Working Independently or for a Company?


This is food for thought to those comparing solo freelance freedom with employment and teamwork – perspective of a person going from one type or working to another.

My Change for one way of working to another

Since December 2nd 2010 I have been part of a new game company, Supercell, as a Game Artist. My main tasks are character animation and modeling, but since it is small company still I get to do many other things as well. It is teamwork.

Before this I’ve been a freelancer for 10 years, partly on the side of studies. I think it was 2002 when I last worked for someone else, before this. The change is reason for this article.

Company or independent?

I’m biased – I fell in love with teamwork early on at multimedia project on first year at university or more likely before that playing basketball and rinkball with friends. Regardless of this in working life I’ve found myself working far more by myself, for clients, rather than in someones employ. I’ve done everything myself from web pages to 3D-animation and to accounting for quite some time. And even thought some projects I am/have been in are teamwork, like U6 Project in Team Archon, those team are either spread far apart like Archon or work in otherwise scattered manner . It is not the same as in a small team driven game company.

This article really comes down to what feels good – working alone or in a team. That’s the change I feel most meaningful.

Here is a little comparison-table – quite obvious stuff.
[styled_table width=”600px”]

Freelancing Company job
You decide how you work for your client, and when. You’re the creator. Team together or team lead works out the how and when. Team has better changes to come up with more creative solutions.
You handle everything in the project – the tasks you like and the ones you don’t. People specialize – if you are best at something you get to do a lot of that.
The scope of yur project is limited by resources and your skills meaning smaller projects or painfully long production times for big projects. A good team can create pretty much anything and fast – a bad team can spend endless hours and get nothing decent done.
You need to be a generalist – good at many things. Everybody in the team needs to excel at something.
You need to get along with your clients and yourself. All in team need to work well together.
Feedback and rewards are external. Feedback and rewards come from inside and out.
You learn by doing and from following others (i.e. online). You learn from and teach your teammates.
[/styled_table]

The thing about team is that working together on a common goal gives it more importance and momentum, keeps ideas flying and everybody gets feedback for their work. If things work right, there is a sense of We and Us, together. Capacity to do teamwork really is one reason humans survive and thrive, so it comes no suprise working in a good team also feels rewarding. On the other hand one wrong piece in a team can break the whole machine.

Your choice depends on what you like and what you are like, of course. Not everyone works best with others and not everyone can make it by themselves (nevermind the steady paycheck employment brings). Any good or bad experiences? Would you rather go solo or work with others?

Modo, Zbrush and Messiah for Fast Production


Mini-tutorial covers a workflow using the above 3 software together for high detail character creation, preparing for animation and combining the results. Idea here is to show how to make these software work together – not how to model, sculpt or animate.

Method Limitations

  • You will need a base-mesh to begin with. I’m giving away the one I used here(see male ver2).
  • While a base mesh like this is good for extensive sculpting, it works best for naked characters. While a some clothes can be just sculpted on, for better results I would either add polygons on the base mesh to ‘set base’ for them too, or do separate cloth-meshes.
  • While the autorig is fine for many types of animations, for more advanced stuff(lip-sync, better deformations, muscle bulges, etc.) you will obviously need to improve the rig.

Real world example – a rushed task

To give an example for this, I had a brief like so: Make a group of Zombie-like dead people standing around in place and moving only a little. I had 5 or so days to do it which is quite quick considering my old slow computer takes 2-3 days just for rendering.
Because the figures will be in background of the scene, out of focus and behind effects, and because of the rush, I opted for very simple texturing, rigging and animation – and no facial animation. I ended up with 3 variations of one character and 5 simple looping animations. The dead mainly sway in place. Result is passable but some zombies are really not looking the way I want. See the breakdown for my problem.

Production Breakdown

Shape rough base mesh in Modo and save out an OBJ.

Not much to explain – either model your own mesh or pick one up somewhere. You can grab my human male base mesh (ver2.) here.

