Saturday, November 16, 2013

11 Second Club!

Oh hey, I have a blog or something! Let's update it, shall we?

Mostly just been doing work stuff at Sony, which I can't really talk about because NDA and all that fun stuff.  But back in August I had some free time, so I entered the 11 Second Club again to see if I'd improved since the last time (man, it would be sad if I hadn't gotten any better, wouldn't it?).

Good news, I've improved!  I managed to earn first place and got myself a critique from Animation Mentor Nicole Herr.  It's always great to get extra feedback and I took one more pass at the shot to try to incorporate her notes before adding it to my reel.

Anyway, I figured for my blog I would post a little behind-the-scenes video showing some of the steps I went through to take the shot from idea to final product.  I know there are plenty of these types of videos floating around, but hey, why not join in the fun?  Breaking it down also helps me understand my own process better, so I can continue to refine it further as I keep learning and pushing myself.

Step 1: Listen to audio line. A LOT.
Part of the fun of the 11 Second Club is coming up with a story to match the audio that they provide each month. I loved that the woman sounded like she was about to cry as she delivered her line.  I wanted to try to capture that moment.  The word "guidebook" is not something you would really use in ordinary conversation, so I pictured them on vacation where something had gone sour, and the man might be staring at things scattered around the room - maps, itineraries, plane tickets, guidebooks... meanwhile she is packing to leave early.

Step 2: Initial Cloth Test, or... "Can I really do this?"
Once I had an idea in my head, I had to see if I could actually animate someone packing things in a suitcase. I'd done a few experiments with nCloth in Maya before, but nothing too fancy.  This test gave me the confidence that I could pull it off.

Step 3: Reference footage, a.k.a. Me making a fool out of myself
I couldn't convince my husband to get in front of a camera, so I ended up shooting myself both as the man and the woman.  I'm not the best actor, so it usually requires several takes mish-mashed together into the performance I want.  Even after editing, I keep a couple variations handy in case I change my mind about certain acting choices.

I also look a lot of reference from movies where actors are doing similar things.  For this one, I studied a lot of "break-up" scenes. :)

Step 4: Layout
This is kind of a nebulous phase for me; I've seen "layouts" in other people's projects that are just characters in T-poses sliding around the scene.  I personally prefer to have at least the main key poses of the characters in place, in order to frame the shot more clearly.  So "layout" for me also includes keyframe blocking.  In this phase I had the woman turn around to look at the man... but later decided it was a bit too melodramatic.  You may notice that the woman's final pose and eyelines change quite a few times throughout the process.

Step 5: Breakdowns
It may not look like much has happened here, but this is where a lot of grunt work takes place defining the motion of the characters and getting the timing down.  I'm basically adding in more poses between the key poses that "break down" the action into bits and pieces that will help me keep control over the animation once I get into the phase of turning on spline tangents.

Step 6: Initial facial pass
This is another point of contention among animators - I've heard some people say "don't animate the face at all until the body is completely working." I've heard other people say "start with the face, because it's where the audience looks first."  I take a middle road; I'll get the body working up to a point, then focus on making sure the face reads well before getting into splines.

Step 7: Splining
This is the most time-consuming phase for me.  Transitioning from stepped keys to splined keys has never come easily; I always feel like I'm fighting the computer to get what I want.  But it's also the part where the characters finally feel alive in the world, which is cool!  Turning on splines instantly reveals problem areas with weight and timing, so I try to slide keys around just after changing tangents, to fix as much as I can before adding more in-betweens.  It's much harder to change things once you start getting into polish, so the earlier you can spot mistakes the better.  I usually spline in chunks, anywhere from 10 to 60 frames at a time depending on how much action is taking place.

Step 8: Polish
I should have talked about this earlier, but at almost every stage starting with layout, I try to get feedback from other people.  How does the shot read?  What do you think the characters are feeling?  Can you tell what they're supposed to be doing?  What isn't working?  Getting fresh eyes on your work is essential!  Early on, it's important to see if your acting choices are clear, making macro decisions about placement and posing.  In the polish phase it's about the micro decisions, and feedback is about getting those final touches of icing on the cake, the little things that take your shot from "good" to "great."

I'm fairly happy with how the shot turned out, though of course there are always things that could be better. But at a certain point I have to stop noodling and move onto something new!  Now what will that be...?