Alita Battle Angel

Everytime I go to the movies, it feels like work. I catch myself trying to study the animation and the special effects.

It is almost impossible nowadays to see a movie that does not require some background computer animation. In Alita Battle Angel, I set myself up to some headache.

The movie is based on a manga by Yukito Kishiro. In 2563, a cyborg is rescued by a doctor and nursed back to health while trying to remember her past. The action is set in Iron City, a trash city under the glorious Zelma, a flying city no one can get up to.  The whole movie features robotic bodies and weird human machinery, all this in a futuristic world.
The most surprising is not how freakishly real those robotic/human bodies look, it is the performance of the main character Alita. The contradiction is maximal. An actress performs and is then rendered into a 3D character that needs to look real. Her eyes are bigger, but that is basically the only thing you would notice in her human face.

I watched some reviews and behind the scenes videos of this huge production, produced by James Cameron and in partnership with Weta.

Alita’s human face had about 5000 iterations to make her emotions look real and the animators had to meet with plastic surgeons to fully understand what was happening behind a face to then re translate it in animation.  Alita was all about motion capture and performance capture meaning that not only her body but also her face were closely recorded and translated in 3D the way it was many years ago for Gollum in Lord of the Rings and for Avatar. The difference here is we needed for her to almost look like a human, making her reactions as close as Rosa’s. The main focus was faithfully re translating the nuances of human acting.

Once again the advancement of computerized animation go beyond my belief.

How Music Can Complete Animation

This week we were introduced to the Royal College of Music students who will work on the music for our animations.

While preparing a pitch for them, I realized I always took the music for granted, never really realizing the effect it has on the animation.

An animation or movie without music can feel very empty. Tom and Jerry was based on the sole principle that animation is amplified by music. So are the early Mickey Mouse shorts and later on the Disney feature length movies.

Music can even introduce a character, define it. Such as the Hobbit melody in Lord of the Rings for instance. Everytime the Hobbit would come on screen, these notes would start playing, in a such a manner that every time someone hears this song, he/she immediately links it to these characters, expects them to appear.

It can accompany a situation, like it does in How to Train Your Dragon. One scene called “First Date”, follows a clumsy dragon trying to attract its mate. In this instance the music changes with the situation. In the beginning it is clumsy, and finally when the dragon gets confident, it gets happy.

Music can also set a mood. We know a scene will be scary when we hear slow, spooky notes.

I started thinking about my animation in terms of music and notes, trying to describe to the RCM students what I was looking for.

Finally, a few of them were eager to work on this project. Each added an element to the table. We agreed the best option was the “Mickey Mousing” technique which syncs the accompanying music to the actions on screen. This allows the music to participate in the action and value it even more.

Visual Effects vs Craftmanship

In the last decade or so, I have noticed an immense growth in the use of visual effects in cinema and television. This is something that affects animation directly. I have always been a fiery defender of 2D over 3D use in animation. It is quite ironic considering my grad film is almost entirely 3D, a process I wanted to try out. Nevertheless, I believe this growing use of visual effects and computer software has now considerably lowered the level of craftmanship. In a world where everyone uses a computer, no one knows how to hold a pencil, even less draw with it.

I do believe the reason for this change was money, but also the possibilities to form more people, people who could not draw, to animate.

This led to one uniform style, feeding us what the mass wants to see and what the mass can do, over true talent and hard work. Well, 3D is hard work, but it is more like coding than art. Will people never know about the exhilarating pain of drawing 24 pictures per second? Of having hundreds and hundreds of layers of colour trials?

I was reminded of this truth when watching two very different movies in a short periood of time. The first was “Aquaman” by James Wan, a director known for his horror movies, while the second was “Nutcracker and the Four Realms” by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston.

I have always been a fan of the superhero type movie, also was I very disappointed when watching the movie. The problem, in my opinion, is the overuse of visual effects. The lack of authenticity from the world created as well as in the actor’s game. Everything was done using visual effects, even the hair, giving a sense of wrong throughout the whole movie.

In “Nutcracker and the Four Realms” however, the production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas wanted to build as many sets as possible to avoid the use of green screen for the actors and the audience to “feel the reality and almost a tactile experience.” “You can feel the difference between virtual sets and real sets.”

The Land of Sweets for instance was made with real candy while the Land of Flowers used real flowers. The production designer called to many different talented craftsmen for this movie, just like Lord of the Rings had done.

