A Quick and Dirty Production

So when will the movie be done?

I wanted to elaborate on what I mentioned in a previous post, that this would be a quick and dirty production. What do I mean by that? I mentioned that there is a schedule, and that implies a deadline.

When I started production (August 19th, the day this blog went live is a good date to use) I had 2 ideas for what the timeframe would be. I thought the movie could practically be done in about 2-3 months. I also knew the Blender Conference Suzanne Animation Festival submission deadline was October 16th and I wanted to try  to get the movie done by then.

Since October 16th is tomorrow and the movie isn’t close to finished, that’s not possible. I had then planned to just get the first scene finished in time for the festival. I thought it would be a productive exercise to bring the first scene through the entire process and finish it before moving on to the rest of the movie, and that’s still what I intend to do, but there are still some technical issues (read on below) that need to be solved.

My thinking is that there’s about a month of work left to do on the entire movie. There are still a couple unknowns however. I want to work those out before setting an official release date. The reason I chose not to do a crunch to finish the first scene before tomorrow is there are still things I need to figure out how to do at even a basic level.

This is my first real production so the whole thing is a learning process. This doesn’t mean it can go on forever or that I’ll try to perfect everything. I’m doing this entirely on my own. I don’t want to spend a year making this. I’m not trying to make Avatar. I think that would be absurd. What I want is an understanding of what it would take to push things if I wanted to aim for that quality; an understanding of how things work in a practical sense, by getting my hands dirty for a few months making a quick little movie.

The whole idea of making a short to me is that it’s an experimental device. As opposed to a feature, there’s a controlled, small, little scope and timeframe in which to learn and play and figure out new things. That to me is the entire purpose of making a short movie. That’s my goal with this project. And the timeframe is critical to that. I don’t want to spend forever making an experimental piece; I want to move on and make bigger, feature-length films with stories that I’ve invested a lot more time in developing. This project is sort of a work out for that. And, the mandate -the script -was designed as such, to include and focus on areas I want to learn.

So it wouldn’t make sense to skip past the actual learning process because that’s the whole point. And in that respect deadlines are a little ambiguous, but also it has to be done in a controlled timeframe and provide a certain amount of pressure to get things done.

About a month ago I made a list of unsolved issues for the production:
1. Bandanna Design
2. Body +Rig
3. Animation -How long will it take?
4. Hair (Physics)/ Animation Solution
5. Cloth Simulation?
6. Expressions/ Face Rig
7. Lots of Stuff to Model
8. Volume of Characters to Model, Rig +Animate
9. Physics Effects
10. Materials/ Lighting
11. Render Time?
12. Soundtrack

There are two unknowns still for the timeframe. 1. I don’t know how long animation will or should take. 2. I don’t know how long it will take to render. Those are the big major deadline effectors. On top of that, there remains a lot of technical issues and those are potential areas where unknown unknowns can pop up unexpectedly.

Finishing the first scene will resolve all those issues, and at that point I’ll be able to set a firm deadline to release the movie. So I’m working towards that right now. Like I said, I think there’s about a month of total work left. I definitely want to try to get it done before the holidays (Thanksgiving). The process of finishing this first scene will show how feasible that is.

Now, I want to explain what I’ve been up to over the past two weeks because I haven’t made much forward progress. A couple of big re-prioritization learning experiences happened, and I want to share them with you. Here’s what happened:

First, at the end of September I finished the layout pass for the first scene and posted it online:

I also shared it on a couple forums to get some feedback. One commenter, Orinoco, on the BlenderArtists thread brought up something I had been concerned with previously myself, that the backstory of the lead character is not clear enough and that the audience might not sympathize with her. This was something I struggled with when writing the script and forgot about.

I spent some time thinking this over, thinking about the backstory, how she’s not just a thief; she’s a stow away on this ship. I thought up a more detailed explanation for what happened the night before, how she probably isn’t willing to hide out and sleep in the cargo decks or rat infested lifeboat, and is willing to risk being found just to sleep in a nicer bed. So she probably spotted this bachelor party on the way back to a room the night before, tagged along, and helped the groom to his bed where he and everyone else passed out without really knowing who she was.

I came up with some ideas about how to show this in that first scene, but none of them really explained it as well as if I just animated that scene I just described and added it on to the beginning. Although a backup idea would be to just use a title card like they do in silent movies, something like “The stow away has overslept her welcome.” I’m planning to use one or two of those later on for fun anyway so it would fit the style and would somewhat explain the situation.

