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Final Animation

Project Post Mortem

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I did it! I’ve completed my Honours year final animation. Its been a great journey to complete this animation and I’m proud that I managed to get it finished in time. There’s a lot to talk about so this blog post will be dedicated to evaluating the animation, picking apart the different elements and talking about them. It will be a very large post in comparison to the rest so I’ve split it into various sections and added pictures and bold words to hopefully keep things interesting.



To summarise, the animation centres around a stop motion armature who after being built, comes to life. The character seems curious about their surroundings and tries to figure out how to move around. He stumbles on to a pile of clay and begins to explore how the clay works. He then attempts to build himself a body which doesn’t quite work out.

The whole process from initial idea to completion was carried out in semester two (January – April) of this year. The concept and story design took longer than anticipated and an additional project left filming to the last four weeks. Upon looking back, I would’ve certainly liked to have started filming earlier but I think that’s how all of my post mortems go. Sometimes mulling about in pre-production is how the final project is formed. To have started filming earlier I may not have learnt key lessons or developed ideas which led to the current incarnation of my animation. My work ethic has also improved throughout this semester, starting with making attempts to rejuvenate my YouTube channel. Without that, I wouldn’t be in the same position I am now.

Plot/Concept

Storytelling is not my strong point. While being an animator and a storyteller go hand in hand, I always feel I fall short when it comes to creating a story. I usually come up with sound concepts, but struggle with making a final point or closing it all off. My strengths in coming up with stories mostly revolves around comedy, in particular silly jokes and slapstick gags. I’ve attempted to write more serious stories during my time at university but haven’t done too well. I don’t do well in writing serious stories because I find them boring to write, so that’s why this project’s story was more humorous, because I enjoy humour and therefore write it better. I’m more than willing to animate something serious but would prefer working with a writer who is better at writing something more serious and has more enjoyment in coming up with emotions and morals, etc.

Visual gags are what I can do so that’s what I did. While I made attempts to have a story that has a pay off and a structured plot, the narrative is still something I can spend time working on. I love to animate, bring things to life and make magic happen with every day objects and there is no way to do that without a story. Every animated action is a story, it tells us what the character’s motivation is.

While the project’s concept is sound, the execution of the story was satisfactory. The character’s actions and the events that happen in the animation all help to tell the story of what is going on and how the character is thinking. Building from the animatic, I added additional actions where necessary to draw out moments and build on the character’s personality.

Animation Evaluation

The animation itself, is something I am pretty proud of. While it’s not my most consistent quality of work, there are some moments I animated very well and I feel I did pretty good overall considering this was my first attempt at animating with an armature and a larger set within a larger animated short film.

I was concerned at first that animating with the armature would be challenging. I anticipated I would have a different experience with animating in this way and I knew the only way to learn was to have a go at it. I created a short test animation with the armature but only once I was animating the final outcome did I get a chance to really get to know the armature. I’m not sure if anyone will notice but myself, but my confidence with using the armature can be visible throughout the animation as I overcome both technical and creative obstacles. The quality of animation does improve as the animation plays with some slight faltering towards the very end of the animation.

It became very clear that the more time and care I spent in an animated action, the better it would come out. Obviously I would have loved to have spent more time in every shot however sometimes that’s just not possible. With each animation I make I become more aware of how much time I need to spend creating a shot in order to achieve the best result. My limited time frame to complete the animation left some of the later shots to be animated under pressure. And sometimes, you just have a bad day or you cant get in the animation mood so the animation quality isn’t as strong. And sometimes its just down to luck, sometimes you choose to move the character a certain distance and it turns out to be the perfect distance for the timing you want.

The straight ahead nature of stop motion has its benefits but also its drawbacks, Unlike other animation mediums, there are few options to go back and correct something. Either you can go back a few frames and re-shoot or re-do the entire shot. Sometimes you can get lucky and reposition the character and slot a frame or two in an already shot action but that requires very good accuracy. I’ve managed to slot in frames before with my Lego animations but that is easier when the character’s have a limited degree of movement and exist on a grid. The aluminium armature has so many degrees of motion that trying to reposition it to an earlier pose precisely is extremely difficult. Because of this, you have to think about your timing, poses and movements between each frame as you go along. You can’t make corrections or fix things in a graph editor so it is a challenge.

