Amidst a long-overdue vacation to the east coast, some freelance work, and an exhausting trek down to Comicon, I’ve managed to do a little personal animation. My Animation Mentor students usually ask about my workflow and methods, which I have a hard time explaining, so I thought I’d show the result, and then a progressive series of earlier versions. Here’s the preliminary version, sans sound-track tweaks, lighting, and texturing I plan to add:
The rig is Boris from Jason Ryan, and is a pleasure to work with. The dialog is from a Twilight Zone episode. I’d been trying to think of some suitable dialog for Boris, and one evening I was flipping channels, heard this Twilight Zone robot talking, and thought “That’s it!” Fortunately the disc in the dvd recorder wasn’t full (I compulsively record films from Turner Classic Movies), and a millisecond after I pressed “record” this line was delivered. Serendipity!
The next step was planning the shot. I didn’t want this to look too human, so I immediately decided to not shoot video reference. There are times when I do thumbnails, and times when I jot notes. In this case I went the route of illegible scribbles, along the lines of “slumped; jerks to life in 2 stages; hand to ear, “drill” out antenna – 2 turns on “maturing”; as antenna pops up, head jerks and eyes flutter open, head jerks back. Then body jerks back, lifts foot, awkward hold, throws self forward (hit on “soon”), cont. fwd, 2nd + 3rd lumbering steps, turn to cam. on “faculties.”
So I had a fairly clear scenario in mind right away. The tricky part would be to portray the robot being awkward and glitchy initially, but not have those glitches look like animation mistakes. And I wanted the robot gaining competence as the scene progresses. The scene really isn’t long enough to really show that progression, but it was something I kept in mind as I worked. I also wanted the robot to turn itself on by using its hand like a screwdriver (the “drilling out” part above) to raise it’s antenna and really awaken itself.
As soon as I began blocking the shot, I decided to reverse the major order of events in my scribbled scenario. I thought it’d be more interesting to break the shot in two, and start with a full shot to establish the character and focus on full-body animation, then cut to a medium close-up and play with some acting. This reversal also lets the raising of the antenna become the climax of the piece. In the original conception, this interesting bit of action happens right away, and the last part of the scene is the character taking some steps.
As soon as I started playing with poses, I realized it would be fun to have the character stepping over something. It occurred to me that Boris could be stepping out of his own shipping crate. (Before this goes on my reel I’ll get the box textured so that’s immediately obvious — right now it kind of looks like a coffin!)
Here’s an early playblast. I visualized the basic action, estimated the timing of the steps in my head, and blocked in the contact poses and the major breakdowns. My initial focus is on the major body parts (hips and feet especially). I work in spline mode from the start, and shift these keys and breakdowns around until the overall timing is working. The head and hands, if they’re animated at all, are “place holder” poses, though here I’ve already roughly posed the hands themselves in different poses for some contrast.
In the above playblast, I’ve done several passes on the hips, working especially on weight shifts and trying to build a framework for the next passes that will focus on the chest and on pushing the steps themselves. Getting the timing worked out on the hips is crucial before I spend a lot of time refining the leg/foot movement. Thus far I’m keeping the keys the same frames, to make timing changes easier.
Sometimes I’ll ruff in the entire shot, and make successive complete passes all the way through. Because this is a fairly long shot that I know I’ll break into two pieces, I continued to focus on just the first 90-100 frames. Here I’ve added the packing crate (thanks Heather!) and done multiple passes on the hips, then the feet, then the knees, then the chest, then the head, then the arms.
I do each of those as a separate pass, though I will also tweak things from earlier passes as I see problems. At this stage I’m not focused on arcs and spacing, just on getting a good combination of movement and poses. I’m also not thinking about keys. I’ve long ago stopped worrying about keeping all the keys on the same frames, and I’m working in behavioral phrases.
Now I’ve broken the shot up (actually, I just changed the camera — it’s all still one continuous shot) and roughed out the second portion. It’s fairly static — I mainly wanted to see if the timing of the ‘awakening’ and the reaction to the raising of the antenna was going to work.
I’ve also done a pass to “dirty up” the overall movement. I noticed that the soundtrack has a repeating mechanical noise about every 12 frames, and I noticed that the vocal accents happen to fall almost exactly on those same beats. So I layered in small, sharp “bumps” four frames before those beats, then “recoil bumps” two frames later in the chest. Later I’ll add subtle reactions right on the accent in the head and hands, but I’ll wait until those parts of the body are closer to final.
I’ve intentionally ignored face/lip sync/eyes and subtle head movement. I find if I focus on those areas too early, I tend to leave other parts of the body underdone. I want the scene to work with the dialog just from the body movement. Then the other stuff is icing on the cake.
Now I’ve done a pass on the head and the jaw. No mouth shapes, just the jaw opening and closing. I’ve also begun developing the last 20% or so of the shot, and I’m experimenting with having “squinty eyes” for most of the shot (to contrast with the “live” eyes that will happen at the end).
The above playblast is the result of several passes of pushing the body action in the last third of the scene, two passes on eye movements (I quickly decided the squinty eyes made it harder to connect with the character), a pass on the brows (which I decided to keep subtle and flat until the antenna is raised), and a first pass on mouth shapes. I also decided to change Boris’ initial pose so that he’s looking towards the camera. Initially I wanted it to feel like we’d caught Boris just rising up out of his crate, which I still think is a decent idea. But the result was that he spends most of the first 100 frames looking down.
Finally, at this point I’d decided to lengthen the scene by about 16 frames. He needs a moment to recover from his ‘awakening,’ and then I wanted a goofy half smile to register at the end. The problem was that there was more dialog at that point in the soundtrack, so I used the sound-editing freeware Audacity to clip away the unwanted dialog, and copied and pasted some ambient sound to the end. It changed the “beat” of that ambient noise slightly, but I don’t think most people will notice. (I’m still planning on using Audacity to tweak the pitch of the dialog during the awakening, on the vowel accents of “my” and the first syllable of “faculties” to better fit the antenna raising action.)
I sent the above version to an animator friend I trust (thanks Sean!), and got back the major note that the “awakening” section wasn’t reading, and because of that the screen-right hand lifting up and juddering was confusing. A couple of small lip sync issues were also noted (the “ing” of maturing, the “ly” of gradually, and the “w” of “will” all needed pumping up) and the screen left hand looked stiff at the head of the shot (which was actually intentional, but if it generates a note, it probably needs to be changed).
Addressing those notes resulted in the version at the top of this post. The big change was amping up the “awakening” section, especially in the chest and head (which is what I get for jumping into doing the facial and lipsync before I was totally happy with the body animation in this portion). I’ll set this aside for a few days, make those tweaks to the sound, add some texturing and lighting, and take another look. I have a feeling I’ve strayed too far from the initial ‘robotic’ feel I was going for, and I’ll likely tighten things up then.