Monday, April 30, 2018

A Year of Animation: Sand Animation

So, once again, I let myself get too busy to work on an animation until the last two weeks of the month. I came up with two great ideas (which I'll probably do later on this year) but they required a bit more work than I had time for -- one being hand drawn and the other stop-motion, but both integrated sound effects and required some precise timing, read that: a much better planned out and detailed dope sheet.

In actuality, it was one part being really busy and one part "eyes bigger than my stomach". So, with time running out, I turned to a tried-and-true hands-on technique: sand animation.

Years ago, I ran an animation class for kids and adults at the East Lansing Rec Center and one of those days covered sand animation. The following is an example animation that I created and showed to the class in order to show them what you could do at a most basic level:

Just a simple morph from one shape to another (yes, the nautical motif that I've been working with over the past couple months is coincidental).

I'm a big fan of Corrie Francis Parks' sand animated films, most notably her award winning film: A Tangled Tale, the first hybrid sand/digital animation film. As such, I've spent a lot of time watching her sand animations over and over, studying her techniques and observing her Making of... video in order to unlock every little tidbit of knowledge from her production process as well as reading her book Fluid Frames: Experimental Animation with Sand, Clay, Paint, and Pixels (if you don't have it, it's available on CRC Press and in both hardback and paperback forms).

Setup for this film was a little different from works I've done in the past and it builds on the techniques I've been exploring over the past few months. After setting up my light table under my DSLR downshooter setup, I taped the usual sheet of tracing paper over the light table to further diffuse the light bulb and reduce the effects of 'hot spots'. However, taking a page from Lynn Dana Wilton's book, this time I also taped a blue lighting gel over the tracing paper in order to give the scene that underwater color. This is a departure from Corrie's setup. As you can see from her Making of... video on Vimeo, Corrie didn't use gels in her animation, preferring to animate on her light table with the set white(ish) background and then handle color in post.

As I wasn't really up to doing a lot of post-production work on these shorts, I stuck with the motto: "the more you can do in pre-production, the less you have to do in post", hence, the lighting gel -- that and I thought it might be something fun to experiment with. One of the things that I miss from college is that "experimental energy" where everything is one big sandbox that you can play in and try things out before gathering all your experiences, successes, and failures together as foundational material when you create your thesis film. More on that train of thought in a later blog post, I think.

As you can see from the animation, it was just a simple morph. Everything was shot on one's and I didn't deviate from the basic timing very much. What I thought was fascinating though was the fluidity of the sand. Yes, yes, I know "fluid frames" and all that. But as I was moving the sand with a small paintbrush, the structure of the sand really lent itself to an ebb and flow much like you would see in fire or water.

The original idea was to make the blob morph into a sea anemone, wave it's tentacles around, and then morph back into a blob. I had even studied my friend's salt water aquarium in order to see how the water current would affect the tentacles. Well, when I started moving the sand around, making the body and adding little buds that would sprout into tentacles, I found myself more fascinated with making the sand flow downward in waves -- seen mostly in the bottom half of the figure.

Not much else to say. I liked the blue gel background, though I did keep the blob of sand in the middle of the screen partially to mask a "hot spot" created by the florescent lights in my light table.

I would like to do two other tests with sand animation, but one where I have a flat plane and I'm simulating waves surging and crashing in the ocean and another where it's a campfire burning in the middle of the screen.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Animated Thoughts: Another reason for ASIFA

In 2015, I ran an animation workshop at the annual ASIFA Central Animator's Retreat. The workshop I had designed for that weekend was all about traditional under-the-camera techniques and had us playing with multiple tactile, hands-on animation techniques: paint-on-glass, sand, hand drawn, cut-out/silhouette, and clay.

One of our attendees was a college illustration major (GVSU, if memory serves). While the rest of us played with sand, paint, and clay, she sat there with colored pencil in hand, focused intently on her drawings. When we broke for lunch, everyone left the lab and raced to grab some food before returning in the afternoon to finish our films.

Having seen what she was working on, and knowing that she wasn't one of our student members, I figured I'd take the chance to say 'hi', hopefully get a little feedback on the workshop, and maybe recruit a new member for ASIFA Central.

I caught up to the young lady on the sidewalk as she walked towards the bus stop, complimented her on the drawings she created, then asked her if she was coming back in the afternoon to film her artwork.

"No", she replied. "I was thinking about maybe getting a job in animation, but this is too much work."

And there it was. Another valuable reason for the existence of ASIFA.

With that one workshop consisting of four hours of the young lady's time, she was exposed to a hands-on experience with animation and discovered that she didn't want to expend the effort that it would take to become an animator--or at least a classical 2D hand-drawn animator.

In my mind, that had to be one of the most valuable four hour blocks of time that the young lady had ever spent during her whole college career. She obviously has skill at drawing and character design. But she discovered that she didn't want to animate. Now that she knows what she doesn't want to do, she can focus her efforts on finding her niche within the industry and concentrate on that career path instead of spending a priceless amount of time and money on what would be for her a career dead-end. Maybe she'll end up a character designer for animated films. Maybe she'll become a storyboard artist. Maybe she'll eschew animation altogether and go into storybook illustration. Opportunities within and without the industry abound for those who can draw.

