Tips for Animation on TV Series Projects

It’s been a few years since I finished Animation Mentor, and I have learned a tremendous amount in that time! Shortly after finishing, I got very lucky in my job search and managed get a position as a freelance character animator for a brand new children’s TV show that was just beginning production (YOKO). As a freelancer it is a pretty rare opportunity to find gigs that last much longer than a couple months. Heck, even if you are an animator that is traveling from studio to studio on contracts it can be rare to find jobs that last much longer than a year, due to the nature of the business and it’s project schedules. Needless to say, a steady gig with more than a years worth of work a head of me was great way first foray into the animation industry!

Since then, I have worked on 15 episodes for that series as well as started work on another fun TV series (Fantasy Patrol) with a new studio. In that time I also got a chance to do some feature film work and a few commercials. All of these experiences have taught me new skills and brought forward new challenges I’ve had to overcome. I wanted to take some time and write out a post, maybe even a couple posts.. discussing some of the things I’ve learned. Some things I discuss will be relevant to any part of the animation industry whether you’re working in film, games, or TV while others may have more weight in specific mediums than others. I am by no means an expert, or have as much experience as someone who’s worked in any one of these areas for a long period of time but I think some of these experiences could be helpful for others to read about. So first…

Speed is Important!

Deadlines. Part of being a good professional is being able to be creative on a deadline. This is not an easy task and takes a lot of time and energy. In both big studios and small projects there is always a deadline. In features there are deadlines but they are typically much longer. Television animation often has tighter deadlines and requires animators to work much faster. If you are not good at managing multiple different shots all at once in various different stages of progress, it can be a big challenge. Using your time wisely and finding workflows that speed up your progress are essential. It is not uncommon for an animator working in television to do upwards of 20 seconds of animation in a week. This can seem like an insane amount of footage to those use to feature film quotas of roughly 3-5 seconds a week; however, it is all relative when you factor in many other variables such as complexity of characters and the level of polish required. When I first started in TV, I was a little worried about the quantity of animation, but once I got into working on the show and found faster methods of working it has been quite manageable. The longer you are on a project and start to learn the style and characters your speed will naturally begin to increase as well. Of course there are some days where you just gotta push through and put in the extra hours to hit your deadline but that will always be the case. 

Find tools and scripts to help you!

Depending on the show and how much time and planning the project has had in pre-production you may have an awesome animation library or a strong set of add-ons and scripts at your disposal starting day 1 of production. Thanks to having a really awesome animation supervisor, and team of technical directors on both YOKO and Fantasy Patrol we are able to animate very fast for some scenes that would normally take way longer. That being said, I have never had a single shot where a cycle or pose just worked perfectly, but if you work smart you can use these tools to greatly increase your speed. I have found it as a fast way to lay down a strong foundation in a blocking stage and help you get to the end result much faster. Sometimes, for example, you can also find interesting ways to utilize a run or walk cycle and modify it using animation layers to build on-top of it. Problem solving is a lot of what animators do, and finding ways to solve these problems creatively and quickly will set you up for success, especially when you have a lot less time to get a shot done.

Simplify, simplify, simplify!

I am always thinking about simplicity when animating my shots. How can I do a specific action in the cleanest way, and convey the message of the scene clearly to the audience. That doesn’t mean making things less entertaining, but it does mean knowing what areas are the most important to focus on. When you have a large amount of footage to animate it is important to understand that perfecting a finger pose is not as important as nailing down the timing, spacing and overall silhouette of the action or pose. Simplicity comes in many forms when working; from finding the clearest poses for your character, to making sure your constraints are set-up correctly. It all comes down to finding simple methods to achieve the desired performance in a reasonable amount of time.

Working on YOKO really challenged me to simplify. The characters are extremely simple designs, and have some interesting challenges when it comes to finding appealing poses. Sometimes, having these limitations on a character actually can bring about some really fun end results because you have to start to think about solving problems in the scene in much different way than you might with a more naturalistic character or style of animation.

Take time to plan!

Planning is always an important aspect of animation and something that should never be skipped. However, planning a shot when you have a large quota and a tight deadline can be tricky. I do not always have time to shoot video reference or draw a bunch of thumbnails, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take time to study the animatics and storyboards provided to me from the Layout Department. It is always a good idea to take even just 10-20 minutes before laying down keys and think through your shot. Scrub through the animatic and look for possible problem areas, think about how you will need to set-up your constraints, how you will handle any props in the scene. Think of ways you can utilize any animation cycles or saved poses to speed up the process. I always make sure to have a pretty good understanding of the possible challenges a shot will throw my way before diving in. It is also a great idea to discuss your shots with either other animators or your supervisors when you find a specific spot that might be a problem.