The use of 3D was limited to what could not be built like the Mouse King. Nevertheless, the rest was real, even the 30 foot marionette housing Mother Ginger. In the end, this produces a much more real, visually beautiful experience.

Visual effects had been lately used as a monetary solution rather than a craft, thus spoiling its effects.

Discovering 3D Animation

The biggest challenge I have to face for my grad film is the use of 3D. I decided to do it as a personal challenge, to get out of my comfort zone and experience  a different type of animation.

Upon starting this project, I decided to ease up the process and start with a 3D sculpting program, Zbrush, to create my main character. This software, a more artistic one than technical one, allowed me to give the shape I wanted for my character. The interface took a bit of getting used to, but the reflexes were the same than drawing. The research I had to make was very little, looking online for shortcuts and easy ways to do this and that.

However, when importing the mesh into Maya, that is were the real work started. I had to start with retopologizing the mesh, meaning rebuilding the model with a lower number of polygons. I learned later on, that I made mistakes during this process. I did not follow the proportions properly, not giving circular shapes to the important elements.

I noticed this upon taking the next step: rigging. I used Advanced Skeleton, a plugin that gives you basic rigs that you can then shape. The body took quite some time, and I had to make extensive research, using the plugin’s website and Youtube channel as well as Lynda.com. After emailing my mentor, I had a pretty good idea of how to fix the body rig issues. I decided to get on to the face rig. The problem is the face polygons are not regular and not all connecting to each other properly, thus making it, for now, impossible to rig. Going back to the beginning now would be erase a month of work. I do believe now that I would make it faster, nevertheless, I hope to find another solution.

For now 3D animation has been mostly about learning from my mistakes rather than classes or online help. I hope to make the character working well for the final animation.

Why is Walt Disney Company Repeatedly Accused of Sexism

Like most kids, I grew up watching Disney movies.I never wondered about subtext or hidden meaning.

However, integrating this character animation course, the issue was brought a few times. After a while, I finally decided to look into it. I wanted to know why people would make these accusations.

After reading many articles, I could point out two areas where Disney would be accused of sexism: in the workplace and in their representation of women in their animations.

According to my research, it all started with a letter addressed to Arkasan Mary Ford. Mary Ford applied as colour artist at the Walt Disney Company in 1938. She later received a letter saying: “women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school.”

Someone could argue these were regular practices at the time.

Nevertheless, in 2011, a woman was fired from the Walt Disney Company. She filed for wrongful termination, accusing her supervisor of telling her she had to “choose between working and being a mother”.  The dismissal was blamed on restructuring, however, she was promptly replaced by a young man.

In my opinion, sexism in the workplace is unfortunately still very usual, women do have to fight and work harder than men to prove themselves. It is not a myth but reality.

The other aspect in which Walt Disney was accused of sexism, which I would like to discuss, is the representation of women in the movies.

Starting with the first feature length Disney animation: Snow White.  The movie was highly criticized for representing, in Snow White, a docile and domestic woman. A woman, that would be properly covered, would stay at home, cook and clean, and have no claim.

In addition, recently, Sleeping Beauty was blamed for giving a wrongful idea about sexual consent, more particularly in the scene where the prince does not ask before kissing the princess.

Moreover, there were claims that many movies were representing helpless women waiting for a strong man to come and rescue them. The prince in Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and the general Li Chang in Mulan for instance.

In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is under a forceful patriarchal law until she refuses her own nature to gain the love of a man, who rejects her.

In Beauty and the Beast, it can be argued that Belle is suffering of Stockholm syndrome after the Beast kidnaps her for the sole point of making her fall in love with him.

Lastly, people were feeling the women were giving an impossible body goal and women objectification. All women have long legs and tiny waist. In Aladdin, Jasmine wears clothes that resembles more a men’s fantasy rather an historically correct costume. However, I blame the rise up of anorexic models in fashion and social media to give impossible body goals rather than fantasy cartoon characters.

After reading these articles,  I believe if we are looking for something wrong, we can always find it. I decide to take the best in those movies. Each of these female characters inspired positive traits of characters. Snow White inspires to be brave, Cinderella to be kind, Mulan to be fearless, Belle to be accepting, to see beyond differences.

I have watched these movies tirelessly being a child, and no matter the criticism, they made me hopeful and positive. I have also grown up to have ambition, to make my work the first priority and to fend for myself.

