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.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

T-Rex Walk Animation

After working on my Final Year Project for so long, I felt I needed a break so I can come back to it with "fresh eyes". And seeing as I may need to have some creature animation for my showreel if I'm going to make it as a Character Animator in the visual effects industry, I thought I might as well start practising.

And so I went on to find a nice rig for any creature and I really liked this rig by Joel Anderson and decided to give it a go. It's a great t-rex rig with great stretchy IK controls that allows for flexible bones.

My usual workflow is to do a lot of planning and referencing before I even begin animating. But since I'm on my "break", I thought I'd just give it a full blast of what I've got. So this is the result of just animating with the animation principles in mind, and hardly any consideration to how a 2 legged dinosaur would move. Animation took about 3-4 hours.

I was quite pleased with the result and found a few handy principles reinforced.

Balance - When one body part goes one way, other body parts will move the other way to counter-act and keep the entire body balanced.

Sine Wave - Reinforcing the balance principle, what I found gave me a happy surprise. By the time the body parts are animated from head to tail, I've found that the entire motion if seen from the top view is a nice sine wave. Just like a snake!

Weight - Heavy creatures spend more time on the ground than in the air. To enhance the sense of weight, I've deliberately slammed his feet to the ground on the contact position in just 1 frame. If you look carefully, you will also notice that the feet are displaced slightly in both translation and rotation to emphasize the weight distribution.

Overlapping Action - Most applicable to the tail swaying. I realize the tail animation could be polished a lot more.


A good animator understands all the animation principles and applies them to everything they animate, be it human characters, cartoons, creatures or even text animations. Sure, but how do you get from good to great?

I strongly believe the difference here would be the level of understanding of the creature/rig that is being animated. I think this t-rex animation is good. But for it to be great, it has to have that level of realism. And the only way to achieve that is to have good reference and understanding of the t-rex anatomy and locomotion.

I first need to study how the bone structures in the t-rex works (different skeletal structures allow for different types of movements) and then find the closest reference I can for it. Although its impossible to find a real t-rex to reference nowadays, I can always look at the closest animals their body structures resemble and go from there.

Once I fully understand how that works to my fullest advantage, and combined with the application of the animation principles, I will no longer be animating as "blindly" as I was when I was just moving bones around without a full understanding of the range-of-motion of a creature like the t-rex.

From there on, I can then start applying an emotional/objective based animation to my t-rex and go from a standard t-rex to a say, "hungry t-rex" or "aggressive t-rex". Nonetheless, basics must come first. It's useless if I try to animate an angry t-rex before I even understand how a t-rex can truly move.

I'll be revisiting this t-rex in the future to create a more polished and showreel deserving slot.

Monday, 22 November 2010

FYP Work in Progress

Here's a work-in-progress render of my Final Year Project animation so far. I'm currently at the blocking stage and if I keep to my schedule, the short film will be done by February 2011!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

A little update

University has started and I've changed from BA Computer Animation to BA Digital Character Animation. The work experience at Ubisoft Reflections was fantastic and I've learnt more than I could've imagined and am forever grateful to the good folks there for taking me under their wing.

So I've been busy working on my Final Year Project which is a 1 minute short film focussing on quality character animation. The project currently stands at about 30% complete, all pre-production are more or less ready and I just need the final audio before I can move on to the fun bit - ANIMATION! The reason for the lack of updates with pictures, renders or playblasts is because I'm contemplating submitting this piece to Animation Festivals. And correct me if I'm wrong, any published materials of my piece can't be available online until after the festivals have ended.

To be on the safe side, I'm only showing my work in progress to my peers in "offline" mode, so to speak. My personal deadline for this piece is Feb 1st 2011, just in time for Animex!

Motivational speak for the day:
Mark Walsh (of Pixar) once told me to never look back and that your new animations will always be better than going back to fix your previous. Can't agree more :)

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

FYP - Animation test 1

An animation test for my Final Year Project. The character is modified from a Norman Rig and is by no means final and subject to change. Animation took about 3 hours.

This exercise is mainly to get used to animating in Maya and with the Norman rig.

Click here to view in HD

Friday, 2 July 2010

Walt Disney Animation Notes

Some really insightful notes by Walt Disney for training an animator. It's amazing that Walt himself is so passionate about animation being the entrepreneur that he is. It is no wonder Disney animation excelled so much :).


Saturday, 19 June 2010


DRIVER SAN FRANCISCO is the game we've been working on at Ubisoft Reflections and it's finally announced at E3. So here are some videos about it!

