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Creating Character Animation Assets
by Jeff Hayes [Art]

November 5, 1999 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Editor's note: This paper was originally published in the 1999 Game Developer's Conference proceedings.

As soon as any of the film-based computer graphics production houses develop a new technique, game developers want to try and include a less expensive version of it in their next game. And while the ability to deliver beautiful, detailed, cutting-edge imagery to the gaming public is wonderful and exciting, it's also a bit intimidating. How can you efficiently meet the public's rising expectations? How can you engage their ever-more-discerning eye and still deliver on time and on budget?

This article will focus on the techniques I use to create motion assets efficiently. These techniques are based on experience I have gained doing computer animation over the past 10 years, and more specifically while developing Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. (KGB) for the N64, and an LBE attraction called Virtual Jungle Cruise for DisneyQuest in Orlando. I hope that the issues covered here help you to avoid some of the pitfalls and frustrations of creating video game animation, and allow you animators and animation programmers out there to bring the quality of video game animation up to the next level.

Three Steps to Generating Game-ready Motion Assets: Design, Create, and Implement

These three time proven steps should be considered in some form or another every time you generate motion assets. Adapt them to your needs and working style and you'll be on the path to success.

Step 1: Design

This step consists of the following four sections: Motion Archetyping, Camera Positioning, Character Design and Flow Charting

Motion Archetyping: What makes a character your character? The great Warner Brother's animation director, Chuck Jones, identified five essential questions, which help define a character. All right, so we're making games and not animated shorts, but surprisingly, these questions will still help you to define your characters:

1. How does your character stand? What sort of posture best defines your character's outlook on the world?

2. How does your character carry its weight? When your character initiates an action, which body part moves first and which moves last?

3. How does your character locomote? Do they always run? Do they walk bow-legged?

4. What style of body language does your character use when expressing itself to other characters? When interacting during the game, is your character more conscious of itself or others?

5. How does your character use it eyes communicating to the audience, or in our case, the gamer? Is the gamer a co-conspirator, an adversary, or generally ignored?

Once you've answered these five questions for yourself, you need to clearly communicate these characterizations to your team. One great way to communicate this is by using comparison,"Her eyes always look mysteriously into the distance, like Garbo, and she moves real sexy, like Kathleen Turner in Body Heat." Use these kinds of pose and motion archetypes when defining your character's behavior. don't leave it at that though! Get up and move around; act things out! Start a photo archive on each character and scribble down the ideas you don't find in magazines and books. Anything goes when you're showing your teammates exactly what you want from your future femme fatale.

Camera Positioning: Now that you've vogued like Madonna and pranced around like Jerry Lewis to the delight of your colleagues, its time to design your camera views. Is your game camera first or third person? If it's first person, that could cut your motion requirements considerably, while a third person camera will give you a chance to show off some of your animation muscle. What is the distance from the camera to your character? Will the gamer be able to see small, precise motions? If those are necessary for gameplay, you'll either need to bring the camera in close or animate the actions more broadly. Will you use cinematic camera cuts, or is the camera continuously following your character no matter what happens? Does the camera run along a rail, where its XYZ position is pre-set based on the character's position, or is the camera dynamic, where the players have a lot of control over where they can look?

On KGB we frequently used a rail-cam. Since our animation testing software didn't let us use an in-game camera, we had no idea that, when our outfielder stood in the warning track facing away from the camera in his relaxed pose, it looked like he was relieving himself against the outfield wall. Thankfully the Nintendo testers found this "bug", and it was relatively easy to fix.

Character Design: Once your camera position questions are answered, it's time to finalize your character designs. The vagaries of character design create lots of very complex, interdependent questions. You already know that it's an important issue and that there's no single approach that guarantees success, so I'm only going to give you some resource suggestions: Next Generation issue number 46 has a great synopsis of some video game industry's most famous characters. The Naughty Dog web page ( has some interesting notes on how Crash evolved. Josh White's article in the November '97 issue of Game Developer had lots of good ideas. I'd also like to recommend some books: Toy Story: The Art and Making of an Animated Film by John Lasseter, and Nightmare Before Christmas by Frank Thompson. For a great anatomical reference, look at Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters, by Robert Beverly Hale, and An Atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists, by Ellenber/Dittrich/Baum.

Flow Charting: When complete, your flow charts will describe every single possible combination of motions that can occur in your game. Creating a flow chart that accurately reflects your final game is difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming; but without creating them you're headed for trouble. The simplest possible flow is a linear-type, where you go directly from move to move in a fixed order.

FigFigure 1. Linear-type Flowchart

In the above scenario your character couldn't stand from a walk or jump from a run. Obviously, this type of flow is very limited. The next simplest flow chart is a radial-type, where all branches start and end from the same position:

Figure 2. Radial-type Flowchart

The radial-type of flow provides slightly deeper game play, but is still too confining for most gamers. The flow-chart style I've found effective is the descending type. Its most significant strength is that it allows infinite complexity and its biggest weakness is that it can be challenging to use effectively. Let's create a simple example of a descending flow with the following moves:

FigFigure 3. Descending-Type Flowchart

The parenthesis around the moves on the bottom row represent the idea that gameplay continues by jumping up the flowchart to an earlier move or "state." This means that you go from any (Stand Relaxed) up to Stand Relaxed at they very top. Note that Die is the only move that isn't followed by another move.

