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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

John Carter Wrap

All VFX work on John Carter is now complete and the wrap party was held last Saturday in London's prestigious Natural History Museum. Unfortunately I was unable to attend due to being on a different continent, however someone from Double Negative made a movie of the event which has enabled me to get a taste of it, I've borrowed a bit from it below.

It's especially pleasing to to hear the director, Andrew Stanton's appreciation of all the hard work the many visual effects artists put into the film. Congratulations to everyone involved, I can't wait to see the finished film.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Angle and Curve Promo

Here's a little something I worked on before leaving the UK. It's a promotional video Craig Bardsley, Julia Goehle and myself were commissioned to make for Angle & Curve - the company that I've been told by the unbiased owner, makes the best headphones on the globe.

From start to finish it took just 10 days. We were only able to work on it for a few hours each evening so unsurprisingly it is a little rough around the edges. Craig and myself devised the story and did the animation. Julia came up with the character design as well as some key-drawing clean-up.

Due to the tight deadline it was created as simply as possible, without using colour and drawing straight into the computer using the excellent free program Plastic Animation Paper.

As my day job usually has a focus on realism and detail it was refreshing to try and tell a whole story as simply yet clearly as possible. It was also a chance to try and rejuvenate my rusty drawing skills. Hope you like it.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

New John Carter Trailer

The latest trailer for John Carter, the film I worked on for most of the last year has been released and I think this gives a much better sense of the scale of it. Hope you like it.

I'm also fortunate enough to have one of the shots I worked on feature, albeit very briefly. It's around the first ten second mark where two characters are forced into an areana at gun point.

The theatre release is scheduled 100 days away on the 9th March 2012.

Saturday, 19 November 2011


It's seems to have been quite a while since I last wrote on this blog, I have been pretty busy of late. Firstly, there was an intense few months at Double Negative as we finished work on John Carter but I'm happy to say animation has now wrapped and what I saw of the film is looking very good indeed.

I have since relocated to Canada and started work at Sony Imageworks Vancouver animating on The Amazing Spider-man which is due to be released in June of next year.

As I'm now settled in over here I'm hoping I should be back to updating a little more regularly.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Me by Marlo Meekins

A little while ago Marlo Meekins was offering to do caricatures in return for donations to help her get to a Caricature Convention in Japan. I took her up on the offer and this is result.

I'm a big fan of her work and find her style both mercilessly unique and very funny. If you're not aware of her blog you can visit it here.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Emanuele's shots

Fellow Double Negative animator Emanuele Pavarotti has some great comparison reels on vimeo. Amazingly, I haven't seen them posted anywhere else so I'd thought I'd give them a plug here.

They show cycles and playblasts of his animation followed by the fully rendered shots from VFX projects. They give a very interesting insight to how some shots were put together, also the quality of the animation is brilliant.

Night at the Museum 2

The Wolfman

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

And the bizzarre 'Pigmy Puff' from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

More of his work can be found on his website here.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

New Showreel

The same old stuff in a slightly different order!

There is also a higher quality quicktime version here.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Anim Dailies

This was posted on the On Animation Blog but I thought I'd also mention it.

Anim Dailies is an online animation review site created by Alfonso Sicilia, Suart Ellis, Andrea Castognoli, Brad Silby and Nathan McConnel. You can submit your reel or piece of animation and receive constructive feedback on your work from friendly professional animators.

I'm fortunate enough to know and have worked with these guys and would heartily recommend utilizing this site. They are exceedingly talented and experienced animators so if you're looking to further you animation skills, I wouldn't pass up this great opportunity to receive a free critique from a top animator.

Find them here.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

John Carter Trailer

Here's the first trailer for John Carter, the film I'm currently working on. There isn't any of my work in it, in fact they seem to be keeping almost all of the great work being done here at Double Negative under wraps for now ... I guess that's why it's called a teaser.

Friday, 24 June 2011

A Week in Crunch Part 4

This post follows on from part one, two and three of the story, if you would like to read them first they can be found here - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Saturday Morning (hours worked = 88.5)
Submission - [V06]
6:14PM 02-Jul-10

EL 03/07: What can we do in the time that we have?  I would prefer to spend the time to hit the Rough notes, otherwise at least getting some more OS hip shifts on Soren (that would translate/overlap up through his torso, and the snake) as he stumbles through his footfalls a bit with the surprise of the impact and the mere fact that the snake is here.  We just feel too locked on our mark here, so I am looking for anything to make the moment play more real at Soren's core.  Also, need to continue to refine overlap on the snake relative to Soren, and snake lip sync.  Soren can still have a bit more incredulous default facial, with occasional smile coming in, weight it still more toward incredulous (eyes wide, mouth agape) particularly toward the end.  Copying previous notes just to track them: EL 02/07: Let's get one more pass before Rough, refine snake sync, and crank incredulous where you can, esp, with Soren's broken up, shuddering, gasping breathing.  Make sure this breathing comes from his core and that the rhythm does not get too even.  (time-wise, focus on the end.)  The look to cam still plays odd, too defined in and out, too present (almost plays like embarrassment)  Try breaking it up in steps, and spread it out longer, perhaps use body rots more in the turn as well, but trailing one step behind the head... and counter animate the snake head position back in world-space to keep the same read/ focus on her as he shifts around underneath.  Also, still need more wide-eyed, jaw dropped incredulous on Soren's look to the others.

