Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's Rigged

Animators often talk about how their characters are "rigged". Essentially, this means how the parts of the character they are creating fit together using a system of "rigging", like the rigging of sails on a ship.

Character rigging comes from 3D animation, in which the parts of the characters are manipulated by "rigs" of external control devices, usually referred to as "bones" much as the bones control the human body. Move an arm bone in such a rig and the arm moves (hopefully naturally).

It's much less common to talk about rigging a 2D character, but certain animation systems allow such a control system. In Anime Studio (which we use for all our animation) there is such a bone system almost identical to those in 3D programs (although, obviously, it will only move and deform in 2 dimensions).

To use this effectively we need to create our character parts so they can be manipulated properly and the above image is the way that we do it. It's not the only way, nor is it necessarily the best, but it works for us.

Each of the major body parts is put on a separate layer. Once again, this isn't the only way to do it, but it does mean that parts such as the arms can be moved in front or back of other parts, like the head, for different effects. If they were all on the same layer this would be extremely difficult.

There are other things to note: this character is drawn in 3/4 view, as all all of our characters. This kind of "American Dad/Family Guy" style basically mimics the "cheat" that an actor in a play does as they turn slightly to open their body up to the audience while at the same time interacting with other actors on stage. Next time you watch a play notice that this 3/4 position is the one they maintain at almost all times (the old stage adage is "never turn your back on an audience -- they might start to throw things" :>)

It's also worth noting that the downstage arm is finished straight across at the top -- this allows it to rotate freely within the shoulder while not showing any bad edges. The upstage arm is finished because the shoulder part will be partially hidden by the body.

We'll talk about the actual bones and how they control things in a future post.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pan 3D in 2D

Woods Pan from Mike Kelley on Vimeo.

Last night on the Anime Studio forum someone mentioned doing a 3D type pan and so I quickly created this example (in less than five minutes). It's a simple technique and easy to do in almost any animation program, yet one that eluded animators for decades.

Traditionally animation was "filmed" by taking a single frame (or 2 or more depending on the movement and the desired effect) with a camera from a flat stand that held the artwork. This was relatively easy but didn't permit very many camera type effects. One could zoom the camera in by moving it close to the artwork, or (if the artwork was large enough) pan around on it by moving either the camera or the artwork up or down, but as everything was at one depth this didn't closely approximate the Real World at all.

In the Real World life doesn't exist on one plane. If you look out the window of a train you'll see that objects that are closer to you move faster than objects further away. Telephone poles zoom by, while distant mountains slowly come and go. Celestial objects, like the moon and the stars, seem to be fixed and not move laterally at all. The same is true if you are heading directly towards or away from something -- the further it is the slower the change in relative size will be.

Walt Disney himself figured out you could approximate this effect in animation by using a camera which focused on more than one plane, and have artwork on several planes that moved at different speeds. Thus whether you were panning or zooming in or out the artwork would could change according to it's position relative to the camera. Thus the multi-plane camera was born.

It was famously used in such films as Pinocchio and Peter Pan. It eventually became too expensive (separate exposures were needed for each element so that shots sometimes took days to complete) and was used less and less until it was finally obsoleted by digital technology.

In the digital world it's very straightforward to achieve this effect, and most animation software includes it. In Anime Studio you simply assign a "depth" or Z value to each layer and this will automagically make camera movements, pans and zooms, displace the layers correctly (the only real trick is experimenting with the values to get the effect you want). In essence the layers are arranged in a 3D space, even though the camera itself is 2D. In this regard it's almost a perfect analogy to Disney's ground breaking camera.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

There's no Business but it's Show Business

There is a lot of uproar about this video over on many animation forums, mostly to the effect "how dare Disney use shortcuts!" and "oh how the high and mighty have fallen". Unfortunately, it's a tempest in a teapot.

First of all, the video is hardly all encompassing. It appears clearly that primarily two films (Robin Hood and The Aristocats) where involved, and only a few sequences. It should surprise no one that these two films were made in the 70's, shortly after Walt's death, when cost cutting measures were needed at the studios similar to today's economy is causing such procedures in all businesses.

But even if this practice was more widespread, it doesn't negate in any respect the work that Disney has done. Rotoscoping (copying of film or video by drawing over it -- usually of live action but, as here, even of previous animation) is a common industry practice and all the studios do it all the time. Some, like Warner Brothers (with the Bugs Bunny/Road Runner series) carry it to extreme, reusing whole sequences. So what?

The fact remains that animation is business, and as long as the final product is worthy of attention it really doesn't matter how it got there. And I doubt seriously, given how diverse Disney animation is, and the hundreds of hours that have been drawn, that this whole thing is more than a few minutes of reuse.

The bottom line -- Disney artists were just that, but they worked within a system that needed to make money to survive. So do we all. Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't understand show business.

Friday, May 1, 2009

On sound ground

One thing for sure -- most American animated shows are all about the sound, and dialog in particular. This differs greatly from European animation, where much of what they do can be enjoyed with the volume turned down.

Look at any American animated series, past or present, and this is definitely not true. Indeed, you can almost enjoy the show just the opposite way -- by listening to it and not watching.

For our series, it all started with sound. It grew out of a Reader's Theater I do here at the retirement community I live in. I thought if I recorded some of the readings we did we might be able to animate them. To that end I bought a digital recorder to help with that.

The Zoom H2 (pictured above) is that device, and it's a remarkable one at that. A tiny equivalent to a digital recording studio, this thing records to solid state memory hours and hours of CD quality (or better!) stereo or surround sound (yep, you can even record your own 4 channel surround track to use in your next Dolby Digital production :>). It's lightweight, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and runs forever on four AAA batteries.

If I had had to carry all of my old recording equipment with me to our meetings every few weeks I'd have never done it. As it is, the Zoom is the answer to almost anyone's recording needs. The biggest drawback is you need to be careful handling it as it will pick up some noise from your hands otherwise -- but even at that it's a superb microphone to capture sound in the field.

In our meetings I put it on a mic stand (it comes with a screw in holder for this purpose) and leave it alone and then transfer the results to the computer when I get home. We'll talk more about audio manipulation as time progresses, but for now if any of you ever need any recording device for any purpose whatsoever I can't think of anything I could recommend more highly.

Here's a link to it on (where I bought it):

Zoom H2

For under $200 there is nothing finer for your audio needs.