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Four Minutes of Animation in Four Weeks Part 1: Procedural Asset Generation

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Okay, to be fair, it took me about EIGHT weeks to finish the music video for Darlingside’s gorgeous song, White Horses. But the second month was pretty much all polish. A passable, fully animated and environment-heavy 4-minute first run-through was completed in about 30 days. Less, if you include the week I spent mostly vacationing in Yosemite.

So I want to talk about my approach to making that possible in a way that doesn’t altogether sacrifice quality and vision. Along the way, I’ll briefly discuss some of my “cheats” for using After Effects to achieve an organic quality in something inherently inorganic — that is, computer animation. In this first post, I think it will be interesting to start by talking about procedural assets as a means to populate your library. But first, I should explain why I took that approach.

PLANNING

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I knew I’d have a fairly limited time to get the piece done, so planning was everything.

For example, the story and concept was written and designed to require a minimum of individual shots. Just one, in fact, tracing the entire length of the film and the protagonist’s little adventure. We follow our hero around a micro-world, tracking alongside him like a platformer game, following him as he encounters various interconnected sights and experiences. And while a long take often requires crazy amounts of organization and logistical strategizing, I found that the it meant saving significant time in a range of typically arduous areas.

That is, I didn’t have to compose dozens of individual angles, or lose time to deciding cuts and editorial pacing. I didn’t have to animate the hero moving forward and back along the z-axis, which for me involves difficult, time-intensive tests to achieve believable foreshortening, an artistic concept I’ve personally never mastered.

Moreover, the story was written with only two characters; a boy and his brother. The brother was meant to appear only at the opening and close of the story, so that left me with only a single human to put into motion. Granted, the music video format allows for a lot of abstract creativity and little to no dialog, which helps a lot.

But creating 4 minutes of animation, or 5,760 frames, requires a lot more technical decision-making to keep things feasible in a small amount of time.

TIME SAVING A BETTER WAY

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Part of the appeal of this film was in the concept of building an entire world for the boy to run a full circle around. With that, I knew I would need a LOT of graphical assets that would appear over and over throughout the runtime. Trees, plants, hills, houses, fences, and so on. My first concern, then, was that I couldn’t possibly illustrate hundreds of each object to populate into the scenery. Of course, duplicating a small batch of assets over and over is the usual solve, but I have always found that too much time goes into trying to hide the repetition. Also, mirroring, resizing, and hiding carbon-copy details that show up too close together can only take you so far. I was desperate to avoid the Flinstones Effect.

tumblr_nnl56hMpPI1tr8tt2o1_501The Same Background Over And Over And Over Again - Simpsons Clip_3

My solution? I took the first few days on the project building a series of procedural asset generators. In other words, I built a system within after effects that would re-draw an object differently, automatically, every time I placed it in the scene. Objects that would show up a lot and require a lot of detail were given this treatment to alleviate the repetition of doing it myself.

What do I mean? Here’s an quick cycle through a snippet of two of the tree-generating compositions.

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Every frame is unique. This is accomplished by using the above-mentioned duplication trick on a much more miniature, randomized level, through particles via the ever-prolific Trapcode Particular plugin. I start with a base of five very simple “tree trunks” shapes drawn with masks. Each trunk had a white-to-black gradient.

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From there I shaped five basic “branch” masks in another composition, and used them as randomly-selected sprites within Particular. The gradient on the trunk told Particular to place branches only above the fade. Without that crucial gradient I would have gotten some pretty unusual trees. Indeed, I did allow this in one version of my tree-generator, which I used in a few of the more surreal environments. For example, the especially “rooty” tree seen in the capture below. You also see this effect on the marshy tree in the second loop up above.

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Next, the tree was pre-composed, and in a new comp Particular was told to generate additional branch sprites extending from the previous branch sprites. In that way I was able to have an enormous number of unique and organic trunk-branch systems.

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Now THAT was pre-composed, and the entire shape was overlayed with a tree-bark color to hide the strange black and white gradients.

