Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Autodesk Maya Tips: How to Practice Good Hierarchy

Why should you care about having good hierarchy and staying organized in 3D modeling?

Having good visuals can seem to be the most important part. If it looks good, why worry about what's going on in the back end, right?

Trouble is, a 3D asset is touched by man hands (and computers) in its route through the animation pipeline.

The first place to start is in naming. 


Naming can vary from modeler to modeler but has to follow some key rules. 

1. Names need to define the object 
2. Names need to be unique 

If there's 100 bolts on a robot, each bolt needs to have a unique name. This is where padding comes into play. 

Autodesk provides a great definition: Padded numbers are frame numbers that have a specified number of digits, where 0s are used to fill the unused digits

For example: Four digit padding is something like bolt_0003 or leaf_0010

Making sure names are easily readable is also important. This is where Camel Casing comes in. 

Camel Casing 
When there is more than two words to describe an object, lowercase the first letter of the first word and capitalize the first letter of the words proceeding the first. 

Example: pinkyFinger or largeRedBall

Once naming is complete, it's time for group. 

Select Edit > Group or press Ctrl + G

Groups can be made when thinking what objects need to move together like the neck and the head or the arm and the hands. 

Pivot Placement
Next task in setting up a good hierarchy is pivot placement. 
One must consider where objects rotate from. The feet rotate from the ankle area. 

Luis illustrates further why it's important to place the pivot in the right spot. 

For an in depth analysis on setting up hierarchies in maya be sure to watch Luis Labrador’s full lecture 

Download AnimSchool's Feature Level Rig for Free and start animating today!

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Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Animating the Eye Dart


There is an old famous proverb “the eyes are the window into the soul” which simply means that a person’s eyes can betray what they are truly feeling at any given moment.

Our eyes, more than other parts of our body, make us feel “human”. As artists, they are the key to convincing the viewer that what we have created is real, emotional, and true. Eye animation is what takes an animated character from looking great to feeling real. Emotion and action begin in the eyes. When you turn your head, it is your eyes that lead the action. When you are disgusted and have to look away, it is your eyes that close first. Thought and feeling start with the eyes and then descend to the rest of the body. But how? How can you convey feelings and emotions through two small orbs of geometry? By understanding that eyes are not just seeing the world, but processing it. Take a moment and look at your eyes in the mirror. Do you see that? That small quick motion where your pupils travel across your eye and then darts to a new position. In animation, we call that an eye dart and it allows animators to quickly and simply convey that a character is truly alive. 

Animschool instructor Ricky Renna in his class on Facial Performance makes it a priority to understand, analyze and execute a successful eye dart. An eye dart is not a one size fits all idea but rather the speed and frequency of an eye dart can actually determine how a character is thinking. Are they frantic? Are they scared? Are they exhausted? Maybe they are about to fall asleep and so their eyes slowly dart through the air, unfocused and hazy as their brain starts to prepare itself for oblivion. Maybe your character is searching for an answer under perilous circumstances and so their eyes are quickly darting around,  searching for an answer just out of reach. If an eye dart expresses thought or action in a character, it can also be used to convey a lack of thought or control. Your character could be hypnotized, losing the ability for independent thought and so their eyes remain completely still and unblinking. An eye dart can be as complex as creating the illusion of a character attempting to perform rocket science but it can also be as simple as a technique to keep your character feeling “alive.”

But how can you animate an eye dart? 

Eye darts are a series of small movements within the eye happening constantly. On a technical level these darts average between 2-3 frames and about 80 percent of the movement in an eye dart will happen in just one frame with some small settle on the rest. A two to three-frame eye dart creates a nice crisp movement to patch back into the rest of your animation. But an eye dart doesn't just affect the geometry of the eyeball itself, it impacts and influences the flesh around it, or in this case the eyelids. To really give the impression of a character that is fleshy and real, after completing a full pass on eye darts, go back in and ever so subtly have the eyelid motion follow the eye. If your character’s eyes dart down, the eyelids should subtly follow that motion soon after. Keep in mind that animation is a tool to mimic real life and so since in real life your top lid would move more than your lower lid, use that in your animation. By taking the time to execute a  thoughtful and intentional eye pass, your animation can transform from “student level” to industry professional level work. 

