Many moons ago.. waaay back in 2006, I was interviewed by a website called Strut Your Reel. Unfortunately, that site has since gone *poof*. Thanks to the Internet Archive, I was able to find the original interview, and have reposted it here for your enjoyment.
I’d like to begin w. a giant “Thank You” for sharing w. us here at Strut. It is fantastic to be speaking with such a talented and accomplished artist as yourself. I am sure most of our readers are likely aware of you already as you are quite well known throughout out the internet and training circles. But for the few who aren’t, can you please introduce yourself?
Thanks Tim! It’s good to be here! I’ve been a big fan of Strut since you guys got started, so it’s very exciting to be able to get a chance to interview with you.
I got started in the industry way back in University ( 1994 or so) when I switched from being a Communications Major to an Art Studio major. My roommate Christian Fagerlund kept coming back from art classes covered in gesso and paint, and I was coming back from school with paper cuts from reading 2000 page books about the theory of communication. He drew naked people, I drew doodles in the margins of my books ensuring that I could never sell them at a decent price. It wasn’t fair! So I took a Photoshop course and fell in love with the idea of using computers to do art work.
The professor, Victoria Vesna, was amazingly talented at getting grants for the University, and was able to get a couple of hard core computers, an SGI Indy and Indigo2. She also was able to get a grant from Wavefront Technologies of some hip 3d animation software. I had studied animation my whole life and was totally excited to have the opportunity to learn 3d software other than Infini-D. Since we only had two computers that ran the software, and they were also being used to host the Art Studio Web site, I told Victoria that I would be the web administrator if it would get me access to the computers. It did, and thus I found myself playing with Wavefront’s Explore, Kinemation, and other such animation packages at 4 in the morning when I was supposed to be writing HTML. Ahh.. ik solvers and coffee.. a winning combination.
At that time I was also doing 2d animation on my own, and a woman named Karen (agh, her last name totally escapes me now) hired me to do little animations for a children’s CD-ROM entitled, Kid Phonics. It was my first “official” gig as an animator, and I was so excited! Then, Wavefront (soon to become Alias|Wavefront), contacted Victoria. They needed an intern to help test their new animation software, Maya.
I spoke with Gary Monheit, and soon after had a job testing the software. This was in my final year at University, so may days were spent going to class, running down to the Santa Barbara office, testing Maya, and then driving down to companies like Walt Disney, Dream Quest Images, Digital Domain, and others to help the td’s there learn how to integrate Maya into their pipeline. It was a HUGE opportunity, and I’m really grateful to Gary and the others at Wavefront who gave me the chance to get to know all these industry big-wigs!
Soon I was hired full time as a support specialist working with Maya. One day I was demoing some new features to a few developers and one of the product specialists (a group of internal users who developed demo material for trade shows and such) showed a project he was working on called Mel the Cowboy. It was meant to be one of the first animated shorts done in Maya. He was up in Toronto working with the developers up there, and I immediately thought “that is a job that I have to have!” I spoke with my boss and convinced him that I need to go to Toronto to work with the support team there to teach them Maya. He agreed, and I flew up to Toronto for my first “official” business trip.
While there I kept an eye out for where Kevin Lombardi (the product specialist) was going to be working, and set myself up on a computer where he could see my screen. I then waited until he was looking and “casually” started rigging up a character as fast as I possibly could. “la la la.. look at me rig.. aren’t I quick.. la la la”. He noticed and said “hey, can you rig up a leg?”
” You mean like this?” I asked casually building a very primitive inverse foot rig. Well, not really casually.. I was sweating like a pig.. but I thought I came across cool as a cucumber.
Anyway, we talked for a bit about what he and his team (Adrian Graham and Corban Gossett) were doing and so we all went out for sushi. Being a total newbie, they convinced me to order more and more sake and beer.. and pretty soon we were all incredibly intoxicated. Being the new guy, they somehow tricked me into having to pay the whole bill.. which was very difficult to get my boss to sign off on, since I wasn’t up there to try and jump to a new team. I think the only reason she signed was because she was good friends with the guys and knew they were “hazing” me. Thankfully she did sign.. because the bill was over 200 dollars!
So I worked with that group for about three years, designing demos, traveling around the world, making short films, and generally learning as much about Maya, 3d animation, and the industry as possible.
In 1999 I ended up leaving Alias|Wavefront to head to Weta Digital where I started as a technical director, building the animation rigging pipeline and soon moved over to the animation department where I animated characters like Gollum, The Witch King, Shelob, and a number of injured orcs.
In 2004 I left Weta and came back to California to work at PDI/Dreamworks as a senior character animator, dragging my wife and two dogs with me!
Q. You have traveled quite an interesting path and have experienced a wide range of roles. What have been some of the highlights?
