Thursday, February 11, 2010

Character Development: Breaking it All Down.

Another reason I enjoy Computer Animation is because it helps supplement my Traditional Drawing skills.

I am the kind of person who really understands through observation.

For six years I studied ballet and tap dancing, although ballet was my absolute favorite! Anyway, we had to practice these hand exercises in order to ensure grace. So when I studied Animation under Howard Beckerman, I decided to put the memory of this muscle movement to the test. The result was this:

It was done on ones, which is why it looks so smooth. If you freeze a frame - you can actually see how crude the drawings are. I did it in Photoshop, using a Cintiq. It is my most recent Traditional Animation and it took me a long time to get over myself long enough to focus just on silhouette.

See, part of my problem while in school, was I kept wanting to show off. Teachers would warn us - a beautiful drawing alone does not make a good animation. But I still wanted to prove myself, I still wanted everyone to see my understanding of tonality which I pride myself on.

Luckily, SVA's Animation curriculum recognizes the importance of flexing the full spectrum of artistic muscles. While studying Anatomy under Stephen Smulka, I did this:

48 inches tall, this giant hand is done solely in pencil. I loved this experience. It was something I didn't think I could do, something I wouldn't even think to do. I did it in the course of a weekend, taking time off from my retail job to finish it. To me, this is what the beauty of SVA is about - you float around for a bit, but then you get some assignments that just turn a switch on in your head, and when you're done, it's like a special high you can't get anywhere else.

Well, this experience should have taught me that there is a difference between drawing for Animation and drawing for Illustration. Still, when it came time for my sophomore film, I insisted on a complicated character with a complicated color scheme:

As you can imagine, it was hell to Animate. And I spent so much time just trying to get the hair right, that the rest of the film was a giant flop.

Then...something amazing happened!

Under the instruction of the amazingwonderfulomgIlovethisman Eric Eiser, I started learning Autodesk Maya. It was love at first render.

See, in Maya, you HAVE to start with basic shapes, then manipulate them using a wireframe mesh in order to achieve the model you want. This is in many ways, similar to drawing - you start with a basic shape and then expand upon it.

Also, the computer forces you to be honest. Whereas, I can lie to myself and say "sure, I can draw a million frames of that girl with purple hair, and then color her in perfectly a million times" you can't make the computer have more RAM than it does (you know, without buying it.) And even then, there are just still technical limitations to how much you can do with a model.

Consider Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot, vs. their newer Uncharted series:

Playstation 1 was a bit more limited in terms of how much graphics could be tolerated, as such, textures for the game had to be more minimal.

For PS3, the development of Core technology allows for the use of a wider set of textures creating for the beautiful gameplay experience that is Uncharted. But BOTH are amazingly fun games. With Crash Bandicoot - they strategically made their characters and layouts more cartoony, to compensate for the lack of capacity for extensive and realistic textures.

With this in mind, I decided to do a bulk of my thesis film in 3D (for more on my thesis, read "2 and 1/2-D")

My approach to character development this time around, was very different.

My first draft was done in Photoshop and the turn around was done in Illustrator. Finally, I was able to embrace simplicity without sacrificing aesthetics!

I then set out to model the character. I had some help from Digital Tutors and observing dolls. The result was this:

Her outfit is in homage to Koko the Clown, and the chopsticks in her hair is in homage to Brien Hindman - a Blue Sky modeler who I studied under, over last summer (he always wears chopsticks in his bun.) At this point, my understanding of textures was very limited, so I focused on other things for a while.

Then I revisted the textures, and upon learning Roadkill, I started applying textures:



(three quarters)

I gave her dress a subtle indication of fabric. These juicy details are what will lend her more credibility once inserted into the scenes. These details - that I tried so hard (in vain) to capture in traditional animation are made more effective and efficient in CG.

I even got to detail her hair!

And then, her chopsticks! And her stockings!

I even added black nailpolish to her fingernails.

For her longer bangs, I rigged them as if they were fingers, allowing me even more control of her head. Currently, I am painting weights but I intend to have a test animation done TODAY! So, I'll shut up now and get to work.

