Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ray makes a Spanish Blender book!



I received an email this week from Tony Mullen, author of 'Introducing character animation with Blender', pointing me to a Spanish translation of his book featuring my own Ray Tracin character on the cover.

The translated book is titled 'AnimaciĆ³n de personajes con Blender' and if you can read Spanish, you can check out the book on the publisher's website.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Running Commentary

I imagine that, like me, most people with an interest in animation will have a pretty good collection of animated feature movies that get a regular viewing. I also imagine that the bonus "behind the scenes" features on these videos have been played and re-played over and over while looking for another tidbit of useful information that might help out in the viewer's own animation projects.

For years I've relished the detailed information on offer on DVDs from companies like Pixar, Dreamworks and Blue Sky but what I hadn't realised is that, for years, I'd actually been missing one of the most interesting bonus features available on almost all of these same DVDs - the commentary. That changed earlier this year when I sat through two commentaries on "The Incredibles" DVD. Now I'm a something of a commentary junkie!

DVD commentaries are more relaxed and clearly less stage-managed than the self-promoting, advertorial-type comments used in many "behind the scenes" featurettes (I seem to recall a time when "behind the scenes" documentaries were informative rather than just a selection of back-slapping comments from voice actors, production staff and industry hangers-on). What makes the movie commentaries of interest to the amateur or upcoming professional animator is the willingness of the various commentators to admit difficulties encountered during production and even point out "faults" in the finished product. The perceived faults quite often relate to story-telling techniques and are probably not really faults as much as areas where, with the benefit of hindsight, things might have been done differently. After viewing these movies through the eyes of the people who worked on them, the do-it-yourself animator or movie-maker can probably be a little more relaxed about their own perceived failings or the difficulties they might encounter on their own projects. It seems that even Pixar has its share of troubles.

In the coming weeks (or months...) I'll be providing a brief summary of some of the commentaries I've listened to. Here's the first:

The Incredibles: Two commentary options are available on disc one of the two-disc collector's edition. They can be accessed from the main menu.

In the first commentary, Writer/Director Brad Bird and Producer John Walker take us through the movie with Bird's larger than life enthusiasm making it a very enjoyable ride. In this commentary we learn about some of the story-telling and film-making devices used to add interest to the movie. These include the slow start of the movie with subdued character interviews jumping immediately to a fast-paced car chase. Other points of interest relate to the choice of colours schemes such as the super-saturated colours in the super heroes' hey-day scenes to the desaturated, clinical colour scheme in the claustrophobic confines of the Insuricare offices where Bob spends his days "in hiding".

CAN we please get back to the issue of the gravy?

Bird and Walker laugh uncontrollably as they talk about "food continuity problems" encountered during the family dinner scene and Bird takes every opportunity throughout the commentary to thank the animators for their efforts. Bird also explains why it wouldn't be wise to ask him how he enjoys working in "the animation genre?" As commentaries go, I'd have to give this one five stars out of five!

IN what animated film am I going to be able to animate two guys just sitting in a car having a conversation?

The second commentary is by animators who worked on the movie and while Bird's enthusiasm is absent here, there is plenty of information for those with an avid interest in animation and some insight as to what it is like working with Brad Bird (including some fairly humorous impersonations of him). One salivating animator asks "In what animated film am I going to be able to animate two guys just sitting in a car having a conversation?" - and that gives us some idea of just what might turn on professional animators looking to sink their teeth into something more than another slapstick toon moment. We're also given some insight into the time spent on individual scenes and the fact that some scenes were shared among multiple animators. If you're into animation, this commentary will hold your interest to the end and for you, I'd give this one a five out five too.

Let me know which are your favourite DVD commentaries and why.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Want to Make an Open Movie?


One recurring theme on the Blenderartists forum is the quest to have a group of online volunteers produce an "open" movie. Brimming with enthusiasm after getting their hands on the means of production, many newcomers to the CG scene decide that the only thing standing between them and an Oscar-winning short, or even a feature movie, is time and ability. The next assumption is that ability will come quickly and that the time problem can be overcome with the help of a bunch of other modellers and animators who are presumably watching the forums waiting for just such an opportunity.