It’s been an incredible ride. I’ve gotten to travel to some amazing places and met incredible people. I have to say that every chance I get to travel and speak about Lord of the Rings, Madagascar, or demonstrate some piece of software my blood just pumps like crazy and I end up grinning like a complete idiot for days on end.
One of the most exciting demos I ever gave was my last few weeks as an employee at Alias|wavefront, where I demoed Maya to over 3,000 people at Siggraph. That was intense. All those people.. I literally bounced around for hours afterwards.
Talking about Lord of the Rings was also amazing, because people are still SO excited about it! Matt Aitken and I went and talked at a conference in Copenhagen one time and I swear, the energy coming from everyone made us feel like total rock stars.
Those types of experiences are fantastic and hugely exciting. But also just working on shots that you really like is extremely rewarding. Every time I show a shot in dailies and somebody laughs I feel like “yes, THIS is what I love!!” It’s like a huge pat on the back.
Q. You have already achieved some large goals and your career is still young. What were some of the key decisions you had made in order to get where you currently are?
The biggest decision I made early on was not to let someone else manage my career. I’m a huge advocate of taking active part in what your career becomes. If you want something, nobody else is going to give it to you. You have to actively find out what it takes to get there, honestly evaluate the current situation, and then do what you can to achieve your goal without burning bridges or pissing anybody off. That last part is very important. This is an incredibly small industry. Everybody knows each other, and word can get around very quick.
So I decided early on to be completely honest with myself not just about where I wanted to go, but about what I needed to work on in order to get there. I also discuss these things openly and honestly with my bosses and let them know what my goals are and what I’m thinking, and I ask them to give me honest feedback. So far, it’s been very effective, and I feel like whenever something isn’t working, I have the tools to honestly look at the situation and make changes.
Q. Even the best have to overcome obstacles in their careers. Can you explain some of the biggest obstacles you have faced and how you overcame them?
That’s a tough question… I would say that the obstacles are more of steps towards reaching your goals. For example, when I first got hired at Wavefront I was one of two interns. We both had to share a single computer, so I would work 3 days a week, he would work 3, and on the day we overlapped , one of us would find another computer somewhere to work on.
Normally this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but this guy was a complete jerk. He would take every opportunity to insult me, call me names, ridicule my work, and generally treat me like complete crap. There are very few people in this world that I don’t like, and this guy.. well let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan.
The tough thing about this situation was that we had to work together, but being near him would cause me to nearly break down. I’d come home from work either so enraged that my hands were shaking, or I’d nearly be sobbing with frustration. Having to even be in the same room with him made my skin crawl. It was horrible.
So how did I overcome it? I learned to get a thick skin. I took everything he had and learned to let it slide off my back and let it go. I focused on what it would take to get out of the situation (i.e. get a promotion), and put all my energy into that. My vindication was when I moved up after 6 months, and he kept that position for a year or so. Learning to deal with a tough situation like that was extremely helpful, as sometimes you come across people who just don’t know how to treat people well, and I’m able to not take that negative energy on anymore.
Q. On a similar note, what are some obvious traps you see Animators falling into? I am sure you can even split them up as well. What would be a typical pitfall you would tell a junior Animator to look out for and on the flipside, what is something you see experienced Animators doing that they should avoid?
Awesome question, and in fact, my answer applies to both levels! It’s trying to do too much, or make something more complicated than it needs to be. I find myself doing this all the time! I’ll be working on a shot and trying to throw as many cool acting ideas in as I can, and I end up making the shot too busy and unclear.
It’s important to find what the key point is of any shot or series of shots you’re working on and make sure that you get that idea across. Putting too much in the shot can easily overpower it and confuse the audience. Remember, they’re only going to see it once, so just make it clear!
Q. You have been able to work on one of the most revolutionary characters in CG with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. What are some experiences you had on that project?
Besides getting a chance to work with some of the best animators in the industry, one of the coolest experiences I had was when I had the opportunity to direct Andy Serkis at one of the motion capture sessions. It was totally surreal, since I had never done anything like that before and didn’t really know what to do. Luckily there was a great crew of people there who knew exactly what was going on. Andy’s job that day was to shoot some mocap for the part in The Return of the King where he’s talking to himself in the river. Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh where there writing lines & directing his acting. I was just there to sort of observe and make sure that Animation got what we needed.
It was great watching Fran and Philippa work with him, and just watching Andy himself was amazing. Especially at the end when he just sort of crawled around so we could get good reference of how Gollum might move. I was so enthralled watching, that I forgot to say “cut” & Andy ended up nearly collapsing from the act of crawling for too long. Oops!
That was also the day that he recorded his performance that ended up being used for MTV Music Video awards. That was hilarious, and we actually had to shoot it twice because the crew cracked up so bad & ruined the audio take!
