Friday, 27 January 2012

Fuzzy Timing and The Old Disney Morgue

D23 has posted a great video to geek out to on the Disney Research Archives. It is a great look into the amount of art and kinds of art it takes to make a film.

Click D23: Armchair Archivist to watch.

Fuzzy Timing

Keven Shorey has added a great post to his blog this week about learning from others to build on your own skills. He in it he talks about a shot he did for How To Train Your Dragon and complications he came into. I hope you enjoy.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Jason Hendrich interview

Character Design Hey guys and gals,
In November, we experienced a rare treat of a feminine vocal. Taking the crown of first place was Blur Studio animator, Jason Hendrich. His traditional animation was a joy to watch and a nice reminder to keep your work pure and free.

Thank you Jason for your time. Hope you all enjoy the read!

Please talk a bit about your experience at Blur Studio?
I started at Blur Studio in 2007 after working in Film and TV Animation for DNA Productions, Reel FX, CORE DP, and STARZ Animation(ARC Productions). I've always enjoyed Blur's work especially in their cinematics. It really bridges the craftsmanship of film and the 'cool factor' that games can get away with. Working on projects with realistic animation then transitioning to cartoony animation always keeps things interesting.

Your wife, Jenni Hendrich, also works at Blur Studio. Please talk abit about your experience of working together?
We've worked together at Starz Animation(Now Arc Productions) before coming to Los Angeles to work at Blur. Her specialization is in Rigging, Modeling, and Design work. We compliment each other well and whenever I have questions of how to do certain things, she's always there with great ideas.

(please click here to view Jenni's reel)

How are the projects distributed? Is there a type of shot which would normally be handed to you?
Blur's animation department does a mixture of motion capture and keyframe animation. The majority of the projects tend to be realistic animation primarily driven via motion capture. The projects are fun and we hold a high bar for cinematic quality. I tend to get character acting, crowds and complex action shots but I also enjoy subtle stuff as you really get to concentrate on small weight shifts and timings.

Looking at your reel, it presents many complex body mechanic shots, with lots of jumping and running around that would be pretty difficult to shoot your own reference for. Please talk a bit about your production process for this type of shot and how you approach animating its movement.
I shoot reference for everything but for things that are a bit too crazy, other forms of reference work just as well. Films, cartoons, animal studies, youtube, online video sources, and especially peer/supervisor input help a lot. Maintaining camera work/cuts in the reference give a better feel for pacing and communication especially if you're trying to sell a slightly different idea to a supervisor. Strong reference is important.

When we're working with mocap animation we usually have a video file of the actors with notes from the director. We go through First Pass which is basic blocking/timing, or for mocap it is cleanup and asset attachments like guns and weapons. Second Pass continues the idea further with breakdowns, smoothing out keys, basic facial, etc. With Mocap we add weight, strengthening actions and then keyframe to push attitudes and actions. It's pretty rare to have the motion capture unedited as raw motion capture always has a weird feel to it. Final Pass is Lipsync, full animation, etc. Sometimes there's a super secret final pass for even more refinement but we try to lock it down during Final Pass.

In contrast, your reel begins with a great clip from ''The Goon''. In this shot, the characters have a subtler tone of movement that speaks volumes when they don't react to the blast in the background. The best film actors can often say so much with just their eyes, or a twitch of the mouth. When a shot demands this type of performance, please share some advice on how to keep the character alive.
Usually people think as long as something is moving that it's now officially 'alive'. It's important to make sure there's no dead pixels but constant motion tends to have a watery feel. Long holds deliver a good comedic anticipation and help solidify the focus of the shot. Note, the zombies crashing the car in the background. The audience's eye will always go towards either the most motion surrounded by nothing or lack of motion surrounded by movement. In this case the hold on Frankie and Goon setup the sudden impact of the zombies in the background. Animation in it's beats and rhythm is like music in that sense. Jeff Fowler, the director for The Goon, had amazing vision and it shows.

(Jason's reel including the Goon shot)

Recently on the 11 Second Club, we have seen a community thread titled ''Is this now a render competition?'' It discusses an idea that voters are overlooking solid animation to merit entries with nice renders. I believe the placement of your last two entries has flipped this theory on its head. I apologize for putting you in a spot, but please talk a bit about this and your own motives for entering.
The 11secondclub allows for some great experimenting for film and animation. I haven't done 2d in a long time and when I did do it seriously I honestly didn't know a whole lot about animation. I still have much to learn. The scope is rather daunting and 11secondclub is a nice way to crank a test for an idea out in a month. A lot of the planning is already taken care of as all you need is character and a story within a story of the audio piece. It's a great excuse to learn something new.

For September's competition, I loved your choice to use the B Boy rig while delivering a powerful performance. What advice would you to anyone using a similar ''limited'' rig?
I always wanted to try doing a character piece with a really simple character design to see if it would still emote well and B Boy seemed pretty good for that purpose. His general hunched over posture is very difficult to adjust so I used poses and ideas that worked with it. A hunched over, tired old grump and a nervous kid trying to do his best. I couldn't easily get opposing actions in his spine so I used different camera angles to hide certain areas to try to sell the different posing.

I felt it was important to avoid full body shots and for fk/ik switching the camera cuts helped. As for facial I threw on some basic eyes and I tried to really push opposing shapes for key sections especially anything that had Mmm or Ooo to make it read. I also used his limited eye shapes for secondary and to push his eye directions and feelings. For blinks his eyes just translate into the head. Overall it was quite tricky but it was fun thinking of how to deal with the limitations.

Between around frames 117-137, I love how you reveal so much about the coach. With just a simple turn, the coach appears powerful and authoritative, a statement that contrasts beautifully against the story's ending. Please talk us through some of your other acting choices in this clip.
When I acted it out I wanted a character that obviously had a lot of power but was ultimately disappointed with his protegé. It allowed for a nice progression of character going from self reflection, to explosive, to pleading, then ultimately to disappointment. I tried working in attitudes that would work with the default posings of B Boy without breaking him too much.

I put together a quick reference of what I did for B-Boy with one of the references I used, camera layout, blocking, then 3rd pass. Looking at this, I probably should've redone the reference as my facial isn't too good as I was concentrating a bit too much of what I wanted my character to do instead of being that character.

Switching attention to your winning entry, during your eCritique, David Tart mentions that your choice of style is reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes. Please tell us a bit about what inspired and influenced the design of the animation.
I pretty much grew up reading Bill Waterson so that's quite a compliment! I actually tried incorporating simple designs as I wasn't comfortable enough to actually animate a character with loads of details. I think it hurt me a little bit since in doing so, I threw away tools that could've strengthened it much more. Like adding in animated clothing and pupils.