However this can lead to more organic looking animations and even the imperfections of not quite getting a frame shot correctly can leave the animation with a unique charm to it. This encapsulates a lot of what my project is about, embracing the imperfections of the animation – because you pretty much have to.

First Moments (0:12 – 0:24)

Looking back, I can see that the first few actions that the character does are not as good as the rest of the animation. The timing is a little bit off in places so the quality of movement isn’t as consistent. I did anticipate this as I know that it can often take me a little bit of time to get comfortable with a new material or character.

The Stumble (0:32 – 0:35)

This part of the animation took a long time to create but I am particularly proud of it. I was originally going to have the character fall into a stumble from standing up where he’d be unable to catch his balance. I altered the narrative to where the the character does catch his balance and tests his footing. On the second footing test he falls into a stumble and into a pile of clay.

It was a technically impressive shot for my standards requiring multiple supports that needed to be masked out, in addition to camera movement. Despite that the timing for the stumble and the action itself turned out pretty good and there’s a good sense of gravity and momentum to it. I could have eased into the stumble a little better by adding in additional uncertain movement.

Character Moments (0:36 – 0:57)

I added a lot of unscripted actions in here. This was the idea from the start that due to the straight ahead process of stop motion animation, I’d likely add more actions in as I get to know the character and understand what they’ll want to do next. I added in a couple of gags such as the clay on the face and playing with the clay which frequently falls off.

These character moments helped to add interest to the narrative and make the character more interesting to watch. By having him explore with the clay and its properties it gave me the opportunity to both show off the different movement qualities of the clay and also slow down and help pace the story better.

Clay Moulding (0:58 – 1:13)

Working with clay during January’s Game Jam, I had a good idea of the potential of clay’s metamorphic qualities. This section of the animation allowed me to explore that as the character attempts to build himself a body. I allow both the character and myself to mould the clay into shape. The character moves and moulds the clay however being the animator I also have to mould the clay to get it into the shape I want, even with superb animation you can’t match the movements of the character to the clay perfectly.

Tension/Force (1:20 – 1:27)

A challenge for a lot of animators is getting an adequate representation of force in an action. Fortunately for stop motion, you get a helping hand with working with real world objects. The clay allowed me to lock the feet in place and it provided enough tension that the more I moved the character the more the clay tried to pull the character back in place. In order to create the idea that the character was applying force to free himself from the clay I added movements such as anticipation into the force as well as adding arm movements to signify a struggle.

I think this part of the animation I did pretty well, the character successfully appears to be struggling against the clay and I think it gets the story point across well.With more care I could remove frames to create a greater tug or greater recoil.

Final Fall (1:28 – 1:30)

This shot was filmed in the last week before hand-ins so I do feel it was a bit rushed. Even with more time throughout the semester I think I would have inevitably felt pressure while animating the ending because I tend to postpone the ending in order to make the most out of the middle of the animation that I can.

The action and movements overall are pretty good but the timing is a little off during the middle of the tumble. This is partly down to time pressure but also not spending enough time considering staging. I realised part-way into the camera movement that the character was moving faster than the camera movements so I began moving the camera more to compensate. In addition, I didn’t realise how long the set was so to have the character reach the other end of the screen I could have added even more struggling and build to an even greater moment where he breaks free.

Sound Design

I feel sorry for people working in sound design sometimes because sound is often what animators and game developers leave too late and shove on at the end. I won’t lie that this is what I did, but as a project that focuses on specifically the quality of animation movement and the materials in stop motion animation, the sound isn’t what my project is all about. Throughout the year in my numerous animation tests and experiments, I haven’t included sound effects or music in them. While I could have gotten away with leaving out sound from my final animation, even average sound effects thrown together in a short amount of time can go a long way.

I stuck with realistic sounds for the most part, utilising my own sound library I’ve built up throughout the years and the glorious amount of free sound effects online. I took care into finding sounds with a similar audio quality and made sure to balance out volumes so nothing was jarring or seemed out of place.

The types of sounds I looked for were things that matched the material. For sound of the armature, metal bending and creaking helped to draw attention to the character’s material and what is is physically made of. Unlike most other animations, the concept of this animation is that the materials are a big focus and that realistic sounding materials coming to life helps that illusion.