Import to Zbrush and sculpt to your hearts content.

zombie sculpted in ZbrushHave fun sculpting. I went up to level 6 with subdivision (see pic). I also used surface noise found in latest Zbrush(4.5) for extra skin detail. And herein lies my mistake: Overdoing the noise strenght will push the shape out in an unified manner that, especially when whole sculpt is later applied as a displacement map in Modo, makes the characters lose detail and look bloated. I have this problem with 2 of my zombies(see in video below). Somehow I noticed it too late – didn’t have time to re-render.

Add uv-mapping.

Zbrush AUVtilesI chose AUV-tiles because it is automatic and good for a mesh like this that has quite evenly sized polygons. Default settings give each polygon same size in UV-map. Thing to remember with AUVtiles or GUVtiles or similiar, though, is that if you use them you should paint your textures in Zbrush. At least in Modo(302) painting on an AUVtiles uv-mapped  mesh lead to paint in one place ‘leaking’ all over the mesh. Zbrush won’t have this issue – especially not as you can paint model first and uv-map after.

Export the mesh from lowest subdivision level and create and export a displacement map.

Zbrush displacement map exportNote that sculpting on any level changes the bottom level(base mesh) as well, so you better export your base when finished. Final thing is to export a displacement map which again you do when on lowest subdivision level. For my settings see the picture.

Import the base mesh to Messiah and use autorig to get it rigged.

  • Load the mesh in. Select it and in the Setup-tab and hit Autorig(see Setup>Items). Next in Setup>Effect find the Character Face Camera under Bone Deform, select that and your character mesh and hit Replace(see pic).
  • Next in Setup-tab move the Character Root to where your figures hip center is. Then, starting from hips and going out bone by bone, scale and rotate bones to fit the character. Work only on one side, right or left.
  • When done placing bones, go to Setup-tab>Items>Drop-down>Fix Symmetry. Root could be your FK_Spine or similar base bone. FixSymmetry will use it as a starting point and will go down the hierarcy looking for things with your typed suffix/postfix. For Source type the letter of your working side, like _R, and for Destination the other one (see pic). Then run FixAll or FixSides-command.
  • Now your can test your rig in Animate-tab by rotating bones. Remember to undo your tests When happy save your scene as ‘charactername_rigging’ or whatever for backup purposes. Then hit Autorig in the animation-view and wait. Save scene as ‘charactername_rigged’.

Messiah, Fix Symmetry
Messiah Autorig, set to use model
There is also a video tutorial on Autorig (not mine).

Animate and export animation as MDD

Messiah, export MDDI leave animation to you. MDD-export happens in the Customize-tab>Drop-down Menu>SaveMorphSequence. Select your mesh. Type in what frames to export and give a filename. Generate Current Morph Sequence.

Mesh to Modo and apply MDD

Modo, apply MDDImport or load the mesh and right-click it – in the menu find the MDD-deformer and load the file. Now your mesh will be animated (see Animate-tab).

Setup lights and camera, texture and displacement and render to image series

Modo, set displacementYou can see my lighting tutorial here. For texturing do what you want. I used a simple procedural(Cellular) for both diffuse and bumb, and painted a mask for specular and diffuse amounts – mainly just added black to eye-sockets because director wanted all black eye-sockets, no highlights or anything.

For displacement I have yet to find optimum solution since Zbrush displacement export-workflow has changed since ver.3 and I just started with 4.5. However here is something I find functional: Bring in your displacement and make one instance of it. Then set the instance to Invert and its Blend Mode to Subtract (see pic). Now the regular displacement pushes polygons both out(positive) and in(negative) and the second displacement adds to the negative. Play with the instances opacity and your materials displacement amount for final result.

Remember Modo defaults to 24 frames/second (film framerate) so that’s your render output unless you change it. Finally when you have a series of images take them to your favourite video editing software and make a video.

My result with this method

Actual movie effect has more of these figures standing on the background of a scene (hidden behind effects and out of focus). This video is just so that I can show them to you. Was a rushed job with problems and lackluster animation, but there you go.


See it in HD at Vimeo.

Do you have comments or insights? Please share.

3D Animation Production on a Budget – Time and Money saving Tips


Want to make your own 3D animated short movie on a budget? I wish to share some tips to help make it happen.  This is especially for those that are planning their first production.

First off to do a reality check.  Second see what happens if you don’t.  3rd thing I can give are these tips. I’ve touched on many of the following points before, but they are worth repeating.