Please talk a bit about the character's background and who he talking to?
Sadly I actually didn't plan this one out as much as I should have. My wife actually did most of the real work by just acting it out with little input as I was somewhat lost. She turned it into a Shakespearean performance of speaking outward towards an audience. I worked with it as reference.

I have found that, when acting out shots, in some cases it's actually better to instruct others to act it out for you.  A lot of the time when you yourself act out the shot, you focus a little too much on creating 'fun animation' like overacting or doing weird motions.  It doesn't come across as natural.  So when you direct someone else, not only do they showcase and practice their acting ability, you can direct them to get the sort of motions, feelings, and timings that you want.  They get to concentrate on their acting and you get to concentrate on getting good reference for animation.  Win win in a lot of cases.  

I must compliment you on your wonderful use of poses. It delves deep to the heart of the audio, presenting a rich variety of emotion. The child's warm thoughts of innocence towards being a child balances beautifully against the headache of adulthood. However, David advises about the use of emotion arcs to strengthen the overall performance. Please share your thoughts on this.
Character Design I would like to say Dave Tart's amazing by the way, and I learned a great deal from him when I was at DNA. He's absolutely right and I should've reworked a few things instead of resorting to extra posing/breakdowns, facial that doesn't push the character, and another hold near the end. His comment of speeding that one section at frame 183-200 faster so I could get in on that accent on 'adults' is dead on. Same with 'frownie eyebrows' killing some moments.

(please click here to watch Jason's eCritique)

On the 11 Second Club site, you have wrote that it took you three weeks. Yet, it was uploaded on your Vimeo channel on October 13th. I wish to ask how long the animation took you to make? Also, please talk a bit about how you divided this time for the production process.
I totally forgot about that feature. I actually used Vimeo during the work in progress to send to a few friends for critique so that's probably what's messing with the date. It'd be pretty hilarious if I pulled that off during evenings in 13 days. Hopefully one day I'll be able to consistently create high quality work at that speed but I pretty much used most of the month to do even this test animation.

Not only are the volumes handled well, but I really like your use of weight shifts. Please talk a bit about how you approached this in your 2d animation in order to get the feel of weight and balance.
I setup some basic layout for the character in 3d to help where I wanted the character to be and then did the main poses, breakdowns, and facial in 2d. Having a 3d layout helped to maintain 3d volume and keep me on model.

John K: creator of Ren and Stimpy
In both your entries, you have a lot of really wonderful expressions going on with the character's eyes and mouth. Talk a little bit about what you think about when posing the face.
I remember that John Kricfalusi mentioned how it's really important to push things so that they're never generic. I probably could've went further with them but I felt it'd make them go off model too much for the read.

As you have grown in your animation career, your responsibilities to character and story have surely evolved. Please tell us a bit about the important stepping stones in your career and how you feel these have contributed to the animator you are today?
The Ant Bully
I'm lucky in that I got to work with some amazing animators. DNA Productions was probably where I learned the most as I got to animate on Jimmy Neutron and then Ant Bully. Experiencing film production really forces the bad habits out of you rather quickly. One thing that is important is to be a clean animator especially if you don't have access to finalers or cleanup animators. So, if you're doing weird silly stuff to the character like intersecting limbs or bizarro constraining, you'll still have to deal with them when it's time for rendering.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
I'm happy for the resource that 11 second club provides as it's a wonderful exercise for all levels of animators.

Hands Out and Hands Down

Friends, I had such a big rant built up for this post. It was going to go something like this:

One of my biggest frustrations when posing a character is the lack of clothes to interact with. In particular, pockets. Any time I try to do some video reference for a scene, I usually end up putting at least one hand in a pocket, or hooking my thumbs into a belt loop or something like that. Then I review what I’ve recorded and I think “Darn it, I can’t animate that pose! We don’t have the simple CG technology to put hands in pockets! This is a fundamental flaw in the characters we animate, especially given how often I put my own hands in my pockets! It’s as if I’m being asked to animate a character with no clothes on!”

To demonstrate my angry point, I planned to post a ton of pictures demonstrating actors interacting with clothes, naturally, the way you or I would. I browsed around the movies on my hard drive, and immediately found these two:

You see?? One man hand in a pocket, and another one pulling back a sleeve to check his watch. I was on a roll and went in search of other examples.

But I was in for a surprise. You see, despite having a whole library of really wonderful video clips on my hard drive, those two pictures were just about the only poses I could find to prove my point.

Most of the frames I stumbled across seemed to say that there are many natural poses that don't require any clothing interaction at all! Have a look at this one from All About Eve:

Bette Davis stands tall, strong, and defiant. Her arms are stiff and proud at her side, hands balled into fists. One of them is clasping a purse, but that's not really so hard to achieve in CG.

Searching further, I found this from an episode of Seinfeld:

Of course the most obvious hand pose here is where George is bipping Elaine's nose. But check out George's other hand, the one that's resting casually at his side. It's not in his pocket, or on his hip, or folded across his chest-- it's just hanging there!

Seeing this frame reminds me of a classic acting student complaint: "I don't know what I'm supposed to do with my hands!!" When we're conscious of what our hands are doing, we feel unnatural letting them hang by our side like this. But that's only because we're paying attention to them. If we somehow let it slip from our minds, we'd see that peoples' hands dangle there all the time without needing to fidget about with pockets, sleeves, and all other kinds of clothing.

Let's look at a few more frames, shall we? Here's The Dude in The Big Lebowski:

While checking to make sure he's not being spied sneaking around Jackie Treehorn's house, where are his hands? Pretty much relaxed at his sides, closely following the line of action of the rest of his body, I might add. In this case, I think the hands actually add to the comedy of this pose.

And here are some men talking to Eddie Murphy's character in Beverly Hills Cop:

Look at both of them. The manager in the white shirt has his hands hanging limply at his side (I'm not going to question why one arm looks so much longer than the other), and the security guard's arms kind of rest naturally in front of him in a way that almost feels unnatural, but there they rest. They kind of help add to the feeling of him being a big, dumb lummox of a character, don't you think?

All of these examples show arms and hands that hang at the actors' sides. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You can find poses like this all over the place. It tells me that when you're animating, you don't have to worry about your character shoving their hands in a pocket; you don't have to play into that old "I don't know what to do with my hands!" chestnut from acting students who don't know better than to relax naturally. Just let your character's arms hang by the side of the body.