In my time on the forum, I've seen countless such proposals (and probably missed quite a lot too) and there is a general consistency to them. In most cases there is no script - and often no concept at all. The typical pitch goes something like "I think we should make an open movie. It will be brilliant and set the world on fire. Everyone can contribute and we can all vote on everything to keep it really open. All models used in the movie will be made available to everyone. I don't have a script so we can all work that out too. I haven't animated anything before but I'm a fast learner and I know that if we all join together, we can do it."

Then, the starry-eyed Spielberg wannabe awaits the flood of over-excited members literally throwing their services at him (or her) all wishing they'd thought of this idea themselves. It's at this point that reality usually hits home, like a bus hits an errant pedestrian. Invariably, the innocent request for participation is met with a barrage of advice to "put up or shut up" and the discussion descends into a long lesson about how movies don't just happen and how it would be a complete waste for anyone to spend one minute of their valuable time on this project - if it can even be called a project at this point. Other respondents offer finished models for a project that doesn't even have a solid script yet. In some cases, the project may have enough legs to last a year or two but ultimately fails without one second of finished animation being produced and sometimes leaving the most committed contributors, and the originator, almost distraught at the thought their effort was all for nothing. It can be a nerve-wracking experience.

REALITY (and hindsight) suggests that there is little chance of completing a successful movie project where anyone and everyone is encouraged to contribute to and vote on everything from the plot to the final render. It would be like expecting all the world's religions to develop a single spiritual model.

IS THERE HOPE?

So, do open movie projects stand any chance of success and if not, are they of no value whatsoever? As a past-participant in one project, let me say that I learned a lot about modelling and animating and that the motivation of contributing meant that learning was fast-tracked. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything and am very grateful for the opportunity to participate. But I also learned something about how these projects work - and why they ultimately fail (or, at best, drag on with no end in sight).

Reality (and hindsight) suggests that there is little chance of completing a successful movie project where anyone and everyone is encouraged to contribute to and vote on everything from the plot to the final render. It would be like expecting all the world's religions to develop a single spiritual model. It's a feel-good philosophy and it just isn't going to happen, no matter how well-meaning the dozens of contributors might be. Even very short animated movie projects struggle as the decision-making process becomes increasingly overwhelmed from the wide variety of ideas and opinions thrown at them. Give people more than two choices to vote on and, like political elections, you'll be lucky to get a genuine majority decision. What you will get is a lot of discussion and some disappointed members as the largest minority vote presumably wins .

However, what really seems to kill the projects is not just the naive attitude of open-ness but a complete disregard for standard movie-making processes. Models start to appear before a script is even partially written and animation begins before there's a story-board. In fact, huge, complex, poly-heavy sets can be assembled before there's any visual indication of what sets are actually required to tell the story - if there ever is a finished story - or any idea how the final product is to be rendered.

Numerous contributors will spend countless evenings making model after model without so much as a style guide or even a solid commitment to an era, so there's little chance of cohesion unless the director is willing to ultimately exclude some of these contributions and risk upsetting someone who believed the project was open to all styles. And that's if there is a director!!! Surprisingly, this crucial job seems all-too-absent in some of these, almost anarcho-syndicalist, projects.

SOFTWARE is modular and users experience only those parts they need to at any given time but movies are stories and stories are linear and the user must experience every part from start to end if they are to make any sense of it.

OPEN-SOURCE VERSUS OPEN MOVIE


Without fail, open-movie proponents point to successful open-source software projects as an example of the viability of the open approach but they miss a fundamental difference between software and story-telling. Software is modular and users experience only those parts they need to at any given time but movies are stories and stories are linear and the user must experience every part from start to end if they are to make any sense of it.

Take Blender 3D animation software as an example. There's no doubt about the increasing success of this product and the collaboration that drives its regular improvement. But Blender isn't a movie, it's a tool. I have used Blender for three years and there are substantial parts of it, like the game engine and a variety of physics-based functions, that I've never even looked at. People have spent hours, weeks or maybe even years developing these aspects of the application and I've no doubt many other people are glad they did - but I can happily use Blender completely oblivious to those parts that don't interest me for now. The same can't be said of a movie. If someone wants to insert a character, building, tree, joke or an entire scene in a movie then when I watch, I have to endure those parts no matter how irrelevant or distracting they might be to the storyline. Imagine a movie where every contributor's "good idea" is included as a result of pursuing a genuinely all-inclusive ideology. The end result would be disastrously fractured (and overly-long) and far from embracing everyone, it would ultimately alienate them.