My heart sank as I saw the large amount of text next to my shot. His opening statement suggested he wasn't really happy with it, that he was just looking to for improvement in the time left and had given up on getting the shot he really wanted. I had just one day left to work on the shot. Realistically I couldn't change it very much in that time. Had I made a disastrous mess of the shot? And the snake sync note again, I'd gone through it and it looked pretty dead on in terms of timing, what was going on? Was it possible I had the wrong audio in my shot? This had happened a few times on the project, an update gets missed along the way and someone has to redo animation due to them having the wrong audio. Had I just spent 7 days animating to the wrong dialogue?

My old camera had a slight drift on it which had subconsciously given the illusion of Soren moving around more. The new one was more locked and I could see it made him look very still. My co-ordinator arranged for me to do an upload to him at lunchtime so he could see where I was at and prioritise what should be worked on. I grabbed the translate null and Soren and tried to find places where it felt appropriate to move him. This was tricky as he had to end up in the same place so that Mrs P's position would stay the same at the end of shot. So every time I moved him forward, I had to find an opportunity to move him the same distance backward. I had got the note to make him incredulous again, I clearly still wasn't getting this right. So I decided to be brave and push it as far as I could, and just have his mouth wide open for most of the shot, I also exaggerated the head shake I had in there and submitted again.

BB: have tried to loosen him up a bit, moving him back and forth to address the "locked on our mark" note, weighted expression toward open mouthed default. Hoping to spend rest of day pushing chest and snake overlap. Not sure what to do about snake sync note, Andrew and I went through it yesterday and I made some adjustments, looks pretty tight to me now. Which bit is the problem? Is it possible you have different audio?

Lunchtime Saturday 3rd July

Sumission - [V07]
1:17PM 03-Jul-10
brendanb wip rough

EL 03/07: Great progress!  Sorry Brendan to clarify, the snake lip sync felt a bit steppy and off-model for Mrs. P's normal asymmetry…run it past Christian S and see if he has any pointers.  Do your work today and submit Arbs for Rough approval.

Wow. My quick fixes had been enough, to lift the curse off the shot, I could now see that Soren's mouth being open affected it greatly, he now felt genuinely shocked at the Mrs P being there and his spluttering and trying to speak was working better. My crude translating around was working better than I had thought it would and made Soren feel more looser and more natural.

I fixed Mrs P's mouth shapes in a clean-up pass and that was it- the shot was done! I want to be clear that I don't think this shot is a masterpiece, when I look at it now it seems obvious to me that the shot was done quickly and has been kept relatively simple. If I had had longer I might have attempted a more dynamic and exaggerated stumble on Soren, and not keep him so side-on throughout the shot but I think for how quickly it was done it's reasonably successful. It was quite a roller coaster ride to get it out in a week. I was pleased that I had turned it around to something the animation director was happy with.

Here's the final rendered version -

And here's a progression reel of the shot so you can see how it evolved -

It's funny looking back now, at the time I felt I had to make some pretty big changes to the shot but in fact the physicality of the shot changed little from my initial sketches and first block to the final version. The intent and energy of the characters was lacking in my initial approach but this was something that was layered over the top of the action.

It's also strange to look back and remember how upset I was when I thought it was going badly. It was an intense week and the tiredness I was feeling at the time certainly was a factor but also, as an animator you have to invest a lot of yourself into your job. It's almost impossible to detach yourself from your work and put it out of your mind, or resign yourself to producing an unsatisfactory shot. Animation is a consuming occupation which can contribute to your life in positive and negative ways. After all, the fact that we care so deeply about our work is the main motivation behind working such long hours.

Thanks for reading. A huge thank you to my sister Frith for acting as editor for these posts and also to Eric Leighton who very kindly allowed me to use his notes.

I would also like to thank Spungella and On Animation for recommending this story on their blogs.

A Week in Crunch Part 3

This post follows on from part one and two of the story, if you would like to read them first, they can be found here - Part 1, Part 2

Wednesday Morning (Hours worked = 48.5)
Submission - [V04]
9:27PM 30-Jun-10

EL 01/07:Yep, carry on… the breathing should make a BIG difference on Soren's emotional state, act out big, broken and shuddering incredulous breaths and see how they drive your core, so the snake would be going along for the ride on some of the hits of his reactionary breathing body movement.  Also, make sure the look to cam in your dead spot is a bit more incredulous, currently it's a tad on the goofy side.  Soren should still be breathing at the end which would carry over into the next shot.

Cool. Looking all good I thought. Ok, so he wants the breathing to be more accentuated, that was a bit more than I was thinking but it was achievable. Looks like he’s happy with everything overall, I can start to lock things down. So I added some breathing and tied down the animation and I finished splining everything out, I felt pretty happy. I had three days left of just refining and polishing what I already had, I might even finish this shot early! 

I felt I could relax a little and start to enjoy the process of animation. I always love finding places to incorporate the more traditional principals of animation to my shots even if they are in a relatively realistic style and one idea I was looking forward to playing around with was using Mr's P's body to go from straight shapes to curves. Going from a straight to a curve is always desirable in animation, it adds life and visual interest to the shot. However, there is often very little opportunity to use the idea as literally (especially in naturalistic animation) as when you have a character's body that can be simplified into a single line of action.

A straight line held for a long time would not look particularly natural for a snake so I only used it briefly, holding for just a couple of frames at high energy moments. I saw two suitable occasions - one when Mrs P. jumps toward Soren and another on Mrs P's "snatched" accent; moments that would benefit from extra energy and impact.

