Spin The Yarn

We're a Cardiff based Animation Studio.

The importance of personal projects

We put the importance of personal projects on the top of our list. Why? Well for us it’s about more than just having complete control in a project, it’s about what we learn from them. When Spin The Yarn was first formed we always knew that we’d be making our own videos. Our heads were (and still are) filled with ideas of what we wanted to create, some experimental and others just plain ridiculous and will probably never get made, but nonetheless they were there. Isn’t that why we start businesses, so we can have some control and make our “amazing” ideas a reality?  And we’re not the only ones. Google famously gives employees tinker time to work on whatever project they’d like. Google Maps came from this way of working. Pixar always release a short film along with their latest feature. They’re often stories or styles that may be a bit of a risk for a feature animation, or maybe they’re testing a new technology (The cloud time lapse in Lava is stunning, the fruits of some laborious volumetric development no doubt). Pixar aren’t selling these shorts and could easily forgo making them. If you were a stone cold accountant who only saw value in pounds and pence, you may ask “Why do them?” (Our accountants wouldn’t. They’re lovely). Here’s some of our whys...

Lava - Disney Pixar Short film

Lava - Disney Pixar Short film

Why personal projects are important to us?

The answer to this question is probably an obvious one for many, but for those reading this I shall tell you my opinion on why I think they’re important and what we get out of making them.

1.Experimentation

I think for all businesses it’s good to evolve, learn and grow. We need to if we want to survive in a very competitive industry. So to do this it’s important to try new things and experiment, which is what personal projects allow us to do. It means that we don’t have to experiment on paid projects which I guarantee most clients will be happy about...

2. Development for paid work

…which leads onto and into paid work. Experimenting with new ideas and techniques will always help with future paid jobs. We’ll know what works and what doesn’t. It’s always nice to offer our clients something new that we’ve discovered through experimenting.

3. Keeping motivated

Now we’re not saying we aren’t motivated by the paid work we get in, but once you get into doing the same style of film or graphic design or animation etc it can become too much like a routine and be too familiar. Going back to my previous point, experimentation can be exciting and will ultimately lead into motivation.

4. Collaborations

We’re really keen collaborators and where possible we bring other people on paid jobs. When it comes to personal jobs we’ve always collaborated with other people, it would be foolish of us to think we can do everything ourselves (refer to our Do One Thing Well blog) After all you get a more exciting product in the end if you collaborate. And working with friends and people that inspire you is a nice way to spend your time.

5. Control

Of course there’s an element of control to be had with making your own personal projects, no one dictating what should and shouldn’t be done. You can make that animation you’ve always wanted to and answer to no one! (unless you’re making it with other people of course)

6. You’ll meet people and maybe even clients

As i’ve pointed out in my previous points personal projects really do feed into every part of a business. And sometimes if you’re lucky you’ll meet some people and clients. If you’re making personal projects i think it’s important that you share them with others. If not straight away, it’s likely to get picked up by people who share an interest in what you’re making and if they think it’s good they’ll share it. And there goes the power of social media! One of them could be a future client of yours.

What are the difficulties with personal projects?

I’d be lying if i said the personal projects we’re easy and didn’t come with any difficulties.

1. They can go on forever

If you’re anything like us then personal projects will take you a long time to do, this can be a blessing as well as a curse. On one hand all you want from your paid work is time. Time to polish it off and make it as good as you know you can, but you have to remember that there are deadlines and a lot of time tight budgets. So you’d think having as much time as you want to produce a personal project is a positive thing and it kind of is, but on the other hand what we’ve found is that project is likely to get pushed to the end of the pile and will never get finished.  We need to be disciplined with our personal projects, yet allow ourselves to take longer on them, but also remember we want them to be seen by others. It’s only in the last 6 months we’ve started treating them more like paid projects, giving ourselves deliverables and structure while still not beating ourselves up if we want to spend an extra day on character development.

2. No one there to give you restrictions

Again this can be seen as a positive as well as a negative. Having restrictions can be a good thing and will certainly move things along quicker. I guess it depends on how clear a vision you have for your personal project.

What are our personal projects?

I want to tell you about some of our personal projects and the reasons why we made them and what if anything happened to them/us afterwards. And hopefully it will inspire you to make your passion projects.

The Force Awakens in Cardiff

This personal project came about in a moment of down time in the studio, it was a last minute idea that took us 2 weeks to turnaround. We’ve already written a blog about this project, so i won’t bore you with all the same details, but i will tell you why we thought doing this project was a good idea. One of the main reasons for doing this project was because VFX was new to us. We hadn’t made any films that had VFX on and with a new member of staff who specialises in VFX to us it made sense that we used his skills to show people what we can now offer. This personal project got us a lot of media attention and through that we’ve (hopefully) put ourselves on the radar and met with more potential clients.

Butterfly Soul

This personal project was the first one we decided to make (and it took the longest to complete). It steams from memories of University. Both Steve and I had fond memories of a storytelling workshop we went to. The storyteller, Daniel Morden had everyone on the edges of their seats, he was engaging, captivating and made us appreciate the importance of storytelling. We were lucky to get him on board with this personal project. This has only just been completed so it's hard to say what will happen to it, but we're pretty happy with it and are hoping to enter it into some competitions.

What we’ve learnt?

Always make time for personal projects and experimenting. If not for the joy of it then I guarantee they’ll feed into paid work.

Designing in Illustrator and animating in Blender

With most projects, we create assets in Blender. Characters, sets, props... They all have to be made one way or another and making them in the animation software makes sense most of the time. This keeps preparation for animating to a minimum, as we don't need to export, import, tweak, scale... With our latest project we decided to take a different approach. We decided to design in Illustrator and export the vectors for animating in Blender. While creating vector artwork in Blender is great for simple shapes and colours, you can't beat the power of a fully fledged design application.

