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I’m Working at Dneg!

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.

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A Little Cushing for the (Sculptural) Pushin’

“Hmm, I need a distinctive face. One that would be somewhat easy to capture in my first sculpt. Who has a distinctive face?”

“Clint Eastwood?” 

Bi-da-doo. WAH WAH WAH!

Bi-da-doo. WAH WAH WAH! (Source: science-all.com)

[Googles.]

“Oh man is that what his son looks like? Clint’s got some genes!”

[Several minutes of distracted scrolling.]

“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?”

“Who?”

[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. 

He’s perfect.

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.”

Cushing_study

Cushing_sculpt_v02

“And make sure you look at him from other angles with the camera in Mudbox, instead of just trying to sculpt from one angle.”

Cushing_angles

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.”

The eyes have it!

The eyes have it! (Source: Pinterest).

“Alright…”

After several tweaks, I ended up with:

Final Cushing Sculpt

“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.

Plane and Simple

Steel yourself for 2 seconds of AWESOME PAPER AIRPLANE. It’s going to change your life and hopefully mine when everyone realises all my animation skills are wrapped up in those precious few frames.Praise will flock in from every corner of the globe and I will ride on the back of this paper vessel into the future of awesome.

Ok, ok, so it’s just one simple arc of it travelling between 2 floating houses, but you know what? I’m still pretty proud to be apart of the team that helped pull the whole thing together. I can’t claim a lot to do with getting to the finished product (that credit goes to the rest of the amazeballs people I work with) but I can say I helped out with some layout, basic animation of the house and the little origami wonder that probably contains some message about how awesome ‘Game of Thrones’ is. I mean, what else WOULD it say?

The amazing VFX (and that paper airplane) can be viewed here in the new spot for Optus promoting Unlimited Broadband:

And in addition, the glowing reviews we received can be found HERE!

Source: Photobucket.

Source: Photobucket.

Yes it is cat. Yes it is.

Croissants and Squirrels

In the beginning, the Food God (a talking cookie) created the hummus heavens and the eclair earth. And Food God said, “Let there be a buttery vessel that will teach Stephanie a lesson about animation!”, and there were croissants.

I’m assuming that’s how croissants were born because there must have been a divine God to create something so delicious AND wise at the same time.

Thanks for your creation talking cookie! You really helped me to improve this animation:

The lesson all began when I posted about improving your field in the art ecosystem by exploring other areas of influence. So two weekends ago, I decided to explore making croissants!

Now making croissants is no mean feat. It took me 2 days. 2 DAYS. From butter making love with dough to mouth = 2 days. It’s not that I read the recipe at the speed of rock, it’s that the layers of a croissant require butter to be folded into the dough and then left for an hour to rise. Then taken out of the fridge and rolled out, folded, left to rise, rolled out, folded, yada yada and so on for a total of 4 times.

The fatty moon ships of buttery gold that I made.

The fatty moon ships of buttery gold that I made. *Descends into gargling drool pit* – gluhhhghggh…

Where the croissants emphasised a lesson of value was in the rising. In the step where I put the pastry in the fridge to rise and do something else for an hour and come back, the pastry has changed. It’s risen. When I roll out the dough, I can start to see more layers of the butter than when I first began.

That butter must be rich because it's rolling in dough. HEY-OH! Double pun! Source: Girl +Food = Love.

That butter must be rich because it’s rolling in dough. HEY-OH! Double pun! Source: Girl +Food = Love.

Improving animation is sometimes like making croissants. In the time between when you think an animation is finished, and you go back to improve it once more, something has changed. YOU have changed. You’ve gone away from it, thought about Mario Kart/life, and come back to something completely different to the way you left it. Like the layers of butter being exposed in the pastry, suddenly the flaws in your animation rise to the surface and you can see what everyone was talking about when they said something could be improved.

Why does this happen? I think it’s because you stepped away from it and came back with a level of openess to viewing the whole piece, rather than focussing on the individual cogs that make up the machine.

Woah, that’s some Kum Ba Yah stuff I just said right there.