Another idea I was keen to incorporate involved the lip sync of the Mrs Plithiver. Lip sync is another great place in animation to experiment, I find that the character's mouth shapes must be accurate in terms of timing and the shapes must be clear, but due to something called the McGurk Effect liberties can occasionally be taken with which shapes you use.

Miriam Margolyes - The voice of Mrs Plithier

I really liked the way the actress, Miriam Margolyes, had read the part of Mrs Plithier. She had subtlety implied not only the age of the character but also added some accentuation to the 's's and 'th's of words. This gave it a nice snake-like quality which was something I wanted to emphasise.

Snakes flick their tongues out to taste the air and I wanted to incorporate this to Mrs P's character but instead of having her doing it arbitrarily I looked for places in her speech. I had started to play around with the idea in a previous shot and had found that it would occasionally work if applied to 'th' sounds even though Miriam's tongue was not visible during the reading of the line.

Shot sound file -

If you listen you can hear the nice accentuated 's' sounds as well as the 'th's in 'then' and 'this'.

Close up showing tongue flick on 'this'.

I would also have to remove the way Mrs P's body was sliding around on Soren. I'd found no other way to do this but by eye; line up one of Mrs P's stripes with a point on Soren and laboriously key every frame, using the translation of a control at the u-turn on the far side of Soren's body. However, I would leave this job to last.

I spent Wednesday and Thursday working into the animation then submitted this version with the following comments.

BB: All splined! also added breathing and changed look to camera. To come - remove sliding around in Mrs P's body. Push Soren's breathing at end of shot more. Other general refinements.

Friday Morning (Hours worked = 64)

Sumission - [V05]
9:06PM 01-Jul-10

EL 02/07: Let's get one more pass before Rough [animation approval], refine snake sync, and crank incredulous where you can, esp, with Soren's broken up, shuddering, gasping breathing.  Make sure this breathing comes from his core and that the rhythm does not get too even.  (time-wise, focus on the end.)  The look to cam still plays odd, too defined in and out, too present (almost plays like embarrassment)  Try breaking it up in steps, and spread it out longer, perhaps use body rots more in the turn as well, but trailing one step behind the head... and counter animate the snake head position back in world-space to keep the same read/ focus on her as he shifts around underneath.  Also, still need more wide-eyed, jaw dropped incredulous on Soren's look to the others.

Ok. I was hoping to have rough animation approval and that's a little more amendments than I was expecting. As I read the notes I was weighing up how long each thing would take ... snake lip sync ... hmm .. an hour or two ... more broken up breaths ... tricky ... maybe a couple of hours ... change look to camera ... an hour maybe ... then I read the part that made the blood drain from my face.... turning Soren's body toward camera! ... Uh oh ... counter animating the snake. This was bad. This was making a big change that wouldn't really work with how I had set the shot up. Turning Soren's body would expose the mess that was on the other side of him, and trying to keep the same performance in Mrs P, while counter animating her against Soren's body turn was a big job. Don't get me wrong, I thought the idea was cool. If I had the time it would have made the shot far more interesting to have Soren turn around more, but I was worried about time - I only had two days left to work on it and I still had a lot of work in terms of refining what I already had and to try and meet these other notes. I spent until lunch on this but it wasn't working out, the turn didn't look natural and I was loosing the readability of Mrs P's performance. There was some pops appearing and other unwanted movement coming out of her counter animation. I felt I had to give up. I hate not meeting the notes I'm given, I felt awful but with such a tight deadline and no room for movement I felt I had no choice. I spent the rest of the day addressing the other notes. I then got a new camera from the lensing department at 5.00pm and I submitted the following animation with these apologetic notes -

BB: new camera, spent a few hours trying to rotate Soren's body and counter Mrs P. but in vain, sorry, would need a couple of days for this. Broke up the head turn to hopefully feel more natural and changed expression. Tweaked Mrs P's lip sync, tried to push breathing a bit more, pushed jaw dropped expression to others at start.

I had just one day left on the shot, if Eric didn't like this new version, there would be little time for me to remedy it. I was now feeling extremely run down which meant my emotions were heightened, at times I felt hopeless and upset that I seemed to be failing at this task, all the worse as it seemed to be going so well just a few days earlier.

Part 4

A Week in Crunch Part 2

This post follows on from part one of the story, if you would like to read it first it can be found here - Part 1.

To explain our review process on Legend of the Guardians at this time, our Animation Director was working remotely from LA while we were working in a different time zone in Sydney, Australia. We would send a movie of our work off to Eric Leighton in the evening with some notes that stated what we'd done and where we felt we were with the shot. Then Eric would review it during his daytime and send his notes back to us so we would have them when we arrived at work in the morning. He would then be available for questions, clarification and additional reviews via video link until around our lunchtime.

Publicity shot of Eric Leighton (left) with Ralf Zondag, Co-Directors of Disney's Dinosaur.

Although my idea for the shot seemed to work to my eyes I was a bit nervous about Eric's reaction, I had not had a chance to discuss in detail what I had planned for the shot. What I was proposing was quite extreme and there was a chance he wouldn't like it at all. He might feel that the embrace by Mrs P was too nimble for an elderly character or that the hug felt like a constriction. I thought there was a strong chance I would have to start again with only 6 days left.

