The Blender Show: A New Co-Host & A New Launch
June 13th, 2011

A Journal of Open Source Art

The Blender Show, a podcast about open source art which I started over two years ago, has been one of my best-received projects. It has been written about in Blender Nation and many smaller Blender sites and is one of my most popular feeds. Since my last podcast, I’ve received a steady trickle of email asking, with decreasing hopelessness, when the next episode would be released.

But in April, I got a different type of email. It was Wray Bowling of rgbk.org, asking when the next episode would be released and if he could help make it better. A few emails later, we started working on the next episode as co-hosts.

Wray brings his familiarity with the Blender development process as well as an inspiring artistic talent and critique to The Blender Show, not to mention new life and humor to a project that had been dorment for some time. The latest episode is released today.

I don’t know what the future of The Blender Show will be, but I do know that it’s wonderful to be working on it again. Both Wray and I have shows in the hopper, from an interview with Hand Turkey Studios to further discussions of art on the shores of the Aegean. As I stressed in the first episode, The Blender Show is as open as the software itself and exists to give something back to the Blender community.

Blender 2.57 just launched!

The Blender Show can be found here. You may also subscribe to this podcast in iTunesin Miro, or by RSS. You can also access this podcast by Twitter. I hope you enjoy.

Blur Animation Styles, Not Motion
March 20th, 2011

Veteran Disney animator Eric Goldburg does not use the motion blur technique when he directs computer-aided animation. “I want the actual form of the object or character itself to give you as much fluidity as possible, as opposed to hoping that motion blur would make it fluid,” he says in Episode 30 of the Animation Podcast.

Goldburg pinpoints a common criticism of computer-aided animation, an issue that also happens to thread through all my animation. My scenes tend to veil shoddy animation with copious amounts of motion blur. Now I realize that motion blur can be to a bad animator like auto-tune is to Rebecca Black.

A simple example of the type of motion blur-less animation that Goldberg was talking about comes from this frame of his well-received short, Rhapsody in Blue.

The tennis ball is squished into an oval and the line trailing shows where the ball has been. It means that the lines still look solid. It also means that with one frame the viewer knows exactly where the ball is coming from. Using motion blur in my own animation yields the following result.

Here, it’s not easy to tell which direction the ball is going, the shape of the ball, or what we can expect the ball to do when it hits an object.

To practice, I used this piece of instructional hand-drawn animation.

This image provided a guideline for my first experiences using the squash and stretch technique in computer animation. There are two steps. The first step is to map the ball’s location and the second step is to deform the mesh.

By default, Blender smooths the motion path between keyframes. This means that simply mapping keyframes at the peaks and troughs of a bounce would create a sinusoidal-like curve. The yellow cuve below represents the vertical location of the ball and means that the ball slows down when it gets close to the ground.

To make the ball speed up towards the bottom of the bounce, I tweaked the vertical motion curve until the point where the ball hits the ground looked like a point in the motion curve as well. Now the yellow line looks appropriate.

The squash and streach follows the hand drawn example. When the ball is close to the ground, the ball stretches to simulate a blur. At the very bottom, the ball stretches to simulate weight and bounce.

I really like the result. The motion looks a little choppy, but it reminds me of hand-drawn animation. Most importantly, the animation speaks for itself: it does not need to hide behind motion blur.

Squash Ball Bounce Animation Test from Ian Elsner on Vimeo.

Betrayal and Blast-Off
May 11th, 2010

Many traditionally-animated characters express themselves with eyes that are able to deform from perfect spheres into egg-shapes. In most computer-animated films, though, character eyes are perfectly spherical. This is purely a trait of anatomy and the medium: it is much more difficult to represent a ball-joined sphere on paper than on a computer. But spherical eyes tend to convay expressions less expressively. A lot of emotional information travels through the shape of the eyes.

Realizing this, I made one final change to Laika’s model. I added facial deformers to the skin around her eyes, instead of just the lids and brows. The difference can be seen in the image above: on the left, I try to show surprise using only eyebrow deformations and on the right, I show surprise by adjusting the skin around the eyes to make them look taller and narrower.

Confident with the range and fidelity of Laika’s expressions, I completed the film’s animatic and began to set up the final animation and renders.

As I mentioned before, the relationship between Laika and her flight engineer rescuer relies on the visual metaphor of a game of fetch. The act of running free — it is essential that Laika is never leashed or tied — allows me to convey the trust that the flight engineer gives Laika and the loyalty she returns.

After the first scenes I describe in my last post, this dynamic guides the film through its second minute and its only montage. The montage is necessary because this sequence spans the time between Laika’s rescue in the winter of 1956 and the launch in the autumn of 1957. (For context, this is also the approximate length of time it takes to make both a human and this film.)

As Laika continues to play fetch, her doomed rocket steadily comes together around her. She is completely oblivious to its construction and instead cherishes the metals and pins which are cerimouniusly attached to her flight suit.

I designed the scenes so that the face of the Soviet engineer is never in the shot, a characteristic which is both convenient and artsy.

