Nov 19, 2008

Quick Trick: One Step At A Time

Oh man. How long? What have I been doing? .. its a mystery.

This tip comes first hand from my mate Brandon Beckstead. This guy has an amazing ability to do the kind of `progressive blocking` that we all dribble over and wish we could do ourselves if only we were that good. I'm talking about the kind of blocking where there is usually a stepped key on every 4th or 2nd frame, and you can see very clearly how the animation will look before going into any kind of curve editing. Were talking subtle finger movements, facial animation, moving holds... all there in stepped.

I asked Brandon how he approached his blocking, and he told me a simple tip that seems so obvious and simple that I can't believe I never thought of it. Basically, when you first start to block a move, forget about timing.


When I try and block in stepped, I tend to get confused because of this approach: I block my key poses on the timeLine where I think they should happen ( the core timing ) then I work between them with breakdowns. The problem with this method is that I have to think of two things at once! I have to think of how I get between the poses ( spacing ), and also how long it takes ( timing ).

Brandon recommended the approach where you block your poses on consecutive frames, disregarding any notion of timing at the beginning and concentrating only on your posing, and how the body needs to move to get between those poses. If you need another pose to describe the movement, you just add another breakdown and work in your shapes. I tried this approach last night and I love it!

I found it useful to block my poses every 8 frames, then I have room in between to add poses as as I need them ( note ... there is no relevance to timing here... I`m not thinking about how fast things move over 8 frames - its just an arbitrary amount of space I can fit a few keyframes into ) . At this point, you are not pressing play or scrubbing the timeLine, you're jumping back and forth between your poses using the next and previous hotkeys - only taking notice of how the poses relate.

After you have your basic movement working, you then slide the keys around in the timeLine and concentrate on your timing. Now you're gonna start playblasting and pressing play. There will be tweaks and changes of course, a body part is dragging way too much etc, but the core of your movement is already thought about. This also works very nicely if you keep a key on every body part for every pose you set.

When using this approach with dialogue, I can see that there may be an inevitable stage where you have to pose your character and think about the movement whilst not in direct timing with the audio ( if your posing on regular frames.. how could you possibly match it with the audio at this stage ?) So this will force you to be confident about your acting choices. At this point, its a process of animating a little `blind`, at least until you have the core of your movement figured out. Its then that you start placing the keys where they should be relative to the audio, in the timing stage of this approach.

I find this helps separate two complex parts of animation, timing and spacing, and allows you to tackle one at a time.. which has to be a good thing. Its still recommended to pose out your story telling keys, on their approximate frames, so you can see if your broad idea is working or not - but when you come to figure out the details, the above technique can help.

In Maya, you can step back and forth through keys on your selected object by using these hotkey commands:
  • currentTime ( `findKeyframe -which next` );
  • currentTime ( `findKeyframe -which previous );


Andy Latham said...

Or you can use the keyboard shortcuts < and > to step back and forth between keys in Maya :)

Josh Bowman said...

yeah this is a really good way to work, I don't do this nearly enough. It's something Keith Lango taught me in one of his VTS's a while back and it really does help me make better animation....when I remember to do it and don't succumb to the urge to space everything out and put it in splined tangents as soon as possible.

Philip Crow said...

I like to do this do, I usually space things 10 frames apart and unless it's going to be a fast action, then I just do it every 4/5 frames. Then when I go to use the biped, it can't be stepped so that's aggravating but I still try to approach it as so.

Dave said...

Great post! I had Brandon in a class or two at Animation Mentor and he always had some of the cleanest and clearest blocking of anyone. I don't use this method enough...thanks for the reminder!

Nico. said...

Well, I must say that it's my way to work when I want to work on a pause to pause base...

This technique is very “computer-y” thought, I still think a good animator (and I’m not one of them) is usually able to take care first of his timing, and blocking it perfectly.

The solution you’re writing is still a really good advice for anyone who want to progress (in quality or speed) because it’s not that easy to do at the beginning and need real focused thoughts from the animator.

thx for sharing.

Kristi said...

I disagree, Nico. When I read this post, the first thing I thought was that here is a lesson learned from traditional 2D animation, and not "computer-y" at all.

When drawing your poses, you don't HAVE any inbetweens to begin with - it is naturally "stepped", and without any timing that you can view immediately. True, a great animator will know from long experience where the keys will be placed - the old Disney guys had to work that way, for example, because they couldn't see their work in real time at all until it was filmed, sent to the lab for processing and brought back to the studio for viewing days later.