Q. How did working at Weta differ from your current studio Dreamworks Animation?
The major difference for me is that I’m no longer doing any character rigging! At Weta my job started as a rigger, so I was always doing tech support for people and helping fix rigs. At PDI, we use a totally proprietary system, so I wouldn’t be able to fix rigs even if someone asked me to!
Also, I’ve gotten a chance to have more “fun” animating at PDI. The animation at Weta was all about achieving realism and a quality of motion that was believable for live action. At PDI, I’ve been able to “go for the gag” which I really love.
Q. You are also one of the Animation Mentors. What has been some key advice you received from a Mentor in your career?
The first time I had an animation director draw on my screen and show me a “pop” in my animation that I couldn’t see was like a moment of.. I don’t know. Like the heavens opened up and went “LO, AND YOUR ANIMATION SUDDENLY STOPPED SUCKETHING”. It was Richie Baneham, and I was working on a shot of Gollum. I was trying to get his head to move correctly. He reached over my shoulder, drew a line on my monitor showing the path that Gollum’s head was taking. Suddenly there was the pop! It was amazing! So ever since then I always look at the leading edge of my objects when they’re moving and it’s really helped make my animation much more tidy.
Q. Now that you’re the Mentor, what advice do you find yourself continually repeating to your students?
Sleep is for the weak!
Just kidding! The thing I try and do as a mentor in general is really give them a sense that they can do this. Even though it’s hard work, and I might give feedback about the work that makes them go “AGGHH!! I’ll NEVER get it!” I try and make sure that my critiques come across in a way that’s encouraging, and not discouraging. I totally respect each and every one of them for the commitment that they’re putting into learning animation. It’s super inspiring!
In terms of general animation comments, I’m usually harping on them about “hitting an invisible wall”. That’s when some part of their character’s body appears to “bounce” off of something invisible. Usually it just means overlapping the motion a bit, but it’s one of those things that takes a while to develop an eye for.
Q. Most would assume someone like you rarely makes mistakes ever. But the reality is that everyone does. Could you share the biggest mistake you made and how you bounced back from it and what you learned from it?
Hah! never make mistakes? I always make mistakes! The important thing is recognizing that mistakes are common and they come often, and to not be discouraged by mistakes.
I’m constantly re-working various parts of animation because they’re not working, or the motion isn’t right, or there’s too much in there, or not enough stuff.
I think it’s important to not be embarrassed by your mistakes, but to embracethem. If you didn’t make mistakes, you would never learn!
Q. Who or what would you cite as the single biggest influence in your career?
Probably John Lasseter. I saw Luxo Jr. when I was in High School and it was a defining moment for me. I just loved everything he did with that short in terms of the simplicity of the idea to the character development.. I just think it’s totally brilliant!
Q. You are a Character Animator but you are also really well known as a Character Rigger, which was probably what many know you as best. How do you compare the two roles and how does being able to rig benefit you as an Animator?
It’s so strange, I’ve always thought of myself more as an animator who rigs, but I think the general perception is that I’m a rigger who animates.
Maybe that’s changing now that I spend more time publicly animating.. well, not like I’m busking on the street animating tourists, but the fact that I am animating is more visible…
Anyway, how do I compare the two roles? It’s a tough comparison. I think that rigging definitely helps me understand how to tackle challenging technical shots. For example, I’m able to work out how to handle complicated parenting situations (this character, picks up this, while holding on to that, while being carried by this, but its then pulled by that) by thinking more about how the rigs work and setting up parenting relationships in a way that make for easier animation.
I am also able to communicate my ideas on rigs to the riggers here at PDI in a way that they understand because I know exactly what they’re trying to solve. They’re better at it than I am, but at least I can communicate my needs.
Being an animator also makes me a better rigger because I’m able to make decisions on how rigs should work based on the knowledge of what the animator will try and accomplish. I know where to focus my energy, and what’s important. for example, auto-shoulders vs. fk/ik snapping. Sure, auto-shoulders are cool.. but it’s WAY more important to me as an animator to be able to snap my fk control to my ik control without it popping. If I have 1 week to develop either system.. I know exactly where I’ll put my energy.
Q. From what I had read is that a lot of motion capture was used for Gollum. Can you explain how much of it was used in the end performance and also how it was used? How much was hand key framed?
Ah yes, the “GOLLUM IS ALL MOCAP” question.
Gollum was a combined effort between a phenomenal actor, Andy Serkis, a great mocap team, and a hugely talented animation team. Without any of those people, he would not have been the success he was.
In film 2, I would say that around 50% of the Gollum shots were mocapped, and of those most were touched by animation for modification ranging from re-animating to tweaking. All shots were tweaked for animation for fingers and toes, and all facial animation was hand animated.
