The Animation Stand
BY MAURICE MOLYNEAUX
Blissfully ignorant of the realities of time and space and plain old common sense, Maurice Molyneaux hopes someone will someday discover "retroactive reincarnation" so that when he dies he can come back in a previous life as animation director Chuck Jones. His greatest fear is to come back as Wile E. Coyote, and in the process have to learn some humility.
The time for just conceptualizing is over! Time to take all those design sketches, storyboards and other preproduction material and put it to work. The time has come to sit down at your ST and start animating.
We interrupt this article. . . .
Ah, but before we begin working in earnest, now's a good time to tell you about a neat little tool for getting a different perspective on your design.
In traditional (full) cel animation, particularly of the pose-to-pose variety (see last issue), when the key poses for a sequence have been drawn, the existing work may be committed to film to create what is known as a "pose reel." A pose reel checks the action before the dirty work of the actual animation begins. How? Each pose is photographed, not for only the frame or two for which it would appear in the final animation, but for as many frames as necessary until the next pose is struck. For instance, if Daffy Duck is looking to the left in the first pose, and the next pose has him looking to the right, and there will be twenty positions in-between those poses, the first pose is photographed for the full twenty frames, then the next is photographed for as many frames as will exist between it and the following one. This can then be viewed to see how the whole sequence of action will look and how far apart (timingwise) all the key actions are. In this manner, the animators can roughly determine if the action happens too fast or too slow, or if there are other problems.
But how can you do this on your ST? Quite simple, really. You generate graphics of each key frame in your storyboard, set them up so that they can be cycled through with a key press and videotape your ST's output (videotaping will be covered at the end of the series) as you advance through these images.
For example, with the music video I am working on I could create a pose reel either by using a video digitizer or image scanner to "grab" the individual images from the actual storyboard, or I could draw rough likenesses of these actions in a paint program. Once I had a series of these, I would somehow place them in an order that would allow me to step from one to the next almost instantaneously. A slideshow program may be able to do this (you have to make sure the pictures will cycle in the correct order), but you'll need to have it loading the images from either a fast hard disk or a RAM disk to be able to have the pictures advance when you want them to. Personally, I assemble all the pictures into a .SEQ file in Cyber Paint so I can advance through them forwards or backwards with the single-frame advance/rewind keys.
Now, making a pose reel may not seem very useful to you, but in some cases it's an extremely helpful tool. In my case, I am going to be timing my animation to a pre-existing piece of music. My timing must match the song. By creating a pose reel, I can see if what I'm attempting will work in the time the song permits.
As to how I'll get these pictures on tape in time with the music, that's simple. Hook a video-out from the ST to the VCR's video-in (again, I'll cover this in a later article), and the audio-out from my stereo system to the VCR's audio-in. I get the sequence of pose-reel images into the computer's memory, then start the VCR recording. Moments later, I start playing the music/soundtrack. As the music plays, I will advance through the images at the planned spots in the score. When I'm finished, I can study the videotape repeatedly (and also show it to colleagues for criticism and suggestions) to see if any potential problems crop up. If nothing else, this method gives a much clearer idea of what your final product may be like. Often, you'll find it's not quite what you expected!
How you create the raw images for a pose reel depends on how complex you want to get and what software you plan to use for the final animation. If you are using a paint-animation or cel-animation system (like Cyber Paint or Film Director, respectively), you can just draw (or digitize) pictures to match those in your storyboard. However, if you're using CAD-3D, you may want to build simple "test" objects and generate superviews (and save them to disk!) of them in positions that match your storyboard. Once you've done that, you can make a pose reel out of those images.
Once the design phase is completed, it's time to start creating the necessary elements for your animation. If you're using Film Director, you'll need to start drawing "shape tables," which are screens of objects you'll cut out and use as cels. If you're using CAD-3D, you'll need to start constructing the objects you will be animating (unless, of course, you are going to have a Cyber Control program "create" those objects on the fly). However, if you're going to animate "straight ahead" with something like Cyber Paint (or the upcoming DaVinci from ArtisTech), or using the polygonal/metamorphic features of Animator ST, chances are you won't be doing much pre-animation drawing.
Here are a few pointers for this stage:
If you're drawing shape tables, try cramming as many elements as you can on a single page, but try to keep them organized. Group all the hands together, the same with eyes, limbs, and so forth. Also, if you have a series of parts designed to be used in a particular movement sequence (such as leg positions for a walk cycle), try to arrange those in a row so that you never have any trouble remembering the sequence in which you intend to use them.
Another tip: Since every cel-animation system I'm aware of "clips" the individual elements out as rectangular objects (with the background color transparent), you have to make sure that no two objects creep into the same "box." I suggest drawing a thin rectangular frame around each object. This not only keeps you from overlapping any two objects, but it also makes it easy for you to clip out the cels in the animation utility because you can see exactly where the edges of the cel's area are.
For animations using 3-D objects, you should endeavor to keep your objects as simple as possible. I don't mean simple in appearance, but in construction. The more complex an object is, the more faces (the flat segments that make up the object) it will contain. The more faces there are, the longer it will take CAD-3D (or any other program that can do this kind of animation) to manipulate the objects and generate frames of them. If you are going to use CAD-3D and you need reasonably complex objects, you should buy Cyber Sculpt. This product allows you to have tremendous control over the 3-D objects, and even clean up messy joins that an object originally created in CAD-3D might contain.