The idea here is that time is money and while things like rendering can be speeded up with more computing power(=more money), you should first do everything you can to optimize your work – try make the project take less work and less render time.  There are some choises that can ease your way.  Having said that an animation production is always plenty of work – I’d lie if I said otherwise.

Story focus

If we take pointers from industry leaders, and we should, see how Pixar goes from success to success. They focus heavily on story. If you read interviews you know they really polish the story until it shines. Why not do the same?   Story, storyboards(and animatic) are by far the least expensive way to builda good a base for any movie.

Style choices

Second quite obvious Pixar-lesson is that even though their enviroments become ever more detailed and life-like, the characters stay cartoony. Why? Cartoon is highly expressive, gives all sorts of freedoms in anatomy and motion and allows using caricatyres. Also cartooony is design for sympathy and emotional impact. Set realistic character style against this and it loses big time.

Additionally we people know realistic humans, usually see many of them every day, and hence have an uncanny ability to notice if there is anything unreal about a realistic character on screen.  We can’t help but notice these things which brake the illusion and flow of the story, whereas cartoony figures don’t receive same scrutiny or critisism. And finally cartoony is easier and hence faster and cheaper to make.

Enviroments could have same stylistic approach or you could use photo-cutouts or paintings. Think about 2D-animations and how much they achieve with fairly static backgrounds and how much leeway these fictious works are given.  Almost anything goes because we don’t expect real world rules or logic apply to cartoons.

Modeling & Texturing choices

Again choosing cartoony helps here. Cartoony models don’t need much detail and you may not need to paint textures at all – you may not need to have 3D-painting or sculpting software at all.

Animation choices

Cartoony style gives leeway for animation too. It allow animations that are too fast to be real and that whisk from one dramatic pose. This is easier do than natural motion that can’t have as dynamic suddent starts and stops.

Also going very stylized characters, or having animated items for a characters such as Pixars Luxo Jr. lamp character, can reduce animation work.  Luxo-lamp there is no facial features or legs, it is like a body with a head jumping arond – less to animate.

If you choose to make a silent story(no dialog), you cut the workload.  No mouth is another way to save and so on it goes.  The animation however will not be any less effective -you will find the audience can sympathize with almost anything as long as it is well animated and has a good story. I’m not saying cut it all down to a simple shape – just keep in mind that you can simplify.

Filmography and Rendering choices

What do you need to show to tell the story? Taking cue from old masters of cinema, a horror not shown is often more effective than the one shown. Our brains are filling in the blanks all the time, anyway – you can tell stories with far less images than you may expect.

Real-world-ish lighting and rendering is easy to overdo or waste too much computing power on. You can achieve dramatic and functional lighting with just a few spotlights. Don’t go for GI(global illumination)-features straight away, for they mean longer rendering times, are more likely to cause flickering when rendered images are played together as a video.  And also GI does not replace hand-placed lights. Lighting specialist exist for a reason – lights are storytelling tools.

Render to series of images, not to video.  Rendering to image series’s make software crashes less troublesome and images give you far more options in post-production.  Also almost never render all things to one layer – instead render foreground, midground and background separately for futher editing and compositing possibilites.

If your images need enhancement or fixing, and they often do, push as much you can of that to post-processing(After Effects or similiar). Effects that often are toublesome to both setup and render may be a breeze to add as a post process.

You can check more tips for rendering here and some tips for modeling and animation here.

Hardware choices

As long as you optimize your work, the computer you work on doesn’t have to be an expensive beast.  With something like 1000 dollars you can have a fast enough computer. Just make sure you have a decent processor and enough work memory(ram). Graphics card can be anything middle range as middle range is, these days, very powerful already. You will need some storage space too, but that’s cheap and getting cheaper every day.

Software choices – some affordable options for animation production

This section is here to merely give ideas.  I know only some softwares and other and better combinations are possible. Also your selection of tools depends on what you need in addition to modeling and animation (sculpting, 3D-painting, post-processing or HD-video editing – or none of them). And of course  software features and pricing are subject to change, which is why I’m not trying to list any prices. Also note that I’m not listing 2D-image editing software here and don’t touch on music or sound at all – yet these are all important.