To contradict what I just said, the sound of the clay is exaggerated as the actual sound it makes is basically nothing. I still kept a sense of realism the same way I chose to animate the clay, by exaggerating its fluidity but still keeping a sense of appearing as clay. There is a squishy but also chunky sound which I think helped to build a better picture of the appearance I wanted the clay to take.

Not every action had sound to it, I could have spent a lot more time adding sound to every movement and interaction. I limited the sound I added for both not being able to find a satisfactory sound to match what I wanted and also not wanting to overload the animation with sound effects.

Observations

There were assumptions made before going in to this animation, assumptions made through the literature and animation research and also from previous practical work. I made assumptions as to how I might move and deform the clay or assumed the limitations and possibilities of the armature.

However there were other qualities that I discovered through a hands-on approach practical work and I was able to tie these discoveries in to my research and dissertation.

Animator/Character Relationship

Just before I started filming I was looking at older animations where an animation would feature the animator in the same film as the character he was animating. I discussed Out of the Inkwell among other animations which feature the interaction.

I added pixilation in the beginning of the animation to set up the idea that the character was inanimate before becoming alive. It was both to set-up the premise and also give a subtle nod to the animations I had looked at. I had also considered adding a pixilation scene to the end of the animation where the animator would reappear and help out the armature by giving him some pre-made clothes.

As I approached the end of the animation I realised I had to cut the ending short for timing. The character would simply fall into a bunch of set pieces and discovered some pre-made clothes. However as I was filming this scene at the time I had a spur-of-the-moment idea to re-introduce the animator to hand over a pre-made body part to the armature which would cheer him up. I made it really cheesy and literally gave the character “a hand”. It wasn’t planned ahead but I liked it and I’m glad I worked it in as it both works as a charming ending and ties the whole thing together. It both wraps the story up and also my process on coming up with the story in the first place.

Challenges

I’ve discussed a few challenges I’ve faced already. This section covers some challenges I haven’t yet mentioned. One thing that stop motion animation requires is good planning and staging. In other animation mediums if you decide you want to add in additional objects you can. In stop motion you are locked in to the way your set looks from the very beginning. This is why I would have loved to have worked more on the set design but had to begin animating and therefore could only do so much for the set.

As I animated away sometimes I would regret positioning something in such a way or wished I could change things. Some things I could change like adding more support to a background to keep it in place or making subtle changes in the layout of the set between camera changes. Like a lot of animations there are opportunities to reuse assets or shift the layout or perspective of the set to make things work, I did this here and there but not as often as I usually do due to the longer shots and reliance on one set.

Moving Forward

I feel like I am in a stronger position than I was at the start of the year and its pretty amazing what I’ve managed to achieve this year in comparison to previous years. The project has definitely changed the way I look at my own animations as I make efforts to think about the techniques and qualities I’ve researched and explored. My future animations will be better for it.

I look forward to the upcoming Graduate Show where I will no doubt get a lot of comments from many different people. I imagine the feedback I get will be much more specific and useful than what I’d get from YouTube comments so it will be a new experience to see how industry professionals and others view my work. The nature of presenting the work in a physical display will also be new to see how people interact with the work.

This is the last blog post included in the submission for the Honours Project portfolio submission. Any post beyond this point will not be included in the submission but will be focusing more on preparing for the Abertay Digital Graduate show.

Apologies for the length of this post and my tendency to ramble. I hope it was worth your time reading and maybe it helps to understand my thoughts on my project.

Progress Update – Final Stretch

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We’re now into the final week of animation before the submission of the Honours portfolio on Monday.

I met with Lynn this week to show my progress and feedback was positive. My animation still goes too fast in some places but slowing down and adding additional character actions has benefited the story and added more depth to the character.

I still have the weekend ahead of me to film the rest  but I have made some progress since the last update blog. While I’ve spent the last few days focusing on my dissertation and additional work for the graduate show, I’ve animated the character begin to form their body.

Editing

I’ve been using Stop Motion Pro 7.5 Studio HD to capture frames for the project so far. I’ve had the software for a couple of years and it has a number of useful features such as onion skinning and frame blending (taking multiple pictures at once for one frame) to reduce visual noise. One thing I’ve never managed to use well is its editor. Its difficult to add frames and move them around and if you save a clip as an AVI, its a nuisance to go back and edit once its saved out and laid in an editor. For those reasons I use Sony Vegas Pro 11.0 to lay out all the frames where I can extend, add and remove them to my liking.