Online collaborations also fall victim to the tyranny of distance. These projects move very slowly since some of the crew are always asleep or at work or school while others are awaiting or making important decisions. Even simple questions can wait days for answers as key people miss each other on the forums or chat lines - or get sick or go on holidays without informing anyone. Remember, no one's getting paid to do this - it's all voluntary and no one can be forced to make themselves available (after all, you can't fire them for failing to comply).

AND then, when everything is finally done and all the team members look back over the years they've spent contributing all their time for absolutely no financial reward, they give the whole lot away to anyone who wants it. Utopia! Nice idea but it's just not going to happen.

Now, a movie short has some hope for completion but for a feature-length movie collaboration, expect to spend 6-12 months getting a "finished" script together. Spend 6-12 months making concept art. Spend 6-12 months story-boarding the script. Spend 6-12 months getting models made to match the story-board and concept art. Spend 6-12 months getting a rough voice track down. Spend 12-24 months making a 2D story-board animatic to match the voice track. Spend 6-12 months getting voice actors to lay down the finished voice track. Spend 12-24 months animating (this might be a conservative estimate so allow 48 months). Spend 12 months polishing the animation with lighting and effects. Spend 6-12 months writing and recording a musical score and recording an effects track. Spend 6-12 months compositing.

That's at least seven years and while there will be a little overlap in some of these tasks I suspect many of my time-frames could be considerably underestimated if approval of all stages is to be collaborative too. Remember, unlike normal feature films where people are employed to produce the movie, no one is working on your project full-time so hours become days and days become weeks. Tell your prospective contributors at the start that you'll expect them to contribute non-stop for at least seven years and see how many useful volunteers you get. Let's face it, given the difficulties encountered by numerous defunct short-movie collaborations, a feature-length online collaboration is extremely unlikely to even come close to fruition without some serious expertise and management on-board.

IT'S NOT ABOUT THE FEATURES

Another area where these collaborative projects fail is that many contributors are guided by software features rather than the story. So a typical project starts out with incredibly detailed, high-poly scenery, ray-tracing, fluid simulations, soft-body and cloth simulations, explosions, fire and other intensive halo-based effects, reflections, refractions, ambient occlusion, sub-surface scattering, fur, hair, physics engines and so on and so on. The list will grow over the years as more features are added to the software. With this in mind, the project team needs to allow a few years just to render the finished frames.

And then, when everything is finally done and all the team members look back over the years they've spent contributing all their time for absolutely no financial reward, they give the whole lot away to anyone who wants it. Utopia! Nice idea but it's just not going to happen.

THE "MAKE AN OPEN MOVIE" LIST

Having said all that, I think there is a possibility one of these projects will see results. Since it is said that every good blog should have a list (and who am I to ignore such wisdom?), here's my list of things to consider in order to stand some chance of open-movie success. This assumes the typical situation in which the project leader and contributors DO NOT have solid, professional experience in making movies:

  1. STORY IS EVERYTHING: Movie-making is story-telling. Without a story, the movie is pointless unless it is being made to serve some other purpose such as developing or advertising software capabilities. And don't expect amateur modellers and animators to necessarily be good script writers. If you need scripting advice, consider seeking guidance from writers.

  2. THINK SMALL! Animation takes a long time. Depending on complexity (see "KISS" below) and experience, a one or two minute short will be enough to test most online collaborations. Keith Lango wrote in his Fool's Errand series about the problems faced by the independent animator and Keith's list of concerns is equally valid for open-movie collaborations. If you can take a one-minute short to completion using a collaborative model you will have succeeded where many before you have failed and you'll be far better placed to move onto something bigger.

  3. HAVE A STYLE GUIDE: Once you have a rough script and some firm idea of where you're heading, you can start on some concept art so prospective team members will know if this project is their "cup of tea" (some people like fantasy, others like hyper-reality while others like toons). Better to start with the right people than to try and retro-fit a team as the project progresses. Ultimately, style flows through to more than just the models and sets - it involves decisions on lighting, using fluids, fur, cloth and other features that need to fit together to deliver a cohesive finished product.

  4. BE A DIRECTOR: (or appoint one). While the opinions of employees at film companies might be valued, the director makes the final decisions and this must be the case with an open movie project too, if it is to succeed. The director has authority to decide what does and does not make it into the script, the sets and the movie. He or she should probably take advice from a select group of project members (see below) but it just isn't realistic to make every decision a democratic one for the whole group.

