'Homesick' is an adorable short animated film focusing on the adventures of Ellie the space girl and her teddy bear, Sir.
Using Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and After Effects I plan to create characters with a crafty/ textured effect and bring them to life on a handcrafted planet.
I intend to build my own sets in order to contstruct my 2.5D animation.
After recently relocating from Earth to an new and lonely planet, Ellie's day takes a turn for the worse when her only companion accidentally floats away into outer space.
I started work on the concept for the animation at the start of semester one. Although I wasn't sure which direction I wanted to go in, I knew that I wanted to do create something from scratch.
I had been working on Disney Junior for over year and had become accustomed to the childhood adventure stories and the pure simplicity of story telling. I found that sometimes it's better to tell simple story well, rather than a complex one poorly.
My idea came to me while discussing homesickness with a friend. They joked that having their childhood teddy bear with them at university made it feel like they were at home when they were feeling down.
I liked the idea of connoting a common human emotion in a simple and relatable way. I wanted a way of visually portraying loneliness and fear of the unknown. I felt that space would be a good setting for my story and began writing the script.
I set out the narrative of the story using Syd Field’s concept of the three act structure- consisting of an:
- Equilibrium (establishing the situation of the main characters and setting a tone for the film)
- Disequilibrium (the loss of the teddy bear, the triggering of the narrative)
- Resolution (the return of the teddy bear but a different scenario from the equilibrium)
The main character Ellie is loosely based on a friend, and 'Sir' the name of the teddy bear, is derived from a tangled up comfort blanket my housemate has had since she was a child. I wanted the script and style of the animation to represent a collage, something everyone may contribute to and something everyone can relate to.
Initially I planned on creating my animation in Cinema 4D. I tried a few tutorials and some basic practice animations before deciding the software wasn't for me as the style was too modern and seamless for what I wanted to achieve.
As Paul Wells contends, the “visualization of an animated film is the key component in thinking about how a story might be told” (2006, p.24). I felt that by illustrating my ideas before deciding my approach I would be able to get a better understanding of how the story would work best. I am not a natural artist so found putting my ideas onto paper very difficult. I looked for inspiration online and found a few illustrations I liked the look of.
I tried a couple of styles before I settled for a more cartoony style of character. I found work made by Teguh Mujiono and quite liked the design on a girl character they had made (see figure 1), in turn I tried to emulate this style.
After completing the script I started a basic storyboard to get a better feel for the characters and how they would move around the animation.
The process has aided the design of my characters as I am now able to pick up on extra pieces I need, such as side profiles and the backs of characters.
Having made characters for a previous motion graphics project I feel comfortable using Adobe Illustrator for my work. However, as my characters are more complex for this project I have conducted research into the preparation of characters for animation before creating them.
I am keen to use 'Character Rigging' for my project as I feel this would make the animation of body movements a lot smoother. After reading into this I found a tutorial on character rigging (see figure 2) and was able to gauge how to construct my characters based on their eventual character rigging.
I used basic shapes to construct the main body and picked up techniques such as adjusting anchor points and positions to create more complex shapes. I had initially planned to use a doodle/ sketch pad style and leave the characters in black and white, however, I felt they looked quite flat and decided to add textures to my characters. I was able to achieve this through exporting my Illustrator elements to Photoshop and placing textures underneath the vector shapes. The process took longer than expected but I was pleased with the over all results.
After completing the characters, I had to re-export and texturise the characters again as I had initially created them in Illustrator in CMYK rather than RGB colours. Although this was only a minor step back, it made me realise the importance of checking formats to ensure they are compatible with all the programs I was using.
After deciding which textures I would like to use, I was able to construct an idea of how I wanted my set to look.
I decided to photograph images for the set instead of making them digitally because I felt it would fit better with the textured characters and enhance the 'homemade' style of the animation.
I built the space station out of two cut up milk bottles, and using paper mâché I joined them together and spray painted them silver to give a more futuristic feel.
I made the moon surface by mixing flour and water and molding it onto a tray. Using the back of a teaspoon I created moon craters in the dough. It took a few attempts before I got the mixture to the right consistency. I also tried one version with yellow food colouring but felt the natural colour looked more realistic.