As I was thinking about this though, I realized I was entirely focused on this one scene and forgetting that the end result will be the entire movie. I don’t have to explain everything in this one scene. So I decided to go back to the script and start looking at the rest of the movie to see if I could fit this information in somewhere else later on.

I quickly realized the problem I was trying to solve doesn’t really matter to the overall movie. I changed my mind, because I think when you see the situation she’s in in the following scene, you’ll sympathize with her. The backstory isn’t important. All that really matters in that first scene is that she’s a thief and has stolen this ring, which turns out to be a wedding ring. Those are the only points that need to be hit.

Furthermore, it’s a very short amount of time, so trying to add more information in that’s not actually necessary would only clutter that original intention. So I’m interested in hinting at the backstory through her outfit, the environment, the animation, but I want to leave it ambiguous for the audience to make up their own ideas.

I think it was also not clear because in the layout the groomsmen who walk into the room at the end are just stand-in characters, but in the final version they’ll have tuxes. And if that doesn’t sell that this is a wedding ring, in the next scene we cut to a ballroom with lots of establishing shots setting up a wedding reception.

To help clarify all this I’ve decided to release the first 2 complete scenes of the script: Nemusidian Cruise Ship Script First 2 Pages
The reason for dealing out pages piecemeal like this and not just releasing the entire script is that that’s part of the fun of storytelling and movie making. Saving some of that and holding it back can create a better experience for the audience, and it also helps maintain the motivation to finish it.

So, m attention and priorities were too narrowly focused on that first scene, and by extension because I had only shown that one scene, all the feedback I got didn’t incorporate the movie as a whole either. I think that was a mistake to not explain the intent of the scene clearly in context. This is useful knowledge to have because I understand now, for when I make the trailer (i.e. the first scene with a slight addendum on the end) as well as the poster and any other marketing material for social media etc. I need to setup the wedding and setup what’s coming later to put this first scene in a context.

In other words, releasing it just on it’s own without that context would be a bad idea from a storytelling standpoint.

So I re-prioritized. I stepped back and went through the whole script and cut 3 pages, which brings it down from 9mins. to about 6mins. And then I planned to storyboard the rest of the movie before I went any further. Another thing I’ve been worrying about is the number of characters to model and animate, so I also needed concept art for them.

So this was about 2 weeks ago still. I went to do concept sketches and storyboards for the rest of the movie and realized I hadn’t drawn anything in a month. I was very rusty. Not good. I  spent most of the next week catching up, getting back into practice, and doing anatomy research. The topology on Nemu needed to be fixed as well, and to animate well really requires an understanding of anatomy/ how the body works. And, it helps immensely to be able to draw. So this is important.

I’ve gotten into the habit now of doing figure drawing practice about an hour every day at least. (I routinely update my sketchbook on CGSociety) So that at least is some progress.

But after a week of barely getting any actual production work done I felt I needed to switch tack again. I re-prioritized again. I decided to go ahead and proceed with the first scene before storyboarding the rest of the movie. That week also gave me more time to think over that story decision and made me more confident that it was actually the right choice.

So I got back to work with a focus on lighting and rendering, because the lighting plays an important role in the first scene I want to have a good idea how it’s going to look. And, in order to work out the lighting I need to know how I’m going to render it. And this is where I ran into the next technical issue, that I’m currently stuck on: Noise Reduction in Cycles.

Cycles is the new Blender render engine (as opposed to Blender Internal that was discontinued though still available a couple years ago). Cycles is an unbiased render engine unlike BI, which basically means it treats lights similarly to how they behave in real life. Unfortunately this method of ray-tracing creates images with a lot of granular noise unless you render a very high number of Samples to compensate. (On an even more technical note, the particular algorithm Cycles uses is very bad at interior natural lit scenes… which is ironically the exact lighting scheme I want for this first scene) Rendering more things takes more time, and it becomes very impractical for an animation when a scene takes an hour to render per frame.

Here’s a test at 1000 samples with still quite a bit of noise (Note: All the modeling is unfinished):Grooms Lighting Test Complete Kit and Kaboodle (1000 samples)

So I need to find a way to get render times down.

I’m considering all options at this point and I’ve spent the past few days exhausting all sorts of resources I can find, tricks on how to light things, how to render things, technical compositing tricks etc. Nothing I’ve found so far has helped that much without badly degrading the quality of the image. I’ve looked into other render engines like Yafray and Luxrender but those options aren’t very good either because they’re not integrated as well with Blender’s render passes. I could use Blender Internal and just fake a lot of things. That might be easier.

