To try and give a bit of insight into the life of a professional animator, namely mine, I've decided to write about a week during the end of my previous project - the animated film Legend of the Guardians. As I began to write and it became rather extensive, as is often the case, I've cut it into a series of four posts which I'll upload every Monday for the next three weeks. I’m hoping this will make an interesting story for you to follow, give you an insight into what working life can be like and give you an idea as to how I work. I call it 'A week in Crunch'.
'Crunch time' is the last couple of months at the end of a project. It usually involves very long hours and working 6 or even 7 days a week. There is a high level of stress and everyone gets tired and grumpy, ill, dishevelled and generally worn out. Work pretty much consumes your brain, it's all you do so it's all you talk about and although incredibly tired, you often can't get to sleep at night for thinking of it. However, it can also be quite an exciting time as well, things come together very quickly and everyone can start to see the end of the project in sight. The film you may have been working on for years is finally almost finished!
I should make it clear the level of hard work I talk of was not unique to me, everyone around me was working equally hard during this time. I'm also not trying to criticise the animation industry or the faults in the work practices the animation companies employ. Generally at the start of a project, time is more flexible and there is much less stress. The push at the end of a project is almost always necessary and part of the job of an animator.
Another motivation for writing this is that I find there are many unrealistic examples which show the animation process as a smooth, seamless evolution from blocking to working into the animation then to polishing. In my experience the reality of the process is rarely that straightforward. Occasionally you'll get a shot for which you and the animation director are totally in sync, which you face no technical obstacles and the journey of shot production is a smooth one. More often than not it's a balancing act - you are trying to move the shot closer to a finished state whilst incorporating the ideas the animation director has for the shot. At the same time as battling with any technical problems you may have, trying to progress your own ideas and wanting to make it look as good as possible. All of this with a deadline looming. You have to stay flexible, and willing and able to make large changes very quickly.
All notes given by the animation director are real and all events are true to the best of my recollection.
A shot for you ...
The deadline for animation on Legend of the Guardians was 18th July 2010 but we were delivering the large portions (or spools) of the film before that. As the first spool delivery approached, animation for it was to be finished by Saturday 3rd July. The following story charts my week leading up to this deadline - from Saturday 26th June to the end of Saturday 3rd July ... which technically is 8 days and not a week but who's counting. During these 8 days I worked 98.5 hours, starting at 8.30am each day and staying late (past 6.30pm) every night, working past 12am on a couple of occasions.
I was a lead animator on the project with my own team, however there was a sequence for that first spool that, because of unforseen curcumstances, was in danger of running out of time which belonged to another team. Unfortunately crunch time is also when things start getting brutal, it's horrible to take shots away from an animator but sometimes that's the only way they're going to get done on time. There were a few shots in the sequence that the animation director Eric Leighton needed executed differently and the film's production crew were not confident they would be completed in time. It was decided that the senior and lead animators should be reassigned to these shots.
At the end of production like this there is usually some last minute hiring, animators brought in and thrown into a production, forced to very quickly adapt to the animation style, working methods, rigs and characters. It's very much a sink or swim situation and it's terribly unfair not to be given time to settle in. The shot I was given was re-assigned from an animator who was hired late in the project and had little time to get up to speed. I had worked on the production for over a year and a half by that time and therefore I was comfortable with the tools and the style of animation required. I had mixed feelings about being in this position, I felt very fortunate to be one of 'go to' animators on the project, someone the production felt could be trusted with complicated shots with tight deadlines but at the same time it’s difficult to be given another animator's shot. I've had shots taken away from me, especially earlier in my career, and it is always unpleasant and hard not to take personally.
A later shot from the scene showing Digger and Twilight with Mrs Plithiver and Soren in the foreground.
The scene in question, the introduction of Twilight, had been greatly affected by some last minute modifications to the story. One major change to the film that affected the scene was the decision that the hero (Soren's) parents should not be killed during the film. Up until a few months before the end of the film's production the story had Soren return home to find his family's hollow burnt and abandoned. It was a sad but very beautiful and powerful scene. This was also where Soren was reunited with his snake nurse mate, Mrs. Plithiver (or Mrs P.) who would then accompany him on his mission to find the mythical Guardians of Ga'Hoole. Now that Soren's parents were not killed and he didn't return home, there was the dilemma of how to reunite Soren with Mrs P. As removing her would have impacted too much on the rest of the film. It was decided that she could be reintroduced in this sequence by Twylight bringing her into his home as food for him and his hollow-mate Digger. Who had just met Soren and offered him shelter.
Reunion between Soren and his parents at the end of the film
Despite this the animation director Eric Leighton and lead on that sequence, Andrew Hunt had turned it into a great scene. The character of Twilight was strong, the animation was really beautiful and it was getting some great laughs in reviews. When I found out I was to animate a shot within it but had only a week to complete it I was anxious of the schedule but thrilled to be involved in such a great scene.