To create the props I covered plastic toy furniture with a layer of plasticine. The process was difficult as the plasticine was fragile and tended to tear. As a back up I made digitally illustrated props.
Project set up and 'DUIK'.
Once I had my prop images, I assembled my sets in After Effects. I had concerns that the use of textures could be problematic due to elements clashing or creating a confusing style. However, after compiling my scenes it was good to see all the elements working well with each other.
By blocking the animation I was able to gauge timescales for scenes. It was a useful process as I was able to see how the character would move around the sets.
During the week I was able to get the character rigging plug-in 'DUIK' installed onto After Effects. To familiarise myself with it I practiced rigging my main character. I ran into difficultly with DUIK v15, and after some research found that multiple people had found bugs in the update that had yet to be fixed. Rigging specific body parts and linking bones to generate a skeleton was difficult and it wasn't recognising certain layers within my project.
I replaced DUIK v15 for an older version, DUIK v14.23. I found that the previous version ran a lot smoother and was more intuitive. Once I had rigged my character using a v14 tutorial (see figure 3), I made a basic animation of my character moving around to get a feel for how the plug in worked. The process boosted my confidence with character rigging and I was able to pick up on areas that I needed to adapt in order to work with the rigging, i.e. the hands needed to face thumbs up in order to achieve a natural body positioning.
Constructing Sets in After Effects.
In order to make the sets for each scene, I created 2 compositions- one for the outside scenes, and another for the scene inside the space station.
The most challenging part of the process was making specific points meet. By creating grids, I was able to accurately place my components using the visual guide.
The advantage of creating my sets in a 3D environment was that I could imitate depth of field by placing components in layers. This also became useful when using the camera tool to move around sets.
Flat pack furniture- with a twist.
After seeing my sets compiled I felt as though the illustrated versions of my props would clash with the textured and realistic images used for the moon, space station and sky. However, it would be impossible to construct 3D models with the plasticine images as the edges were wobbly and would not neatly meet in a net.
To get round this issue I cropped elements of the plasticine images and compiled them into 3D nets. Despite not being able to create rounded shapes, I feel this approach worked best for the set. The 3D element allowed me to move around the sets easily, and textures of the plasticine worked well with the other components.
After putting the sets together and importing the characters, it was suggested that I remove the strokes around the characters body parts. The black outlines seemed jarring against an otherwise 3D environment. And as my colleague put it; "there are no straight or defined lines in nature. Defining edges with black outlines will only serve to divorce the characters from their environment" (Withington, 2016).
I took my characters back into illustrator and using clipping masks, was able to apply the textures with ease and remove the strokes. I applied drop shadows to specific elements to enhance the appearance of a 3D character.
When taking these back into the After Effects project, the difference was visible, suddenly the characters seemed more natural. It felt as though the quality of the image had improved massively, despite such a small change.
Starting the animation.
Once both characters had been rigged, my set and blocking had been completed, I was ready to animate!
On my first day of animating my project, it took several hours to do 5 seconds worth of animation. This was mainly due to the fact that I still hadn't got my head around key framing the rigged characters or how I was going to organize my compositions. It was frustrating because the preparations of the sets and characters had been going quite quickly up until that point, and it felt as though I had come to a grinding halt.
I spent some time mapping out the quickest way to composite the individual shots. I realized that I could duplicate compositions and use the camera tool to save time on changing shots.
The rigging of the characters meant that I had dozens and dozens of layers in each composition. 2 things allowed me to animate without having to move around all the layers each composition needed:
1. The 'shy guy' tool allowed me to hide layers and maintain a tidy workspace.
2. Creating pre comps helped me keep my shots organised.
Week One: (15/02/2016).
On the second day of animating I got my project up to 15 seconds. At times, the initial excitement of all the elements tying together would lapse into frustration. I found the rigs difficult to work with at times and was still struggling to work out how long movement should take.
I found the basic blocking video relatively unhelpful in practice as I had come to find that allowing for body language and facial expressions extended the compositions by about twice the estimated time.
I ended the week with 25 seconds worth of animation and although I was pleased with the progress I had made, I knew there was still a lot more to do.