Unless you're using them to enhance your pose, of course.

In these final set of photographs, taken from the dust jacket of Steve Martin's wonderful memoir Born Standing Up, we see amazing examples of just how funny and expressive you can be with your whole body, and your arms in particular. In the 1970's, Steve Martin would play comedy shows to sold-out arenas in front of thousands of people. How did he make sure that everyone could see him on the stage, even if they were sitting far far far away? He wore an all-white suit and made his poses as big as he possibly could:

In a recent post on Internal Silhouette I encouraged you to think beyond the possibilities of just the singular silhouette of a character shaded in all one color. And while I still believe that you can get some great results by using an Internal Silhouette, I also believe that you can find some pretty spectacular poses that read as just one solid silhouette. After all, if it's good enough for Steve Martin, it should be good enough for me.

Happy Animating!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Beauty and the Beast: a few links

Hey guys and gals,
To celebrate the 3D release of Beauty and the Beast, I hope it this may be an appropriate to share a library of links.

Some beautiful concept art can be found on the fan made blog, The Art of Glen Keane. I particular love seeing how Glen has thought about the skeleton structure of the character. Please also check out the concept work for his other characters, like Aladdin and Ariel.

To read Glen's thoughts on creating the dominant force that is the Beast, head over to Animated Views.

The next resource I wish to show is a clip presented on youtube, of Beauty and the Beast producer talking about the art, craft and passion that Glen breathed into the transformation scene.
For those who haven't seen the film, I must warn you it shows the pencils animation of the films ending. It is however, truely beautiful to watch.

Last up and equally breathtaking, is the work of Andreas Deja. Andreas shares his thoughts and line tests for producing the evil villain, Gaston. This can be found on his blog, Deja View, which just streams post after post of beautiful content. A must for the bookmark!

Please click the pic to enjoy. 

Character Design

Monday, 16 January 2012

MC 25: Let's fight!

Character Design Hello guys and gals,
After a shot break, we are now hoping to recommence the two week mini-challenges. The theme for this challenge stems from a post in November, where we provided a link to the Art-Eater blog, where Richmond Chaisiri discusses the animation principles used in Capcom's 1994 title, Darkstalkers. Please read our post again here.

We invite you to be creative with this challenge and create a fighting move of your choice, however please base your creative thoughts upon the core animation principles. Depending on your choice of character, this could be a great opportunity to experiment with weight, timing and spacing. Is your character is super strong like the Hulk or maybe a Jedi sword master? Is your character's actions based on a particular sport or animal? You may wish to use your favourite video game as inspiration (for example Tekken, Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter). Maybe your character is a chain belt master, with Bruce Lee as his teacher! Its up to you.

Creativity and solid animation are key to this task, so keep it simple and maybe just animate a single move.

However you choose to do battle, its time to test your might!!

As always the animation could be anywhere between 75-125 frames. If you have any questions about submission requirements, please check How-to-participate section for more details. Deadline is Monday 30th January.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

AnimSchool Review: Dapoon Rai Dewan

Character DesignHello guys and gals,
Reviews I always enjoy watching are those hosted on AnimSchool's blog, presented by Pixar's Mark Harris. This time around he provides constructive feedback on a shot produced by Dapoon Rai Dewan.

Dapoon's animation came fourth in animationrigs' contest, but I was delighted to see Mark add so many little tips and advice to really push this shot to another level.

Please check it out here

Saturday, 14 January 2012

MC 24: The 24hr challenge

Hello guys and gals,
It can be said that the first 24hr challenge was a bumpy ride, but also a warm success. Ultimately, it was a learning experience, from which we hope will allow the mini-challenges to grow.
The animators who completed an entry are as follows:

Dhruv Aditya Govil presented the cinematic delights of comedic theatre, while  suresgpadmaraj  laughed from the comfort of his front room. Jigar Chandra caught the devil tormenting hobo, while Owen laughed nervously at his guests. Eric Swymer tried to blow us all sky high and completing the bundle of laughs is Gaurav Joshi's santa.

Well done to all!

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Graph Editor and Blinking!

Graph Editor Redux & Digital Pose Test

Jamaal Bradley tweeted a link for the "Graph Editor Redux and Digital Pose Test" this afternoon and I just finished watching the tutorial video for it. It combines all of the other functions of the graph editor but puts it in a neatly packaged UI and adds its own "Tween Machine" and "Auto Tangent." In short this thing looks looks great! The Digital Pose Test aims to simplify the blocking process. I can't wait to play with them.

You Can watch the video here
You can download the script here

Character Eye Blink

Animschool has posted another great video on there youtube page on blinks. Character Eye Blink is a great tutorial for getting started with and understanding blinking.

Hope you enjoy the new links.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

24 Hour Challenge

Gotta Make em Laugh!
This is to officially announce the start of the first 24 hour challenge(hosted by us)!
This challenges theme is "Gotta Make em Laugh"

I'm sure most of us will agree one of the main attractions to animation is it's ability to make us laugh. So this challenge is all about laughing.
They say laughter is contagious so the best way to make someone laugh is to laugh yourself. So without further ado, let's all get laughing.
Here's how to enter this 24 hour challenge.

-Download one or all of the audio files below.
-Choose your favorite one.
-Log into Skype. (If you haven't been contacted by Steve or myself on your skype. Please message me at cosmicfool_animator and I will add you to the Skype chat room a.s.a.p.)
-Start animating.

You will have till the end of the next day to submit your finished piece.
Failure to deliver it on time will result in it not being shown with all of the finished entries.

We recommend that you keep your shot size to the number of frames contained in the audio file or less. 2-4 seconds is optimal. I know the time limit is short, but it is encouraged to plan your shot out as best as you can before you start animating. Take some time, shoot some reference, draw some thumbnails, whatever it is you do to prepare before you animate do. Get some feedback on it from your friends on Skype. Now stop reading this post and start animating!

If you are unfamiliar with uploading to dropbox, please find a tutorial here

Here are the sound files. Good luck to everyone!

File One
File Two
File Three
File Four
File Five
File Six
File Seven
File Eight

Andrew Chesworth Interview

Character Design Hello guys and gals,
Andrew Chesworth won November's competition with his thrilling stand-off between Beckett and his nemesis! At the same time, Andrew is also studying upon Disney's Talent Development Program, being mentored by a personal favorite animator of mine, Malcon Pierce. Both could truely be names to remember. 

Therefore, I am greatly excited to bring you words from Andrew himself. Hope you all enjoy the read!

