Giving Your Characters the Illusion of Life

What is it that gives an animation the Illusion of Life?
You could say it’s the pose, because the pose can tell you what the character is feeling.
You could also say it is the timing, because you can set the mood of your character through the timing.
And yet, when you watch great animation it feels like there is something more.

What is that *more*? How can you achieve it in your animations?

In order to demonstrate, I’d like to breeze through the animating of a scene:

  • First, I get the storyboard, the audio track, the character model sheet etc from the
  • Next I pose out and thumbnail the action of my scene
  • Finally I keyframe it out on the computer with the proper timing

This is the general process that most of us go through when animating, but I’d like to suggest a few more steps to really add that ‘Illusion of Life.’ Now think about what life is. Now there are
about 20 definitions over at Merriam-Webster, but I’m talking in specific about definitions 6 and 11:

 6 : a way or manner of living
11 : the form or pattern of something existing in reality

We want to give our characters the Illusion that they exist in reality! The illusion that they have developed their own manner of living!

How do we give Our characters the Illusion of Life?

Well, you should be talking with your character lead if you have one, and/or the director.
Discuss character traits:

  • Does he nervously dart his eyes around and act like Woody Allen?
  • Did he have a traumatic experience in childhood that makes him walk through every door backwards?

There are some strange personality quirks that people have in real life, and you know what this expresses? That’s right, that they exist in reality!
They have lives outside of their interaction with you!

A great example of this is Peter Lorres character Ugarte from Casablanca

Peter Lorre interacts with Humphrey Bogart in the movie Casablanca

Peter Lorre interacts with Humphrey Bogart in the movie Casablanca

Just look at that face, the way he’s trying to mimic Rick’s (Bogart’s) confidence. And yet he always, even if momentarily, reverts back to his worried, weasely self.

That is a great character and one that lives on in your memory! But what made it a great character? Well, it was the fact that he existed outside of his scenes so well.

We never saw him kill the German Couriers or get the papers, and yet we knew he did it by the way he acted! The way he held his body (posing) and the manner in which he moved between poses (timing).

Another great example of Ugarte’s character is the way he enters the Film. He could just walk into Rick’s Cafe, but that wouldn’t tell us very much about him as a character. Instead he ‘weasels’ in between an arguing customer and the door man with a passing “Hello Rick…”!

From his first frames in the movie we understand what kind of character he is! Plus, the entire time he is talking with Rick, we sense that he and Rick have history together and Ugarte really wants Ricks approval.

We get this, not so much through dialogue, but through the posing and timing of Ugarte’s movements. There is a great gesture Ugarte does at about 9:50 into the film which is very odd, and yet tells us so much about his personality!

These things are what give characters that Illusion of Life!

“But we can’t compete with live actors!” you say.
Guess what? Peter Lorre, Humphry Bogart, these people are dead, and yet their characters live on in the same form that ours will: 2D images mixed with sound.

We have the same tools as any actor, real or imagined. If we use them properly, we will be able to create characters that truly live, maybe even longer than we will!

So lets go back to our list and see what we can add:

  • First, get the Storyboard, audio track, character model sheets etcetera from the director
  • Next, talk with the director and your character lead about the personality of your character
  • Discuss with the lead and any other animators possible character traits, poses, nervous ticks
  • Sit down and imagine your character acting your scene out in your mind, let it run free at
    first, then subtly direct it
  • Thumbnail your characters action out on paper
  • Take these thumbnails first to your character lead for approval/suggestions, then take it to
    your director for approval/suggestions
  • Now set your keyframes, and MAKE EVERY FRAME COUNT
    • Everything from the way your character enters and exits a scene, to every pose they hit, to the timing between the poses should have a purpose and tell us something about that character.

Well, I hope that helps a few of you. And if anyone has any further comments on this topic, please share them! Until next time…
Happy Animating!

Dancing, Hip-Hop Dancing

If you’re looking for last weeks Lip-Sync tutorial, go HERE, or use the navigation in the panel to the left.

NOTE: Due to high demand and traffic, some of my vimeo files appear to have locked. I am remedying this situation and will have them back up shortly. If any video doesn’t work for you, please try refreshing your page. If it still does not work, please email me for a link to the quicktime file.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was not able to film myself describing this weeks tutorial. I do, however, have LOTS of video reference of our subject!

Boy, this weeks tutorial is a tough one to grasp. Dancing in itself is so varied that it’s extremely difficult to put a workflow around it, or speed it up with some magic tip. What it really boils down to is the fundamentals of any animation: Foundation (Planning), Structure, Details, and Polish. Here is what we end up with:

I also animated this one just for fun, but it does show off some nice overlap and the wave principle:

Not bad for a days work!
Ok, before we get into animation – as part of our Foundation, let’s take a closer look at weight:
Rather than explain what happens when you shift your weight from one side to the other, let me show you!

Notice how far the body needs to shift in order to take the weight off of one foot.

Also notice how much the knees need to bend in order to change the angle of the pelvis, AND notice how the pelvis can pivot almost independent of the spine.

