Animation Tip: Animate with your Ears

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The giant Ear from China’s 8th century stone statue of the Buddha, the largest stone Buddha in the world.

“Hear with your eyes, see with your ears” – William Shakespeare

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The legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov, here dancing at the American Ballet Theatre.

As a society we’ve become more and more reliant on sight than almost anything else. But to be a good visual artist, one should use more than his eyes – in fact he should use all his senses to capture things his eyes might never be able to perceive. Sound for instance is incredibly powerful – not only can it overwhelm you with feeling in an unsurpassed manner – it also happens to be the last sense to leave us before our final moments on this planet.

So when I get the chance, I try to immerse myself in environments where the other senses shine, senses like hearing. When paired with visuals, it can be an experience to behold. That particular marriage of sensations is why I love to watch dancers – like in musicals, operas and ballets – whenever possible.  The way their carefully practiced movements work in sync with the music can make your heart soar. You’re reminded of how beautiful movement is, how you can hear it in the footsteps and in the brush of movement in their costumes. It’s like a visual symphony – a concoction that moves the heart while your mind fills in the rest.

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Cats move silently – but there is elegance in timing and rhythm in how all animals move. Using your inner sense of sound and feel, you must be able to discern the tempo and force of the movement.

So when you animate, feel the rhythm, search for and feel the beat. If there’s a dialogue track or music, the animation part is easier – the pacing and subtext are provided there for you. Present the visuals in a way that does that sensation justice.

This marvelous scene from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, animated by Art Babbit, demonstrate strength, creativity and beauty in the handling of weight and rhythm.

But what happens when there is no sound?

In live action, they say that “real” acting is between the lines. So in those moments where there’s no music or dialogue, you have to find that sound inside you, that unique resonance within the silence. This is especially true in pantomime, where the visuals speak volumes.

In Mike Newell’s 1997 Donnie Brasco, we see Al Pacino, known for portraying loud and dominant characters, deliver some of his most subtle and poignant acting. In this scene, he silently settles some personal business before accepting his fate. The moment sums up the sense of dignity, devotion and honor that exemplifies his character in the movie.

Lefty, as portrayed by Al Pacino, in Mike Newell’s highly underrated cops & robbers classic, Donnie Brasco.

 

Sometimes if there’s no sound, it helps to supply it yourself. An old colleague of mine could be heard growling and barking, when he was doing one of his amazing creature shots. Even in “acting” shots, I like to hear my character move, speak and express his/her feelings, even if they don’t officially speak a word. So I’ll often provide my own sound effects doing a walk or acting out a speechless emotion.  I think this is why, I’ve never been comfortable listening to music/talk radio while animating a scene (unless it really fit the mood of the shot). I need the quiet so I can feel/hear my character speak to me. According to Richard Williams, Milt Kahl had similar sentiments.

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The replaying of events courtesy of Richard Williams, from his landmark book, The Animator’s Survival Kit.

Williams added:

“Since it came from a genius, this made quite an impression on me. After this, I learned to face the silence and think before swirling my pencil around. My animation improved right away.”

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Can you “hear” the movement of this Arctic bird as it takes flight from the waters?

We visual artists look often, but seldom listen. To see better, we must listen. Try to feel the resonance of things. You’ll be forced to be really present. It’ll improve your work, and your appreciation of what’s around you as well.

Shot Analysis: The Godfather

godfatherThe greatest film ever? To many people’s eyes, it is.

Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Godfather, is truly a tour de force. They say great movies should have a minimum of three great scenes and zero flaws – well, if that’s the criteria, The Godfather has surpassed it in spades. Not only is the film untainted by any poor scenes, the number of sensational ones are nearly countless. From the marvelous opening of the film, where we meet Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone, to the final scene of his son Michael’s ascension to the throne as America’s most powerful gangster, The Godfather is nearly peerless film-making.

