Friday, March 21, 2008

Character design in animation

Hey gang. This is intended mainly for the animators and artists in the bunch, but all are welcome to comment and read. Warning, this is gonna be heavy on opinion.

After seeing and thinking about what John K. had to say about Bullwinkle (see previous post), I really got to thinking about the importance of exploring a character's design. And not using one version of a character throughout a film. I'm convinced that it's still attainable on a short deadline, if you put your heart into it. Just as an example, I dug up some screenshots from the Powder and Glory short Dustin and I worked on at FableVision. Note: I know I mentioned I never wanted to speak about client work on the Creative Juices blog. I'm offering this as an example of a project that was finished awhile ago, and only for analysis.

The short featuring Helena was around 40 seconds long. I believe we finished it in around 2 weeks. It was composed in 7 shots (or cuts), and included about 15 different key drawings of Helena. I pulled out some keyframes to look over.

The first thing I want to point out is that each of these shots uses a unique drawing of the character. There are no recycled goods. Secondly, like Bullwinkle, Helena is a character easily described. She's short (about 3 heads high with tiny legs), has a oval for a face, has short black hair with a widow's peak, has a distinct nose, and has a temper about her. Each drawing uses a subtle variation on that formula. But she is easily recognized. It didn't take me much more than an afternoon to design her, and I could keep my drawings loose because she has a simple design. And she's FUN to draw...that part is important, by the way.

I storyboarded the short one shot at a time and drew her to compliment each shot. When I moved to keyframe design, I painted in the backgrounds, tightened up the drawings I made and handed off half the shots for Dustin to animate, while I took the other half. Each shot was animated on its own terms. Because there was no lipsync, there wasn't even a need to reuse mouth shapes.

Now, let's get down to brass tacks. Without a library, this approach meant that I needed to create the brunt of the artwork. Which is good and bad. It gave me a lot of control over the characters, but it meant that Dustin rarely created original character art or poses. Keeping the line quality consistent becomes difficult (because Dustin has a different line than I do). This was especially because we used little or no tweening, so there was a lot of redraw in the animation.

To be fair, the short was under a minute. And there was no need to reuse her afterwards. So creating a library didn't make a lot of sense. This approach could easily get out of hand on series work (where lots of animators are involved, lots of lipsync gets used, and there are a lot more films to create). It would be difficult to keep everything consistent unless you took the time to train all the artists to draw the characters. Funny, though, because this was how it was done for most of the history of animation. A character library, instead, offers a certain efficiency and a measure of safety to keep everything in check. It's less risky. And it works. But can we do MORE?

It should be no secret by this point that I am an advocate of a limited library approach. I like to redraw my characters. But I would love to develop a hybrid approach that would allow for more spontaneity in our longer films as well. To breathe some life into that Flash stiffness we all know (and I am personally not a fan of). I wrote about this to get a discussion going. And I'd LOVE to hear more from everyone to get your opinions on the matter. ---THANKS!


John L said...

I'm surprised there haven't been any comments on this -- where are all the animators? :-)

I think this is a great thing to strive for. I'm not involved in too many animated films these days, but I'd be glad to help figure out new systems to work on this.

Bob Flynn said...

I'm not trying to stir up a heated discussion. Or start a revolution. I'm just putting my thoughts and ideas on paper. This is how I try to lead my it might not work for everyone. I'm just sharing my ideas.

I'm mainly stressing the importance of character design---exploring a character to its fullest. It can make our limited animation even better. By keeping our characters as expressive as possible.

Like I mentioned, I'm personally going to work towards a system that reuses mouth cycles and walk cycles. But not to be afraid of actually redrawing the whole character more often than pulling from a library.

John L said...

I think this is great stuff, and not that radical at all. I think in our character designs, we don't always consider the animator -- we just make cool characters that may or may not animate well. Your last few postings really point out how this can make a difference and free up the animators.

Also animators should build in a little extra time to practice drawing the characters freehand before they start animating.

Renee Kurilla said...