Week Two: (22/02/2016).
As the week progressed, I started to pick up on a few short cuts- for example applying Ease-E on key frames could be done by simply selecting F9, and removing them could be achieved by clicking them while holding down the Ctrl button.
I ended up spending a lot of time polishing up the character movements from the week before, while this did help develop continuity in the ensuing shots and scenes, it did slow down the process and make animating slightly more frustrating.
The biggest success of the week was in animating the rope that tied the teddy bear down to the chair. To make the vector image look more rope-like I dropped puppet pins on every other shape that made up the rope. While animating each individual pin did take a lot of time, I feel it definitely made the rope move in a more realistic way.
I made sure that each shot was ticked off my blocking sheet as I went and then composed into its own pre-comp as to not confuse layers.
Week Three: (29/02/2016).
After reassessing the project, I decided to change the shooting star distraction into a rocket. I felt the shooting star didn't differentiate itself from the other stars in an obvious enough way and thought that by using a rocket it would provide context as to why there is a little girl on the moon.
Making the rocket was very straightforward, I adjusted the shape of a triangle to appear more rounded and was able to make the details symmetrical by simply duplicating elements. By using textures I was able to tie the addition in with the rest of the animation.
Week 3 also resulted in my completion of the dreaded running sequence. In past projects I had found running sequences particularly difficult to master, mainly because there are so many separate movements involved.
I used Whitaker and Halas’ method of ‘static pegs’ in which the characters legs move back and forth between set pegs in a 1-23 frame sequence (1981, pp.96-97, see figure 4). In order to visualize the sequence I found graphs to help me focus on one move at a time. Whereas some were relatively simple and only involved 5 different key points, I found the graph depicting 12 key points to be most effective (see figure 5). Although the graphs helped with the movements themselves, I still struggled to make running forwards in a 2D environment challenging. Through trial and error I was able to work out precisely how many strides my character could do in the space I had. I allowed the camera to cut off at the characters feet to give the illusion of covering more distance.
Week Four: (07/03/2016)
My fourth week of animation didn't get off to a particularly good start. During the weekend I had tried to remove the drop shadows I had applied in to my characters in Illustrator (see blog post ‘Characters 2.0'). The effect wasn’t corresponding very well with the After Effects project.
I was unaware that drop shadows were read as part of the character shape by After Effects and upon making this change. After Effects compensated for the changes in shape size by distorting the characters themselves.
Unwittingly, I had made all these changes on the original files and I found it incredibly difficult to restore them. Luckily, I had a backed up version of my characters on my hard drive and was able to reload the footage this way.
In retrospect I should have researched the transfer of effects between Illustrator and After Effects, in not doing this I had little understanding of why the issue was occurring. In addition, I now know to always make changes on a copy of the original files, just in case anything were to go wrong I wouldn't jeopardise the whole project.
After resolving this issue, I decided to take a break from After Effects and work on making some 2.5D planets for the opening shots. These were made using the sphereize tool in Photoshop along with images of blue water colour and glitter.
In the final shot of scene 1, we see Ellie walking back to the space station from a distance. By duplicating my running sequence and using a similar technique to the running sequence I was able to animate her walking away. I was surprised to find that walking sequences have roughly half the amount of key points than running sequences (see figure 6).
Week Five: (14/03/2016).
I made surprisingly quick progress with Scene 2, finishing it in just 2 and a half days. I had to made several adjustments to the set as I hadn't prepared the view out of the window from the camera angle behind Ellie, although this was fairly quick to do.
It soon became apparent that the bird’s eye image of the knitted duvet wouldn't work. After unsuccessful attempts to create a Ray-Traced version of the duvet in order to curve it around the mattress, I decided that I would film a moving duvet with a green screen to give a more realistic effect.
During the week I looked into sample music to send off to my music composer. I knew exactly what kind of feel I was hoping for; something slow paced and futuristic. My thoughts immediately turned to the soundtrack for Spike Jonze's 'Her'.
I felt the style of music in 'Her' was brilliant in its emotive capabilities. The use of bells and electronic sounds over wide shots and silence gave the film an extremely raw and lonely edge to it, something I was really keen to achieve with 'Homesick'. I found a track used in 'Her' and laid it over my recent draft, I felt it worked really well with the images and sent it off to for my own music composition.