Movies do not shape you, you shape yourself.

ENO Project Journal

First day of finding a dynamic as a group.

What is amazing is Rishabh wants to use all our geographical and traditional background to create a animation that would talk about the refugee crisis happening in Lebanon, where I am from, in India, where Rishabh is from, and Taiwan, where Erick is from. This would help make the idea universal and rooted in the present events.

So I started looking at art that Lebanese artists, photographers, painters, street artists’ work done in reaction to this migrant crisis that happened at the beginning of war in Syria. From then, we extracted the key visual elements and artistic references we wanted to include in the animation.

For me, this research was a way to dig deeper in the Lebanese artistic scene and look at new work that developed with the Syrian refugee crisis. I got to look at this situation from a different point of view.

I already had knowledge of the Lebanese artistic scene, most specifically the street art scene. Before I moved to animation, I was part of this scene.

A man famously known as the Lebanese Banksy is the first artist that came to mind when thinking about this research. Usually making famous Lebanese artists faces, this man had taken upon himself to now represent faces that marked the capital, including syrian refugees after the crisis started.  His voice started reaching out and he wanted to shed light on the situation.

We therefore decided to use one of his mural as a reference towards the end of the animation.

Putting everything and cleaning it up in illustrator was a new challenge for me. We each divided the scenes and took care of a few numbers. I get the easy ones to get used to illustrator and vector illustrations.

I am working mostly on face close ups and the two main tigers as I have Rishabh’s primary illustrations as a guide.

We had our first meeting as a group on friday with Christopher and Natasha at ENO concerning our rough storyboard. All our visuals are cleaned up so modifying it will take some time.

The advice given was very helpful. Showing the story to a new set of eyes allowed us to see what was missing in the continuity and see how the story could be easily understood by a new audience. We were told to root the two main characters, the tigers to a place, and have this place destroyed by the flood. We want now to show this relationship, root the tigers to a home , have this home taken from them by the flood, explain why the tigress is sad to leave.

The other thing we needed to change was the pace of the music in relation to the story. The music quiets down in the end, with english words singing while action is still happening (the tigers are swimming). Christopher and Natacha thought the music should come later when we see the rack as a sign of hope.

Overall they liked the story, the influences and references as well as the visual style. The changes we need to make are minor.

So we started cleaning up a new storyboard. Rishabh also asked me to start working on a rough running cycle for the tigers which I am going to try doing on adobe animate for the first time.

After trying on animate, I went back to the TVpaint roots. I hope I have time to later discover animate, however for now, time is too tight. I guess we are going to need some getting used to anyway, trying to find the perfect way to execute the project. 4 legged running cycles have been a challenge for me so I am looking forward to being able to figure it out properly and make it work in the movie’s visual style.

Today, thursday the 18 of october, someone came in to give us the last bit of advice for our animatic. Once again we thankfully do not have much to change and the advice was really well given. It was about planting the decorum and situation from the beginning (the houses are being destroyed, something bad is about to happen) to resolving the situation in a smarter way (seeing the boat earlier in the story and including from the middle of the piece). These are all the little things that will help the story get to the audience quicker and more easily.

I finally started on the proper animation part of the film. My first task was to animate the run cycle we are going to use for the tigers. I first looked at some reference before starting the run.My first draft was too fast so I added in betweens and then adapted the style to make the clean up better. Upon looking at the first draft, Rishabh felt the head was too static, he felt the curve should be more exaggerated in the ups and downs positions. I fixed that and sent it to him to clean up. We are starting to figure out a dynamic. I will take care of most of the rough frame to frame animation while Rishabh and Erick, more at ease with illustrator will take care of the cleanup. The issue is the frame to frame animation is a small part of the process and many scenes will be made in after effects, so Rishabh gave me a small wind scene to figure out in after effects. On the side though, I asked to take care of 2 other frame to frame scenes for now. We have the scenes with the flowers blooming and the scenes where the wave crashes down. I am very excited to work on both of these. It is the first time but I love the movement and the challenge it represents. First thing I did of course is check out references. Live and animated. I like to compare them frame to frame to see where animators skips frames here and there to make the animation easier and better. I finally settled on a live reference for the flower, even though the timing is a bit fast for me but I can work that out. For the wave however, it is very stylish, like a character so the movement and repercussions will look very different from a normal one. The foam for instance should be very geometrical or make perfect curves like Rishabh’s style on this animation calls for.