The bottom line though is that I need a rendering solution that won’t be a hassle to work with. I don’t want to be fighting noise all along the way, devoting time and energy to that as opposed to animation, so I’m looking for help, advice, anywhere I can get it if you know a good solution to this problem, please let me know in the comments or get in touch with me.

So that’s where things are now. This is a quick and dirty production. I’m calling story lock. At this point the story needs to be set if it wasn’t already and I’m only making narrow detailed changes because the focus needs to move on to these technical issues and the animation. For better or for worse I’m not going back to make big changes. Once a decision gets made and I move on to the next phase I won’t be backtracking. So there might be mistakes, and a lot of little bad things might happen, but my goal is to get the movie done in a quick and dirty manner in a controlled timeframe. That’s the point of making this short.

Thanks for reading.

And please Like the Facebook page if you want to show your support: http://facebook.com/nemusidian

First Scene Layout
Nemusidian Cruise Ship Script First 2 Pages
Nemusidian Blender Artists Thread
Nemusidian CGSociety Thread
My Personal Sketchbook Thread

Layout and Technical Challenges

First, as a side note, before I get into this, I’ve been having a hard time finding time to write posts, keep up all the social media pages, forums and get work done on the short. Naturally the actual production work takes priority. But also, I hadn’t really found a good breaking point the past couple weeks as I’ve been going back and forth between different technical challenges with the rigging, hair dynamics, cloth simulation, asset management, etc. So I hope things will level out a bit from here on.

I finished the layout pass for the first scene:

The point here is mainly to get the timing, framing, and staging down. Everything is just block-in and the animation will be done from scratch, with models, lighting, etc. to be added at the rendering stage. So ignore the animation quality and weighting issues.

I explained what’s going on this scene in my previous post where I talked about the storyboarding process but I’ll go over it again and explain a few things in particular about this layout itself:

In this scene she’s just woken up and found herself in this room with people sleeping all over the floor and empty bottles and things and is sneaking away towards the door when a glint from the dresser catches her eye and she goes over to check out this shiny ring (I indicated the glint effect with some scaling and rotation, but that’ll be replaced with the actual lighting effects in the final version. The first shot will have a lens flare too that’s not there presently).

While examining the ring she sees a shadow behind her from the corner of her eye and quickly spins around drawing her pistol (not present in the layout yet -it’s just her hand) but it’s just someone rolling over in their sleep and knocking a bottle around. Then a knock at the door draws her attention and knocks a bottle off the dresser which crashes and causes her to turn to the man in the bed, where we’ll see him waking up in the mirror behind her. Then she pockets the ring and bolts before the door opens and the room stirs to life. And we end the scene panning on the open window to suggest that that’s where she made her escape.

I should point out here, that the movie is going to be silent (Music only. No dialog. No sound effects) -because I wanted to avoid actors and lip syncing so the focus would be completely on the animation. This created a filmmaking challenge. Instead of hearing a a knock at the door, I have to visually represent through animation that there’s noise from the door. I think this will be fairly apparent from her head spinning to look at it and the bottle crashing, but I might also add some animation of the door shaking or other objects if it doesn’t read as well.

I also noticed another change I need to make just uploading this. When she first pulls her gun and we cut to the bottle rolling I think it should actually cut to the person who’s just rolled over so we know they’re still asleep. Let me know if anything else doesn’t read as well for you too. Getting new eyes on this will be incredibly helpful.

If you’d like to read the script I’ve included the first page that corresponds to this scene here for reference: Nemusidian Cruise Ship Page 1 I might share more of the script as the production progresses going forward if there’s interest.

Here’s a WIP render of Nemusidian and the BlenderArtists thread I started for her character: http://blenderartists.org/forum/show…for-Short-Film
Nemu Full Body 1

I also began a thread on BA for the movie as a whole: http://blenderartists.org/forum/showthread.php?312222-Nemusidian-in-Cruise-Ship-Catastrophe

—–Technical Challenges:—–

1. Cloth Settings for Linked Objects
-In addition to getting this layout done I’ve been spending time working out a lot of the technical issues that have to be dealt with such as the workflow for hair and cloth. Currently there is no way to access simulation settings on linked objects in Blender. This is a problem if you want to, for instance, have a character file with all the object data and armature, and then link it into each scene. Under current functionality you can only make a proxy (local-ish version) of the armature for that character, which is fine for most things, but for cloth simulation and other physics simulations like hair, these will undoubtedly have to be tweaked on a per shot basis. So getting access to those settings for linked objects would be a lot of help.