Let’s take a look at this beautifully subtle and sensational opening of this legendary 1972 classic:

The Godfather, starring Marlan Brando, reveals itself to the audience not with loud, crash-banging action, but rather with rich character portrayal and quiet brooding atmosphere.

Notice that the camera opens, in the dark, under the foreboding tune of Nino Rota’s timeless score, to reveal a pair of sinister pupils set inside the deeply recessed eye sockets of a frightening, skeleton-like face.

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The opening shot reveal of the undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera, played by Salvatore Corsitto, in Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

The image hints at great evil, but as we zoom out, we see that those piercing eyes belong to a rather meek and balding, middle-aged man, who’s describing his belief and love for American values, but has now come to seek favor from Marlon Brando’s character, Vito Corleone, the highly respected and powerful mafia boss of New York City. You are surprised, and almost confused by the sudden disharmony. But as the scene plays onwards, it’s clear there’s malice in his heart, as he seeks revenge for a crime committed by some ruthless young men against his daughter.

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“That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive”  says Vito Corleone, as he denies the undertaker’s request for vengeance in the form of murder.

As it’s revealed that Bonasera’s been reluctant to be indebted to the mafia, the situation (and his anger), force him to reconsider his morals. And at the end, a compromise is made and a futures contract is agreed upon. At first, this seems only a simple episode, with the logical outcome of two characters agreeing to an exchange, a wrong to be righted, and a duty to be carried out by a seemingly reserved and honorable man despite his position in the underworld. However, what’s actually occurred is the telling of a short parable, one that foretells the larger theme of the film: the battle against one’s beliefs when circumstances challenge your principles.

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 “Be my friend, Godfather” says Bonasera, as he undertakes the sworn oath of indebtitude to the Godfather, Vito Corleone.

Although the scene connects structurally to another (when Sonny, Vito’s eldest son and heir, is killed, and the undertaker is finally set to perform his end of the bargain), the scene is really about the foreshadowing of what will happen to the Don’s youngest, and still noble son, Michael Corleone. As the story slowly unfolds, it reveals its inevitable tragic outcome of the failing of the American dream to circumstance.

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Last scene from The Godfather, where Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, officially takes over the throne as the new head of America’s most powerful crime syndicate.

So ask yourself, whether you’re writing the beginnings of your tale or planning the very foundation to your animations, have you put in the thought and work? Do your opening moves, which are the very first things an audience will see or hear, say exactly the right things? Are your words, colors, or designs clear and direct, both in choice and presentation? And ultimately, do those decisions serve the greater purpose of the overall artistic vision?

As Robert Henri most profoundly stated:

“There is no art without contemplation.”

Masterful scenes, like this opening from The Godfather, make a good case for planning and contemplation before taking action. So whether you’re just blocking your animation or painting your first brush strokes, have a vision in mind and make good first steps.

(Note: this won’t be the only time we’ll talk about this marvelous movie!)

 

Quick Word: Get out and live!

That’s right! Don’t bottle yourself up inside your office or studio and expect to stay fresh! The brain needs air to breathe, and space for illumination. Artists needs to engage with the world around them.

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A gorgeous plein air painting by  XiangYuan Jie, a master painter in the field of fine art and animation. To view more of Jie’s work visit here.

I’ve seen concept artists spend endless hours on Google images searching for reference of trees and leaves, while not considering for a second to look at, smell or touch the real thing outside the studio’s walls. I’ve witnessed animators, doggedly trying to figure out how the hips should look and feel in a dance move, while never getting up from his desk. It’s truly remarkable how disconnected we’ve become with ourselves and with the world around us!

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This beautiful painting of NYC’s Village district is by the amazing Dice Tsutsumi, Co-founder of Tonko House. To see more of Dice’s work, visit here.

When I went to animation school in Toronto, my old classmate Yeon-Tae and I would regularly take outdoor field trips. Sure, we did our share of after-class life drawing sessions (for countless hours three to four times a week), but we always made the effort to experience drawing in the flesh, out in the fresh air, amongst living people and things that shake, glimmer and decay.