The night before the launch, the montage ends to a real-time shot of Laika and her flight engineer as the sun sets over the rocket. Every betrayal needs a Last Supper.

The next morning, the engineer throws Laika ball into the tiny capsule. This film is critical for story and animation. Laika hesitates at the entrance to her capsule, reluctant to go into a tight space, but eager to bring the ball back. As soon as she enters, the airlock doors slam shut. Almost immediately afterword, the rocket launches.

Laika does not realize what happend until she is perplexingly and inexorably in orbit.

Furry and Fetching
April 20th, 2010

I had initially planned to follow Laika’s journey from her lift off to her death, but I realized that the most compelling part of Laika’s story occurs before she enters the capsule. She was found the winter before the launch on a Moscow street. Her hardiness against the Russian cold was one of the major factors that lead her to her selection.

Surely an abandoned dog would have some sort of connection with her rescuer, with whomever showed her affection in the warm intior of a Soviet research lab. (This angle follows one of the storylines in Nick Abadzis’s graphic novel about the event.) The same researcher would use her trust to lure her into the capsule when the time came, betraying Laika

The idea appeals to me because it contains a story arc and two characters reacting to each other, both of which my initial version lacked. The visual metaphor of their interaction is a game of fetch, which they play throughout Laika’s training. The betrayal continues the metaphor: Laika haltingly enters the capsule to retrieve a ball and the door seals shut as soon as she enters.

With the complete storyboard laid out, I began creating the animatic. The animatic is a low resolution visualization of the entire film. Rendering is extremely time consuming, even more so with a thick layer of fur and realistic lighting, so the low resolution and the exclusion of shadows, anti-alising, and radiocity raytracing. Creating an animatic helps me outline the camera movement, the rhythm of the edit, and, most importantly, the character animation without the superfluous expense and distraction of a good render.

One of the most animotionally demanding scenes calls for a run cycle as Laika plays fetch with her rescuer. Rendering it as an animatic made it much easier to see problems in the animation.

Studying the motion, I realize that the run cycle needs to be more about the dog’s body than the legs. There should be a crunched but tuck in keyframe 2 and a full extension in keyframe 4.

And finally, here is an animatic of scene three, which shows Laika’s first consciousness after being rescued from the bitter cold. The lighting and coloring are inconsistent (the full render will look more like top image) and the arm model is a stand-in, but Liaka’s model and animation are nearly complete.

Building a Better Dog
March 27th, 2010

Any animated character exists at the intersection of realism and expressiveness. I thought I had finally arrived at a good crossroad with my original Laika character below.

My Original Laika Model

But something about my original Laika failed to appeal the audience. On my last entry I received a polite but negative review by an anonymous apparent animator. The commenter said,

“I must tell you that this dog’s model is FAR from being
appealing.

“I’m really trying to say something positive and help you to make
an interesting movie. One of the 12 basic principles of animation
as taught by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston say that our
characters need to be appealing. Unfortunately yours is not, and
this is a bad thing if you want a good response from your audience.”

With this in mind, I decided to recreate the mesh from scratch. (The fact that an anonymous commentator with a Braizillian IP address can bring a project I have been working on for months to a halt is at once the greatest promise and the worst annoyance of the Internet.) The commenter suggested the classic style of Disney animator Preston Blair, so I began by opening up a blank Blender project and trying to determine what makes Blair’s characters so appealing.

Preston Blair Bulldog Sketches

Of course, there are many reasons why this character, and all of Blair’s works, are so compelling. The model implies flexibility and motion. Even in a static pose, the buldog does not look like it was just randomly placed there – it looks it has a purpose, and could move at any moment.

But what about the actual design of the dog? I noticed that the entire character starts with a two or three basic shapes. Basic shapes help make the character easier to recognize at a glance while ensuring consistency thought the film.

So I applied shape-centric idea to my new model. I sculpted the head out of a sphere from a 2D view and a mussel out of a cube. The outline of my old model appears below in the background for context.

A circle for the head, a rectangle for the snout, and an oval for the body

From a modeling perspective, there is a dramatic structural difference between expressions, known in animation as “squash and stretch”. It seems as if the entire face changes structure with change in expression.

The Blair sketch that looks most like my imagined Liaka is this expression chart of a young pup. The pup is deformed using squash and stretch techniques.

Pup Faces by Preston Blair

Using these figures as reference, I created a mesh with a significantly-reduced snout and drastically-increased eyes compared with my original model.

Floppy Ears, Big Eyes, and a Short Snout

With the rest of the body, I took care to emulate the flexibility of Blair’s sketches. The end result leaves a much simpler body structure than the original model.

Laika's New Body

To judge any improvement, I put the two versons side-by-side.

Old Dog, New Dog

I am well aware that a redesign which lifts a few tips from a classic 2D animator will not necessarily lead to a more appealing character model and a more appealing character model will not necessarily lead to a more compelling short film. But there is a lot a computer animator can learn from the pioneers of hand-drawn animation.

Coming May 2010
March 19th, 2010