I’ve been in contact with one of the lead Blender developers, Brecht van Lommel, and Bassam Kurdali, director of the first open movie, Elephants Dream. Brecht has been very generous and shared a snippet of some code that might be a start to a workaround, and Bassam said he would post his methodology for this that he’s using on his Tube project. On Sintel/ Project Durian they had a hard-coded script for this that was production specific. Unfortunately, I am not a coder, and my focus is on getting this movie made.

Production can still go on, by simply appending the cloth objects separately into each shot, and they’ll follow the linked armature, but it’s not ideal because any changes made to the original objects will have to be manually applied to every shot.

I started a thread focused on this issue on BA as well: http://blenderartists.org/forum/show…ation-Settings

2. Rigging the Shoulder Bag
-A second problem I’m working to solve right now is rigging her shoulder pack. It’s going to be around her shoulder most of the movie, but as you can see in the layout she does need to be able to take it off. That’s actually the easy part though, and can be done fairly simply with animated copy transform constraints. I’m trying to find a solution that will automate the animation for it bouncing about against her hip as much as possible, perhaps using cloth or rigid bodies in combination with an armature. But that’s a challenge I’m still trying to solve so if you have any ideas that’d be a help.
Nemu Rig
That’s where things are at the moment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this layout. Please let me know what you think. And don’t worry about pointing out problems. Things are very easy to change at this stage. That’s the whole point of layout!
Finally, if you’re on Facebook or Google+, and you like what you see, it would really mean a lot if you could please give it a Like or a Follow:

You can also follow me directly on Twitter if you’d like, where I tweet updates regularly: http://twitter.com/mikhailpschalk

Links mentioned in this post:
Why I Don’t Believe in Storyboards
Nemusidian Character Blender Artists Thread
Nemusidian Animation Blender Artists’ Thread
Elephant’s Dream
Tube Project
Library Linking Cloth Simulation Settings Blender Artists Thread

Why I Don’t Believe in Storyboards

Or do I?

Well what is a storyboard? Let’s try and work that out first.

I think it could be a lot of things. It could be drawings, sketches in little identically sized boxes laid out on pages with arrows drawn between them. That’s the first image that comes to mind for me. Something like this:

Toy Story storyboards Copyright Pixar Animation Studios
Toy Story storyboards Copyright Pixar Animation Studios
Storyboards from The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Brothers
Storyboards from The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Brothers

Could anything else be a storyboard? Well what is the goal of a storyboard?

We have a script. We have the lines and the shot list and breakdowns. What are we trying to accomplish with a storyboard? Is it something we need to do before making an animatic (rough looking animated version of the movie)? Is an animatic just an animated storyboard?

The goal of storyboarding in my view is to convey the framing, beats, and visual content of the film with some indication of movement. We need to know where the camera goes, what’s in the frame. What’s moving. What’s in focus. What’s out of focus. How close are things. What’s the lighting like might be important to know etc.

Storyboards are basically a tool for the filmmaker(s -usually accompanied by some sort of production team) to better understand the visual look of the film, prior to filming it. This is a very important task, because to film things (or animate) even in this day and age is extremely expensive and time consuming. So the filmmakers want to be prepared when they walk on set (or sit down to animate the characters).

This is not news to anyone familiar with the process of filmmaking.

So we’ve established what a storyboard is meant to accomplish: clarifying an understanding of the visual narrative.

That’s especially helpful when we have a team of people that we need to align behind a common vision. And in that situation I might be more willing to agree that storyboards are useful, but let me elaborate on my own experience with storyboarding…

First off, beyond my own personal experience, a lot of the directors that I follow closely (though certainly not all), use storyboards only sparingly (to the best of my knowledge). That’s not to say they never use storyboards. There are certain types of scenes, action sequences… where storyboards can come in handy a lot more than say in a dialog sequence. Alfred Hitchcock for instance made use of storyboards often.

There’s also, I think, a separation here between live action films, where everything is given to us, and animated films, where we have to build everything from scratch. But isn’t there’s a difference between storyboards and concept art to visualize the assets for the movie? Those are separate things… so does it really matter if the film is animated or not for the question of should we make storyboards?

This is where I’ll jump in with my personal experience:

I wasn’t originally going to make storyboards for this short at all, at least not in the traditional sense of having a separate phase of the production after script and before animatic (or blocking/ layout). Partly, because I’m producing this completely on my own so there’s not a need to convey the vision to others (which saves a LOT of time in just general communication and collaboration -though the trade-off is a LOT more work for me). Partly because I can’t draw well (that’s not a big deal though, I’ll come back to that). But the main reason was I really wanted the movie to be character-animation driven. I wanted the story to HAPPEN in the animation phase, or at least at the blocking/ layout phase.