I’ve set Sony Vegas to automatically set images to 0.07 seconds long which is 1 frame at 15fps (frames per second). However I also have the project settings set to 30fps so that allows me to not be constrained to 15ps, I can double frames up to work on twos or extend a frame by a half. I prefer this level of flexibility so that I am able to fine tune timings if necessary. Its important that I don’t mess around with frame rates too often as this can be jarring or look out of place.

Similar to how I approached my Lego Batman v Superman Trailer video, I’ve laid out my animatic underneath so that I can compare my captured animation to the animatic at any time. It also benefits me for scheduling and working out the pace in which I can film shots by having a visual representation of what I have left to do. Both in the Lego Batman v Superman video and this project, I’ve managed to become very good at scheduling my time when it comes to animation. My time management everywhere else is still mixed.

Audio

I’ve began to source sound effects and will record my own voice to add to the character. The animation will still be unspoken but reaction noises will help to give the character a bit of life. The sounds I’ll be adding will be comical in nature to match the tone of the animation and provide an additional layer of interest to the animation.

I haven’t yet decided on a musical track. I will add one if I come across the right track but won’t force one in if I’m not happy with it. If I were to add music it’d be upbeat and not too strong. Something classical or calm would allow the visual storytelling to be the main focus.

Progress Update – It’s Clay Time

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Production on the final animation is full steam ahead. The wire armature character in my story has now found himself in a pile of modelling clay. This scene and those ahead deal with the character exploring the material properties of the clay.

Compared to the last few animation sessions, I was able to animate quicker due to the less challenging armature animation. However that doesn’t necessarily mean the animation quality was less. The animation I’ve achieved in the past couple of days have been more character than action based. The character is given an opportunity post-tumble to explore what he has fallen in to and what is possible with the clay.

I decided to add in an additional actions (that weren’t in the storyboards/animatic) where the character has clay on their face upon sitting up. A quick visual gag but something that also brings the character’s attention to how the clay stuck to something. He then picks up a new piece and lets it drop. Adding in these actions just helped to slow the narrative pace down and let the audience process what’s happening easier. It also enhances the character’s personality and allows you to understand what the character is thinking.

The character attaching clay to his arm went as planned however the animation was able to show what the animatic only did to a certain extent and that was the flexing pose with the character seemingly proud of his new arm piece. I’ve had fun animating the clay drop on these three occasions giving it a fluid but still “chunky” feeling to it. Having it still be firm to a degree will help later on when the character gets stuck in the legs he’ll build himself.

On the blog side of things I’ve also re-uploaded some videos hosted on this blog to YouTube as Blogger was reducing the quality in addition to not displaying thumbnails or resolution correctly. Previously uploaded videos will be swapped out for the higher quality versions within the next couple of days.

Progress Update – Progress and Challenges

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Animation this week has progressed well with more complex animation taking place involving the armature character. The character’s balance and movement in these scenes were more challenging in that the character was often on one foot or didn’t have an appropriate centre of gravity (as they were falling in the scene).

I took into consideration feedback from Monday’s supervisor meeting in that I should have the character test his footing before instantly trying to walk. I also wanted to ensure I didn’t rush frames the closer I was to finishing animating for the day. In my previous filmed scenes I noticed I tend to leave bigger gaps between movements as I become more tired and wary from the day’s filming. I initially wanted the character to have an additional uneasy movement after standing up but it did not look good so I cut it. However both of these feedbacks allowed me to add in a new action where the character tests their footing and he almost loses balance. I think this addition worked quite well.

I’m quite satisfied with the results of the animation I’ve done so far this week. Although less seconds have been animated, the quality I feel is the best it has been so far. The initial transition into the stumble could have been extended as it transitions quite quickly. However I’m also really happy with how the stumble and falling into the clay came out. This also marked the end of the very long single camera shot. The next shot is a close up.

I mentioned challenges about footing and this was why it took longer to animate. I anticipated that working with the character standing up and shifting his weight would be difficult but I had several ideas on how to combat this problem. I never ended up using magnets to stabilise the character because I assumed they would not work well through the thick glass. Because of the smooth surface, even if they did attract, they could be easily moved. I planned to use blu-tack to do most of the work as its always did the trick in my previous stop motion projects. Either by hiding it or masking it out, I was confident that I could get the poses I want.