For an in depth analysis of eye darts and eye animation on feature level scene be sure to watch Ricky’s full lecture 

Download AnimSchool's Feature Level Rig for Free and start animating today!


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Friday, July 29, 2022

How to Avoid "Spline Depression"


Every animator is different and every workflow is different - but there is something we can all agree on, hitting spline for the first time can be ROUGH. 

It's hard to see an animation that has been posed and blocked in so beautifully get destroyed by a computer. Suddenly your timing feels slow, your emotions flat and you fall into a “Spline Depression.”

Spline and Polish can be time-consuming and frustrating. Sometimes it can be hard to push through this ugly phase. For animators who work from stepped to spline, turning your curves into vectors for the first time rarely looks the way you planned in your head. But know that it will get better! Once you train yourself to see the small fixable details instead of the big floaty moments, you will be able to tackle your shot piece by piece and uncover the integrity of your work. 

Simple tips for entering Spline:

When you start to spline, make sure to break your shot into manageable chunks. You can do this by breaking your shot into small amounts of frames, or by focusing on one small piece of the body at a time. No matter which method you choose, remember that all movement starts from the root, and by defining the movement of the root first you will avoid counter-animating down the line. 

No matter where you are in your spline process, don't forget the power of the arc tracker. Animation is all about creating fluid lines of movement, and by tracking your arcs throughout your animation, you will be able to quickly find and fix both timing and spacing. This can be done by using a built-in tool in Maya such as Animbot’s Motion Trail,  but if that's not for you, you can even track your arcs with an expo marker on your screen. 

It's easy when hitting spline to allow the computer to take over and to make choices for you as an artist. Don't let that happen! Trust your eye as an artist and make sure that your character is moving the way YOU chose it to, and not the way the computer interpreted. 

This might be the hardest tip of all, It's okay to delete keys! Not only is it okay, but sometimes it can be necessary. If something doesn't look right, and you cannot figure out why, delete your keys and see where things are going wrong. It may seem destructive at the moment but it will save you time and effort down the line. 

Lastly, make sure to actually look at your graph editor after you hit spline. Sometimes the computer will take your keys and create curves that you never intended to create. By using your eyes and utilizing tools like auto and linear tangents, you can quickly find areas of concern and adjust your keys to create smooth motions. 

For more animation tips, watch our video below where AnimSchool instructor Martin Scotto explains in depth the 6 tricks he uses to avoid losing momentum when entering the Spline phase.

Download AnimSchool's Feature Level Rig for Free and start animating today!


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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

It's time to walk the dog - How to Animate a Quadruped


AnimSchool Tips: How to Animate a Quadruped

It's time to walk the dog…or at least the quadruped. Let's be honest, learning how to animate a human on two legs walking is scary, much less a creature on four legs! So how do you break a quadruped walk down so that it's approachable? Well luckily, quadrupeds aren't that different from bipedal or human characters. Essentially a simple dog walk cycle is just two bipedal characters walking slightly offset from each other. Sound confusing? Animschool Instructor & Professional Animator, Daniel Paul, is here to “walk” us through the doggie steps.

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Friday, February 18, 2022

When Should I Start Animating With Advanced 3D Character Rigs?


Animschool instructor Jean-Luc Delhougne gives us a key tip - give yourself time & space to explore & play with a new character rig before jumping into the animation portion



It’s finally the day - you have worked hard for this. You cannot hold back your excitement. You. Are. Ready! It's your first time working with an advanced feature-level 3D character rig, which can be both exciting and intimidating.


One mistake students and even professionals make when working with a new rig is to believe that an advanced rig will make anything you animate look feature film ready. But animation is not about the rig, it's about the animator.


What is the biggest difference between a simple rig & an advanced rig?


An advanced rig functions much like a simple rig but with a few more detailed controllers. All the most important features and mechanics of an advanced rig can be found in a simple rig. If you look at the Animschool catalog of characters and rigs, one of the most popular simple rigs is a little fellow we call “Blocky.” Blocky has been used in shots as simple as taking a step, to scenes as complicated as dentists extracting a tooth from a patient. He is emotive, flexible, appealing, and most importantly easy to use. So what is it about blocky that makes him so much more approachable to start with than our Marina rig? It really boils down to one word, overthinking.