The more recent traditional animators I have watched at work do their blocking exactly the same way as described here - draw keys and maybe a few breakdowns, shoot the stack of drawings with a video camera, and then experiment with the timing afterwards, using line test software.

Even if you do your initial timing as you go, I do recommend the stepped approach, because auto inbetweens can really muddy what you're doing.

Cameron Fielding said...

Thanks for the replies guys! its great to see so much interest here.

To be honest I think there might be a misunderstanding concerning how "the best" animators really do work. Its like artists, you have a vision in your mind that the great painters work fast, accurately and always have amazing ideas. The truth is that is totally inaccurate. So its the same with animators - you might imagine that the real talents at Pixar or wherever all block their shots in stepped, in perfect timing, with perfect poses, 100% of the time.. but this isnt true. One of my biggest surprises from the Pixar masterclass by Andrew Gordon was his insight into how many of the animators work - he said that roughly 1/3 of the animators block in stepped, 1/3 straight ahead and 1/3 layer their stuff. I think this just goes to show there is always a "preferred way" ( which ever way is easiest to direct and offers the most predictable results.. e.g stepped key blocking) but there is not and never will be a perfect or "correct" way.

Keith Lango said...

I was sold on this way of working by several great 2d animators that I've had the privilege of working with over the years. It truly is a very 'traditional/2d' way of animating. The way to think of it is to treat each frame as just another blank sheet of paper on which to 'draw' your poses or breakdowns. But instead of a pencil you're pushing a puppet around in the software- but the principles and approach are the same. Step back and forth between your keys (drawings) quickly and it's just like a 2d animator rolling his/her drawings between their fingers as they work. After doing it long enough you can get good enough to even animate dialog this way. The key is to get the emotional face shapes where you want them and get the phonetic shapes somewhat close. After you time it out the emotional shapes will still read even if you have to adjust your phonetic shapes a little bit. And if you want to get super exact, just take the 15-30 minutes it takes to work out a good X-sheet (yeah, the paper kind). :)

Cameron Fielding said...

Thats an interesting point about the mouth shapes Keith.. I was thinking about that the other night ( how to work the sync into the blocking ) and your point makes perfect sense. Its capturing the facial gestures that is the key at this stage.

Nico. said...

Kristi --> Yeah, I see your point of view and comparison, I agree on that :).
Maybe I was thinking about some good animators I’ve seen around me, blocking their 3d animation (No interpolation, real step by step keys) with their timing already set (or very close to be). They sometimes even animate a simple ball or a cube before to found their rhythm before starting on their characters.

Keith -> well, I must say I NEVER tried this techniques for Lip-synch... But I will :). I usually make my own "exposure sheet" and then directly key and create my mouth movements at the right frame. I then animate all the rest (upper face and improve the mouth depending on what's visible on the shot).
Thx for the idea, strangely never thought of it, I will try :).

Cameron --> Thx again for the Original post and your clarifications/point of views.

erica said...

Great advice! I find that I sometimes get lazy at work and let the computer in-between for me, which of course looks terrible. Stepped keys really force you to get the poses right and this technique of pose first, timing later works great!

I'm a huge fan of the dope sheet in Maya, which some of my coworkers find odd (they prefer the graph editor). But the dope sheet helps me slide all of my keys around when I work with timing.

Thanks for posting your thoughts and tips on animation, it's a great resource!

Nan said...

This method is somthing that has certainly worked for me, for years I'd been struggling untill I got a bit more organised with making sure I had all my key poses set up first.

After getting through my key poses and breakdowns I then found a useful tool to spread my keys out evenly across the timeline

I then go linear on the keys and
look for any weird inbetweens.

Once' I rid myelf of any automated glitches, then I start spacing things out on the timeline.

Drew Geremia said...

This is a great post and, even as a fairly new animator, this is pretty much how I approach a new shot in my own way.

One thing that I do is work on odd, or more specifically, prime numbered keys when blocking out my main poses. I'll just put a key on every 7th, or 11th frame so that when I do a breakdown I'm forced to choose which key I'm favoring.

Mainly this is just a footnote to myself for later. When I'm timing out the keys I've already reminded myself which poses are favoring others visually so I can time out a shot more quickly.

Also this keeps some asymmetry in my scene, which I often find as being more visually interesting.