Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Describe your workflow when you start animating a shot. Is there a right or wrong way?

First, let me start by saying that no one should ever criticize your workflow if it works for you and if you are successful in getting your shots animated and approved. Everyone's workflow varies in certain ways. Do you block in spline or stepped? Do you offset your keys to get overlap or use breakdowns to achieve the same result? Do you animate straight ahead or key pose from start to finish? Do you rely heavily on reference or ignore it entirely? Are you a sketcher or an actor? Do you pick the brains of your colleagues before moving forward on certain ideas or do you like to stay in your bubble?

Whatever your technique may be, there is only one fundamental principle that really matters above everything else. Do you give your bosses what they need to move the shot forward on time and in a creative fashion? This entails many things, of course. You can't hit your deadlines if you can't adapt to the notes. This is probably the biggest obstacle that affects the success of animators. One, are you able to comprehend the notes being given to you, and two, are you able to execute those notes in a creative and timely manner? Animation is an iterative process, so being able to turnover notes quickly and efficiently is critical to receiving more challenging shots from your superiors in the future.

An animator can never be too organized. Strong planning and a firm understanding of how to build your animation the right way is an important skill that enables you to adapt easily and efficiently to the needs of the production process. For me, it took many years to become comfortable with my workflow. How you plan your animation before you start is critical for many reasons. Most importantly, you need to make sure you are on the same page creatively as everyone else involved so that you can share the vision of the shot with your animation supervisor. This will also allow you to have a dialogue with them about what is expected of the character's performance. You should know the edit and be familiar with the script and whatever major narrative points are in the sequence you are working on. Having a “ground floor” mentality is essential so that you can surround yourself with the fundamental points of the shot before you sit down at the computer. Once you are comfortable with what is expected of you, most animators will then do some form of actual planning.

For some, thumbnails or sketching are good starting points. Other animators like to immerse themselves in reference, analyzing physical mechanics, or particular character performances that feed directly into the shot. Some like to get right into the shot and start roughing in key poses for their first blocking pass.

My preferred method is to study lots of reference and do a little body acting if the type of character permits. I also like to have a lot of dialogue with my supervisor and my peers so that I can really get myself into the mindset of the shot. I never animate stepped. Personally, I've always had trouble working this way when doing realistic creature performances where there is a strong concentration on mass and weight at the blocking phase. I just find it much harder to visualize the naturalism of the character this way. I have a close friend here at Weta who works stepped and comes from a more classical background than me. It's interesting, because in the end you probably couldn't tell our final animations apart, but our styles are very different in the early stage of the creation process. I also rarely ever block straight ahead. If the direction I'm getting is clear, I try to rough in all my keys and breakdowns in my first pass with a basic sense of proper timing. I keep everything super clean, and only occasionally refine motion between some of my keys if there is a major beat or performance point I want to clarify.

The art of good blocking is knowing how to blow your stuff away properly. Many animators have trouble adapting to new notes that come in after presenting each iteration. Your keys start to get messy, you begin to get confused. Blowing away motion, as painful as it might be, is the best thing you can do when adapting to new blocking notes that have a major effect on your latest pass. If you can’t blow it away without a second thought, emotionless, and you always try to incorporate new notes that might conflict with the old blocking, you risk getting this kind of “square peg in a round hole” feel to your animation. Things start to look wonky, out of synch, poppy, etc.

Also, many animators who stay attached to old elements of their performance will create an unconscious resistance with their Lead or Supervisor. Your superiors will sense your attachment to the old blocking and it will eventually get in the way in future dailies and can even affect the shots you get in the future. New notes will create more and more conflict with those elements of the performance that should have been eliminated. I am always ready to blow massive chunks of the performance away in a heartbeat if I think it will achieve the notes more effectively. There is an art to destroying your work efficiently. Anyone can blow away keys, but I think the more experience you have rebuilding sections of animation quickly and creatively, the better you become at adapting to new notes.

The only things I am really concerned about during the blocking process are the following:

Have I hit the choreography notes I was given and do my poses roughly convey the meaning of the performance?

Do my timings roughly work?

Have I utilized the space in the scene properly?

Is the performance appealing and have I executed the requirements creatively?

If I've answered yes to those questions, then I should feel confident that I can present the shot as blocking. I am well on my way to beginning the first of many iterative steps towards completing the shot. From that point on, it becomes about adaptation until you reach the “blocking approved” stage. After that, it becomes more about execution as you bring the shots to a level of finalization.

Now there is something to be said about doing things the “wrong way.” I started this article by saying that if your workflow works for you and is successful in achieving the goals of the pipeline, then no one should criticize your methods. But please don't try to animate legs in FK, unless the character is swimming or falling or something. And don't animate a character's extremities before you've worked on the center of mass. Oh, and don't swear at your boss after he gives you notes....that is definitely bad workflow.

Guest Blogger Aaron Gilman


Herman Gonzales said...


Jamie Giger said...

Hey Aaron I noticed you said you don't use stepped keys, my question is when you're blocking to figure out timing and all do you set your keys to linear or bezier, and when you're showing your blocking to the director or to whomever do you keep your keys at that setting?

Aaron Ludwig said...

Very good notes, Aaron! Thanks.

Phil Willis said...

Great article.

I was just thinking the exact same thing the other day.

Getting to a point where you can show your supervisor or director is always a fairly personal process. Everyone's workflow is different.

But the main thing is being able to respond to notes quickly.

I try to work fast enough that the director doesn't have time to leave my desk before he can see an updated pose or a quick adjustment.

Otherwise, you could be waiting another day or two before you get some of their attention again.

Great post.

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Unknown said...

This is most amazing...So true,a lot of the stuff I wondered about when working on my reel.Feels good to hear it from a pro...Thanks a lot Aaron :)

versat said...

great post

Unknown said...

Please excuse me for doing this, - but my colleague Miriam wanted to reply to this article and does not have a Google-ID :

You are so right:
I found out that it is a bad way to start my clip when I dive to early into the graphical details because I have this bad behaviour you described so nicely by "stay attached to old elements", - and the final clip was "uneven" and never had good timing.
Now I sketch the complete clip very coarse at the graphics level but with more focus on the "story" (or better that part of the story) and pace, represented by concentrating on good flow over time (frame by frame).
When I am really satisfied with the "time flow" I flesh out the details and to avoid uneven detail quality I go over the clip again and again instead of detailing frame by frame completely. This is my best tip for good continuity.
This new approach allows for fast review cycles with my peers and early (work saving) adjustments by my director.
I used my iPad (SketchBook Pro (static) / XAN (dynamic)) for static sketching and actually for learning timing and realising private clip ideas first. Then I began to transfer this workflow also into my projects. It was a bit hard to convince my director to work with these fast sketched clips and go into film editing with them.
Our cutter can produce very early real time material of the complete project which saves lots of time, work and emotions now.
Acutally even my director begins to adopt this fast sketching method now, - and I am very curious how it will unfold these days.
Because, - as you pointed out in your article -, it is very important to have the whole group working and exchanging with the same basic approach and philosophy.

Great article, thanks !


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