Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Workflow Toolbox

Animators are obsessed with workflow.

Ok, ok, I know it's not fair to generalise but a lot of animators I know/have met/have spectated on forums, twitter and facebook seem to be, in my opinion, overly concerned and worried about workflow. Not that workflow should be overlooked, not at all. But I'm of the mindset that you should just do it. Get on with animating the way that feels comfortable and do what works for you.

I think it's healthy to look at how other animators work, especially if they're professionals or very skilled. And even to try and emulate that workflow. But sometimes it just won't work the same for you and it's not worth trying to force it.

The truth, at least for me, is that there is no such thing as the golden workflow. There is no one workflow to rule them all. At least not when you're working within a professional environment. That's where workflows get interesting. You are given deadlines and are expected to deliver high quality work by a certain day and time. I have found that sometimes to be able to do that, you have to have what I call a workflow toolbox.

The Workflow Toolbox

What is the workflow toolbox? Well, let me's not really a thing. It doesn't exist, because I made it up. But, it is something that you can develop if you're adventurous enough. I say adventurous because, unless you're at a big studio where the production requires you to have a certain feel to your work that can be more easily attained by a certain workflow then chances are nobody will care how you create and deliver your animation as long as you do it.

I've always been a blocking guy. I don't know why but I love blocking, just something about it. My usual workflow goes like this:

Block all the story telling poses > block the breakdowns > block the secondary breakdowns > block until I'm on 4's >  block until I'm on 2's if I need to > hit spline and be happy that hardly anything changed > clean curves up and polish


This is how I worked for a long time. It's very fun but I was only blocking so much because I was scared of hitting spline and polishing. I hated that I freaked out every time I hit spline because all of my lovely animation suddenly became a giant mess that I had to fix all over again. Imagine you paint a lovely landscape then smudge it all with your hand and have to fix it up but make it look even better than before you ruined it. It's not a fun concept is it? Obviously, this isn't really what you're doing when you go from blocking to spline/polish but that's how it felt.

Long story short...I started a new job where I had to animate cutscenes and have one done for pretty much every two weeks. I was having an awesome time but whenever it came to hitting spline and polishing I'd completely stress out for days and wouldn't enjoy myself. Then it struck me, I really wasn't enjoying myself...and that's not a good thing. Not when you're doing the job you've always wanted to do. I had to change. I pinpointed that it was splining and polishing that was causing me this stress and decided to have fun with my workflow to snap myself out of it.

I made myself go into splines earlier to start with. That got me feeling more confident outside of blocking and got me used to making changes after blocking. That fixed everything, I no longer felt that all my fun was over when I hit a certain part of animating.

After making this breakthrough, I decided to go further and try something else. I was given a lengthy cutscene that was mainly two characters talking and walking small distances. So I splocked the whole thing. To anyone who doesn't know what splocking's blocking but you stay in spline mode the whole time. It makes polish shorter and can get you some nice results quickly as long as you feed the computer enough information (you always should). By this time all fears of splining and blocking had totally blown away.


But I haven't stopped there. I started a new personal shot before Christmas and decided to try a workflow I've never tried before. The layered approach, it's hard to explain. Or at least I find it is. You don't use animations layers, that's a big misconception. It's more that you feel it out from the root whilst in spline mode,  building the motion from the root outwards. So far it's been a lot of fun despite no blocking at all. And it's confirmed that I no longer fear the dreaded spline and/or polish stage. In fact, I love polishing now. It gives me a chance to add even more to what I already had. And who doesn't want that? I remember when I used to think that polish was only cleaning up curves in the graph editor and deleting keys that I didn't need. How wrong I was, it's so much more. A huge thanks to Mike Walling and Kevan Shorey for showing me that.

[Using The Toolbox]
If you've made it this far, you'll know that I tried a few different approaches. The awesome thing that I discovered was that none of them were the perfect workflow for animation in general. Depending on what I was animating, there was a worflow that fit it best. By the end of my job I developed a hybrid workflow method where I'd use different workflows within the same scene. I found that blocking worked well for wider shots containing body mechanics and splocking was great for medium close ups and close up shots. It was great, it felt like I had a toolbox full of different workflows that I could choose from based on the scene or shot that my director threw at me.

Don't be scared to experiment if something doesn't feel right. But don't get obsessed with finding a single awesome workflow either. And there's nothing wrong with only having one method and sticking with it. What ever works best for you is what's best for you. Just because Jason Ryan goes blocking > linear > spline doesn't mean that you need to. And if there's a part of animating that you don't like much or that scares you...grab it by the face and give it a good talking to. Tell it "NO! BAD! BAAAAAD!" and show it that you can master it.

I forgot to mention that this blog post all came about from an email conversation that I had with my good friend Michael. Here's a quote from the good man:
"It's funny you mention your approach to workflows as, over the last workshop, I've (finally) realised that different workflows work for different shots. As you say CUs & MCUs are great for the layered approach and I definitely think those wider shots are more suited to the blocking approach. So I'm now more open to the idea of different workflows. I guess after reading books like Animators Survival Kit and the like, that it was easy for me to think that there was just the one way of animating. But it's cool now to think that not only do people have different methods, but that people use multiple methods themselves, depending on the shot. Kinda like having a handy little toolbox I guess."

[Thanks to Rachelle Fryatt for the workflow toolbox picture at the top of the blog. Click her name to check her out or have a looky at her facebook page here.] 

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