For the Greater Good

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This week I’ve deviated from my Honours project and have been focusing on another stop motion animated project. That project is a Lego recreation of the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer. I began working on that project last year not long after the original trailer was released. I worked on it on-and-off during my fourth year at university as a side project. I chose to animate this trailer as I’m personally a fan of Batman and always wanted to recreate a trailer in Lego. As I am approaching the end of my university studies I wanted to revive my YouTube channel so that I had a range of work I can use as a portfolio for my time beyond university.

My YouTube channel is a big part of my life and its the reason why I’m studying this course. During my time at university among other distractions I’ve not put the channel aside. However I wanted to come back with a bang, something impressive, in order to revive my channel. My channel remains a good outlet for getting my work out there and it also acts as a good backup plan in the case that I cannot find work easily.

Last week prompted a sudden acceleration in the pace of this animation’s development and I’m fully committing myself to finishing the animation in time.

I spoke with my supervisor Lynn and showed her the current progress of this animation. While she supported me with finishing this project there were concerns about my Honours project and the lack of work shown for this week. I’m aware that I shouldn’t be taking breaks from my final year’s work like this but I made the decision that getting my Lego Batman v Superman video out would be beneficial in the long run and help to prepare myself for time beyond university.

Last week has been fully committed to the animation and I’ve spent most of my waking hours working on it. Thankfully I am on schedule and my written schedule for filming has been spot on for the last week and a bit. With that in mind I am on track to finish it by the movie’s release this week. Lynn did raise the concern about “burning out” and I’m aware that’s a concern. But I am in high spirits and I enjoy what I do so hopefully all goes well.

In response, I will need to ensure I keep up the pace in order to catch up on missed time working on my Honours project. I’ve agreed for next week to work on completing my animatic.

YouTube Networks and Stuff

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Fourth year is a busy time and second semester can be especially stressful as coursework is being finished up and there’s more pressure to get the work done. For some reason stressful events tend to bunch up at the same time and right now is no exception.

I’ve been part of the Machinima Entertainment Network for a few years now, which means my channel is managed by Machinima and they pay me a revenue share from advertisements displayed against my videos. YouTube has a large number of networks and a large number of channels associated with those networks. When I was initially invited to the Machinima network they were just starting out with expanding to partnering with other channels. When I received an invitation I thought it was a mistake as Machinima were only associated with big people often focused on gaming. They explained they were now reaching out to other channels with different content to increase the profitability of their network. From my understanding, for a YouTube network to be worth running, you need a lot of partners to make it worth it. YouTube networks were great for protection from YouTube’s less than perfect copyright striking system and having someone to reach out to for support was a good benefit. It also opened up the opportunity for collaborations with other content creators and to promote content through Machinima’s channels. Today, there are an enormous amount of networks and I frequently receive offers from startup networks. Today they no longer offer the same benefits such as copyright strike protection and customer support from many networks is difficult to deal with.

Machinima were revising their contracts in November of last year and they offered me a pretty good deal. However I wasn’t as enthusiastic about networks as I was before as they no longer offer the same benefits as they used to. These days everyone is in a network and I wasn’t as bothered about being in one anymore. I reached out to Machinima with some general questions about the contract but they didn’t reply. I figured it wasn’t really worth being in a network so I wasn’t too bothered about signing. They never unliked my channel so I kind of just ignored it while my channel was in limbo.

However I’ve been making an effort to restart my YouTube channel by uploading new content and I have a video I’ve been working on for a while in the works. I have considered other YouTube networks or going it along and the opportunity presented itself this week when Machinima finally unlinked my channel (without a notification though). While I planned on contacting them eventually this was one less thing I had to do.

Revenue sharing on YouTube is pretty great. By choosing to display advertisements next to your videos, every view or interaction builds up and you can earn money. Obviously more views equals more money and my channel has a decent amount of views for some reason. When I first created animations for YouTube I never imagined it would even be a possible career option. When I got accepted into the exclusive YouTube Partnership Program in 2008 it was a great opportunity to earn a little bit of money. As a kid, it was great and it helped to fund future videos. During my time at university its been enough to keep my afloat in addition to other funding (SAAS, parents, etc.). Machinima dealt with payments through their system but as I was no longer partnered with them I had to set up my channel with Google AdSense again like it was when I was a standard YouTube Partner.

