Believable Character Animation: Tips and Tricks

Believable Character Animation: Tips and Tricks

Raffi Yaniger shared some insights into character animation: useful tools, how to approach the task and testing the results, facial animation, and more.

Introduction

Hi, I'm Raffi Yaniger. I am based in Israel and have worked professionally as an animator for 6 years. I also like to do illustration and painting.

I currently work at Snowball VFX as an animation supervisor, finishing up the second season of Muppet Babies (Disney Junior).

In the past, I have worked on commercials, television series, and games. The most recent and exciting game I worked on is the Spyro Reignited Trilogy (Toys for Bob - Activision Blizzard). I worked on this project through Studio FunKeyz (headed by Shuki Gamliel). The studio was brought on during production to help create animations for the game.

I always enjoyed art and computers, which led me to dabble in CG in high school. I remember downloading the beta version of Rhino 3D when it just came out and modeling cars for fun. Eventually, I discovered a passion for character animation, mainly because I love the ability to create a performance and to convey emotions. 

I also enjoy the unique mix of analytical thinking and creative inspiration that animation requires.

Tools for Animation

I rely mostly on Maya, and I use some of Aaron Koressel's scripts a lot, and Alan Camilo's aTools. I haven't tried out AnimBot yet, but it looks amazing. 

Tools that are especially useful when building cycles are the option of aligning different controllers, and the option of copying animation from one body part to another. I used these tools while building this walk cycle from the Spyro game:

To tell the truth, most of my 2D animation was done using the classic method with pencil and paper (lots of piles of paper...). I wanted the unique look that you get from a real pencil, and I never worked on a large scale 2D production that required more efficient methods.

I am very interested in 3D and 2D animation hybrids, and Blender has some amazing tools for that. I am still studying it and hope to find with it some kind of fusion of styles that would work for me.

I don't use simulations much in my work, but I do use the "spring chain" dynamics that mGear has (by Miquel Campos). It doesn't have collision detection, but it's very fast and easy to use. Here's an example from Spyro, where I built "spring chains" in mGear and attached them to a different, existing rig, that didn't have dynamics, to help animate the tail, wings, and fins. 

To be technical for a moment: 

I constrained the base of the mGear chains to the different body parts, e.g. the base of the chain I made for the tail was constrained to the hips, so it moved with them. 

Then I constrained the rest of Spyro's tail rig controllers to the mGear chain controllers that moved with the dynamics they have. Once I had the dynamics baked, I adjusted and edited the animation manually as needed:

Testing & Reviewing Your Animation

It is always important to see your animation in context. If it's in film or television then watch where is it in the edit and in the story and how it fits in. If it's in a game, see how it plays with other animation that the character has. 

Seeing it in context this way also helps you see it more critically, with a "fresh eye".

Another well-known tip for a "fresh eye" is flipping the video horizontally. It also helps to work on something else, and then go back to watch the video later, seeing yourself as a critic and trying to think of what advice you would give if it was someone else's work.

Things I look out for when criticizing my animation are: 

  • Is there anything that "jumps" out for me and grabs my attention, that I didn't intend to be noticeable?
  • Does the character feel authentic as far as his acting, the physicality, the style of motion?
  • Am I interested in what I see, is it engaging?

 

Here are two examples of cinematic animations I made for Spyro, and how I tried to make them engaging:

In the following animation, I tried to convey the powerful intensity in the voice acting to the character's performance. The feeling of his strong presence, dominating and filling up the space:

In this next animation, the voice acting was great, but the dialogue itself was very technical. The character is just describing which buttons to press for gameplay.

So I added a personality "moment", showing him losing the thread of his thought, trying to remember what he was planning to say next, and then remembering and continuing. 

This little moment was not in the voice acting, but it adds entertainment and interest to the performance:

Believable Facial Animation

When I started out in animation I would try to mimic every little tiny motion that happens in real life. I wanted to work with ultra-realistic VFX style rigs with all the folds and creases and bulges that a real face has.

Eventually, I realized that working with simpler, stylized characters, is actually a better way to improve my animation. It forced me to analyze real-life reference and understand what motions and shapes convey the ideas I want, and to learn how I can translate the essence of those motions to the limited controllers on the stylized character.

Nevertheless, it is important to have the ability in the rig to add a bit of fleshiness (e.g. the nose being affected by the motion of the eyes or the mouth), so it feels like the different parts of the face are connected.

This is vital for conveying a believable performance. Even if it's very subtle, it helps the face feel organic. Here you can see an example of that, and, looking back at it, I think I could have pushed it even more:

It is important not to move the body and head around too much when the focus needs to be on the face. However, adding some subtle motion can really help enhance what the face is conveying.

Here you can see I based the facial animation off my reference (with some changes), but I also added some body motion - the staccato motion of the laughter, then it stops suddenly. Bringing up the fork to eat, stopping mid-air, and then dropping the fork.

This all enhances the facial performance, creating a progressive decline in energy, matching what the character is feeling.

Afterword

The style and design of a character is one facet of understanding their personality, and it will affect their physicality - how they move. It will indicate their age, their body build, and sometimes even if they are coordinated or clumsy, direct and sharp in their motion or more soft and hesitant.

That gives us a good basis, but we need to build upon it and ask questions - what is the character's history? What is their mood? What is their motivation?

The more you know about the character the easier the acting choices become, giving you clear ideas of what they would do.

A very useful insight I heard, that should be considered when analyzing acting: We show emotion (in our body and face) either because we want someone else to see it (demonstrating) or because we can’t help but show it. People try to contain their emotions – they try not to show it, but we should look for where it leaks out (weight shifts, etc.)

I like to listen to great actresses and actors describing their process, you can learn a lot about what makes a great performance from the masters of this craft. I write down little tips that I hear in interviews and lectures that resonate with me. Here are a couple of examples:

Focus on the emotion, not on what you are “supposed” to be doing. Emotion can come out as yelling and screaming or as a quiet whisper. Emotion does not flow in arcs as the cliché dictates, but rather it fluctuates. You can be enraged and still be totally silent – numb – the fact that you don’t feel anything isn’t a problem, it’s part of the emotion. From being numb and silent you might fly into a tantrum, but only later if the numbness was part of the emotion. (Uta Hagen)

A character can show his emotions quickly, e.g. an awkward teenager, or very slowly, e.g. a heavy -set character like Mitch in "A Streetcar Named Desire". (Liv Ullmann)

Raffi Yaniger, Animation Supervisor at Snowball VFX

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Believable Character Animation: Tips and Tricks