That’s right! Not only did I move from Brisbane to Vancouver but I got a job at the exact company I was aiming for – Double Negative Visual Effects!
I’ve been interested in working for them ever since I saw their work on Inception (2010) and then Eva in Ex Machina (2015).
Click here to see what is in production currently.
Currently I’m in my third week there working on a film (oooh mysterious!). It’s a much bigger facility than I’m used to with about 400 employees in the Vancouver office but everyone I’ve met there is totally lovely.
They’re teaching me how to use Linux and how to handle viewing my shots on a bigger screen without cringing.
Bit by bit, I will teach them about my punny sense of humour. I don’t want to PUNish them too quickly.
Down time. It’s what you get when you have a break between ads (isn’t that ironic?).
The by-product is you’re itching like a flea-ridden woolly jumper to do something that keeps you on your toes.
A little while ago when I had down time back in Brisbane and was hunting around with my itchy jumper on, I came across this series of videos from Animation Mentorcalled “Anatomy of a Fight”. I watched them all and found they were fascinating body mechanics to study.
I’ve loved UFC for a while now and always admired how they can create so much force with a strike. If it weren’t for the fact that I need my money makers (my hands), I would actually take up MMA as a hobby. But never fear! As an animator, we have a tool called the computer that will let you try out your hobbies risk free!
Well, RSI and obesity caused by a sedentary lifestyle aside, practically risk free. So why not save my hands in the short term and just punch something digitally?
Per usual, I started my study with thumbnail sketches of fighters in action.
I was pretty happy with them. Fighters can be as graceful as dancers I found.
I decided to start with a punch or strike first as a test.
I found an elbow strike that I really liked from this video. I chose it because the camera was fairly still, the movement was quick and it looked like the striker wasn’t holding back too much in delivering force:
Using the lessons I’d learnt from the videos, I tried to convey the power in the reference while animating. I used the gorilla rig at work from the Vellfire ads to animate my strike along with the reference.
As you can see the animation follows the timing of the video but exaggerates the poses on some of the extremes for more impact. Like a lot of realistic animation, if you don’t wind up the poses and just follow the reference exactly, the animation feels quite vanilla.
You can see above that most of the exaggeration involved twisting the torso more and changing the angle of the shoulders.
And here’s how it looks from the front with my grease pencil notes.
I couldn’t see the feet so I assumed there could be a step for a weight change and made sure to capture the snap in the hips.
I never realised how important your core is for driving the slingshot movement of a hit until I watched that series of videos I mentioned earlier. Dr. Stuart Sumida said (basically) for punches:
Your arm isn’t actually where you get the most power. If you just used your arm to punch, you’d look like one of those kangaroo pens with boxing gloves. *Which are awesome in their own right. Hours of entertainment on a writing utensil? Yes please*. Nor is your shoulder the actual base of the power.
It all starts at the root of the chain. So if you can whip the root of the chain around first, your secondary links (your core, your shoulder, your fist) will also follow through like a whip, delivering more force for you to whip it good. *Dun na na na nah! Dum, pshh, dum, pshh.*
Then after that test I started thinking about kicks.
A great reference for kicks (or any fight sequence for that matter) can be found in the movies of the legendary Jackie Chan. This video not only explains how he achieves such perfect action-comedy fight sequences physically, but how he films them as well:
I decided to focus on finding a kick of Jackie’s that I like with an extra gorilla in there for the sake of showing impact and found this one:
I liked it because it has the little hop before the kick where his screen left leg scrunches up and then POW! snaps out.’
Using this video reference I planned it out with thumbnails.
Then I used the video ref to create help with the timing of the stepped blocking and came up with this:
With a bit of re-timing and polish, I finished with this:
Not perfect (even now I can see potential tweaks) but it was an exercise so I’ll forgive it.
Luckily my lead animator Chris was on hand to give me tips on the timing and how to make the impact of the screen-left gorilla hitting the wall jolt more realistically. Really throwing the head back and then jolting it forward two frames later makes the impact feel more intense. I did a bit of that on the legs too, making them have some rebounding action off the floor.
With the screen-right (SR) gorilla, it was hard to not make him feel too snappy when he extends that leg for the kick. I had to slow down the SR arm by a frame or two so that the spacing wasn’t too far and the arm didn’t whip back and forth like Willow Smith’s hair.