Even Richard Williams says he viewed his work differently after he finished his film The Little Island (1958):

“Three years later, when I’d finished the film, the unpleasant realisation slowly crept up on me that I really didn’t know  very much about animation articulation, that is, how to move the stuff.” The Animator’s Survival Kit: Expanded Edition 2009, p1.

That’s what happened to my Tailor animation. About a year ago, I handed in this jumping ball with a tail thinking that I’d done a great job. Yet I was left with the advice that I should track the tip of the tail to improve it. I didn’t see the point.

A year later, I viewed it back and instantly could see that something was off. I tracked the tail as I’d been advised and voila! I could see the problems with my haphazard motion path:

Tracking the tip of the tail shows a jagged motion path.

Tracking the tip of the tail shows a jagged motion path.

To fix it, I needed a bit more study of tails. So I watched the squirrel tails in the scenes from The Sword in the Stone (Reitherman, 1963). I watched a squirrel’s tail at rest. I watched a squirrel reach victory in an obstacle course:

What I learnt about squirrels is that they can move ridiculously fast. They dart around, a bit like birds. That’s why it makes sense when Hammy the squirrel drinks an energy drink in Over the Hedge (Kirkpatrick & Johnson, 2006) which makes him runs so fast that he sees the world stand still. That’s why Scrat in Ice Age (Wedge & Saldanha, 2002) can hop up and down in just 3-4 frames and it doesn’t phase the audience.

SQUIRRELS. ARE. FAST.

So I did a test at work one day with a new Squirrel rig and made my squirrel bounce fast and low like a real squirrel:

 

The other thing I realised is that if the squirrel is moving fast (and it’s not actively controlling the tail), then it doesn’t look right if the tail moves in huge, glorious arcs. If it’s moving low and fast, the tail is more likely to stream out behind it in a small wave path. Bigger tail arcs are for bigger and slower jumps.

BIG TAIL ARCS = slow.

SMALL TAIL ARCS = fast.

It sounds obvious, but I totally didn’t get that before. This time with the new animation, I made sure to plan the arcs of the tail (using the Blue Pencil Maya plugin) so that the tail movement fit the body:

The new arcs are much smoother and prettier!

The new arcs are much smoother and prettier!

If you want a breakdown of how I animated the squirrel, it was the main body control first, then spine, head, mouth, ears and finally the tail. When animating the tail, I tried to copy/paste the curves of the first joint down onto the second joint, but the result was a big wave that wasn’t even following the arcs that I wanted, so I pretty much tweaked the whole tail as one once the key poses were in. This is what it looked like in the end:

Thanks to stepping away from the animation and coming back, I think the results are much more satisfying than my previous attempt. Maybe a month from now, I’ll see even more areas for improvement.

In short, if you have a shot that you think is polished and you can’t see anything wrong with it, give it time. Move on to something else, grab a croissant and come back when you can view your piece like new. Maybe something will reveal itself as an area to fix. Then you can grab another croissant and get to work!

Bon appétit!

Animation food!

Animation food!

Competition Entry – Soccer Poses

Last month in honour of the FIFA World Cup, Animation Mentor held a competition challenging participants to submit their best football poses. I didn’t win some free lectures (dangit) but I thought I’d share my thumbnail sketches and my entry here anyway!

Competition entry

The pose I submitted.

The pose I rejected.

The pose I rejected.

And these are the thumbnail sketches I did to create the poses. As you can see, I did have some more “hero” type soccer poses like bicycle kicks, but I wanted to do something different from the other entries, and so I went in another direction. For reference I looked at top players like Zlatan, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Messi, Pele, Beckham and Rooney. Thank bejeezus I have a soccer-loving boyfriend who could point me to all these awesome athletes!

World Cup Competition Sketches

Click the image to enlarge.

How I Animate a Lie

For my final assignment at Animation Mentor (aww!) I was tasked to pick a 10 second piece of dialogue to animate to. After rifling through various movies, how could I go past the brilliant young Saoirse Ronan in this scene of Atonement?

It’s a SUPER subtle scene (*background context provided below) that has everything you could ask for in a character performance: hesitation, conviction and also – A LIE.