Making a scene
Just about every animation program for the ST will let you use a full-screen image for a background. In Film Director you merely load the picture into one of the shape table screens, cut it out as a single large cel and place it on one of the "stages." In Cyber Paint you can "underlay" a picture under a selected series of frames. You can load a picture as a background for CAD-3D animations (only useful if you don't plan to move the "cameras") as well. You may want to create such background scenery (at least in rough form) before beginning to animate, because you may have to move a character or object relative to something in the background, like a mailbox, space station, or what have you. You can't accurately animate an object to match such a point unless you have some kind of background so you can see exactly where that object is while you're actually animating.
Fortunately, you can usually replace the background behind an animation even after you've completed it (unless you've created a delta or sequence animation with a background already present, in which case removing the existing background could prove troublesome). Because of this, you could merely draw some rough outlines showing where elements will be in the background, then go back, after animating the scene, to draw an appropriately detailed setting. You might want to do this so you can get right to the animation, or if you're not sure precisely what kind of background you need, or for some other equally good reason.
The pencil test
I am now assuming that you've completed any necessary creation of graphics/objects for your animation. The next thing to do is attempt to animate a small portion of it in order to see if it works. In cel-animation circles, the first test animation consists of photographing the actual animator's pencil drawings to see how the scene or character looks. This is known as a "pencil test," and you can consider this step the digital equivalent.
At this point you should pick a shot (if your animation has more than a single one) that will give you a chance to see if the elements you've created will work. For example, when I draw the parts for a cartoon character the first thing I do is try to animate it walking, then turning. This is a great test for characters, because if something doesn't look right, you can usually spot it immediately. Basically, when test-animating a character, you should either pick a scene in which the character has to go through a broad range of actions, or you should consider simply animating a disposable "screen test" to see if everything works.
As to CAD-3D-type animations, you'll probably want to generate a rough of what the finished shot will look like. If the objects you've created for the scene are complex, you should consider replacing them with very simple "stand-in" objects during these tests, just to get everything up to speed. This is a good idea because complex objects take a while to move, and a nice final-draft mode (CAD-3D 2.0 only) superview can take a while to generate as well. Just last night I created a 200-frame fly-by of the USS Enterprise. The object has over 4,000 faces, and each superview took two minutes to generate. All in all, it took over six hours to generate these frames (I let Cyber Control do this job while I was sleeping), and all I was doing was moving the camera in a straight line past the ship. Had I actually had the ship moving relative to the light sources or done more complex object manipulation, it could have taken as much as twice that long! (I know some people who've had CAD-3D rendering for over two days, nonstop.)
In either case, you should now have an idea of how your characters/objects move. As always, attempt to find potential trouble spots and fix them before beginning your animating in earnest.
At this stage, you should be ready to get under way with the real thing. There are many different approaches to going about the actual production phase, but here are some general pointers that you might find helpful:
Have some scratch paper and a pencil on hand. As you're animating, you may find that you hadn't thought out some actions as clearly as you should have, or you might want to try a different or new approach. If you have to experiment, sketch as necessary. The computer is a great tool for animation, but it isn't yet as fast or effective as pencil and paper for roughing out visual action.
Keep your storyboards on hand at all times and refer to them often. If your animation is at all complicated, it's easy to forget some small actions you had planned if you begin animating without them. It's also easy, in the heat of the process, to lose sight of your ultimate goal. For instance, you might get an idea to have a character do some additional bit of business at some point, but in the process unintentionally draw the attention of your audience away from where you're supposed to be leading. It's often a tough call to determine when your changes hinder rather than help. You'll have to try to keep an open mind and be willing to say, "I like that, but it's doing more harm than good."
On the other hand, you should use your storyboard as a guideline, an outline of what you're trying to do. Do not consider it a rigid instruction manual. Just because you don't follow the directions to the letter, doesn't mean you're going to break anything. If, in the middle of animating you find yourself coming up with new ideas, don't ignore them. If you can see how those ideas can help your work, by all means try to integrate them. This doesn't mean those new ideas won't have any effect in the long haul, because they are likely to. You just may have to make other alterations to get your overall goal back on track, or be willing to let the work become whatever it is changing into (hopefully, something good).
Small changes in a specific bit of business will rarely make much difference in the long run. A lot of the funnier bits of business I put Megabit Mouse through in the Art & Film Director sales video were not storyboarded. I thought of them as I was animating. As they were mostly just embellishments on the planned action, their effect was to add to Megabit's character and make the scenes funnier without changing the overall thrust of the video. They made little difference in the long haul, other than making the animation more entertaining (and that's no small thing).
If you are working with a program where you can play back your animation as you work on it, do so frequently. Loop through each new action and view everything you've done thus far every now and again. As the scene starts coming together and you can see it actually moving, you may find yourself getting new ideas or spotting mistakes you'll want to fix. Also, seeing the flow of the motion can often show you an alternative way of getting from one action to another, particularly when animating characters. Let's say you have a cat that runs into the scene, screeches to a halt and looks into a trash can. From the trash can he is supposed to bring his head up and swivel it around to look behind him. If you just determine the shortest path between these poses and animate according to that, you may find it doesn't look right. Something about the action is unnatural. When you play back the part of the scene you have completed, you can see the flow of the action thus far and try to make the next action follow that flow. I can't really explain why this works, but if you focus on seeing paths of action you will probably catch on to what I'm talking about here.
Oh, and save your work frequently. Even if you know better, it's easy to work and work and work without saving anything, and then have the program crash or your ST lockup. It goes without saying that if you've made 25 major changes to your animation without saving, you'll have some kind of crash that will send all your hard work to electron heaven. Be safe! Save your work at least every 15 minutes and make backup copies. A friend of mine lost a lot of his artwork because a bunch of his disks went bad, and he didn't have backup copies of any of them.
That's all for this time. Next time the topic will be animation techniques. From squash and stretch and motion blurs to slow ins and outs, I'll be giving you a lot of tips on how to make your animations smoother and better looking.