Eggs Why Zed - Ulven's 3d Blog

Eggs Why Zed - Ulven's 3d Blog

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I've created this blog to have an easy updatable way of providing content, learning resources, as well as talk a bit about the development we do.
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Various worflow thoughts

AnimationPosted by Ulven Wed, November 19, 2008 22:02:49

There's a lot of different workflows in animation. I want to talk a bit about the main ones and what they're good for and not so good for. First of all let me say that most animators tend to adopt at least one method and then personalize it, and although I won't say that one workflow is better than another, I can say what I find from my experience to be the pros and cons of each one. Most animators will know the basic concepts here and there might not be anything new, but hopefully some people will find something about it a bit interesting.

Do now/fix later vs. planning.
All animation should involve some planning but there is also something to be said for the trial and error approach of just making the keyframes and then deleting/moving/changing them as you see fit. It certainly helps you understand how and why things work in animation. The problem is that, especially for an inexperienced animator, you're going to make a lot of mistakes and it's going to be gradually more difficult to change your animation if something doesn't work, that could be spotted in a progressively more detailed planning process. Planning things well out can help a lot on the quality, but in many cases, with two equally experienced animators, the guy jumping in feet first and fixing things as he sees them, will complete the shot much quicker than the one planning it in great detail. In a heavily directed setting, with a lot of changes and contemplation, it will be the other way around.

Straight ahead: The favourite method of the do now/fix later animator. Possibly the quickest workflow from shot on desk to shot out the door IF the following three criteria are met: 1. You're a decent animator. 2. You know what you/the client/director wants. 3. There's minimal changes once you're done. "All" it involves is knowing how the animation should look like before you start :) No mean feat. But it works great in many circumstances. The motion is fluid. You create follow throughs and breakdowns as you go. In many cases the director/client/whatever have told me 'great job' after just a single pass through with this method. On the desk and out the door the same day. I recently started the lip synch/facial animation part of a 25 second acting shot using this method and it was complete just after lunch the same day, with the director commenting on how good the lip synch was! Now the other side of the coin is that had it not worked out, I would have had a lot of useless animation on my hands to clean up. And since the director/lead animator had no input other than the brief at the start, it could've ended up being quite a wasted bit of energy. Arguably, if you can work so much quicker this way than pose to pose that you could afford doing multiple attempts, or if the changes are small, it could work out fine. In the end, this method is most suitable for short time frame work with little or no changes needed. And it's a very suitable method for boshing shots out for things like kids tv as well as short and sweet animations. When I work freelance doing shots and ads and there is not neccessarily a director or lead animator to turn around to for opinion and direction, this is often my method of choice because I can burn through the shot at a quick pace and the client will have something 'complete' to address for the next day.

Pose to pose:  There are several slightly different approaches to this, but the main goal is to get a good sense of how the whole shot will be early on. Lay down the key/golden/storytelling poses first. Straight away both you or anyone else working on it can see what is working and what is not for the whole shot. Many use stepped keys for this so they can focus only on the poses. Once this is done, I tend to progress to finding out how long each main pose should be held for, by setting all my keys to linear and copying the pose for the entire hirearchy to a new frame in between it and the next pose, and after that, start creating breakdowns, accents etc in between each pose. 
The main benefit of this method is quite simply that it's possible to review what works and what doesn't very early on, before you lay in all that work of getting the motion looking nice. You can pass the shot to another animator quite easily, or he can work on a different character in the same scene, reacting to your key poses while you continiue to refine the motion. The main drawback with the method is that since you're not seeing exactly how your motion is going to be throughout the process, one typically finds oneself spending more time tweaking curves and working with the inbetweens, and overlaps, follow throughs etc are more difficult to get fluid (you can get a lot for free here in straight ahead animation). In the case of long form, heavily directed and/or multi animator shots this is definately the method of choice though, as the benefits most often far outweigh the drawbacks for these types of animation. 'Can we bring the character over to the left of the screen as he's doing that?' could be a killer question in straight ahead animation, but could be relatively easily spotted and changed early on in the process of pose to pose animation.

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Specialised roles in 3d production

AnimationPosted by Ulven Wed, April 09, 2008 20:26:49
I went to a lecture called "Digital Dreams" in Tate modern with Mike Milne, Director of Computer Animation, Framestore CFC, and although most of what he said was nice to hear about there was something that I find somewhat disagreeable with how the trend is in big 3d productions. It's something that I know is happening elsewhere as well and Pixar has openly said that this is how they approach it. What I find myself disagreeing with is the peaked specialisations of roles in the computer animation industry.

