For March's competition, the community were challenged to go all the way and animate an audio clip from Breaking Bad. Tim Kallok made few mistakes, snapping up first place with his film noir animation. We wish to thank Tim for giving an insight into his practice and wish him congratulations once more for his winning production.
Your dream is to work in feature film. If you could have worked with any character from a past animated film, who would you pick and why?
From earlier films, I think Captain Hook from Disney’s Peter Pan would have been a lot of fun to animate as well. He is another character with a conflicting personality. On one hand, he is trying to be a sophisticated gentleman, yet when he gets angry, his inner villain shows through, he totally looses control and becomes this crazy, evil madman. His phobia of the crocodile also adds a very fun, unexpected layer to his personality. I think Frank Thomas did a phenomenal job with his depiction of Hook, which I don’t think I could pulled off.
Tell us a bit about your time so far at the California College of the Arts.
Your most recent entry on your blog, talks about your excitement at taking classes taught by Andrew Gordon, Bret Parker and Mark Andrews. Please talk a bit about your progression in these classes.
Being able to take classes with Andrew Gordon, Bret Parker and Mark Andrews was an incredible, once in a life time experience. Each of their classes was very challenging and really helped me to improve my skills.
Andrew Gordon’s class, Animation Tutorial, was an advanced animation class that covered advanced body mechanics, acting and dialogue. He gave many of the same lectures that he covers in his master classes, and gave us insight into his own workflow and how he approaches animating shots at Pixar.
He conducted each class in the same way that they have “Dailies” at Pixar. He would pull up our work for critique on the projector and do draw-overs to show us how to improve our posing, timing, and overall appeal of our assignments. Andrew encouraged us to treat each assignment as a mini-short film, having us take in to account the who, what, where, when, why and how of the scene and think about the narrative and scenario. This way of thinking helped me to get into the mind of the character and treat my assignments more as a shot in a film rather than an animation exercise.
I had Bret Parker for two classes, Experimental Animation and Senior Project. Experimental Animation was an introductory class to the methods and practices of experimental animators. Bret introduced us to a myriad of interesting experimental films that really broadened my view of what animation can achieve. We were given a wide variety of assignments in different mediums such as paper cut-outs, found objects, clay, etc. I honestly enjoyed creating animation with tools outside of what I normally use because it really enforced the animation principles in my mind and made planning a much larger part of my workflow. In stop motion, you animate straight ahead and there is no undo, so you have to extensively plan what you are going animate before you start shooting. It forces you to think about the timing, spacing, overlap, secondary action, and all the other principles of everything you are going to animate. This influenced me to start using x-sheets and timing charts more in my CG workflow. The other class I had with Bret, Senior Project, was a 2-part class where we produced a short film. I got a little too ambitious with my film and instead of having a short 1-2 minute film, my project turned in to a 6 minute monster. It’s a 2D film about a dog named Lucky that I am animating in TVPaint. I’m not going to say too much about the story, because I want to be fresh when people see it for the first time. I wasn’t able to finish the film by the time I left CCA, but I am continuing to work on it little by little on my spare time, which hasn’t been too much because I have been exclusively working on my reel. It’s turned into a labor of love and I am going to eventually finish it.
Mark Andrews teaches the Visual Storytelling class at CCA. His class focused on storytelling and how to best communicate stories visually. Mark is an amazing teacher and a true master of filmmaking. He is really intense and enthusiastic about his craft which made his class very enjoyable. I have taken a few storyboarding classes prior to taking Mark’s class, but his approach to teaching story is much different than what I had experienced before. In previous classes, I had learned storyboarding from a very technical standpoint, meaning I learned the different types of framing, camera moves, screen direction and rules about editing, such as the 180 degree rule, but I never really learned why and when to use them. Mark’s approach to filmmaking is that all of those rules and techniques should always serve the story foremost, and they have very clear emotional impact on the viewer. This was a refreshing point of view and made me enjoy the storyboarding process much more. Mark set up the classwork in a way that helps everyone understand the concepts he teaches. We started off simple by telling a story in 1 drawing, then gradually increased the complexity so that by the end of class we did a full 50 panel storyboard. Overall, the classes at CCA really stress the importance of story, because as animators, we are primarily storytellers. We tell stories through our character’s performances. That focus on story throughout my time at CCA definitely helped me add more depth to my work and changed my approach to how I animate.
