techniques used and apply them to my own. Back then there weren't many Flash tutorials or animation resources (not that I was aware of anyway!), so I self-taught myself everything. 

I made my first Flash animation ever at age 11 and it took me roughly a month. It was the proudest thing I've ever done. It felt great that after all the hard work, I could show everyone a movie I've made.

A couple years later, I've made successful Counter-Strike Flash animations viewed by millions of people worldwide. They won several awards on and I started getting fan mails daily. Things were looking good for me. With each new animation, I would constantly look for new ways to improve my skills as a film-maker and an animator. 

After finishing high-school, I had to make a career decision. I wasn't sure if I could even make a living from just animating. I ended up doing a Law course at University. After my first year, I realised just how much I loved animation and how much I didn't want to do Law. 

My parents weren't sure about my decision to do animation at the time, but in time they became supportive of my decision. As a result, I had to work extra hard to prove to them that animation was really the course for me and I wasn't just going to change my course again. Backed up with my personal love and passion for animation, I made a vow to myself that I will be the best I can be. I will strive to learn as much as I can about animation and I was ready to ask a million questions and constantly bug lecturers about any problems or issues that I may have. 

Then first year of University started and I was doing animation! This was where everything was blown out of proportion. A whole new meaning came to the term animation and a whole new world was open to me, with the introduction of the animation principles and 3D softwares. I was blown away by how much I did not know. I spent all year studying and getting used to this new world. 

Second year of University started and I was told about work placements and how hard it was to get one. I really wanted a placement as I believe it was the best way to learn animation. I felt University teachings just weren't practical enough to prepare us for industry work. Yet again, I worked very hard throughout my 2nd year. I won the VIS Awards for best Character Animation category in 2009 and secured myself a one year work placement at Ubisoft Reflections. 

Statistically, I was the only student in my course to get a placement doing actual animation work. Times were tough...

For my placement year, I did a lot of work with mo-cap and full facial animation. And boom! Everything I thought I knew about animation was yet again blown out of proportion. I was finally beginning to understand movement and how the body really moves. 

And now in my final year at University, I feel different. I was still studying animation, but from a completely different perspective. I was no longer animating "blindly", praying that it will all work out in the end. I feel like a lot of the lecture topics are becoming irrelevant if not, repeating things I already knew. I would approach animation in a completely different way to every student in my class. I could see the difference. And eventually I figured it out. 

Approaching Animation
It's all down to how we approach animation that makes us better/worse animators. 

When I was in my first and 2nd year at University, I was learning animation primarily from The Animators Survival Kit by Richard Williams. It was my bible. It wasn't just a handbook for me, it was my reference. And that is exactly where I went wrong. 

While I absolutely love and respect all the information in that book, I wanted to clarify where I was going wrong with it. The book is great for traditional 2D animations that strives to get as much life into the characters that we create. While that may be our goal, I must admit it probably was not the best approach in learning and understanding animation. 

Why? Because it's like trying to learn how to run before you can walk. Cartoony animation is a style. And stylistic animation is a caricature of real movement. What I'm trying to say is, if we don't even know how our body moves in reality, how can we understand why/what we're doing in stylistic animation?

Studying mo-cap gave me a fresh perspective on this. All the tricks and tips given by Richard Williams in the book were stylised to teach you how to get more life into your characters. However, it also meant he would break some rules to do so. In fact, he even says in his book that the pros break the rules all the time. Here is where it hit me - I didn't even know the rules in the first place. I thought I did, in fact, a lot of people think they do. 

If you don't know the rules, then how can you break them?

That is exactly what I mean by animating blindly. When we first start learning about animation, we're told about so many tips and tricks that we're just doing them for the sake of it. We're taught about perspective, composition, staging, line of action, silhouette, breaking of joints, etc but most of the time we're doing it just because the pros say to do it. The question we must ask ourselves is WHY. That to me was the biggest epiphany in my understanding of animation. As soon as I understood why I was doing what I was doing and for good reason, I was able to animate 10x better.

Animation is about understanding. The more you understand what you are animating, the better it will be. All of my problems I had with animation before, such as jerky motions, poor body mechanics and mediocre facial animation was all down to LACK OF UNDERSTANDING. So what have I done differently to fix those problems? I studied mo-cap data. I studied how a human body can physically move. I studied anatomy, I studied the bone structure of a biped character and looked carefully at how the joints are constructed and what kind of movement that allowed. I re-visited the Animators Survival Kit again, and over time, I learnt how every animation principle is applied to the animation of characters. I was beginning to understand why I was applying squash and stetch. Why I was applying overlapping action to certain limbs. Why I was applying arcs and line of action to the poses and animation. Everything just started "clicking" into place. I was no longer animating blindly. I was no longer overdoing exaggeration of poses for the wrong reasons. I was now animating with a purpose. I was now animating with a clear goal/intention in mind and applied the necessary principles AS and WHEN needed. 

For facial animation, I read up on Gary Faigin's "Complete guide to facial expressions" and that blew my mind. Understanding how the facial muscles work is crucial to generating believable facial performances. You wouldn't bend your knees to impossible angles if you knew it wasn't physically possible to do that with a human character. Similarly, you wouldn't pull certain muscles in your face if it wasn't either a) physically impossible or b) inappropriate to the emotion you are trying to convey. Yet again, understanding is KEY. 

I totally believe that you should not move the controller (of any body part) UNLESS you fully understand WHY you are moving it. If you are moving it for the sake of generating movement and avoiding stiffness, then you're doing it wrong. Same thing with offsetting keys, I remember getting critiques like "just offset your arms/body/head keys until it looks right". Come to think of it now, that is not how you should be doing it at all. Our bodies move in very systematic fashion depending on many factors. Mostly it's driven by emotion. So if a character is angry, he might lead with his shoulders as he turns. You don't just offset keys blindly till it "looks" right. You should've done your research before hand, find out which body parts lead first and which parts follow because every little detail can convey a completely different feel. By offsetting the wrong keys, it could make an angry turn look like a reluctant turn. Small details, but important nonetheless. 

I am still learning about this stuff and my approach may change from time to time, but I thought I'd share this. Feel free to start some discussions in the comments.