Trying out animation

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Following on from my previous ruminations on animated movies…

Looking at the armies of animators, riggers, character modellers, etc., in the credits of a major animated film, it’s evident that there’s a lot of work going into it.

Consider also the graphic novel medium, which has taken off incredibly since The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley flipped a switch in the 1980s. There are high-production-value books, like Dark Knight, Jeff Smith’s Bone (which is accurately labeled an epic, but which can technically be combined into one paperback), and more recently the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi, all of which encompass untold gruelling hours of writing, designing, drawing and redrawing, and colouring. (Bone, now available in colour, was originally in black and white but with virtuosic pencilling and inking). Telling a story in beautiful pictures takes sweat and tears, or time, headaches, and repetitive strain injury.

But there’s a lot that can be done with fewer resources and a cruder visual shorthand. Peppa Pig has cracked me up on multiple occasions, I’m not ashamed to admit. (I think I like that one better than my kids do.)

Some of the most effective cartoon art I’ve experienced belongs to Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half.

Simple, childlike drawings don’t hurt Captain Underpants’ popularity, or Wimpy Kid’s, although the attraction is different. I’m not putting down Dog Man as a work, but I don’t think it takes as long to draw as Amulet.

So high production values are not indispensable for compelling storytelling. Is there something satisfying I can produce for my own amusement with free tools and limited time? The way to find out is to simplify down to bare bones. Going back to those credits lists, the sky is obviously the limit as to how much work can be put into an animation.

To experience a little of what it’s like to animate a character, I tried really hard to simplify. I’m not good at that. I used Blender, because it’s extremely capable, but also because I have some familiarity with its interface. Blender’s dangerous, of course, because you can get fancy.

I started with a character with disconnected body parts, no fingers, no facial expressions, no hair, and no clothes. The background is ground and sky. The aim was just to copy the motion in a short clip of my older kid goofing around in the early falling snow. I didn’t add the snow!

Figuring out which parts to pose first to get the best motion was hard; I started with the feet in this case because their whimsical movements led everything else and it was all irregular. Seven seconds of this was biting off a bit more than I could comfortably chew! Maybe I should have started with a walk cycle.

The learning curve here was steep and many hours went into the posing (over a few months), with several redos. After keyframing a lot of poses, I did some cleaning up in the F-curve editor, but left it fairly rough. There’s plenty I can see to fix, especially the timing of the jump relative to the push-off from the foot. And that moment where the feet collide, due to my messing with the motion curves after keyframing. Nevermind. Time to move on to the next exercise!

I wrote more about the technical details within Blender here.

Thinking about kids’ animated movies

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I’m always fascinated by animated movies these days. Even in films with major shortcomings and/or clear budget limitations, at the very least there’s usually some amazing craft shining through in the character animation, textures, rigging, lighting, props modelling, etc. You know the people who create this magic are not the highest-paid in the corporation, but they put a lot of the brilliance into the product.

Pixar really proved with Toy Story that (3D) computer animation can be as expressive as live action or traditional animation, and they have been upping their technical game ever since, but at this point there’s something to appreciate from a lot of players, in terms of the craft on display and the passion of the makers behind it. Some examples:

Despite being turned off by the trailers for Despicable Me, when I saw it (this happened despite my prejudice, because I have children) I felt real glee from the character design, cartoon animation and materials (the writing and performances as well). From Paris-based Mac Guff/Illumination Mac Guff, also responsible for Minions, Secret Life of Pets, Sing.

Another film I wouldn’t have thought I’d appreciate was Trolls (Dreamworks) — which I saw in the theatre (with an anticipatory headache) with our younger child, while the elder saw Moana with Papa. I was definitely doing Papa a favour, but on a large-ish TV rather than a big screen, it’s a lot easier to take. On re-watching, I’ve noticed lots of details that I just couldn’t see with it all up in my eyes and ears the first time. Of course the music and gags keep the kids coming back to it at least as much as the 100% all-the-time saturated colours, but it’s beautifully animated and performed.

Thunder and the House of Magic is a sweet, if fairly straightforward, movie with lovingly-made visual details and mood. The kids have watched it two or three times on Netflix. Which isn’t saying that much, because kids will watch some really awful garbage, but this one’s not garbage. From nWave Pictures, based (at least originally) in Belgium.

Rio and Rio 2: Less flair than some, but the animal and plant-centred visuals are clearly a work of passion and the kids enjoy it. Blue Sky Studios, an American studio with a long and interesting history in CG effects.

As I expected, Moana was pretty good, as Disney has recovered to a large extent from its pre-Pixar cynicism and mediocrity, and it’s always fun to see how their technology moves on between films.

Most recently, I took the kids to see Ballerina, animated by l’Atelier Animation, a Montreal…animation studio…founded in 2012. The animation is again wonderful while the plot is predictable. There’s a feeling of lost opportunity, as though the story could have been worked up into something better with more time and resources. There’s at least a bit of a lesson in working hard for an accomplishment, although it’s unfortunate that the hard work is so magically fast-acting. Some people involved in this movie obviously really love ballet and some people (this set likely overlapping the other) really love animation. There were zero boys in the theatre the day we went.

Related: we rewatched the Shaun the Sheep Movie (from UK-based Aardman Animations) a few days ago. So brilliant. A different kind of genius, real and solid in its Plasticine way. So much work, accomplished by so few people – compare the credits to the endless list at the end of a Disney film! The Britishness of the minute details is wonderful and as an ex-pat (I’ll always be an ex-pat of somewhere now) I savour them with Melancholic Nostalgia (available for purchase in Canadian grocery stores, next to the Nando’s Piri Piri sauce and two aisles over from the McVitie’s and the Nairn’s).

Not much related, but sort of: why did Costa Coffee enter the Canadian market in Shell Stations? Surely this is not a good association. Since Tim Horton’s stopped making doughnuts in-store while I was gone (which was a big deal, and allegedly even made doughnuts more expensive to franchisees) and are owned by a multinational, I don’t think it would be a loss if few of them turned into Costa Coffees.

I had been wondering why Tim’s doughnuts seemed to have lost their magic. I thought it was just me getting jaded with age, but this time it was really just that they’re crappy now so the parent company can make more money.

Way off on a tangent, I had a tab for Aardman and a tab for Wagamama open next to each other in Firefox and their favicons are almost the same thing.