Ughhhhh. That’s the sound I made when I delved deeper and discovered how hard it is to create a good lying reference.

As with all assignments at Animation Mentor, it’s crucial that you have video reference of yourself or others acting out what you want your animated character to do in the scene. For my character Briony (Ronan), I had to put myself in her shoes and think what she would think while trying to convey deception.

“No duh Stephanie, that’s acting 101. What’s so hard about that?”

The tricky part was this: you can’t be too good at lying.

After my first attempt at lying:

– the feedback I received from my mentor Erik was that the body language looked nervous but too convincing. If you want to show deception, you have to let slip hints of the truth.

The ultimate question you have to ask yourself is:

How good of a liar is your character? Will they give it away very easily or can they hide the truth pretty well?”

Lie_ranking

If I had to set it on a lying capability scale from 1-10 (1 being Cindy Brady who can never hide the truth and 10 being the sly deceiver Hannibal Lecter) I would say my character should be about a 6. She’s a doubtful ten-year-old girl who is hovering between believing the lie and confessing the truth. She can look the person in the eye while lying but at some point she’s going to give the game away with a few pieces of hesitant body language.

So to gather a better video reference, I had to study the shifty body language that gives the game away, commonly called “tells”. This was weirdly fun and interesting to do. Think of watching videos of poker players who bluff their way through high stakes and President Bill Clinton shifting in his chair when questioned about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

There are also various videos (eg. How to Read Hands) and writings (eg. I Can Read You Like a Book by Gregory Hartley) analysing what certain gestures or expressions mean. These interpretations were fascinating to study but also conflicting depending on the source, so I took any analysis with a grain of salt and tried to be merely an observer of body language.

What my research led me to conclude was that everyone deceives differently and I don’t think there’s a definitive guide to lying. Sorry Samuel L Jackson, but when you look left I don’t believe it ALWAYS means you’re lying.

However I do believe some deceptive behaviours can be repeated amongst different people, like this picture shows here:

524dc7abe691b226d3c4428d_736

Source: LittleFun.org

I found the best thing to do when researching lies is to watch a variety of lies in progress and pick some behaviour that a liar exhibits which you can replicate. I liked the idea of my character shifting her body weight, rubbing her hands and darting her eyes around.

With a bit more knowledge in mind, I set about to re-record video reference. And man oh man, did I live in front of a camera:

The reason I have so many pieces of reference is because when I was on camera, it was hard to remember all the details I’d planned for the action, like wringing my hands while shifting my eyes and frowning. Compartmentalising the actions of my hands and face helped me to overlap them later, even if I didn’t use every piece of reference in the end.

Once the action was roughed out in my animation, the main piece of advice I kept receiving was: “Contain the action.”

Huh? CONTAIN the action??? What the heck does that mean?! As far as I know, when you want to show off your animation chops, you create big, broad pieces of action that loop-de-loop all over the screen like this:

Lie_loopdeloop

Doing subtle performances where your main focus is the face is the complete opposite of what I’d been encouraged to do previously. In short:

Big actions = comforting.

Subtle actions = TERRIFYING.

However, Erik was right. You can hear in her voice that she doesn’t need to prance around like a unicorn and you can see from the original film performance that Briony is almost completely still in her chair. If she had sounded more nervous, I might make her move around a little more, but minimalism was what this piece required, so no muss, no fuss.

And there it is! As you can see she began by moving around a little too much in the early stages but I eventually stripped it back at the polishing stage. I still have some more passes to get through to refine the action further, but at least I now know that when you animate a lie you should:

  1. Determine how good the character is at lying.
  2. Research different lies and pick behaviours your character could exhibit.
  3. Compartmentalise your reference if it’s difficult to act out all at once.
  4. Strip back the action if it doesn’t suit the dialogue.

P.S. If anyone else has ideas for improvement with my animation or tips about lying, please feel free to comment! It’s always very much appreciated :D.

 

*SPOILER SIDE NOTE: This is a scene where 10-year-old Briony is testifying that she saw the groundskeeper Robby (James McAvoy) rape her cousin. However she never saw Robby’s face, she has just misjudged his character and assumed it was him.