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Draw on anything, anytime, anywhere. This series of charcoal sketches of my neighbor were made outdoors on an inexpensive 5×7″ newsprint notepad. For more of the artist’s work, visit this link.

Almost every weekend, we spent nearly half the day going to cafe’s and bars to sketch or to the zoo (which was more than a 90 minute drive away) to study animals. We did it at first so we could get better, build a portfolio and to get an edge. But soon, we got to doing it, because it was so enjoyable and rewarding. We stretched not only our creative minds, but our legs and lungs. We did it, rain or shine, hell or high water. (Try drawing outside when it’s a cold minus -20 Celsius with wind chill! I’ve spent many hours drawing with nearly frozen fingers).

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A pre-Tonko House Dice Tsutsumi, unknowingly caught on camera by a NY Times photographer in 1996. Dice is always outdoors capturing the real world for as long as I’ve known him.

All the drawing and practice did improve our skills. It also helped our careers – as we were both selected by Walt Disney Feature as part of their Animation Boot Camp training program (where we were joined by many other young talents, including Dice Tsutsumi, featured above). But the greatest part of all of it,  was the companionship. What a stupendous way to spend your time!  Good friends, bonding in time and space, expending energy and effort to grow creatively, celebrating art, sharing insight, and most of all, laughter. (Yeon-Tae was very good at stopping us periodically to check out a cool comic/Gundam store or sometimes just to grab ourselves a drink!) These are moments I never forget.

So stop with the “plans” to go sketching and just do it. The digital world is amazing, but the real one is even better.

I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living. Robert Henri

 

Balance

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The Zen symbol for wholeness, emptiness and balance.

In the words of spiritual sage and author, Thomas Merton:

“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”

These words ring so true don’t they? Balance is the ever elusive goal for many of us. Without balance, things look disjointed, off-kilter, and disharmonious. It’s tough to do or sustain in life, and even trickier to achieve in art, that is, without making things completely symmetrical.

Shape_variationsA comparison of shape geometry, placement and rhythm. Which is more interesting to you?

Balance can be easily achieved with symmetry or evenness, but that is neither effective or desirable in the arts. In animation, we refer to it as twinning but in entertainment circles, we call it boring. Therefore, the creative individual is constantly challenged to find balance in their work without uniformity, which is, unfortunately, inherent in our age of digital technology. It’s the default setting – whether we’re talking about poses, timing, negative shapes, depth or lighting.

MalcolmT_Pose

Most rigs, like this free one from Anim School, usually come in the form of a default T-Pose. Everything you get for free is even-steven.

But there are general artistic guidelines to help achieve this elusive goal. If the work is good, evenness is avoided, while balance is achieved —allowing for contrast, texture, and ultimately, greater interest — like in this example by Milt Kahl:

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Milt Kahl’s beautiful staging, from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, demonstrates great depth (using overlap and foreshortening), asymmetrical balance, point of focus and absolute clarity.

 Almost all films are structured in three acts, rather than an even four.  Syd Field’s three act paradigm chart, is pretty much the standard for not just Hollywood but almost the entire film-making world.

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Syd Field’s Three Act Paradigm chart

 

Great balance is needed not just in cinematic design but in every aspect of all artistic compositions, both visually and rhythmically. Whether you’re breaking down a piece of dialogue/story/layout, components must have ebb and flows between them, changes and surprises that make it interesting. It’s why divisions on thirds, or fifths work so well in screen composition:

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David Lean’s epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, abides perfectly to the concept of dividing the screen into thirds, while giving the image balance, movement and beauty.

In both music and dialogue, there are ebbs and flows throughout. Good audio design gives a scene texture to work with.

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Simple Dialogue breakdown to determine the flow and rhythm of the audio, hi-lighting syllables and rising tone of the recording.

If elements of your work/composition are too evenly spread out, the audience doesn’t know what to do. It doesn’t know where to look, what to focus on. Arrangement of shapes, must be orderly, balanced yet interestingly uneven.