The rest of the shots were hand keyframed, some being done by using Andy as reference, others just by using the animator’s own ability to animate well.
Film 3 had more motion captured work in it, but that was because Gollum was in the film more, and the process had been refined a bit. Still most shots were tweaked, if not re-animated, by animation, and all facial animation was hand keyframed. Again, many shots were keyframed simply by hand using Andy for reference, or by just animating the way one normally would.
Q. I would really like to learn the process you take when animating. Can you walk us through the steps from the time you first receive your shot through to the final animation?
When I get handed a shot (or a series of shots), I’ll usually watch the storyboard and layout passes of the work over and over again within the sequence so I can get a good idea for the rhythm of the shots, the pacing, and the general feel of the sequence. I’ll start thinking of ideas for what the characters might be able to do, and start coming up with questions for the directors.
Then we’ll have a kick-off where directors give us the initial direction on what the shots should be. I’ll ask as many questions as possible in order to try and get an idea as to what is in the director’s head. If anything is unclear, I ask and ask and ask. It’s my job at this point to pull as much info as possible, so I never hesitate to ask!
Then I’ll watch the sequence again with the new information in my head and start to try and come up with ideas for the shots. Sometimes I’ll act things out in front of the camera, sometimes I’ll draw thumbnails, sometimes I’ll just make notes. But most of the time I’ll start making a plan of attack for the shot to figure out what the acting will be, and what’s important to get across to the audience.
Now it’s time for blocking, so I’ll go through and block each shot in my sequence to make sure that the main point of the shot is clear. When blocking, I’ll usually just to a quick pose or two with the intended emotion so I can see how it reads. This is really early blocking, however, and not meant to have all the details of the acting in it, it’s just to get the emotion.
The next pass will then be more tweaks, and finessed facial work, putting in twitches and really trying to allow the face to look natural.
Once I’ve shown the shot for final, and gotten that approved, then I’ll go back and do final finger contacts and minor tweaks that don’t affect the shot’s acting, but they make it sing.
Next, I’ll do a more refined blocking pass, trying to again get the main ideas into the shots and get a better idea of how the character will act things out. What types of moves they’ll do, where they’re going to look, how long a take will be, etc.
I’ll show this to the directors and get feedback. Then, taking that feedback I’ll start working on the shots one at a time taking them from blocking to first pass. This means taking the animation out of stepped curves and putting in the first pass of overlap and weight. I try and nail that stuff pretty early, because if you don’t get it early it’s hard to fix later on without messing up other stuff. I’ll do a rough pass on the facial shapes, usually not with lip sync unless it’s a close up acting shot.
After showing the first pass and getting comments, I’ll go back and do another pass on the body, this time with more work on the hands and face, refining the body motion, and really focusing on the lip sync.
Q. Animating is making your character act. Can you describe what you do to make your characters show emotion and act?
I first try and really think about what it is that’s motivating the character. What are they wanting? What is their desire? What are they thinking about? Randy Cook (animation director on the Lord of the Rings) had a trick where he’d record the internal dialog of the character and play that with the shot so you could make the internal dialog work externally. It’s a really great trick for getting into a character’s head.
So I’ll think about all that, and then I’ll focus on the eyes and eyebrows mostly. I’ve learned through watching animators around me like Melanie Cordan who are awesome at making characters “go internal”. She can really make characters thoughts come alive simply by getting a good eye shape, and positioning the pupil in the right place in the eyeball.
I spend a lot of time trying to think about that internal motivation and how to show it. It’s certainly not easy, and it’s something I’m trying to get better at.
Q. Every so often, an Animator will hit a wall and struggle with coming up with a fresh or suitable idea for their shot. What do you do when seeking out an appropriate action or new idea?
I ask people around me! I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by very talented animators (Melanie Cordan and Cassidy Curtis sit right next to me in my cube!) who are super encouraging. By just turning and asking them we can usually come up with good ideas to try.
Q. I am really curious as to which live actors you study. Can you share your favorite actors and scenes?
I actually don’t spend a lot of time studying live action movies. I tend to look at real life people instead and watch them. There’s something just so interesting about how people do things. Actors know they’re on camera and will stage their performance with that knowledge. Real people do things that are unexpected and less dramatic, and for some reason I really find that exciting.
Q. You are so well known for your rigging skills. How important is it for an Animator to know how to rig a character?
I think it can help with some types of shots, but it’s certainly not necessary. The most important thing an animator has to know how to do is animate! So if you want to be an animator, learn that first. Rigging can come in handy, but if you’ve got a week.. animate first, rig while you’re rendering.
Actually, the things that DO help animators is understanding the space that things operate in. Understand what it means for one thing to be parented to another. Understand how pivots work, and how rotation orders work. Try and get a handle on Euler angles and all that stuff. Learning that will help you incredibly!