    Don't underestimate the importance or workload of a director. Keep the team informed with regular updates , be prepared to say "no" and don't go on holidays just as things get difficult. If you don't think you can wield supreme executive power or stick with a project over the long-term, then maybe you should contribute to someone else's project instead of trying to run your own.

  5. APPOINT TEAM LEADERS to handle some specific areas. Team leaders should have demonstrated experience in their area but they still work for the director. Team leaders are the first level of control in ensuring contributors are following the plan as laid out in the script, storyboards, art-direction and animatics.

  6. KISS: (Keep it simple, stupid) Again I'll refer to to Keith Lango's advice regarding the urge to mimic Pixar in your own animations. Unless you have a big budget or free access to a render farm, you might want to forget RAM hogging features like ray-tracing and ambient occlusion. At the very least, be clever enough to limit the use of these features to a few scenes where they're necessary. You may even be able to tell your story without complex scenery. Look at everything in your arsenal to limit your modelling, animation and rendering times. It's much better to have a simple movie that looks good than a complex movie where corners had to be cut just to get it finished. It's really a question of balance. If you keep things simple then a 30-minute short wouldn't be out of the question for a well-managed project but if you want or need visual complexity then trade this off against the length of the movie.

  7. FOLLOW THE RULES: DVD movie releases from major animation companies like Pixar, Blue Sky and Dreamworks are awash with examples of the movie-making process yet most wannabe movie-makers seem all-too ignorant of the basics. Either that or they simply don't believe they need to consider them. You can't expect to make a movie efficiently if you start modelling before the script is written and the concept art and story-boards completed - it is the first sign of a pending train wreck.

    If you're going to do it, then why not do it right? Have a story, have a design concept, have story boards and an animatic, with a rough audio track. Then, when you know what you actually need for the movie, call for models, record a finished soundtrack THEN move on to animation and effects. The director should ensure no one is doing things before they are required. Even if someone volunteers to make a model, politely ask them to wait until requirements and specifications are published.

    You'll also want to understand accepted techniques (you can ignore them by choice, but you still should know them). If you don't know a pan from a dolly, learn. If you don't know a cut from a fade, learn. If you don't know what "the fourth wall" and "crossing the line" are, learn.

  8. MANAGE YOUR ASSETS: The story-boards and animatic should give enough information to allow the director to determine exactly what assets are required for each scene. If a building is to be seen in the very far distance, there's little point using a highly-detailed model containing thousands of polygons. Either use a low-poly model with an image texture indicating architectural details or better still, make the building part of a matte painting (you can render a single frame of a complex model and use this as a matte painting).

    If a shot involves an exterior view of a building, don't use a model with a fully-dressed interior that won't be seen. Every polygon affects render time. Take a tip from live-action movie sets where many buildings are little more than facades. Also, background shadows can be baked to save on render time and scenes can be split into separate render layers or even rendered separately and composited in post-production to save time.

    Another thing to consider is where to host all this activity and how you'll get it rendered. You'll need good forum and database facilities with fast and easy access. As the project grows, members will be handling huge amounts of data as they upload and download assets. You will definitely want to take the project out of the very public eye of a general forum community if only to maintain some level of sanity. Regular reports can still be made to other forums in order to maintain public interest and possibly attract new members but for the most part you'll hopefully be too engrossed in production to be dealing with constant questions from passers-by. And make sure the host site is secure and stable (idiot hackers apparently get their jollies by demolishing anything vaguely positive) and that you won't lose everything at the whim of the server's owners (this happened more than once on the project I contributed to). If the site requires subscription, make sure to keep it current. It's embarrassing to have project members see some weird generic splash screen where their favourite open movie site used to be. For rendering a high-poly movie, you'll need a decent render farm that supports your file-type.

  9. KEEP IT LEGAL: If a project stands a good chance of success it would be wise to ensure all members are truly committed to the open-source ideology. It would be very embarrassing, and possibly costly, if a contributor decides that their contribution had strings attached and demands compensation for their effort. Spell out the nature of contributions, using one of the many Creative Commons licence-types or GPL, if appropriate, then get the release forms signed and returned by everyone.