I've taken a long time to comment on this because I have been thinking about it a lot and am not sure how to respond...mostly because I just proposed the whole library system.
I have a great deal of respect for animations that are completely redrawn. I also think it would be a great practice for us to work on more animations this way. Maybe we can start with FVTV?
Unfortunately, time is limited. And I think would require a bigger team (depending on the project, of course).
I'd like to talk more about this outside of the blog :)

Bob Flynn said...

Here's the thing. The Library is probably one of the most important features in Flash. I'd say it follows: Tool palette, Stage, Timeline, and then Library. So we SHOULD be using it. I'm not opposing symbols or the Library. I guess what I'm opposed to is drawing a character only once, and copying and pasting them throughout the entire film. And I will repeat, this is how you're supposed to use Flash. And I would say is about how 90% of people use Flash.

But in some animation circles, Flash gets a bad rep for its short-cuts. It has made it that animation is incredibly easier to do, faster to do, and cheaper to produce. There is a style to Flash animation---a recognizable look. It has become a NEW way to animate. Flash has birthed master "tweeners" that have created amazing films. And the next version of Flash is supposed to include a skeleton system to make tweening even easier. Look at ColdHardFlash and you will see tweening-galore.

If anything, I come off as a backwards thinking for wanting do things old-fashioned. I'm proposing a more conservative way of making cartoons. Potentially time-consuming and slower.

I think some of my thinking is rooted in comics. Because I'm used to having to redraw characters (AND backgrounds) over and over again to pull off the art form. And I should repeat if I haven't enough already that I ENJOY drawing the same character over and over. It gives me pleasure, I guess because I took the time to create it. Each time I redraw it is like re-affirming it's existence. Kind of like how new parents take TONS of pictures of their kids.

An even bigger part is recognizing a certain look of animation I want to personally achieve, which has nothing to do with the Flash style. And everything to do with old cartoons and modern-day retakes like Ren and Stimpy and Spongebob. So my bias is HEAVY. It couldn't be heavier, unless I changed my name to John K.

Renee, I think you've done wonders organizing a system that is working incredibly proof, just look at the stellar work you and your team are producing on the Zebrafish. Episode 5 is one of the better pieces of animation I've seen come out of FableVision in awhile. Your characters have TONS of personality in spite of a Library system. You're using a Library the way it should be used...with the special touch of a true artist.

But I will say this. You may have proposed this version of a Library system. But you didn't invent it. You learned it at Soup 2 Nuts (correct me if I'm mistaken). The system was developed to ensure they could make series work as efficiently as possible, and to require as little training as possible for fresh recruits out of college. To get new animators up and running and cranking out series work.

The construction of this system, in my opinion, is based on the idea that you get a talented person to design a character based on a turnaround. You figure out how the character looks from 5 or 6 different angles, and that's it. Slice and dice them into pieces, build a mouth cycle, and most of the heavy lifting is done.

It's only AFTER this that you begin thinking about images and story-boarding. And I guess this is my personal point of difficulty. My brain doesn't work that way, just like I've never been able to really understand tweening to move body parts. It's actually quicker for me to draw. That may not be the case for everyone.

In the very least, I want to encourage people to remember that animation used to be about drawing. And that we shouldn't necessarily be so quick to let the computer dictate how things should look. That said, I recognize that Flash is a tool for animation as much as a pen or a pencil is.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and was inspired all of a sudden to get my thoughts out in the open. I think this warrants an offline discussion for sure. But a blog is a perfect place to express ideas and thoughts.

At some point, I would love to have an "artists" meeting in studio---once a week---just like the developers currently do. We could discuss methodology and ideas...I'm SERIOUS when I say that my intent is to take us to the next level. To make everyone stand up and notice the amazing work FableVision creates. I want us to be at the top of our game.

Thanks the both of you for chiming in. I'd love to hear from everyone else. So maybe a meeting would be more formal.

Ugh...sorry for this long column of text. If comments would allow, I would sprinkle doodles in to make it easier on the eyes ;)