I have completed the tiger run, flower blooming and currently working on the many scenes that will include the wave character. I do feel a sense of excitement as well as stress when I work on this. As a beginner animator, you can be pretty sure every new scene is in fact “new”. It is my first time animating water and I do not want to disappoint. I have been watching footage of waves crashing down over and over for me to have the movement in mind. Still, once the movement is done, well timed, I need to adapt the visual style which can be tricky when it’s not your own. However Rishabh has been very helpful and knows exactly what he wants which makes my part easier to complete.

Rishabh gave me 2 scenes to animate: the chopping tree scene and the movement of the wind we are going to use for the storm scene. I started working on the chopping scene but got really stuck for hours trying to make it look right. I finally had to hand to my group to fix as I was going nowhere. The movement of the wind however, represented by a single line, was much easier. I already had the movement in mind before starting. I played around a little with the timing and that was it.

I am now working on shot 9. Shot 9 is the scene when the tigers look around and look down and notice their home is being destroyed. They start getting angry. This is very much a complicated scene in the sense that it is typical behavorial animation. I need to get the positions, movements between each keys and timing right to make it even remotely resembling a tiger. I have been watching a lot of references online and looked at the reference video from the LAV class to get an idea of how I should animated this. The tigers usually move their head around when getting angry and roaring to attain more ground. They also have these very exaggerated neck movements to make them look more dangerous. I am now trying to apply that to my keys to make this scene powerful.

I have animated a cycle for a tiger climbing a tree for shot 2. I watched a lot of reference for this so starting on the movement was thankfully pretty fast. This movement also does not require a lot of frames so the biggest issue was to adapt the style.

I am now helping design human characters for shot 2.  In shot, we see human cutting trees. Rishabh told me to look at patachitra art for inspiration and reference before creating the characters.

I have worked on the tiger reaching the top of the tree as well as humans chopping trees. I am now going to work on water splash as tigers run while the water gets higher and higher.

My last animation was having the tiger go from a climb to a stop on top of the tree. I had the climb and Rishabh added keys for me to in between as the tiger gets on top of the tree. With the keys ready, it was pretty straightforward to complete the scene. It was more a question of time rather than thought.

How Fantastic Beasts Immerses us in a New World

Every time I go to the movies to watch a Harry Potter movie, I know I am in for quite an experience.

However when I came into the cinema to watch the latest Fantastic Beasts “The Crimes of Grindelwald” I was once again surprised, amazed by the end result.

Since entering the animation world, I have been looking at not only cartoons but also movies in a different way. I guess it is because I now know better about the long process it takes to do one little thing. I also now know you need a whole load of people for one effective minute of movie.

When you enter the movies to watch Fantastic Beasts, you usually have a background in Harry Potter World knowledge. Personally, I have been bather in it since I was 12. So how was it that the new installment takes us to a whole new level? How is it that is still inspires us animators to aim for more?

“Crimes of Grindelwald” opens on a gloomy imprisoned Grindelwald. The tone is directly set when a small creature, property of Grindelwald appears. Because yes, this is Fantastic Beasts after all, and we are reminded the whole way through the movie.

We discover a lot of now unexpected animals, mix of fauna and flora mixed with special effects.

Some may appear longer than others, however I know than one second of this creature needed months and months of work. They all probably have a base, a background story, a character profile, characteristics, a lot of different versions before they even started modeling the animal.

Every movie brings on its fair share of new creatures to add to your encyclopedia.

Another element contributing for a full immersion are the backgrounds. Creating a magical world in relation to actual places, places you may have seen, places you can relate to.  For instance, Paris was recreated at the Leavesden studios.The underground amphitheater at the end of the movie was inspired by the ancient Roman Pantheon while Furstenberg Square in Paris was identified as the entrance to the French ministry of Magic.

Finally, the special effects tied everything perfectly.

As Harry Potter movies rolled out over the years, so did the special effects. They always got more and more impressive. They inspire us animators to excel in our process, to always aim for more.

This new Fantastic Beasts once again inspires me to create, not only by delivering a magical world, but by delivering a beautifully efficient one thanks to his characters, backgrounds and effects.

 

Research into Animation Companies Role

As a character animation student, I was obviously interested in researching the animation industry before I got involved into it. However, I did not go as deep as I could.

