I recently visited Scott Portingale in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada) for two weeks to help him out on his epic short film titled 'Ethos'. He brought me out there from Toronto as a sort of animation mentor. Scott has made a couple short animated films before, but nothing as complicated as this new one, so I was eager to lend some of my production and animation experience, because I was in his shoes not long ago. While I was there, a local TV station dropped by the studio, and did a story on the film. Here's a link to the broadcast:

http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/Canada/Edmonton/ID/2331069689/ 

I wanted to post here about my two weeks, for anyone here who's undertaking a similarly involved (+8 minutes, lots of character animation) production for the first time. It's certainly a daunting task, and can quickly get out of hand in terms of time/financial investment. But with the hindsight of a few films under my belt, I was able to figure out some ways of making things a little less painstaking. I'll list some of the most important ones here:

  1. ANIMATIC - This is the cheapest tool for keeping your film on schedule and on budget. A proper animatic will tell you if your story is working, but more importantly it can determine how long your whole shoot is going to take- which can be a huge motivation when it seems like there's no end in sight...
  2. ERGONOMICS - When I showed up in Edmonton, the set wall was built right to the ground, meaning Scott would be kneeling down animate. I don't think the scale of this problem hit home until a few hours into the first shot. Sore knees don't make a happy animator. Of course, it's not always going to be an option- you have to work with the space you have. But when planning out your setups, consider how an uncomfortable environment can slow down your progress. Same goes for the placement of your frame-grabber: a computer that's 5 feet behind you is going to add hours to your day eventually compared to one directly at your side, and it's worth the time to figure out how to get it there.
  3. STORY FLEXIBILITY - There are so many ways to tell your story, and nobody is going to know if you stuck with the way you planned to tell it at the beginning. Especially with a stop-motion film, there are unseen technical challenges that come up all the time, and you can waste a lot of time banging your head against the wall trying to solve them. But there's no reason you can't change your approach, and nothing to stop you from choosing the simpler path- as long as it still serves the story.

This last part has to do with the actual animation process. During my stay, most of my time I spent sitting on a stool looking over Scott's shoulder (exactly like the picture above) as he animated. I was able to see first-hand the kinds of issues that a novice character animator runs into. While being very picky of his animation, I found a couple things helped smooth things out:

  1. SCREEN MARKS - This is something that I still do a lot of, though I haven't read about it much on SMA. Using the drawing tools inside of Dragon, I had Scott track the movement of certain parts of the puppet with marks on the screen as he went (not pre-planning the marks). For example, drawing a mark at the nose during a walk. If the movement is smooth, all the marks will be evenly spaced and tracing a smoothly curved line. If there's a stutter in the animation, it'll be obvious in the dots. (Not that smooth animation is always necessary, but it's a good place to start.)
  2. SURFACE GAUGE - For one walk sequence (you can see it in the video above), I suggested using a surface gauge because the character was walking towards the camera. Scott actually dug this a lot, and it sped up his animation a lot when he started using it. The reason I mention this is because I thought surface gauges were a pro-animator's tool that might complicate the process. But it seemed to be really useful for building up Scott's instinct for making a good "first move"- getting the puppet in the right place the first time you touch it, without having to wrestle back and forth every frame. 

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Comment by Anthony Scott on February 6, 2013 at 9:35am

Those are some very helpful notes. Set height is extremely important and often overlooked. I prefer working on a set built to an average height of 48".  There have been a few instances however, where I had to animate on the set floor or on my knees.  It's a killer! 

The Surface Gage is still, for me, the quickest way to animate a puppet walk, especially a slow walk or a walk towards camera.

I just watched the video.  It wouldn't play on the iPad but I had no problem viewing it on the computer.  Very cool to see a piece about an independent animator making it on a News program. 

Comment by John Horabin on February 6, 2013 at 10:16am

What an excellent post- the 'drawning on the screen as you go tip' was invaluable, I have always been presuming these lines were drawn prior to the animation, but see easily how using it as a work in progress marker would be better for character animation.

Likewise, the tip about surface gauges for walks, I had stupidly presumed surface guages were unneeded in these days of frame grabbers, etc, but will think again on this too.

An excellent, and useful post- also, nice character design in the bottom image, good luck with the film Scott.

Comment by Keith Adams on February 6, 2013 at 10:27am

Very interesting, enjoyed the news item and your comments are extremely useful.Thanks....Keith

Comment by Josh O'Brien on February 6, 2013 at 10:34am

Exactly the motivation I needed today!

Looks great guys - And thanks for the notes Evan, as one just starting on a similar process, your post has been invaluable to me.

Comment by Scott Portingale on February 6, 2013 at 4:06pm

It was an awesome couple weeks with Evan. So good to have that kind of help out of the starting blocks. Now, I have a colossal year of animation ahead of me before it's done. I've shot a lot of behind the scenes and will be posting vidbits in months to come. 

Thanks EVAN!

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