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!
“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 –
fxguide included one of the ads I worked on in a “Jaw-dropping effects” article.
Pretty much, if you wanted to translate the amazing feeling I’ve had into a song, it would be this:
To start at the top, I’ve recently been on trial as an animator at alt.vfx (the studio where I started out as a production assistantin client service over a year and a half ago). I KNOW, CRAZY COOL RIGHT!?! You can actually work your way up from the bottom like a couple of mailroom monsters.
Like Mike and Sully in ‘Monster’s University’! Source: flickr
In that trial time, I worked as one of the animators of some CG birds for the Woolworths supermarket spots in Australia:
– and also this slick ad for Honda HRV:
Pretty cool right? With the birds, I just adjusted some recycled animation, but with the Honda ad, I was responsible for the car-forming shots and a bit of layout. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot but the car-forming shot meant I had to sort out every piece of geo on the car (and I mean EVERY nut, screw and bolt) and create multiple revisions on how the car should form.
Then of course our cray-mazing lighters, compositors and editors put it together to look realistic.
What’s really cool is that fxguide then reviewed that work in this article:
– which also includes reviews for television commercials from the studio Framestore, MPC and Method Studios.
That’s right guys: alt.vfx is up there with the best of them.
The same day that article was published (2 days ago) I was then officially offered a full-time role as a junior animator. So now I work at one of the best studios in Australia. Could the day get any better!?
Oh and I had a low-carb burger for lunch and it still tasted as good as a real burger. CAREER AND HEALTH FOR THE WIN!
So watch this space for updates on the next round of ads! It’s some cool stuff and I’m excited to share it with you!
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:
Now making croissantsis 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. *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.
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.
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 squirreldrinks 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!
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!
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!
The pose I submitted.
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!
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?”
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:
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:
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:
Determine how good the character is at lying.
Research different lies and pick behaviours your character could exhibit.
Compartmentalise your reference if it’s difficult to act out all at once.
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.
You’re a tiger baby, yeah! That’s the Austin Power’s photoshoot vibe I was trying to channel in my first assignment with Animation Mentor (above).
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I said I would post the 7 poses I created in term 1. I finally got around to rendering them and compiling the initial version of the pose (on the bottom) with the final version after peer and mentor critique.
‘Free Pose’ Critique: Separate the shoulder from the head, avoid 2 straight arms, make the screen right hand support the body better and simplify the feet/leg shape.
“Ooh, mint ice cream!” turned into “ZOMG butterfly!”
‘Excited’ critique: Avoid twinning with the arms and legs, revise the balance of the pose and revise the line of action in the body.
What do you mean there are no Snickers pods left!?!?
Yes, this is how I feel when I check the cupboard and my chocolate stash has been obliterated – possibly by myself (possiblyat2aminthemorning) – but still, WHY IS THE CHOCOLATE GONE!?
‘Devasted’ critique: Rotate the screen left hand to hang more naturally, align the hips more to the right over the feet and make the screen right leg flow into the torso smoothly.
There’s a good energy in the gym!
Cue the Rocky music.
‘Strength’ critique: Bend the lower body down more, watch the negative space of the feet and revise the placement of the rings.
If you’re wondering why little Jimmy is so upset, it’s not just because he lost the game for his team – his chocolate stash is also empty.
‘Concerned’ critique: Simplify the pose of the child to draw attention back to the adult, rotate the screen right arm back.
My uni life in CG.
‘Exhausted’ critique: Get rid of the negative space between the chair arm and and the legs, and between the head and the couch.
Looks like the beginning of “YYYYYY-M-C-A!”
‘Balance’ critique: Bring the body more screen left over his hand.
And there will be plenty more poses at the end of this term with awesome new rigs!