Monday Morning (hours worked = 21)

I got to work on Monday and opened the notes from Eric to find just four words, "I need input here" next to my shot number. I wasn't sure what this meant but it didn't sound good. I wrote to the sequence lead and the co-ordinator a slightly panicky email -

Eric's notes for fy04_143 are "I need input here". I'm scared. Doesn't
sound like he likes it very much. Shall I hold off working on it for
now? Maybe he was hoping for something closer to the old version?



It turned out that I'd neglected to submit my comments on the shot and Eric just wanted to get an understanding of what my intentions for the shot were before passing comment. Andrew, who had also just seen it submitted some comments for Eric, I don't have the exact words but he stated that it was my first pass block, he liked it but felt like Mrs P's collision with Soren needed more impact and Soren should stumble around after being hit.

This was a good idea to add, it had been the proposed that Twilight and Digger's home was something of a bachelor pad with entangled roots all over the floor, to have Soren stumble would accentuate this.

Monday Lunchtime
Submission - [V02]
2:37AM 28-Jun-10

EL 28/06: Very interesting and cool first pass, I love the aggressive move from the snake… but totally agree, we need much more impact on Soren, both physically and emotionally.  Physically, want the whole tripping backwards over the furniture thing, really shocked and taken by surprise. Emotionally he must be absolutely incredulous (as the audience will be) at the supreme serendipity of this situation, looking at the snake (and out to the room) with joy, shock and absolute disbelief.

He liked it! Or at least was willing to go with the overall idea. That was a relief. I had to add some stumbling which would be hard but at least I wouldn't have to start over. For the rest of the day I tried to imply a stumble at the start, I increased the amount he was pushed back, which meant I had to adjust the camera as well. I had a tender moment in the previous version at the start, I removed this as it was going against the idea of being shocked and taken by surprise. I also tried to add a bit more surprise into his facial animation and added more breakdowns to define the movement I envisaged. I also tried to get Mrs P's accents affecting Soren, trying to keep him loose while this excited snake talked at him. I submitted this new version with the following notes.

BB: increased Soren's range on the knock back and tried to imply his
stumble with a head turn to look where he's going (will hopefully be
clearer once in rough [animation]). Added a bit more disbelief to Soren's facial
animation and included a look out to the room. Felt like we were loosing
energy in the middle section so added the idea that Mrs P. keeps pushing
Soren back and shaking him with excitement as she says her second line
(again hopefully will be clearer once in rough).

Tuesday Morning (hours worked = 35)

Submission - [V3]
5:54PM 28-Jun-10

EL 29/06:  EL BLOCK APPROVED pending [render with motion blur] so we feel forward progress, but all intent notes apply, anything to point at the incredible, absolutely insane serendipity of the moment (head shaking, gasps, broken up breathing, starting to say something and freezing/sputtering in disbelief, more looking out to the room, etc, etc)  Brendan I think you have a good feel for this, so mostly the note is carry on and give us as much as you can in the time that you have!

Ok, he had approved the block of it and felt like I was on the right track but obviously I still wasn't getting enough energy and hitting the brief quite yet. However, my co-ordinator submitted a render of the latest animation. It wasn't very different but I had worked into the stumble a little at the start. I received these notes.

Tuesday Lunchtime

Submission - [V3.5]
2:49AM 29-Jun-10

EL 29/06:   EL BLOCK APPROVED.  Very cool progress on this one.

Good news indeed, he had seen my latest version and was happy with how it was going, I felt like I could relax a little, now it was just a matter of fleshing it out and refining. I was also at the point where I was trying not to work into anything too far in case Eric might want something different, I really wanted him to sign off on the overall movement, I hoped the breathing, head shaking and spluttering could be ideas that I could layer-in while keeping the overall staging of the shot the same. When I submitted the shot that night I tried to hint that it would be great to get Eric to sign off on the staging so I could move forward.

BB: Wip rough - have splined and worked into stumble, also added head shaking, trying to talk, etc. Still to add breathing and splined facial. If you're happy everything is here I can start to tie down and finesse.

At this point the late nights were beginning to take their toll, I was very tired but relatively happy, I felt it was going well. Maybe the tricky assignment I'd been given wasn't going to be as tough as I'd feared but little did I know what was in store ...

Part 3

A Week in Crunch Part 1

To try and give a bit of insight into the life of a professional animator, namely mine, I've decided to write about a week during the end of my previous project - the animated film Legend of the Guardians. As I began to write and it became rather extensive, as is often the case, I've cut it into a series of four posts which I'll upload every Monday for the next three weeks. I’m hoping this will make an interesting story for you to follow, give you an insight into what working life can be like and give you an idea as to how I work. I call it 'A week in Crunch'.

'Crunch time' is the last couple of months at the end of a project. It usually involves very long hours and working 6 or even 7 days a week. There is a high level of stress and everyone gets tired and grumpy, ill, dishevelled and generally worn out. Work pretty much consumes your brain, it's all you do so it's all you talk about and although incredibly tired, you often can't get to sleep at night for thinking of it. However, it can also be quite an exciting time as well, things come together very quickly and everyone can start to see the end of the project in sight. The film you may have been working on for years is finally almost finished!

I should make it clear the level of hard work I talk of was not unique to me, everyone around me was working equally hard during this time. I'm also not trying to criticise the animation industry or the faults in the work practices the animation companies employ. Generally at the start of a project, time is more flexible and there is much less stress. The push at the end of a project is almost always necessary and part of the job of an animator.

