Fablevision & Learning Flash

In March of this year, I was contacted by the Art Director of Fablevision StudiosBob Flynn, to visit and see what the studio was like.  There I met with Bob and Hannah O’Neal, one of the Flash animators.  They were wondering what I was up to regarding my situation with Irrational Games disbanding and what my thoughts are for the future.

The small studio in South Boston, is an outstanding example of a creative environment – something I haven’t seen since my days in the treehouse at Blue Sky – and overflowing with creative energy.  For example, upon walking in the front door, there is an entire wall dedicated to childhood nostalgia.  Books, toys and other trinkets and what-not make up what they have properly deemed “The Wall Of Inspiration”.

Bob explained that Fablevision, in being a primarily Flash-based animation company, was interested in my animation skills because of my background, but was wondering if I had any Flash experience.  I had messed around with Flash in the past, but never anything beyond book tutorials to satisfy my curiosity – certainly not on a professional level.  I explained this to Bob and we discussed an OTJ training scenario consisting of me learning Flash on my own and coming into the studio to basically learn Flash for a few days.

I was overwhelmed and excited.  I had always done pencil-tests for my shots in the past, but never anything completely polished.  I went home and messed around with it a bit, but there was a huge disconnect.  Flash isn’t exactly what you would describe a user-friendly or accessibly software.

I was headed up to PAX East on a Friday and Bob invited me to come by, since the studio was right up the street.   I met Bob and animator Didi Hatcher who graciously spent the remaining part of their day explaining how the studio approaches animating in Flash.  It clicked.  I went home with a new-found understanding and played around with a Walrus playing piano and singing an old Procol Harum song.  It’s nothing great by any stretch, but it was a fun way to dive in and figure things out.  It’s incomplete, but I’ll share it with you regardless:

A couple weeks later, I was asked to fill in for an employee going on maternity leave, so I jumped on it.  By now, I felt confident enough in Flash to the point where I would be able to contribute, so I showed up the following Monday morning, ready to do some 2D animation.

I was almost immediately brought into a meeting for an iPhone game in production called Solar Skate – a educational, runner game that was being contracted to Fablevision by Florida Virtual School.  At the time, the hand-drawn character felt disconnected with the 3D environments, so the idea was to try using a low-poly, 3D character instead.  They asked me my opinion and I agreed that would be the best move forward.  Then they asked what I would be able to contribute and I replied “all of it”.

My 2D adventure quickly became a 3D character-building endeavor.  I modeled, rigged and animated a pre-designed character named Ollie to work with Unity.  Everyone was happy with the 3D Ollie, so we moved forward with it and the game remained in production for almost my entire time at Fablevision.  Solar Skate was released on July 13th and you can download it for iOS here.  I will be posting animations a bit later.

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BTW, my son is WAY better at it than I am. :)

When the character animation for Ollie was finished up, I was assigned to help develop a webpage for the educational web series Umigo, which would all be created in Flash.  I hadn’t opened Flash in at least a month, so I was scared out of my wits.  Luckily for me, I was sitting next to the incredibly patient Lead Artist, Renee Kurilla.  She really helped me with Flash-isms that would fluster me and would sing along to yacht rock playlists with me, when others wouldn’t.  :)  The Umigo prototype site went livea few weeks.  I was responsible for animating the opening video and the character animation in the parallax site.  I’d like to think it’s not too bad for it being my first professional Flash project.

Umigo

I worked on a handful of other projects that I will share once they go live.

To say that my time at Fablevision was creative and fun would be an understatement.  I haven’t had that much fun going to work in years and the folks at the studio helped to remind me why I got into the animation business in the first place.

 

 

“Monster Season”

My brother joined a “design a game in 48 hours” contest a couple of years ago he called “Monster Season”.  He didn’t tell me about it until 24hrs in, the bastard.  :)  I immediately helped out where I could with game design ideas to help push the idea further, but not break his initial design.  I also roughly designed some of the artwork for the title screen, background panel and weapon icons.  I got about halfway through updating the character designs before the submission was due, so they never made it into the game – a reminder for him to tell me from the beginning next time.  :P  We were going to update it, but never got around to it.  It’s a fun, little match-3 shooter game.  Perhaps polishing it up isn’t a bad idea.

If you want to play the game you can download it here:

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/47466002/MonsterSeason1.0.1.zip

Title Screen:

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Unreleased Monster Designs:

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Nurturing Your Creative Houseplant

Whenever you read about a studio closing, your heart immediately goes out to the folks affected.  Your mind can’t help but to think about the droves of artists, shifting focus from doing their best work on a daily basis, to finding a way to put food on the table for their families.  With this at the forefront of an artist’s mind, its very easy to fall into a creative block.