Q: Have you had a moment that changed the way you approached your career or the way you animate? If so, what was it?
My career-changing moment was when I was trying to decide whether or not to come to New Zealand to work on the Lord of the Rings. I was taking a break after working months straight getting ready for NAB (National Association of Broadcasters). Some friends and I had driven out to the desert to relax and we decided to climb some sand dunes. At the top of one of the dunes was a weird guy sitting on a carpet drinking a glass of wine. I decided to ask him what to do and his advice was to go to New Zealand because.. “why not?”.
You only live once, right? It’s an important thing to remember. You live once, you have to try things and if they work, GREAT, if not, okay, so you learned something.
That’s the way I try and approach everything. Sometimes I forget.. but I try and make a conscious effort to remember that it’s important to let yourself try things and not be disappointed if they don’t work. That works with life and with animation.
Q. If one wants to become a skilled rigger, what advice do you have for them?
First, study reference material. Look at examples of what it is you’re going to be rigging and try and understand what you’re going for. If you’re rigging for animation, try and understand what the animator wants and how they’re going to use the rig. If you’re trying to make realistic muscle simulations, try and understand what muscles do, why they do it, and what the result of them doing it is.
Then, try different ideas and don’t be afraid to throw out ideas. Just TRY things. Keep track of what you’re tying. Think outside the box. Try stuff, then try it again, then again, then when you find something, delete it and re-create it.
I find that the more I do something, the more I understand it, and the more I understand it, the better I can make it.
Q. You teach a course titled “Animation Friendly Rigging”. Can you share what this course offers and who it is designed for?
I have a detailed outline available on my website, but in general it’s a course that tries to teach people the process of rigging for animators. It’s a bit about my workflow and how I think about rigging when I go about doing it. It discusses trying to understand the animator’s process, and how what you do as a rigger can directly affect their sanity.
Q. When you are getting close to wrapping up a shot, there is always a bit of polishing that goes on. Do you have any advice that you can give or ‘polishing’ tips?
I always step through the shot frame by frame and watch the different parts of the body and how they move. I’ll look at an arm, and watch the leading edge of the arm (if the arm is moving from left to right, I’ll look at the right side of the arm geometry) and make sure it’s not doubling up on itself and it moves correctly. I’ll check my arcs on fingers and hands. I’ll check the arc of the head, the angle of the nose, and the intersection of the eyelids and pupil. I’ll spend quite a bit of time just watching different parts of the body and make notes of all the changes that need to take place.
Then I’ll take my list and just tackle each part one at a time. I’ll try and get a whole bunch of notes covered before doing another render or playblast, because that can take up too much extra time!
Q. A question from Aaron Hartline: Are you ever completely happy with your shot?
Yes and no. I’m usually happy that it’s over, and that the shot was finalled. I’m satisfied when it fulfills the need of the show. There’s usually stuff I would like to do to finish it, but I try not to dwell on the shots too much. Not every shot can be 100% perfect, and I’d probably sink into a deep depression if I realized how much more I could have done. Instead, I’ll focus on what’s coming up and just look back on the shots and be satisfied with the fact that I was able to get the shot to the level I could with the time given and the direction that I had. As long as the director is happy, then I’m happy.
Q. What question would you like to leave for the next Featured Artist?
What would be your all time favorite style to animate?
Q. What is your next challenge?
Having a child! My wife and I are about to have our first child (a little girl!), so that’s my next challenge. I’m looking forward to seeing what she’s excited about, and experiencing life through her eyes!
Q: What active artist would you like to see featured on Strut?
:: Thanks so much Jason!
Lots of people have been interested in the results of the “Pay What You Want” sale I’m having on my older rigging dvds, so I thought I’d go ahead and post some of the results!
The news has been all over this idea lately.. especially with folks like Louis CK being so incredibly successful with this model. It’s a great idea.. content creators taking control over their own distribution. I feel it benefits the two most important folks in any transaction.. the customer and the creator.
So I thought I would do this experiment.. what if I offered these valuable dvds that I created over 10 years ago at whatever price people thought they should pay. What would the animation and rigging community do? What do they think they are worth? Would they be interested?
Turns out.. yeah, people are! :)
As part of this experiment, I’m going to publish some of the results of this sale… I find them interesting. I hope you will, too!
One of the first things I did was try and decide what my “suggested” price would be. I really wanted customers to be able choose to pay whatever they wanted, but I thought it would be good to provide a “start” price.
I chose $4.99. I wanted to pick a price that I felt would show that the information is valuable, but wouldn’t be too high to cause people to think “mmm.. nahhh.. too expensive”.
Customers could still choose to pay more or less than that, but I felt it would be a good start. In fact, just over half the customers have paid what I suggested. 24% have paid more than I suggested, and 23% have paid less. It’s a pretty healthy split!
