Monday, September 29, 2008

How Important Is Music on a Demo Reel?

Demo reels can be tricky things. Everything about what we do as artists is subjective; not everything you do will please everyone. And, putting together a demo reel not only involves your visual elements, but the auditory ones as well. I never used to be a fan of music on a demo reel. I was happy just letting my dialog shots (and any incedental music that might be behind the dialog) carry the sound portion of my reel. I had seen too many demo reels with, what I felt, was 'cheesy' music that didn't help the flow of the reel at all, but rather hindered it. So, I figured, it's just safer to leave the music off.

Well for anyone that may have seen my reel lately, you will notice that I finally made the leap and put music on my reel. What changed my mind? Well, I was looking at my reel, and because of the length and variety of shots contained on it, I didn't feel like it flowed as nicely as it did when it was shorter and I had only animated a few things. I looked at my collegues reels and saw how proper music can tie together your shots. Now again, this is all subjective, but I tried to pick music that was upbeat and not overly distracting to the animation, and above all that didn't drown out my dialog shots.

I think music on a demo (show) reel is a matter of taste. I am not an expert in this field, but from what I have seen in my professional experience bad music can take away from great animation, and good music can help disjointed shots flow together seamlessly (like in movie trailers for example).

I would simply ask around and find out if your friends or collegues like the music you have selected, get some feedback and then use that to help you make your decision.

Guest Blogger Keith Sintay

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Forget About Animating the Legs

In your ebook you wrote something on “forget about animating the legs.” Can you elaborate?

Gosh, that's a tough one to fit into a blog post, but maybe I can be clearer than I was in the ebook.

Basically, the idea is to hide the legs of your character. (I create a layer for them in Maya and make that layer invisible). Then you just forget about the legs completely.

So at this point, you have a character with hips, a torso, arms, and a head. The idea is to just animate that, according to the way you've planned out the scene ahead of time, and keeping in mind what you basically will want the legs and feet to be doing once you put them in.

If you follow your planning, and get the body moving around at the correct speed, with the correct ups and downs, etc., and you just work on that until it looks right, THEN you unhide the legs.

Now the legs are super easy to animate. You just set up your first pose the way you had planned out, and then as the character moves forward, you just save a key on the planted foot one frame before the leg would have hyperextended (creating an IK pop, which you want to avoid at all costs!), and then animate it taking the step or whatever.

In other words, if the body is moving at the speed you want, it's going to dictate when you HAVE to pick up the feet and move them, right? So it's kind of removing one layer of complexity from your initial animation pass by saving the feet and legs for a second pass, and on that second pass, the feet/legs are almost a no-brainer because their timing and possibly posing is being dictated by what you've chosen to do with the body.

You'll probably have to make some small edits to the body timing here and there, but if done properly, it should work.

I know it's a weird way to approach, and as I said in the ebook, I thought it was completely insane when Glen McIntosh suggested it to me, but considering he's probably the best animator I've ever worked with, I eventually figured that I should try it, and the Yoda shot I did that way (in Episode 3, where he fights some clone troopers and throws a lightsaber into a trooper's chest) really came together quickly and it ended up being a really cool way to work.

I still only would use that method in an action-heavy scene (lots of running around, jumping, etc) or else for a many-legged character (spider-shaped characters with 4 or more legs work even better for this method!), but in those instances it's a technique that comes in really handy...

Shawn :)

Monday, September 22, 2008

What’s the Best Way to Plan a Scene?

I don't know if there is a best way to plan a scene, but I would like to mention here some effective things that I have picked up in my career as an animator that might help someone reading this blog.

1. Know how your scene (shot) fits into the whole of the story. If you haven't seen a whole cut of the film yet, at least ask about the context of the shots surrounding yours.

2. Find out what the director wants (hopefully through a direct 'launch' from the director themselves, or from your supervisor)

3. Look at the story boards and study the poses. Those poses and composition were great at telling the story, so make sure you study them and find out why they worked in the sequence as a whole. Then, expand upon those ideas with animation to really bring the characters to life.

