Thursday, December 10, 2009

Some Thoughts On "Improv Animation"

This long post might be more enjoyable to read if you open the blog in a second window, so you can watch the clip and pause it, as you read the piece. Essentially, what follows below is a detailed critique and though-process thing, essentially frame by frame for the above clip.

This clip is some test work I did in the classroom today, while students were doing the "Puppet Walk" assignment. If you want to know what the tests were, you can read the notes on youtube.

In brief, this animation was done to test puppet parts. And so all I really wanted to do was move the parts- a lot, and in big, dramatic moves, with lots of rotation and force, to see what would break. That meant in terms of performance or a specific action, I had nothing in mind.

But as you start a test like this, you can't HELP but start to perform through the puppet. A personality starts to emerge, and that personality starts to drive the animation.

At the start of the piece, he "sort of" bows, "sort of" stretches... then goes into a confident turning walk. The bow or stretch or whatever it is doesn't read as an action very clearly, especially when compared to the walk. The reason it doesn't read clearly as an action? The animation didn't know what action he was animating! At that point in the test, I was simply moving the puppet, trying to keep it smooth, and worrying about simply moving parts. And since I had no specific action (or even pose) in mind, it reads as... well... nothing.

Then the walk starts, and THAT reads fine. Because as I started that, I certainly knew I was about to turn and walk the puppet around. But how was it going to walk? Upright, slow, proud, elegant? Or squat, cramped, silly? Again, I didn't know, and just let it be fun. This works better than the bow/stretch, cause a walk is a walk is a walk- it's a forward movement of the puppet using its legs and feet. So on that basic level, it "reads". So not knowing how the puppet would walk till I literally did it results in animation that is still clear and fun to watch.

Then the leg kicks up and holds. That was the essence of improv, in that I had intended to keep walking the puppet, but as his leg came up and the puppet drifted backwards, I thought- "hey, that's fun looking- he stops walking and just kicks his leg up." I made sure I could pull it off smoothly and convincingly from where the puppet was currently posed, and then went for it. I aimed for a specific pose (now that I knew he was going to kick his leg up), and animated into that pose. But the fact that I didn't know I would do the held kick until I started to do it adds fun to the animation, and helps it feel like it's a living character who is capable of that sort of unpredictable behaviour/performance.

Then he goes into a stomping, chicken walking, tribal dance thing. Didn't know what it was, didn't care, just went with it and let it be fun, smoothly animated, carefully controlled, generally believable in terms of structure and anatomy... I was just rolling along now, cutting loose. Into the "head down" pose... and his head started to slide off its stem.

Again, it's improv time. I could have gotten some sticky tack and held the head on... but who cares, go with it. So his head falls off. Thump.

Now what? Improv again...

And here's where I cheated. I originally animated his arms coming up in alarm. From that I intended to have him search for his head. But I got bored with that instantly, and didn't know where I'd go from there. It just seemed predictable, for the puppet to reach for his head. So I deleted those frames, back to the point where his head fell off. And then I thought a bit...

So improv in animation can appear fast on screen, but of course the animator has some time (all the time!) to think a bit. So I figured his head has fallen off, what would that mean to a living creature? And of course it meant- instant death. And that, I knew, would be fun to animate. I love animating impacts. I love to dial up the gravity, so an impact feels hugely heavy. It's fun to animate, looks good, and gives really believable weight to the animated world.

So off he goes, tumbling to the ground. The foot thumping to a rest at the end is a nice touch, I think, and I always try to create some visual texture with big impacts, to layer things up.

The gag of the hand coming in was just something fun, again thought of in the moment. He picks the puppet up (I was careful to pose its legs "loose" to make it feel like a real creature rather than a stiff puppet), and takes it offscreen.

Now, in the infinitely creative realm known as "off screen space", anything can happen. In class I always have tonnes of semi-broken body parts lying around, and so screwing in an arm where he head was was a pretty easy gag.

As the hand puts the puppet back in to place, I was careful to cover the "new design" with my hand, to hold off on the reveal as long as possible, to get a nice "ta da!" moment for the audience as the realize he has an arm instead of a head.

The ball of clay was added as something for that new arm to deal with. I didn't know how yet, but I knew it would work out somehow. The first place I left the clay wasn't on screen enough, and so instead of deleting the frames and trying again, I just left it, and animated my hand in again, nudging it into a better part of the frame. It ends up feeling like a nice little bit of performance but it wasn't planned- again, improv is going with the flow, but also instinctively knowing that the way you are going with it will get you something good. Remember the murky bow/stretch pose at the start? Things can get messy and hard to read very quickly, if your instincts get foggy.

As the creature comes to life, I had no idea what kind of personality it would have, so I just animated in search of a nice pose. The proud, elegant "look at me" pose was reached just by animating around a bit (and deleting some frames) until something started to make sense, and would read nicely. He could have come off as scary, shy, dumb... but proud and elegant is what happened, so fine by me. It reads nice, and was intriguing in terms of what I might be able to do with it.

I was getting tired/bored now. The thoughts of having the puppet slowly and carefully pick up the clay wasn't to my liking- it would require too much finicky, fine animation. I just wanted it done. So a splat it was! Nice and energetic, big moves, strong lines of action...

Having the ball roll away was again, thought of in the frame before the hand smashed down. It seemed fun, and added a surprise the audience wouldn't see coming (let alone the puppet).

So it rolls away. There is a beat. And in a time-honoured tradition of animators getting tired and wanting to end their work somehow, the hand comes back in again- this time to flatten the puppet like a pancake.

I very much enjoyed the follow-through on that impact. The actual hand coming in is only 2 or 3 frames, but the puppets legs and arm flying up is what completely sells the force of the impact.

Then the hand lifts to limp puppet away, and we're left with the clay. It was yet another turning point. How do I end this thing?! I considered animating my hand again, this time dropping off a smaller piece of clay, and letting them duke it out somehow. But that would open yet another chapter of animation, and I was DONE.

So the hand comes in, and the ball crawls on. The hand retreats, the end.

What I like is that it suggests some fun/interesting/thought-provoking metaphysical concerns, about creators and their creations... masters who punish, then reward... the unpredictable nature of creators, be they Gods or gods or parents... or animators.

Whew. I guess that's partly why stop motion constantly engages me- with each frame you're moving through vast realms of the possible, making things concrete out of nothing, riding your instincts and gut impulses in an effort to communicate clearly with the audience.

That never seems to get boring.


Darkstrider said...

Awesome post Chris!! Really dig it!!

ChrisW said...

Thanks...the state of mind one occupies when animating is a pretty personal, private thing. It's just you, and the puppet, and your thoughts, as everything flows forward...

It was satisfying to externalize that bit... glad you liked it!

Noddegamra said...

Excellent post! I love seeing+reading stuff like this. Inspiring. I really need to start making/using armatures!

+ the animation was great. I loved the movement and thought it was pretty funny! :)