I kept in close contact with my music composer throughout the project in order to keep him informed as to where I was up to.
After sending me his showreel (see figure 7) I was confident that he would be able to create the style I was hoping to achieve. As my animation would not be using sound effects or voices, it was reassuring to know that the music would be done well as I was aware that it would play a major role in the narrative.
Despite regular communication, I often found it difficult to explain exactly what I wanted to someone who knew a lot more about music than I did myself. He was apprehensive about watching the version with sample music in order to avoid a direct copy. Instead he asked me for my style influences.
The style of this piece had been largely influenced by short animated pieces such as 'On Departure' of Eoin Duffy (2012) (see figure 8). I liked the way narrative was conveyed through the emotional connection with the audience as opposed to action packed and obvious sequences.
I decided to write to the company to ask whether they would grant me the permissions (see figure 10). Although I really hoped I wouldn't have to change the characters again, I looked into alternatives anyway. After testing whether changing the clipping mask of my characters would affect the animation. Initially, it did, but after a few more attempts it seemed to work if done in a very specific way. I decided that if I had to change my characters, I would wait until I had finished the whole animation- just in case it went wrong, I would still have something to submit before the deadline. If all went smoothly, then it would only be a quick change.
Week Six: (11/04/2016).
Upon starting my final scene, I found that the angle of a few shots I had planned were likely to cross the 180 degree line. This was something I had been struggling with throughout production; I found it difficult to recreate the story I had on paper, as well as one that would be technically sound.
Previously I had planned Ellie to turn around to look at the alien, followed by a shot of the alien approaching Ellie in a wide angle that would show Ellie facing the way she had been before. I decided to sketch the shots and found that the original plan meant Ellie would switch her direction of vision several times in the sequence.
I was able to make a few quick changes such as exchanging Ellie turning around to a wide shot of her noticing the alien. By moving Ellie's reaction into a wide shot instead of spreading it over a reversed shot and over the shoulder shot, I was able to save time and make a sequence that ran smoothly.
In planning the photographing of my own fabric materials, I knew it would be important to make sure lighting wouldn't compromise the macro details of the textures.
I used the studio lighting set up, soft boxes and the studio's Pentax camera to capture my images. My textures comprised of mainly clothes and materials such as tin foil and plastic.
In recording the moving duvet, I placed the knitted square over a green screen and positioned it according to my plan and screen shots. By moving my hand underneath the fabric I was able to replicate the movements of my character. I put together a test video to double check the movements worked with the animation.
Week Seven: (18/04/2016).
After receiving feedback on the first draft of the project I decided to make some adjustments to the pacing as well as a few aesthetic changes.
In order to maintain a steady pace throughout the piece I cut down the pan back to Earth at the end of the first scene. As the transition between day and night had already been established, I decided to cut straight back to a wide shot of the space station. The transition is effective in keeping momentum going between the two scenes.
Several aesthetic changes were made in order maintain a clear narrative structure and consistency of style. It was decided in my feedback that the use of the space-junk in scene two was unnecessary and somewhat off-putting. The design of the space-junk meant that it wasn't immediately obvious what it was supposed to represent. The prop was removed, and in its place was a shortened down shot of an empty chair. I feel this change is effective as it conveys an increased sense of loneliness.
The final adjustment involved a redesign of my alien character; upon review, the discrepancies in quality between the main character and the alien became apparent. Whereas my main character Ellie seemed to have fully formed limbs and details, the alien's design seemed basic in comparison. Initially I had designed the alien in a similar fashion to Ellie- with legs, eyes and a mouth. However, in attempting to produce characters similar in appearance, the alien's arms and legs looked poor quality in comparison to Ellie’s.
Instead I designed a character with the intention of it looking completely different. Rather than walking, the new alien floats around the environment with trakmats moving to stimulate movement.
Fixing Drop Shadows.
Unfortunately I had encountered an issue with drop shadows fairly early on in the project, due to After Effect's incompatibility with effects added in Illustrator.