Here is a screenshot of Blocky’s picker and next to it a screenshot of Marina’s picker:

AnimSchool Pickers


At first glance, Marina’s picker looks way more complicated than Blocky’s, but when you look closer you can see that the foundations, they are not that different. Both radiate from a central body node, both have three major spine controllers, both have IK/FK arms and legs and both have one central head controller. When students see an advanced rig for the first time they often think that they need to use EVERY SINGLE CONTROL. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. All the additional controls that are added from a simple rig to an advanced rig are mostly for finesse work and facial emotion. The basic mechanics are the same.


AnimSchool's Simple Rig "Blocky" & Advanced Rig "Marina"

At Animschool you are placed in a curriculum that strategically prepares you to animate with more advanced rigs. By the time you interact with an advanced rig, it is because you have proven that you are able to demonstrate the 12 principles of animation with a simple rig. Only then will you be granted access to the advanced rigs. This isn't because you are suddenly expected to use every new controller, but rather because you have proven that you know how to utilize the major controls. These major controls will be in almost every rig you interact with for the rest of your career, and if all else fails - remember the bouncing ball. If you can animate a fully thought out, entertaining scene with just a bouncing ball, how many controllers do you really need to animate a compelling scene with an advanced rig? The answer is not many, so start simple and don’t overthink.


Remember when interacting with a new rig, simple or advanced, to give yourself a break, and have some fun with it. Instead of jumping into your shot and believing it will be a masterpiece from the beginning, spend a day and play around. Set up a few pushed poses or do a facial study. Treat learning a new rig like an improv class. Put a few ideas in a bowl, pull one out and give yourself 15 minutes to set your new rig up according to whatever it says on the piece of paper. This is a great way for you to get to know your rig. It enables you to gain a certain level of familiarity and comfort between you and the computer. As you do this exercise, remember, this isn't for a shot, and it isn't for an assignment, it's just for you. So take the opportunity and have fun!


If you and a friend are learning a new rig together you can challenge each other to create the most ridiculous scenarios and then compete. Only after you have spent some time getting to know your rig should you then jump into actually animating for real.


Download AnimSchool's Feature Level Rig for Free and start animating today!


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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

How to Be Specific with your Acting Choices

Character animation is a complex art form to master since it combines so many different skills. An animator needs to know body mechanics, the basic physics of motion, how to create visual appeal, be tech-savvy enough to learn Maya, and on top of all that, be able to act. They say that teaching a young animator how to create polished animation (aka clean arcs and spacing) is the easy part. The thing they’re really looking for when reviewing reels is good acting and unique, entertaining ideas. The primary skill that separates a good animator from a great animator is specificity. This is what your teacher or that recruiter is talking about when they say “be more specific!” after reviewing your reel. The ability to make specific, character-driven acting choices that feel believable comes from knowing your character inside and out. Legendary theater actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen outlines nine key questions an actor should ask themselves when developing a character in her book Respect for Acting. As an animator, answering these nine questions before you shoot reference will help solidify who your character is and inform the actions they take in your shot. Typically, an animator animating their own shot picks out pre-recorded dialogue and must come up with a situation and performance for the dialogue. Answering these questions should help narrow down what sort of situation you want to put your character in and what specific acting choices you can make for them to create a genuine performance that showcases their personality best.

1. Who Am I?

This first question covers all the basic details about who your character is: name, age, gender, physical traits, job, etc. Then you can go a little deeper and ask yourself who they are as a person: what are some things they like, what do they dislike, what do they fear, what are their goals, what are their beliefs, and what makes them unique. These questions simply serve to establish a baseline of who your character is.

2. What time is it?

You can take this literally to mean what the exact hour and minute are, or you can simply consider the season, the era, or whether it's light or dark out. The important thing to think about is whether time has significance in how your character acts. A character would act and speak very differently in the 1500s compared to the 21st century. Likewise, someone who’s more of a night-owl may be more energetic in the evening and act more groggy in the morning.