I always love seeing where people live, so this was interesting.. People from 20 different countries have purchased the dvds, with most living in the US, the UK, and the Netherlands. Canada, Germany, and Australia followed up, with an additional 16% of the folks coming from such places as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Colombia and New Zealand.
It’s also interesting to see the average paid by folks in those countries..
So as you can see.. while the United States definitely had the most people purchasing the DVDs.. folks in Australia and Germany were more generous with their purchases. Woot!
Hope you’ve enjoyed this brief glimpse into how the sale has been going so far! I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next!
Steve Jobs was famous for his “One More Thing” line during Apple announcement events. We would wait eagerly as he was impressing us with the latest quarter’s sales results.. demonstrating a new product that we suddenly would decide was the most important thing ever.. talking about how the latest iMac was the most beautifully designed computer in the history of modern technology.
Finally, at the end of the presentation, he would pull out “Oh.. and one more thing..” and BAM! We would all go gaga over this new product.. be it an airport.. a new shuffle.. a macbook air. Whatever it was, the idea of “one more thing” became something that without it, they keynote would have fallen flat.
I’ve been thinking about this idea in terms of animation and of rigging.
How can we–as artists–use the concept of “one more thing” to help push our work to the next level?
I often find that by the time I’m nearly done with a shot, a pose, a rig, a sequence.. I just want to have it done and move on to the next challenge. Usually we’re all so exhausted by our work, we’re either overwhelmed with the amount left to do, or we are blind to it and can’t see any way to improve it.
So I’m experimenting with this idea on my current shots & sequences.
Here’s what I do. Let’s say I’m working on a pose that’s supposed to show someone being upset. I’ll look at the pose and ask myself:
What is one more thing I could do to make him MORE upset?
Then I’ll push the pose more based off that decision, and move on to the next stage of whatever I’m working on. That’s the trick, making sure you ask a specific question regarding the one more thing, and then do it.
If I just say “what’s one more thing I can do to this pose”, then I don’t have any constraints. There are a million things I could do to a pose to make it stronger. It’s overwhelming! But by clarifying my goal and asking a specific question, I can make sure I’m pushing my pose in the right directions.
This also works with shots. Take a look at a performance and think about the goal of the shot you’re working on. Let’s say it’s to show the character’s confusion when something happens. Watch your shot and say “Okay, what’s one more thing I can do to show that the character is confused?” Write down your ideas.. eye darts.. furrowed brow.. shrugged shoulders.. shaking head.. then think about which of those things will clarify confusion the best & do that.
Another way to think about this is to say:
What can I remove to clarify the intent?
Quite often we put too much into our shots and it’s not as clear as it could be. Simply ask yourself if removing a pose or a beat can help clarify your shot. Most likely, you’ll find that it does!
Try this technique out and see if it helps you clarify your ideas and push your work to another level!
I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with those older rigging DVDs that I used to sell through LULU. They were written about 10 years ago (woah!), and while the content is still quite relevant, it’s been a while since I’ve updated it. I wanted to keep the material available to people, so I’ve decided to have a “sale”..
I just hope that people enjoy having access to these tutorials again, and enjoy watching me talk rigging with more hair & fewer bags under my eyes.
Check it out.. here!
I just found out that the site that I was selling “Integrating a Creature Rig” and “Fast Animation Rigs” (http://lulu.com) no longer allows downloadable dvds to be sold.
Thus, I’m going to have to move the content to fastspring.com, the place that I currently sell Animator Friendly Rigging, and probably the best online sales site I’ve ever seen. Their support is amazing, and I’ve been extremely happy with their service!
I’ll let everyone know when the content is moved.. and I’ll probably have a huge sale, too just to celebrate!
So after looking at a number of different forum options for this site, I’ve decided to go with Google Groups instead of an integrated forum solution. It seems to be the easiest solution, and I won’t have to worry about updating plugins, managing hackers, etc.
Please check it out and join in..
|Animator Friendly Rigging Community|
|Visit this group|
I’ll be posting updated scripts over the next day or so! enjoy!
for some reason the forums were.. I don’t know.. deleted? I’m not quite sure what happened, so I’m looking into it and will hopefully add them back again soon!
Sorry for any inconvenience!!
So that’s the big question.. How do you find the intent for your shot?
We know how important this is.. how necessary it is for you to understand why your shot is in the film, and how it relates to your character’s arc and the story’s progression. We know that without this information you will probably spend some time flailing about trying everything you possibly can to get the shot approved. Most likely, you’ll end up showing the shot in dailies more times than you need, and you’ll end up hearing the director repeat him or herself a few times. You’ll probably end up stressing about getting the shot through, and you’ll be focused on just getting it off your plate instead of adding all the little bits and bobs that make the shot special.. the things that make you geek out over it after you’ve finished.