After Effects didn't seem to recognize the drop shadows when animating the separate limbs, as a result, the drops shadows were left behind when the character moved, this was most noticeable in the running and walking sequences.
After an unsuccessful attempt to remove the drop shadows (see blog post 'Week Four'), I came to accept the possibility of having to reanimate my character.
After discussing the issue with technician Andrew Irving, he asked whether I had tried turning the opacity down, effectively rendering the drop shadow invisible, rather than removing it entirely. Although I had tried turning the opacity down to 0, which was unsuccessful, I had not tried any other number.
I saved several versions of all my work as a back up and turned the drop shadow opacity's down to 1 and the drop shadow colour to white- a less obvious colour.
Thankfully the experiment was a success, saving me several hours worth of re-animating.
Having never made a facial rig before, I was unsure of which route to take in order to get the best results.
I had planned to have my character's eyes act as the expression element, rather than having eyebrows (see figure 11). I looked into ways I could transition between shapes fluidly.
Tutorial 1- Morphing Shapes (see figure 12):
I found a useful tutorial demonstrating how to merge two shapes into a seamless transition. Initially I thought this would be the way forward, however, after watching the tutorial the process seemed over-complicated, with a lot of room for error. I also noticed that there would be no way for me to create a blinking loop with this method, as her eyes would simply disappear.
I needed a method with layered elements in order to distinguish eyelids, whites and pupils.
Tutorial 2- Facial Rigging (see figure 13):
I found this tutorial particularly useful in explaining how to set up the pupils using trakmats. While this tutorial helped me develop my facial set up using lower eyelids and upper eyelids, the method seemed somewhat over-complicated. The designer had set his rig up using text boxes and null objects, where I found direct key framing of the elements worked fine.
Using trakmats and layers, I set up a rig with lower eyelids, upper eyelids, pupils and eye whites.
It was amazing to see how subtle eye movements projected emotion; I quickly developed a set of key frames for each emotion, making it faster to animate the sequences to come. I found that blinking motions were needed less frequently than anticipated. I set key frames 2 frames apart and copied and pasted where necessary.
Week Eight: (25/04/2016).
By keeping the facial rig in its own composition, I was able to transition facial expressions between shots. However this made it difficult in regards to timing facial expressions for each shot. To get round this I noted down the start times for each emotion for each shot.
Once I had prepared each movement, I placed it over the individual shots and parented the composition to the head layer.
During the week I received the first version of the music cut from my composer (see figure 14). The first half of the draft was really good and it worked well with the narrative. However, although I had told the composer not to worry about making the music more intense in areas, the last section was far too dark for the narrative. I relayed the positives and negatives back to the composer who promised to make the changes and send me a new draft soon.
Mouth Set Up.
I found the mouth rig particularly difficult to plan. While the eyes where relatively straightforward because the fundamental shape of them did not change, the mouth needed to move in a more dynamic way.
The first thought was to go back to the shape-morphing concept, shifting between static images. However, in practice, the movements didn't seem natural. Instead of moving up and down as a normal mouth would, the shapes changed outwards from the center.
I searched for tutorials to help build my idea, but they were relatively unhelpful as they were more complex and built for lip-syncing with specific mouth movements, tongues etc. (see figure 15).
I had to rethink the idea and decided to practice a few techniques with trakmats. Using a similar concept to the eyes, I set up several layers for specific mouth movements- including smiles, shocks and frowns. The approach worked quite well, however the lines gradually became less smooth the more I animated as I was using pinpoints to move the mouth lines around. To get around this issue I made a new composition for each scene to avoid the deterioration to the mouth shape as the animation went on, I then added the compositions into the facial compositions with the eyes in order to maintain spacing between the features.
During week 9 I used two of my friends to make the sounds for the characters. Unfortunately, due to purpose built facilities being in use the entire day of recording, I had make do with whatever space I could find.
This space happened to be an alcove in the basement of the School of Media and Communications (see figure 16). I recorded sounds on a 'marantz' sound recorder and an M58 mic.
I played the animation on a laptop and my actors were able to voice over it. I found my industry experience particularly useful as I knew what needed to be sent off to the sound editor and direct the actors accordingly.