Goes from free to cheap and to affordable softwares

  1. Blender+some free video editing software(many available).  Blender does almost all, now even compositing I hear, and is free. Blender is also an invaluable addition to other combos for the excellent simulation (cloth, fluids, particles) and animation tools, and hence is included in every following combination.
  2. Wings 3D + Blender +Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum. Wings is a fine polygon modeler and free. Vegas(this particular version) does a lot for reasonalbe price. In this combo you would still animate, do dynamics and effects and render in Blender. Vegas is used for video editing and basic compositing and effects.
  3. Wings 3D + 3D Coat + Blender + Vegas. 3D coat adds sculpting and 3D-painting.  In this combo too most will be in Blender unless 3D Coat now includes a timeline for animation rendering.
  4. Silo (+ 3D Coat) + Blender + Vegas. Silo has modeling and sculpting.
  5. Silo (+3D Coat) + Messiah + Blender + Vegas.  Messiah is for animation and for rendering.
  6. Modo + Messiah + Blender + Vegas.  Modo has modeling, 3D-painting, sculpting and rendering.
  7. Modo + Messiah + Zbrush + Blender + Vegas.  Zbrush offers advanced sculpting and fine 3D-painting.
  8. Modo + Messiah + Zbrush + Blender + After Effects/Vegas Pro. Now we have advanced tools for all.   After Effects brings a whole new post production dimension to the mix – makes getting a fine look easier and moves many effects from 3D to post process(2D).  Vegas Pro is the cheaper alternative, is great for video editing and does ok for basic compositing and effects.

So, that was some optimizing tips for making a 3D animation short on a budget.  I hope it will help someone out there going into their first productions.  Drop a comment below to let me know what you think.

Hobby Project Benefits

Oftentimes people have hobbies that either offer a fun challenge they can’t get at work or help them learn new things. Some take on hobbies to learn and to grow resume – to find a work in the field of their hobby. In my article Stay motivated one thing I suggested taking on a project together with others.  It is what I did, and now I wish to tell you how it was for me – the benefits and the costs.

I joided Ultima 6 Project in December 2005. I’ve written more about the project and what I did here. The game was released in July 2010, after 9-10 years of production.
My motivation to join was to learn more about game production and low-poly work and because I like old Ultima games.  And I did indeed learn by doing – within year or two it became easy, like a fun part-time job.  Being in production meant working with others, meeting common goals, having deadlines and management reminding of things to be done – you know, all the stuff that makes team projects addictive, rewarding and at times stressful.

Now before going to the cons and pros, please note U6P is unique and a seriously long venture, way beyond anything sensible. So the ups and downs of more reasonable project are probably different.

What project as a hobby cost me

  • Oodles of free time – poof, gone. I don’t care to think what else fun or useful I could have done with that time. Especially after noticing I was no longer learning, just working, I couldn’t help but wonder what other game project would give me a tougher challenge and more current generation work samples or even, you know, pay.  I did consider several times if continueing was sensible.
  • Some dark brown hair – gone grey.   A serious hobby is at times tough like any job.
  • Some paid work. Sometimes it has been so intense, I have let freelance opportunity(nothing big) slide past to meet project goals first.

Having said the above costs, dealing with them or not was completely up to me.

What I gained

  • I soon learned what I had wanted to learn.
  • Motivating and encouraging enviroment and a fun part-time job, though no pay.
  • Friends.  Project drew together some great people.
  • Credit of being an important part of a game project like no other(very large in scope and in work years) – probably certifies all main team members as insane.
  • An Intel-interview about my work.
  • Loads of work samples from the field of low-poly 3D.  And I am happy to say that despite my initial worries about the usefulness of such skills, they are very good to know and low-poly 3D is anything but dead as a field of work.
  • Tutorials. Made a few to assist our team members and, later, for anyone interested. assist new folks wanting to join our project.  Sort of got me started with the whole learning blog thing.
  • [highlight type=”light”]6 months after this article:[/highlight] A job in game industry. Having released a big well rated game was a very important factor in landing a job.

So yes it was worth it.  Especially now that the game is out the good things come rolling in.  It is possible some other project might have given more and in less time, but that is not a way to think about these things. If a person is always looking for something better and moving on, they may not finish anything. Committing is important.