So how do we find it?
Here are the things I do to try and hone in on the intent. I would love to hear your views on this, and any tips and tricks you have!
1) Go To Every Dailies Session
I find that the more often I go to dailies, the more my head is in sync with what the director wants. I start to be able to guess what he or she will like, and I can get a good sense of where the story is headed. This allows me to gain more supporting information about the whole show and the character’s motivation throughout the movie.
2) View The Sequence Before the Launch
Before launching my shot, I’ll watch the sequence in storyboard and layout. If possible, I’ll watch the sequences before and after as well. This will give me direct information as to what is happening and what my shot may need to convey. I should be able to get a good sense for the rhythm of the sequence, and start to gather any questions I may have about my shot (or sequence of shots).
3) Talk To My Supervisor
If I can, I’ll talk to my supervisor (or head of character animation) about the sequence to see if there’s any additional information they might have. Usually the supe will have met with the director before the sequence started to get a lowdown on what the point of the sequence is. They may have some good information that isn’t visible in the boards or the layout.
4) Prepare Questions
I’ll prepare a list of questions for the director that I have ready in case the director doesn’t cover everything in the launch.
5) Practice ACTIVE LISTENING at the Launch
When the director launches the shot, I’ll actively listen to everything that they say, often repeating it to myself in my head. I’ll watch their eyes and their face instead of stare at the screen. I will use encouraging body language and supportive acknowledgment of what they are saying in order to draw out as much information as I can. I will write down key words and phrases in my notebook, especially if the director says “this is important”. I’ll ask questions about motivation, emotional state, any change of emotion, what other characters are going through, if there’s any physical needs of the shot, and anything else I can think of that will help me discover the key intent. Finally, once the director has finished, I’ll quickly look at my notes and see if there is anything I am unsure of. I will try and summarize the intent in a couple of words and repeat it back. If looking at the notes doesn’t help me determine the intent, I’ll then clarify: “So, the intent of the shot is to show George’s emotion shift from sad to enraged?” or, “Just to clarify.. the main point want to get across is chaos of 13 characters running in different directions?” or even “The key idea is that Jennifer turns on the radio.. is there any hessitation in her action due to some emotional distress? Or is she quite happy to turn it on?”
6) Review My Notes
After the launch, I will go back to my desk and play the shot and review my notes. Sometimes I’ll write the intent in bold on a new piece of paper, and then list the other notes underneath it in order of importance. I’ve often found that by doing this I can quickly see if I forgot something, or if something isn’t as clear as I hoped it would be. Note: Without this review session, you might as well not be taking notes at all. Reviewing them will help you solidify the director’s thoughts in your head.
7) Block As Few Poses as Possible
I’ll quickly rough or thumbnail a few poses for the shot and compare them with my main intent. I’ll then ask other animators, my supervisor, or anyone else I can if these poses or drawings fit the intent. This is quick work, and I can quickly correct any sort of wrong directions I may be heading in.
8) When Lost.. Ask!
The big thing here is that even if you do all this work before you start the shot, sometimes it’s easy to get lost and loose the intent. Or, you can become blind to your shot and not know if it’s working. Everybody does this. The best thing you can do is stop what you are doing and talk to someone else about the shot. Clarify the intent with your supervisor. Find another animator and ask “is this reading?” Watch your shot in continuity with the surrounding shots with another animator and clarify the ideas. And if all else fails.. ask the director. Remember, you are both working together to make the shot work. You both have the same goal. If you need a question answered or clarified, get in front of them and ask. I find that most of the time this will clarify things immensely and really help you move forward on the shot.
Anyway, those are some of the things I do to help clarify my ideas.. what about the rest of you?
One of my favorite blogs for helping me become a better professional artist is the Accidental Creative. They do a really great job of coaching on how to maintain creative excellence and deliver a product on time.
As someone who has been in the industry for a long time, I’m very used to seeing artists burn out and become bitter after many years. Listening to the Accidental Creative has really helped me maintain my excitement and inspiration about creating art as part of my job.
Their latest post about developing an “effectiveness obsession” kind of relates to the posts I’ve been discussing recently about quality vs quantity and dealing with time management. While waiting for my next post on finding the intent in your shot, I highly recommend you read Why We Need To Develop An Effectiveness Obsession, and check out some of the other posts at Accidental Creative.
In the last post I spoke about achieving quality in our work. We separated the idea of a “quality” animation into two main things – great movement & technique (arcs, spacing, timing, rhythm, etc), and great acting. Through an exercise with sticky notes, I broke acting up into two areas – character and intent.
Character has to do with really understanding who you are animating. It’s all about being clear on their background, their tendency to make certain choices, the most likely responses to any given situation.
