Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In which I rig the heck outta this chef

As I think I mentioned earlier in the blog, my characters are using skeletons to drive their movements. Since the game engine doesn't support the nifty shape-deforming tools that are available to CG filmmakers, I've got to make do with a basic skeleton.  Think of how traditional stop-motion films are made, with their little wire frames inside a clay/foam body. It's the same basic thing.

Well, once you've got a body full of bones, you can grab them and start animating. But that's a bad idea, because it would take foreeeeeeeeeeeever. This is why we need rigs in animation. The word 'rig', in animation, refers to a whole system of controls and attachments that we stick to a character to make animation easier and quicker for the animators.

For example, I could animate a character sitting down by manually moving each individual joint all over the body down one frame at a time, until he was settled in a chair. But really, I'd rather just grab him by the waist, drag that down, and let the computer calculate the rest. That's an over-simplification of what a rig can do, but you get my point.

A lot of people in the industry hate rigging. They speak of rigging the way most American grownups speak about math. "Oh I was never very good at that stuff" "Man, I hate that stuff, never touched it since school" etc. Well I love math, and while I won't be writing any poetic adulations of The Rig, I don't mind riggin' either. It's fun puzzle out how to build all those controls to be easy for the animator, yet still work correctly. It's like uber-advanced virtual lego building.

To make rigging easier for me, and to speed things up when thesis hit, I've been spending spare moments over the past year making a rigging tool. It's called 'gRig'. It's a program I wrote using Maya's scripting language. It basically automates as much of the rig creation process as possible, and makes it easy to do the rest by hand.

So, using this tool, and armed with the massive list of improvements suggested by my animators, I updated it once more and used it to build a new version of the chef character. This time, I decided to record the process and share it with you. As a note: rigging a character is something people usually spend days on. I'm awfully proud I was able to pull off everything but the facial expressions in 45 minutes.

Another note: this is only a one-minute time lapse video of those 45 minutes

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The importance of Advice and Critiques

A common question asked in job interviews, especially for a creative, is "how well do you take criticism?"

Constructive criticism is the very keystone of what makes a great production. No matter how awesome, how talented, how godly you think your favorite director/artist is, they're not. At least, they're not that awesome all on their own. Sure, there's skill in there, but one thing that separates these great creators from the pack is their ability to sit back, listen to a critique, and learn. They listen to people around them when they are told that a joke doesn't work, or a character's design doesn't fit. They cut out parts of the story that don't make sense to their peers. And in the words of one of my classmates, they're ready to "eat their baby" if the project falls flat and needs to be completely revamped.

You'd think this is common knowledge, but after someone has spent hours, days, and weeks sweating over something... to hear someone else say that it is bad, well that hurts. It feels personally insulting. It's not though. Most often, it's objective and it's honest.

I see many of my fellow students ignoring advice as we critique each other's projects in class. I am guilty of it myself, two posts back on this blog, when my adviser told me the project was too much to handle. (small addendum here, after meeting with her last night and reviewing my production book, she has agreed that the project is in striking distance) But with that exception I have been making a conscious effort to listen to the advice of those around me. Especially from the members on my team.

Their time is valuable. It is a commodity that must be split between their own projects, mine, work, and personal lives. And if they're going to spend some of it to give me advice and help me improve my craft, I damn well better listen. Take, for example, this message. The text is blurred, but note, if you will, the size:

This isn't some half-baked critique. It's not someone rolling their eyes and saying "eh, it's okay I guess." This is an essay. It's an investment. It's a lot of verbage. And it's not an isolated case, either. I have teammates that are willing to invest a lot of time not just in the project, but in helping *me* specifically to accomplish it.

This isn't meant to be a flattery post. I'm pretty sure the author of the specific message above doesn't read the blog. But it's a point I want to make: messages like this are a gold mine. I'm lucky to have so much time invested in my improvement. If I listen and learn, hopefully one day I can be a respectable project lead.

 The alternative is, well, if I chose the alternate route I probably shouldn't be in charge of anything. Even my own thesis.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Commence Production!

Animation starts this week. Two weeks behind my originally planned date, but I decided that the delay was necessary to set stuff up properly for my animators. Taking a few days to properly sort out the audio and triple-checking the rig for things that might break will hopefully save us time in the long run. And I'm still gunning for a Christmas completion for production.

That's the plan, anyway!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Repent, unbelievers!

I just had an interesting conversation with my thesis adviser. I've been dreading this conversation, because I knew exactly how it was going to go down. First let me give some background: even though she was aware of my project's goals, she was not aware of the length and depth of it. Also, the class is currently at the stage where characters are being drawn up and thesis statements are being hammered out. The thesis class is not yet up to the point where anyone officially has a script. I was at this point last February.

So anyway, the conversation went more or less like this:
  • Adviser acknowledges thesis statement and character design, asks to see other concepts for project
  • Greg shows scene layouts and art
  • Adviser raises concerns that an animation-heavy piece with two scenes will be too much to handle
  • Greg states that many assets have already been constructed, and shows examples
  • Adviser suggests that the script be paired down to two scenes, to make it manageable
  • Greg states that he has two talented animators on board to help with the animation process
  • Adviser ignores this and states, nicely, that it can't be done

Let's pause here, for a second. Greg is not somebody that you tell him, to his face, that he is incapable of something. You can tell him that it's not in the budget, it's not what the director wants, it's morally reprehensible, or whatever. But never, ever tell him that it's something that can't be done because he won't be able to hack it. Because, you see, Greg is a very stubborn man. Telling him that just makes him want to do it even more, just to prove you wrong. Once upon a time, Greg was told after a sudden sickness that he would have to drop his job and his schooling for the treatment. Just to spite that diagnosis, he kept at it and came out victorious. This is the kind of Greg that he is. So naturally, you can guess what his reaction was upon hearing his adviser's assessment of the thesis project.

So, back to the conversation, it followed:
  • Greg points out all the preparation he has done for this project, the size and talent of his team.
  • Adviser attempts to compromise by asking the project to be slimmed down.
  • Greg asserts that he will cut out anything that is unnecessary, keeping in mind that he has already done several passes of exactly that over the summer
  • Adviser asks Greg to pinky swear on his honor that he will set a realistic goal for this project.


I can't hold it against my adviser. She has my best interests in mind. And it's also in her best interests to make sure each student has a project that is feasible, so they can get an accomplishment and use it for job hunting. It's really not her fault that she does not believe the project can be done. Especially when our program has a history of students who over stretch themselves and crash/burn before graduation.

If her assessment had merit, I would be standing back and re-considering my position. But the simple truth of it is, her assessment is not meritful. I have gone through the schedule with a fine-toothed comb, and have compared notes with working professionals in the field. I know my own abilities, and have the utmost faith (based on quantitative observations) in those that have agreed to help me.

At this point, there is no reason why the project can NOT be done. I have a lot of respect for my adviser, she's an experienced professional in her own right. But I will still enjoy showing up to her office door with a finished copy of the thesis project. Several months early.

Because that's the kind of Greg that I am.