After recording the character voices I took some time to record some of my own foley sounds, this included the clinking of mugs, the unraveling of rope and standing up from chairs.
While the atmospheric sound wasn't perfect, it was consistent, meaning it could be easily fixed. I laid the character voices down on two separate audio layers and the sound effects on a third. I then sent these pieces off as WAVs to my music composer along with visual cues as to where the sequence should be placed.
Week Nine: (02/05/2016).
This week comprised mostly of final touches. After redesigning my alien character (see blog post ‘Week Seven’), it was time to replace the older version. To avoid having to re-position the alien again, I found that by selecting the layer I wanted to replace and the one I wanted to replace it with, holding down 'alt' and dragging the replacement onto the sequence, it added the original key frames onto the new layer without having to re-align anything. This saved me a lot of time.
Once I placed the alien I created a composition for his arms. These were harder to animate as I had given the new alien pincers, meaning I had to animate them separately. The hardest part was working out where to place the arm composition as the alien had to engage with the environment. I moved the space rock the alien hides behind into the arm composition in order for 1 arm to be placed over the rock and the other behind.
I created the space helmet in Illustrator using instructions online (see figure 17). However, as the tutorial was quite old I found a lot of the tips didn't work on the newer version of Illustrator. Nonetheless the instructions were a starting point. I made a solid coloured oval, tweaked the gradient and added white shapes to simulate a reflection.
I then did this again with different reflections to act as the back of the helmet. I found using two shapes gave the helmet depth in the animation.
Week Ten: 09/05/2016 (Final Week).
My final 2 days of animating consisted of fixing glitches that arose in previous renders and adjusting focal lengths on the cameras.
As I had used a variety of camera lens, ranging from 20mm to 135mm, establishing correct apertures and focal lengths for specific shots was problematic.
In researching the camera tool further to achieve the effects I was looking for, I found a really useful tutorial by Todd Kopreva (see figure 18) with tips on how to use the camera tool.
The main issue I had with the camera tool was getting it to focus on specific areas while allowing depth of field. The tutorial demonstrated a technique in which you link the focal length to the desired layer. I found this method particularly useful as once the focal length was set, the only thing I needed to adjust was the aperture.
One of the final changes I made was the addition of lights to scene 2 (the bedroom scene). The decision came from the fact that the scene didn't feel like night time, the lighting was too bright and consistent. I had some trouble getting the lighting setup right, as several of the combinations I tried resulted in either over exposure or the shadowing of key areas. After looking into basic lighting setups I found 'Loop with Backlight' set up worked best for the environment (see figure 19). I placed a spotlight behind the character and a fill light above to light the set evenly.
To finalize the project, I attempted to replace the fabrics on Ellie and the bear, unfortunately this didn't work with the animation and the change had to be reverted. This is something I wish to look into following the project deadline.
The final touch consisted of adding drop shadows to the characters to give them depth and adding the final audio.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. A Summary of 'Homesick'.
The production of 'Homesick' has provided me with copious opportunities to learn and challenge my understanding of not only animation, but film.
It's been amazing to see the plans and scribbles come together to create a living, working environment. I feel the strengths of the piece lie in it's unique aesthetic and the expressions of the characters; both aspects give an otherwise-2D-world depth and engagement.
While I feel I the character's engagement with their environment is effective, I still feel this is something that could be improved. In hindsight, shadows would have made a nice addition and really enhanced the movement of the characters. The same can be said for the use of lighting in adding an extra sense of depth to the image. Duik has been an understated hero throughout this animation. It's ease of use and effectiveness in creating natural body movements has been invaluable.
If I were to start this project for scratch now, I would have made taken my own images of fabrics before doing anything else. The use of other images has caused issues throughout the animation, the same can be said for the use of drop shadow. Although these were things I could not have anticipated at the time, they resulted in several hiccups in the production and slowed the progress of the project down by at least 2 days.
However, in the words of Ed Catmull:
"To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth” (2014, pp. 108-109).
While mistakes can be frustrating, those made throughout the process have massively enhanced my skills in production planning and problem solving. Although they may have hindered the project at times, they have hugely impacted on my future approaches to any moving image project.
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