Another motivation for writing this is that I find there are many unrealistic examples which show the animation process as a smooth, seamless evolution from blocking to working into the animation then to polishing. In my experience the reality of the process is rarely that straightforward. Occasionally you'll get a shot for which you and the animation director are totally in sync, which you face no technical obstacles and the journey of shot production is a smooth one. More often than not it's a balancing act - you are trying to move the shot closer to a finished state whilst incorporating the ideas the animation director has for the shot. At the same time as battling with any technical problems you may have, trying to progress your own ideas and wanting to make it look as good as possible. All of this with a deadline looming. You have to stay flexible, and willing and able to make large changes very quickly.

All notes given by the animation director are real and all events are true to the best of my recollection.

A shot for you ...

The deadline for animation on Legend of the Guardians was 18th July 2010 but we were delivering the large portions (or spools) of the film before that. As the first spool delivery approached, animation for it was to be finished by Saturday 3rd July. The following story charts my week leading up to this deadline - from Saturday 26th June to the end of Saturday 3rd July ... which technically is 8 days and not a week but who's counting. During these 8 days I worked 98.5 hours, starting at 8.30am each day and staying late (past 6.30pm) every night, working past 12am on a couple of occasions.

I was a lead animator on the project with my own team, however there was a sequence for that first spool that, because of unforseen curcumstances, was in danger of running out of time which belonged to another team. Unfortunately crunch time is also when things start getting brutal, it's horrible to take shots away from an animator but sometimes that's the only way they're going to get done on time. There were a few shots in the sequence that the animation director Eric Leighton needed executed differently and the film's production crew were not confident they would be completed in time. It was decided that the senior and lead animators should be reassigned to these shots.

At the end of production like this there is usually some last minute hiring, animators brought in and thrown into a production, forced to very quickly adapt to the animation style, working methods, rigs and characters. It's very much a sink or swim situation and it's terribly unfair not to be given time to settle in. The shot I was given was re-assigned from an animator who was hired late in the project and had little time to get up to speed. I had worked on the production for over a year and a half by that time and therefore I was comfortable with the tools and the style of animation required. I had mixed feelings about being in this position, I felt very fortunate to be one of 'go to' animators on the project, someone the production felt could be trusted with complicated shots with tight deadlines but at the same time it’s difficult to be given another animator's shot. I've had shots taken away from me, especially earlier in my career, and it is always unpleasant and hard not to take personally.

A later shot from the scene showing Digger and Twilight with Mrs Plithiver and Soren in the foreground.

The scene in question, the introduction of Twilight, had been greatly affected by some last minute modifications to the story. One major change to the film that affected the scene was the decision that the hero (Soren's) parents should not be killed during the film. Up until a few months before the end of the film's production the story had Soren return home to find his family's hollow burnt and abandoned. It was a sad but very beautiful and powerful scene. This was also where Soren was reunited with his snake nurse mate, Mrs. Plithiver (or Mrs P.) who would then accompany him on his mission to find the mythical Guardians of Ga'Hoole. Now that Soren's parents were not killed and he didn't return home, there was the dilemma of how to reunite Soren with Mrs P. As removing her would have impacted too much on the rest of the film. It was decided that she could be reintroduced in this sequence by Twylight bringing her into his home as food for him and his hollow-mate Digger. Who had just met Soren and offered him shelter.

Reunion between Soren and his parents at the end of the film

Despite this the animation director Eric Leighton and lead on that sequence, Andrew Hunt had turned it into a great scene. The character of Twilight was strong, the animation was really beautiful and it was getting some great laughs in reviews. When I found out I was to animate a shot within it but had only a week to complete it I was anxious of the schedule but thrilled to be involved in such a great scene.

The shot I was given had just two characters, Soren, an owl, and the snake - Mrs P. Snakes, however, are notoriously hard to animate, their movement is obviously very different to other land based animals so Mrs. P's animation was going to be tricky - (for those interested in the technicalities) there were two modes to her rig, a straight forward FK mode which was incredibly hard to animate in anything other that a close up head shot or an IK mode which was easier in full body shots but had a one major draw back; she would be constrained to a path by her head but there was no way of locking down any point of her body which made it slip around as her head was animated, and the controls along that path would easily gimbal and cause pops in her motion. It had also proved hard to get appealing poses from her.

Picture from previous version

When I picked up the shot the previous animator had played it much as it was in the original, dead-parent version - a tender, warm moment between Soren and Mrs P. This worked in the original story as the shot was quiet and underplayed and the reunion was against a background of tragedy.

This new reunion was very different, firstly, it's obviously highly unlikely - To be introduced to a new character who is also carrying an unrelated character we have previously met. The animation director Eric Leighton suggested that instead of hiding away from the fact that this was a tenuous plot point and risk pulling people out of the story and ruining the illusion of the film, we should accentuate the serendipity by showing how shocked and amazed the character's reactions to the situation were. It was even suggested that we add a small knowing look to camera to further highlight that Soren couldn't believe that this was happening. Secondly, there was the extra complication of Mrs P changing gears through the shot, she started off in happy amazement then her emotions turned at the end of shot to anger at Twilight for capturing her.

Shot sound file -

transcript -

Mrs P : "It can't be! Every day I've been out looking for you and Kludd and then this ... to be snatched up by this monstrosity."