Essentially what it is, is that the bigger the production, the more specialized each artist tends to be. There are modellers, grouped by soft and hard body (at framestore they actually do the creature models in clay and do a 3d scan but I'm talking generally here), and to some extent now also zbrush sculptors as a specialized role. Character animators is another specialization (that there seems to be a lot of competition for as well), and some have other types of animators (technical animators for instance, and camera animators). Texture painting artists are often seperated out as well or may sometimes be combined with lighting TDs, sometimes with modellers. All of the above tend to be taken from an art course background, and there's especially focus on animator's not having to be technically competent with 3d skills.

Technical directors tend to be taken from a computer science background, require extensive experience in programming, but need only a basic understanding of motion.

All of this, seem to many to mean the death of the generalist role. People find what they're interested in early on and are adviced to focus on that alone. Now although I would agree that in this day and age you need to be somewhat specialized, essentially "have a lot of points in one of your skills", I think it's a bad thing if it becomes so specialized that all any one artist can build is the The Leaning Tower of Pisa and no one can build the Pyramids. 
To explain my analogy, what I think is important is that the skills we aquire through our education and careers are built with a solid foundation in the understanding of every aspect of 3d, then gradually specialized rather than focused entirely in one point from the start. Yes, this takes a while to do. It takes longer to get higher, but it is for sure a more sturdy building approach.

Let me take a practical example, the modeller-rigger. Modelling is a lot about understanding volume and shaping from your imagination (even with reference pictures, they don't usually show everything). Some topology knowledge is usually required, but more and more, people are wanting to be freed from such restrictions that are placed by traditional topology (all quads is a typical restriction for modellers that want to output to messiah for instance). I can understand that one as a modeller would want to free oneself from restrictions so that one can "just create, and not worry about complicated stuff". However it's much better to work WITH the process than try to work against it and have the process bend to suit you. 
A rigging aware modeller, can achieve a great control of shape, while at the same time decreasing the amount of time spent in rigging by making the topology in such a way that it will deform nicely regardless of extreme bends and squashing/stretching etc. 
The production as a whole saves time and money and can focus on more important bits.

Another practical example is the rigger-animator. Many traditionally trained TD often want to limit the animator so he can't break the rig, or rotate things so far that the deformation gets ugly. I've yet to meet a single animator that likes having limits placed on anything in the rig. The role of the rigger is to ENABLE motion control for the animator, not disable it. The kind of controls and how they should work, is far superior when created by someone who has a good understanding of how the controls are actually used, as well as how to set them up, than one that only knows how to set them up.

Then there is the animator-programmer. In general, tools that have been programmed by animator-programmers, rather than that of 'distanced' programmers, have a tendency to be more useful to animators, even though they are possibly of less complicated design and feature wise less packed. They have arisen from the direct need of the animator to do something in animation, and he makes it to suit his particular need in the way he wants to work with it. Getting this insight through imagination for the non animating programmer is a much more difficult task and often requires years of experience working with animators. We still need the pure programmers of course, what I'm saying is just that there is still a need for, and a great benefit in having animator-programmers, and other such hybrid, more generalist roles.

And as the dog chases it's tail, the programmer-lighter will use his skills in programming to enable new rendering technology and program shaders. Similarly an animator-lighter will use lighting to help convey the emotions of the animation rather than get hung up on technical details of the lighting (which, outside of the 3d world, people feel are less important anyway, as long as it looks good, none of my non-3d friends seem to care what technology made that surface look a bit peachy or how tight the radiosity shadow accuracy is). 

And of course to finish it off, the lighter-modeller will know best how to light his creations 
to make them look like he originally intended.

Generalists rejoice, there is use in you yet. I think the trick now though is to find the thing that you're good enough at to compete in with the specialists, sell yourself in on that skill alone in your demo-reel and perhaps show secondary and tertiary skills later on or in a seperate reel, or after you've got the job. What they need is a way of "slotting you in" to their system. After that, any secondary or tertiary skills you also posess is going to be what the marketing people call a 'delightful surprise' to whomever hired you, and will aid you in your job (yet a lot of the time not in getting the job in the first place). Smaller companies still highly appreciate a diverse skillset (so keep a seperate reel for them showing everything you can do) and as a freelancer you should have as many legs to stand on as possible, say yes to every job, and make sure you can outsource it to other freelancing friends of high quality if you have too much. It will come back to you later.

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