Be Flexible! Don’t be afraid to adjust your workflow!

Depending on the project, or even in many cases, the individual shot I am working on, my workflow can change. I used to think you HAD to follow the more traditional method of blocking in stepped keys and then eventually moving into splines and polishing the shot. However, as the variety of the shots I was cast in would change, I quickly learned that some workflows just do not work as well for specific types of shots as they do others. For example, in really subtle shots, I might start out working in splines right away, because to me I wont be able to get the proper subtle body motions figured out when thinking in static poses. I really like to work more layered in these cases. However, in broad actions or more cartoony and exaggerated scenes where you really need to highlight specific graphic shapes and poses, I like to work in a more common stepped blocking stage and refine from there.

In other cases, if I have a very movement heavy shot or a lot of body mechanics, I will often switch back to working in a layered approach starting in spline tangents again. It helps me get a sense of the rhythm of the shot and know that the timing is working before I get too detailed into it. Then there are times where I will start with stepped keys and block that way but consistently switch all my stuff over to splines to check the timing is working pretty well, then switch back to stepped and keep pushing. This is a workflow I have used more commonly in the feature work or higher polish work. I think learning to work in various different workflows and being comfortable switching between them and understanding what works for YOU is a skill all animators can find valuable and it is something that comes with just doing a lot of work and a variety of scenes. I think this is the biggest thing I have changed over the years, learning to adapt my workflow for the situation at hand.

Pose Libraries are your friend!

Many projects, especially film and TV series have characters that need to stay “on-model”. In most cases they will often have very specific ways they should be posed for certain actions or expressions based on the style determined by the animation director.

Using a pose library to store approved poses, expressions or even just basic mouth shapes for lip sync is a huge time saver! You will almost always need to push these poses and tweak them but it can be an excellent starting point to get you where you need to go.

Stay organized!

Utilize anything you can to keep you on track to complete your shots on time and to the best quality. Directors, producers and animation supervisors love animators that complete work on time and meeting the quality standards! Most studios have some form of pipeline tool like Shotgun to help you keep track of everything. However not every project will have a budget for that and you will likely have multiple shots to keep track of. It is not uncommon for me to have 5-10 different shots on a show assigned to me at once, all that have varying deadlines and degrees of difficulty. Knowing which ones to tackle first or which ones may require more revisions is important. Don’t let poor organization be your downfall.

Don’t be this guy!

 

 

 

 

 

That is all for this post, check back soon and I plan to have more interesting content! If you enjoyed the post please, feel free to comment or send me a message and let me know what you think!

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Quick Key MEL Script

Today, I decided to work on my MEL scripting abilities and make a little Quick Keying tool to aid in the blocking process of animation. I’m certainly no TD but, I think it is certainly useful to have some knowledge of scripting to speedup your workflow. I got this idea from my good friend and fellow animator Erik Wright who made a some what similar tool. I actually had to ask him for a bit a help on one section because I wasn’t quite sure how to go about doing it, thankfully I got my questions answered and made this quick little script.

I want to keep adding more functionality to it over time and maybe clean it up and make the UI a little prettier as well. It was a nice little break from animating, I think it’s good to switch up thinking in certain ways to keep fresh. So going from thinking hardcore in terms of pure animation to doing some scripting was nice. Also I’m going to actually try this tool out while blocking my next shot to see how much it actually speeds up my workflow. In the future I might even add another page on here that includes scripts that I start making on the side, who knows…

Below is a screenshot of the script:

To try out the script you can CLICK HERE to download the MEL file. You may need to Right Click > Save Target As to download it depending on your browser.

Unplug – Short clip from Richard Williams

I always remember reading in The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams that his first lesson is to unplug. Turn off all your music and uplug your headphones. He says that by doing things you are immediately focused on your work and your work will double in quality. I definitely think this is true, and while I love to listen to music while I work, I have found it can be utterly distracting and notice that when I do turn it off and can just focus in my room/quiet computer lab my work tends to be the best.

Anyways, I stumbled across this video of Richard giving a lecture for his master class it was rather humorous because he acted out the little blurb from his book where he asked Milt Khal the question of whether he listened to classical music while he animated. It’s worth taking a look at, I got a good little laugh from it.

Animators Letter Project

Hey everyone,

I stumbled across this really awesome site/project while browsing 11 Second Club today. It is created by an aspiring animator and his goal to get as many inspirational letters from professional animators in the industry. He eventually plans to compile them into a book and use the proceeds to form some sort of scholarship to send a student to animation/art school. So far he has had quite a bit of success and received many letters from some top animators at major studios. I really hope it keeps going strong because the letters are really great to read, especially when you are feeling a little discouraged on the journey to become an animator.