As my AdSense account has been inactive for some time, I ran into a couple of problems when trying to re-associate it with my channel again but after a day of teething problems I’m all set up again. I’m now motivated to continue on with my animation that I am creating for the channel which is a Lego re-creation of the Batman v Superman trailer which I have previously discussed on this blog. My goal is to complete it soon in order to restart my YouTube channel with new content.

Animation Discussion – Return to Oz (1985)

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Return to Oz (1985) is a sort of sequel to The Wizard of Oz (1939), based on the novels by L. Frank Baum. It’s not an official sequel to the film but follows the events of the film and borrows some elements from it. While its not a live action film it does have some stop motion elements from it.

I watched the film a good few times when I  was a kid and while I thought it was pretty dark and even scary in comparison to The Wizard of Oz, I also really liked it. I was recently watching this film when I spotted those stop motion scenes and this was the first time I had watched it and analysed it for its animation. The stop motion scenes I’ll talk about in this blog are particularly related to the Nome King and his followers.

I couldn’t find out much about how the visual effects were created so some things in this post will be good assumptions. Its obviously stop motion animation but I have a feeling that Nicol Williamson, who voices him and plays him in human form later in the film, was used as a reference for the animators as the facial animation matches with his own acting style very well.

The nomes possess a metamorphic quality to the way they are built and also move. While the characters themselves were built with clay in real life, in the story they are made of rock. The visual effects team did a great job of using the clay to emulate the metamorphic quality of rock, and how it might move if it could. Additionally, the nomes are seamlessly blended into real life rocks, the clay texture matches the real rocks so well its very difficult to tell where they clay is blended in to the rock.

The characters themselves while in rock form consist of just their face with limited details, some have eyes and some don’t, same with noses. Different rock types have different looks for the characters. For example a character appearing underground has a jagged appearance whereas a character appearing on a smooth boulder has a more circular appearance.

The Nome King appears to the main characters in a few forms, his rock form shows up at the entrance as well as inside his mountain. Later, he slowly changes to become more human. I really like how the transition works as each step towards human gives him more detailed anatomy until they switch the stop motion model to a live actor as he emerges slowly from the rock wall. The Nome King’s transformation is made sinister through the use of stop motion as the surreal change from stop motion to live actor emphasises the sinister actions of the character himself. Keeping the texture from the clay parts in the live actor’s costume helps blend this well.

The Nome King’s death near the end of the film also has some fantastic moments. I like the way the clay crumbles away like rock formation crumbling from being unstable. Moments like his eyes turning back to rock are also sinister but fascinating to watch.

In general, I’m not quite sure if they got the tone of the film right. In comparison to The Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz is a darker film with scarier characters. The stop motion only adds to the creepiness of some characters and while this is great if that was the intent but as a kid I don’t remember entirely enjoying watching the film for that reason.

Return to Oz sits in that great time of visual effects just before CGI explodes in popularity in the 1990s. As such, the stop motion greatly enhances the longevity of the film as it doesn’t look cheap or out of place as it might do if it were created 10-20 years later with computer generated effects. The use of stop motion adds a layer of magic and mystery to the environment that I think only stop motion can do best. The hands and arms for a doorway is an iconic shot from this film.

I was surprised to learn that the Nome King and his followers weren’t the only stop motion animated characters. A scene with Jack Pumpkinhead later in the film used a stop motion puppet in order for the Nome King to interact with him and eventually eat him. The design of the character itself has similarities to Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

While the film itself doesn’t live up to the magic and wonder of the original The Wizard of Oz, the visuals did and it was even nominated for the 1986 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Production and Pipeline Test

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With my armature ready to go and my set design taking shape I wanted to test the production process of my animation for this particular project. There are things I haven’t tried before such as animating with an armature in a larger set, so I wanted to ensure I understood the process a bit better before beginning to animate the final animated short.