3. Where am I?

What is the setting of your scene? Describe the country, town, building or even a specific room your scene takes place in. Consider how this specific setting makes your character feel and how this location affects how they act. Is the character cold or warm in this place? Does this place hold sentimental meaning to them, or are they just at their boring 9-5 job? The location can also play into what the character is doing while delivering the line and what props the character can interact with. The easiest way to make a shot more interesting is to simply give the character something to do. Put your character in a specific situation or place they can interact with and your acting options will automatically get more specific.

4. What surrounds me?

This fourth question continues a similar idea from the last question. It is referring to the people and things around the character. Ask yourself what is happening around the character and how your character reacts to this. If your character is making their way through a crowd of people, do they shove through others or try to squeeze past? If there is construction going on in front of them, do they plug their ears or simply ignore it? What are they doing while delivering their line and how do their surroundings affect their actions?

5. What are the circumstances?

For this question, you need to analyze your character’s past, present and future. You need to take into account past circumstances when crafting your character’s performance. For example, if your character just suffered the loss of a loved one, then they’ll probably be more solemn in your scene. They may not be hysterically breaking down like they did in the past, but they are still affected by this past experience. It is important to go into your scene with past circumstances in mind. Moreover, it's also important to think about your character's future and where they’re going. Continuing the previous example, your character is grieving now but if they’re working towards moving on, the character may convey bits of hopefulness in their performance. 

6. What are my relationships?

What are your character's relationships to people, objects, places, and events? How do these relationships make your character feel and, more importantly, act? Do they think of certain people or places fondly or is there tension and resentment for that specific person or place? By considering these questions, you can begin to think about how to best incorporate subtext into your performance. For instance, someone brings your character to a cafe that triggers a lot of negative memories. Your character then says, “this place is great” with a weak smile out of pure politeness when subtextually, you know she’s really saying that she would rather not be there. Knowing your character's relationship to other characters and specific places and things is essential to building a believable performance. It will also give you the ability to create more specificity in your character’s acting once you know what they subtextually feel in that moment. 

7. What do I want?

Consider your character’s goals and objectives. What is their immediate objective in the scene? What is their overall, long-term objective? Is this smaller, immediate goal working towards the bigger objects, or against it? Are these wants hidden or made obvious? Knowing your character's motives will greatly affect their performance and will allow you to more genuinely explore the subtext of what your character is saying.

8. What is in my way?

In other words, what is preventing your character from getting what they want? These obstacles can be physical or mental. For example, if what your character wants is to be with this girl he loves, his obstacle could be that he lives too far away from her (physical) or he is too afraid to communicate his feelings to her (mental). When creating a situation for your character, consider obstacles that are authentic to the situation and relatable to the audience. Conflict is one of the most important pieces of any story, because it is the aspect that adds entertainment. A good story comes from establishing a situation and characters, then putting them into a situation that will showcase who they really are and in some cases, cause the character to change who they are. You need the conflict or disruption in the character’s everyday life in order for the audience to be interested in the story in the first place.

9. What do I do to get what I want?

This final question more or less is a culmination of all the previous questions you answered about your character. What actions (physical or verbal) does your character take in order to overcome the obstacle and achieve their goal. After analyzing who your character is, what they want, and what’s in their way, you can now make a very informed decision about how that character will act in your scene. You use what you know about your character, their situation, and their goals in order to make believable, specific acting decisions that will set your performance apart and bring it to the next level.

For more information about how to create top-notch acting in your animation, watch our video below where AnimSchool teacher Scott McWhinnie talks about what he considers "good" acting.


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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Become a VFX Creature Animator | Interview with Tony Mecca

See How the Experts Animate Giant Monsters for Film & Games

Join Us for a FREE AnimSchool VFX Animation Workshop with industry veteran and AnimSchool instructor Tony Mecca on Thursday, November 4th, 2:30 PM (PST) 5:30 PM (EST)

AnimSchool Instructor Tony Mecca has worked on it all

He’s animated on video games, feature films, VFX, and currently, he is working at Universal Creative in their Ride Design and Show Technology department where he is working to create the next generation of storytelling and immersive experiences for new lands and attractions at Universal. In addition to his impressive career in animation, Tony also started the VFX Creature Animation course here at AnimSchool. In our interview with him, we go in-depth with what you can expect from the VFX Creature Animation course and who the class is best suited for. Tony also goes through what the day-to-day at a VFX studio is like and how it differs from a traditional CG animation feature studio.