Foundation, or Planning: With dancing, planning is just as important as ever. While you’re not planning an emotional performance as in acting, it still is a performance that conveys a message. You need to plan the exact choreography and attitude of your dance. Hopefully you can get video reference of the exact moves you will be doing, USE IT! But don’t forget to, at some stage, detach from your reference material and look at your animation for its own weight, timing and poses.

If possible, sketch out the key poses of your scene, and note the breakdowns and inbetween action.

Here is the dance clip I used as my reference. It’s a Justin Timberlake sequence with pretty subtle moves. I wanted this to show how even subtle moves can be animated using low-quality reference (I got it off YouTube and the camera is panning/zooming).

Now, how do you use the reference footage? Well, I never put it in my scene as a background! I open it up in quicktime player or Media Player Classic so that I can step through it frame-by-frame. I also run it through Premiere or some other program to get a timecode on it, frame numbers are a life saver!
Next, its a good idea to go through your reference frame-by-frame and sketch out some key poses, making a note of the timing. If you’re too lazy (like me) or time is of the essence, just write down the frame numbers of your reference instead of sketching. This is the most important part of your animation process! Plan plan plan!
Blocking: Now I go into my animation package, in this case 3ds Max with Character Studio (quick and easy rig).Make sure your scene frame rate is the same as your reference footage (if you’re going to be using the same timing as your reference).

This is basically getting your character to “go through the motions” of the dance. No details yet! This is just the framework to hang our details on. It looks pretty bad right now (partly because it’s difficult to get biped to let you “step” the keyframes), but that’s ok. We are adding on lumps of motion that we will later carve our details into:

Structure: You need to have a firm grasp of weight in particular (see reference above, and much more in the members reference section), before you can animate a convincing dance sequence. You also need to understand the rhythm of the music. I won’t give you any formula’s for working this out (I’m an animator, not a mathematician!!), I just simply animate a bouncing ball to the rhythm. It’s much easier to shift the keys of a bouncing ball around to match the music than it is to shift the keys of an entire character.
Details and Polish: The Structure and Details stages on this animation are very subtle. You really can barely tell the difference, so we might as well skip to the end and look at the Polished piece:

I really hope that this breakdown of a dance workflow helps! Again, your reference will depend on the dance style you are animating and also the final style of output (Cartoony, realistic etc…). If you would like to see these reference clips in Quicktime format, then head over to my Reference Page by following the link I’ve emailed you. I’ll also be uploading the weight shift videos from every angle, and even some torso movement and shifting.

I hope you found this tutorial informative and inspirational! If you really want to take your animation to the next level, then check out the Guardian Animation Program! Doing so will also help support this animation community.

How to make Lip Sync Animation Easy

How to make Lip Sync and Facial Animation Easy

In this weeks video tutorial I explain an amazing method to speed up your lip sync and facial animation.

I show you how I produced the above animation from start to finish in only 36 minutes.

So Lets get started!

First, watch this video as I explain
How to make Lip Sync and Facial Animation Easy:

A lot of planning and preparation went into this, and I genuinely hope you enjoy it! But make sure you watch it all the way to the end. I’d hate for you to miss any secrets.

Now let me step you through this technique.

I have made some example videos using that I animated in with this lip sync animation workflow and noted the time each step took.

  • Foundation: We have already done this by listening to our soundtrack and “getting into character”.
  • Structure: From the video, we learned the basic structure of all lip sync animation is:
    • Open – Closed
    • Wide – Narrow
    • We feel this by placing our chin on our fist and saying the dialogue at full speed.

Lip Sync and Facial Animation Structure
Step 1 – only the open/closed positions.

It took me 2 minutes to produce:

Structure Step 2 – the wide/narrow positions.

It took me 1 minute to produce:

Facial Animation Details
Step 1 – the Details in the Eyes

Now our Structure is done! Not bad for ~5 minutes work. Now its time to put the lip sync details onto our animation structure.

This step took a bit longer (8 mins), and I am starting to add in motion to the eyebrows. Nothing too detailed yet, just some broad strokes of emotion in addition to the lips and mouth.

Details Step 2 – Details in the Face

Now we’re really rolling! I’ve pulled back to add in some details to the entire face. I’ve also animated the mustache and shifted my keyframes to help it match the audio a bit better.

Now our facial animation Details are done! This file took me about 13 minutes to animate, meaning all up we’ve spent 26 minutes to bring our facial animation to this level! Let’s move on to the Polish.

Lip Sync and Facial Animation Polish!

We’ve done all of the building work, now its time to have fun and get really creative!

  • What I’ve done here is animate in some head accents for the dialogue. Then I went in and added in some micro-smirks to make him feel as if he is pleased with whomever he’s talking to! Another 10 minutes, making 36 minutes total to produce this lip sync animation! 
  • At places like Disney and Pixar, the polish stage is where you’d spend most of your time animating (besides maybe planning), however on lower budget productions with tight schedules, polish is the stage that usually gets cut.
  • If you’re preparing a showreel, be sure that you are spending MOST of your time in the polish stage. Many animators out there are competent, meaning they can get an animation this far, but its the top few who can really push it in the polishing stage, especially with lip sync and facial animation.

Well, I hope you found this lip sync and facial animation tutorial informative and inspirational! If you really want to take your animation to the next level, then check out the Guardian Animation Program! Doing so will also help support this animation community.