The Dinosaur, Animated

I have been fascinated with animated film for as long as I can remember. One of the few biographies I own is Chuck Jones’ autobiography Chuck Amuck: The life and times of an animated cartoonist. Cartoon series on TV, especially Saturday morning cartoons, featured prominently in my youth.

I can’t draw, or rather, I’ve never put the effort into learning how to draw. I am told this is a drawback if you wish to make your own animated movies. As computer generated imaging (CGI) improved, I developed the naive idea that I could make animations. I bought a few animation programs, such as Poser, but none of my animation projects ever got farther than the story idea stage, nor did I put much effort into learning how to use those programs.

Three things happened. I discovered Blender. I bought Roland Hess’ Blender Production: Creating Short Animations from Start to Finish. I retired. OK, there may have been a little time (years) between those events, but they did happen in that order.

When I retired, I had a lot of projects on my to-do list. I didn’t get around to 3D rendering until a couple of months ago. I wasn’t thinking of animation, just trying to model and render some easy objects, when my wife reminded me about making the flag wave. I did a poor job of this, intending to go back to it later. But I did become focused on making an animation.

I dug out my copies of Hess’ Blender Production and tradigital Blender: A GC Animator’s Guide to Applying the Classical Principles of Animation, but I couldn’t find my copy of Blender Foundations: The Essential Guide to Learning Blender 2.6. Fortunately, I have a copy of  the 2nd edition of John M. Blain’s The Complete Guide to Blender Graphics: Computer Modeling & Animation. I may replace my copy of Blender Foundations, but if I do, it’ll be the next edition, currently due out in January ’18, according to Amazon.

I have always preferred to learn by reading text books and reference manuals, while experimenting directly with the software. For this project, I have, begrudgingly, added watching video tutorials to the mix. I didn’t previously require notes, but there is so much material here that I am using OneNote from Office 2010 to keep notes.

A brief aside about video tutorials: I don’t like classroom learning in any of its forms. Texts allow me to move along at my own pace, and are easy to use as references. I find that this more than makes up for the potential interactivity of a classroom. Video tutorials don’t have the luxury of interactivity, so I dislike them even more than classroom learning.

Unfortunately, the combination of YouTube and inexpensive video recording gear has led to a great decline in on-line written tutorials and a great expansion of video tutorials. Videos rarely come with transcripts, so I have to rely on pausing and backtracking while taking copious notes that I have to edit later. I would not do this, except that sometimes the only available tutorials are all video.

An additional disadvantage of YouTube tutorials is that anyone can make one. The quality varies from depressingly bad to extremely good, with the former being far more common. Often, I have to invest the time in watching the early part of a tutorial to judge its quality. So far, I’ve found three well produced tutorials, two of which were highly useful. I mention them later.

I worked through Complete Guide, and the related Tuft’s 3D Design – Blender online course by Neal Hirsig, available on iTunes U, at the same time, not taking notes. The Guide cites various of the Tuft’s videos as expanding on topics, while the course cite the Guide as reference material. I am working through the guide a second time, taking notes.

The book and course provide a starting point and a refresher on the Blender UI and tools, but they are somewhat out of date, being based on version 2.60a. (blender is at 2.78c at the time of this writing.) The biggest problem I have with them is that they provide a very brief overview of the material, often in the form of step-by-step examples, and always without expanding. They frequently gloss material. Another problem is that the course often refers to material on a web site, gryllus.net that is no longer on line.  I had to use the internet archive to retrieve and unpack the material.

Hess’ books are different. While both have step-by-step tutorial material, they focus on the topic, rather than the tools. Blender Production is focused on workflow for producing an animation, as the name implies. tradigital Blender is focused on character animation, only delving into recipes to enable hands-on experimenting with the process. Both books have web sites where you can download material, although they may be hard to find. They are Blender Production resources and tradigital Blender resources.

I’ve been led to tutorials because I’m at a stage in my project, and the workflow, where I need my character to be rigged and none of the books discuss the rigging tools.  Rigging is building a set of controls that can be used to manipulat parts of the character, allowing the animator to pose the character in various positions. I found two tutorials on YouTube that I can recommend. The first is the very dense Blender’s Armatures: A Crash Course. It is a professionally produced tutorial that covers the basics of using an armature to rig a character in fifteen minutes.

The second is the very long DVD 8: Humane Rigging, a course of 35 video tutorials that provide step-by-step directions for rigging four different characters. New techniques are introduced for each rigging.  The video explains the problem the rig is meant to solve as well as the way in which the animator will use the control. It often discusses alternatives and expands on the topic.

As I make my way through Production, I have been following the workflow in a project of my own. I am about half way through the book. This covers the first phase of an animation project: preproduction. Hess asserts that following the preproduction workflow greatly increases the chances of completing a project. I am nearly through preproduction on my project. I’ll blog about the experience when I’m ready to start production.

The vast majority of the time goes into the production phase, the actual animation. There is one chapter on how to manage this phase if you are working with collaborators. Since the book is about workflow, how to go about animating is not covered. That’s covered in tradigital Blender. If my project fails, it will be because I get bored and don’t finish animating. 

The remainder of the book covers postproduction, everything that is done once animation is complete. This includes audio editing, shot rendering, video editing and any compositing. I expect it will be a long time, if ever, before I complete that phase.

Blender is being actively developed. Tools are being added and improved while the UI is being tweeked. This means books and tutorials become out of date relatively quickly. So far, I’ve only had to deal with minor adjustments, mostly in the form of UI changes, when following tutorials.

It also covers a wide range of skills: model making, texture creation, lighting and character rigging are obvious 3D tools. They are all used to produce even simple image renders.  Animating models is a common tool, but not needed for static images. Animating opens the door to the need for other tools. Blender has a rich set of tools to support animation, including sequence editing, non-linear editing and compositing. As I progress through the project, I will need all of these tools, but I doubt I’ll become expert at any and proficient with few.

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