I’d build the assets, characters, sets. Rig them up. Throw them into the scene. And start animating following the script only as a guide, and allowing the process of character animation to play out and then to some degree block camera around the animation as opposed to the other way around.

If you’re an animator you’re probably immediately going to point out how much more time consuming it would be to animate first, and only then decide how to cut the shots.

I probably would be working on both at the same time and wouldn’t really go farther than the blocking stage of the animation before locking the shot down into an edit. But the reason I wanted to do it that way is the majority of animation I see lacks a naturalism to the characters in terms of how the shots are cut. You can’t always tell, but a lot of the time you can sense it, that the shot length was determined before the character was animated. From an editing standpoint, that’s terrible form. And I wanted to avoid this.

So a friend of mine, Alex Slover, last summer suggested that I make storyboards for the movie. I didn’t explain my whole reasoning for not wanting to; I sort of just brushed it off. But today I was trying to practice drawing Nemu and I decided why not pick a pose from the actual movie, and then I proceeded to start planning the animation of the first scene in my interpretation of the the traditional storyboard method, drawing little boxes and arrows and so on.

What started to happen was, first off my drawing skills have been improving over the past year, but certainly aren’t that great yet, and I found myself reverting to my old habits. I wasn’t paying any mind to proportions or anatomy or rendering. It was just totally: get the point of the poses and the basic layout of the scene out on paper as fast and as simply as possible. So obviously they look like chicken scratch:Nemu Storyboards 1Nemu Storyboards 2Nemu Storyboards 3

If anyone can understand what’s going on there other than me,  I’ll be impressed. I also wasn’t laying out boxes evenly or in any order so it’s a bit of a mess with the story just zigzagging and going all different directions across the page, but I got the whole first scene down more or less in that fashion.

I think storyboards are supposed to be total chicken scratch though anyway, or we’re spending too much time on storyboards. The majority of the scene I was able to sketch out pretty quickly, and my focus was just about getting the poses for her character to look right. I was trying to capture the gesture and expression (which is something I need to work on a lot in my drawing). Character animation centric movie remember? So gesture/pose and expression are what mattered.

But I ran into a snag towards the end of the scene. She’s just woken up and found herself in this room with people sleeping all over the floor and empty bottles and things and is sneaking her away towards the door when a glint from the dresser catches her eye and she goes over to check out this shiny ring. In the script, she then hears the sound of someone moaning and turns around, afraid of being caught, but it’s just someone turning over in their sleep. Then there’s this quick succession of other events: a knock on the door which wakes up the man sleeping in the bed and she gets frightened and quickly flees the scene with the ring.

->I should also add here, that the movie is going to be silent (Music only. No dialog. No Sound Effects). So I changed a few things. Instead of hearing a noise or a knock at the door, which the audience might be able to follow if I animated her well enough, but just to be safe, I replaced those shots with a bottle rolling on the ground when the person rolls over and the door shaking, a bottle falling off the dresser and breaking on the floor, and the doorknob turning back and forth.

->Second aside: I’ve included the first page of the script that corresponds to this scene here for reference: Nemusidian Cruise Ship Page 1

When I started boarding this I was doing it from memory without looking at the script. So I boarded the shot where she’s inspecting the ring, and then the man in the bed starts waking up in focal blur behind her, so she turns, frightened. We then pan to the door to see it visually vibrating back and forth. This is when I worked out how to represent the knocking noise without sound, and I came up with this concept of the room being like an ancient ruin or a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland that she’s carefully navigating where the whole room suddenly comes alive after she finds the ring. Things on the dresser start shaking, bottles fall off, people start waking up etc.

Then I was a little confused because something didn’t seem right and I went back to check the script. Aside from the fact that it didn’t make sense for the man to wake up before the knock on the door I had left out the first person on the floor rolling over as the false alarm. I backtracked and started a second branch from the shot where she inspects the ring and added a new shot where she pulls her gun on the person rolling over, which I liked. It was a good character move, and I want the animation to be so fast, all in one motion, like it’s second nature to her and this is the type of reaction she takes by default because of the situations she’s regularly in all the time.