Will I join another freeware project?  No, I will no longer work without payment. Don’t have the time.

What about you – have you considered taking on a hobby project or have you already done something like that – and how did it go?

Personal Animation Production Hell

This is a story about how my animation production came about, and it wasn’t the way I recommend.  Read the following brief journal and see why.  This was done on the side of occasional freelance work and other on-going projects(movie and game).  I didn’t sleep much for half a year.

You can view clips of this animation production at the start of my 2009 demoreel(hd).

January 2009

Fishman, old design from 2007My HD-demoreel needed some current generation game characters, animated.  I decide to go with a fishman who I had earlier modeled a preliminary head for.  For his nemesis I chose a nasty looking deep sea fish (enlarged many times over).  Plan was low-poly game-models with Zbrush-sculpted details applied as normal-map.

Fish low-polyI didn’t spend much time on design, just went ahead modeling animation-ready base meshes in Modo.  Polycount (triangle faces):  fisman 7532(including eyes, teeth, clothes and equipment), fish 4572.

This large image shows the fishman construction, simplified.

Fishman new designAfter 3 or so weeks I had both characters modeled, sculpted, textured and rigged.  Rigging was the slowest step, for it is the most technical and not my favourite.  Last days of the month went to finding a way to make Messiah animation work in Lightwave with Zbrush-based displacement.  I’ve later done a tutorial on this.
Plan had changed:  Game character showcase now had a short high-detail animation production added to it.  Oh boy.

February 2009

Action takes place by ocean coast, underwater.  Fishman escapes towards the light and the demonic fish chases.  Enviroment creation was next.

I modeled an underwater bay with massive roots coming from above.  The more I built, the more the story wanted to grow.  Dangerous thing, that.  Suddenly I was doing particle effects, great mats of flowing seaweed and water caustics, colours, shadows and light projected from world above.  It was slow work, endless testing.  Early February was also when I started production rendering, my one computer laboring 24h hours a day – with limited power of course while I work.

scene modelingscene particles

scene layout, polygonsscene layout, textured

After that I could finally begin animating and of course discoved issues in the rigs and and meshes that needed tweaking.
animation production scene example, final look

The tiny animation production had grown to unestimable size.  And silly me went ahead optimistic.  I knew it would take some time, though.

March – June 2009

These 4 months were all divided somewhat like this: 1 week for animating, 2 for trying to make renders happen, and 1 for other technical problems.  My ambition was too much for my computer, or, better said:  My goals were all wrong –  high detail & HD instead of good story and animation.  Had to drop many cool features, optimize the scenes and renders, find workarounds and segment the workflow as much as possible to render at least one layer at a time.  This in turn caused problems when things separated to several scenes had to interact with each other(shadows and more).

Production Hell Crash screens
In short most of the entire production was spent fighting limited resources, trying to make the render at all possible, and then render and re-render because it crashes over and over.  I count my computer rendered 5 months(!) around the clock giving me 12+ gigabytes of hd720p animation frames: characters, scene and effects all on separate layers.  Combined it is 5-6 minutes of animation.

July – September 2009

I spent a week or so combining animation frames to video clips in Vegas.  Doing this it crashed 9 times out of 10.  HD editing with more than 2 layers was again too much for my computer.  The rendered clips revealed many faults in the animation, but there was no way I would go through the test’n crash-hell again to fix them.
I edited the animation down to 3 and half minutes. Following removed scene was an easy cut.  It doesn’t fit overall story pacing and both continuity and animation are lacking.  In the clip the fish looks for the fishman but finds his discarded lamp instead.

A sound-savvy friend did the sound effects in August.  I also had a musician working on the music, but our sensibilities didn’t meet this time.  In September I found another musician.  One of his compositions was almost a perfect match for the film pacing and lenght.  So, on September 29th the final movie was complete.

Results and things learned

The movie is now going to festivals.  The first it was accepted  to is  Short Film Festival of Los Angeles.  So even though it wasn’t a sensible story-based production, it has some merits – people like it.  I’m glad 🙂  This festival tour is why I’m not sharing the film online, yet.