Firstly, may I wish you a Happy New Year. Do you have a resolution for the year ahead?
Thanks, and Happy New Year to you, too! My three main resolutions are:

- Enhance the depth and subtlety of my animation.
- Try something I've stylistically never done before.
- Finish up a one minute opening sequence as a pitch for the eight-minute animated short I'm seeking additional funding for.

Please talk a bit about your early aspirations to become an animator.
My mother was especially enamored with Disney animation at a young age in the 1950s and 1960s (she was named after Wendy from the 1953 Peter Pan feature), and so my parents exposed me to animation essentially from the crib. Some of my earliest memories are watching Dumbo and the old Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shorts repackaged on the 1980s Disney Channel programs Good Morning Mickey and Donald Duck Presents. I inherited the animator trait of being enamored with trains as well, and that was almost all I drew in my formative years. I loved to draw as soon as I figured out how to, which was when I was three.

Calvin and Hobbess
I was intellectual about animation at a fairly young age, because my parents did a good job explaining it to me and exposing me to sources where I could learn about it. I remember pausing my Roger Rabbit and Beauty and the Beast VHS tapes to religiously draw still frames of Roger, Cogsworth and Lumiere. It was sort of a given for most of my life that I was going to be involved in animation in some way, shape or form. This may be a bit tangential, but I was exposed to Calvin and Hobbes in 1993 when my aunt gave me The Days Are Just Packed, and I was instantly obsessed with the comic strip and wanted to draw just like Bill Watterson. I give Mr. Watterson a great deal of credit for helping shape my perspective on the world with his ideas, through a visual language I understood.

How does it feel to have landed a place at Disney?
When I got the phone call, it felt like the moment I'd been waiting twenty years for. It was spontaneous, exciting, surreal, and overwhelming. I had a bit of a mini-career in shorts and commercial animation at MAKE for the four years following college, so getting the call at 26 years old was a more practical experience than it would have been had I been scooped up right out of school, but none of the enthusiasm and magic were diminished.

Character Design
Click to view Pre-Disney Malcon Pierce entry
I have grown in leaps and bounds through the Disney Talent Development Program. That is a direct result of the contagious atmosphere of the Animation Department, and the relentlessly dedicated attention and generosity of my assigned mentor, Malcon Pierce. Incidentally, it's very difficult for me to look at my pre-Disney work without being brutally critical in a way that I was previously not.

Disney has a fine history of its established animators passing on their traditions to the new blood. Please talk a bit about those you have met and inspired you so far.
Eric Goldberg, Bert Klein, Bruce Smith and Mark Henn have been very kind with entertaining my desire to learn how they intellectualize and practically execute their animation. Their styles and approaches really are determined by their own ways of thinking. Eric is very didactic and almost scientific in his approach to the principles, and his state of mind is totally consistent with what he puts down on the page. He is also very generous with passing on his knowledge and sense of entertainment. He makes it sounds so simple, but he is clearly a genius who can balance enormous magnitudes of detailed information in his mind while he is animating.

That is true for all of the master animators. Bruce Smith is an incredible draftsman and entertainer, and his dedication to spacing and snappy timing really speaks to my own sensibility. He has Milt Kahl's faithfulness to dimension without sacrificing appeal or communication.

Mark is very modest and leads by example, and as a fellow Midwesterner I completely understand that. The belief that you learn by doing, and doing more, and making practical assessments of where work needs to improve and attacking those weak spots decisively. He is also a very dear, honest man and his drawings are powerful but gentle and inviting.

Bert Klein's talent combined with his independent spirit and sense of humor, and insanely prolific work habits are tremendously inspiring. I wish more animators like him produced independent projects to the degree that he has and does.

In an exchange of emails with myself, you mentioned you were also inspired by the work of your personal friend, BJ Crawford. Please talk a bit about the difference you feel he has made to your animation.
Character Design BJ is a rare gift to the animation industry and a golden human being, and I love that someone as young as him is keeping alive the traditions of the 9 Old Men. I told him once I felt like the John Lounsbery to his Milt Kahl - he's so expert at his craft. I have grown enormously just working to keep up with him and his tremendously accurate and appealing animation.

It was serendipitous that he was staying in and working out of Minneapolis independently while I was living there. One of my favorite times spent with BJ was when he brought his dog over to my apartment, and we step-framed scenes from Disney's Ichabod Crane and watched Buster Keaton. He's got such reverence for legacy work, and his eye is so sharp that he can ascertain the important elements to bring to his own work. I think the most liquid ways in which BJ directly affected my work show in my planning and thumbnailing. I figure out choices in posing and spacing much more concretely before blindly executing. He also made me a better draftsman with his notes about construction and form - and just plain studying his work.

In traditional 2D animation, it was common place for each character in a scene to be worked upon by a different animator. If you had had the opportunity to work a scene with any key figure from the world of animation (past or present), who would you choose and why?
I would choose Milt Kahl, because no one understood the craft or invested more time in it than he did, and to my own personal taste he made the most entertaining versions of the characters. I also like the challenge of working with someone that intense who you know is going to deliver the goods. Sharing a scene with someone that skilled forces you to improve your game.

Character DesignGlen Keane did that for the animation crew on Tangled, and they have a whole new perspective going forward that is very rich and extremely informed. I wasn't there and I haven't met Glen, but it shows in how they are mentoring this new group. I love when Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas worked together on Madame Mim and Merlin in The Sword and the Stone, because they really complemented each other's strengths as animators. That film is so dense with rich character animation it's almost an intellectual overload.

Heading back to Disney talk, I understand you applied for a 3d position using mostly a 2D reel. Please talk a bit about the challenges of now switching to 3d at such a high level.
It's extremely hard, but it's a welcome challenge with its own joys and rewards. I made a Maya CG film in college for my thesis, but in the five years since then I've almost exclusively nurtured my skills as a 2D animator, with some notable exceptions. They knew I had fundamental technical knowledge, and there were no workflow obstacles regarding using the interface, the graph editor, or the additional tools like deformers and the like. I was a character rigger and animator at MAKE and used Jason Schleifer's system as my basic workflow model, so I feel like I've seen under the hood enough to have a dense appreciation for the CG medium beyond its surface quality.

I have been a longtime fan of Doug Sweetland's approach to CG, and intellectually I identify with his respect for the beauty of the curve editor and what it can do for your animation.

The hardest thing about CG for me is getting things to look good on ones. The stepped poses and rough blocking of a scene always look so satisfying, but are much farther removed from the end result than a pencil test is from a 2D scene. Bad splining can absolutely murder a scene beyond belief, and it's relentlessly hard to find that balance of preserving an initial pose while getting it to move through space in a satisfying way. But I love that feeling of good, clean curves giving you nice arcs and favors. It's like a golf swing - when it's on, it's really on.