While it wasn’t as easy as I expected, using blu-tack to hold down the character did work for the most part. I also used Lego bricks to support the foot that was in mid-air and this technique worked so much better than I expected. Because of the way I’d set up the lighting, the surface the character stands on is almost always solid black. Amazingly the Lego bricks when placed correctly can also appear as solid black and there is no visible support holding up the character. While many frames did end up including blu-tack, simply painting over this manually in Photoshop did the trick. I was required to process about 150 frames using this method, it only took about just over an hour to process all the frames.

As the character approached the clay pile, it was no longer possible to get away with the supports being the same colour as the background, as the clay pile was visible through the character. I had to use a larger support that was situated off camera. Then without moving the camera or character, I positioned the support on the opposite side and captured a frame. So I ended up having the same frame but with 2 different support locations. In Photoshop I layered the frames on top of each other and removed the support by erasing the layer on top revealing the layer on the bottom. As the character was soon about to completely fall over, I only needed to do masking on two occasions.

One challenge I did run in to is that my camera has a tendency to increase or decrease its brightness from time to time. I previously encountered this problem in my Rover Exploration animation. I do have a theory now of why this is happening. It is a camera problem, no changes in light are being made but it seems to interoperate it as that. I notice that sometimes I will make a character movement and it changes then I can move the character back and it will change the brightness back. This was mostly happening when I added or removed the black Lego bricks. So my theory is that while the viewer’s eye and the captured frame do not distinguish the Lego brick to the surface, the camera’s light sensor chip does and it has a hard time working out what’s going on so it alters the light to try and make sense of it. Not a very accurate theory but it consistently matched with what I was doing and when the brightness changed. Luckily, unlike the last time I encountered this problem, I had a better understanding on how to correct the changes in brightness. I compensated by altering the camera’s “Gain” setting to keep the lighting consistent. While not perfect (some tones and contrasts change too), the overall lighting did keep its consistency and no major light flicker was occurring as long as I kept an eye on the brightness.

Progress Update – Animating the Armature

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Following the first scene involving pixilation, it was time to move on to animating with the armature. I had previously created a test animation with the armature but this was the first time animating it with the intention of using the shot in my final animated outcome. Compared to the test, I had allotted more time to the animation and was able to spend more time focusing on getting the movements right.

Taking the feedback from my animatic into consideration I decided to do the first few shots as one bigger scene to avoid switching camera angles too often. I am aware that I have not animated a large shot over different filming days in a long time. I tend to prefer animating a whole shot in one go to avoid changes in lighting and the position of the characters in set. It means I usually split up scenes with smaller shots or dedicate time to completing a larger shot in one sitting. For this project, doing that would not be appropriate so I decided to face my fear and approach a larger shot in segments.

To do that, I’m going to ensure I end each segment on a “resting” character position (i.e. after an action, not mid-action). I’ll also need to ensure I am especially careful to secure the lighting setup throughout filming. Even with the same lighting setup and environment, things are never simple and when I come back after a day’s filming on another day there is always a difference. It comes down mostly to the camera and that it resets some of its settings on every startup. To get around that I’ll need to ensure that I match up the settings as best I can on each segment transition. Even then, it will not be perfect but thankfully I have been improving my skills with colour correction in post production and feel pretty confident I can tweak each segment to match. I also have other make-shift methods of blending them together if I need to.

Animating went well and I mostly achieved what I wanted. The segment I filmed was very similar to the depiction in the animatic and storyboards however I added in additional movements here and there so the character had more time to show its inner thinking. The character “wakes up” and has a look around, then discovers their own body and then tries to understand what he cannot see – his head. He looks at his hands and jiggles his feet.

I wanted the character’s first thoughts to represent “what is this, what am I?” before curiosity takes over and will lead him to explore his surroundings. The animation itself is okay, certainly better than the earlier test I animated but I think I will become more confident as I progress through the animation. I anticipated this and I feel this is okay to show, as both myself and the character are learning about the armature and more confident movement later on will also reflect a more confident character. Seems like cheating a little but that’s okay, its all up to the viewer’s interpretation anyway.