So what did I learn?  I knew this is not the way to do an animation production but couldn’t help myself.  It was a technical challenge I set myself to finish, no matter what.  I learned not to do production this way ever again.  Also the process taught many practical things – some I’ve been sharing as tips.  And finally I learned doing production the hard way doesn’t necessarily mean the result is bad.  But doing it ‘right’ would improve end result a lot and make whole process a great deal easier.

Please don’t get carried away with some half-baked project like I did.  Be a realist and plan well to get the most out of your story and animation.

What about you, what’s your story?  Have you made your own production(s) or tried and crashed & burned?  I’d love to hear about it.

Animation Production Reality Check

Here are some things good to think about before going into animation production for the first time.  Main message is just this:  Think what is doable and how you can reduce the amount of work.  I’m not saying don’t do anything cool – just make sure you can finish it too.  The following is bound to stomp on many toes, egos and dreams about animating wonders, but I mean well.

Animation production is literally producing everything in an animated movie, not forgetting the managerial part, marketing and all the rest. Usually the studios doing these things have from tens to hundreds of people on they payroll and still they outsource tasks.  Even smaller productions are epic in work hours.  One has to be nuts, absolutely loco, to go at it alone.  Yet some people do.  Someone like that needs to be a generalist with very wide and adaptable skillset or have unlimited production time.  Even then I would not recommend doing it alone.

My team for a small production (5+ mins, final cut 3min 33s) was a sound guy for sounds and a friendly musician gave me song of his to use.  I did everything else.

The tough decisions – kill your darlings

Many personal animation productions are born from big ideas and die for the same reason. Please be a realist.  Scrap all big plans and start with a short story.  Also don’t aim for the production values big studios buy.  Rather make many effort saving choises with your storytelling, cinematography and overall design – create something less grand but still absolutely wonderful.

Some questions for those planning animation production

  • What’s the problem your protagonist has, how does he solve it and what challenge(s) does he face on the way? That and the main message of your story is all you need. Anything beyond this is likely just extra your short story can do without.
  • Do you really need many characters? Try staying with just protagonist and the antagonist. 3 characters is the effective maximum for short story – more is just a distraction.
  • Could all take place in one room or other limited enviroment?
  • Could the story happen within one day or even an hour or less? Make that one momentous occasion in the life of your protagonist.
  • What could be said with less?  Often non-flashy way of getting information across has more impact.
  • What do you really need to show to tell the story and what can you leave to the imagination of your audience?  Comic books rely heavily on imagination – most of the story takes place between the frames and the frames you see and read have only some key moments.  Film and animation can do similiar things.
  • What design is the most effective in telling the story and capture the hearts of your audience?  Don’t go for realistic characters just because you think or know you can.  There are reasons why even the great Pixar avoids that.  More stylised the design is the more forgiving your audience is towards the faults in any visual elements. Also the more cartoony/stylised you go, the easier it becomes to design sympathetic characters.

Plan it, Test it

Get your story core down to few sentences.  Run them by your friends, family and your cat, and get their opinions.  When you have something that really works, write the rest.  Remember to take brakes from writing, days or even a week, to regain sense and perspective.  When you and your testers are happy, draw the few key story moments.  Here is a good moment to define the style you are going for.  If it the key moments work and connect both visually and  storywise, continue.

When pivotal moments are pictured, draw all important moments between them.  It doesn’t have to be art, just something understandable.  When you have all main things pictured, as if it were a comic book, put them in order and on a timeline(in Flash, video edit – any software with a timeline).   Soon you should have a storyboard you can watch as a video – an animatic.  This is the true stress test.  If you story still works and resonates, you have something worth creating.  This is also where you can pre-cut your movie, try different pacing and order for things – shape the movie before ever going into actual production.

I’ve written a few stories(most about nice goblins) and made animatics for some of them.  Most tests soon showed the story wasn’t working and the animatic was never completed.  I think I’ve only finished one which passes the stress test, more or less.   I’m including pictures from different animatics.

