Saturday, September 17, 2011

From the Eyes of a newbie: up to what extent should an animator rely on live action reference?

A prominent topic of discussion in every art form, and especially when doing it professionally, is the prior preparation work that is required to execute the final piece with maximum success. Animation is no exception at all, and is interesting how in the top elite group of animators the discussion goes to broad extents.

At iAnimate I've been exposed to a lot of top feature studio workflows, ideas and approaches. In Computer Graphics Animation, the level of believability in animated characters demands higher attention to detail and physics of real life, because of how the medium allows us to get a big proximity with real life itself and how accurate and precise the technology allows us to be. But the control over that power still has to come from us animators. I truly think this has a logical justification, and it’s also something I've had to embrace throughout my learning process in the course, to try my best to produce feature quality CG animation.

It was not a surprise to know how heavily live action reference footage is used and massively encouraged by every instructor. What was interesting was to see each one's point of view, and se e how “religiously” some people would follow their reference, in comparison to others who argued very valid points regarding reference as a mere starting tool, but nevertheless an important one.

For a long time I used to think that using live action footage to create animation defeated the point of us trying to achieve “the illusion of life”…that it dangerously felt in the realm of “rotoscoping”, which I did not like without prior understanding of its validity (it definitely has its place).I did always value the training of observation from real life though, and hence I’m a drawing fan (not as good as I´d like to be, but definitely one of the tools in my arsenal that I use when I animate or plan things out). I probably am not alone on this: a lot of people have felt like “cheating” when they used their acting reference (or any researched video) heavily in their work. However, until very recently it did not click on me that it was something normal, and indispensable in many cases, depending on what you tried to animate. The magic of classic Disney movies mesmerizes me every time, but throughout time I’ve come to understand better and better (or think that I do) how artists could get someone to act and move in such a smooth and “believable” way, and how could someone give life to a talking, thinking and breathing character. This also shed some light to my thoughts:

But who deserves credit? The animator or the actor who played the initial reference for Gimini Cricket? This debate is big that it has got the Academy of Motion Pictures doubting about which category should films like Avatar (or almost every motion captured based character performance movie) be placed in. Some animators accept the reality that at the end of the day the performance and storytelling counts, and the director has the upper hand on that. Others voice their opinions arguing quite valid points. Even Andy Serkis talks about actors deserving award nominations for motion capture performance too, which has led some animators to controversial arguments. Check out this blog post by lead animator Tim Borelli. Very good points stated indeed.

Back in 2008 Carlos Baena, from Pixar fame and one of the founders of well known “Animation Mentor”, came to Gran Canaria to give a talk about his work and promote AM. He showed us some clips of his acting reference for Finding Nemo, and we saw the raw performance of his shots...and how he progressively combined it with reference from various fish to get the characters in the movie to behave convincingly like talking fish. He told the audience clearly that “Using reference is NOT cheating”. Now having embraced it myself so much, I can understand better his statement.

Back then I was still skeptical. A lot of traditional animators criticized the heavy use of live action recording as a reference tool. Kevin Koch covered the subject extensively in a series of great posts in his blog, and I absolutely agree with him about the final conclusions. Is interesting to read his anecdotes about the trends though, like what he mentions about his time doing traditional animation in DreamWorks back in the day, when scanning photos and recording video felt like a crime…that’s how farfetched it got to be. I’ve even heard rumors about animators in certain studios who, as soon as they come to know about someone who is about to show a blocking pass in dailies without having used any reference footage, are discouraged to hand the work and asked to shoot some live action footage to get into the habit…all this of course, ignoring how good to blocking is! Crazy stuff.

At “Speaking of Animation”, an animation website ran by several Dreamworks animators, most of them instructors at iAnimate too (Benjamin Willis, Jacob Gardner, Stephen Melagrano and AdamStrick), they’ve posted a recent article regarding comparison reels ….how actually showing original reference side by side with your animation does more harm than good. One of the points was very clear: if the reference acting you´re basing your animation on is not good enough, your animation might be technically sound but will not have the optimum performance value.
This same site actually has a lot of info on the subject matter. Some of the podcasts deserve a special mention in this post:

1. Interview with John Hill: John is a supervisor at Dreamworks and he comes from a traditional animation background. John admits barely using reference in his work! But acknowledges the relevance and the need for him to embrace it more.

2. Comedy in Animation: A roundtable of senior animators and supervisors (two of them my teachers at iAnimate, Ben Rush and Ken Fountain) talk a lot about comedy and…usage of reference! Funnily enough they take diverse stances between themselves upon the usage of lipstick cams…again, demonstrating how great guys like them also differ in their opinions.