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Stanley Kubrick’s use of fifths in his landmark film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Notice how each division supports the whole.

 You also find balance achieved in good character design, where big shapes are complemented by smaller ones, and they are harmoniously integrated within the whole as often seen on character model sheets such as this:

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The simple yet balanced shapes of the characters from Walt Disney’s Aladdin demonstrate weight and elegance.

 

In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, there are wonderful compositions throughout the film. Although he’s famous for his dominant use of one point perspective and framing on fifths, he also did very intriguing things with perspective, sets and character placement, while still achieving balance:

ca. 1964 --- General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and his mistress Miss Foreign Affairs (Tracy Reed) are interrupted by a phone call in the 1964 film . --- Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

 Does this optical illusion, created by the rabbit-ear telescoping of phone cables created by the mirror and placement of the George C. Scott’s character, imply in some way how much this woman owns him? The boxer shorts, pin up pose and high heels, are a further give away of the clear message sent by the director. From Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy, Dr. Stranglove.

What’s your main theme? who’s your central character? Change and contrast create interest. Variation gives the work texture and uniqueness. Allowing one area to dominate will give it focus.

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Note the dominance of the screen right eye (elegantly placed right at the apex of the golden rectangle) in this gorgeous portrait by John Singer Sargeant.

So, be careful of balance. It must be there, but know that it’s unevenness, change and contrast that help create texture and interest. Only then, do you have a chance of holding on to an audience’s attention.

Special Guest Interview: Geoff Hemphill

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Veteran animator, Geoff Hemphill. (Photo by Derrick Hammond)

As our first interview on the Animated Spirit Blog, I’ve asked an old and dear friend of mine, animator Geoff Hemphill – a talented veteran whose experience spans many different arenas of this industry and one of the most sincere and hard-working individuals out there.

Geoff’s CV includes a long list of hit projects; from live action films such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Star Trek, Narnia: Prince Caspian, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, to feature animation productions like Free Birds, Rango, and Robots as well popular games like Star Wars: Bounty Hunter and Jedi Starfighter, and most recently, the next generation multi-player shooter, Evolve.

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Behemoth character, from Evolve, developed by Turtle rock Studios. Animation by Geoff Hemphill.

Today, we’re asking him to share a bit about his background, his life as an artist, and what he’s up to today:

Welcome Geoff. Thanks for agreeing to be our first guest.

“I’m honored! Thanks for having me.”

Geoff, tell us briefly about yourself, like where you’re from and all that stuff before animation?

“I grew up in Louisiana and then the Portland, Oregon area. After high school I started getting interested in animation and eventually graduated from Sheridan College’s Classical Animation program, in Canada.”

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 Scene from Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Animated by Geoff Hemphill.

You’ve now been an industry veteran for a long time. Tell us, what was the main trigger that got you started in this field?

“It was a practical decision. I needed to figure out something I can do for a living. As a kid, I had typical influences like Super Mario Bros, Doom, JRR Tolkien, and Star Wars. I started paying attention to the people behind this stuff. I liked ILM’s model shop, Milt Kahl and Glen Keane. I was also influenced by my college professors.”

What drives you now to continue to do this?

“My interests are pretty diverse, so there isn’t one thing in particular but my latest drive comes from my family. I love watching my son react to a character or game I helped make. I get to see him experience it for the first time, and it reminds me of when I was a kid exploring dungeons in Ultima Underworld, or watching The Dark Crystal in the theater.”

One of the funnest shots from ILM’s Oscar-winning animated feature film, Rango. Animated by Geoff Hemphill

Geoff seen here doing the research necessary to create a memorable performance. 

You’ve worked on an impressive number VFX projects, feature animated films and video games, working in many different studios and living in different cities. But you also made a short 2D film. What drove you back to such a classic medium given the industry is now so completely absorbed in digital technology?