    Keep tabs of who worked on what and if you don't have a release (or some form of consent) for something, don't use that asset. You could make it clear that every model submitted must be accompanied by a text file releasing that model under the chosen licence-type or it won't be used. (NOTE: I'm not qualified to offer legal advice)

  10. HAVE FUN: That's why you're doing it in the first place. Never lose sight of that. Maybe this should have been point number one. Oh well, if you want it that way, consider this a count-down list and your wish is granted ;)

SHOULD YOU CONTRIBUTE?


To anyone looking to contribute to one of these projects I suggest that you should do so if the project itself interests you. If the style and story interest you and there are areas where you feel you can assist - and if that assistance is wanted - then go for it but go in with your eyes open. If the project fails some of the above tests then it may ultimately fall victim to the ever-present open-movie Grim Reaper. But as I said at the start of this article, the commitment of contributing can help to fast-track your learning process. Just don't set yourself up for heartbreak by assuming that all other members are as committed to the project as you are in your early days of contributing. Be prepared for the likelihood that your contribution will ultimately not see the light of day in a finished movie and if this happens be happy to write the whole exercise off as a valuable learning experience.

SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS AN OPEN MOVIE?

The term "open movie" (and open-source or open-content movie) is relatively new and has come to have a variety of meanings. It can refer to a movie produced using only (or almost entirely) open-source software, but the film itself may have restricted rights applied to it. Open movie can also mean a movie produced by a public collaboration of people who choose to contribute to it - ie, it is "open" to anyone to participate - but it may involve proprietary software in parts of the production. In possibly its broadest definition, and this is largely the situation I'm discussing in this article, an open movie is one which is open to public participation AND which uses only open-source software AND which is released to the public domain without restriction AND where all the source files used to produce the movie are ultimately released for free to anyone who wishes to use them for any other purpose.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A good helping of Ratatouille

Well, I have now seen Ratatouille, two weeks before it officially opens here in Oz. Pixar have done it again. The film is a visual feast and contains all the elements of hope, drama, despair and comedy that typify Pixar story-telling. In an audience that was made up of around 80% children - many of them very young - it was good to be able to watch the movie undistracted by bored kids running around - as happened with Cars. This was a little surprising as Ratatouille doesn't seem to be aimed at young kids, it really is a film that many adults will appreciate. But the young-uns clearly connected better with the furry critters in Brad Bird's ratty tale than they did with the slick, shiny machines in John Lassetter's Route 66 adventure (which I quite enjoy, by the way). And the adults had a ball, laughing loudly at all the right moments.

I won't critique the film as I'm a hopeless watcher. Neither movies nor novels ever hold my uninterrupted attention and with modern animations I'm easily distracted by the CG feast. As an oil painter too, I was easily distracted in Ratatouille by the wonderful, glowing light that permeates every scene. But I knew from all the preview material that this would be the case. One area where I was disappointed was the in-your-face moral lesson that underpinned the story. In fact, overall I feel the moralising overwhelmed the humour and I really don't need life-lessons from a cartoon.

One thing that did amuse me was the much-feared food critic Anton Ego. His funereal appearance reminds me of ex-Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating - or at least of the caricatures that entertained newspaper readers during the time of his political career.

Potential spoiler here... > I couldn't help but wonder if Ego's ultimate summary of the value of food critics might also have been intended as a bit of a swipe at the many film critics who had this rodent-filled film dead and buried before the last frames were even rendered?

Now I'm looking forward to the DVD release. Hopefully Disney-Pixar will come good with the extras for this one and not short-change us as they did with Cars, which came with very few "accessories". I think most, Pixar fans will expect to be given a good helping of side servings with their Ratatouille. If this DVD is as skimpy as the Cars DVD was then I'll be waiting until it hits the discount shelves - the extras have become a large part of what makes Pixar DVDs so special and are one big reason why I own so many Pixar titles on DVD despite already having perfectly good VHS copies. The apparent decision to release a fully-accessorised version of Cars, 12 months after the initial DVD release, leaves me feeling a little cynical that someone's trying to double-dip by enticing fans to "upgrade" to the new, improved release.

Thanks again to the organisers of the Telethon previews.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Taste of Ratatouille

Movie-goers in Western Australia may have an opportunity to get an early look at Pixar's latest release "Ratatouille". Well, early compared to the rest of Australia but still late compared to many countries. Anyway, that little grumble aside, the really good news is that Telethon is holding preview screenings of Ratatouille at selected cinemas on 19th August, a good two to three weeks earlier than the official opening date of somewhere from 30th of August onwards.