The shot I was given had just two characters, Soren, an owl, and the snake - Mrs P. Snakes, however, are notoriously hard to animate, their movement is obviously very different to other land based animals so Mrs. P's animation was going to be tricky - (for those interested in the technicalities) there were two modes to her rig, a straight forward FK mode which was incredibly hard to animate in anything other that a close up head shot or an IK mode which was easier in full body shots but had a one major draw back; she would be constrained to a path by her head but there was no way of locking down any point of her body which made it slip around as her head was animated, and the controls along that path would easily gimbal and cause pops in her motion. It had also proved hard to get appealing poses from her.
Picture from previous version
When I picked up the shot the previous animator had played it much as it was in the original, dead-parent version - a tender, warm moment between Soren and Mrs P. This worked in the original story as the shot was quiet and underplayed and the reunion was against a background of tragedy.
This new reunion was very different, firstly, it's obviously highly unlikely - To be introduced to a new character who is also carrying an unrelated character we have previously met. The animation director Eric Leighton suggested that instead of hiding away from the fact that this was a tenuous plot point and risk pulling people out of the story and ruining the illusion of the film, we should accentuate the serendipity by showing how shocked and amazed the character's reactions to the situation were. It was even suggested that we add a small knowing look to camera to further highlight that Soren couldn't believe that this was happening. Secondly, there was the extra complication of Mrs P changing gears through the shot, she started off in happy amazement then her emotions turned at the end of shot to anger at Twilight for capturing her.
Shot sound file -
Mrs P : "It can't be! Every day I've been out looking for you and Kludd and then this ... to be snatched up by this monstrosity."
I decided to be bold. If Eric wanted a big impact I'd try and give him one. I reckoned that if Mrs P was just about to get eaten but suddenly found a close friend, the exact close friend she was out looking for when she was captured, then she would probably launch herself at Soren and squeeze him tight. I thought it would be funny to have her shaking him with excitement as she tried to tell him what had happened. I also wanted to try and add some fun ideas in there, the look to camera for example. Also, throughout the film there had been moments when Mrs P. had hugged some of the owls but it had always been challenging to achieve, as snakes in the wild sometimes eat owls, it always felt like the snake was about to constrict the friend she had in her grasp. I wanted to play with this idea, firstly I wanted to make sure the initial grasp of Soren read as a hug and not an attack. But then I wanted her to give Soren a squeeze as she became angry, my idea was that on the accent in "snatched" she would be so focused and angry at Twilight that she would not realise that she had accidentally held Soren too tight. After a bit of brain storming I drew these rather crude sketches just to get something down on paper and out my head.
These thumbnails were done very quickly and are very rough. There is little focus on the details of pose and facial expression, they were mainly used as a means to visualise the physical movement of the snake throughout the shot. I've tried to make them a little clearer by adding notes and colour.
I spent Saturday morning finishing off a previous shot and started this shot around lunchtime on Saturday 26th July. Firstly I tried out some poses to see what I could achieve with the snake, each pose was quite laborious to create, each node along the path had to be separately translated and rotated into position. I had to find out if my idea would work at all. I wanted to see if it would be possible to get the snake wrapped around Soren and position her so that she would still be able to look at him to talk to him.
After some trial and error I came up with this, which proved it was possible at least. Mrs P's face would be very close to Soren's but this could work out well as she would be so excited to see him that she would lose all concept of normal personal space. The idea was that eventually Mrs P's body would look like it was supported by Soren's wing, however, I left some space around this area as I wasn't exactly sure where Soren's wing and shoulder would be. The tail has also been left rather ambiguous.
Next I tried a pose were she would be looking at Twilight with her body ready for the accidental constricting of Soren. I could only make one coil and it wouldn't quite fit round the widest part of his body, so I had her squeezing more around his shoulders / neck, but I thought this would still work.
Then I created a rough pose for Mrs P. hugging Soren which would be viewed from his left. This took quite a while but finally it felt almost right - warm and friendly, hopefully it would not be confused for constriction of Soren. All these poses were cheated to a degree, there was an area on Soren's left hand side were Mrs P wasn't supported by anything and to get her wrapped back around I had to make a sharp u-turn there which created a rather ugly shape. But I figured that as the camera was on the other side of Soren we would never see this, and I'd stage the scene so Soren wouldn't turn his body too far towards the camera.
Unattractive U-turn in Mrs P's body I would keep hiden from the audience.
Finally I created the starting positions for the characters which would closely match the position we had last seen them in. I was reasonably happy with these as basic story telling poses and so reordered them, added a move back on Soren and a few more poses at the end for Mrs P dismounting Soren. I also had to create a rough camera for the scene, the original one was still and focused around where Mrs P started. With this camera she would immediately jump out of shot, so I added a tilt up and pan to follow the action. It wasn’t usual practice to create our own cameras on this production and it would have to later be refined by the studios lensing department. I made a capture of my work so I could view it in sequence. Although very rough, I was happy with my progress. I didn't submit this for review but this is where I finished up that Saturday night.
I don't always work in stepped keys but as I needed to get an idea across fast and due to how long it took to pose Mrs P, it seemed like the best option.
With such a tight deadline it was a relief to have something in the scene and I was happy with how my idea was progressing. On Sunday I tried to refine these poses a bit, add some breakdowns and some basic facial animation to help sell what the characters emotions would be. I then submitted it for review on Sunday night.
But I would have to wait until the next day to find out what the Animation Director thought of it.