Hope you enjoyed!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"2 and a 1/2 - D"

In the neighborhood of my school, an awesome place to eat popped up, relatively recently.

The Pizza Pub (on 23rd and Lex.) offers a slice and a pint for only 5 bucks! The slices are nice and soft, and very doughy and although you don't get your choice of beer for the pint, the house beer is pretty yummy.

While there one day after work, a guy at the bar bought me a shot and I proceeded to chat with him and the bartender about our interests - namely, in animation.

Upon request I described to him my thesis film: In pursuit of food and fun times, a quirky clown and her new critter companion journey across the desk of an exhausted, modern Animator. Inspired by Max Fleischer's 1919 "Koko the Clown" series.

(FYI: You can catch the Fleischer classic here:

My version is meant to update the classic in multiple ways, in effort to convey my feeling that CGI is still in its' infancy and that computers are no more a tool than a ruler.

Shot on a SONY XD-Cam EX in HD (courtesy of the SVA Film Department), starring Theresa Burns (Tisch NYU '09) this film takes the Fleischer classic an extra step.

I put the character in direct communication with the catalyst of the film - that is the pest, the cockroach. In Fleischer's film "The Tantalizing Fly" his struggle to shoo a fly causes him to hit Koko the Clown which would be fine except that Koko comes to life!

In my thesis film, the more urban cockroach decides to pester Theresa as she closes in on a deadline, perfecting her newly crafted CG model of a young female clown, using her Cintiq - the modern day drawing board. A missed death blow hurts the Cintiq instead of the Roach and brings the Clown-Girl to life.

Tired, and frustrated, Theresa tries to figure out the magic behind the Clown-Girl's movement, only to discover that not only does she not know how the Clown-Girl moved, but now she has lost her file and have to start over. In the meantime...the Clown-Girl and the Roach become friends...

To find out what happens, see the film.

Anyway, while the idea sounded interested to him, my bar-buddy was still not convinced that CGI had much merit.

To which I had to say this:

I'm sure when Fleischer started making cartoons there was some live action film director huffing and puffing about how drawn images will never take over the role of a live actor and that no audience would want to see a bunch of drawings, that it was expensive and time consuming...but it happened, and it worked, and people loved it.

Sure there was a great deal of evolution that occurred to allow it to be what it is today. And sure, Koko was rotoscoped dancing for the sake of understanding movement.

But how is that any different than the use of Motion-Capture for the FMV'S in Naughty Dog's recent hit video game "Uncharted?" In exploring how to capture different means of movement - especially the type which is most subtle and yet so significant to the human eye in terms of instinctual identification of an action - each generation simply uses the technology they have at hand.

The limitations of traditional media is more than met by the mathematical nature of the computer: increasing the scale of an object, turning a model 3/4 of the way half way through it's animated segment, ensuring perspective - these are all things that are so time consuming and so easily botched in traditional animation, that it makes no sense to serve an elitist agenda by refusing to touch a computer at the sacrifice of the film at hand.

The limitations of computer generated media - the lack of human soul and clinical-looking results can easily be remedied by applying traditional media techniques and remembering that the computer only helps you generate the image but YOU DECIDE what image you want it to generate.

In my own film, I am STILL handling it as I would a hand drawn film.

Rendering out some poses of the model, I inserted the Clown-Girl into stills taken from the Live Action footage. I drew out the motion paths then handed it off to the wonderfully talented Rob Yulfo who used Flash to help map out the silhouette of the motion.

I am moving my rigged CG model into the positions I agree with Rob on and then animating from there. The idea being that when left to our own devices, we sometimes move CG characters excessively, taking away from their cartoony-credibility. Which is why in this one case when it comes to my traditional understanding vs. my computer understanding, I chose the former over the latter, because if nothing else, traditional animators can plan things out better than anyone - mostly because we HAVE to. We don't have a computerized set of arms to draw tons of meaningless in-betweens.

It's a shame that CGI artists and Traditionalists don't come together more often - both have skills and inadequacies that can be utilized and compensated for by the other for an even better product.