4. If no story boards were made for your shot, create some thumbnail story poses of your own. These 'story telling' poses may become your keys later on.

5. Listen to your dialog track and write it out both regularly and phonetically. Listen for subtleties and nuances. Listen for cadence and accents. Listen for breaths and pregnant pauses. Make note of all of these

6. Act out your shot. Explore as many ways as you can to tell the story simply and in an entertaining way. Ask a friend to act it out; they may have different ideas or mannerisms that you might not have thought of yourself.

7. Video record yourself acting out the shot

8. Make thumbnails from your extreme (key) poses.

9. See how you might make those thumbnail poses stronger; better silhouette, stronger line of action.

10. Start blocking out the key poses and have fun! :)

-Guest Blogger Keith Sintay

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tips on Speeding Up Animation Workflow and Animating Faster

I was wondering if you had any tips on how to speed up animation workflow, and animating faster in general. In many situations, the faster you have to animate, the less quality you can afford to achieve. But even in the "big budget" movies, there can be stressful crunch times when you have to animate pretty darn fast--but you can't sacrifice quality either. Since you have so much production experience on big projects that require high quality animation, I was wondering if you've found out any time-saving tips, if you ever felt you took a big leap forward in speed, yet managed to produce great work.


Great question, Kyle!

Ten quick tips for speeding up your work:

1) Don't skip the planning process. Seriously - I know a lot of you feel too busy to plan your scene before you open Maya or Max or whatever you're using, but even if you can only dedicate 30 minutes to creating and/or studying some video reference and writing down some notes, it will help you finish faster. SOME amount of planning will *ALWAYS* speed up your work, no matter what. The best scenes I've ever done, and the quickest that finished, were the shots where I spent the most effort planning before sitting down at the computer.

2) Hot keys are your friend. Any time you find yourself doing anything repetitive in Maya (or whatever animation program you are using), create or find a hotkey for it. I have and use hotkeys for working quickly in the graph editor (hiding/showing tangents, hiding/showing channel curves, etc), for saving keys, for hiding/showing animation controls on the model, for x-ray mode, to make joints visible or invisible, for scrubbing time in the graph editor, and for instantly creating more workspace when I don't need to see all the menus and channels. Those are just some of the hotkeys I use every day, and boy have they sped my work up.

3) If you have the ability to create or use a GUI that allows you to select your character's animation controls, that can be a big help, especially for working with hands, tails, toes, etc.

4) Don't get too bogged down in changes. If your director wants you to change the middle of your shot, just block it off (construction-zone style, as I wrote about in the newsletter), and create all new keys and breakdowns. You can really get slowed down if you start trying to make any major changes simply by tweaking the curves you already have in the graph editor. Very often, it's just faster to wall that part of your animation off (so you don't screw up the surrounding bits the Director *does* like), and redo that section from scratch. Cleaner and easier to edit, too.

5) Don't be timid! Push your ideas and go for that dynamic pose. It's much easier/faster to take something too far and then back off on it than it is to slowly push your pose or idea a little bit further, a little bit further, a little bit further, etc. Just go for it and then reign it in if you need to.

6) Use light models if possible. Something that speeds up my work like crazy if the ability to just hit play in Maya and watch my animation play reliably at 24fps without having to do a playblast or render. Use the lowest-rez version of your character possible, at least for your initial blocking.

7. Avoid the black hole that is (insert favorite website here). For me, I have to be careful with sites like Digg, Youtube, Gizmodo, etc - these websites that I really love can suck me in if I'm not careful, and suddenly I've lost an hour of time that I could have spent animating. Discipline yourself to only check your favorite sites when you have to, when you're on a break, or when you're rendering.

8) Same with email. Between ILM, Animation Mentor, my personal email, the blog, and the newsletter, I get hundreds of emails per day. Prioritize and only read the most essential emails until you're on break or finished with your work for the day. For me, I try to only read email at work that is directly related to the show I'm working on, and then try to catch up on the rest before bed. (by the way, if you've emailed me and I haven't emailed back - I'm really sorry! I'm kind of behind on my email, but I'm trying to catch up and will hopefully get back to you soon!)

