For over 2 decades, I have been recognized internationally by the 3D animation industry as technical director and rigging specialist for clients worldwide, my work spans feature films, TV series, AAA game titles, broadcast television, aerospace, medical and tools and pipeline development.
Back in the day…
I was asked an interesting question the other day when I mentioned an old series that I had worked on called Sittings Ducks in 2000-2002 I believe, in 3DS Max 4 Alpha, yes we went into production in alpha.
The question, “Between then and now, what do you think is/are the most important technical developments that have made the character animator’s jobs more efficient/easier?”
So this question isn’t about what makes my life easier as a technical director but what technical developments have affected the art of animation.
If you don’t know what Sitting Ducks it might be best to start there. Sitting Sucks started as just a lithograph back in 1977 and became a children’s book around 1998. Soon after Elliott Animation managed to land the contract to create the TV series. We had some 90 3D artists creating two 15 minute episodes every two weeks in 3DS Max 4. Max 4 wasn’t even out yet when we started the series but it was receiving a completely new Bones and IK system as well as updates to the Skin modifier and other animation tool sets. The CG supervisor wanted to give it a go. This is when I was hired on as the “Max Guy” to ensure it all worked as planned. I had to do a lot of learning on that show since alpha software isn’t even close to being stable. It was this show that defined me as a Technical Director. It isn’t that I wasn’t doing the job prior to Sitting Ducks, it was just that I was a jack of all trades on productions often doing every job there was. By the end of Sitting Ducks everyone had forgotten that I could do anything other then rig characters and write scripts.
Rigging in the year 2000
In the year 2000 things were actually quite good in terms of rigging. We had IK solver options, advanced bones and reasonably well developed linear skinning systems like the Skin modifier in 3DS Max as well as tools for connecting channels of data together in more and more complex ways. This really wasn’t what was limiting animators as much as how these tools are used as I still use the same tools in much the same ways as I did then. The limiting factor was how the technical directors / artists used those tools and interacted with them.
Simple things like using Splines as control objects wasn’t being done by everyone. I think I started doing that in Max 3, maybe 2. Developing easy ways to grab handles wasn’t something all TD’s were thinking of, mostly we were just trying to figure out how to make a rig work at all. I think at the time I was quite advanced for most TD’s of the era as I gravitated toward solving problems naturally and I have always liked to know how to make things work and make them work better.
We did lack tools that made deformations what they are today and in fact on Sitting Ducks 1 I didn’t even have twist bones in the forearms of the characters. This wasn’t because I didn’t know how to do it but it was more about playback and animation speed for the animators. Referencing systems in most software back then left a lot to be desired so we had everything in one scene usually and just had to deal with it. This could make things very slow by the time it got down to the end of the pipeline. problem is the animators paid the price as it could get hard to pose the characters in extreme ways. About half way through season 1 I started to add them to all the characters as the speed hit was better then the deformation issues that we had to deal with.
Curve editor tools were reasonably good for the most part for doing straight up character animation and most things that didn’t exist could be written in script. Speed again was probably more of an issue as the more keys that are created the slower things go. Lets put this in perspective, we were on Windows NT with single core Pentium processors.
So what has changed in terms of how all this affects character animators?
Well a lot of it comes down to how we are rigging characters and the advancement in knowledge and tutorials that are out there. I think that less is due to the advancements in rigging technology other than speed of the systems. My phone has more power then the whole shop that was working on Sitting Ducks had to use. View port technology has improved a huge amount. What was once a one hour render is now real time in the view port letting the animators see what they are working on in a more final state. This means animators spend less time waiting for renders or play blasts to see what they have done.
There are some advancements that are helping the animators like better skinning methods such as Quaternion Skin Weights and deformation helpers like Delta Mush and Tension Deform. These allow animators to push their poses but really don’t change how they animate.
Far better scripts are being written for working with characters rigs in scenes like character pickers so there is less hunting for small control objects.
What about Mocap and other forms of animation?
There is probably far more advancements in these areas then just straight up character animation. Mocap systems are fantastic these days and need less and less cleanup and the fidelity of the captures is getting better all the time. I remember trying an auto facial animation system that would convert phenoms into animation and it was the funnest thing that I had seen watching their mouths flap all over the place. Now a days mocap is capturing the slightest changes and auto animate systems are quite good.
Cloth simulations and other dynamics sims are better then ever and really fast to use. Back on Sitting Ducks I had to do a cloth sim that was just a simple table cloth and it took for ever to get right. The lighting an rendering guy assigned to the shot couldn’t get it to render so he painted the cloth in frame by frame. These days I could do that shot and have it rendered in an hour.
Where is it going from here?
Who knows really. Everything is getting faster and as computers get faster what was just possible yesterday now runs real time in the view port. But when it comes to straight up character animation it will always take a talented animator to act out the part and give it the emotion that makes us believe in what we are watching.