After hearing my long-winded explanation, my bar-buddy joked, "So, I guess you could say, you're not 2D, not 3D but... 2 and a half D?"

I laughed and said "yes, I like the sound of that."

Monday, February 8, 2010


I've heard that you ought to be careful with what you put on your feet. Your feet, after all, holds you up; it's what the rest of your body expects you to move around on. So you have to take care of them, treat them well. Especially in the concrete capital - that is - New York City, those soles hit the pavement at breakneck speeds.

As a frequent pedestrian, a sometimes pragmatist, but ultimately still a giggly girl on the inside, my quest for the perfect shoe often results in me wearing the same shoe with every outfit for 2 years each. (These days you'll catch me donning weathered, brown Uggs - they're just so comfy!)

I like commitment, what can I say? And when I find that shoe - that comfy, versatile, uniquely stylish shoe, my loyalty is guaranteed.

When I was fourteen - a young teen with an affinity for goth culture, I sought out the perfect Babydoll shoes. I didn't want it to be black - that was too regular. I didn't want it to be patterned - that would be hard to complement each time...

It took me by surprise, when one day, while carousing the aisles of the 34th Street Macy's, I found a beautiful intentionally weathered-looking blood red baby doll shoes by Report (an under-rated brand, by the way, which I absolutely adore.)

I loved these shoes so much. They matched my black plaid skirt with the giant safety pins. My red plaid skirt with the buckles. In some situations, I could even wear them with pants.

The detail that took it the extra step was that on the bottom, was a beautifully ornate flower pattern that stamped the ground.

Feeling so happy with these shoes, I drew them.

I did this with Prismacolor pencils back in highschool. I like that Prismacolors - if pushed hard enough and long enough - can sometimes give the effect of oils.

The bottom pattern I did in acrylic paints after drawing it out in pencil and coloring around it.

The netting visible in the upright shoe was part of a stockings that had initially connected to a larger image which I have since cut off as the rest of it wasn't that good.

Anyway, something about the way the contours of a shoe could caress the human feet really impress me in terms of design.

I am even fascinated by the way the wrinkles and creases form where the toe flexes - creating these interesting textures I find akin to scabs - somewhat unpleasant, but also, somewhat fun to pick at and watch morph.

For my thesis film, I wanted to highlight this very aspect in the shoe of one of my characters - a young, female clown based off of Max Fleischer's Koko the Clown. (For more on this, catch next week's blog.)

My clown (who I am calling "Kiki" for now) is well trained in the art of acrobatics, and in one scene, she makes her way across a tightrope.

Drawing my from my childhood experiences in ballet, I figured she would make her steps using delicate tondu's - which would of course force her shoes to hug the shape of her perfectly pointed toes and arched heel.

It's a shame that this is probably the closest most viewers will ever get to the shoe. But hopefully any interval of time during which a closeup sneaks its' way in, can be one in which viewers can visually milk this cow of a texture. Urgh...I'll work on my metaphors.

While on the train, I noticed a woman with more adult baby doll shoes (kind of like a rendition of those old-timey dress shoes men would wear - you know, those black and white ones?) Anyway, the detailing in it got me to thinking that these shoes should have some sort of trim around the edge of the opening and the heels. So again, I dove into my conscious and recovered memories of velvet on my childhood shoes.

I added a Bump Map and a Specular map to bring out the creases in the soft leather a little more:

Then I also added a texture for the bottom for those brief shots where you catch glimpses of her sole...

The textures were created in Photoshop using a combination of stock photographs, photo-manipulation, and Photoshop-drawing.

The model was created in Maya. I used Digital Tutors to help understand facial geometry, and I used a Barbie doll to help understand body geometry, although her actual dress is inspired by "Lottie" of the "Living Dead Doll" series.

Anyway, I'll shut up about shoes for now, hope you enjoyed this banter and I hope the next time you're bored on a train and desperately seeking a spot to rest your eyes without accidentally staring into those of a stranger - check out some shoes, they can tell you plenty about a person and where they've been.