Tuesday, March 25, 2014

AnimSchool Interview: Xin Zhao and Florent Rubio, makers of "The Answer" short

Today we are interviewing not one, but two people! Xin and Florent are the makers of "The Answer", a short animation film using Animschool's Malcolm Rig. 

The short is now featuring in Vimeo's "Staff Pick"collection. Check it out:


Both of them are now applied to our 3D Animation Program. Lets begin the interview!


Hi guys! Can you start by telling us where you’re from, your experience with character animation and background?
Xin: Hi, I'm Xin. I'm from Beijing. I always wanted to be a animator since I was a kid and they told me knowing how to draw is going to be benifical even if I want to be a 3D animator in the future. So I started my professional Fine Art training since I was in primary school. Since then I learn Fine Art for nearly 10 years before I went to Teesside University to get a Bachlor of Art Degree in Character Animation in the UK, where I gained a lot of 3D Generalist skills as well as animation skills.

Florent: I am from Toulouse, in France. I have always been a big fan of animation and video games but for some reason I thought about it as a possible career pretty late and I studied different subjects (including food processing...) in the end, after graduating in computing science in France I decided to move to England and learn animation.
We both studied at Teesside University, in England, where we graduated from Bachelor of Art in character computer animation. After our studies, we both got hired as animation interns by Ubisoft in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. We are now still working at Ubisoft and we decided to study at Animschool on our free time to learn more about animation as our University course was very oriented on CG generalist skills.

How did the idea for the script came up? Who was in charge of what in the short?
Xin: Of course, it is slightly based on real events. My partner Florent was shaving in the bathroom with his electric razor, and some minutes later, he came back in the room with a half shaved beard and his razor which was out of power and the cable was nowhere to be found. With this idea in mind, we also wanted to find an idea about how he could finish up shaving in a funny way. I remembered reading a famous self-helping book based on “The law of attraction” and which marketing is based on a “secret” linked to many historical figures and conspiracy. And so we decided to make a parody of it.

Florent: We shared the different tasks according to our skills and what we wanted to do.
Both our dreams were to become character animators after university so we evenly shared the animation.
For the pre-production, after defining our story and getting some rough shot ideas, Xin draw an amazing storyboard (see panel). Xin's storyboard was so clear we even used it as the main reference for the environment design.

A panel from the storyboard
We both modelled and textured environment and assets.
Xin took care of Malcolm rig modifications, the 2D/motion graphics and compositing Florent did the shading, the lighting and the rendering.
And just a word about the book narration voice actor: Fernando Zamora. Who worked with us remotely and did an amazing job. Thank you again :)

Can you tell how much time did you guys spent per day on it and how long did it took from start to completion?
We started over the summer to be ready to animate at the start of the academic year so it took a part of the summer and half of the academic year (because we had another project), so around 5 months spread on a year.
The days were busy, we did everything from home and it was an average of 9-10 hours/day. A lot of hard work but it was worth it in the end :)

What did you guys think of the Animschool Malcolm rig? Did it meet your expectations on the production of the short?
From the start, this project goal was to produce the best character animation we could make to showcase our animation skills. To get the best results, we had to give up the idea of using our own character.



Quickly, we decided to use a Free Rig which allow us to have maximum performance of the character animation. We choose Animschool's Malcolm Rig due to its flexibility after we saw many great animations including a short animation called Mistakes on the 11 Second Club website. The runner-up of March 2012 gave us a great idea of how flexible and controllable the Malcolm Rig’s hands are.

The Malcolm Rig has an amazing facial rig. The eyebrows and mouth in particular allowed us to have greater facial animation without being limited by the rig itself. Of course, the body rig of Malcolm is fantastic too. The controllers on his limbs enable us to have great line of actions during the animation.
Malcolm flexibility and deformations 
Can you share the main process for the character animation and model modification?
This is the animation workflow we used for this project:

  • Video Reference Recording – Record video references of ourselves for the animation.
  • Character Animation Thumbnail – Decide the character’s actions by drawing out the storytelling poses.
    Example of thumbnail drawing for animation
  • Blocking Animation – Blocking of the storytelling poses of the animation and establish the rough timing of each movements.