9) CPU, RAM, a decent-sized monitor, and graphics card. Don't underestimate the boost you'll get from investing in the core bits of your computer. Beef up that machine for fast interaction with your character! The quicker you can interact with the character, and the quicker your program will update the frame, the quicker you'll get your animation done. Along those same lines, a larger monitor will give you a lot more screen-space and make it much easier to see your character, saving a lot of "zooming in and out" time...

10) Use the 15 minute rule. If you come up against a technical problem that you can't solve on your own in 15 minutes, give up, and find help. If you're in a studio, ask a peer or pick up the phone and ask tech support. If you're at home, jump online and start searching through google or post your question on the forum. In the past, I've wasted half a day trying to solve some problem on my own and it turned out that I could have solved it in 10 minutes if I had just asked someone for help.

11) I just thought of another great tip someone once told me, so I'm adding it to this post!

If you're given, or give yourself, a list of changes for a shot, don't do a test render of that shot until you've addressed all those changes. In other words, if you're given 10 things to fix, don't fix one and then re-render. Wait until you've fixed a bunch or all of those 10 things, and THEN do your playblast to see how it's looking. The goal, of course, being to cut down on the time it takes to playblast and analyze the shot.

Hope that helps, Kyle! Thanks for coming by.

Shawn :)

Apologies for Tips & Tricks Blog Outage

Dear Readers,

We’ve been experiencing some technical issues with the Tips & Tricks blog. As many of you know, the blog has been up and down for the past few days. Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused!

We hope you are enjoying the animation words of wisdom from our first guest blogger, Keith Sintay, and our blog host Shawn Kelly.

Animation Mentor staff

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How Important Is an Acting Shot for Getting a Job in the Gaming Industry

As a student who's just finishing school, it's hard to have every kind of animation on your reel, physical and acting. How important is an acting shot going to be for getting a job in games industry as those are the only companies which have entry-level jobs.

Hi Shiva - thanks so much for coming by the blog!

This is a difficult question to answer, because both types of scenes are very important to have on your demo reel. However, I do think that having strong physical "action tests" on a demo reel is more important than strong "acting tests" for junior animators. As you say, many studios hiring for junior animation positions aren't as interested in your acting shots, as the juniors may primarily be doing more physical work.

Additionally, at even the largest studios, it's the physical stuff that is the most important. You might have some great acting choices, but if your weight and balance are wrong, or your arcs aren't appealing, or the force just isn't there -- well, those great acting choices alone are not going to get you that job. The best acting shots can be destroyed by very small mistakes in body mechanics (how the body works - what moves what, etc).

In my mind, a decent acting scene with bad body mechanics is a demo-reel killer. It screams "newbie," and tells the recruiters that you haven't yet mastered the basics. However, a shot with great body mechanics and only "ok" acting choices -- this isn't ideal, but it certainly doesn't ruin the reel. It will still show that you know the basic fundamentals, and show your potential as an animator.

In light of that difference, I guess I'd have to say that the physical stuff is more important to focus on when you're newer to this stuff, and is certainly the stuff to make sure really shines on your demo reel.

Best of luck!

Shawn :)

Monday, September 15, 2008

How Do You Know When to Stop Planning and Start Animating?

I am a firm believer that work flow can play a big part in your success as an effective and marketable animator. The amount of planning that I do for a shot varies as widely as the shot content itself. Usually bigger shots that involve several characters talking require a good knowledge of staging and composition.

It's really important to know where to lead your audiences' eye; where you want them to look while each character is speaking. Or, if it's only one character, spending time on staging and composition might not take as long, so you might have more time to finesse and explore the acting. If a shot requires video reference, I usually allow at least a day for that and thumbnailing. It's important to use as much time as you feel comfortable making mistakes or changes in planning, so you won't be doing as much of that when you are actually animating. I think about my shot when I am driving in the car to and from work, or I might pull out old HoneyMooners episodes or watch other things that inspire me and try to get my mind to picture the shot as I might see it animated.