I decided to be bold. If Eric wanted a big impact I'd try and give him one. I reckoned that if Mrs P was just about to get eaten but suddenly found a close friend, the exact close friend she was out looking for when she was captured, then she would probably launch herself at Soren and squeeze him tight. I thought it would be funny to have her shaking him with excitement as she tried to tell him what had happened. I also wanted to try and add some fun ideas in there, the look to camera for example. Also, throughout the film there had been moments when Mrs P. had hugged some of the owls but it had always been challenging to achieve, as snakes in the wild sometimes eat owls, it always felt like the snake was about to constrict the friend she had in her grasp. I wanted to play with this idea, firstly I wanted to make sure the initial grasp of Soren read as a hug and not an attack. But then I wanted her to give Soren a squeeze as she became angry, my idea was that on the accent in "snatched" she would be so focused and angry at Twilight that she would not realise that she had accidentally held Soren too tight. After a bit of brain storming I drew these rather crude sketches just to get something down on paper and out my head.

These thumbnails were done very quickly and are very rough. There is little focus on the details of pose and facial expression, they were mainly used as a means to visualise the physical movement of the snake throughout the shot. I've tried to make them a little clearer by adding notes and colour.

Basic Poses

I spent Saturday morning finishing off a previous shot and started this shot around lunchtime on Saturday 26th July. Firstly I tried out some poses to see what I could achieve with the snake, each pose was quite laborious to create, each node along the path had to be separately translated and rotated into position. I had to find out if my idea would work at all. I wanted to see if it would be possible to get the snake wrapped around Soren and position her so that she would still be able to look at him to talk to him.

After some trial and error I came up with this, which proved it was possible at least. Mrs P's face would be very close to Soren's but this could work out well as she would be so excited to see him that she would lose all concept of normal personal space. The idea was that eventually Mrs P's body would look like it was supported by Soren's wing, however, I left some space around this area as I wasn't exactly sure where Soren's wing and shoulder would be. The tail has also been left rather ambiguous.

Next I tried a pose were she would be looking at Twilight with her body ready for the accidental constricting of Soren. I could only make one coil and it wouldn't quite fit round the widest part of his body, so I had her squeezing more around his shoulders / neck, but I thought this would still work.

Then I created a rough pose for Mrs P. hugging Soren which would be viewed from his left. This took quite a while but finally it felt almost right - warm and friendly, hopefully it would not be confused for constriction of Soren. All these poses were cheated to a degree, there was an area on Soren's left hand side were Mrs P wasn't supported by anything and to get her wrapped back around I had to make a sharp u-turn there which created a rather ugly shape. But I figured that as the camera was on the other side of Soren we would never see this, and I'd stage the scene so Soren wouldn't turn his body too far towards the camera.

Unattractive U-turn in Mrs P's body I would keep hiden from the audience.

Finally I created the starting positions for the characters which would closely match the position we had last seen them in. I was reasonably happy with these as basic story telling poses and so reordered them, added a move back on Soren and a few more poses at the end for Mrs P dismounting Soren. I also had to create a rough camera for the scene, the original one was still and focused around where Mrs P started. With this camera she would immediately jump out of shot, so I added a tilt up and pan to follow the action. It wasn’t usual practice to create our own cameras on this production and it would have to later be refined by the studios lensing department. I made a capture of my work so I could view it in sequence. Although very rough, I was happy with my progress. I didn't submit this for review but this is where I finished up that Saturday night.

I don't always work in stepped keys but as I needed to get an idea across fast and due to how long it took to pose Mrs P, it seemed like the best option.

With such a tight deadline it was a relief to have something in the scene and I was happy with how my idea was progressing. On Sunday I tried to refine these poses a bit, add some breakdowns and some basic facial animation to help sell what the characters emotions would be. I then submitted it for review on Sunday night.

But I would have to wait until the next day to find out what the Animation Director thought of it.

Part 2

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Guardians Flight

Today I thought I’d talk a little more about the flight design in Legend of the Guardians as I feel this was one of my main areas of influence on the film. Let's start by looking at the flight cycle I created for the character of Soren.

The style of the film was quite realistic so I attempted to create movement that was true to nature. However, I've not sought to copy a barn owl's flight. Barn owls wings are very stiff so I looked at the flight of other birds of prey, like eagles to make Soren's flight a little more dynamic and powerful. I've also tried to make sure it works from all angles so that it can be used as a starting point in any type of shot. The amount of vertical motion is less than you find in nature, this is because many of the flying shots were close-ups or mid shots where the characters were talking so, for this reason the vertical motion has been toned down. In a wide shot the ups and downs needed to be exaggerated. As the hero, Soren's flight cycle is fairly standard, you'd probably call it the 'vanilla' of flight cycles, a quirkier character would have a more distinctive flight.

However, this monotonous and rigid cycle is obviously not how you'd want any real bird to fly but once this cycle has been created, it's fairly straight forward to get something more organic -

This is an early test I did for the character of Nyra taking a similar cycle to the Soren one above. In this animation I've broken up the cycle by adding glides, I've also found opportunities to bank the body. I've done it quite severely here to give the impression she is honing in on some fast moving and erratic prey. As you can see we can start to get something quite naturalistic by just doing this. The head, however remains locked, maybe a little too much, this test was left quite rough, if I were to work into it further I'd probably loosen up the head a little, add further asymmetry to the wings as well as break the tail away from the body and add some flutter to the ends of the feathers.

As I mention in my bird flight notes, smaller birds fly differently to bigger birds in a number of ways but importantly below a certain size, birds will abandon a conventional flap/glide pattern and instead flap in short bursts, then pull their wings in completely for a time. This is called a bounding flight pattern and I was keen to use this to accentuate the small size of Gylfie, a tiny Elf owl character in the film.

