Thursday, 24 April 2008

Seasonal Affective Disorder

While I would never admit to being afflicted by a condition whose acronym was S.A.D. (being, y'know, a grown-up with a modicum of self-respect) I can't deny that the weather will affect my mood, although almost always positively. Any time I get a nice sun/cool-breeze combo my spirits will be high as a consequence. Bad weather doesn't have the same effect - I think that living in the UK one's entire life builds up an immunity to any blues that rain or grey skies might cultivate in a person hailing from sunnier climes. Being a British citizen and getting your arse drenched on a regular basis just goes hand in hand. What does bum me out however is bad weather of a different variety - whenever it rains in 'House Guest' my heart sinks. One explanation would see me feign an artsy-fartsy sense of empathy for my fictitious characters. The real reason is that rain takes fucking forever to render out.
The rendering process is when you export all the comped layers, effects, animations and (sometimes) sound as a single movie file. This flattens all the layers and reduces a scene to simply a series of still images, so it's vital that the After Effects documents and all accompanying source files are held onto if things need changes or corrections later on. I recently spotted a recurring error in a number of rendered shots where the background seemed at odds with the character animation. Once I had worked out my mistake I needed to re-render all the shots which misused this background and replace it with the proper one.
This is a very easy task in After Effects, I can simply take out one background and drop in another without redoing any animation. The bitch of it is that in all the shots there is a foreground layer of rainfall. So a sequence of shots that should take a handful of minutes to render now takes about three quarters of an hour.
This is a consequence of applying a combination of gaussian and motion blurs to the rain layer, as well as looping a downward motion path. While it would reduce the rendering time a great deal by simply applying the blur effects to the source file in Photoshop, I've found that each shot needs a specific set of parameters that vary from one to another, so I can only really do it in After Effects to get the precise desired result. I'm pissing and moaning about it because, well, I like to piss and moan. It's in the Mitchell blood. Plus I'm in the latter stages of producing a scene in which the Duck and Hunter meet for the first time on a stormy night.That means a shitload of rain.
The good part is that when I'm done with these shots I'll never have to use this cursed rain layer again!
Sunnier times, they are a-comin'...

Sunday, 20 April 2008

The Jo Show

I think to spare her either vomiting or just getting properly creeped out, I'll do my best to restrain myself from heaping more sycophantic praise on my main assistant animator Jo. It needs to be said however that having her take the reigns for the character animation of the Prospective Lay (who I now wish had a better name) could not have been a better decision. My plan as I outlined it previously was to ensure the character had her own personality and style of movement to distinguish her from the uncouth Hunter and Duck duo. Looking at the line tests Jo came up with while I was out of the country there is a level of fluidity and attention to detail that is able to break through the murky webcam resolution. My concern when I left was that by concentrating her attentions on sequences that lasted only a few seconds at a time there might have been a temptation to over-animate. This turned out not to be the case, as she also demonstrates a fundamental instinct for keeping it all reigned in. Here are a few tests to show what I mean:

I must've tried this cycle six times and never came up with anything usable. The main hurdle at which I would stumble was getting the bounce on the boobs right. My follow-through would either be off or the secondary motion would be too minimal to register. Worst would be the issue of too much bounce which came off as gratuitous.

While you need the accompanying dialogue to fully appreciate the movement here, there is a lot going on that demonstrates a real flair for body language and acting. I especially like the childlike way she waves.

This is another shot that I took several stabs at that never felt right to me (in fact, one clunky version made it into the trailer for a few frames). The accusatory point always lacked something or other when animated as a single movement. Here Jo has resolved that issue by lifting the arm pre-emptively.

In this shot I gave her free reign to animate the character being visibly bashful. The animation is timed to the dialogue for the shot, where the Duck puts the moves on her.
These really met my expectations and even went a little beyond them. I feel more of Jo's input would be beneficial, not just to my film but in terms of my personal understanding of animation processes. The animation BA that Jo graduated from taught her a lot more about the fundamentals, while my MA kinda leaves you to work it out on you own. If I can pick up more bits and pieces of animation technique I could make the film a great deal more visually interesting.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Face Time & Skinless People! Mostly Skinless People...

Here's another entry being written on a plane to be eventually transcribed once I'm settled on terra firma. I'm leaving the US today, the very evening as it cruelly turns out that Maria Bamford, one of my favourite women in the world is going to be in New York. All in all though I couldn't have asked for a better first experience of the city, and by a miraculous feat of willpower I was able to stick to the work hours in the hotel room and am still on schedule. I can't say I was able to stick to a diet that suggested any modicum of self-respect, there being about a billion Dunkin' Donuts scattered around the island. But screw it, something had to give.

This morning before I headed on down to Newark airport I decided to crowbar in one last jaunt down at the seaport and see the current exhibition being held there. While the supposed intent of 'Bodies' is to document the more urgent functions of all our lovely gooey inside-bits - along with the numerous ways each organ can get messed-up and kill you - my fascination stemmed less from an eagerness to learn than a childhood awe of the visceral...viscera...and such. I recall vividly how alarming yet strangely compelling the visual of a skinless body was when leafing through one of the most potentially-traumatising pop-up books a six-year-old child could receive:

"The Human Body" Produced by Intervisual Communications, Inc. Published by Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1983

Years later, perhaps my favourite movie as a pre-adolescent was Clive Barker's Hellraiser, which featured a typical love-triangle premise - the wife, the cuckold and the brother-in-law - with a typically Barkerian twist of making the latter party a reanimated, skinless zombie.

Hellraiser: I know what you're thinking. Those oversized star earrings really are horrifying...

In it's first* sequel Hellbound one scene which carried particular resonance depicted a morbidly obsessed doctor at a loss for words as to a similarly revived woman's appearance. "Strange?" She offers, "Surreal? Nightmarish?"