Don't be afraid to go back and reblock or re-thumbnail a portion of your shot if it isn't working -- even if you have started animating it. But generally knowing when to stop planning and start animating goes with having a plan, and then animating it. Simple? Maybe not, but my advice is just to know your deadlines and plan accordingly; don't ever try to start a shot without a good plan of attack.

- Guest blogger Keith Sintay

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Are Figure 8 Curves and How Do They Fit in With the Movements of Characters

There are things you can do to your shot to really enhance it's fluidity and rhythm. Different types of movements can call for different types of arcs; for example faster movements usually benefit from more circularmovements (like tying a bow really fast for example). Figure 8 curves are another type of curve that enhance a movement to keep the motion alive.

Gesturing with the hands for example in a figure 8 movement (the sides of the "8" don't have to be equal, in fact it may add more texture if you have a big loop and then a smaller one or vice versa) is a way to move movethe arms in one direction, then reverse the direction in a pleasing visual way.

Again, tying a bow or similar faster movements are examples of using a figure 8 curve to change direction quickly but fluidly.

- Guest Blogger Keith Sintay


Monday, September 8, 2008

Introducing Guest Bloggers

Dear Readers,

We're going to be introducing guest bloggers who will be providing more animation tips and tricks on our blog. These guest bloggers are professional animators, working in the industry -- many of them are mentors for Animation Mentor. While Shawn will continue to blog, we believe the blog is a resource for the animation community so it's important to share ideas from those working in different studios and sectors of the industry to inspire and help animators of all levels.

We're glad that you’ve been following the Animation Tips and Tricks blog, and hope you continue to find these animation tips and tricks helpful wherever you are in your animation journey!

Happy Reading!
Animation Mentor Staff

Do You Have a Process or Checklist of Animation Rules You Follow?

Ha! Do I ever!

When it comes to animation principles and body mechanics "rules," there are just far too many to list. We spend 18 months teaching these rules and methods at Animation Mentor, so I just can't possibly fit that stuff into a blog post, but I will say that the 12 principles of animation as laid out by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their seminal book, The Illusion of Life, is a good place to start.

When I was a newer animation student, in fact, I had a list of those principles taped to my animation disc and also to my computer monitor. As I would animate, I would look at it occasionally, and make sure that each of those principles was being properly addressed in my work.

I had that on my monitor at ILM as recently as a few years ago, in fact, and it really wouldn't be a bad idea for me to have it up there still! It comes in handy, just as a good reminder, especially as I'm planning or blocking my work in. Just being able to glance up and see the words "line of action" can help me notice that I'm missing something in my work.

One thing I've learned through the process of helping create Animation Mentor is just how deep the "basic fundamental principles" of animation are, and how deep they can go. Interviewing so many amazing animators for the video lectures at the school was a shocking experience for me, because I was continually learning new things about principles that I thought I already knew! It was a really cool by-product of being a part of the school, and a good reminder that we will NEVER know everything there is to know about animation. It's simply too deep and complex...

But man, that just makes it even cooler! It'll never get boring, and there will always be new discoveries waiting for us!

Shawn :)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

How Important Is an Art Background for an Animator Who Is Starting Out?

There was a time when I thought that there was nothing more important for an animation student than a solid background in traditional art. Painting, drawing, color theory, art history, the works. At least that's what I was told, back in the day, and on the surface, it makes sense, doesn't it?

Of course an artistic background will help you as an animator. It's a no-brainer. Color design may inform staging decisions, drawing classes will certainly help with composition issues, figure drawing and an understanding of anatomy are helpful for any animator.

But if the question is whether or not an art background is absolutely NECESSARY to becoming a great animator, experience has taught me that the answer is no.

It isn't.

Now, to be clear, it certainly doesn't hurt! I'm thankful, in particular, for all those years of figure drawing. I may be a decade out of practice, and unable to accurately draw anything to save my life right now, but the anatomical and biomechanical knowledge I soaked up in those classes helps inform my animation decisions to this day.

