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!

"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.

"Listen up" May 2006

The following test animation was produced using a sound file from

"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.