Animation Character Creation Tutorial – Character Story

Previously I introduced the coming tutorial and shoved a timelapse of base head modelingThis one is about the character design, about character backstory.  This was supposed to be a video as well, but I’m having trouble with my computer – can’t do video edit just now.
Giving your character history is part of character design and a good place to start.  You need to know WHO the character is to make an animation with him/her.  The following is a bit of story for the tutorial character.

Our character, I call him Curt, was an orphan and grew in time of unrest – grew to violence.  And just when Curt became an adult the unrest became a war.

War needed strong men capable of violence, and Curt was a perfect fit.  He was mayhem on the battlefield, a bloody champion.

However since he never was much of a thinking man and was most useful as a human weapon, he was used as such and was never rewarded for his dedication.

Eventually, after many years fighting and death, the war ended.

Suddenly there was no more work for Curt.  Also unlike many other champions he was not knighted or rewarded in any way.  He was just a man with lots of blood on his hands and a problem to his superiors.  He was told it was better he left.

For long years Curt traveled, took odd jobs and slowly took stock of the bloody work he had done.  He began to drink his sorrows away.


Then, in a border city in the middle of nowhere, where Curt’s war record was unknown, he finally had a bit of luck.  He was hired as a guard – was a man of uniform again.  It was something he knew how to do.

This is where our backstory ends and visual character design begins.  Thanks to thinking up a story I know better how he acts and thinks.  I know he wants to do his job well and perhaps someday redeem his past.  Maybe the animation, if I were to do one with this character, could be about that.
I know, I know – this is no revelation, just a simple point I wanted to make.  Character design should  include a story and I think making one up is a lots of fun (even one as dark as the story above).

Character Creation in brief

Animation ready character creation steps very briefly (for animation production or games).  These are for those wondering how to go about it in general or for those wanting to compare workflows.  Includes tips.

Backstory in design

Backstory, motivation and emotion –  we expect these things from characters.  Who is your character?  What drives him?  What kind of life he leads?  How do all these things show in his appereance(design) and behavior(animation)?  Solid characters have solid stories.  Little of what you write may make it to the screen, but just having the story in hand supports everything, makes choices easier and gives your character feel of history.

Match story with style

What visual style is the most effective to tell just this story?  Cartoony may give you more freedom in expression, but may not deliver as much information as you could with a more detailed style.  You may find the story changing too, to meet the style.  There is no style better than some other, but overall I find realism usually a poor choice, for it ups the challenge in all aspects yet can’t tell a story any better.  Pixar for one knows this.  They stick to cartoonish characters even though their enviroments are getting more and more real and detailed.

Draw your character

Goblin design for a story of mine You might be very fast at modeling and wish to visualize there, but I don’t think it can ever compete with a pen.  More to the point, you need at least front and side-view pictures of you character to ease your modeling and for making sure you stick to the chosen style.

Choose a modeling method

Modeling gurus may go directly to shaping final model in polygons leaving the fine detailing to a sculpting software.  Yet, if you have the option, more organic way would be to sculpt first without worrying about polygons.  You might for example start with Zspheres in Zbrush or from a volumetric blob in 3D Coat and sculpt like crazy.  Then you would build the lower polygon-mesh on it and project the detail from old to this new mesh.
Pick the method that you are most comfortable with.  You can mix and match methods as you go.

Model for animation

Make sure your surface flow is optimized, edgeflow supports the directions of the motions and allows extreme poses and the joints have loops and volume where it is useful.  The better and simpler your base model is, the less problems you will have at rigging, animating and later when making changes.

Build simple and flexible animation rig

The less bones you use the smoother(organic) transitions you’ll get in their areas of effect.  And the simpler you rig is, the easier it is to animate and change later if need be.  When done make some action poses with your rigged mesh to test if it is all working correctly.

Fish UVs

UVW-map it

Automatic uvws, such as AUVtiles in Zbrush, may be all you need for animation production and pretty much make UVW-mapping trouble free, but please note AUV-tiles work only with 3D-painting.  For games, and often for animation production too, you need well planned and carefully divided UVW-islands.  These help painting textures in 2D, understanding what you are working on, and allocating more texture space to what is important(like the face).

Paint textures.

I recommend 3D-painting softwares for most of the work and 2D like Photoshop for futher detailing and colour&contrast correction.  Be sure to generate normal- and displacement-maps from your high-detail mesh.  Normal maps are defacto detailing tool in games these days and can replace displacement maps in animation production as long as the character isn’t viewed too close.  Also don’t look down on bumb-maps, ‘old tech’ as they may be.  They are great for small details.

Fisman textures

Light and render your beauty

First, with character in relaxed or T-pose, create even lighting with global illumination and bake out an ambient occlusion-map.  It works  as a dirt-map for animation production and games, helps bring out skin folds and other crevices, and for games gives sense of realistic lighting, too.  Now pose your model.  Make the pose asymmetric and such that it shows personality.  Remember to give the eyes a focal point unless you want a zombie-look.  Make your model ‘pop’ with 3-point lighting(or similiar) and render using at least the following texture maps: color, specular, ambient occlusion and normal/displacement.

That’s it, animation ready character creation in brief.  Do you do things differently?  Feel free to give critique and share your approach.

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?