  • Spline Animation – Change stepped animation curves to spline curves.
  • Polish Animation – Add textures to the spline animation and clean the curves in Graph Editor.


Model Modification


Geometry Modification
To fit our purpose, we wanted to personalized Malcolm geometry and textures. Considering the complicity of the rig, Xin didn’t dare to make too much changes on the geometry, otherwise it might result some problem on the rig. The main modifications are the general face shape was sculpted to be rounder and the hairs were removed to leave space for a Maya hair system

Malcom face modification
We also gave him a shirt collar to add some detail. The collar is animated by 6 blendshapes to reduce shoulders intersection once animated.


Blend Shapes for Malcom's collar
Our issue was that only Malcolm's face was UV mapped. We did not know at that time that uv mapping a rigged character would not end well :)

When we though skinned character's UV were still movable
After doing some research, Xin found an article from a blog called Anim Bizz, talking about how to transfer UVs after rigging. A "Shape Orig" node includes the information of the character before rigging. Therefore, a UV transfer can be applied to this and it allowed us to UV map Malcolm's body.

Hair System
For the hair, we wanted the non-dynamic hair system since dynamic hair is not necessary and it requires more work to do with the simulation which is way too complicated for us. Xin followed a course talking about hair system on DigitalTutors.com and had a basic idea how to build up the hair system with curves.
The idea was to create curves where we wanted the hairs to be and apply hair systems on them. Three layers of curves were created to had more realism and volume to the hair.

Layers of curves for more realism

These little guys were quite an inspiration ;)



For the Beard and Eyebrows, we used the Maya Fur system.
So after all these modifications, the character looks like this:

Malcom after a complete makeover

Detail of Malcom's new textures

The "new" Malcom

What were the main challenges for this short?
Hahaha... Everything. We basically had no experience using Maya for more than animating a basic walk cycle and lip sync exercise for University. Every aspect was new and we were constantly doing research and learning: how to rig, how to shade, light and render, how to use hair and fur .. and well .. how to animate. Thanks to a lot of great ressources online (including AnimSchool Youtube channel, Digital Tutors, countless blogs, univeristy feedback) we managed to get to the result we wanted.
Hair and fur were particularly difficult because there is less content about it ( how to create, how to render)
Oh! and having a big mirror in the first shots didn't make things easy ^^ (Camera angles, lighting, rendering and compositing)

What was the technology involved in the creation of the short (render, software, hair system, etc)?
The render was done using Mental Ray in Maya. It was done in parrallel with the lighting and shading. It took a lot of time and a lot of experiment. Here is an example of the process to find the lighting:

Several attempts in finding the correct lighting
And so on until we could get it right:

The final lighting set that made into the final version of the short
Most of the shiny/reflective materials are Mental Ray's "mia_material_x", the rest are Lambert materials:

Mental Ray's architectural materials are good for cool a realistic look. 

Another example of Mental Ray Area light and shadow transparency node use.
The other software we used were:

  • Maya 2013 for all the 3D (including non-dynamic hair system and fur)
  • Adobe After Effects for compositing, 2D and motion graphics
  • Nuke for some of the compositing (motion vectors)

Any advice for animators that want to start production of their own short?

The only advices we can give to people who want to produce a short film are the ones we wish we had heard/followed before we get started most of them are probably obvious and specially relevant if you are still studying:

  • Keep it simple: Especially if you are alone, it is hard to find the line between challenging yourself and putting the bar too high.
  • If the goal of your short is to demonstrate your animation skills, We advise you not to try making your own character/rig. (Unless you have time and you are an amazing character TD/ rigger :) ). There are a lot of rigs available out there, and as far as we know, Malcolm is by far the best. (No, Animschool don't pay us to say that !) :)
  • Find a subject/story that get you really engaged. So you don't throw everything by the window some months down the production.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact us through Vimeo or our websites:

http://www.florentrubio.com/

http://www.xinzhao.co.uk/

We thank Florent and Xin for this interview and hope to see more works from them in the future! If you want to learn real character animation taugh by professionals in the industry, come apply now!

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