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

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