While building the set and armature I was aware that I’d be working on a bigger scale than I am used to. I didn’t realise how big until placing the camera and setting things up for filming. My initial setup didn’t leave much space for the camera so I rotated the table giving me more room for the camera while still keeping adequate room for the set pieces.

Next I wanted to consider my lighting. My usual setup is two lights on either side which I move around to get a good even lighting across the set. I also have a third light on-hand if its ever needed. This animation is different in that its actually okay to show the lighting setup since the story focuses around an actual animation set so I didn’t need to position them too far away. I wanted to ensure that the set was well lit so that the wire armature stands out from the background. Moving the lights can achieve different effects.

I didn’t have anything in mind before animating other than a few simple actions. I made a lot of it up on the spot but wanted to focus more on simply becoming more accustomed to moving a wire armature over other materials I’ve used before. I stuck down the legs at first so I could get to grips with the basics without worrying about the armature’s balance.

I ended up animating seven seconds of the character trying to unstick its feet. The very first movement was unscripted so it can feel detached from the rest of the short narrative, it was after the first action I decided the armature character was going to attempt to pull up its leg.

The movement I was able to achieve with the character was quite overwhelming, with most parts of the armature being able to move without any set limb size or points of rotation that you get from 3D. Like with clay there can be a tendency to have more fluid and bendy movement that can contrast with reality. More professional armatures don’t have the range of movement available but are constricted to defined limbs. As I wanted to have my armature appear more rigid as outlined in my storyboards I will need to make sure I do not move too many parts of the armature at this point in the story.

I also tried out some balancing with the armature. With one foot tied down balancing the rest is relatively easy. During my final animation I will either hide the foot that is tied down or hide the thing that’s keeping it held down.

The animation quality itself isn’t the greatest. While there are some points I am proud of, there isn’t a lot of consistency in the timing of the animation and some of the techniques such as “easing in and out” and “anticipation” could do with some work. However this animation test wasn’t particularly concerned with quality and was more to test the pipeline so there were corners I did cut and things I that I would normally correct or focus more on were ignored for now.

Finally I brought the animation into Sony Vegas and used the colour correction tool in addition to the brightness/contrast tool to alter the look of the animation so it was more readable by reducing the reddy-brown tone and highlighting the armature more.

The animation I did was useful in allowing me to complete a shot from start to finish. I was able to identify where I might have troubles with when it comes to working with the armature. It also gives me a starting visual so that I can add-to and amend the set and overall visual look to the set design.

While this was one approach to filming, I will also consider the other options for camera angles and staging. I took a few shots of potential ideas.

Supervisor Meeting – March 7

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This week’s supervisor meeting was mainly discussing my plans for the next few weeks and going over how my presentation went in the previous week.

I sent over my dissertation structure/plan earlier in the week and was told I should expect more detailed feedback later in the week. I did get some quick feedback such as how I could go about combining a discussions section with my “making of” section and that I should considering merging the “making of” section with my methodology since they are both outlining the same thing.

Last week I was able to get in contact with the supplier of my armature kit and was told I was sent the wrong type of glue in the kit I ordered. The good news is they replaced my armature free of charge so now I am able to begin animating again. I was asked on-the-spot what its name was and I came up with “Kenny the armature”.

I explained how my set design wasn’t yet complete but we discussed that animating a quick test show would be beneficial. This week I will test my production pipeline by animating a test shot and hopefully gain a better understanding of the composition, staging and lighting of my setup. I will also try out some post production filters such as colour correction or balancing contrast which will help me to fine tune my lighting so that if I do choose to use filters I will be able to do so with greater ease.

We also discussed things I’ll need to look at further down the line such as the graduate show and final presentation. For the graduate show things like business cards, a poster and a website are needed. I figured these would be easier to tackle once I’m mid-production and have a better understanding of what my animation will look visually. Lynn suggested a movie poster would be good to make and I’ll consider how I want to make that soon.

I also managed to acquire additional clay from Ian Donald who had allowed our Global Game Jam team to use clay the university had earlier in the year. The clay was sitting unused in a locker so if I have a use for it, I will now have access to it. I will probably use these additional materials to add more details to my set, and if needed to my character.