Checklist of Questions at the Launch:
1) What is the context? What happened directly before and what is going to happen directly after the shot?
2) What are the main story points that need to come through in the shot?
3) Is there a particular emotion that we should be feeling as audience members watching this shot?
4) How much room is there to work the idea? Some shots need to stick pretty close to the boards, while others leave a lot of space for the animator to work with. It's our responsibility to know what type of situation we are dealing with.
If I know the answer to all of these questions, than I am ready to start planning my shot.
Checklist for Planning my Shot:
I use different methods for planning out an acting shot versus a physical shot. For a physical shot, I will try to find some good reference of the movement and then jump right into thumbnailing.
For acting shots, I like to spend some time analyzing the line. My checklist is as follows:
1) Go for my gut instinct. I like to get my initial instinct out on paper and possibly on the camera. I may come back to this, but I may not. Sometimes it helps to get my idea out there so that I can clear it out of the way to make room for better ideas.
2) Analyze the dialog. There are a few things that I look for in the dialog when I am planning my acting:
Dynamics: Find the places where the line has inflections. These are great places to hang acting ideas.
Phrasing: I try to assign specific verbs to go along with parts of the line. If I can assign a verb to describe what the character is doing or thinking, it is easier for me to create a pose that communicates properly.
Meaning/Subtext: Many times, characters say something that implies something more meaningful. Digging out the true meaning of the line can lead to some really fresh acting choices.
Character Reference: I always try to think about the character. How would they react to this situation? If this character has been animated already, how did other animators handle this type of acting?
Film reference: See if this type of situation has been handled in other films. Sometimes this will help to inspire acting ideas in a different direction.
4) Video Reference. Now that I have analyzed the scene some more, I shoot some reference. I leave the camera running until I feel comfortable. I switch it up between acting and doing. When I am "acting" I am trying to feel the line out and see what comes naturally. When I am "doing" I have a specific idea in mind that I try to imitate with my body.
Get other animators involved in the reference. I find that if can get direct feedback as I am acting, it can help the ideas develop faster. I take turns acting and directing.
Analyze the reference, find the truths. Sometimes it helps to cut together a super take with what you feel are the best choices for each part of the shot.
Make your choices. At this point I usually pick one or two ideas that I like best for each beat and start to prep those ideas for blocking .
5) Apply the Principles. I look for places to add physicality, reversals, lead and follow. I make sure to exaggerate the ideas in my reference and push the things that the reference is hinting at.
6) Thumbnail. Depending on the shot, I thumbnail instead of shooting reference. On certain shots, I thumbnail after doing the reference to make sure that I am pushing the poses and the physicality.
At this point, I have a pretty good idea of what I am going to work into the shot. It's time to start blocking. For most shots, I work in stepped mode for my blocking. This enables me to do detailed poses that communicate clearly without having to worry about the in-betweens.
1) Block in my keys.
These will be the main storytelling poses in my shot. I don't have any limit to how many keys I set on my first pass of blocking, but they tend to be pretty sparse. Sometimes I will leave as many as 10-12 frames between poses. I will block in a full pose including rough ideas for the hands and face.
2) Test it and time it.
I playback my pass of keys and move them around on the timeline until the beats feel like they are in the right places.
3) Break it down.
I add my breakdowns as a part of my blocking pass. I tend to break a shot down until I have a key on about every 3-4 frames. When I add my breakdowns, I think about which key that breakdown should favor. At times I even favor different body parts to different keys. I am also thinking about my paths of action.
Once I have a pass of blocking, I will ask some questions again:
1) Is it clear? Will someone get the idea of what I am going for without any explanation?
2) Did I push the posing and timing enough?
3) Do I like the idea? I try to be the first judge of my work before I get the supervisor and directors involved. Chances are, if I don't feel good about it, then they won't either.
After I am happy with my blocking, I usually take one or more of these steps before moving into a first pass.
1) Show my peers. I will send out my work to other animators working on the film to get their opinions and check to see if the idea is reading clearly.
2) Show the animation supervisor. I always show my blocking to the animation supervisor to get feedback before showing the directors.
3) Show the director(s). Once I incorporate any blocking notes from the animation supervisor, I put my work up in front of the directors.
I present my idea through my blocking and see if it is in line with their objectives for the shot.
If I get a buy-off on my blocking, or even if I receive some minor adjustments, I take my animation into a first pass.
During the first pass my checklist is as follows:
1) Switch my curves over to a version of spline and preview the animation.