At twelve I found all terms to be apt, so in seeing an exhibit of genuine (if preserved to the point of resembling sculptures constructed of wax and smoked meat) flayed cadavers at twenty-four, I found this morbid curiosity reignited. I have been meaning to take up life-drawing as by all accounts it is an ideal and essential supplemental skill to have as an animator. But beyond nudity, the full glory of human anatomy and weight could surely be studied to a greater and more beneficial degree with these as subjects? If it's common practice I have never encountered it, though procuring the corpses would be tricky...
This entry has so far been a little detached from 'House Guest', although it's strangely coincidental that the focus of the last week's work has been on a scene in which the zombified Hunter is in a not dissimilar state of excoriation. In the spirit of the previous 'Face Time' posts, albeit with a slightly macabre twist, here are some pencil tests for the final scene's expression changes.

In fairness my cartoonist license allowed for tenuous (at best) fidelity to actual human anatomy. Or, come to think of it, duck anatomy for that matter:

*They ended up making eight Hellraisers in the end. I'm not kidding. Each godawful straight-to-DVD sequel crushes my precious childhood affection for the original anew.

Friday, 11 April 2008

"Monkeyjammin' til the jam is through..."

This morning I was able to slap together some pencil tests at my sister's apartment here in the city, using a nice little freeware application called MonkeyJam. It doesn't boast much but the price is right and it's ideal for these types of tests.
As I've been doing all my work in the hotel room without access to my beloved Photoshop or After Effects I hadn't had a chance to test any sequences once they were done, which is usually the way I prefer to do it as I can then work out whatever corrections need to be made on the fly.
A part of me was dreading the way these would turn out, but I was pleasantly surprised. As the shots didn't include anything too complex the only visual problems can easily be amended during cleanup or by replacing the odd frame.

Here the zombified Hunter loses his rag with the Duck, who responds in kind.

The above test is my favourite of this particular bunch. After several scene's worth of bitching and moaning the Hunter's jaw finally dislocates, to the Duck's visible delight:

I've edited these next two shots together to check the continuity is okay:
This is for the penultimate shot in which the Duck laughs until his brittle neck snaps from the movement. Good times.
It's been an ideal change of scenery to be out of Bristol the last week-and-a-half or so, but I'm starting to itch for my real studio again. Good timing I suppose, as I'm leaving tomorrow.
Well, better shove as much crap as I can steal into my suitcase while I have the time.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Outsourcing, A.K.A. 'Passing The Buck'

I'm writing this entry on a plane, having determined that neither 'There Will Be Blood' or 'I Am Legend' are best viewed on a 4" by 3" screen with piss-awful sound. So to pass the time I'm scribbling on what would have to be the most ridiculously overpriced notepad I've ever owned. For £13 it ought to come with annotated and illustrated instructions on how to convince Molly Parker to leave her family and acting career to shack up with me. Instead it has a little leaflet with some hogwash about why it's supposed to be so grand and pricey. Thieving scallywags.

I bet it isn't even made with real moleskin...

I'm headed to New York for what is more a change of scenery than a holiday. My production schedule doesn't really allow for a two-week break at this point, so I've brought my mini-lightbox with me and a whole mess of layouts and dope sheets. That being said, it would be a ridiculous waste to not see some nifty cultural shit, and my sister (who voices the Prospective Lay in 'House Guest') is in a play over there. Fortunately I still manage to take great personal satisfaction in the work required , even at this later stage of the process. I could with no embellishment attribute that largely to my main assistant animator Jo, the quality of whose selfless and consistent hard work is made even better by the fact that she never complains when I put on a Mike Patton-heavy iTunes playlist. That uncharacteristic arse-kissing actually has some relevance, as I'd have long since abandoned the project if it had seen me having to work alongside somebody with whom I didn't get along.

Jo off-duty

While personal opinion of character can be a fairly treacherous impairment when assessing skill and ability, I've admired Jo's work since before we met and have faith that outsourcing a number of key animation sequences to her will benefit the film. During the earlier part of the MA I was fascinated to learn of how animation studios commonly recruit specific animators to work on specific characters, 'casting' them essentially. As a consequence you theoretically wind up with an end result that sees the body language and movement of each character as distinct in relation to one another as the voices recorded for them. Think of all the animated feature films where the hero or heroine (or villain in some instances) move realistically and elegantly to match their idealised designs, while the wacky cohort will carry themselves in a far more 'cartooney', over-emphasised fashion for the sake of comic relief or juxtaposition. In a way the 'subversive' (a word chosen by our course leader which I think was, in the instance, a tactful word for 'amateurish') animation I have so far produced for the Kid, Duck and Hunter is appropriate when considering their characters. They are all, in their own way, minor sociopaths so the jerky and/or theatrical styles of movement fit them well.

As the Prospective Lay is the only 'normal' (if dim) player in the film, I've been dissatisfied with the animation I had produced for her thus far that retained this same style. Having Jo take over the handful of shots which feature essential animation for the character it should remedy the issue by giving her a style of movement and presence all her own. Admittedly it's an experiment, but I'm optimistic as to the outcome. My only concern is whether or not the materials I've given her to work from in my absence are sufficient or even comprehensible. As far as I can tell I've covered all the major bases, having broken down the character design into construction lines and key poses (each accompanied by a more detailed sketch for reference) and isolated each sequence from the animatic so that they can be transcribed onto dope sheets. Lastly I threw together some notes on what type of end result I'm going for.

I'm excited to see how these sequences pan out and am looking forward to incorporating what Jo produces into the final film.
Well, that's eaten up some time. Just looked back at the screen and Will Smith seems bummed out. I hope the dog didn't get eaten by one of those Mike Patton zombie mutants.