Thursday, 2 May 2019

How to Plan Out a Creature Animation Shot

Kiwi by Oliver Canovas
Our master's degree animators are embarking on their third animation assignment, DA703 PR1, which involves the creation of a piece of animal or creature animation, combined with a performance.

Animal and  creature animation is among the most challenging work an animator can tackle, because it involves creating believable animation - usually based on live-action reference - and also an element of anthropormisation - making the animal or creature act in a believable way, perhaps including dialogue and lipsync.

So, how should our students plan out a piece of animal or creature animation? Start by watching the 10 minute video below.

How to Plan Animal or Creature Animation

This short video ten minute explains how to block out and plan an animal or creature animation shot.

First of all - find some great reference
Live action reference is very important for creating great animal and creature animation.

Reference used to be hard to find, but nowadays there is a huge amount of material online, and not just in obvious places like YouTube. is a website dedicated to live action clips of animals, all filmed against a green screen background.  For animators, this provides us with super-useful reference for studying animal locomotion; reference which can be easily imported into Maya and used as the basis for an animal or creature performance.

Oz Gani
The Framestore Method
Framstore Animation supervisor Oz Gani explains that the secret of the Framestore animation process is "all about finding great reference". This involves filming your own reference for a shot, or - more commonly with animal and creature work - searching through YouTube to find the right clip - which can then be used to create convincing and believable animation. As animation gets more and more complex, especially in high-end VFX work, it becomes more and more important that the animator's work is rooted in real, observed locomotion and action.

Oz explains that he spends about "50% of his time searching for great reference".  Sometimes, it's a question of finding a series of clips, trimming them, editing them together, and splicing them together to create the perfect shot. This then gets shown to the client, so that the client can approve the basic moves.

The "Frankenstein Approach"
Oz Gani likes to "Frankenstein" together different bits of reference, to combine different clips of animal business and use this as reference.  He explained how he learned this technique at ILM, on The Revenant, where the animators who worked on the grizzly bear created an astoundingly realistic performance. And the secret of getting this right was all about finding the right reference.

Import the video into Premiere
Import your video into Premiere, select the best performance, and trim the edit to the frames you want. These can then be imported directly into Maya onto an image plane. If you don't have Premiere, download some free editing software.

Importing Live Action Reference into Maya
It's important to know how to import reference video into Maya, directly onto an image plane, in order to have the reference footage in the shot.  Once you have the right footage, and the right action, the shot becomes much quicker to animate.  To find out how to import live action reference into Maya to create great animation, follow this link.

Create thumbnail sketches
Draw thumbnail sketches based on the main poses. These are drawn like a comic strip, showing the main poses. The most important poses to draw first are the beginning, middle and end poses. Again, animators often like to skip this stage, but time spent planning and thumbnailing is never wasted.

leopard by Truong
Set up your scene
Select the character rig you want to use and import the character rig into the shot.  Test the rig properly so you know how it works. Does it have a full range of motion? Does it do facial expressions?

Truong CG Artist has a great range of well-made free animal and creature rigs at Gumroad.  You can also look for free rigs at AnimationBuffet.

If there is dialogue, import the line of dialogue as a wav file into your Maya timeline.

Import a set
Consider importing a set into your shot; there are lots of free sets available online at sites like A set helps define the story you are telling, and should help make sure your shot makes sense. We now have a sense of where we are, and what the story being told is.

Create a Shot Camera
At this stage it is important to create a camera, name it "shotCamera", frame your scene and lock the camera off. Avoid the temptation to leave your camera decisions until the end; this is a choice you should make up front. After all, you would set the camera up first of all if this were a live action shoot.

What is blocking?
What do animators mean by "blocking"? We mean the process of establishing the main key poses in a shot, using stepped curves (i.e., single poses without any smooth transitions), so that we can test whether or not the shot will work. Having a good, organised workflow is an essential part of the animator's toolkit. Long before you start making key poses in Maya, you want to plan the shot out in your head, on video, with thumbnail sketches and/or storyboards.

Blocking, and Key Poses
Now it's time to create your main poses on stepped curves in Maya: start, middle and end. This is the most important stage. Ask yourself - do you the poses make sense? Do we know what the character is thinking and feeling? Always do the first pose, then the last pose, then the middle pose.

Getting feedback
Once you have done your blocking, typically on stepped curves, showing all the key poses, post a test at the FB Classroom, and ask for feedback. Once you get notes (there are always notes), the animator adds breakdown poses - the Tween Machine is a great free plug-in for Maya that helps with this process. At this stage the animator starts to add detail, but is still concentrating on the main performance.

Spline and refine
Once I've got my poses broken down to - roughly - around one pose every four frames, I spline the shot. To see how to do that, read this blog post. Then, it's a question of refining the shot to tweak it and make it look pretty.

To see past work submitted by our Masters' degree students for the DA703 PR1 assigmment, see the animal and creature animation playlist at YouTube.

For more on the experience of studying at Bucks New University, come and visit us at one of our Open Days, take a virtual tour of one of our animation studios, check out what our students think of our course, and see why we're ranked in the top 12 creative universities in the UK.

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