I'm a big fan of minors. If I could have majored in minors when I was in undergrad, I think I would've gotten a lot more out of my college experience. It certainly would've prepared me for graduate school far better if I could've done a quadruple minor of art, computer science, English writing, and film/video production. But if I had access to a group like ASIFA back during those days, I definitely would've been able to learn more about my craft and focus my studies on those facets of the animation industry that interest me and that I'm good at.

Sketches where she reused the notecard for another animation.

I still have her drawings from that day--she never returned to claim them. When I see those notecards sitting there in my studio, I often wonder: 'how much trouble and heartache did that young lady avoid just by spending four hours at a free workshop?'

Knowing that we at ASIFA Central helped her narrow down choices for her career path makes running workshops worth every minute that we spend with students (of all ages).

It's too bad she left. Here's the other animation she was experimenting with.

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Animated Thoughts: Keeping up with the animation goals

Lotte's "trick-table"

As mentioned previously, for the year of 2018, I set a goal for myself to produce an animation every month. Again, nothing "festival worthy" or anything like that, just something to get me animating on personal projects, sharpen my skills, and expand my toolkit.

Well, February had me tinkering with one of my 3d animation programs but it produced nothing of merit. I wasn't worried about that since by the time the end of the month was coming into view, I already knew that I'd be in Toronto on the first of March at an animation workshop.

So the following is February's animation: my segment of the group animation that we created during Lynn Dana Wilton's Silhouette Animation Workshop for the Toronto Animated Image Society.

(background by Lynn Dana Wilton)

While working on this animation I had a couple thoughts regarding how to approach my segment:

Having made them in the past, this time I didn't want to create a 'jointed' puppet like the other attendees were doing. Rather, I had thoughts of the models in PES's stop-motion film: The Deep. In The Deep, PES combines replacement object animation along with stop-motion animation in the shot with the calipers (seen at 0:24 to 0:32 in his film). This conjunction of two animation techniques allows him to achieve the illusion of weightlessness: the use of slight movements using stop-motion animation provided the impression that his objects were "floating" in the ocean depths, and using replacement animation (by swapping out different sets of calipers), he changes what would've been a static, one-model character into a much more dynamic character. The addition of replacement animation in this sequence enhances the "illusion of life".

Additionally, there were six attendees at the workshop (including me), which meant that individual time with the animation workstation was limited. So, how could I approach the animation in such a way that I could maximize my animation time with a minimum of trial-and-error under the camera? Well, after creating my puppets and sketching out a rough dope sheet, I tested the motion on the table (not Lotte's trick-table).

Dope Sheet... kind of...

The motion looked okay in my mind's eye, but I still wasn't sure about the timing. So I turned to my trusty iPhone. I've got an app called Stop Motion Studio (which I used to create the time-lapse animation RITchie during last year's R.I.T. homecoming). Although I didn't have any camera stand with me to keep my iPhone steady, I was able to capture the motion clearly enough to test out my timing.

As you can see, the first test sequence was much closer to what I wanted. But, rather than assuming that I got it right on the first try, I animated the jellyfish a little faster in the second sequence... just to be sure. After that test, I decided to stick with the first one for my final animation (although I did tweak it slightly in the final version).

Well, not finished with the whole 'under the sea' motif, I decided to keep playing with the idea for March's animation.

As March is Women's History Month, and I post interviews with women animators on this blog, I decided to pair up with the Grand Rapids Community Media Center and ASIFA Central to present a day celebrating women animators--which included a Silhouette and Cut-out animation workshop.

After providing instructions and getting everyone working on their films, there was still enough time in the workshop for me to settle down and do a little animation of my own--my animation for the month of March.

I didn't follow any dope-sheet for the timing on the fish, choosing instead to wing-it. But I followed my earlier timing on the jellyfish, albeit at a faster overall frame rate--I was pressed for time and didn't want to leave the students to their own devices for too long.

All-in-all, if I played with this idea again, I would make the timing of the jellyfish totally independent from the other fish and much, much slower. Additionally, I'd take a page from PES's book and add one to two more models to the jellyfish--probably something that I could add as one or two frames in order to add a little more anticipation and follow-through to the jellyfish's action leading to the upward motion.

Might also switch to computer animation so I can play with the timing and run through multiple variations without having to go back and reanimate the figures by hand over-and-over. In my not so humble opinion, that's one of the strengths of computer animation: it facilitates rapid learning via the ability to cycle through multiple variations in a short period of time.

In the time it took me to animate the jellyfish in both films under-the-camera, I could've done multiple variations in Flash or After Effects just by copying-and-pasting the frames and tweaking the motion of the jellyfish, or the number of frames (filming on twos or threes), or both.

I love animating under the camera, mainly due to the tactile feeling of the models as you move them from position to position. And the greater challenge of tweaking the external lighting so you get the best possible shot. Frame-by-frame flicker removal and color correction is a pain in the ass though. Between that and my desire to do multiple tests for timing, it might lead me to do April's animation completely in the computer.

Food for thought...

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Animated Quotes: Lotte Reiniger

Shadow Puppets, Shadow Theaters and Shadow Films

"You must not copy a naturalistic movement, but must feel the movement within yourself, for when you will have to animate an animal you must be that animal, moving as it does. The animation will always be stylised, but this stylisation must be true."
~ Lotte Reiniger
Shadow Puppets, Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films
pp. 101-102