You have also noted your admiration for Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Most will know them as writer's of Disney's Illusion of Life, but what distinguishes your admiration for this artists from the other Nine Old Men?
I have admiration for all of the Nine Old Men, because they were all pioneers of the craft. Their work along with the work of the animators that came before them (Fred Moore, Bill Tytla, Norm Ferguson, etc.) transformed animation from being a novelty into a powerful storytelling art form. I admire Frank and Ollie’s work the most because out of the other Nine Old Men, because they were the masters of emotional, empathetic animation. For me, I could always connect with the characters they animated and really feel the emotions shining through the performances.
One of my favorite scenes that Ollie animated is from The Rescuers where Rufus, the cat, is comforting Penny after she didn’t get picked for adoption. There is so much beautiful, subtle emotion in that scene, and you can feel what the characters are feeling on the inside. One of my favorite scenes that Frank animated is from The Jungle Book, where Baloo is trying to explain to Mowgli that he has to take him back to the man village. In that scene, you can really feel Baloo’s frustration and how he is trying to find the right words to say. The acting choices that Frank came up with for Baloo in that scene, rubbing his neck and scratching his chest, were original acting choices then, but now have become animation cliche’s. I think that speaks to the power and originality of the animation they produces and how they have greatly influenced many generations of animators. There is an awesome documentary called Frank and Ollie, that Frank’s son directed. It is a must see for all animators out there. I highly recommend it.
I really enjoyed your traditional project, Fall Rhythms. I believe it delicately compliments the work in your 3D projects. Was it influenced at all by Ryan Woodward's Thought of You?
Fall Rhythms was my final project for Bret Parker’s Experimental Animation class. We were given free reign to do what ever we wanted, but we had to submit a concept and have it approved before we could start working on it. I initially had a hard time trying to figure out what I wanted to do. On a particularly windy autumn day, I was walking through CCA’s Oakland campus, and I was observing how the wind was blowing through the trees. I could see the overlap/wave principle in action and the idea for my project popped in my head. Initially, I wanted to do a larger series of animations that showed how movement in nature can be seen in human movement. I submitted my idea to Bret and she suggested that I simplify my idea, so I condensed it down into the piece I have on my website, a choreographed dance between a falling leaf and ballet dancer. I studied a few ballets to get some ideas but ultimately choreographed the dancer’s movements myself. Bret was a big help on this project because she was a dancer prior to becoming an animator. She gave me a lot of great feedback on making sure the dancer’s form and poses were correct. It wasn’t until halfway through production that I saw Ryan Woodward’s Thought of You. I was pretty bummed out that what I was making was so similar to his piece, but I decided to keep moving forward with it because the premise and inspiration for my piece were different than his. I really enjoy Ryan’s piece, he is an incredible draftsman and the animation in Thought of You is simply beautiful.
You also experimented with stop motion. Do you have plans to produce any further work in these disciplines?
In contrast to Hindsight is always 20/20 and Dim Pickins which tell more full stories, I love the simplicity of your dog trot. Please can you talk a bit about the piece and your motives for it's production.
Dog Trot was the first project I completed in Andrew Gordon’s Animation Tutorial class. The assignment was to do a quadruped cycle of our choosing. Like I previously mentioned, Andrew wanted us to consider making each assignment into its own scenario. One of the concepts that Andrew introduced to us was when you are making pieces for your reel, you want to be able to set yourself apart from other animators. So if you are doing a cycle, try to make it transcend being a just a cycle. Put the character in an environment and have them react to their surroundings. With that I advice, I didn’t want to do just a straight forward cycle, so I tried to think of ways I could break it up and add variance.
In a previous eCritique, Kenny Roy spoke of the difficulty in animating a lengthy performance to a single camera. Looking at your portfolio of work, it appears to be a challenge you relish. Please talk about your approach to composition.
One of the ideas that Mark Andrews really stressed in his Visual Storytelling was the concept of economy of shots. Each shot you use should be chosen so that it is the best possible way of communicating the information you are trying to show the viewer. You should move to a new shot when you are presenting new information that couldn’t be shown in the previous shot. There is no need to have a sequence of 10 shots when you can tell the same story using 5. Having too many cuts can lead to a loss of clarity, an example being most Michael Bay action sequences. There are way too many cuts and it’s hard for the viewer to tell what is going on. That being said, I start my projects in their simplest form, usually with just one shot. If the action or intention is unclear, I can always add more shots to clarify what is going on. The majority of the time, creating strong poses with clear silhouettes will help much more than changing composition or adding cuts to an animation. I think now a days, editing with a large amount of fast cuts has become a part of our aesthetic culture. If you count the amount of cuts in any modern commercial, I think you would be surprised how high the number is. Maybe I have an old fashioned aesthetic taste, but I am a fan of keeping things simple.