What Dr Sumida (roughly) said about kicks is also true:
Guess when it comes to finding power in fighting you could TORQUE about hips all day huh? AHHHHHHH *badum tsshhh*.
I ended my experiments with fighting there but if I could keep going in my spare time, I would aim to do something like this:
They’ve been travelling around the internet so you may have seen this already but all of his animated loops are AWESOME.
I liked the choreography of the fights so much that I actually sent him an email to ask him how he does it.
To paraphrase his answer, he talked about scribbling down all the ideas he would like to see come to life in the sequence, selecting the ones that work best. Then once you pick the first move, it’s just a matter of figuring out how many of those actions you can fit in so that it finishes somewhat similarly to the first move. After that, animate away!
The whole method sounds like figuring out the steps to a dance (which could be a little complicated for Miss Naturally Clumsy of the Year over here). Yet the idea of trying out a whole sequence one day sounds really fun.
Hopefully someone else reading this might decide to try it too!
This past weekend I attended a short course through AFTRS (Australian Film Television and Radio School) called ‘Introduction to Directing’. The host was Ian Watson, an Australian director who has directed on various successful TV shows including ‘Underbelly’.
Let me tell you I did not have high hopes. All I was hoping for was at least 1 new piece of knowledge and that anyone sitting next to me would wake me nicely if I drooled over their elbow.
I was ecstatically wrong. There was a wealth of knowledge and my eyelids remained snapped open (despite the fact that I’d had only 2 hours sleep).
Instead of wading through this Scrooge McDuck wealth of knowledge, I’ve decided to pluck out the real gems that made my ears prick up. The ones that you could make some giant earrings out of and still have some left for a set of grillz.
Here they are:
1. Make the premise as short as possible.
Every scene, every script, every beat has a premise, a concept that it is trying to convey. Figure out what it is and make it short. For example, you could be wanting to drive conflict by telling actors the premise for a scene is:
OR you could achieve the same result by saying:
2. Don’t micromanage in small teams.
There can be a tendency to want to control a lot in a small team. You have to trust that everyone knows what they’re doing. Let them do what they’re there to do.
3. Every time we cut, we break tension.
This is something that made complete sense when I heard it, but I had never actually considered. It’s possibly why the infamous “long take” shot in Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) makes me feel so uptight. In this shot, I feel as if the world is incredibly fraught with danger for Clive Owen’s character because you never get a break from following him, you aren’t offered another perspective and everything happens in real time. It’s a relentless way of forcing the audience to stay within the moment.
That being said….
4. Use cuts to punctuate beats.
One of our exercises was to physically direct a short scene in a script consisting of about 5 beats. One person wanted to shoot the whole scene as one shot.
This choice was completely fine but it meant that any changing beats were not defined by cuts. It could read like theatre, as if we’re just recording the action. Even if you as a director can “feel” the beats being played out using one shot, the audience may not. Adding cuts punctuates these beats.
If you’re going to do away with cuts, than you will have to find other ways to define the beats.
5. Directors must be like builders.
Another person in the class pointed out how incredibly involved we were becoming in the minutiae of the scenes, the beats and the premise. Is this involvement with all the small details actually getting through to the audience? Would they recognise these details?
Ian gave us an analogy about builders, something to the affect of:
What Ian was saying was that by being involved in the minutiae, you can make sure that a story is coherent. An audience won’t see all the thoughts that have gone into the foundations like the premise but they will understand the story overall. And even if they can’t articulate why they feel this way, they will understand that the story has been told well and maybe they’ll say:
6. Know who is driving the scene.
In a scene, even in shots, there tends to be one character who’s intention is more dominant than other characters or elements. Their intention is probably driving the story forward. This character is said to be “driving the scene”. It’s important to understand which character this is so that you can give them more screen space or screen time.
In this scene, Remy (the grey rat) is telling Emile (the brown rat) about his passion: food. When he discovers that Emile has a fantastic piece of cheese in his bag, he can’t contain his excitement. This translates to Remy being the more animated of the two and the character the camera follows more. Emile’s movements are smaller so as not to draw the focus away from Remy and he is awarded less screen time.