If you haven't done so already, find your nearest screening and hope you can still get a ticket. At $8.50 each it's a win-win-win situation. Early screening, cheap tickets and you'll be supporting Telethon!!!

Big thanks to everyone who has anything to do with making this happen. I'll be there!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Free video from Jeff Lew

Another chapter from my animation journey so far...

Character animator Jeff Lew, lead animator of "Matrix Reloaded" and widely known for his "Killer Bean" online animations, has made four chapters of his training DVD, "Learning 3D character Animation with Jeff Lew" available for free download.

The four chapters add up to 120mb and offer 34 minutes of free professional advice. This is extremely useful information for up-coming animators and is not to be missed.

You can find out more about the DVD and access the free download here.

If you're a Killer Bean fan then you just might be interested in some behind-the-scenes information, like how to make Matrix-style bullet trails. You'll find Jeff's "how-to" article for that and other visual effects, here.

Big thanks Jeff!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Telling Tales

Okay, so you've got the basics of animation pretty well sorted out and you know enough about modelling techniques to make most of the things you'll need for a simple movie project - but have you got a story to tell? After all, without a story, no amount of modelling, animating, story-boarding, lip-syncing or lighting and camera angles will get you a successful movie.

For many of us, certainly for me, "the story" is the single most difficult part of the whole process. Modelling is relatively easy to learn because it is tangible. You want to model a hand? Find a tutorial on modelling hands and away you go. Making faces with good edge loops, suitable for animating, is similarly "easy" once you've learned the basics of modelling and you understand why loops are important.

Character animation is somewhat more complicated than modelling but quite a lot can still be learned through tangible examples. Books and the internet abound with the basic principles of character animation and there is also no shortage of explicit examples of technique. Want to make an arm movement snappier? Then you'll find step-by-step tutorials on achieving just that. Want to make an eye blink? No problem, with a quick search you'll not only find various examples of eyelid models and approaches to animating them, but advice on how to time a blink for a variety of situations, moods and character traits.

While there is still room for personal interpretation of these things, the fundamentals can be learned through effort and trial and error and, once learned, the animator can start to impose a personal touch.
...without a story, no amount of modelling, animating, story-boarding, lip-syncing or lighting and camera angles will get you a successful movie.

But story writing isn't so tangible, at least I don't find it so. It's purely subjective. It's based on ideas, not polygons - and it's difficult, if not impossible, to teach ideas. There are some fundamentals out there, including seemingly useless advice like "your story must have a beginning, middle and end". Hardly helpful when you're stuck for where to start - or end! But keep searching and you'll find out that good stories require protagonists, antagonists, challenges, risks, failures and ultimately, successes.

So what's stopping you from writing now you've got the recipe? Well, it's hardly a step-by-step tutorial is it?

If you're feeling my pain and nodding away as your read this then let me share with you some resources I have found which may just help to push you a little further along. None will give you a step-by-step guide but they might be just enough to engage your right-brain and get you thinking creatively.

First cab off the rank is animator Jeremy Cantor. Jeremy has made some chapters from his book "Inspired 3D short film production" available for FREE download. Each chapter is a goldmine of professional advice and is as close to a step-by-step story-writing guide as you'll probably find. The writing style is clear and aimed squarely at people, especially animators, wanting to make a short movie. If you read nothing else, take a look at these chapters.

The world wide web also contains a number of so-called "story generators". The usual approach is to push one or more buttons and have random selections of text offered up as potential subject matter. Here are a few to try. I'm sure they work for some people.

Writing Fix:
If the colour scheme doesn't instantly freeze your brain then you might well find some useful ideas among this large collection of auto-generators. Each page also contains basic advice on how you might use the generated ideas. Try "Serendipitous Cartoon Plots" for example, but note the site is aimed at students and the generated plots mostly involve characters that would land you with a copyright infringement if you used them as-is. But change the named character to a generic one and off you go.

Seventh Sanctum - Story Generator:
Choose how many ideas you want, choose a category, or "free for all" then hit the "generate" button and see what you get. I have to confess some of the ideas leave me more bewildered than I was before I started but your mileage may vary.

The Fill-in-the-Blank Story Generator:
This generator takes a different approach. The user (you) completes a basic storyline by choosing from several options in drop-down menus to fill in the blank spaces. The site claims there are 9,442,156,179,456,000,000 stories to generate from all possible combinations of the options. I can't be bothered doing the arithmetic so I'm willing to believe them. The idea is to submit your story to the website for possible publication - but you might just use it to generate a storyline for your next production.