Before you generate any motion assets, the art director has to approve the way Stand Relaxed looks in the game. Before you set a single key-frame or plan your motion capture shoot, find a photo or draw a picture describing exactly what Stand Relaxed should look like, then generate some data that closely matches the pose and look at it in the game. With sports games you can use magazines and trading cards, but with most other genres you're going to have to draw a picture of the pose. Doing this may sound like a lot of extra work, but I guarantee that it will save you lots of time in the long run.

Here's one way this extra work up front will save you time: Let's say the director and the animator sit down and talk about how Stand Relaxed should look, but they don't use visual reference. At the end of the meeting, the animator "knows exactly" what the director wants and creates Stand Relaxed. Then, since the animator "thought he knew exactly" what it should look like, he goes ahead and generates Walk, Run, Jump, Punch and Get Punched without getting Stand Relaxed signed-off by the director. What happens when the director takes a look at Stand Relaxed and says, "this looks good, but the right arm should be raised a bit higher?"

In order to avoid popping, the animator now must go and fix the first portion of all five moves. Multiply that by the estimated total number of moves and then multiply again to account for the art director changing his or her mind and you're talking about a lot of animator time. I'm embarrassed to say that on KGB, I ignored this rule more than once and got burned nearly every time. I'd love to save you the trouble!

You may have noticed that our flow doesn't let you Jump from a Run! If you simply play Jump directly after Run, chances are that no amount of interpolation will give you an accurate-looking transition, while no interpolation at all will result in a pop. A pop is a visual anomaly when you see the "seam" between two moves. A really noticeable pop can actually break the gamer's immersion in your game. One way to remedy both of these visually disruptive situations is to create the transitional move Jump to Run. You'd probably flowchart it like this:

Figure 4. Descending-type flowchart with Jump-to-Run

Here again, be as thorough as possible when defining how your transitional moves will look. Don't skip over pre-production! Video, acting it out in front of everybody and drawings are worth a thousand words and can save lots of animator time to boot.

Jump to Run's first frame should be the same as the last frame of Run. Jump to Run's last frame would match the first frame of Jump. Conceptually, this is great because you won't see any popping, but if you're not careful, a new sort of visual anomaly will appear. Since the last frame of Jump to Run is the same as the first frame of Jump, you will see a single frame of animation held for two frames. Visually, this can be almost as distracting as pop. On KGB, we did our best to avoid these "holds" by trimming the first and last frames of all transitional moves. Programmers out there please take note: animation exporting utilities should always include a widget to set the range of frames that the animator wants to export.

Let's add a new move, called "Stand Crouched." Let's assume all the moves that come out of Stand Relaxed will also come out of Stand Crouched. Now you've got two initial states from which your character can interact with the world. That could double the number of transitional moves you need between your two initial states and the five states that follow. Here's a way to estimate how many transitional moves you need to create:

Two states that go only between each other equals two transitional moves.

Relaxed RelaxedToCrouch Crouch

Crouch CrouchToRelaxed Relaxed

Add a third state, called "Ready." Now you've got six transitional moves.

Relaxed RelaxedToReady Ready

Relaxed RelaxedToCrouch Crouch

Ready ReadytoRelaxed Relaxed

Ready ReadytoCrouch Crouch

Crouch CrouchtoReady Ready

Crouch CrouchtoRelaxed Relaxed

See a pattern? Here's a formula for calculating the number of transitional moves between states:

(# of states) * (# of states - 1) = # of transitional moves

Now that you've defined the look of all your states (and gotten them approved), act out the transitional moves in front of the entire motion team. There are so many approaches to even the simplest motion that you must do everything you can to be sure you've clearly communicated your ideas to everyone involved.

Bust-A-Groove recently came out over here and at first, it really blew me away with the apparent complexity of its flow-charting. The dance moves are so inventive, clever and engaging that at first glance the motions appeared impossible to flow chart. but if you look closer, you realize that branching can only happen at the first beat of every musical measure. Since the gamer chooses a single key-combination to follow and can only succeed or fail to be on the beat, the code knows at the beginning of every musical measure exactly which two moves can be played after the current one. If the gamer succeeds in staying on the beat, the gamer is rewarded with an even more complex dance move, which begins exactly where the previous move left off; the transition to the next move is visually seamless. If the gamer fails to tap the key-combination on the beat, the character lerps to a less interesting move. The trick here is that the gamer is so busy focusing on how to succeed on the next key-combination that they don't really notice the lerping. The game also includes special offensive and defensive moves and these follow the flowcharting pattern established in the dancing portion of the gameplay.

Now that you've got a fleshed-out flow chart, you can create your list of moves. Write down all the states and transitional moves on your flow chart and your move list is complete. You may want to include other information of the list - maybe a description of what the move looks like, the file's status (captured, edited, in game), and who the tasks are assigned to. Ideally this list will help you track the progress of the project. On KGB we had an automated move tracking system. The producer assigned a task on our intranet, and the animator received mail with the name of every move they were to work on and what sort of work they had to do. Every night at midnight, a utility program would automatically look through our directories, note newly added or updated files, and mail the producer with the tasks that had been completed. It worked great and saved production people from going into a master file and updating all of that information by hand.

Some games feature cinematic sequences. In real-time environments (where pre-rendering may not be an option), you're going to have to plot the motion which will occur in your cinematics. Storyboards can really help with this task since they describe not only the character's motions but also the cameras that those scenes will require. The cinematic moves you include in your game have one significant difference between the gameplay moves: frame count. Game play moves require the fewest possible frames but cinematic moves can be full of lush, expressive motion.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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