“My graduation from Sheridan’s Classical Animation program coincided with the death of 2-D feature animation as a viable day job. I wanted to keep my own modest version of that torch lit. I got an idea of this weird little story while on a road trip. I chose 2-D because the medium is appealing, and because it’s something I can do all on my own. I chipped away at it on nights and weekends.

Drifter, a classically animated short film by Geoff Hemphill.

There were long stretches of crunch at my day job where I didn’t have time to work on it. It took longer than I’d hoped, but I finished it. I felt like Steve McQueen at the end of Papillon, “Hey you bastards! I’m still here!” It seems traditional, but I actually completely re-did it digitally, though it’s still classical animation. I realized I couldn’t get smooth in-betweens at the scale I was drawing on a light table, so I switched over to using a Wacom Cintiq. The experience was like building a life-sized sand castle with tweezers.”

Now you’re onto another new adventure at Oculus VR, a Virtual Reality company that is making headlines around the world. What brought you there, and why?

“There have been some pretty cool things happening in game development that made me want to get back into it. Virtual Reality (VR) is one of them. Some friends I worked with at ILM joined Oculus and recommended me. It was a tough decision because at the time I was at a game dev’ job I enjoyed and my family and I were happy in California. We decided to take the chance and I’m grateful to my wife for her willingness to make the move. She’s been very supportive.

What I like about game development is; you give the player some tools and environments, and they get to be the center of their own story. VR takes it a step further. I’m hoping this feeling of “being there” can help players empathize with each other. When that happens in games it’s a pretty great experience. It brings along a bunch of new challenges for VR dev’s, which is more fun for us because we love tough problems.

I’m also interested in the non-gaming aspects of VR. In ‘06, my brother and I visited the Angkor Wat complex. Unfortunately for people like my grandmother, long distance travel isn’t possible. I’d love for us to be able to put on the Rift and tour Angkor Wat as a family.”

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Trying on ‘Rift’, Oculus’ popular VR headset, during a visit to Oculus VR in Seattle, Washington.

What is the best part of your day there as an animator?

“The best part of my day is getting to see the next steps in the development pipeline after animation. The programmers take the animation assets and give them a brain. VFX and sound bring them to life. It takes so much planning and hard work to pull it off. Without them, the animation would just be a bunch of disjointed clips.

Related to that, I also enjoy showing my animation to the people I rely on for art assets. The concept artists, modelers, and tech artists have put in a lot of work and want to see some great animation. It’s really fun to hear them react positively to some piece of animation. At that point I know there’s a good chance the player will also like what they see.”

And how do you get through the parts of the job, or any job you’ve had for that matter, that are less interesting?

“I’m lucky in that I have diverse interests and don’t get bored easily. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten interested in tools programming and animation tech. It uses the other side of your brain. Switching from animation to Maya Python on the same day can be almost physically painful to an artist. At first, it feels like downshifting from 5th gear to 1st on a freeway. Once you get used to switching back and forth, solving a problem through code is fun.”

Some lovely naturalistic animation of Templeton, the talking rat, from the film adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, released by Paramount Pictures. Animation by Geoff Hemphill.

A hypothetical – apprenticeships are rare in this day and age, but if you were to choose anyone that you could apprentice under, anyone throughout history, who would it be and why?

“I have my list of ‘The Greats’ but there’s this picture by French Pre-Impressionist, Toulouse Lautrec that just gives me a ‘case of the sighs.’

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 A sketch of Henri Ibels by Toulouse-Lautrec that sits at the NY Metropolitan Museum.

But in general, I try not to think too much about idols because it kind of diminishes our appreciation of the mentors we have right now. I’m already lucky to have been mentored by some of the best people in their field. Pretty much every place I worked at had someone who’s work I admired who took time to mentor me. I’m surrounded by these people and I’m constantly leaning over and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a question…’ Outside of work, I’ve got my parents, in-laws, and friends to mentor me in the stuff that really matters!”

That’s very well said Geoff. Thanks again for your time and generosity.  We look forward to seeing more of your work in the future!

To learn more about Geoff and his work, you can visit his Facebook page here.