Animatic screen shotAnimatic screen shot

Animatic screen shotAnimatic screen shot

Animatic screen shotAnimatic screen shot

Focus

It is easy to lose focus in production.  Maybe you want to add one more cool enviroment, a bit of backstory or just a little more detail in that one rock to make things more interesting.  Don’t do that.  Rather finish what you started they way you planned and tested it and only after, if you still feel like it, add things.

That’s it for now.  So, did I do my animated movie like this?  Nope.   But I should have.  The details are here.

Do you have an animation production experience to share?  How well did you plan yours?

Tutorial – Messiah to Modo

How to export animation from Messiah and how to apply it on a model in Modo.  Tutorial also shows how to later change the already rigged and animated mesh in Messiah. This is good to know because you may need to update your character mesh during animation production.  You can download the tutorial as a PDF from Files-page.

7 Animation Production Tips – Render

I wish to encourage lunacy that is Personal Animation Production.

How to make a render despite hardware(budget) limits common to personal productions?

Here are some techniques to help you get it done – these are possible in several softwares. This is my 2nd collection of Animation Production Tips.

Note that these are Tips and so very brief.  Some could be expanded to full tutorials.  I may do that for some, later.  For now I just wish to get the ideas across.

Tips for animation production renders

  1. Render to image sequences(not video!) and combine to clips later. This is a no-brainer. There is so much you can do with the image sequences in post, and really to get the full benefit of post process you have to use image sequences.  And don’t forget that if your video rendering crashes, you lose the video.  But if your image sequence rendering crashes, you lose only one frame and can continue rendering from that point onward.
  2. Brake animation scenes to sub-scenes, render as separate passes and combine later.  Main reason for this is to ensure you can render at all – a way to combat the oh-so common lack of resources.  Other major benefit of having them all as separate passes is you can later adjust the look of each element and their timing.  So, begin by breaking you scenes into character, background and effects scenes (and so on).  Then render scenes separately.  In each scene use full version of current main subject and very simplified versions of all the other stuff, if they are needed at all, and set them to render as masks/invisible/shadow casting depending on your needs.  You might find different objects/effects work better with different lighting – here breaking to separate scenes helps too.  In the end you bring all passes together in a video editor or in a post production tool.
  3. Break sub-scenes to sub-sub-scenes according to where the camera points at.  This goes even futher in making sure you can make the render but isn’t needed if previous Tip is enough.  If  your camera shows only 180 degrees of your scene for a while, then that you can split that to a new scene and that’s where you can remove things.  Always remove objects that won’t be seen, reflected, cast a shadow or otherwise have an effect to the render.
  4. Light scene without global illumination. Not using GI is one good way to save in rendering time.  You may still want the GI-look.  Check if there’s any plugins for faking it for your software.  If there’s none, think how light would bounce around in your scene and place lights around to fake the effect.  Like a red wall in a well lit room should have some red coloured lights pointing away from it(towards nearby objects, floor etc.).  Granted this is more work for you, but it renders faster than GI and gives absolute lighting control.
  5. Create HDR-enviroment from you scene for rendering optimization. This approach only works in scenes where only your character moves and only in a limited area with no props(chairs, tables, anything) close by AND where your character is not casting a long shadow on the scene.  If these limits suit your story, this tip is dynamite.  In short you create a scene as normal but with one extra camera where the character is – lets call it character-camera.  Hide your character and render one image of the scene with regular camera.  Then use the character-camera to create a HDR-probe image(or similiar) of the scene, look up how to do this in your software, after which you no longer need the scene objects or lights – just the HDR and character.  Create another scene with just the character and light the scene with your new HDR. Then render the character animation to image-series with transparent background.  Combine this pass with your background image, the very first render you did, in post process.
  6. Move everything you can to post process.  There is nothing unprofessional about ‘faking’ something in post process  – only results matter.  I would move all effects that are doable as 2D-versions to post production right away.  2D-effects are faster to set up, render very fast, and are non-destructive – you can change them without having to re-render your 3D-image.  Lately post production softwares have begun to incorporate full or semi-3D tools tranferring even more power to post.  You don’t necessarily need After Effects, Fusion or similiar specialized software, though – I have done lots of simple post processing in regular video editing software.
  7. Render different shading types as passes and combine in post process. There is no sense tweaking look of your render endlessly in 3D-software when you can do it faster and with more options in post process.  So brake for example your character pass to image sequences for each shading type.  They could be color, specular, reflection, ambient occlusion and depth.  A good software should let you render these all  at once.  Fun part is that you can adjust intensity and pretty much everything else for each in post process and also how they interact as layers.  One huge benefit is that you can use depth-pass to create depth of field effect very quickly, whereas it is very slow to render in 3D.  In short you render once and get a million ways to change the result after.  And no change you make this way is destructive.