It didn’t make sense then, if she pulled her gun out in response to a noise, for a knock at the door to suddenly send her into a panic. Also it felt better to save the fear (the punchline, the payoff) until the last minute, like Disney animator, Glenn Keane explains in this video:

So the next shot, when the door knock happens, she turns to acknowledge it, but keeps her pistol pointed towards the corner of the room, and maintains her calm, only getting frazzled a bit because now she has 2 possible threats to deal with instead of one. She’s still keeping her composure though. That meant I had only one more opportunity to frighten her so that she flees the scene (the necessary end result of the sequence). That would be the man in the bed waking up. But if the first 2 things didn’t scare her, why all of a sudden would the man waking up change anything? It was seeming like she was more afraid of the man in the bed, specifically, than anything else, and that’s not the impression I wanted to convey.

The problem is, how to cut to the man in the bed waking up, show her reaction of fear, and sell the need for her to flee the scene. The scene wasn’t working. I was cutting back to close-ups of her after each event and holding the first 2 for a beat (A moment in the rhythm of the story or the thoughts of the character. That’s a beat.) so there’d be the noise then a shot of her for a beat each time. But my goal is to create this compounding sensation of the room coming alive around her all at once so that she feels overwhelmed and needs to get out of there quickly. I needed things to happen faster, not in a speed sense, but in a narrative progression sense, in terms of beats. I needed things to be more concise.

I kept the first hold after the false alarm of the bottle rolling on the floor, and took out the second so that she acknowledges the knocking at the door, and then she acknowledges the crash of the bottle falling off the dresser, immediately, at the same time as she’s turning to the man in the bed, anticipating it will have woken him up. Then I cut to a reverse angle (remember she’s turned her head) to catch her cringing in fear. And I use the mirror to show the man waking up in that same shot because it’s not actually necessary that we cut away to him. The audience will be anticipating him waking up just like Nemu when we see the bottle crash.

So she almost doesn’t have time to think through those beats. Things start happening so fast she struggles to keep up. That’s what I wanted to convey. 2 quick shots to convey the pay-off for the scene. It’s great what you can do with film. Then she flees with the ring.

All of this may change when I get into the edit for any number of reasons: time constraints, technical or practical reasons, or it just doesn’t play on screen, which is always a possibility. The point of telling you about this snag, is this process of storyboarding, in allowing them to be just chicken scratch means I can go and test things very quickly.

Which leads me to the second big thing that happened while I was doing this. After reverting to my old drawing habits to work faster, I started reverting to my comfort zone: Writing. What I wasn’t able to draw or to make sure I remember it when I go to animate I jotted down little notes. And towards the end, I was entirely ignoring drawing all together and just planning the scene out in writing.

I work faster in writing. So it makes more sense for me to use that as a way to visualize the movie, and that’s exactly what I did when I wrote the script to begin with. Coming from that background, as a writer, if we can’t clearly visualize the movie after reading the script, to me, that means it wasn’t written well. My first instinct is to refine the script, not make storyboards. Writing is the tool that allows me to visualize the film the most clearly. It’s something I’m very familiar with and I trust my writing skills far more than I do my drawing ability.

A lot of that is simply that I need to learn to draw. Storyboards, even chicken scratch ones, are new territory for me. Like any other tool, storyboards are something we have to learn how to use properly, for it to be any use.

I follow a lot of comic artists online that often prefer to jump straight into sketching out panels, and when they think about script writing, that’s a challenge for them, because they’re not as experienced with writing as they are with drawing. For me it’s the other way around.

And I don’t think there’s a clear delineation of what a storyboard needs to be either. These tools are interchangeable and we can use writing, boarding, whatever to get the understanding of what the movie is going to be. These storyboards from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ (1944) are a good example. A fantastic movie by the way.

Storyboarding is messy. What matters is figuring out what the film needs to do to tell the story.

Anyway, this was a long post for what took me all of maybe an hour or two to do. So do I believe in storyboards? Well I’m getting better at using them. While I still fallback on writing when I’m in a tough spot, I’m getting better and better at drawing, and with practice this will become a more and more useful tool to rely on.

I believe in working out the story. I use a lot of tools to do that. Storyboarding is just one of them.

Links mentioned in this post:
Alfred Hitchcock Storyboard Gallery
Glenn Keane Animating a Dancer
Alex Slover

P.S. I’ve included the first page of the script that corresponds to the scene I talked about here: Nemusidian Cruise Ship Page 1

What do you think of storyboarding? Are you more comfortable writing or drawing or something else? What tools do you use to work out the story? Tell me in the comments below.

Focus on the Face Part 2

I’ve had the New Post window open for the past few days waiting for an opportunity. I’m moving very quickly though with this short, and whenever I sat down it was a choice between either writing a blog post or making progress on the movie. But I’m taking a a bit of a break today to catch up on some Blender tutorials.

