Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Andreas Deja, The Lion King, and Animal Locomotion

Andreas Deja and Alex Williams outside the Disney Animation Building
A few weeks ago at Disney in Los Angeles I met up with Andreas Deja, Disney lead animator and the man responsible for bringing "Scar" to life.

I was lucky enough to work on Andreas' team on Lion King back in 1992, when he took me under his wing and helped train me as a Disney animator.

I got to animate a few memorable shots on Scar, but it was Andreas who designed the character and, working with actor Jeremy Irons, gave him life and personality, creating one of Disney's most memorable villains.

Disney Legend Andreas Deja
Andreas Deja
Andreas was a supervising animator at Disney on many characters in on many films, including the Disney villains Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, Jafar in Aladdin, Scar in The Lion King and the title character in Hercules. He was recently inducted as a "Disney Legend" at the Studio LOt, with his very own bronze handprint on the building.

Right now Andreas is working on his own half-hour animated film, bringing together all the skill and talent he acquired working for Disney for so many years.

Lion King

The animation of Scar walking towards the camera between the jets of steam is a shot I'm especially proud of. It took a long time to get right, but the effort paid off in the end.

DA703 - Animal and Creature Module
Here at Bucks our students tackle animal and creature work on their third animation module, DA703 - animal and creature locomotion, creating 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.

Students learn quadruped locomotion, as well as how to animate creatures like birds, spiders and scorpions. As with the first two animation modules, there are two submissions, DA703 PR1, which is a practical assignment, worth 70% of the marks, and DA703 CW1, which is an academic submission, and is worth 30% of the marks.

How to Plan Animal or Creature Animation
Planning animal and creature animation usually starts by watching a great deal of reference footage, and finding clips that can be used as a foundation for your animation. Start by watching the 10 minute video below.

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.

Greenscreenanimals.com 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 from Framestore
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.

Edit the reference footage in Premiere
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 Turbosquid.com. 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.

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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