The first part of your reel, reads like a small story, with many shots taken from your film Palm Springs. Please talk a bit about its selection in your reel.
At the time I applied to Disney I felt like it was my strongest work, and showing an abridged version of the short cut down to only shots I animated felt like the right choice. I think the storytelling and staging in it is much more solid and entertaining than anything I'd worked on previously. It's also the project that represents the most emotional and laborious investment from me personally. It's a world and style I love existing in, so in a way it was advertising the kind of artist I want to be right out of the gate.

I really like the characters and story in Palm Springs. It looks to be heavily influenced by the detective stories of Sin City and Roger Rabbit. With your winning entry also based upon the crime, please talk a bit about your interests in this genre?
I like seeing the harsher aspects of the real world through an entertaining and approachable lens. Animation has tremendous potential to do for other genres what Disney did for fairy tales. We see its ability to do this in films like Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians, Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback, Mulan, and Lilo and Stitch, to name a few that kind of step into darker or more mature human subject matter.

I think all three of Brad Bird's films represent the pinnacle of American animation's ability to step outside the box and grow up a little, while still retaining a gentle heart and soul, and an approachable appeal that keeps the medium a pleasant place to be. It probably rather goes without saying that Iron Giant is my favorite animated film, followed closely by The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Pinocchio is my favorite classic Disney film, because it really takes you on an emotional roller coaster of joy, humor, warmth, and absolute fear, without sacrificing any of the Disney magic.

Jessica Rabbit
That said, my love of film noir and detective stories began with Roger Rabbit as a kid because it was through the lens of fun cartoons. However, I always loved, even as a kid, that it had this scary underbelly to it. Sex, murder, and political dynamics of a real kind existed in this world. And that's the world we live in. So it's fun and pleasurable to me to see more elements of the real world caricatured in animation. And crime noir is just a juicy all-around subject; it's like the ultimate "real world" escapism subject for a film-goer.

You also seem to have thrown a curveball with your reel's inclusion of the Banana shot. I believe it adds another great dimension to your reel. Please talk a bit about the clip and your choice for including it.
I love non sequitur humor, and this is an insider joke of the guiltiest kind. The idea is that Barky (the tree) hates Banana because they have the same face, and so he must be destroyed - I think. My friend Aaron Quist came up with the story and characters for that short, and I was the character modeller / rigger / lead animator on that project.

Barky and Banana
It was all done in Maya using joint-bound NURBs shapes to give it that clean vector feel. The character was a traditional rig but it existed in very limited Z-space with set-driven presets for things like head-rotation (moving the facial elements together using one slider while still keeping them independently keyable.) I thought it was a fun way to demonstrate my knowledge of Maya through an extremely specific context.

One of my personal criticisms of your shot was the lack of reaction by Beckett when he spots the gun. This is something that I am pleased was mentioned in your eCritique provided by John Nguyen. Please may you share your thoughts on this.
It was a critique that I fully anticipated, and lost the bet on. There were several reasons for this. I blocked in an early version where he showed a scared face, and I sort of hated it unconditionally - it felt cliche to me, and so I decided to just keep him cool and steady.

However, I absolutely should have made some slight indication of a reaction through a few additional subtle drawings. I mean, the guy pulled a gun on him. I suppose I ran out of time and decided because I wanted him to stay cool, I would just let the moment end on the antagonist and not give that up. But the scene is clearly favoring Beckett's point of view through his visual prominence so that was a mistake. I make no excuses for the lack of reaction.

Talk about how the eCritique enhanced or expanded on the ideas you had originally set out to animate.
The notes that I didn't anticipate and was most enriched by were the graphic ones, like adjusting the contrast in the size of the characters in the frame, fixing Beckett's shoulder and elbow to look more comfortable in their poses, and making that last expression less sleepy. That also includes the feedback on the antagonist's facial expressions - letting him grow in intensity a bit more gradually, instead of peaking at the same time he pulls the gun out. The slow-out into the hold of him holding the gun was a time issue, and I plan on adding more frames to several of the small motions throughout the piece.

Character Design I was aware that there was awkwardness in the timing when both characters were moving at once, and I had five or six people I really respect give some pointers on negotiating that. It leveled off where it did through a lot of little shifting and eventually I just committed. John Nguyen made a great suggestion about that, and I truly agreed with all of his notes. I think he did a superb job dissecting the work and bee-lining for the most guilty culprit elements. In due time I plan on addressing as many of his notes as I can before I cut it together into a new show reel.

Please talk a bit about your animation process.
The way I approached the 11 Second Club was like doing a character test for a larger film. The design goes through some quick drafts, a very limited model sheet is drawn up, but then it's immediately animated once there is enough to go on. I sort of finalize the character within the animation test, because that's where issues of clarity and volume control announce themselves. The way a nose gets simplified, or a hand, or a shoulder, or layer of detail, becomes very apparent when you move the character around relative to itself. You will notice that Beckett sort of had his corners sanded down a bit in the final animation, sort of 'averaged out' in a way that was easier to draw and control. And the antagonist in the background became even more angular and shape-based than the model sheet (though still very close to it), because it was the easiest way to control and turn his form in the time frame I had.

I thumbnailed some basic ideas for Beckett's performance in my sketchbook, in the red graphite. The checks indicated the pose ideas that I was going to commit to in some way, shape or form.

Beckett Sketches
But those drawings were done after I had some reservations about my first-pass idea of the more uppity-looking Beckett in the clean model sheet I did.
Initially Beckett was a more upright, prissy hoodlum. I thought it made for interesting contrast and it seemed to fit the slightly nasally voice. I blocked in an entire thumbnail pass of this character, but was unsatisfied with the performance and tone, and scrapped it. was my discarded Beckett performance. It looked a bit hammy, a bit bland, and a bit uninspired, and lacking in business that I found interesting.

You can see I also had more a cowboy-reveal of the gun in the background, that seemed a bit too showy as well, so I ended up taking some feedback from another animator (Malcon Pierce, at Disney), who suggested the pulling of the gun out of the front of the jacket.

What advice would you give to others who wish to learn to develop their 2d workflow in this way?
Don't be afraid of the Cintiq as a production tool. I indeed still thumbnail ideas and sketch on paper for its immediacy and its quality of thought and expression, but as far as actually doing the final animation once you've made your creative choices, the Cintiq combined with programs like Photoshop, TVPaint, Flash, and others is a tremendous advantage in almost every conceivable way.