Simple Plot and a Random Story Generator:
Odd. But you might like it.

On a final note, if none of the above resources help and you're still stuck for a story line, then you might want to seek out stories which are in the public domain. These are stories which are free of copyright restrictions and include fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen.

Take a look at The Literature Page or Public Domain Content for examples of what's out there. Some Google searching for "public domain stories" will likely turn up more.

If you do use such stories, you should be aware that just because the original story may be free of copyright, any subsequent tellings of that story by others will carry their own copyright. So, while you may well be able to make your own version of Beauty and the Beast, if your version borrows characters, sub-themes, script or music from the Disney version of the same story, then you will likely find out what copyright infringement really means.

If you have any inspirational writing tips to share then please do so.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Rat season comes late to Australia

Anyone with even the faintest interest in animation, or movies in general, would know that Pixar's latest release, Ratatouille, opened in cinemas on June 29th, just two weeks ago. After more than twelve months of teasers being regularly released or discovered on the internet, audiences finally got to see the main event. Well, most audiences.

Australian audiences will have to wait until August 30 before they get a chance to see Ratatouille outside of a restaurant (Yes, ratatouille is really a vegetable dish). If you have a passport and an uncontrollable fetish for Pixar movies then you could fly to China, Russia, USA, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Paris or a few other places. You might see from that list that it seems the foreign-language-dubbed prints were ready for release on-time but if you're an Aussie and you don't have a passport, then you've got a bit of waiting to do. Maybe they're dubbing it in Strine, just for us. I wonder which character Bryan Brown will voice?

One thing to note, as depressing as this news is for those Down Under who've followed all the pre-release advertising (and there's still amazing stuff being released each week!), don't bother using your passport to go to the UK - they don't get the film until October. Gee, they must be on Santa's 'naughty' list or something.

If you're a Pixar fan you might already know about the Upcoming Pixar blog but if not, read what the author of that site had to say about this.

Super Wu-Man - The Phenomenon?

In 2006, as the Blender World Cup was underway, a star was born on the Blenderartists forums. Forum member Wu (real name Eric... surname won't be mentioned due to his paranoia) boasted long and loudly about his natural superiority in all things Blender - and all things non-Blender for that matter. Wu's forum friend Sago (Sacha Goedegebure) soon dubbed him "Wu-Man" and presented a caricature to the amusement of the other World Cup competitors and followers. Wu soon became known as Super Wu and Super Wu-Man, a name Wu himself ultimately adopted. Some less-than-polite members tended to refer to him as Super Wo-man - but that's another story.





As my entry in part two of the challenge, themed "Sneaky Tactics", I "borrowed" Sago's caricature (I asked permission), modelled a 3D Super Wu and depicted him trying to blow up other competitors.

Following from this, I embarked on animating our larger-than-life super hero and what better way to depict a self-proclaimed womaniser and all-round super hero than to see him sitting alone on a park bench singing "I can't stand to fly"? Every test render of this animation brought a tear to my eye :)

Although I've only used the first verse of the song and did so for educational purposes, copyright paranoia prevents me posting it here for public consumption. Hopefully the still image tells the story.




THANKS: Special thanks go to Sacha Goedegebure (Sago) for allowing people to take his design and mess with it as they pleased. His brilliant cartoon style and quick wit has seen Sago appointed to lead the next Blender Foundation open movie production, code-named Project Peach. Thanks must also go to Eric the nameless (Super Wu-Man) for being a good sport and not only giving people a whipping post but often starting or joining in with the whipping.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Early Lip-Sync & Acting Tests

Here are some of my first character animation tests. The first two, "Yeah sure" and "Listen Up" were produced as entries in the now defunct 10 Second Club monthly competitions.
NEWS: A new animation competition club has started up! The 11 Second Club takes up where the 10 second club left off. Well worth a look if you want to learn character animation.