Watch the interview on Youtube

Tell us your story! How did you get into this industry?

From a very young age, I have always wanted to work in special effects for movies.  I used to build those Revell models all the time and after learning a bit about the industry from those 90s “making of the movie” specials, I assumed I wanted to be a model builder.  Of course, things shifted to CG, and by the time I was in college I was learning all aspects of digital art for film.  Even though when I started I assumed I would gravitate towards digital modeling or maybe lighting, I fell in love with animation and completely shifted all of my thinking and studies to bringing characters to life. After graduating, I got hired into a game studio where I worked for over 5 years and then started my adventure in feature films.  I traveled the world working on many different feature films and eventually ended up at Universal Studios where I am able to combine my skillsets in animation, creative direction, and technology to lead teams and play a role in creating our future landscape of world-class attractions.

What were some of your first jobs in the industry?

The first job that I ever had was right out of college. I worked at a video game company called High Voltage, so I got to work on The Family Guy video game. I just jumped right into it. All hand-keyed animation working with the animators. Then I went on to America’s Army. So I went from super cartoony to combat simulation with Conduit and Conduit 2 where they were more of that Sci-fi adventure stuff. So I really started in games, right from the get-go.

How did you make the jump from video game animator to theme park creative producer?

I went to another online animation school while I was working in games, specifically tailoring feature film animation like AnimSchool does, and then I got hired right into Rhythm and Hues. I got thrown into VFX right away. Since I hadn’t used a plate before in my entire life, Rhythm and Hues did a training program where you spend two weeks in their training department learning the plates. And they don't use Maya, they use Vudu. Rhythm and Hues, Dreamworks and Pixar all use their own custom animation software. So I learned Vudu and went right into Mr. Popper’s Penguins. I worked on a few movies there and worked up to a lead animator. Then I jumped over to Blue Sky and back to full CG animation where I worked on a few shows there (Epic and Rio 2). Then I went back to Vancouver where I worked as a lead at Digital Domain on Fast and Furious 7, X-Men: Days of Future PastLost River...and then went to Sony Imageworks where I worked on Hotel Transylvania 2. So I went from super hyper-realistic back to insanely pushed animation. I’ve been crazy enough to go back and forth between multiple animation styles. After Sony, I went down to Florida to work at Magic Leap which is a top-secret tech start-up. I can’t say a lot of what I did there, but it was a lot of behind-the-scenes next-generation animation stuff. And then I was able to make the jump to Universal because theme parks are awesome and never in a million years did I put two and two together. You don't realize it, but all these attractions you ride are movie-based and they have a lot of media and technology and show syncing. Since Universal started with the Back to the Future ride and E.T., they’ve been at the pinnacle of technology for movie special effects when it comes to integration with theme parks. So I jumped into that role where I’m on a few of the teams at Universal Creative that are in charge of designing the next generation of rides, attractions, and lands. I work with Universal Media which owns Dreamworks and Illumination, so I get to work a lot with their IPs and animation crews. And of course, a lot of the other vendors we use are your typical AAA-level VFX studios for all of our attractions. So I get to be exposed to all different types of animation and animation technology.

Is it better to specialize or be more of a generalist?

In terms of animation itself, it’s still better to concentrate just on animation for now. You can know a little bit about modeling, a little bit about lighting—that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with understanding what the other elements are in what you’re doing.  But really hone in your skillset into animation if you want to be an animator. Don't spend 50% of your time trying to light your shot. You really want to get your concentration focused on just the animation portion of it. It's always about having that raw talent and understanding of being a storyteller and an entertainer. I always tell my student that if you have two identical reels and one reel is super polished and nails the 12 principles, and you have another reel that is pretty good, lacks some polish, but is hilarious or got a dramatic reaction or made the viewer feel something, ten times out of ten that’s the person that’s going to get hired. Learning entertainment and how to be a good animator is the hard part. It’s easy to learn the 12 principles and how to smooth arcs and things like that. It's all about what you can do with the craft that makes it new and unique. And that's all in your story and some of these shots are only a few seconds long. My advice would be to be interested in other things. Definitely be interested in things outside of animation. Walt Disney said it's about the illusion of life, but if you don't have one how can you create that illusion. Do things outside of animation because those are the stories that you’re going to bring into your animation. So step away from the computer, movies and games. Go try something else because that’s the experience you want to bring into your storytelling. In terms of AnimSchool, just concentrate on the animation. I’ve had students who want to do modeling and lighting and animation classes all at once and I'm just like “No, do the one and do a really good job at it.” 