I think paperless animation is the future of 2D. The tablets will only get better, more receptive and more tactile, and paper as a drawing tool in sketch form won't go away anytime soon, either. 2D is more interactive and real-time than it's ever been, and that keeps it fresh and viable as a form of production in this fast-paced, high-detail CG world we live in. I don't think 2D should apologize for being 2D. I think as things get more digital and sophisticated, the 2D craft should try to remain a physical-looking medium, a hand-made medium, even if the tools to augment it are digital. I think that's what will keep people wanting to look at it. At least, that's why I like to look at it. There's an intimacy, texture and uniqueness about it that you don't get with CG, just like how in CG you get a level of detail and accuracy that 2D doesn't give you. The mediums need to play the cards they are dealt, and play them confidently.
Interview by Steven Hawthorne

Friday, 6 January 2012

Interview with Michael Cawood, Director of Devils, Angels & Dating

Hello guys and gals,
Since its first post back in 2009, the 11 Second Club has enjoyed seeing the progression and development of director Michael Cawood's new film, Devils, Angels and Dating.

Produced through a global online collaboration, the film has now finished and is now released! We would like to wish the whole production team  a warm congratulations and wish it good luck at the festivals.

Congratulations on finishing production on “Devils, Angels & Dating”. How does it feel to have the film ready for festivals?
Well it’s been more than a five year journey for me and it’s going to take a while to adjust when it’s all over! My wife even asked me the other day, what it’s going to be like when it’s all done? After all she’s never known a life without the film as long as she’s known me. We only met and got married in the last few years. It’s become a way of life and I’m really looking forward to seeing what else there is out there afterwards. The possibilities are endless.

I’m actually very proud of it of course, although I’ve been living with it for so long it’s hard to come to it objectively. I love the source idea behind the characters, the style and the setting although if I were to work with them again I’d have very different ideas on where I’d take it and what I‘d do with them. I can see the film in its current form as something representative of the way I was thinking five years ago. But it’s not just a film of its time it’s also a film of the method I chose to make it so it’s been educational seeing how it has evolved based on that, and I can certainly see how I’d want to try things differently next time to keep more on track with my core ideas and themes.

The project was a successful online collaboration between many different animators and technical artists. Was there ever a plan B to getting the film produced?
Not really. I moved around a few studios over the years and I considered approaching them to see if it could become an internal studio project in some cases. In some ways that would have been a plan A if it could have happened, but that would only happen if I had job stability with the company. It would also assume that there was a built in team of all areas of expertise that already work well together… and of course a steady income so that I could have a life while I was making it.

The problem with that idea was that the project could become attached to the success of that studio. If they changed their plans all my hard work could get buried, never to be seen. At the very least there were plenty of ways I could lose control of it. In the earlier stages it was an appealing idea but as it grew it became bigger than any one studio and less and less of an option.

Please talk a bit about some of the challenges you faced as director?
Where to start? Well directing itself wasn’t hard. I’d already lead, supervised and directed projects in the past so it wasn’t new territory. The real challenge came with such a big burden on top of having a social life and a seperate job. Something is going to suffer and many things did.

I also experienced more than my fair share of having to remove people from tasks or re-assign work. It’s one of the ugliest aspects of any lead role but on a volunteer project with people you’ve never met in person the number of ways it comes up are considerably more common. I had to toughen up quite a bit, and I’d certainly say that some of the greatest delays in the progress of the film came from my lack of toughness with the team in the early years. I was too nice. You have to be nice though with talented people working on your project for no pay, but you also have to weigh that individual’s interests against the interests of the rest of the team that are waiting for the finished product to add to their demoreels. It’s a tricky balance and not one you can learn from the working world where everyone is paid to do what they’re told.

What did you enjoy most about your role? 
I got kicks from all aspects of the film, but I think what really got me excited was problem solving with the story. Figuring out new ways to approach the characters, new ways to edit the timeline, ways to condense things, plus things, make them more interesting or entertaining, work around gaps in the production talent pool or save time and resources. Bringing ideas to every scene that would build on the believability of the story. There’s nothing quite like it. I enjoyed everything all the way down to the most technical of problem solving, to fixing pixels, rigs, animation, layout and effects but ultimately nothing quite gave me a kick like solving a big film making issue. My wife will tell you I don’t often reveal my inner child, but when I did she’d see me transform into the most excited boy she’s seen!

Other than through 11 Second Club and your website, was there anywhere else that you received critical feedback?
I started by reaching out to people I knew and I was surprised to find how slow and limited that feedback could be. When I started to ask the wider world at large complete strangers could really surprise me, and it became obvious that you never know where your best advice or the freshest perspective could come from. But you can’t control when and how that feedback comes to you and one of the things I had to learn to become resilient to was; a) the lack of responses when I did ask for feedback and, b) the severity and inappropriateness of the feedback when I wasn’t ready for it. The internet isn’t always kind. But I learned how to look for the value in all the feedback.

Please talk a bit about the origins of the story. Were any parts inspired by another tale?
Not really I like to find my inspiration in more original material, so I never copied any other stories. Perhaps I should have, as it would have made the structure much easier, but ultimately I was creating my own story from themes and issues that I felt were original or untouched in animation. In this case I wanted to look at modern forms of dating and the need two people can have to find a soul mate.

I wanted to work with characters and a setting we’ve not spent much time with before and to spice it all up with visuals that were unique. If anything the combination is almost too far and could perhaps have been grounded more, I added the shots of the Earth mid way through production for that exact reason. I found I’d created too many metaphors.

Of course the reason for that was to avoid adding production value. Showing what the characters did in the heavens, affecting the people on Earth, would have been way outside of the production limits of a volunteer project. So I used symbolism to try to represent it, and I do wonder how many people will make the connections. I wouldn’t do it the same way if I had a paid production and more resources.

A new concept is introduced for story, where dating is controlled by the use of a remote control. Please talk a bit about the challenge of relating the audience to this idea.
I had this idea of a character manipulating a virtual figure to create his perfect date before firing off an internet search, and that image stuck in my mind from some of the earliest versions of the story. It ultimately never found the perfect place in the story but evolved into the “Peeps”, as we call them, inside the Sphere, which was a representation of Earth. I came across the idea of using “Wands”, or the remote controls, as a way of allowing the story to move powers amongst the characters giving me room to introduce twists in the story.