The first video began as just a three second short, just to see if I could do it. Before I knew it, I'd animated the whole ten second clip!

video
"Yeah sure" April 2006

This second clip shows that when doing lip-sync, words are not important. What really matters is that the mouth shapes match the sounds - and those sounds won't always be English words spoken in generic accents. Every character has a different sound and delivery and therefore, every character requires a unique approach to lip syncing. Even if two characters are saying the same thing, the lip-sync, acting and facial expressions would be different for each one, according to their character.

video
"Listen up" May 2006

The following test animation was produced using a sound file from animationmeat.com

video
"Attitude" May 2006

Shorts like these are a great way of testing a rig and your skills. One thing that is worth mentioning is that when attempting lip-syncing, the character acting is often more important than getting perfect shapes for the mouth. If the overall body action is right, then the animation should "sell", even without any lip movement. Then, when adding lip movements, consider whole facial expressions too as these are just as important as the mouth shapes.

Keith Lango has some great tips on lip-sync.
Aardman Animations lip-sync technique
My tutorial on lip-sync using shape keys in Blender is here.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Video upload test

Test post deleted. Video can be seen in post below.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Out of the box



Well, here it is - my newest animated video. Not only is this my first truly original work but it is also the catalyst for me starting this blog.

When I first discovered Blender, all I really wanted to do was some simple matchstick drawing animations. But here was a suite of high quality 3D and animation tools at my disposal. So, after a few weeks coming to grips with the basics (The Blender learning curve is not that steep if you have some graphics experience, an open mind and a bit of spare time to get friendly with the non-standard interface) I started on a quick and dirty animation featuring a simple, almost realistic, matchstick bouncing around on a stage, in time with a soundtrack from the late Tommy Cooper

Trivia: you can see the original matchstick on the title screen of the new video.

I had written some rough one liners for a stand-up matchstick but had no means to record them digitally as my model of G4 Mac did not come with a standard microphone input (I won't mention my angst as a result of discovering that little surprise too late to change my purchase decision). So that's as far as the project went. In the meantime I continued to investigate Blender and learn all I could about animation, 3D modelling and CG.

Two years later, in May this year, I bought a Microsoft LifeChat LX-3000 USB headset, with microphone, and it worked perfectly with the G4 Mac without any software installation. Wow! MS and Apple compatibility!

Using Audacity, an open-source audio editor, I recorded a comedy soundtrack. To complete the performance, I downloaded a bunch of audience sound files from the Freesound Project and edited these into the final audio track.

A few pencil sketches were done to develop a matchstick character and the modelling began. Two months later the video is finished and released for all to see...



Out of the box, 2007. By Andy Dolphin.
Click to play

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A bit of history

My interest in animation goes back to my childhood.

My mother bought Preston Blair's Animation book for the family in the very early 1970's and I still have that same book today, as well as another Blair book, How to animate film cartoons. My fascination with animation saw me experiment with building blocks and modelling clay using a super-8 cine-camera in the late 1970's.

Since then, my interest in the medium has remained but opportunities to indulge have been scarce. It's never really been an obsession but it's always lurked in the deep corners of my mind.

In 2005, being already accomplished in 2D graphics and fine art, I saw Victor Navone's Alien Song video which was fast travelling the world via email. I got the urge to have a go at some simple animation with the intention of one day having my own animation travel the world. Talk about ambition! I just wanted to draw some stick figures and use some software to put them together in a flip-book-style video. But what software?

I went searching to see if there was anything available for the Mac and that's when I discovered Blender. I ignored it at first - 3D was far too complicated for my simple needs - but it was FREE and a small download so I took the chance. Two years later and there's barely a day gone by where I haven't used, thought about, written about or discussed Blender. Now I am obsessed!



Bouncing Ball Animation
This was my first "real" animation and led to my first wiki tutorial.

I spend quite a bit of my spare time investigating and experimenting with the character animation capabilities of Blender and also drifting into other parts of Blender from time to time to see what else it can do. I've been a regular contributor to the Blender wiki tutorials, have some images in Tony Mullen's Introducing character animation with Blender book and also wrote a discussion chapter and tutorial on Shape Keys in the Essential Blender book recently published by the Blender Foundation.

My wiki tutorial contributions:
Bouncing Ball - Lip Sync with Shape Keys - Lattice

Interested in oil painting? See my fine art gallery here.

And so we begin...

The time has come to bring some semblance of order to my experiments in animation - and this blog is the first step in that direction.

My intent is to use this facility to present my views, opinions and thoughts on CG animation, especially using the open source 3D animation application, Blender. I will also present some of my works in progress, completed works and experiments and where relevant, I'll offer information on problem solving or approaches to using Blender. I will also discuss other software I use in relation to these projects.

Well, that's it for my first post. More to follow soon.