We believe in constantly developing our skills as animators. Our latest project for the NHS, 'Give It Time', was the perfect opportunity to do this. On previous projects, I tend to start the design process with sketching in pencil. The sketches are scanned and Steve will then use them as a template to build in Blender. This time around, we had a very clear idea of the style we were aiming for, so what better opportunity to jump straight into the digital realm and start splining those vectors. Using Illustrator was a fairly new concept to me. I've always had strong design skills, but up until this point, my tools have been very much analogue. Also, I've always been keen to learn Illustrator, but I've never had the time or opportunity for it until now. It was a bit of a steep learning curve to start, but once I knew where the tools were and how they worked I felt right at home. I'm happy that I had the chance to learn something new on this project, another string to my bow as they say.

While designing the characters, I was conscious that the project needed to be organised well. There's nothing worse than assets strewn all over the shop, especially when someone else needs to pick the project apart afterwards for exporting. Luckily I'm quite the pedant with such things (I can't touch a film edit until all the assets are neatly filed away in their folders). Once I wrapped my head around the layer system in Illustrator, it was easy enough to name and group everything into their respective assets. We had a lot of characters, locations and objects to create, so it was very important to keep everything organised.

With the designs signed off by the client, we set about making these things move. Importing into Blender, we used a combination of png and svg files. For objects that needed a lot of flexibility with movement, such as characters, we used svg files. As svg files are vector based, we could zoom in as far as we'd like without fuzzy aliased edges appearing, keeping things nice and crisp. Blender also keeps imported svg files separated out. The eyes, mouth, eyebrows, arms of a character are all individual objects, making it ideal for importing characters. Objects that didn't need to change shape were imported as pngs. This was for the sake of simplicity and speed, as svg files need a bit of preparation work before they're useable.

As this is was a 2D animation, we needed each character designed from the side, front and back (and sometimes from the top). Each of these profiles for each character needs a skeleton before they can move (a bit like us), which is called a 'rig'. The bones of the rig can be moved, rotated or scaled to get the movement we're after. We managed to keep the rigging time down to a minimum by re-using rigs. An original rig was created, tested, tweaked, tested again, improved and then copied to all the other characters.

At this stage, even though the designs have been signed off, we still needed to do a bit of work to figure out how characters should move and deform, with the limbs being our primary focus. We started by experimenting with the interpolation of points at the elbows and knees. This was another advantage to working with vectors, as each point of the vector can have different interpolation settings. This allowed a lot of flexibility with how our characters moved. While we liked the look of some of the poses, we decided that limbs deforming in any way would go against the solid 'cut out' style we were going for. We chopped the limbs up, forearm, upper arm, thigh and shin, with each end being nicely rounded and overlapping. This allowed us to get nicely rounded corners for the joints while not deforming each section.

All in all, we found this a great way to work. We're always try to use the best tools for the job and part of this is experimenting every now and then, to try new things and see how they work. Rather than re-creating design artwork from Illustrator in Blender, we managed to cut down our production time by importing these design files. We also used each application based on its strengths, making use of the advanced vector editing tools illustrator has to offer. We'll no doubt use this workflow again in the future.

To check out all the NHS 'Give It Time' animations go to  www.vimeo.com/spintheyarn

Collaborating to enhance filmed footage with CGI

We were asked by the brilliant film company Gingenious to work with them on a promotional film for Glythera. They have developed a new antibody that helps to deliver cancer treatment with a greater accuracy than other methods. This is crucial, because without high accuracy, the toxin could be inadvertently delivered to healthy cells. The target audience of the film is potential investors, so we needed to explain the process in a non-technical way. The science behind it is fairly difficult to understand, so Gingenious's wanted to strip out all of the unnecessary details to deliver the core message. Here we explain how we worked together to achieve the final film.

We started the production with an all important meeting to understand what was required, by both the client and Gingenious. Once we had established what was needed, we talked about initial style ideas. Although we knew that we had to create a 3D model of the ADC (anti body transmitter) we still had to figure out the style. Because the subject was difficult to grasp, we all agreed that the style needed to be quite clean and simple. It was unnecessary to complicate it with photorealistic models of cells. Like most of our projects we put together a collection of styles. What may seem like subtle differences in the design actually change the look and feel of the film. We also needed to be conscious of the footage in the film and how our work would sit in the edit. It's important that the 3D element and filming gel and don't feel like two separate productions. With this in mind, we were given the shots leading into and following our graphics so we could match the 3D animation to it with some nice transitions.

Here's our initial designs;

What may seem like subtle differences in the design actually change the look and feel of the film. Another part of the animation which is just as important as the 3D models is the environment. You'll notice on the initial style designs that we've created different backgrounds. Because the subject is of scientific nature we used this to influence the designs, although we all agreed that the extra details made it look too busy. We pulled stripped all the details back, leaving us with a shiny white ADC and gradient background. 

After we nailed down the design, we needed to consider how the ADC first appears in the film. Again with most of our projects, we like to send the client the first few seconds so they can see how it's shaping up and make any comments before we proceed with the bulk of the animation. To the right is our first test. 

We were experimenting with the textures on the background and wanted to give it a scientific feel with the drawn on graph paper look. This is something we all agreed looked nice, but it didn't quite match the look we were going for. We also felt that it took too long to appear on screen, meaning it would disrupt the flow of the film. 

It's important that we allow time early on in the production to explore the style. It allows us to get a look everyone's happy with while making sure the production runs smoothly. 

 

Here's the final film;

 

We always enjoy working on productions that have a filmed element to it, we definitely think you get the best results through collaborating. 

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