A character sketch for a game I’m developing.
A character sketch for a game I’m developing.
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.
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:
“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:
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!!
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.
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. :)
During my time at Irrational Games, I would get a chance to develop the in-game cutscenes by creating storyboards and editing them with sound effects. These were used to design the basic layout, timing and pacing of a scene. These were the last 2 passes of several iterations. I had many other scenes like these that lay on the cutting floor or have yet to be released.
In this version, I pushed her a little too far into the sexy realm but it was a good exploration in how to go about revealing her face.
Here, she’s not as sexy and more powerful. Notice how Booker gets up to meet her instead of Liz going to him. This was the version that was approved. The dialogue was placeholder.
Warner Brothers Studios, Disney Animation, Don Bluth Studios, Charles Schulz, the list goes on and on…. ALL OF THEM were behind my reasoning in choosing animation as a career. I can remember being a teenager, hanging out in my room, listening to Black Sabbath and making incredibly crude flip books out of typing paper and masking tape while using a desk lamp about 6 inches off the page so I could see the frame underneath. I cannot tell you how many times I burned my hand using this method, so I advise against it. :) I think I still have one of those flip books around somewhere.
I can remember enrolling at Ringling School of Art & Design in 1995, being heavily advised to join the Illustration program - even though the Computer Animation students were the only students allowed to take the traditional animation class offered at the school (which NEVER made sense to me). After a semester at in the Illustration program, I left Ringling and joined the Marines. (because that’s what every aspiring animator does, right?)
“I will animate the bejeezus out of the enemy.”
When I returned to Ringling in 1999, the “Death of 2D” nonsense was showing it’s ugly face around the industry, so I enrolled as a Computer Animation major this time around. My traditional animation teacher was the one and only Deborah Healy and I couldn’t have asked for a more encouraging and inspiring animation teacher. Here are some of the 2D tests I did during the fall semester back in Y2K.
This would be the only exposure I’d have to traditional animation during my time at Ringling – which is pretty sad figuring how detrimental the fundamental concepts were to me in the years to follow.
Flash-forward to 2003, I was a very green animator, fresh out of school and I considered the graph editor in Maya to be the end-all to my success as an animator. It wasn’t until I sat down with my good friend and mentor James Chiang, that I realized how far I had strayed away from the basic concept of animation – a series of sequential images played in succession to create the illusion of life. He told me to “forget everything I’ve learned” and get back to basics. He introduced me to the concept of stepped-blocking while I was animating a test of Rodney (Robots) kicking a tin can down the street. It was a moment of clarity that matched Anton Ego’s bite of Ratatouille. Everything just suddenly made sense to me. I was no longer concerned with how clean my graph editor was and just treated the 3D software as a tool to make traditional style animation. I wish I had kept a version of that Rodney test because it was an epiphany in my animation career. Thanks James.
I can remember in the early days of Horton’s production, technology was catching up with traditional animation. I was playing around with ideas for Horton using a new software called “Plastic Animation Paper”. I can remember the director enjoying the quick turn-around of ideas the pencil tests would provide, which led to the discussion of getting similar software for the other animators. The head of R&D at the time convinced us it would be better to develop our own version of 2D animation software. After a few years of back and forth with engineer Hugo Ayala, the proprietary Blue Sky software “Sketch” was born. It was an amazing piece of animation software with a solid drawing utility and film-editing functionality. I still think it should be made available to the public because it would bury everything else available on the market.
This made the idea of creating pencil-tests as previs for animation an extremely feasible option for the animators. Rather than spending days blocking out a single iteration of a shot, you could literally turn around a few ideas within a day or two to get feedback quickly. I was also as happy as a pig in $h*t, because traditional animation was once again easily accessible.
It has been a major part of my workflow in film and in game development. Here more examples of how I used pencil tests to explore ideas in both mediums.
I was asked by my brother Jeff to visit his college. They were hosting a workshop for some middle-school kids to introduce them to basic game development software. Jeff wanted me to talk about working in the business. During Jeff’s portion of the presentation, I noticed his professor watching intently. He is a Ukrainian fellow named Igor. I had to sketch him.
I will never forget this sketch. I did it for the twitter group Sketch_Dailies last week. I was working on it when I got the call that Irrational closed. Finally got to wrapping it up this morning. The theme is “Robot Monster”.