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. 

Getting noticed

A subject we often talk about in our team meetings. Not only how do we get noticed, but how do we get noticed by the right people and organisations? We're right at the beginning of our journey and we're far from experts on the subject, but we do have our own perspective on it, which you may find helpful or you may not (ask us again in 3 years, i guarantee our views will be different)

It's often the subject i talk with friends who also run businesses about. When you know you have a good thing going and you just want people to see it, it's really hard to work out the best way of getting people to notice you. Also being a small and fairly new business we have limited funds so can't just employ people to market us. 

 

So this is what we do;

Social Media

We use social media. Honestly we don't use it enough, we're not social media types, we'd much rather be getting on with designing and making animations, but unfortunately that doesn't get you noticed, social media does. We try to only tweet and post relevant things that either people would be interested in or new projects we've worked on. I guess the ultimate goal is to get a few hundred likes and retweets? It's a hard game to play and although it seems like a nice way to get noticed are aim is to try and get the right people to notice. So we try not to tweet for the sake of tweeting, but we also don't want to disappear completely.

So what content to tweet is the next dilemma? As an animation company we are guilty of tweeting a few gifs now and again. They're usually scenes taken from a animation and turned into a gif. It's a way of us showing of the animation we're working on. When we have time, which is rare, we'll make a topical gif. Mainly to push ourselves creatively or show off a different style. 

I guess with tweeting it's all about being in the right place at the right time to really get noticed. 

 

 

Word of mouth 

We rely heavily on word of mouth, it's actually where we get the majority of work from. We've been lucky in that the people we're met and worked with have said good things about us to others and this has ultimately lead to more work. I can't emphasis enough how important word of mouth is, you always get the phone call when you least expect it "saying so and so recommended you" and if you ask us it's the nicest way of doing work. It's important to us that we keep these relationships strong and are fair and professional while working on projects. Also living and working in such a small city, people talk, everyone knows everyone. 

Good work

Plan and simple, do good work and get noticed that way, whether it's through word of mouth, your website or social media. They feed into each other, you do good work people notice, people talk, you get a phone call (hopefully)

We always aim to do the best we absolutely can, but it can be difficult to get it looking exactly as we'd choose due to tight deadlines and the budget. But I think it's safe to say that we do choose to go above and beyond what time we originally alicated to the projects. There is always room for improvement and our animations are never finished in our eyes.

For us this is the most important part of getting noticed and we will always pushing ourselves to do good work. 

 

We've come to the conclusion that patience is a virtue and you get noticed by doing good work, by putting in hard work and by being a nice human being. You're not always going to get noticed by the people you want to straight away, it takes time, patience, self belief and good work! 

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