Please tell us about your workflow for your winning entry.
I was pretty excited when I heard the audio clip for the March contest. I’m a big fan of the Breaking Bad series and really wanted to try my hand at doing a subtle dialogue piece. I was trying to come up with some new material for my reel, so entering the competition was a great way to push myself to complete a new piece. The first thing I did was download the audio and loop it for a while to get some ideas for how I wanted to approach the shot. The content is fairly ambiguous, so there is a bunch of possibilities for scenarios (as seen in all the other entries). Fairly quickly, I came up with the concept that you see in the final entry.
My next steps were getting all the assets ready for animation. I knew I wanted to use the Malcolm rig because I had tested out the rig and really like the facial setup and overall appeal of the rig. I already had the set built from Nick Danger Answers the phone, a previous project I had done a few years ago. Luckily I still had all the files and textures backed up on a hard drive. I did a little bit of extra set dressing, adding in a few more objects/props such as the gun, the photo and other paperwork strewn across the desk.
(scene set up)
I then proceeded with the modifications to the Malcolm rig, which included adding his shirt and suspenders, and modifying his textures. Within a few days, I had everything ready to start production on the shot. (Please see Tim's AnimSchool interview).
I then started planning out the animation for the shot. I made a few thumbnails and shot video reference of my self acting out the shot. I don’t use video reference too extensively. I already have the performance set in my mind before shooting reference, so I treat it more of a physical rehearsal of what I have in mind for the shot. Once I shoot it, I look at it maybe once or twice to see the body mechanics of the more physical actions and study secondary actions that I might have done subconsciously.
From there, I jumped in to animating, starting with the blocking pass. I block using the stepped method. I enjoy using the stepped method because it allows you to really pay attention to creating strong key poses. It’s much closer to the way you animate in 2D, which I really enjoy. In blocking, I start out as simple as possible, trying to tell the story with the least amount of poses. I spend quite a bit of time refining my key poses, making sure the silhouette reads and there is a nice rhythm to the pose. After key poses, I go through and add breakdowns, then extremes and finally a few inbetweens. I have found working in stepped, you need to really tell Maya what to do. If you don’t have enough keys for Maya to work with, when you go in to spines, you get a big floaty mess. If you spend the time in blocking putting in a lot of poses and defining the holds, breakdowns, extremes, and main inbetweens, the jump to spline will be much easier to deal with. Tween Machine speed up this process a lot and use it extensively. In blocking, I usually don’t touch the face, besides changing the default expression to something that fits the mood of the scene. I tackle the face and lip sync once I am out of blocking.
After blocking, I splined out the shot, started refining the timing and smoothing out the splines. During this process, I approach the shot in chunks, working on 50-100 frame sections at a time. Once I am happy with one section, I move on to the next. For refining, I start out with the controls closes to the hips and work my way outwards (Bottom spine > Mid Spine > Top Spine > Clavicles > Shoulder... etc.). After my first pass of refining, I do a rough pass on the facial animation. I do the parts of the face in straight ahead passes. I usually do the eyes and brows together and lip sync as a separate pass. I break up the lip sync in to separate passes. I do the open/close of the jaw first, then the wide/narrow of the corners of the lips, then adding in compression and lip curls for consonant shapes such as Ms and Fs and Vs. Once I have a first pass on the lip sync in, I go back and break up the asymmetry of the mouth shapes and add do a pass for the cheeks and nose. After I had a solid pass on the face, I continued to polish the shot as a whole. For polish, I concentrate on further refining the splines, smoothing out arcs and making sure all the timing and phrasing are working well together. I also go through and make sure there is no interpenetration, where parts of the character are going through props and set pieces. I worked up until the last day of the month and could have continued to polish, but I needed time to render out the shot and composite everything together, so I had to let it go so I could submit in time. Although I didn’t get the level of polish I wanted, I was still happy with how the shot turned out in the end.
(Hindsight is always 20/20 progression reel)
I love the film noir style to the clip. Did you study any particular actors to help capture the essence of the character?