So last week I was working on the concept design for the main character, Nemu. As I said in my first post, getting her character working, and more specifically, the face is the biggest hurdle for the movie. Without her there’s no movie.nemu studies 5 instaed

I settled on a design I liked and on Monday I jumped into Blender. I hadn’t used it in a few months so I was a little rusty. The first day didn’t go so well, but I’m quickly getting back up to speed. I posted a work in progress photo up on Twitter, and on the Facebook Pagewhich you’ll have seen if you follow me on either one. Here are the results from the full week:Nemu Head 1 Perspective

I spent most of my time this week pushing vertices around the old fashioned way, trying to get the anatomy and topology right. The corners of the mouth and eyes gave me the most trouble. In future it probably makes more sense to focus on one or the other at a time (anatomy or topology) and then retopologize or reshape the mesh afterwards.

Nemu Head 1 RendersNemu Head 1 Wires

Still to-do are: checking the eye articulation (make sure they can open/ close properly) and the inside of the mouth.

At this point, unless there’s any showstoppers, I need to move on to the rest of the character and start working on expressions for the face rig. From there I can start blocking the first scene and the rest of the movie.

I could definitely continue improving and refining, but this is a quick and dirty production. I’ve already spent more time than I wanted to on just this one element. Besides when you stare at one thing for too long I think you start picking out all the imperfections and little details that probably don’t really matter that much in the bigger picture. I’ve been in a constant flux of “This looks terrible” and “That doesn’t look bad” all week… So it’s time to stop and show the world to figure out the real verdict.

I’ll start posting my WIP on Nemu on a few forums, to get a good gauge. I might take on one or two changes to the head, based on the direction of feedback I get. If you do see anything that really looks off or out of place, please let me know in the comments. And I’d love to hear what you think of her in general so far too.

The most important thing is to make sure her character reads. Stylistically I wasn’t sure how realistic to go with the look. I went slightly more towards the realistic side in order to get a good level of detail to the facial animation, but depending how things go once I get into it I may scale it back (or add if necessary) to get the animation looking good.

Lighting, textures (if any -I don’t really care for an overly textured look), and the animation itself will also play a part in how she looks on screen so the sooner I introduce those elements the better.

The make-up around the eyes is something I’m trying to work out. That’s an area that’s obviously crucial to nail down. How much eye-liner, eye shadow will she have on etc. because that can drastically change the look of the face. Getting the eyes right is probably the biggest priority.

Aside from that, I’m still trying to push the character and play around where I can, but the schedule looms large and I need to get something working. The benefit of spending most of the first half of the year learning anatomy is paid off now when I need to move fast and make quick decisions, because it’s important that this time is spent trying to capture and push her character, and as little time wasted fumbling around with the anatomy, or the software.

This is meant to be a quick and dirty production. I’m just trying to put as much character into the design as I can before it’s pencils down.

An aside to those who know me well: Can’t stress enough the importance of meeting deadlines.

If you want more frequent updates on the movie go like the Facebook page or Follow me on Twitter. I also added a mailing list signup on the right if you like to follow along that way. And please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what you think.

Focus on the Face

So I’m finally starting a blog for this production.

Briefly, to sum up what I’ve mentioned on Twitter or in passing, Nemusidian will be an under 9 minute short animated movie made with the open source 3d software, Blender (or hashtag #b3d ), that I’m producing on my own.

This weekend I did some concept studies of the main character, Nemu. I feel like she’s close, but I haven’t quite totally hit the mark yet.

Getting her character correct at the quality I’m aiming for is the biggest challenge of the production. If she doesn’t work on screen the whole thing falls apart. Once I’ve got her character working the greatest hurdle will be behind me.

Nemu 0Nemu 1Nemu roughNemu Heads

The face is the most important part of the character. If I can get the face to work, I know the rest will follow. So this is my top priority. You’ll notice I’ve mainly been drawing heads.

I view these as studies or schematic diagrams for the 3d character. As it’s the 3d character that will be the end result, not a drawing so I’m not spending much time rendering them. The important thing is to get an understanding of the 3d form.

I need to understand the 3d form in order to model the character in 3d. So I’m trying to visualize her from at least 3 different angles (Front, Profile, and 3/4’s view, and any other angle I can think of).

Nemu 4

A majority of my time has been spent studying anatomy. I still have a lot to learn as you can see obviously from my sketches (Also my sketchbook thread on CGSociety); but I feel like I know enough now where I can suss out the errors that I make and the concepts are beginning to get to the point where they’re worth showing you to get some feedback.