Intent has to do with understanding why the shot is in the film in the first place. What purpose does the shot have? How does it move the story along? How does it push or pull the character along their given arc? Every shot is in the movie for a reason, so what is that reason?
Usually when you receive a launch of your shots from the director you are able to find out exactly what the point of the shot is. It’s the perfect opportunity to clarify the intent, but quite often we don’t do it enough. Or – more often – we think we have enough information, but as we start working on the shot we find that we’re muddled a bit and that we are kind of swimming around the ideas. Sometimes you don’t notice this until showing the shot for the third time in dailies and you get that great awkward pause..
you know the one I’m talking about.. The shot goes up.. it plays a few times… a few more times… and a few more times.. and the director turns to you and says..
“yeahhhhh.. um.. okay.. … I think what we need to do here is .. uh.. maybe have a bit more .. overlap? in the arms? or maybe you need to turn the head sooner?”
We’ve all been there, and it suuuuuucks!!
I know I’ve had shots that I re-animated two or three times from scratch after my blocking pass simply because I “just wasn’t getting it”.
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, and I think I’m finally understanding what “it” is..
“it” is the intent.
Here’s the reality of the situation. MOST shots in films are not dealing with more than one or two main “intents”. You may have sub-intents.. but the main idea of the shot usually boils down to one or two key things. That’s it. It’s the sum of all the shots that deliver the complete story. Unless you have one of those crazy long shots that involves a whole bunch of emotional changes and shifts between characters.. you can probably simplify, clarify and be good to go.
Rex Grignon (one of the other Heads of Character Animation) and I were talking about cameras one day and he said something that really stuck with me. He said “every shot is a close-up”.
At first I was a bit confused. You have long shots, medium shots, wide shots, close up, medium close up, extreme close up… what do you mean that every shot is a close-up?
He clarified that in good camera-work, every shot is a close up shot of exactly what is needed to tell the story. If you have to tell the story point of a knife being picked up, get a close up of the character’s hand picking up the knife. If you need to tell the story point of two people reaching in for a kiss, get as close as you can to those two people leaning into each other for a kiss. If you need to tell the story of a mouse feeling alone in a great big city, get a wide shot of the mouse in a big city.
Close-ups are the only shots that show just what you want to say. They say, “Look at this…. I’m point the camera at this for a reason.” We’re using the speaking metaphor of film to tell the story with pictures, one idea at a time…. we want to show exactly what we want to say in the context of a series of shots.
That’s brilliant! It’s so simple.. and yet so important! Only show what we need to show to tell the story we are trying to tell. Don’t add crap just to add stuff, because it just confuses the audience. This is why the eraser is just as important as the pencil. It matters just as much what you leave out as what you put in.
We can apply the exact same principle when animating our shots. Really clarify that intent. What is this shot about?????
By knowing what the shot is about, clearly and distinctly in your head, you can ask yourself right away “what is the clearest and most direct possible way I can get this point across?” Instead of thinking about the mechanics of what the shot is, you can think at a higher level of what does the shot need. Once you know what the shot needs, then you can layer in all the subtle things that make it unique for the character.
It’s the combination of these two things.. clarifying the intent and then making it character specific that gives you the ability to make the shot great.
It’s like … going on a road-trip.
If you just get in the car and start driving, you may end up where you want to be. Most likely you’ll just end up somewhere you weren’t before. If you get in the car and you say “I want to be in New York City”, you can sit down and think “okay, what’s the quickest way to get there? Plane? Car? Boat? What if I drove along this road? How can I make this road trip the most interesting? What if I want to get to New York City and visit all the theme parks along the way, how will I have to drive in order to get there?” Asking those questions limits your choices and quickly gets you going where you want to go.
Even if you don’t know a specific destination, but you know that you want to go somewhere “vibrant, with a lot of noise and some great pizza”.. that will help narrow down your choices and may even take you somewhere more exciting than your original destination.
The map metaphor is perfect for dealing with your shot..
Destination: I want to go to New York = Point of shot: I want to show Jim kissing a girl.
How to get there: I want to visit theme parks along the way = Character: Jim has never even had a date before.
Here’s the deal.. if you can solidify these things before you start animating you’ll be able to quickly get rid of any ideas that will lead you down the wrong path. But even if you don’t know the answer before you start, clarifying it will very quickly help you re-direct and get back on track. If you are on a road trip and suddenly you say “oh crap, I’m supposed to be in New York!” you can immediately look at where you are (San Diego?) and determine the quickest way to get back on the right path to reach your destination.
The great thing to realize.. is that in most cases the director doesn’t really care how you reach the point of the shot, they will care more that you get the point across. If you don’t know the point you’re trying to make.. how do you make it?
In my next post I can talk a little bit more about how some tips and tricks to clarify intent if you guys find it interesting. Reply in the comments and let me know what you think!
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