How different is the workflow for creature animation compared to character animation?

There are few major differences.  One main difference is that in VFX animation you get what you get.  Meaning, your set is unmovable and the camera is completely locked due to them well… shooting it with a real camera.  There are always exceptions with things like set extensions or sometimes you get a full CG set but generally, you are at the mercy of what the set crew shot.  What this means is that you have to reverse your thought workflow a bit. For example, when thinking about how to lead the camera on a camera that is already locked. The second, and there are always exceptions of course, but generally, directors for VFX movies come from live-action and not animation backgrounds.  What this means is they are used to being able to tweak and react to a performance on set.  They get almost instant feedback from the next take and are able to mold their shot how they see fit and explore it in a live-action setting.  Animation of course is not instantaneous, so the odds of changing things over and over is very high to “try” and see different things the director wants to shape.  When you show your animation you can’t show things in stepped mode because, generally, they won’t understand it. They want the animation to look smooth and they don’t understand why the character is “teleporting” everywhere. This leads to more of a splocking workflow to ensure agility in your shot as well as working on multiple shots at once. There’s also a lot of redos in VFX. A lot of the time the director will want you to show it a bunch of different ways (from the top, from the bottom to the left, to the right, with a backflip, without a backflip) and you're doing like ten different versions because they want to react to what they like best. Usually in full CG, you have storyboards, animatics, layout, and just more time to explore video reference and acting. But then in VFX they just want to see it in 18 different ways and choose from it. So we learn a bit about how to get the fastest idea that you have out there and then adjust quickly. So in terms of workflow, they’re pretty different, but in terms of animation skill set, most of it transfers over.

Do all the same principles of animation apply to creatures?

Absolutely!  The basics are even more important when breaking creatures down.  We start blocking the shots out with spheres and basic shapes.  It all comes back to the bouncing balls!

Is the quality of VFX animation lower because you are presenting so many iterations and ideas constantly?

You see some beautiful VFX animation and you think, Man it must've taken months to do that. And yeah, they did, but that was just version 17. It definitely still demands the highest quality because they have budgets that are the same, or even more, than animated films. You do have to hit that level of quality but usually at a much more condensed time frame because you're doing three or four different things. That’s another thing; in traditional CG animation, you're only doing one shot at a time (or if you're lucky, you’ll get a sequence of three shots in a row). But in VFX, sometimes you're working on three or four shots at once in different parts of the movie because usually, the directors aren’t on-site (they might only review once a week or once every two weeks). So in VFX animation, you really learn how to bounce between different creatures, characters, shots, etc. You learn how to animate really quickly at a high bar really quick in VFX.

How do you find or create reference for creatures that don’t exist?

The same way you create reference for any shot.  Every new shot is a shot that has never been done before—VFX or not—and you cannot just google exactly what you want and get the perfect reference.  You start with what you know and gather that.  Even just parts of motions or timings or posing you are looking for.  Study the known to create the unknown.  In terms of creatures, I have my students rotoscope animals with bouncing balls throughout most of the class.  The point is to create a muscle memory of actions and moves that help “fill in the blanks” so to speak on performances or parts of performances where you don’t have anything to go off of.  It’s all about practice and knowing how to use the known, even if it’s in your head, to create or fill in the gaps of the unknown.  It truly is about taking all the reference you can from the animal kingdom and yourself, filling in the gaps, and then adding the flair to it. Because you just don't want to rotoscope over something that exists in reality, because it's already there. We want to create something fantastic. We go over a lot of this in the class—how to take video reference, what to take from what, how to combine it—and students have a lot of fun with that. They love getting to take 20-30 different things and mashing it together into something awesome.