Big names in animation have also criticized heavy usage of reference. Keith Lango talked about “roto-lite” in his old comment, also on Kevin Koch's blog:

"I’m not a big fan of the results of what I’ve come to see as ‘rotoscope-lite’ - the practice of using video reference as the visual foundation of a scene. It’s slightly different than getting reference as a way to organize your thoughts. Those who employ Roto-Lite will copy exact poses and facial expressions and much of the timing as well. Unless you’re doing something like Gollum I think it is a crutch. But I see a lot of younger CG animators using it in cartoon projects as well. My personal guidelines for reference are simple: Use reference to understand something, don’t use it as the visual basis of your performance. It’s like writing a term paper in school- you use reference (encyclopedia) to understand your topic, but you can’t just copy the text from the book into your term paper. That’s plagiarism and doesn’t show your instructors that you understand what you’re talking about."

Not everyone is against its practice though. Jeff Gabor, one of the most well-known Annie award nominee animators today, did a very recent walk through webinar with the online animation school Animschool. He broke down his workflow on using reference, which was very neat (the people at Animschool where even kind enough to share the video files with the attendees). It’s fascinating to see him do all the prep work prior to his shot: he makes sure he gets the reference damn right. He also did “pose tests” with himself, checking with mirrors whether his pose, silhouette and staging felt right for certain parts of his shot. He would stand around, feel the space around him...make sure he knows the set very well. Sometimes if it was about a cartoony character like Ice Age’s Scrat he would speed up the performance, but usually he kept it raw. He rarely asks others to act for him (unless the character performance demanded a very specific behavior he himself could not achieve…like the minor nuances of some girly mannerisms for example) and he will do reference for a two character shot (or three or four even)all by himself, working out all the eyelines and everything.

So there is this massive contrast in opinions, which to someone initiating into the world of crafting their own soulful characters and making them breathe and think and perform, is confusing. And none of them are wrong.

I think this point of not relying so much on reference is very much valid when we see stuff like this clip that I recently saw, also from old school Disney…

That is fantastic usage of reference. Nothing that looks heavily rotoscoped. The cartoonyness of the characters is so unique, full of creative spark from an animator. The timing and texture in the acting is enhanced from the live action reference.

But Alice stands out compared to the rest… maybe seems to be far more “realistic” in her personality than the other characters. Notice that the mere distinction of Alice as a character who obeys to different physical rules, ones more bound to our world, the real world, demand on her behavior a far greater attention to live action. She is in a surreal place where she actually doesn’t really belong, a magic world full of bizarre occurrences: the story itself demands it. A lot of times having totally distinct styles within one movie breaks consistency, but in this film it never felt wrong to me…Also there is to bear in mind that we can break it down to "motion" and "graphic value": the character design clearly does belong to the world of the movie, but the motion has a more sophisticated, often subtler flavour. That's why it never feels rotoscoped to me: motion itself is a quality to be analysed too. Poses cannot just be analysed in singularity in animation, they need to be looked at collectively as well, to craft good timing, flavour, texture, phrasing, and rhythm.

One of the most influential animators of modern times, Andreas Deja, gifts us very often through his new blog with animation treasures. Take a look at this post about Milt Kahl’s extensive research on some of his Jungle Book work.

Looking into stop motion, there is an interview with Michael Parks at 11 second club blog with very good insight on his work as a stop motion artist. Michael also posted a video of his workflow in which we see him acting the performance out:

Check out this Coraline making of vid too. Clearly animations spiced things up as you can see:

So…what am I trying to get at is the fact that these various notions about the subject brings me to think that we animators sometimes have to adapt to the demands of the story, the shot and the character, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how you get there. To try everything is the best thing for me. Sometimes I’ll shoot reference, sometimes I will just do pose tests, other times straight to thumbnailing, and at times doing both reference and breaking it down into the valuable keys, and redrawing and enhancing those keys, shifting the timing around, etc…last but not least, youtube and google always help :)

But the core has to be the acting. I’ve come to appreciate this so immensely now that I am thinking of talking about live action a lot more, to go in as an animator and try to understand better, analyze and pick what really speaks to me emotionally and break down both the physiological and contextual meaning of the performances.

I agree with Kevin Koch: improv. acting classes and acting workshops might not be every animator's cup of tea. Same with drawing skills, not every animator indulges in sketching but nevertheless they're very amazing animators. But having said that, I would never discourage the practice or trial...every life experience surely helps. A lot of animators are music lovers and somehow that comes across in their understanding of timing and phrasing...that's how amazing it is!

I just felt like talking about the subject because of some of the outrageous trends I've heard of in the industry (especially Computer Animation). I just believe that as entertainers we have to think about getting to the audience, and they surely will not care about whether is rotoscoped, mocaped or totally inventive…and whatever helps best the purpose of story and character, will definitely work best. Although maybe not the case 100%, I'm sure they care about empathy, communication, entertainment and meaning: they will value and perceive story, perhaps on their subconscious mind, but probably as much as we care about crafting and delivering it as storytellers.

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