The other reason for the Wand was that it provided a visual way to show the audience when a character was thinking about using their power. With the glowing buttons, it even provided a “One ring to rule them all” –style compulsion in a visual way, to show that the characters were fighting their impulses, their nature… the way they were expected to act.

I guess all these devices were ways to externalize their inner performances. It gave them limits as well, for example when Death’s Wand is taken away from her she can’t use it to defend herself. Similarly there were times I wanted Devil to throw his wand away as a sign of him wanting nothing to do with that evil power, but ultimately forcing him to rely on other ways to overcome his weaknesses. I ended up losing that story element to condense the film and make it more achievable to complete in a timely manner. That was one of those happy filmmaking moments when I was jumping up and down as I’d shortened the film. I’d sacrificed a cool story feature but I was far enough into production to see that the value of a shorter film outweighed the value of keeping it.

The Angel and Devil wands
Early on in the project, you mentioned Antz being an influence on style, aiming for a ''chiseled look to the modeling with clean textures''. Please talk a bit about how the final design compares with your original vision.
Yes, I have always had strong feelings about character design and I was a bit tired of conventional realistic approaches to characters. I loved finding visual short-hands for character types and personalities, and ways to make the characters stand out in a single thumbnail image. After all it was clear that these days your film lives most of its value online in one of many video portals where you live and die by one small image and your title. So appealing characters that were unique and well developed was really important to me.

Concept Art
I’d seen lots of examples of models I liked with just the right amount of dimensionality and cartooniness, and Antz was just a convenient short hand way to describe that look to people. I had other examples I collected together in a style board to help the team understand what direction I wanted to take it. Ultimately I realized how important it was for people to want to put these characters on their showreels, so they had to be appealing and well developed. I’ve been designing characters for most of my life, so I wouldn’t have put up with anything less than a really strong design that appealed to me.

Please talk a bit about your choice to have a narrator?
Once upon a time the characters spoke, and then I realized what they were saying was 90% of the screen time but only 10% of the value of the story and I switched to silent characters. This had two effects; 1) I didn’t have to worry about casting great voice talent, which if done wrong could easily have dragged the film down, 2) it made the acting more challenging, which is both good and bad. Voices are frequently a bit of a crutch for animators and I know from my own experience that it’s much easier to connect a character with an audience syncing to a voice. As soon as you have to perform without a voice you see the differences between the real animators and the ones that rely on those crutches. So it was always an issue I wrestled with, as I knew I wasn’t planning to be the only animator on the film.

At one point I had a halleluiah moment when I realized I could use the characters thoughts laid over the film in the form of a musical as a way to enhance the complex emotions the animators had to perform, but after a year of musical development I found that working in the music world was a very different beast to animation. The film was too far along and it became harder and harder to get a meaningful musical to work, especially when much of the animation footage was already starting to take shape. We do actually have one short scene with a sample of some singing. It worked great, but writing more of that and weaving it into a compelling experience was a much bigger challenge than I could manage. So I went back to what I knew, and once again had silent characters with an orchestral score.

The Wonder Years
I’m not quite sure when I considered trying a narrator. But I know the Wonder Years had something to do with it, and I realized it could be a way to draw the audience into the world and make at least one of the characters more endearing to the audience. I recorded some tests myself and the results were favorable so I ran with it. Fortunately Justin S. Barret had already performed the reactionary emotional sounds of two of our characters and we’d built a good relationship so I knew he could do a good job of it.

You described Cupid's character profile as ''never really the good guy, but no-one is pure evil either''. Then, at the end of the film, Cupid is sentenced to a horrifying death. You received some feedback on these decisions to say they found this difficult to relate to.  
You did, however, keep faith in your character. Please talk a bit about this decision.
Argh, but is he really dead? Hehe. I don’t like to think of anyone as evil. We all just clash when we come from different backgrounds and circumstances and we’re put to the test. So I’ve never been a fan of the blatant, “Mwahaha” bad guy. I just don’t find it believable.

The best bad guys are the ones we get to understand more and relate to, and then we know our hero might actually lose as secretly we’d understand why the baddie has to win. It creates far more ‘on the edge of your seat’ tension. So for a long time Cupid had a twist ending in which he returned later on, having swapped the Wands (the powers) with the other characters. It showed how they were all happier swapping roles and trying something different that suited their nature more. But when you’re putting an unfinished animatic out into the world for several years it’s surprising just how much the audience won’t tolerate nuances and subtly, especially when they’re not used to looking at static drawings telling the story (the animatic). So over time I felt compelled to try other endings that finished off Cupid and avoided muddying the good vs evil template too much.

I’d already considered introducing a baby or bringing back the Shadow devil but both would require more modeling and rigging work. So it wasn’t until someone pointed out that I could adapt the Devil rig to look like the baby that I realized it was achievable. I still kept the idea of swapping the powers over but there was no longer any confusion about whether Cupid was a good guy or a bad guy. He was just driven to do the things he did by his background and his circumstances… in my mind he’d been a single man for centuries and was getting a bit tired of hooking other people up all the time. If it were me I think I’d have flipped too!

(shot progression of Cupid)

My favorite character is Death. Her character is appealing in design and her story is told well. Please share your personal thoughts on this character. 
Yes, it’s funny, but I’d set out to make this film assuming that the straight man, Devil, was going to be the favorite. But more and more people were drawn to Death. I had a screening of 50 or so people and gave them a questionnaire to find out who was the most popular character. Death came out on top by quite a margin. I think it has a lot more to do with her look and the fact she’s a female in a traditionally male role.

Effects-wise she’s much easier than the other two as she had a modeled tail, while the other two both have non-solids for tails (a flame and clouds). Combine that with the obvious enthusiasm the modeler had for making her and she was one of the first characters to really find a look, and everyone wanted to animate her. She did have some over the top ‘sexy’ moments to do though and I was concerned that no-one would want that material in their reels, but in the end those were some of the first shots to get done, and somehow I feel like we got away with it as we had a few female animators that didn’t have any problems working on shots like that.

In light of her popularity I can certainly see the value of building on her more if I were to do anything else with the property. I wish I’d given her a more three dimensional role in this film and fleshed out her character, but my thinking was more focused on the contrasts in character that were an innocent Devil and an old corrupted Cupid, they seemed more on theme at the time. She was really just something for them to fight over initially and making her Death gave her enough power to put them both in their places and provide a challenge for them. But now I see that she has a lot more potential.