Despite Remy being the main character for the film, he doesn’t drive every scene. In this scene:
– Remy is trying to help Linguini the chef to cook. Linguini is venting his frustration at how Remy is biting and scratching him under his shirt in a bid to control his movements.
Linguini is driving the scene. This means that most of the shots are shot at human eye level, rather than at the eye level of Remy. As a result, Remy is smaller on screen and his intentions are diminished along with the size of his character. This makes us feel as if we are with Linguini and reinforces the fact that his motivations are driving the scene.
7. Actors are the guardians of their character.
This is particularly true for episodic actors who have a history of playing this character. They are likely to know how the character will react and feel in certain situations.
If you as a director are uncertain of whether an actor should, say, deliver a line with sincerity or sarcasm, it is important to consult the actor on how they feel the character would act. Actors can help you to maintain consistency with the character by protecting their character’s behaviours.
8. You don’t have to play games with actors.
I asked Ian: “If you wanted an actor to feel intimated in the shot, would you as a director go about bullying them on set to make them feel intimidated?”
Ian responded with how he doesn’t play games with actors.Allegedly some directors do “monster” their actors, but you don’t have to. Ian knows he can achieve the results he wants in other ways. Part of that is in respecting an actor’s process and in recognising when they’re about to “pop”. If they’re about to give you the performance you need (eg. about to cry), you can rework your shooting schedule to shoot their crying shots first.
9. Tension is the enemy of the actor.
Actors spend time learning to relax so they can embrace their role. Bringing tension to the set can mess with their process.
So try to keep the set relaxed. Chill.
10. Story is king.
And finally, my absolute favourite lesson of the day was simply this:
“Hmm, no let’s do someone more distinctive. Maybe someone with more wrinkles?”
“How about Peter Cushing? You know, Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars?”
[Googles. Encounters images of a wonderfully unique-looking man. He looks as if he’s eaten a a bag of lemons AND the bag the lemons came in.
Begins timidly pushing a sphere around in Mudbox.]
“Steph, you gotta get in there and just hack at it, fast! And it’s good if you start looking at his face from many different angles for reference. Create a page in Photoshop and just grab as many pictures as you can of him.”
“And make sure you look at him from other angles with the camera in Mudbox, instead of just trying to sculpt from one angle.”
Does looking up the nostrils help?
“Alright now start scratching the surface with a textural brush, give the sculpt some roughness. And don’t be afraid to cut lines into the thing. Look at Michelangelo’s sculptures. Check out David’s eye! He cut a line into the marble to define the iris. Your eyes don’t do that, but he made a decision to cut in so he could make distinctions in a naturally smooth surface. Pretty crazy.”
“Wow Steph, it’s well good for a first try innit! Proper mint!”
Big thank you to Will Preston, our 3D generalist at Alt.vfx for showing me the ropes while experimenting with my first sculpt. You can check out Will’s awesome work here.
NOTE: The dialogue is a rough recount of some the conversations I had with Will. Also he’s English, so he may or may not actually say stereotypical things like “well good” or “mint” but you get the gist. Regardless, please imagine the dialogue in blue with a wicked English accent.
If you haven’t seen our latest Pepsi Ad for Japan, I encourage you to watch it now because it’s THOOPER KEWL!
It’s a take on the Japanese folk story of Momotaro (known as Peachboy) where a boy with various animal companions travels to an island to fight demons. This Pepsi Ad is the fourth installment (the series starts at zero) where the new demon seen (known as an Oni) is winged. I guess it’s mimicking the pheasant in the story? Who knows. All you need to know is it’s AWESOME.
I’m very fortunate to have had 4 shots on this ad. 2 of them are CG bird shots and 2 are simple Oni shots. The bulk of the animation was provided by our wonderful lead animator Chris.
The Oni shots were interesting in that the Oni is bigger than a multi-storey building, and so he had to move very slowly due to gravity having a greater effect on his mass (see 01:34). This was new for me as I’d never animated something that was meant to be so large, but our lead taught me to follow reference footage, extend the animation keys out over more time and then go back to tweak overlapping body parts.
The bird shots were tricky in that they had to be realistic movements of fast birds shot in slow motion. There also had to be about 25 of them customised to fly in random directions in one shot(see 00:25). This meant using a basic flight cycle for most of them and then varying their gliding and flapping motions over their flight paths. Then some of them were also perched on the walls and on ledges, so they had to have their own custom animations of them looking around or walking or taking off. All of these factors relied on one thing for pulling it off: study, study, study.