And I’d love to hear your feelings in the comments below. Whether just stopping in to say hello (since this is my first post), or get into the nitty gritty and start a discussion. I’m all for it and I intend to spare you none of the details on this blog. Just keep it clean and civil. I’ll respond if I can, and try to keep out the riff raff.

So what was I saying?

My focus is on the face. And the important thing is to understand the form in 3d.

I’m noting the profile, and the shape(s) that creates. The importance of a strong silhouette is not to be ignored. Determining the shape of the silhouette from as many angles as possible is paramount to understand the form for 3d modelling. It’s also vital to creating what animators call “appeal”.

Nemu 3

Appeal isn’t a term used to judge how pretty a character looks, but how clear the outline and overall appearance of the character is in so much as it makes it easy for the eye to see what’s happening.

A strong silhouette from every angle will make her character instantly readable on screen so the audience will be focused on what she’s doing (the animation) and not where she is, or trying to discern which parts of her body are actually moving and where they’re going.

The goal of most animation isn’t to try to create a puzzle for the audience to solve. The goal is most often to convey some kind of emotion or character motivation to progress the story. So everything possible within reason to aid in that clarity should be done. That’s the basic idea of “Appeal” in animation terms.

Of course it’s easy to get carried away with appeal, especially for an animator for instance who might be focused on just one individual shot at a time and not looking at the broader picture (that the goal is to make a whole movie).

It’s important to remember that Story Context is the main driver of clarity for the audience and appeal is always a secondary tool to story.

But that’s getting a bit off topic. I might go into that more in a future post…

So in these studies I’m trying to find a strong silhouette from all angles that captures her character.

Getting the eyes right is crucial. I’m liking the look a lot of a fairly wide brow, especially together with what I think will  be a very small, rounded jaw. The eyebrows will probably peak high on the brow and it’ll accentuate the forehead which is covered by the bandanna/ headdress.

Nemu 2

The design of the bandanna is also a crucial aspect of her character. Not the texture printed on it; that’s a somewhat lower priority, but the silhouette and shapes it creates around the top of the head and interaction with the hair. I’ve always envisioned her with a bandanna pretty much as I’ve drawn but I’m interested in possibly experimenting with some other ideas… maybe not even a bandanna. I don’t know, how do you feel about it?

The cheeks are defined by the silhouette of the whole head and the skull shape underneath (The Zygomatic bone). I feel like the pronounced cheekbones are a good fit but maybe a bit softer and not such a sharp angle like I’ve drawn in the sketches.

For the hair I’m pretty set on a straight black just sort of hanging out from the bandanna. I’m not sure on the length, but for technical reasons it’ll probably be easier to keep it short (Hair is notoriously difficult to work with in 3d animation so the less of it getting in the way the better. And beyond that Blender has a lot of issues animating hair -though it’s been making strides in rendering hair lately -but movement and rendering are two entirely separate problems. So it’s already going to be a challenge. No need to make it harder unnecessarily.)

Other than all of that I’m just trying to vary things wherever I can to experiment. Adding little dangly things, accessories, changing the bandanna or the features around a bit with each drawing. If I know the cheek works in one drawing I might change it up in the next one just to experiment to see what works.

But I’m also trying to duplicate features. It’s not okay to just get lucky and get a face that looks good because the whole point is to be able to understand how the forms are laid out. I need to be able to draw it again. Luck is not good.

Not only for this design, but I’ll be doing storyboards and also full poses for her outfit design as well so I’ll need to be able to draw this face many times and have a total and complete understanding to model and animate it for the movie.

Whew thanks for reading if you stuck around! Please leave comments below if you did. I’d love to hear from you. Your thoughts/ feelings on my workflow, or on my designs, or any questions or comments you might have, I’ll really appreciate it.

If you felt this post was interesting it’d really mean a lot if you shared it with your friends. There should be some social networking buttons below, but if not, you know how to copy/paste a link right?

Also, bear with me. I just threw this blog up and haven’t had time to break it in yet. If you spot any horrors, let me know.

If you have social media you can follow me on Twitter @mikhailpschalk. I’m most likely to post new updates and things in-between there first.

I’ve also started a Facebook Page for this short: http://facebook.com/nemusidian

If you’re on Facebook, giving it a like would really mean a lot.

And you can subscribe to the RSS feed and be updated that way through a service like Feedly or Digg Reader. (RSS feed links on the footer and sidebar)

Links to things mentioned in this post:
My Sketchbook
Gray’s Anatomy Online
Facebook Page