If nothing else, as strange as it sounds, it was very helpful for me to just sit in a room with a naked person and study how their body worked without any of the important hip/spine interactions being hidden by clothing. I actually even learned more in between the model's poses than when he or she was actually holding a pose for us to draw! As an animation student, it was fascinating to watch them move from pose to pose, or climb up onto the stage, etc. In fact, I think I'd say that considering the sad state of the animation program I was attending at the time, I probably learned more about body mechanics during the spaces between figure drawings than I did in any of my "animation" classes!

That said, it isn't absolutely necessary. In fact, you know what kind of background would be helpful for an animator who is just starting out?


That's right! ANY background is going to be helpful in SOME way. I've met animators who were fighter pilots, detectives, maintenance workers, engineers, architects, soldiers, bartenders, and athletes. All of these people bring their unique backgrounds and knowledge base to their work, and these life experiences inform the acting decisions of their characters, the stories they will tell, and the style of their work.

As animators, observation is one of the most important aspects of what we do. In order to bring a character to life, there is almost nothing more important than having a collection of interesting actions and acting choices we've observed and either committed to memory or written down or sketched. These actions we've set aside to remember are our secret weapons in the creation of memorable character performances.

In light of that, just about any life experience you have may come in handy during your animation career!

I would say that any artistic experience you can have, whether it's studying photography, visiting museums, or even reading comic books -- these are all more immediately helpful to you as an animator than your memory of the drunk who spilled everyone's drinks one night when you were tending bar. The drunk may come in handy at some point down the line as you craft a performance that takes place in a bar, but the artistic growth you've experienced in the first three examples is something that you'll be able to use from Day 1 as you jump into animation.

So sure, any art background is helpful to the animator, and obviously I think that figure drawing classes, in particular, can be very beneficial, but I've met too many incredible animators now who have next to no art background at all to be able to say that it's completely necessary.

While an art background, used properly, will be an advantage for any animator, the computer has removed the absolute need for draftsmanship. Keeping a character "on-model" is no longer an issue, at least as far as maintaining the mass goes. (taking the facial animation and acting choices off-model is still as big a problem and challenge as it ever was, though!) Being able to draw an accurate turntable of a character is a fantastic and enviable skill, but as our computer tools get more and more robust, there is increasingly room in the ranks of the world's animators for animation artists who have never picked up a pencil for serious drawing.

Of course, if you want to pursue 2D animation, obviously that means you WILL need strong draftsmanship and a well-rounded background in traditional art, but the question I get is usually referring to a career in 3D animation, which is a different story all together.

Animation students who don't have any artistic background at all may need to work a little harder to make up for it, but it's simply no longer necessary to have the drawing skills that many of our animation heroes possess.

What's necessary is that you have a passion to learn animation and a hunger to seek that knowledge out anywhere and everywhere. What's necessary is a keen sense of observation throughout your daily life, and the ability to learn from what you are observing. What's necessary is the ability apply those observations to your work, and to accurately recreate and exaggerate the life you see around you. What's necessary is the patience to plan your work out, and the tenacity to be detail-oriented enough to completely finish it. What's necessary is the desire to find criticism of your work and to grow from what you hear.

THAT's the stuff that's absolutely necessary. If you're missing any of the above, you might as well give up right now - you aren't going to make it as an animator. I'm sorry. That's the stuff you can't live without. Everything else is gravy. Sometimes the gravy really makes the dish, though - something we shouldn't ignore. In other words, your ice-cream sundae might be delicious, but it might not be able to compete with your neighbor who actually put the cherry on top, you know?

I do think that you can make a pretty darn good sundae without any art background, but if our goal as animators it to never stop learning (which is SHOULD be), I'd encourage all of you to study any and all aspects of art in any way you can.

And if you become an animator, having no art background at all, then guess what?

You're an artist.

...Which I guess means you have an art background now! Cool, huh?

Shawn :)