Fortunately, this term we were asked to research the roles in the animation industry and critically analyze them compared to our role in our group project. Even though it is a topic I had brushed before thanks to animation books, the research revealed to be harder than I thought. It turns out not many people are interested in knowing how it works, or giving us a precise animation hierarchy distributed in roles. The reason is, yes not many animators are not famous enough to talk to interviewers, and yes animation industry is always evolving, nevertheless, the main reason is because we cannot compartmentalize animation into one group. Every company is different. Every one has a different hierarchy and animators usually have a tiny job in a huge bee house.

Moreover, in most companies, animators end up doing a few jobs, dabbling here and there. So when trying to compare my role to a specific one, I was a bit lost. I do know from watching years of behind the scenes and documentaries from Disney and Pixar animations that people working in these type of companies usually are given one or two specific jobs. They are hired for a very specific talent, and this is the talent the company wants them to use.

However, when I started working as a freelance animator, I quickly noticed a big difference. I mostly had to handle the whole project from top to bottom.

The only way for me to understand what was really going on was to directly contact a professional. Denise Dean,  head of assistant animation at Lupus Films, tried to shed a bit of light on the matter by describing the process in TV based animation. And I discovered there was one more way to do animation.

In retrospect, there are many ways to do animation. Trying to categorize a role is next to impossible. Truth is, depending on the company or client, an animator will do many various things.

How Chef’s Table Can Relate to Animation

When browsing Netflix to search for a new program to help me focus while I animate, I unconsciously stopped my mouse on “Chef’s Table”. I remember thinking ‘here we go, another one of those cooking shows, no thank you’. Then, as Netflix does when your mouse stops on a program, the trailer starts playing.

The first thing I hear is Will Goldfarb’s voice: “When I was in Paris for pastry school, they were pretty clear this was a bad career choice”. I can already relate. Then, this series of so aesthetically pleasing dishes to the rythm of “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow. And I am hypnotized.

I start watching it and quickly realize it is a series of documentaries about exceptional chefs. Not always famous chefs or cooks, but people that fought and became food artists.

The title sequence of Volume 4 pastry is by far the most aesthetically pleasing in terms of visuals and music.

It transported me into a world, a world of art, where people, like us, start from the bottom and build their way up. They fight, they face failures, disappointments, bad reviews,… but they go on, they strive to constantly be better and satisfy the client, please him/her.

The lessons I got from this show is first of all that we all start somewhere, with a love for something. For them it’s food, for me it is drawing.

Then they start from the bottom and work their way up like animators. First we in between, and hope to be a lead animator or director later on. To reach this dream, we all have an inspiration to take us along the journey. My dream has always been Disney for instance.

Another thing I could relate to in this series is that you need to leave your ego at the door. You have to listen to feedback, take it in to make your work better. In season 3, Jeong Kwan says it beautifully:

“Creativity and ego cannot go together. If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind, your creativity opens up endlessly. Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment. You must not be your own obstacle. You must not be owned by the environment you are in. You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you. You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind. This is being free. There is no way you can’t open up your creativity. There is no ego to speak of. That is my belief.” — Jeong Kwan

Moreover, this series talks about transcendence. Food is a basic need. Cooks could just want to give you something to fill you up without caring about taste or appearance. However, they strive to excel, to give the customer an experience they will not forget. This is also my aim for animation. To deliver something so beautiful and touching, the viewer will not forget it.

The more you watch the series, the more you discover individuals, stories behind their dish and all the long process, the attention to detail it took to this particular point. When animating, we always start from a particular story or anecdote and build on from there. We start this very long design process, a process similar to one of a Chef.

Finally, this show is all about teamwork and the people that push and help you getting to reach your goal. In a kitchen, having a crew helping you develop your idea, giving you out of the box feedback, all this knowledge reunited can only help improve your initial recipe. In animation, each person is part of the final process, each helping each other be better.

Grad Film Preparation

The ENO project is now coming to an end and it was time to pitch our ideas to our tutors for feedback.

The story is pretty set in my mind, the biggest problem now is that this will be my first 3D piece. I also have not touched 3D in a while. It is quite a risk to try it out on my grad film. I would like to model my own character over the winter break so I started researching models online.

I have also made some character design research, looking at how similar characters have been portrayed before in cartoons and illustrations, trying to transmit the whole character in the face and body, in the way it acts.

I have also contacted my mentor and he has given me some advice about how I should set up my scene as well as about parenting in Maya.