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Saturday, 16 October 2010

The Name's Digger ...

As some clips from the film Legend of the Guardians have been released I thought it might be interesting to choose one that I worked on and explain the style of the animation, how I approached my shots and the techniques I adopted for the process.

The scene I’ve chosen is the introduction of the character Digger.

This scene has a simple structure. The characters Soren and Digger meet, they argue, Gylfie intervenes and the aggressor, Digger (who's driving the scene) reaches a turning point where he changes his mind about our main characters and agrees to help. Conflict is the essence of drama and all stories requires drama to entertain the viewer and to succeed. It makes the animator's job easier if the conflict driving the scene is obvious to them.

This scene was lead by James Cunliffe and animated by his team which composed of Andrew Hunt, Jerome Dernoncourt, Thomas Price, Tim Rowlandson, and myself. It was animated early in production - it was my third sequence, but for Jerome, Thomas and Andrew, who had just arrived on the project, it was their first scene. I'm sure it was a little daunting for them to be given such an important character piece straight away. I remember Andrew's frustration as he was allocated a significant shot in the middle of the sequence which he was trying to animate whilst also getting to grips with the project's software and tools. However Andrew's talent prevailed and he achieved what was required, producing one of my favourite shots of the film.

Andrew's shot, much longer in the film than in the youtube version above.

Coincidentally this scene was not only the introduction to the character Digger, but it was the first shots of him to be animated. We were therefore given the responsibility of defining his character and laying down the foundations of how he would be animated throughout the film.

There was some interesting physicality to the scene and it was a good opportunity for us to explore how the owls would move. The brief was to keep them as naturalistic as possible in their movements, but we still had to use these movements to convey the character's motivations and feelings.

Digger is a burrowing owl and therefore written into the scene were a couple of examples of a burrowing owl’s behaviour which needed to be animated. Firstly, as a burrowing owl he lives in a hole in the ground there was a point in the scene where he had to dig and spray dirt onto Soren. Secondly, prior to this there was a pose he had to adopt, which is based on genuine owl behaviour, where he brought his wings out to his side and tilted them forward - this is a stance adopted by owls who feel threatened to make themselves appear larger and therefore more intimidating to a would-be attacker.

Beyond these two scripted behaviours myself and the rest of the team wanted to bring as much of a burrowing owl's timing, poses and attitude to the character as possible. For example, burrowing owls naturally have a very staccato way of moving, a type of movement which fitted Digger's eccentric personality. Actor David Wenham, who provided the voice, had already done a great job of adding this to his performance.

Some footage of a characterful burrowing owl.

I was given the first two shots in the sequence where Digger emerges from his hole and says the line. "Ow, nice hunting. Catching a moth that's already been caught."

I had to animate both characters in the two shots. I thought it might be interesting to contrast the two owl's actions against one another, by keeping Soren as naturalistic as possible while making Digger's performance broader in range and more cartoony. In the start of the first shot we saw Soren catching a moth in his talons (unfortunately mostly missed by the movie's fade-in from black) so I researched this action thoroughly. By observing this action of owls it was interesting to see the way they keep their wings back during the attack, their talons come forward from under their chin and how they reach out in front of their face.

I looked at a lot of footage of owls pouncing and the final animation was an amalgamation of many of them, but these are three that I found particularly useful. The first two are barn owls, the last is a hawk owl

Soren with flipped image from reference footage.

Here is some footage I used for Soren's reaction to Digger jumping out the hole and saying "Hey". Although I feel a little sorry for these owls being chased around by their keeper, I really liked their faltering steps and the a-symmetrical pose of the wings. This sort of action seemed to suit Soren at this point- his surprise had made his actions appear primal and naturalistic.

Flipped image from footage.

Soren in similar pose.

I then filmed some reference shots of myself acting out Digger's line, I’m not purporting to be an actor but I do find this process useful. Like I've set out before in my post 'Capturing Honesty', I try not to plan too much, I just try to gauge the personality of the character involved as much as possible and concentrate on the emotions of the shot. I knew Digger would be moving forward towards Soren but I tried not to focus on this. Also the acting room was too small to walk the distance I needed, so I knew I'd have to add more steps to the performance during animation.

I apologise for the quality and the sound of the movie, this is because I filmed it at 3/4 speed then sped it back up to the right frame rate afterwards. This is a tip I picked up from James Cunliffe. The extra time enables you to relax and not rush your performance, it also helped to make my movement sharper, something that would suit Digger’s character.

I decided upon a combination of two takes. I liked these because my attitude felt about right for the moment and my body action seemed to match the rhythm dialogue - something I decided to exaggerate during animation. I also liked the expression at the end. It changes briefly from anger and annoyance to something close to hurt and fear. I liked this as it shows a chink in Digger's armour. Digger is in fact not a real threat, and is unlikely to attack Soren. His aggressive reaction to Soren is nothing more than bravado, although we don't know Digger yet, Digger is harmless and he is simply upset at the loss of 'his' moth. The expression just flashes briefly across Digger's face, making it less obvious - an emotion he was trying to hide.

Expression I tried to recreate from reference.

This sequence was the first one in which I used this way of working - looking through bird footage for actions I could use, then filming myself performing the line and then marrying the two together to create a mixture of a character and naturalistic performance. Therefore this scene also helped me find and define my way of working as this became an approach I adopted throughout the rest of the film.

Digger out of sight. Shot animated by Tim Rowlandson.

I also animated a Gylfie shot later in the sequence, this was a little more straight forward. However, in the storyboards and animatic of the sequence Digger's back was still visible as he hid in his hole, but we decided that it would be funnier and easier to have him completely hidden from view. The animation director, Eric Leighton, then had the idea that Digger should not just be idle in the hole but moving around, doing something odd, out of sight of the audience. This would therefore have to be conveyed through the reactions of Soren and Gylfie as they peered into the hole.

My shot showing a confused Gylfie.

My first take of Gylfie was more straight forward, Gylfie just earnestly delivering her line - "We didn't mean to take your moth". But after Eric suggested the idea in relation to Digger, I added to the shot her looking around and expressing confusion.

As with almost all my animation, time and distance from it and hindsight mean that I now look back on these first few shots and wish I had done a few things differently.

I started the sequence before some of the other animators, and had a block of my shots approved quickly. I later saw how Andrew and James had animated the character of Digger - making his movements snappier and adding more secondary expressions. This, I feel, was more successful than mine and would have liked to have gone back into my first shot and amended it. Unfortunately, however there wasn't enough time to do this.

Images from James' shot (left) and Andrew's (right).

And although I still quite like the feel of Gylfie's shot, I feel the idea of her following Digger in the hole was not as clear as it could have been.

However, the animation director commented positively on my performance of Soren in the first shot and showed it to many animators as an example of his movement to follow, so perhaps I helped define some of the film's style there.

I still like the scene overall and I'm very glad I was able to work on it. It was fun to make and was carried out during an exciting point in production where deadlines were a little more forgiving and there was much to discover - from the characters and their movements to the resources and animation tools, as well as ways of working with them.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. I would like to thank all those who have read, passed on and mentioned my flight tutorial on their website, I've been blown away by the reaction to it. And welcome to the new followers of this blog, I will endeavour to make my posts as interesting as possible!