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I think you get the idea. The rest of the process was rinse-repeat. I drew a few leaf-shaped sprites that were then generated randomly off the branch sprites, and so on. Apples, blossoms, mushrooms, etc. were all generated in various gradient-driven areas of the tree, allowing for a near-infinite range of unique trees. As long as I selected from a different frame each time, I would never be cursed with duplicate trees. Of course, these all adhered to the specific art style I was working in, and I can imagine some pretty interesting and even more natural tree sprites being built in After Effects this way.

Moreover, a similar approach was taken with a number of additional assets. For example, here below are a small selection from the building generator I made for the city scenes.

Proc_City_Apartment 2Proc_City_Skyscraper_Generator 2

In this way, I was able to populate the entire 4 minutes of film with a minimum of asset drawings. Certainly many story-driven props had to be drawn from start to finish (the tug boat, for example), but ultimately a great deal more time would have been needed to achieve the film you see had I not gone along this path.

Tugboat!

But starting with procedural trees, bushes, plants, houses, skyscrapers, clouds, and so on, I now had a huge asset library to pull from after only a few days of work. I could start building the world of the film, deciding on composition, locations, and the like and not worry about wasting an entire day just drawing the elements for one area. It wasn’t perfect by far, but it was a huge jump start that I very much needed.

Death Valley

Back in January I took a trip to Death Valley with my dad and sister. Here are a few favorite photos from that trip.

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The rest of the photos can be found on my Flickr photostream.

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Tragic Gadget’s “Shot in the Dark”

Last summer I had the pleasure of conceiving, storyboarding, and animating a new music video for the fun new band Tragic Gadget. They called up my producer/editor (“Preditor”) friend Tim Hahn at Chinese Takeout Films, suggested making a video about a bee, and we went from there.

With the character art design of Pamela Goodman, we spent months designing a micro animated world that I think matches the bouncy, free-spirited fun of their new single “Shot in the Dark,” which will debut soon on their EP.

Adventure!

Another drawing made for @Webwallflower‘s home office wall. Everything you see represents some passion or aspect of her life.

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NYC Payphone Pitch

“The City of NY asked the tech and design community to reinvent NYC payphones to make our city more accessible, safer, and better informed.

In response, Control Group and Titan partnered to create NYC I/O— the transformation of the corner payphone into a digital node that will usher in a new era of The Responsive City. “

That’s a blurb from the official post at Control Group in NYC, who along with director Carmen Osterlye hired me to do the VFX for their technology pitch video, seen below. Due to limited time and resources, the actors were asked to interact with empty space — there was nothing there to see or touch, and that’s where I came in.

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I took the 3D models and UI graphics Control Group had designed with the help of Digital Toolbox’s Scott Leinweber and lit them, textured them, animated them, and composited them into the environment around the actor. It was an interesting challenge because of the complete absence of greenscreen or controlled lighting to aid the process, but I think the shots came out pretty well.

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“Cadaver” up for a limited time + new book release!

The short film I was tasked with animating in 2011 is finally up for public viewing, but for a limited time only as it enjoys a quick debut to promote the upcoming book of the same name. I spent three months meticulously piecing together roughly 50 shots for this film, and I’m glad it finally has a chance to be seen, albeit briefly.

Thus far it’s been very well received, having been selected as one of Vimeo’s coveted “Staff Picks,” as well as given great reviews from a number of online publications, including Animation Magazine (one of my favorites) and the rest of the following:

The book version, including art by Carina Simmons, Eric Vennemeyer, and myself, is available for preorder on Amazon now!

That all said, check out the film in the player on top, or at the link below.

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CADAVER – A bittersweet love story (7 min) from Jonah D. Ansell on Vimeo.

Film School Blast From the Past

This morning I stumbled on the original HD files for a film I made with some friends back in film school, maybe 6 or 7 years ago. Its one of the few films I worked on from that time that I can still watch, though it has its issues of course. It’s one of those “Made in 48 Hour” films and was made by film students just starting to learn their craft, so please be kind. Maybe you’ll get a kick out of it!

Tribble Fight