I’m a big fan of classic noir and detective films. When I came up with the initial idea for my shot, I had in mind the style of acting I wanted. I wanted to portray the hardboiled detective you would commonly see in the noir detective films. I didn’t really study any actors in particular while working on the shot, but I did watch a bunch of classic films for inspiration throughout the production. Some of the films I watched during the production were The Third Man, The Stranger, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Witness for the Prosecution among others. Looking back at my shot, I guess I incorporated a little bit of Orson Welles and Humphrey Bogart in to his character. Theres a great sequence
Casablanca that influenced the overall mode and tone of my shot. You can see it on Youtube. Please click the below pic:
Where do you usually turn for inspiration? Do your ideas come from people you know, films you have seen, or completely invented from your own stories?
For me, inspiration for my work comes from a wide variety of places. I watch a lot of movies and TV Shows. I am a big fan of Jean Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie, City of Lost Children & Delicatessen) He is very playful with his camera work and staging and also gets amazing, animated performances out of his actors. I go to the zoo quite a bit to draw and watch the animals. I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from watching animals both in person and in documentaries, they do a ton of fun,quirky things that makes great material for incorporating into character performances. My work is also inspired from personal experiences and memories. I think it’s important as animators to get out and experience as much as you can in life. You can find inspiration in places you would least expect it. I think there is a lot of truth in what Brad Bird once said, “Animation is about creating the illusion of life. And you can't create it if you don't have one.”
Through your AnimSchool interview, I was pleased to read you use a mirror to discover your facial performance. What benefits do you believe this traditional tool offers in comparison to using more modern aids such as a video camera.
I think using a mirror and video reference both have their benefits as animation tools. Like I said earlier, I don’t use video reference too extensively because when I am working, I already have a clear mental vision of what I to animate. Using a mirror definitely has a lot of benefits to me because it’s a non-intrusive part of my workflow. It’s really easy just to look over at the mirror and see what your face is doing in multiple angles as you say the dialogue. With video reference, you can only see the angle you shot it at, so unless you shoot your reference from multiple angle, it can be hard to decipher what exactly is going on in 3D space. With a mirror, its also much easier to see what parts of the face are being influenced by each expression or mouth shape. Additionally, with a mirror, its much easier improvise and come up with different ways of transitioning between expressions or different ways of showing the expression you are going for.
You made a deadline day change of how the detective would stand and grab the gun. Pushed for time, the spacing of this movement was not how you would have wished. Animation Mentor's Nicole Herr, picked up on this and offered advice on how to improve it. Have you had time to return to the shot and add your desired polish?
The following weeks after the competition ended, I continued to work on the shot here and there. I mostly fixed the issues that stuck out in my mind such as the part you mentioned where I reworked the grabbing of the gun. I also went back and added in more time at the beginning so the dialogue doesn’t start right on frame 1. I haven’t hada chance to go back and address all of the issues that Nicole mentioned in the critique, but here is the latest version of where it is at right now:
Talk about any new concepts you were introduced to (or re-introduced to) through the eCritique.
One of the concepts that Nicole talked about in my eCritique was the use of proper eye direction and eye darts. I completely agree that I could have improved that in my shot. Studies have shown that the eyes of a person/character are what we focus on most, so they are really important to get right in animation. The eyes say a lot about a character and play a pivotal role in showing the character’s emotion and thought process. Nicole talked about adding in eye darts, but in a way that they were felt more than seen. Trying to achieve that level of subtlety is very hard in animation and something that I constantly struggle with. In future work, I am definitely going to pay more attention to adding in those important details.
This is your first time entering our monthly competition. What experience and advice would you give to somebody planning to enter?
Week 1: Finish preproduction, animation planning and have all assets ready for animation.
Week 2 : Fully block out the animation and complete first animation pass.
Week 3 : Polish, Polish, Polish... then Render!
Another piece of advice I would give is to really think about your scenario and approach to the scene before you start animating. Looking back at all the winning entries, you can see that each one has very well defined characters, a clear scenario where you know the where, what, when, why and how of the scene. You can make it easier on your self if you put a background set and props into the scene before you start animating. Without these, you are just animating a character on a blank canvas. Thinking about backgrounds and props can influence your acting choices and enhance your character performance. However, don’t spend too much time worrying about modeling, textures and lighting. Ultimately, this is an animation competition, and quality of animation should always remain your top priority. The background is just the icing in the cake, it helps the viewer better understand your story and become interested in seeing your shot.