In the past I have described “being creative” to my students as a house plant.  If you become forgetful or distracted, it will wither away and die.  Now ask yourself: “When do houseplants usually die?”  More than likely, it’s during a time of a major life-transition; a move, a death in the family, etc.  So how do you keep your creative houseplant from withering away during hard times?  There’s no right or wrong answer here, but I do have some suggestions.

houseplant

Usually, I’m approaching this topic from the other side of the spectrum – “How do you keep from burning out?”  The irony is that I’ve found the remedy for both issues to be IDENTICAL.  About five years ago, I wrote an entry called “Losing Touch” discussing how to approach the problem of creatively burning out in a studio environment.  It’s so incredibly similar that I’m going to paste the entire post here:

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LOSING TOUCH.

“Crunchtime”.  The sound of it would make one think that its a fun break during the day where you eat your favorite candybar.  If only that was true.  The reality of it is that we, the animators, are under such pressure to produce the absolute best work we can in as little time possible.

During severe crunch, the concept of “24 hour blocking” goes into full affect, where you have 24 hours to come up with the choreography of a shot and show your choices to the director for approval to continue with the idea.  Sometimes it goes good (“good idea”) and sometimes it goes really bad (“start over and just copy the storyboards”).  The end of every pitch (good or bad) leaves you questioning your worth as an animator and an artist.  After years of doing this type of thing and because of the time it takes to execute an idea to completion (making every frame look amazing @ 24 fps), it’s very easy to fall into formulas and become afraid to take risks for the sake of hitting your deadlines.  This rollercoaster can really do a job on your own personal creativity.

Where am I going with this?? I think it’s important to revisit that kid who was aspiring to become a professional artist as often as you can and ask them for help.  For me, it was 18 years ago when I was in my room doing little flipbooks from exercises I learned in this book:

while listening to these albums:

studying anatomy by drawing from these comics:

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and watching these movies:

When I feel like I’m down and out or losing touch with my creative self, I dig up this stuff and watch/listen/look through it and I feel refreshed afterward.  Another creative gold mine I return to often is thumbing through my old sketchbooks.  It helps to give me perspective of how far I’ve come as an artist and there may be a little doodle or two that gives me an idea.  So never toss anything that may be of creative value someday!!  You never know where your next masterpiece will come from!!

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It’s amazing how relevant this 2009 post is to the current situation my artist friends and I have found ourselves in.  So remember, to properly nurture your creative houseplant during difficult times, it’s not as important to create as it is to remind yourself why you wanted to create in the first place.  Best of luck to you, my artist friends.  If I can be of any assistance to you, contact me.

Using Mocap As Reference

I did an awful lot of hand keyed animation during my time at Irrational Games, but the use of motion capture was always a mainstay in the pipeline.  Mocap was a part of our process and we were expected to use it when we could, but we would always approach using it from the perspective of what was considered best for the scene.  It was never used in the File>Import = done context.  On the contrary, the need for serious iteration was almost always necessary.

I should mention, before I go any further, that the actors and actresses that worked for us did a fantastic job.  What I’m about to talk about by no means belittles what they did for the project.  It was their job to act out the characters in the Bioshock universe and they delivered brilliantly.  Conversely, it was our job as animators to ensure that the scene read clearly and best represented their efforts.  This usually meant a lot of iteration on our part to make the scene work.  In my professional opinion, the biggest problem with using motion capture for a cinematic scene is that the amount of iteration needed can sometimes take longer to edit than if it were hand keyed in the first place.  In some instances we had to simply start over because there were times when there was actually too much movement (again not faulting the actors and actresses).  In these situations you would lose clarity because of the relative motion between character and almost motionless camera.  The closer a character was to the camera, the problem was more apparent.  Personally, I would consider the mocap data as reference first and foremost.  I would use what worked, but I was never afraid to take liberties for the sake of the performance and the scene as a whole.

I’m going to use the dance scene on the docks of Boardwalk to show my process.  Here is Elizabeth’s performance actress, Heather Gordon, performing to the dialogue during the capture session.

Here is the raw motion capture data from the session imported into 3D Studio Max.  From this point, the direction I was given was to push Elizabeth’s performance to be excited, innocent, naive.

Motion capture data stamps a key on every frame – making editing a nightmare.  Some animators like to use layers to edit the base motion from this point, which is fine but I’ve found layering to easily cause confusion even if you’re really organized.  Layers can also cause an animator to forfeit control in certain situations.  Personally, I prefer to have complete control of one layer in the scene so what I’m seeing on the timeline is what is really happening.  So I  bake the keys on every other frame to make editing a little more manageable.  After baking on 2′s, I would start to take a look at the timing.  Without going into the graph editor, I start deleting and shifting keys to make a hold cleaner, a transition faster or to cut something that seems “over-animated” (too much movement).  I then start thinking about the poses themselves and push them for maximum appeal and readability.  In some cases, I’ll add acting beats for what I feel the subtext is in the dialogue.  Here is what it looks like after I’ve done my blocking pass with the motion data.

Then I polish and making sure it plays cleanly in the game.  My personal goal was to push her appeal to the point where the player would fall in love with her at this moment.  :)