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The Challenge of Animating Underaged Adults

Jan 30, 2013

in Mechanics

© DreamWorks SKG. Sophie / Rise of the Guardians.

© DreamWorks SKG

Over the last year I have had the chance to share my thoughts on the challenges of animating kids. I was lucky enough to have animated a large number of the shots of Sophie on Rise of the Guardians, and, I admit, when I started on the show I was really drawn to the idea of animating Jamie’s little sister because she was close in age to my daughter. At the time, I had no idea of the challenges and difficulties that awaited me. First off, Sophie didn’t talk much which meant I would need to convey all her personality in her motion and reaction to the things around her. Second, because she wasn’t a lead character (which was good, since it let me have a good amount of control over her) the Director and production didn’t really have a clear idea of who she was, other than she was a “cute” kid. Which allowed me to pitch a variety of ideas to them and really try to help to develop a unique personality.

My first challenge was to find appealing shapes and expressions with her face, I admit that for that I took a good number of photos of my daughter and tried to match her expressions as close as I could with the given controls on the character’s facial rig. I found that “cute” is very hard to get right, especially when you are working with an existing model and rig. I found that I was changing her eyes shape, size and proportions as well as teeth shape and size to help get the appeal I was looking for. I kid you not, I was scaling up the front teeth and down the back just so it didn’t feel like a generic kid.

There’s nothing like a good challenge
to take you out of your comfort zone
to make you a better animator. Tweet it

Apparently this first part was the easy step. Overall Rise of the Guardians was a very challenging film to work on. The level of animation and execution was high and very demanding of the artist. There was a lot of reference used on the film (like any animated film today, and, no, there was no mo-cap used on the main characters) but, when animating children, especially ones that are young like Sophie, you run into a new problem. On the film anyone can go into the ref room and record themselves as the character they were animating and use that as reference. The problem is when you try to do the same for a young child you run into one of the biggest pitfalls of the use of live action reference – thinking you can be the ref/actor for any character!

Like I have mentioned in one of my previous posts, when shooting reference it’s really important to keep in mind the characters personality, age, gender and sometimes species. Children’s motion and personality is so different from adults’ for many reasons: their center of gravity is different; their motion is sharper and more direct; they don’t have as much fear as adults when it comes to their actions; their body tends to be more flexible; and, their poses much more pushed and efficient.

If you were going to try and use reference of an adult acting out as a kid and then place that as your acting, you’d find that the character would look like a bad mo-cap session. One of the main causes is that we can’t really get into the mindset of a child so we have a hard time understand what they would do in any given situation, and, usually, we try to do something that we “think” or perceive as being “cute” (which is what we associate with young kids).

I wanted to make sure that Sophie‘s performance came off as totally believable in it’s behavior and motion. I wanted people to see her and think right away Oh, my kid does that. I found that the best way to achieve this was to try and record reference of my daughter in similar situations as Sophie‘s character was in her shots.

Sophie shaking the ball
Sophie shaking the ball
© DreamWorks SKG
Reference: my daughter shaking a box (shake, shake, shake!)
Reference: my daughter shaking a box (shake, shake, shake!)
All the examples show a still from the reference and the equivalent frame from the shot.

Now, I am very thankful to say my daughter isn’t an actor or has any dreams of becoming one (though right now it’s a ballerina) – so I needed to find a scenario close enough so the reference worked for me, then push it and make it entertaining for my character. Keeping in mind that none of the references was perfect because I could never get the exact situation that was in the shot, and it really came down to animating.

Sophie crawling into rabbit's hole
Sophie crawling into rabbit's hole
© DreamWorks SKG
Reference: my daughter crawling towards mommy
Reference: my daughter crawling towards (not shot ready) mommy
Sophie and Easter Bunny with the birth egg
Sophie and Easter Bunny with the birth egg
© DreamWorks SKG
Reference: my daughter and I playing with $1 flower
Reference: my daughter and I playing with
$1 flower (that refused to stand up)

Another challenge was that in a good number of the shots, Sophie was always falling down on the ground (it got to a point where the CFX artists were really feeling the pain on the character). Now, other than just chucking it up to being a kid I wanted everything and anything happening to have a reason, so it became a small challenge to build a little story in the SQ and find a reason for that fall other than just the need to move the story along. I would then pitch the idea to the Director, he would decide if it would work keeping the whole film in mind, then it came down to if he felt if it would work and not distract too much from the idea of the shot and SQ.

In one of the shots Sophie had to fall down so she would cry and call Jamie’s attention to her. So I placed her on the porch stairs and had the dog push her over while it was running down the stairs, which then lead to her crying.

Sophie jumping the stairs
Sophie jumping the stairs
© DreamWorks SKG
Reference: my daughter jumping the stairs (though usually not allowed to)
Reference: my daughter jumping the stairs (though usually not allowed to)

To me, Rise of the Guardians was a really good challenge of learning what character’s unique motion is and that every character moved in a very different and distinct way. As well as trying to find good sources of reference everywhere not just running to the closest ref room and recording myself.
There’s nothing like a good challenge to take you out of your comfort zone to make you a better animator.

Marc Woodward Jan 30, 2013 at 10:00 am

Great post. I will read your posts frequently. Added you to the RSS reader.

Manlio Vetri Jan 30, 2013 at 11:42 am

Definitely an enlightening post.Thanks a lot.

Martin Jan 31, 2013 at 6:52 am

Comlements on your involvement with the development of the character throughout the movie, not just sticking to the confinements of a sequence or a shot.

I was curious though when the character shots were assigned did you ask for them or were the given to you because of the fact that you have a daughter of a similar age ? Or was it just a happy accident ? ( in which I don’t really believe in a high-stakes production like the ones at Dreamworks ).

The blog is very enjoyable, I’ve been frequenting it lately and plan on keep doing so.

Animation Addict Jan 31, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Hi Martin,

I was the one that went after that character. I felt like I couldn’t connect to any of the other lead characters, and was really inspired by my kid to try and bring what I saw in her to the screen with Sophie.

Pravin Jan 31, 2013 at 7:08 am

Great Tal just found out your blog, its always great to learn from you.
will definitely gonna follow your blog please keep sharing this kind of awesome info.


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