Monday, 23 July 2018

Pixar Animation Workflow

Incredibles 2
Pixar animator Royce Wesley was in London recently, talking about his experience working on Incredibles 2, and also explaining his own personal animation workflow.

Royce is an experienced character animator whose credits include Brave, Coco, Robots and Inside Out.

Understanding how to plan your work is one of the key parts of the animator's skill set. Every animator has their own unique approach, and it's important to develop a workflow that you can rely on to get your shots approved without too much stress.

Pixar Workflow
Royce Wesley
Royce explained that at Pixar, the studio likes to give animators a chunk of shots, perhaps a series of 12-15 shots in a row, so that the animators get to take ownership of the sequence. (You'd think this would be the norm, but it's surprising how many studios don't do this - Ed)

Pixar print out model sheets for the animators, just like on a 2D feature, so that the animators know how to style individual characters. Royce showed us some of the model sheets, which were extremely detailed and imaginative. For example, the model sheets for Cars were styled like real automotive manuals, for a real car.

Working within limitations.

Character limitations - Carl from Up.
Royce explained that nowadays "you can do anything with these characters". The character rigs "have no real limitations anymore"; and there is plenty of squash and stretch, for example.

But that doesn't mean you want to use all the controls. For example, the character Carl in "Up" had to move pretty solidly, because he is old and square; he is geriatric and solid.  So the animators couldn't use the full range of movement that the rig was capable of. In a character like Carl, calm, still animation is part of the character.

Time Limitations
Animators have deadlines, and we all need to finish our shots on time. To make this process smooth, Royce has developed a "plan of attack".

Let's say you have 5 days to finish. Royce knows he has to block and plan the shot, refine and polish it.  He allows two days for blocking and planning. Then, a third day for refining - into spline curves. The last day and a half is reserved for polishing the shot. And you also need time during the refine stage for revisions, as it is very likely you will get notes.

Storyboards by Hiyao Miyazaki
Sketch out key poses
Royce doesn't actually do this very much - but thinks he should. Animations should study Hayao Miyazaki, study his storyboards - they are "like frames from the film". Miyazaki boards the key poses; these can be used by the animators as key poses in their shots.

You need to find the key poses from the action, either in your head or by shooting reference footage. Animators should "try going to Edward Muybridge and pick out the key poses in the action"; the main poses which will help you plan the shot.

Royce describes character animation as a "distillation and simplification of reality". You can take live action and push it further, make it more dynamic.  

Find the flow
Every shot has a beginning, middle and end. Animators should "find the beats in the shot", and focus on those.

Straight ahead
Royce trained in stop motion animation, working on the TV series Celebrity Deathmatch. All the animation is done straight ahead [ie one frame after the other]; you have no choice. One of the benefits of straight ahead animation is that you might make unexpected choices. You sometimes "just have to see what happens, because you are already committed".

Making Changes & Taking Notes
You will get notes [ie criticism], and this can be one of the hardest parts of the job. Experienced animators talk about their work, and show it to their colleagues - animation is usually a team effort. Animators should "always get feedback from their colleagues; people they trust". They will help you do your best work.

Working with directors
Some directors aren't very specific about what they want. They might say "I just don't get this shot; it doesn't make me happy". Other directors will give you more specific notes, but these notes might not be 100% accurate. Sometimes you have to "fit the note to what they want, and not what they are saying".   You have to figure out - what do they mean by what they say?

Sometimes you have to try stuff out. You might work on a shot for a week, and it can be hard to be told to make changes, when you are already deeply invested.  In the beginning of his career, Royce "hated getting notes", and would "reluctantly try them out", but grudgingly.  Nowadays, as he puts is "80% of the notes were helpful in the long run". As an animator, you have to park your ego at the door a little bit.  So, always try out the notes.

Managing Animation Dailies
Sometimes at Animation Dailies [the daily meeting where the animator's work gets reviewed] you might get notes, not just from the director, but from various animators. At Pixar, the structure is very loose; the supervisors "aren't there to tell us what to do"; it's more about supporting the animators. Dailies can be "a bit of a free-for-all", and maybe "only 1 out of 5 notes sticks", but it's still "important to get those notes out there".

Clean blocking and versioning
You need to have a clean and clear blocking method, that will allow you to take notes and make changes. You need to know which channels on the character rig you are working on, and keep your keyframes as simple as possible, for as long as possible, so you can make changes easily.  Royce sometimes shows multiple versions of a shot, for example on Cars 2 he showed multiple versions of a tyre-bumping shot, to see which one Lasseter would like the most. Sometimes Royce will ask other animators which version they like, and then pick the most popular - and show that version at dailies.

Clear Your Head
Royce's advice to animators is "save your playblasts" [ie the rough movie files] from old versions of your shot. When you go home in the evening, forget about your shot, and make sure you bring "fresh eyes in the morning". Open your shot, and press play - play it through in the morning. Ask yourself: Were the actions clear? Did anything stand out as being weird, or "off". If so, that's the bit you need to fix. Write down your thoughts, that initial first reaction. Then, play it again, and start to figure out the detail of why the shot isn't working so well. This way you don't get stuck in an endless loop, where you are fiddling with details and not dealing with the main problems.

Reference earlier playblasts
Make sure you "store a playblast of your approved blocking". That way, you can go back to it and make sure you are sticking to the shot as it was approved, and not drifting off-target.

Using Live action Reference
Being able to use live action reference is "super important" when you are first starting out. Royce doesn't too much live action reference these days, but he did when he was a junior animator, first learning his craft. The Pixar house style is all about supporting the story of the film. The style of the shots should be simple, and concise, to make sure that the story is supported. 

  • Work with limitations
  • Start with good planning
  • Understand the notes 
To see an interview with Royce Wesley, where he talks about his approach to animation, watch the video below.

To find out more about Animation Apprentice, click here for a link to Frequently Asked Questions. To sign up for our next classroom at Animation Apprentice, follow this link.

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