The following movie shows the original opening to the film which was completed after production on the film. It is available as an extra on the recently released Blue Ray Disc of the film. It shows the ancient and mythical 'Battle of the Ice Claws' - a hostile encounter between the evil Pure Ones and the Guardians. In case your interested, I animated the shot when the two leaders of the armies - Lyse of Keil and Metalbeak first come together.

As well as making different cycles for the different characters of the film we also wanted to show a difference in the overall flight of the good Guardian owls and the evil Pure Ones. The Pure Ones are the villains, hell bent on enslaving the owl kingdom and see themselves as a master race, there were clear parallels between them and human fascist dictatorships and we wanted to reinforce this where ever possible.

The owls in army of Pure Ones are controlled and heavily suppressed and so fly in rigid formations. The shape of their wings is different to, we kept them higher and more angular, almost suggesting the Eagle motifs of the Nazis.

I also referenced frigate birds who have a reputation for robbing other birds and have a menacing wing shape, and hold their bodies low under their bent wings.

To contrast this we wanted the Guardians to have a more natural owl wing shape that was softer and rounder. The guardians also fly in a more broken formation which subtly symbolises their freedom from suppression.

In case anyone hasn't seen it, most of the details of how I approach flight can be found on my bird tutorial page here.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

More Subtext ... and Top Gun

After my recent subtext post I came across a couple of humorous references to subtext which I though I'd share and talk about to hopefully help clarify what it is and how it applies to acting for anyone still unsure.

The first clip is from The Trip, a recent BBC comedy series in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play lose versions of themselves. It's a largely improvised sitcom which follows them on a tour of expensive restaurants in the North of England. The two performers are both actors and impressionists and my favourite parts of the programme are thier impressions and analysis of famous actors their varying techniques. At the end of the following clip Steve Coogan points out an acting technique used by Richard Gere.

"Richard Gere does a very interesting technique he does in a lot of his films, not a lot of people pick him up on it. What he does is he'll listen to what someone says and then he'll smile enigmatically. He'll look away into the middle distance as if remembering something from the past, laugh about it and then return to the dialogue."

He then acts this out -

Looking away, smiling enigmatically ...

... then returning to the dialogue.

He also embellishes this further by adding a head shake and a shrug.

"See? The little look. They thought, ooh, there's a little story, a little subtext there we didn't know about. What's going on there? Why did he look over there? What was that memory?"

Although this is a caricature, it's interesting to study and makes it clear how actors use subtext. It is important to note that the action - the look away and smile before the dialogue is not the subtext, but this implies a subtext. Often the subtext of the dialogue is clear but in this instance the subtext is left purposely unclear. This creates a sense of mystery about the character, we feel like he's not letting on what he's thinking, this potentially will tantalise and engage the audience and want them to find out more about the character.

By the way does anyone know of a scene in a film where Richard Gere does this? I would love to find an example.

This next example is a sound file from a comedy show called The Stand by the British comedian Daniel Kitson, here he talks about the lack of subtext in the film Top Gun (caution swearing!).

"My favourite films of that ilk though really is Top Gun and I'll tell you why .... The reason Top Gun's a great film is because the character in Top Gun who's a bit of a loose cannon, who plays by his own rules, who's a law unto himself, he's actually called Maverick. And his enemy who's a bit cold, a bit stand off-ish, not quite human, he's called called Iceman. There's actually a scene where Iceman says to Maverick "I don't like you because you're dangerous", and Maverick goes "Yeah, that's right, I am dangerous". It's almost like the writers decided to make a whole film without any subtext whatsoever."

This is again an exaggeration of what happens in the film but he makes an interesting point to have your characters named after their personality type - 'Maverick' and 'Iceman' and also having them say exactly what they think with no attempt at subtext would make a rather obvious and uninteresting scene.

So after listening to this I decided to try and find the scene on youtube. What I discovered is what the Top Gun script appears to lack in subtext the actors have made up for with their performance. Although I don't think it's the greatest acting, Tom Cruise's delivery of "That's right, Ice Man, I am Dangerous" has a clear subtext.

Tom Cruise snaps into anger at the start of the line, then stops, smiles and pretends to brush down Iceman's uniform - a friendly and familiar gesture. It's open to interpretation but this is how I read the subtext - The initial snap into anger is false, he's testing Iceman, trying to scare him, like jumping out and someone and shouting "Boo!". Then the subtext of the rest of the line is "I'm not going to let you get to me" and again it's interesting to note that the acting choices have little to do with the text - "That's right, Ice Man, I am Dangerous".

Anger at the start of the line ...

... then he stops, smiles and pretends to brush down Iceman's uniform.

Clearly in this scene the two characters are sizing each other up and testing each other's nerve, it's interesting to see that after this line Val Kilmer bites at Maverick - another pretend attack done in the hope of making him flinch. However, the later part of Maverick's line combines the two differing ideas of argumentative and provocative words said in a restrained and disarming way. This definitely shows that Maverick is not going to shy away from confrontation but also that he will not be so easily provoked. This makes the performance more engaging and Maverick a deeper and more interesting character than if he had just snapped and shouted the line at Iceman.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Legend of the Guardians Showreel

Here's a compilation of some of my shots from Legend of The Guardians, a film I worked on for almost two years.

