Animated and Articulated

Posted Saturday, May 28, 2011, 2:02 PM

When I left my last full time job, I was flush with cash and full of promise. I had planned to take a year off, maybe two, to learn a couple of new skills and take my career in a completely different direction. The skills I had planned to educate myself on, not through formal education but by nutting it out myself from books and tutorials and experimentation, were (jargon alert) 3D character modelling using subpatch, and character rigging and animation.

I had done a lot of hard surface modelling before, that is things like vehicles or buildings, but not so much with organic stuff, which required a different approach. Because things like humans and animals and caricatures have smooth rounded curves over most of their form, and need to "deform" in a specific and familiar way when their bits get moved around, it means using a method that avoids sharp creases and corners. That is called subdivision modelling, or subpatch.

It's wholly different to anything I had done in computer graphics (CG) before, so I anticipated it to be complicated and stressful. Well, I couldn't have been more wrong. I found it remarkably easy to get to grips with, and I bashed out my very first model in a matter of days. It was a learning experience and a half, no doubt about that, as there were new things to learn at every step, but they were intuitive, and every time I got stuck I just doggedly worked at it until the answer became clear. It rapidly became my favourite part of CG modelling, and I work in subpatch almost exclusively now, if there are curves required anywhere.

Since then I've made many character models, and have enjoyed it every time, each one taking a shorter time as I got to grips with its fiddly nature, especially when I had a clear concept of what I was aiming for.

Rigging, on the other hand, is a bastard. When you animate a character, you need to make a skeletal arrangement inside that hinges at the joints, broadly in the same way a human skeleton does. Each of these "bones" need to have limits imposed so you can't bend them too far or in the wrong direction, and then controls are included so you can get at them to move them around. You also have to go through the model and specify which parts are affected by which bones, and by how much, so that there's a little bit of movement of the upper arm when the lower arm bends, for example. But that is a very complicated procedure.

Another example, in the real world feet don't go through the floor, but in CG they can. In order to make sure they don't, you have to add in a special limiter to stop feet from going a certain distance. Also, you have to keep limbs at a fixed length, but that means when you bend a leg or ankle they are now floating above the floor (try it. Stand on one foot and swing your leg forward and backward). So how do you make both feet touch the floor like they do in a walking cycle? You have to move the hips, forward and downward to bring the feet down with it, which means any animation of one leg automatically alters what needs to be done with the other, and aaaaarrgghh...

See how complex it is to explain? Imagine that times five, and that's how complex it is to rig. I struggled with it, and managed to do it okay once. Then a new version of Lightwave came out, changed the way rigs work, and all the old skeletons no longer do what they're supposed to. And I haven't a freaking clue how to fix that.

Animation is relatively easy, it's just moving the bits into the right place, and then after you've broadly placed everything where you need it, you re-time things by moving keyframes about, and then go into finer detail levels to adjust and tweak. But unfortunately, the biggest downside is the more complex the rig, and the busier the scene, the slower the computer works, and then it becomes prone to crashing. Very very frustrating.

Ideally what I wanted in a job was to not do the messy things like rigging, and instead be given a reliable and powerful computer to model characters and animate them, with a subtle guiding hand when I need it. Basically to just sit in my corner, get given a task I'm capable of, do it, hand it in, and then get another. Consecutively, rather than many projects all at once with different priorities and deadlines.

Two years passed and, just when I felt comfortable about my skill level and wanted to put myself out there, the Global Financial Crisis hit. Suddenly nobody was hiring, and in fact most people were firing. Just great. Two more years passed of unemployment, and my generous savings started to deplete into dangerously low levels.

Then eventually, as the Crisis eased and hiring started to happen again, the experienced people who had previously been fired were the ones being taken back, and beginners like me continued to be overlooked. Added to that, as a Lightwave user, I am not in demand.

The Industry Standard application is called Maya, a very complex and high end program that is very different and difficult to learn. There's also 3D Studio Max, which is used mostly for creating video game characters. A few others include Softimage, Houdini, Cinema4D, Blender, and a few specialised apps like Z-Brush (textures), RealFlow (water simulation), and Vue Infinite (terrain generation). Lightwave is not used very widely at all, and, even though it was one of the pioneers, it hasn't quite managed to keep up in the way it needs to, to be a contender. Jobs requiring it are as scarce as hen's teeth.

So with all that going on, I had little hope of there being a future in this Industry. And as time went on, I was resigned to having to fall back on a career I really didn't want to participate in anymore. I really wished I was good enough for doing 3D Graphics or Visual Effects, but also really felt I wasn't in the right place at the right time for it to ever happen.

I joined an email mailing list, which periodically sent through employment opportunities for VFX and Graphic Artists, but 90% of them were for companies based in Sydney, or elsewhere around the world (sometimes as far afield as South Africa or Japan), and were for skills and experience I just didn't have. One did come through that looked ideally promising. It read:

  • Proven motion graphic production, video editing and compositing skills
  • 3D modelling skills
  • Excellent design sensibility and artistic skill
  • Strong Portfolio
  • Working with Adobe Creative Suite, Lightwave 3D, Zbrush and other software programs
Well, crikey, that was completely perfect! Look, they actually use Lightwave! So I applied.

That was in September 2010. Presumably they found a few people who suited the job because they never got back to me... until, that is, a couple of weeks ago when they unearthed my CV from their pile and emailed me. They are a small animation company who design and build characters as Avatars (representations of people to use online in chat rooms or on mobile phones, designed to be sort of like the mix-and-match type characters you use in video games). One of their team was going to be away for a while, perhaps permanently, and they needed someone to replace him. They asked me to come in for an interview, which was brief where it seemed to me that, based on my showreel and CV, they already knew I could do what they required. Hours later I was told I had the job if I wanted it. Wow! It all happened so fast!

It seems that, in the same way it's hard for me to find a job using Lightwave, it's also hard for them to find an employee who uses it! So when they find someone who does, they hold onto them as tightly as possible.

I started working there this past Monday, and it's been quite a whirlwind since. On the first afternoon I was asked to start animating, which I didn't expect to happen so soon. Luckily it was something relatively simple I could ease myself into. Though I've done a little bit of character animating, and what I have created is pretty decent, I'm effectively still just a beginner. But I knew the principles, and the controls, and a few of the tricks and gadgets, so it wasn't as challenging as it might've been. I spent the week animating four short clips, that I was allowed free reign to create myself, and there were only a few moments where a guiding hand was needed. I think I acquitted myself quite admirably. The boss certainly seemed pleased (making his own sound effects as the animation played back).

There are only two minor problems with the job that I've encountered so far. Firstly, the commute is long, expensive, and means I have to get up early. Ugh. And secondly I am in a room sharing with about six other guys, so I can't talk to myself, wander around wasting time, or play with my toys, like I do when I work on these things at home. So the new environment is something I'll have to get used to. I'm also the oldest one there, yet the least experienced, so it's a bit of a weird combination.

So, to sum up:
  • I have almost the ideal job.
  • I am learning new stuff that may lead to very cool opportunities.
  • The people who work there are talented and pleasant and I should fit in okay.
  • I am earning good money again.
  • I am finally relieved of some of the stress I've been burdened with these past months.
If that isn't good news, I don't know what is.

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