What pushed you to start the creature animation program at AnimSchool?

I taught body mechanics at Animschool for many years and some students seemed to really enjoy doing the dog walk assignment and wanted more.  I also have seen the lack of schools teaching fantasy creature animation combined with actual real-world tracked plates.  I learned how to use and work with plates on my first job at Rhythm and Hues during their 2-week training session for new animators to the company.  Then you just kind of get thrown into the deep end if you have never worked at other VFX companies before in terms of how to use those plate skills you literally just learned to create shots in a movie.  The point of this course is to better equip students for their first job and give them a leg up in not only creature animation performance, but also working with real-world plates in a simulated production environment they would be exposed to at a studio. 

Who is the creature animation class best for?

It's for anyone who’s interested in learning more about the VFX side of things. We’ve had some students that have already worked in the industry or were currently working who wanted to hone their skills to that next level. Because the class sizes are usually smaller and I consider this a graduating mentor-level class; you do get a lot more one on one time. I wrote the syllabus so I can alter the syllabus. We can move things around. We can shift dates. There is no amount of work we won't expand on if you knock the first project out of the park. I’m only going to make the second half harder. We’re really going to push the students. I’ve had students that have worked with plates before and they ended up doing 15 characters. There's no limit to the number of characters I'll make you put in this shot if you’re ready for it. I will push you to the max. On the other hand, I’ve had students who have never used plates before and have never animated a quadruped before. They do the class and end up getting hired to work on a movie. It’s for all levels. It's geared a bit more towards those who have never done creature animation or VFX style animation before, but we have had some pretty advanced students in here and we can gear the syllabus to them too. It's great because students that are just starting out can see how complex it can be. And to the students who are more advanced, it's always good to have a refresher of the basics to re-grasp some of those concepts.

What are the main differences between your creature animation and character animation classes?

With the creature class, we focus more on that muscle memory. Everyone thinks creatures are so complex and that you have to learn all these things about quadrupeds, but in the end, everything comes back to the bouncing balls. We start by planning your shot out with just spheres. How do we get the character from point A to point B doing the action that we want with the performance that we want? How do we break down that motion with the body mechanics of it just on spheres? We talk a lot about rotoscoping spheres over animals. I have my students do that for a majority of the class because it builds that muscle memory. If you don't have the perfect piece of reference, how do you connect them? Oh, you do it like this. How do you know that? Well, because when I did the squirrel that way and combined it with the skunk and the lizard, my brain is just telling me it works like this. And yeah! It's from practice and muscle memory and really learning how to connect those pieces together. And then there’s also a lot of video reference of yourself. This was done at the very very beginning, even on Jurassic Park, the first thing director Phil Tippett had his animators do was get away from the computer. He brought them into acting classes and said, “Everyone act like a raptor and look around.” There's such great footage of them in the parking lot acting like gallimimus, jumping over ILMs parking lot, and you look at the shot in the film and it's the same timing. It's adapting that performance and that gusto and mechanics onto a character that doesn’t exist. So we go over a lot of that in the creature class. Not to say it differs too much from the typical CG method, but more so because the characters are typically not bipedal or have any human anatomy to them. 

How do you push your students towards industry-level work? What are some key concepts you cover in your class?

I teach 2 graduating-level classes at AnimSchool and my mentality as an instructor at this level has always been to transition from a classroom-like environment to a studio one.  In the creature course, we have lectures and informative classes, but as we progress I want the students to start getting notes from me as if they were a member on my animation team.  We start out by talking about how to use a plate and how to use video reference, and eventually I shift into a studio environment. About halfway through the class, I start to run the classes as dailies to prep the students for the type of notes they would get in the industry (the same style notes I give to the animation teams I work with currently). I’ll stop giving notes about arcs and timing and instead say we need to bump up the aggression here or we need to ground the character more here and have him slip on something. It's fewer notes about specifics from your animation lead/supervisor but more so notes that you would get from a director, which is not animation talk and more about the character itself. By the end of the course, students should truly feel like they're having dailies with a director and know how to translate those kinds of notes into their animation.  I want them to be prepped as much as possible for this industry.