I'm responsible for all animation although there are a couple of shots where someone else animated the background characters - where Nyra says "Owlet, that one says you're his brother" and also where Ezylryb says "Soren, you did what was right". All cycles used in the flying shots are my own.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

April ReelBarrow Update

We've made our first update to ReelBarrow.

And the excellent reels of -

Aaron Hartline
Nicolas Prothias
Oliver Staphylas
Yannick Honore

can be found at ReelBarrow for your viewing enjoyment.

We're still working out the best way to manage the site but the current plan is to make the updates a monthly thing and aim to have them on, or as close to, the 1st of the month as possible.

Thanks to all those who submitted.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Dapoon's Subtext Question

An animator called Dapoon asked me a question about subtext in animation on this post from a while ago. As my rambling answer expanded beyond the limitations of the comment box I decided to put it here.

Thanks for the question; it took me a while to get to grips with what subtext is to. Subtext is not adding extra actions to your animation but exploring the underlying meaning of spoken words and actions in the hope of creating a deeper performance.

We should always strive to seek and animate the subtext of what the character says and this can be in varying degrees of alignment to what the spoken words are. Sarcasm would be an extreme example; at this point the meaning of what the character is saying is the exact opposite of the words they're speaking. "It's cold in here" = "It's hot in here".

I like this Monty Python sketch where they play around with this subtext. The Drill Sergeant's obviously sarcastic tone and manner belies the fact he seems to be talking totally literally.

You could play this scene with the same text spoken with a literal tone and it would still make sense ... probably wouldn't be very funny though. The humour comes from our perception of what the Sergeant is asking, or not asking - the subtext.

Dapoon suggests a situation - A mother folding sheets, while she asks her son how his day at school was. Let's explore that.

For me an interesting area of subtext to explore would be in the mother's delivery. Let's say her words are simply "How was your day at school?"

She could be just asking in a way that suggests she always asks this and is not really interested, it's almost just a greeting, like a "Hello" in this instance the subtext is there but subtle. Where the subtext becomes more obvious is when she's asking with a hidden agenda to find out more about his day. She could say the same words but be asking -

"Did you get into trouble today?"
"How did you do in the test you had?"
"Did you speak to that girl you like?"

Or if she'd already had a call from the headmaster to tell her that the boy has misbehaved this could form the subtext of the delivery, it could be a rhetorical "How was your day at school?" = "I know what you've done at school"

As you can see the delivery and acting of these lines would be different but the words or text ("How was your day at school?") stay the same.

The folding of the sheets I would call a 'secondary action', this would be both separate from the performance but also linked to it, if she was annoyed at her son she would be folding differently from if she was just absently mindedly doing it while chatting to him.

Hope that helps!

Friday, 4 March 2011


I've always enjoyed watching the showreels of really experienced animators. They inspired me greatly in my earlier career and I find they're a great motivator during an occasional break from work. There was a great site called which used to feature links to all the best showreels around the internet. Unfortunately strutyourreel no longer exists; it briefly mutated and then sadly disappeared. The domain is now home to a fishing site.

This was a great loss to the animation community and as there is no sign of it's return a few of us have banded together and made a showreel website for ourselves -

It's still a work in progress, there are some features we've yet to add like the page views (I need to learn PHP first!) and we'll be featuring more animators to. There are some big names from Pixar, Dreamworks and Blue Sky as well as some great animators you may not have discovered - hopefully an ideal site to bookmark for the occasional motivational 5 minute break at work.

If you know of a great demo reel not on the site, you can email it to

I will be posting reelbarrow updates on this blog, I've added a 'reelbarrow' topic to the sidebar so you can filter this blog to just show reelbarrow updates.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Eric Guaglione - The Early Years of 3D

3D animation is a rare profession, one where the average age of the people working in the industry is higher than the age of the industry itself. Eric Guaglione, Animal Logic's head of animation was one of the few people involved in the early days of 3D animation when the medium was taking its first tentative steps into creature and character animation.

Eric started in the film industry in 1982, the year that the original Tron film was released. In the following exert from my interview with him he describes starting work at Digital Productions where he was employed as a computer animator alongside Chris Bailey and Bill Kroyer, one of the animators on the original Tron film.

Here are some examples of the work Eric describes. The opening sequence of the 1986 film Labyrinth is below and the 1988 Prudential Commercial where Eric assisted in creating the eagle can be viewed HERE.

I've done a bit research and I believe the Cray X-MP supercomputer is the computer Eric talks about at Digital Productions. It was used to render the high polygon count (for the time) models at film resolution. In 1985 Bell Labs (a research and development organization) purchased a Cray X-MP/24 for $10.5 million along with eight DD-49 1.2 GB drives for an additional $1 million.

It required approximately $12,000 per month for electricity, and approximately $50,000 monthly in maintenance. Many in the industry claimed that this kind of expense could not be justified by the kinds of contracts that existed in the effects industry at the time.

Here is a picture of Bill Kroyer working at an early 3D work station. An interview with Bill where he describes the even more bizarre process of animation on Tron can be found HERE.

I find it astonishing to think back to these first days of 3D animation and contemplate what it must have been like to try to create animation with a spontaneous feel with that equipment and the incredibly labour intensive processes involved. Current computer animators owe a great debt to the artistry, talent and perseverance of these early pioneers in this art form.

If you would like to hear more from Eric, you can find my previous 'Animation Bodcast' where he talks about an early Roger Rabbit 2 test HERE.