In this series of posts, I will summarize my takeaways from some of the GDC 2013 sessions for anyone who couldn’t be there, starting with the animation bootcamp sessions on the first day. These are reconstructed from notes and memory, and may not exactly match what the speakers said.
Making an audience believe
Jalil Sadool, Senior Animator, Dreamworks
Jalil has a long and impressive history in animation and visual effects -- some of his recent work includes working as a senior animator at WETA on Avatar, and animating the lead character (Jack Frost) in Dreamworks’ Rise of the Guardians.
He started by pointing out that the most important principle of animation is appeal. Does the performance look good? Does it inspire empathy in the audience? He outlined two paths to studying appeal:
A. Study great actors in their greatest performances. How do they move? How do they convey what they are thinking and feeling? Their performances are not just believable, but also communicative, and appealing. He gave an example from The Godfather, showing Marlon Brando’s character making a decision to deny a request. We can see him reach his decision long before he says it. He also gave an example from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, showing the importance of eye contact and avoidance, physical postures and leaning, pauses for thought and building up the courage to say something. A final example from Anatomy of a Murder shows confidence, comfort, power -- how the body and face show dialogue BEFORE it is said, as sure as lightning comes before thunder.
B. Study how people move in real life. Film them candidly, but try not to be creepy about it. He demonstrated some examples of interesting references that he filmed, including a lady in an animated conversation who performed more than twenty distinct hand gestures, and a man who looked like he was sleeping on a bench, except for his hand movements which showed that he was thinking carefully about something important. He came to a decision, brushed off his pants, stood up and walked briskly away. By taking novel films of candid movement, you can accumulate a collection of interesting motions that nobody has ever animated before.
The first step in animation is often acting out the scene yourself, and using that video as reference for keyframing. Why not mocap? Dreamworks does have a mocap stage that they use in previz to help block out ensemble scenes and camera moves, but since mocap is so much work to clean up and tweak anyway, it really comes down to a stylistic decision. At WETA they used a lot of mocap, but at Dreamworks they prefer to use keyframes.
He emphasized that when you act out your scene for reference, it’s the expression and movement of the body and face that is important -- the words in the script are irrelevant. In fact, he prefers to NOT play the recorded voiceover in the background when he acts out the scene, because that encourages reacting to the audio, instead of proactively performing the thoughts and intent of the character. He also tries to put the camera at roughly the same angle it will be in the final shot, because staging is really critical. A great performance is useless if it doesn’t read from the angle that the audience sees it from!
By recording lots and lots of takes this way, he can mix and match the best parts of each take, even using a nice hand movement from one take with a thoughtful head movement from another. Then he tweaks and refines and emphasizes the movement, until it is up to the quality that he wants, or has time for. The keyframe/reference process also makes it easier to take feedback from the directors -- he showed some shots through several iterations, such as a shot where Jack Frost is tumbling through the air, which he emphasized by integrating some reference footage of him waving his arms while balancing on a small box.
Q: How do they get reference for actions that they can’t perform themselves, like acrobatic moves or martial arts?
A: Youtube! One of the characters had a shot where he spun a sword around in a dramatic flourish, and they just based that on a movement from the Batman Begins trailer.
Q: How do you handle shots with two characters in the same scene, if each character is animated by a specific animator?
A: One animator blocks out the scene, and then they keep sending the scene files back and forth and collaborating on the performance. It’s useful to have different animators for each character because it helps make their movements more distinct.
Q: How do you handle lipsync reference?
A: Record it from two perspectives: one from the front, and one from the camera angle. The front is useful for getting the basic movement, and the camera angle ensures that it reads for the audience.
I hope you all liked this summary; I will aim to post a new one every day until I've covered all of the animation sessions. The next one is about animating animals and other non-human creatures!