(Bringing Death to life: from story board to final shot)

Do you intend to produce a second film similarly?
No, not yet. I need to get back to earning some pennies again as I’ve made some enormous sacrifices to finish this and it’s not sustainable. I’ll always have some sort of idea boiling away in the back of my mind; I’m just hoping that the next one that consumes me will be something I can make a living on. Besides that, the very reason this ‘collaborative zero budget animated short film’ was a success (where so many others failed) was that I adapted to the changing world, and worked out what needed to change. If you start a second project in the same way you’re likely to fail, as the world has already changed. So for the next project I’d adapt again, and make the best of those new circumstances.

Is there anything you'd like to add about your thought-process or experience producing “Devils, Angels & Dating”? 
One of the biggest hurdles I had to face in the early stages was whether to share the idea publically to attract talent vs keeping it all secret. Even the other teams starting production now, that are using many of the lessons of Devils still aren’t showing most of their progress publically. It’s an old mindset that has many advantages further down the line when you come to try to make money out of the film when it’s done. But most people never make it that far, and if you struggle to attract good talent then the film may not be worth much at the end of it anyway.

So I made a sacrifice early on to go public with it. This ensured that I’ve attracted the strongest team of just about any volunteer film ever made. Everyone knew that they would be made to look good by their team mates and they could show their work as soon as they wanted. There was no waiting for the film to be finished, and the results speak for themselves. The trick is making sure that every task is worthy of someone’s reel. The ones that weren’t, pretty much all fell to me to do, so the film was designed with strong showreel worthy shots in mind. There was still a lot of less glamorous work for me to do, but the film was edited in a way to reduce that as much as possible.

What advice would you give to anybody else looking to make a film using an online collaboration?
It’s really important to weigh up why you’re making the film. Think about how much work it’s going to be and what sacrifices you’ll have to make. It’s easy to look at Devils, with a credits list over a hundred names, and assume that you can start something and you’d only have to do a small percentage of the total workload. But realistically the team leader has to do most of the work, and far more besides that no-one is even aware of.

I’ll be going into more details about how every department workload breaks down in “The Art and Making of Devils, Angels & Dating”. I feel it’s important to evaluate what worked and what didn’t and share it with the world for others to learn from, so I plan to write an eBook about it which will give me a chance to go more in-depth about the things no-one in animation production or volunteer projects talks about. I’ve setup a crowd funding campaign to allow people to pre-order the book, which will help fund the making of the book.

Beyond that I hope to make the development website into a valuable resource for animated filmmakers to learn from for years to come, and when the dust settles I plan to rework the site with that broader audience in mind. The kind of thing I wish I had when I started out.

Thank you Michael for stopping by and sharing some words. I wish you success in your next project. Here's the film, I hope you all enjoy!

To visit the website, please visit There is some terrific concept art posted on there, so please check it out.
Interview by Steven Hawthorne

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Grab It / Touch It

Having watched hundreds of 11 Second Club submissions over the years, not to mention dozens and dozens of reels from animators seeking jobs, I’ve begun to trends that separate the strong animation from the weaker animation. One of the tell-tale signs of a not-quite-up-to-par animator is a character whose hands don't believably interact with objects in the scene.

When your character holds something in his hand, a glass of water for example, it is very temping to simply link the glass to the character's palm and then universally rotate the fingers around the glass up to the point they begin to penetrate the geometry. It's quick and easy and it looks like the character is holding a glass of water. Except it's not that convincing.

In animation it's relatively easy to give the impression that a character is doing something. We can look at that character and say "Ah, the glass is moving with the character's hands, and the character's fingers seem to be wrapped around the glass, so I can reasonably assume he is meant to be holding the glass." The real artistry, however, comes in getting the audience to not even think about it: "Ah, that character is holding a glass of water." It's a subtle difference, but it's one that separates the mediocre animation from the animation that stands out and grabs your attention.

Let's look at a few quick sketches. This should illustrate what I'm talking about, and will hopefully inspire you to spend a little more time on your character's hands and fingers; they’re so important!

To start off, here’s an image of a hand grabbing a pole (or it could be a spear, or bars in a jail cell, etc.):

Looks alright, doesn’t it? I mean, when you see it, you definitely get the idea that the hand is supposed to be holding onto the pole. But all I’ve done is rotate the fingers in one axis, making them all wrap around the pole. You get the impression of a hand grabbing something, but nothing more. That's because our fingers don't really look like this when we're grabbing something.

With a few minor tweaks we can get something much more convincing. Remember you're not dealing with an actual human hand, you're working with a rigged character. Use that rig to create a picture even if you have to cheat things a little. Rotate the fingers in ways that a human hand can't achieve! It's not important that the rig behaves like a real-life person, it's only important that the audience believes the character behaves like a real life person. It's all up to what we see in the frame. A few small adjustments can give us this:

See? Now doesn’t that feel a little more solid and natural? I’m not saying it’s the greatest hand pose in the world, but it’s definitely an improvement over the first image.
To make it even more clear, look at the two images popping back and forth from one to the other:

Now, remember what I said about cheating? If I were to show you this pose from a lower angle you'd see some trouble spots:

Because of this character's proportions I've had to rest the pole in the fingers (even allowing some penetration) instead of nesting it in the palm where it would normally sit if this were a real human. Also from the lower angle you can see that the thumb is bent and crooked and hardly making contact with the pole at all. Again, this isn't natural. But since I am posing the character for the camera view only, I can get away with these little cheats. They help me build a believable pose. You’ll never notice them unless you see them from the wrong angle–and if I’m a good animator, I’ll make sure you don’t see them from the wrong angle!
Let’s take another example. This is how I often see a character's hand resting on a table:

The fingers are all bent slightly, again only in one axis, giving the impression that the character is relaxed. But I notice that when I put my own hand down on a table, I get something a little more like this:

The difference? For starters, my palm is resting on the table and that's what's supporting most of my body's weight. In the previous hand pose, the palm is hovering above the table–not very believable. Additionally, some of my fingers curl in underneath my hand while my index finger stretches forward.

This pose took a little longer to get right, since there was a lot of counter-animating of the wrist and the fingers to make sure they all looked like they were in the right place and not penetrating the table. But believe me, this is time well spent. Even if you don't call attention to that hand at all, your audience will feel that this character is alive and behaving naturally.

Here is the back-and-forth comparison:

Again, neither of these hand poses are spectacular. But they should give you a good sense of how, with a little effort and a little attention to detail, you can add a lot more believability to your scene just by tweaking your hand poses. Make those hands do whatever you need them to do. Your rig will not complain if you start rotating (or even translating!) its fingers into all kinds of crazy positions. As long as it looks good to the camera, your audience will believe it.

Good luck, and happy animating!
- Eric