Do you use these methods in your productions?  Anything you would add or change?  Is there a tip you’d like to see expanded to a tutorial?

8 Animation Production Tips – Modeling and Animation

I wish to encourage lunacy that is Personal Animation Production.
This is Animation Production Tips collection 1.  These were born from problems I’ve faced, from the neurons burnt.  Read and save yourself a great deal of trouble.

Note that these are Tips.  Many could be expanded to full tutorials.  You may find futher info on some of these tips somewhere – maybe even here, later.  Important for now is to get the ideas across.

Tips for animation production

  1. Use each software to their strenghts.  Build a ‘pipeline’. May sound like a costly solution but doesn’t have to be(Wings for modeling+Blender for animation, effects and video&audio editing= all free).  You can build an affordable pipeline even with commercial software and have it all under the price of one Max or Maya licence.  One example of such a combo would be Silo, 3D Coat, Messiah and Vegas Pro.
  2. Model your characters for animation – use edgeloops to create surface flow that deforms well in animation.  See the above picture?  Your model has to be good to get that range of motion without problems.  This is crucial especially in the joint and face-areas.  In short your polygons should mimick the major muscle flows under the skin.  Surface flow is a major topic by itself.  If it is a new concept for you, I suggest you start from the following classic modeling document.  http://www.theminters.com/misc/articles/derived-surfaces/index.htm
  3. Don’t go super low-poly with your character models.  I’m very familiar with the obsession to optimize, but if you go exceedingly low in polys your character deformations become too large – no longer in your control.  A bit more polygons is better for displacement too – it displaces with more reliable results.
  4. Use displacement for detailing.  Sculpt or model the detail in a software that lets you bake it into a displacement-map.  In production use less detailed models and use displacement-maps to bring the detail out at rendertime.  Advantages are a lot lighter animated models and scenes meaning generally better animating conditions, faster manipulation and hopefully less crashes too.  Also you get faster overall rendering as detail is generated only where and when it is seen.  Most software should allow linking displacement to, say, camera distance.  Or you can set the amount of subdivision happening per pixel – meaning only the area that shows well in your current camera frame is subdivided for detail.
  5. Use as few bones in your rig as possible. Unless you’re creating the ultimate in realistic muscle deformation, you can get by with very few bones.  The less you have the smoother deformation created by them can be.  You know, organic.  In reverse the more bones you add the more you have to adjust bone influence or use muscle bones between them or corrective morphs or what have you – all to get rid of the too sharp deformations many bones bring.
  6. Transfer animation from one software to another with MDDs.  MDD is an universal way to transfer Mesh Deformation Data.  It transfers every deformation of the mesh in your animation software, even morphs, meaning all animation, to another software.  This way you can animate in animation specialized software and do the rest in whatever software you like. MDD-support should be common.
  7. Brake your animation into sequences.  Don’t try to animate all in one project-file and don’t try to export long animation mdds. The files can get corrupted and then you lose all at once. And long animations, especially with complex meshes, become huge as mdd-files.
  8. Set your character rig up so that you can do mesh or rig revisions with ease in production.  Lets say you find, right in the middle of production, that you have to change geometry in your characters shoulder area.  It will be an absolute pain if, to get the changed model moving again, you have to re-weight it and set the your mesh-based tricks(morphs and such) up again.  Instead use an animation software that gets by with bones and weight fields and such – so that all is in the rig and not tied to the mesh in any way.  Then you can change the mesh around the rig as much as you like, change to other characters even.  Messiah works like this.  Your software, if other, might not but may have some other way to save you from re-weighting-hassle.  Find it out and test it before you start animating.

Do you use these tricks in your productions?  What would you change?  What would you add?  What tip would you like to see expanded to a tutorial?