Reference footage like this:
-was a Godsend. It’s one example of the many Youtube videos I watched to get their movements working well. And although it may sound like a bit much for a 2 second shot –
Sometimes Everyday I hear a song that makes me feel like dancing. So here are some sketches I did in my down time inspired by beautiful women dancing like rockstars in the Pharell video clip “Come Get it Bae”.
Take it easy on the clutch.
If you haven’t seen the video, take a look.
I will willingly take the blame when you inevitably start dancing too.
Question: Have you ever ACTUALLY looked at bat feet or how a bird’s wings connect to their skeleton?
No? Well you’re in for a freaky ride. This is all stuff I’ve learnt while having to animate winged creatures at Alt. vfx. In no way am I an expert, these are just things that have come up over and over again through observation. To any biologists out there, feel free correct me if I’m not on the money.
1. BIRD SHOULDERS
Let’s start with birds. This:
One feathered dinosaur and one hairless ape. Source: Biology Corner
– is a bird skeleton compared to a human skeleton. So let’s play spot the difference! First, take a squizz at that wing and the human arm. In general the bone hierarchy lines up:
To be fair, bird scapulas (or “shoulder blades”) seem to vary from species to species, but for birds of flight, it seems that the scapulas are weird in the sense that they’re not as flat or as wide as a human scapula. They’re kind of small and spindly and more tucked into the spine then ours. And from what I’ve read, the point of it being different from ours is that it forms a canal for the tendon of a muscle to poke through to the wing and allow the bird to lift its wing up in flight.
Crazy right? There’s basically a hole for muscle to poke through. And so what it may imply is that realistically birds might have trouble doing this:
Yup, SHRUGGING. All of those muscles attached to our flat scapula help us to lift our shoulders as a response when someone asks you if that segregated steak is ok to eat (which it is if you like food the cat licked). As birds don’t have the same shoulder blade structure, who knows if they could actually express this confused nonchalant-ness?
But a small scapula is not really the end of the world. From what I’ve observed, that gap created by their scapula gives them a range of motion in their wings that us humans can only envy, particularly with small birds. At their highest point when flapping, their wings can practically touch behind their back. If you tried to stretch your arms straight behind you, you could get your hands to touch but maybe only at a low point. Those damn scaps get in the way, limiting your flexibility. You could only get them up higher behind you if you dislocate your shoulders like some crazy street magician.
In short, bird scapulas are weird (but also kind of cool).
To be sure, I checked image after image, only to find that it’s really hard to tell if bat feet are coming or going from pictures alone. So after some convincing from a work colleague and a trip to the museum, I realised that I was completely wrong. BAT FEET ARE AS WEIRD AS BIRD SCAPULAS.
But the weirdness is not totally isolated to their feet either, it’s kind of in their whole leg structure. According to the Natural History Museum:
‘[Bat] legs are attached so that the knees bend the opposite way to those of humans: backwards and outwards instead of forwards.’
A trip to the Queensland Museum confirmed this on various bat skeletons. Not only that, but according to one of the friendly museum employees, bats have almost 180 degrees of inflection in the feet. Meaning they can practically FLIP THEIR FEET TO FACE EITHER WAY.
Backward knees AND extreme Mary Poppins feet? Where does the weirdness end?!
3. BIRD COLLAR BONES
Probably here. Because the last little nugget of weirdness I’ve got for ya is this: bird collar bones (clavicles) fuse together to form a strut called a furcula.
And do you know what we commonly call the furcula?
That’s right, A WISHBONE. Every time you are eating that delicious chicken and then turning to your neighbour to see who can snap off the bigger part of the wishbone, know this:you are snapping a bird’s collar bone. AHHHHHH!!! Horrifying! I can practically feel my collar bones wincing in terror!
It’s probably not as bad as actually eating the bird, but still, you know……………….ow.
1. Bird scapula = weird.
2. Bat legs = weirder.
3. Breaking a wishbone = ………*shudders*
If anyone would like tips for animating a flying bird, check out this article. It has some gems of wisdom that don’t involve broken bones :).