2) Push full poses around to work out the timing.
3) Adjust full poses to work in some more overlap and try to solidify the mechanics as much as possible.
4) Tie down the curves. At this point I take a look under the hood and see how the curves are looking. I clean up the flow of the curves and any obvious hitches to ease the process of cleaning up the animation.
5) Keep my keys organized. At this point, I am still trying to keep my keys clean and aligned on full frames. Since the directors have only seen the shot once there is still a chance that I may get some feedback that will require me to rework parts of the animation. If I keep the shot clean, I can easily make those adjustments.
4) Face pass. I take a pass on the face at this point. I add the phonemes for my lip sync and start thinking about how the expressions will translate from one to the next.
Get More Feedback
Once again, when I have taken a first pass across my shot, I show it to the animation supervisor. Once I get the go ahead, I move the shot into polishing.
Checklist for polishing my shot:
So now that I have buy-off on the idea, I can feel comfortable taking my shot past the point of no return. I will use a series of different animation techniques, including layering and some straight ahead, to get the physicality working in my shot.
During the polishing phase I start to work heavily with curves. To make things more focused I crop my animation timeline and focus on 50-100 frames of work.
I use tons of checklists when polishing a shot. The all-encompassing checklist is as follows:
1) Find the driving force in the shot. In most cases, it is the center of gravity at the root of the character. I make sure to get the root movement working well because everything else depends on it.
2) Work from the root up and the head down. Once the root is working properly, I work my way up the torso into the chest, shoulders, neck, and then the head. I make sure that any movement on the root follows through these joints. If there are certain accents and inflections I want to hit with the head, I will animate those directly on the head, and make sure that movements are either led or followed by the rest of the torso.
3) The limbs. When I have the torso of the characters working correctly, I focus on the limbs. Sometimes the adjustments that I make to the torso can disrupt the original animation on the arms and legs. At this point, I feel comfortable blowing that old animation away and approaching the limbs straight ahead.
4) Additional Layering. At this point I should have the majority of the movement working properly. I go back through and do some additional layering to make the movement feel organic. I do this by comparing curves and offsetting. For human characters I like to take a layering pass on the shoulders and hips. For non-human characters this is where I consider overlapping on tails and wings etc.
5) Facial animation. I take a pass and really focus just on the face. I get into the eyes to make sure that the eyelines are correct. I like to get very specific about the eye movements by using linear curves and editing my darts down to the frame. Once the darts are working, I add lid movement to support them. I plus the shapes in the lip sync and make sure that the rest of the face is supporting the lip sync movement. I tend to treat the face as a unit. When the mouth opens and closes with the sync, I make sure that the cheeks, lids and brows are all affected. When I focus on the lip sync and facial movement, I also include the head in this equation. I add more texture to the movement of the head to fully support the beats in the sync.
6) Details. At this point, I should have the majority of my animation working, but I still make sure to take another pass for the things that take a little more love, such as areas of contact or IK switching. Sometimes I frame through my broad movements and see if I can add some scaling to enhance the way things transition.
That was the big list. Now I start to use some smaller lists.
I play my animation back and list out the things that still need more attention. There are usually a couple of things that are screaming pretty loud, so I hit those first. I continue to watch the animation, make a list of things to fix, fix them, and then repeat the process.
Pushing for final
Now that I have taken all of my passes on the animation, it's time to show for final. Once again, I hit a checklist to make sure that I have covered all of the bases:
1) Is there anything that stands out as unbelievable or possibly distracting from the point of the shot?
2) Does it still have all of the ideas from the approved blocking?
3) Is the physicality pushed far enough?
4) Is there enough texture in the movement?
5) Am I happy with it?
Now it’s time to show for final. I run it by the animation supervisor and then put it in front of the directors.
Alright, I got the final call in dailies. Nice. There is just one more list I need to run through, and then this shot is headed down the pipeline.
1) Run and check all the simulations. If the character has hair or a tail or if I am using any type of simulation, I want to make sure that it has been run with the latest animation and is looking good.
2) Check the render. I run a full resolution render of my shot on the render farm to make sure that everything looks right. Sometimes environmental elements load differently in the animation software than they do on the render farm.
3) Save and check in all of the files. I check all of the files into the server so that they can move on down the pipeline.
4) Let 'em know. Once everything is in the right place, I let the production staff know that the shot is ready to be sent on so that the next artist can start their work as soon as possible.