Even if you dont want to be an animator it’s just a really great site to go to for some inspiration or a pick-me-up on a bad day.

LINK: Animator Letters Project – http://www.animatorlettersproject.com/

Animation Tips & Tricks vol. 1 & 2

Animation Tips and Tricks

I am always on the lookout for good articles or books to read dealing with animation or the animation industry. Today I’d like to post a link to a couple of e-books that I have just started to read. They are written by a veteran animator from ILM named Shawn Kelly. Shawn Kelly is also an instructor for an awesome school www.animationmentor.com

They are relatively short e-books ~100 pages so they can be read through pretty quickly. I always enjoy having some animation reading material for times when I cannot be animating but am able to get some reading done (like when I’m laying in bed at night with my iphone or having a short break between classes).

I have just started to read the first volume and can definitely say that I really enjoy it and hope to learn some new and interesting things from it. The first volume is written only by Shawn Kelly. However the second volume also has some parts written by other veteran animations from the industry including: Keith Sintay, Aaron Gilman and Wayne Gilbert.

I highly recommend taking a look at these two e-books along with all the other great resources that are provided for FREE by Animation Mentor. http://www.animationmentor.com/resources/

Useful Playblast MEL Script

Hey all just a quick little MEL script that I’ve found to be quite useful as of late. I had found that it was becoming quite annoying every time that I wanted to test an animation in a playblast. When ever I wanted to do this I had to turn go to Show>NURBS Curves and uncheck them, then I had to manually go to the Window>Playblast menu to create a playblast. One of the lessons I was doing in Digital Tutors suggested as a way to speed up this process was to create a simple MEL script to do this for you. However, the lesson did not provide this script so I did some searching and managed to put together a pretty decent and quick little script to do just this.

It will turn off all the NURBS Curves on your current model and then create a playblast using fCheck. I then just made it into a hotkey button and placed it on my shelf. It has become quite useful. Hope you all it enjoy!

Code Below:

string $panel = `getPanel -wf`; modelEditor -e -nurbsCurves (!`modelEditor -q -nurbsCurves $panel`) $panel;
playblast -format image -clearCache 1 -viewer 1 -showOrnaments 0 -fp 4 -percent 100;

Digital Tutors – A site worth checking out!

Digital Tutors

If you are anything like me and are trying to learn the art of animation then you probably know that it is something that takes a lot of work outside of the class room if you are attending some kind of formal schooling for it. For those that are going the route of being self-taught it also requires that you know some great resources. One of the things that I hope to do with this blog is post up as many useful resources for you as I can. So the first resource that I would like to talk about to everyone is one that I have recently started using these past couple of months.

Now if you are like me and are attending a bigger university and studying animation you probably have had a similar experience as myself. Most of the classes that you are in dealing with animation take a very general approach to the whole industry. They try to teach students to be able to do every aspect of the production pipeline. While this may be good to know, it’s not realistic for anyone wanting to work for a larger studio where you will likely have a very specialized job. So myself wanting to focus strictly on character animation took it into my own hands to learn as much as I can on my own and found Digital-Tutors.

Digital-Tutors: http://www.digitaltutors.com

This is a pay service but if you are able to afford this, I’m telling you now.. you will not regret it. The instructors that create the video lessons are all professional and most if not all have industry experience in the subjects that they are teaching. I have been using this over my summer vacation from school to really focus on just character animation lessons and techniques.

This site has one of the most creative methods for providing these lessons. Essentially you just stream these high quality videos over the internet, but their development team has made it much more interactive. Aside from their community forums where you can get questions answered about specific issues, they have a plethora of options built into the video player that allow for better absorption of the material being taught.

For example, I am able to tag certain videos as a whole that deal with a particular topic lets say (Tangents & the Curve Editor). Or I can even tag and make notes on individual sections of a particular video. Example: Lets say at 8:52 in the video I want to remember that instructor talked about a particular hot-key dealing with the curve editor. Well I can simple make a note at the exact moment in time on that video and it will store it there for me to reference anytime.

Now this site is not only for people who want to do character animation. They offer training in just about every major software package I could think of. However, I have noticed that they seem to offer the most in the areas dealing mainly with the 3D graphics realm. They have a great library of Maya and 3D Studio Max lessons. They teach all aspects of the pipeline and what is great, is that I can focus on any topic I want. If all I want to learn about is strictly character animation related topics I can do just that!

I highly recommend this site to any aspiring animator or even graphics artists who would like some more supplemental training. It is a great alternative for people, and the price that you pay is quite reasonable for the quality training that you receive.

If you would like to learn more about them, definitely check out their website where they have a very good informational video explaining their whole system.

http://www.digitaltutors.com