Teaser Trailer

The CG Trailer

E3 Conference

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Timing and Spacing in Animation


Really great stuff taught by Pixar animators! Adding texture to timing is definitely something I can add/consider in my future works. Really great info, thanks to Aaron Hartline and Victor Navone!

Monday, 3 May 2010

Notes on Change

What makes a story interesting? No one goes to watch a romantic movie to see two lovebirds love each other so much for 1.5 hours. No one goes to watch an action film where battle goes on the whole time. Well, maybe some do but it certainly won't hold our attention for long.

The fact is we are want to see CHANGE whether we know it or not. We want to see the two lovebirds break up over some crazy ordeal and hook up with others while secretly wanting to get back together BECAUSE it makes it 10 times more satisfying when they finally do get back together. We want to see how our hero loses the biggest battle of his life only to realise he has to get stronger to win. We want to see the glorious montage of him training hard and finally achieving his goal in the end. We all like to think that if we work hard at it, we will achieve our goals and succeed. :)

I'd just like to share my thoughts on how CHANGE is important in story and in animation. I just watched Gran Torino (2008), and it was all about change. It appears that the bigger the change, the larger the impact it has on the audience. In the film, we see how a grumpy old man change to a selfless and caring person. We see the transformation of a young boy change to a real man. These changes in character development throughout the film really speaks out to me as an audience. We feel for these characters and we root for these changes, we want them to succeed the more we empathise with them.

The next time you watch a movie or read a story, look for these changes, not just in characters, but in the pacing of the film too. If there are fast paced action sequences going on all the time, the feeling of speed or in fact "awesomeness" will be lost. What you will notice is that in a lot of films, the build-up to the big action scenes are in fact what makes it all the more satisfying when the moment finally comes.

Good films usually draw you into the main characters so much that you love what they do and who they are. So much in fact that you don't want anything bad to happen to them. But we all know something bad IS going to happen to them. The more we love them, the more reason there is to change that. Why do you think lots of films have your beloved characters killed?

Now how does this apply to animation? I believe the same contrast or change can be applied to animation. If we contrast the poses we use from time to time, say for example a character that hardly uses his arms to gesture to suddenly do a wild action, we would create a much larger interest when he finally does do it.

The same can be applied with timing and spacing. If a character moves about at a constant speed and does everything at the same speed, we would soon lose interest and get bored. A snappy cartoony character who bounces and zips around all the time and who does it too often - would soon lose its appeal as it becomes too common.

Contrast is also a form of change. Let's say we have our 2 main characters and they both look more or less the same and behave in the same manner. They may have an exciting dialogue and setup but chances are, when the audience refers to any of the characters, it won't be very distinct or have left a big impression. In comparison, if you contrasted both characters well enough, say the blue character is big, fat and not very bright and the red character being smart, well dressed and tall; you'd be doing yourself and the audience a giant favour. It would be a lot easier to identify with either character, not just in their design but also in their personality. Probably the last thing you want is for both characters to appear generic and be referred to as a unit (together). Unless of course that is your objective, like a bunch of security guards in the background, etc.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Go go go!

A really bad drawing of me motivating myself!

It's time to push forward! I need to come up with a good short story for my final year project next year at University and they don't come easy! I plan it to focus solely on good storytelling and animation, with the best quality in mind. That means the story has to be short and as concise as can be, ideally less than a minute long.

Pre-production is important to me and I want to make sure I spend the time well. Also, I think I'll be working with Maya for this project instead of XSI. Mainly because there are a ton more resources and free rigs out there for Maya than there are for XSI. I currently have my eye on the Norman rig, as it is the most customizable and adaptive rig I've found.

I will have some difficulty transferring from the XSI software to Maya, but I'm sure with time I'll get used to the interface and learn to use the tools.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Blog Update

Blogspot has decided to terminate FTP hosting from May 1st onwards. One solution they provided was to switch hosts to their Google hosting in order to keep my blog on my personal domain. I already have great hosting though with over 150gb bandwidth and all the webspace I'll need, so no I won't change hosts just to keep my domain! Luckily all my animation files and videos have always been hosted on my server so those links should remain intact :).

What this means:
This blog is no longer hosted on my server, but by Therefore it's previous web address of no longer exists and is now So please update your links to the new address. I'm tempted to move to another blog host that has a better system, but it seems a bit of a hassle at the moment, but any recommendations would be nice.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Walk Rendered

Click here to view in HD

Here's the walk rendered! Might use this clip for my showreel when I have enough content to update it :).

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Optimus walk cycle 2!

Looking back at the previous 2 animations I've done with the Optimus rig made me realise how bad the animations were, haha. I really needed to do it more justice, so here's a new and improved walkcycle. Spent about 3 days on this (with the well needed polish time that the other animations didn't get).

