We have been working with Laura Raines Smith from our very first project. In fact we have never worked with another animator since. We tried a few people before her, but none of them succeeded in doing something as seemingly simple as animating a little girl.
Even with the aid of motion capture (mocap), most animators made the character move like a truck or play with a ball like a professional basketball player. Not so Laura -- maybe because she's a woman.
She adds a level a subtlety and detail to animations that makes them very expressive and charming. Working with her is like working with Santa Claus. Every day there's a new gift to unwrap in 3D Studio Max. She always adds something delightful, something surprising to the animation.
For the occasion of this article, we poked her brain a bit about how she does what she does.
How did you approach the task of animating the old lady in The Graveyard?
Usually my process for animations is to ask the art director what they are looking for and throw out some ideas of both extremes. Is she spry and agile or old and decrepit? I believe Michael and Auriea were looking for dignified, but started to like the gimping animation I found in a mocap file.
Another thing that influences how a character will move is how they are built. If they have short legs then they'll have to take shorter steps. If they are thin, they will move faster. If they are old they will move slower. If they are sad, they will look down. You just piece together simple postures and speeds and try to keep them consistent throughout the animations.
What do you use for reference?
I will sometimes use mocap as a start -- then have to reduce frames, change the posture, and make sure it loops etc. The mocap files are great for getting some of the subtler ambient motions in the spine, neck, and arms, but they can be hard to get to loop. Since we see human motion every day it is easy to see flaws in human animations. For animations that require a lot of quirks, as in old age, I thought it was best to use mocap so that she wouldn't start looking like a caricature of an old person.
Another process I used for the remainder of the animations was to film myself doing the movements, aka rotoscoping. I then turn the .avi into a .mov file so I can frame-by-frame the .mov and create postures (by eying the footage) in Max on the old woman on every five frames or so. Then I'll go back and delete and slide keys on certain body parts to make the motion less uniform and create smoother arcs. I have a whole embarrassing .mov archive of me, my friends and my neighbors acting out mini-scenes for my animations.
There is also great internet reference to be found on the BBC's motion gallery, YouTube, and other miscellaneous sites as well as footage from feature films. I spent the first day just downloading and creating a reference archive.
Your animations have a subtlety that we rarely find in other animators' work; are you aware of this? What's your trick?
For human animation I guess I'm always trying not to draw too much attention to a particular movement. If it makes sense physically then it is pleasing for me. If a character moves too quickly for its weight or too much of its mass is over a non-weighted foot it makes me wince. I tend to slow things down in order to give the character time to think. I think that the subtlety could be linked with the slower speed and trying to get the characters' loops to be as smooth as possible.
Animations are very important to express a character's personality. Are you a keen student of body language?
I don't sit at parks and watch people's body language but I have been observing humans for a lifetime. :) I think it's easier to "try on" postures directly to the 3D model and see what works for that character's body and personality. It's pretty freeform. I also film myself. I realize that I can get into the limitations of my personality and my body type so I will film friends as well. One interesting thing I've noticed is that the performance can be too natural if you go based solely on rotoscoping. People expect to see more charicatured postures. You have to try to balance between the natural and stylized.
Something that we have been wondering about for a long time: why do so many game characters have stiff and awkward walk cycles?
Well that is probably a three part answer (maybe four or five). 1) You see walks everday so if something is off in a human-animated cycle, you notice it instantly. You might not see the same stiffness in a Skeletal Mammoth that has risen from the dead to chauffer an Evil Demon. 2) Many animated cycles are incredibly symmetrical (copy/paste opposite). If you look at your face, the right side and left side are not the same. That is true in walk cycles, and seeing a mirrored image of the arms and legs moving, your brain will see the pattern and thus it will look stiff (if not mechanical).
3) When you walk, you lift your legs and put them down and move forward. While this is all happening your pelvis is rotating up and down and back and forth. This causes your spine to counter-rotate up and down and back and forth all the way up to your head, which sways gently but always remains facing forward.
Your arms are swinging back and forth opposite of your legs but slightly delayed because they are also reacting to the movement of the counter-rotation of the spine. The pelvis's height isn't highest when it's weighted on one leg directly under it but slightly after when the other leg is beginning to swing through. The pelvis is also swinging back and forth to the weighted leg. The stiffness that you see probably starts in an under-animated pelvis. Ha ha, I guess that should have been my short answer.
You also work for more traditional game companies; what's the difference with working for a small art team like Tale of Tales, if any?
Many if not all of the characters I've animated for game companies have either been heroic and manly or cartoony and stylized. The Tale of Tales' characters have been for the most part natural and subtle. Quite a relief from sword-swinging and blasted deaths. The only other game that I have really enjoyed working on was Zoo Tycoon because it too was naturalistic animation (of animals). Being a female animator probably has a lot to do with it. Imagine if you were the sole male animator at your company forced to animate the Barbie franchise for years on end. You might know how I feel. ;)
You once said that working with Tale of Tales has been the highlight of your career. Can you explain why?
I have had a lot of freedom to express myself working on Tale of Tales's games. I think my natural style fits with their naturalistic games. They are also more gentle and open in their comments which makes me take extra steps to try to add more to the animation. Instead of sending me links to footage of other games and saying "make it look like this" they send me links to abstract art and old movie clips. Having that freedom of expression can unlock many more possibilities.
Early work in progress screengrab of The Graveyard with the first animations of the avatar by Laura Raines Smith
Next generation hardware allows for more animations everywhere. What is the future of animation in games?
I can't see big budgets and huge asset lists going away. But all of that is being poured into games that have the same mechanics. I see a huge void in the types of games being produced. I also think that some people don't really care about high-end graphics as long as the story and gameplay are interesting. Huge Void. I try not to think about it.
Do you think there will just be more and more work for animators to do? Or will there be a technological answer to the problem? Like motion capture or generative animation (as in Spore or the things that Natural Motion are doing)?
I don't know enough about generative animation to answer that question. I did see Spore last year and thought the animation was herky-jerky, and I realized why mother nature never intended us to have three legs. As far as Natural Motion I remember having a look at it and being quite impressed. I don't know how they can program in "character" though. But the way it responds naturally with the environment is very exciting. I guess I'll have to become a painter again or go and work on animated shorts or 2D animation that still has somewhat of a following.
If there would be one thing that you would change about animation software, what would it be? What bugs you the most?
I am certainly no expert in 3D animation programs and there's a lot I've never used. I only have experience with Max and Maya. Max's character studio has so much already built in it's easy to transfer animations from one character to another or mix and match in the motion mixer.
However, I can't stand the track view in Max and avoid it as much as possible, while in Maya I love the trax editor and moving keys and adjusting tensions and typing in exact values with ease. Maya's interface and key editing blows Max away. I wish Max was as elegant as Maya and Maya had more built in character rigging and animation features.
I can say that we probably wouldn't have been able to use Maya on any of our projects with the budget and time constraints. Max just has a superior workflow. Maybe now that they are both owned by Autodesk they'll marry the two.