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Where does BLOCKING end?

Jul 1, 2012

in Mechanics

I was planning to dive into a post on the practical side of animation, basically showing how to animate a shot or at least the stages from board to final render.
It will be a series of posts that span for a few months, but something interesting came up in one of my last Q&A classes.

This is a question I think we as animators always ask ourselves subconsciously. Funny enough one of my current iAnimate students asked this very question in passing when we were going over her shot. It struck me as one of the truest question any animator can ask him/herself, and, yet, I have never vocalized the question.

I would say the question is a loaded one, because there could be a number of external influences on your workflow at any given time on a show. I have worked at a studio that have a set workflow that all animators are heavily suggested to follow. I have been on productions in the same studio that can be polar opposites in regards to how and what the animators show for blocking in dailies.

My guess is that the major addicts reading this post work in the more commonly used method of blocking in stepped key mode (curve tangents set to step mode). In theory this gives you a chance to get something in front of the “powers that be” at an early stage without doing too much work, and perhaps avoid going in the wrong direction.

There are others out there that use a method that some call Layering, which means that they start animating the root or main COG of the character then work outwards slowly touching the necessary controls to bring the shot to life. Again, the theory on this one is that you get a smoother, more organic, motion to the shot and avoid that, oh, so common “pose to pose” feel to animation. The main problem with Layering is that you only get to see the shot at a really late stage and at that point it’s really hard to make changes and integrate notes from Sups and Directors.

Keyframes: Blocking in Stepped Key Mode

Keyframes: Step Blocking

When my addiction first brought me into the feature stage I used to block everything in Stepped Key Mode and would usually get to a point where I would have a Key every two frames. The problem was that when I would get to the spline/polish stage I would end up deleting a good chunk of the work and redoing it in spline because it never worked just right. So it turned out that I would end up animating the shot at least twice which is a major waste of time in a production situation.

Then I tried blocking, still in stepped key mode, but only hitting the major acting beats. This seemed to work for a while, I mean, I would block the major accents, threw a few breakdowns in there and, voila, a blocking pass. I started noticing, though, that every time I showed the final version of the shot, the Sup, Directing Animators and Directors seemed a little surprised by what they saw on screen in dailies. My reaction was always What the hell, you approved the blocking! – it became obvious that much like in traditional animation, where the human eye fills in the imperfection to the drawn line. The Director, Sups and so on filled in the missing motion from the stepped key mode with what they thought would be there. So again it became a little bit of a waste of time.

In the last few years I have settled on working on a mix of Layered and Stepped key workflow. I only work in what most softwares call spline or auto-tangent curve type, but still block a pose based method.

After that long winded post you might be asking Well, where does blocking end? – I guess it got a little away from me and fell into a workflow rant. Like I said, I’m an addict! In all honesty, I think blocking comes down to one thing – selling your idea clearly.

Is this clear? Step Blocking

Section blocked on main accents in Step Blocking

Section blocked on main accents in Step Blocking

Clearer? The actual blocking of the section on 4-s as shown below.

The actual Blocking of the section on 4-s

The actual Blocking of the section on 4-s

The Director should be able to look at the shot and not have to guess or ask you what you will end up adding. This could mean you will show a shot in spline or step blocking on 4-s or 2-s (yes, it happens all the time). I found the more I do to clearly sell the shot in blocking the easier it is to get it finaled in the end. That way worst case is that the Director tells you to push something a little here or there and you could avoid the What the hell were you thinking look.

Then again, you could always end up on a show with Leonard Shelby, well, at least that’s what I like to call them. Directors that can’t be bothered to remember what your shot ever looked like and every time they see it – it’s the first time. When that happens you have two choice: RUN! or suck it up and turn to drinking to ease the pain.

Kevin Jul 12, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Tal… this is awesome! I tend to get carried away with my blocking all the time. This post is probably something I should print out on to a poster and hang behind my monitors for a daily reminder!!! Great info!
Love the site!


Animation Addict Jul 12, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Stay tuned there is something related that goes much more in-depth, that will be coming up in the next few weeks.

Cristiano Mourato Jul 12, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Great post mr. Shwarzman! We all struggle with this. THANKS.

Jamil Aug 3, 2012 at 12:12 pm

“RUN! or suck it up and turn to drinking to ease the pain.”
Brilliant, this line just bumped this blog up to become my favorite ever.

Christoffer Andersen Aug 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Fantastic blog

I have a question though.
What is the usual cycle for a shot in terms of dailies and getting feedback?
Is it Planning, Blocking, Polish? It just seems like you show it rather late, if you need to block it so thoroughly that ever choice has been made by the animator.

I would think it would be nice to get feedback on the animation fairly early as well?

Animation Addict Aug 5, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Hi Christoffer,
Thanks for the kind words on the blog. Regarding shot feedback, I usually shoot reference then, depending on the complexity of the shot, I may show the video reference to my sup or even the director to see if it’s the right direction. If so – I am off and running until blocking is fleshed out. I show one more time for blocking approval, then spline to final.

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