Click here to view in HD

The main focus of this was to work out the body mechanics of a walk, especially on the hips as I feel it can make or break a walk with all the weight shifting going on. The secondary objective was to give it character, to make it unique and stand out as not just another robot. Thus the attempt to give him a slight limp/asymmetry in his movement.

One of the largest limitation of this rig that I have found is that his knees are so high up his leg that it makes it incredibly difficult to just lift his foot. I did what I could...

Thursday, 15 April 2010

How to train your dragon

I just watched How to train your dragon in IMAX 3D with the animators from work and have to say I am very impressed. This movie is by far Dreamwork's best, not only are the character animation beautifully stunning but the story that holds it all together works for the most part fluidly. As with any story, there are a lot of areas where it can get too cliche and predictable, but I'm happy to say that this isn't the case here. I suspect the story guys at DW must have worked and re-worked this to get it this good.

Character animation was one of the best, if not the best I've seen. The best characters were Hiccup and his father; they felt so believable consistently throughout the movie. The acting and performance was incredible to say the least. Really excellent work.

Special effects were really great too as is the music. Overall, everything holds together very well in this solid piece of animation that is both moving and a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Rating: 9.8/10

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Review: Transform animation

It usually takes a few days or sometimes even weeks until you can view your own animations with a pair of "fresh eyes". What I'd like to do from now on is to review my animations and write notes on it.

Ok! So let's review my most recent transform animation.

-Transform sequence needs to be faster.
-More than one body part can be animated at any one time to create a better sense of gizmo movement.
-An overall body thrust/movement can help drive the motion of the entire animation (such as a jump). It comes down to the same principle that everything starts from the hips.
-Moving holds could be better with some polish time.
-Jump motion feels a little floaty, need to watch the spacing more carefully.
-Relaxed arm could use a little more polish.

If there is anything else I've missed out, please feel free to comment!

Friday, 2 April 2010

Optimus Transform animation!

This one took me more or less 2 days and was great fun to do! It's one of those "impulse" animations where I just go with the flow and animate straight ahead. Part of the reason would be because I don't even know how to set a KEY-ALL button on the character set in Maya to even attempt the pose-to-pose method.

Click here to view in HD

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Optimus walk cycle!

I realise I havn't been updating for a long time. So here's a little animation. Just installed Maya a few hours ago, and found this really awesome Optimus mini rig and could not resist just animating it asap. I've never even used Maya before so it took a bit of trial and error to learn how to keyframe, but here's a little walkcycle for an hour and a halfs work.

There are a ton of other polishes I could do, like fingers, more subtle rotations in body parts, etc and not to mention this is only just a vanilla walk and none that really shows character. But heck, it was fun, and was a great exercise to get me into Maya!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Animex Week

Last week I attended the Animex International Festival of Animation and Computer Games (8-12 feb). What an awesome week that was! It had one of the greatest lineup of speakers this year: James Baxter (Dreamworks), Andrew Schmidt (Pixar), Michael Defeo (Blue Sky) and Ed Hooks, to only name a few!

The speakers talked about their latest projects and provided great insight into the industry. Perhaps the best of it all was the networking event. All the pros stacked into one room, where they are open for discussions, answering questions and providing feedback. What more can you ask for? I made the most out of it, spoke to most of the speakers, and got feedback on my animations. The kind of immediate feedback from the pros is a rare opportunity indeed and I have learned so much from them and now have a good insight of how I can progress forwards and push my animations to the next level.

Listed below are my key points of improvement in my future projects:

1. Staging
-Camera placement is important to how well a sillhoute reads
-Keep head/facial within the frame of your shots

2. Less is more
-Find more natural poses
-Avoid over exaggerated poses that aren't motivated.
-Subtlety is key

3. Style
- Explore a more definite style of animation
- Is it cartoony or realistic?

4. Shoulders / Body structure
- Shoulders can be very expressive.
- Explore how the human body is constructed to find how it can move.

Other areas I am keen on exploring:

5. Study body anatomy and rigging
- Should improve my understanding of how each body part can move in relation to each other.

6. Study physics
- A scientific approach to understanding force and how things move in real life

7. More basic animation training
- For a more solid foundation in the mechanics of movement
- After all, the most complex animations is a combination of solid understanding of the basics.

So there you go, a lot to learn with so little time!

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Production process of "Good day" animation

For anyone who is interested, here is the production process/workflow of my recent animation, Good day. It is a compilation of my day-to-day progress in the making of this animation, from day 1 - 31. As you can see, it has gone through a lot of changes - from ideas to poses to timing. A lot of timing...

Click here to watch / download [27.8 mb]