Who/what are some of your biggest inspirations in animation?

Too many to list but I always look up to the innovators.  The 9 old men, the Spaz Williams of the industry.  Those who didn’t just take an established craft and master it, they literally discovered and wrote the rules.  How do you get a T1000 to blend into a scene? - You literally discover and write Photoshop.  How do you get dinosaurs to look and feel real in the latest Spielberg movie at the time? - You literally invent CG creature animation.  It’s a space I enjoy being in.  I am always working on the future of storytelling.

Do you prefer animating characters or creatures? VFX, games or film?

I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to touch all styles of animation in many different mediums.  From monsters in Snow White and the Huntsman to the zany antics and style of Hotel Transylvania to cartoony games like Family Guy to sci-fi shooters like the Conduit.  I’ve done a lot of different animation styles and have worked for many years in the top-secret media divisions of company’s like Magic Leap and my current role at Universal.  Universal owns Dreamworks and Illumination and we feature attractions with IPs like Jurassic Park, Transformers, and King Kong so I am still exposed to a wide variety of animation mediums and styles.  My favorite thing is being able to move in between them.  I find it hard to get sick or burned out on a specific style or medium because I am lucky enough to work on them all at the same time!

Is it easier to get into creature animation for VFX/games compared to character animation for film/TV? 

That really all depends on industry trends and your location.  Sometimes there are 5 VFX heavy summer blockbusters going on at once and there is a shortage of good Jr’s for VFX, and sometimes there is a mass exodus from certain animation studios and new talent is needed ASAP.  I’ve seen it go both ways but VFX studios tend to need to ramp up much quicker and some are more prone to giving Jr’s a shot in larger quantities.  The point of the course is to make sure that the students are at an advantage for any VFX studio need should the timing be in their favor. There are two major things to getting hired in your dream job: skill and luck. Luck is going to happen because everyone has luck. Skill is not guaranteed. Would you rather be really lucky with no skill, or have high skill and when the luck comes, you can combine the two together. There are plenty of artists out there who are very lucky, who are born into Hollywood or have friends and have all the hookups in the world, and they still can’t get into the industry because they don't have the skill set. What we’re doing here at AnimSchool, is we’re making it so that you do have the skill set. So that when the luck and timing align, it's a no-brainer for you to jump right in.

What’s the best way to get better at creature animation? Most animation programs train us how to animate human, bi-ped creatures, but how do you learn how to animate different creatures such as birds, lizards and monsters.

Best way I can think of is to attend this place called AnimSchool and sign up for the creature course!

Can you talk about how to create a reel for creature animation jobs? Any tips?

I always tell my students to gear a reel to the studio they are applying to.  Now at first, being a student, of course, you might not have a lot of content to make separate reels for VFX, games, full-feature, etc.  But, you can order your reel appropriately.  For example, if you did all of AnimSchool AND the creatures course, I would recommend putting the creature work FIRST on the reel if applying to a VFX studio.  This way it showcases to the recruiter from the get-go that you have creature chops while supplementing it with other work later in the reel.  

Aside from the technical skills, what are some soft skills that are essential to being a good creature animator? 

I think the two most important skills in creature VFX animation are agility and patience. The ability to splock quickly EXPECTING change and know that you might have to present an animation 15 different ways before buy off.  Knowing that there might not be storyboards or even animatics, you have to actually come up with the idea and pitch it to a team or director that might not know what they want right away.  So much of VFX creature animation is the exploration of a monster or a creature while dealing with tight deadlines.

What has it been like teaching at AnimSchool?

I’ve been teaching at AnimSchool for over 5 years and it has been amazing!  Working with Manuel, Dave, and the crew to develop this program has been very rewarding.  My absolute favorite part about teaching here is meeting all the students from around the world.  Seeing their culture come out in their acting choices and being able to learn a little about all walks of life from around the globe has been an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything!

What’s next for you?

Unfortunately being in the top-secret group in the top-secret division means I cannot share anything at this time… but… I can refer you to Universals official blog where they make public announcements like our new theme park Epic Universe! :)

Find out the latest about Universal Creative on their LinkedIn page or learn about alternative careers in animation and check out what careers Universal Creative currently has available.

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