A Very Long Comment


Hey! It’s been a while since I’ve posted--I was working on a frankly unreasonable number of projects these last two months, some of which I hope to be able to show you soon, but it left me with very little time to add to this blog.

A couple of days ago, I was reminded I have to get back to this when I saw a comment come up on my last post “Action is his reward.” With permission, I’m reproducing it here:

I am rewarded by your enthusiasm and I can relate to most of the content that you produced for this blog post.
However, this project may not the best case for the perspective you are presenting, as it stands with today's technology trends and capabilities (perhaps limitations as well).
I hope some day, doing this style of work proves to be more cost effective, as I would love to see more of this style in hopefully even more ambitious productions.
Let me elaborate some other perspective that may explain my point better and hopefully have more people appreciate lesser understood details about what is presented in that teaser.
If you think about a team of people creating this whole thing from scratch and let's say during the process they might be using some techniques uniquely advantageous and otherwise impossible when not animating using computer aided techniques, you can appreciate making those techniques work as they work in traditional animation medium will pose its own challenges.
It is only fair if I gave two examples as well...
For example computer simulation of any kind is hard if not impossible with non-continuous representations of motion when they don't interpolate in a relatively plausible way.
Another example would be re-creating a traditional "looking" style, let alone being attempted at a scale like this, will just be a huge technical undertaking.

Now, I have a consistent problem where I open my mouth intending to add just a sentence to a conversation and a nine-volume encyclopedia pops out instead. Accordingly, my attempt to answer the poster succinctly turned into a post-long response that I decided might as well just be a post, so here it is!

Thanks for your comment! You may be right that Spider-verse isn’t the best example, and certainly I wouldn’t hold it up as an example of the kind of production I intend to create--just as a very good example of stylized CG. I suspect that rendering in a stylized way, and making this style work with their existing methods, was quite expensive for SPI! I recall an artist who worked on Paper Man describing it as twice the work of ordinary CG. That's certainly a danger with stylized approaches--but I think it's an avoidable one.

The problem, it seems to me, is that you really can't approach this sort of production as if it were conventional CG, with a conventional methodology and pipeline, and expect to reap the cost benefits I think are potentially realizable with it. You'd have to treat this kind of production very differently.

For instance, you mention simulation as something that would be difficult with non-continuous motion, and you're quite correct. So simulation itself would be the first thing on the chopping block for the production, outside of the occasional FX shot. It's one of the many steps that gums up the works of CG production and prevents us from getting to that an-artist-can-sit-down-and-just-make-something state. Plus I generally don't like its results on an artistic basis (at least in this stylized context). When traditional animators animate clothed characters, the clothing takes part in the character's silhouette and becomes a part of the performance. They never had any difficulty animating cloth by hand.

Yes, I am actually claiming that hand-animating cloth would be faster then simulating it, and I know how insane that sounds from a conventional CG perspective. But stylization completely changes the game. Consider the monkey test I posted a few months back.

The monkey is unclothed, of course, but there definitely parts of his body that require secondary animation, notably his hair tufts and ears. The hair tufts at least would most likely be simulated if this shot were approached in a conventional manner. The way I approached the shot was not only to animate them by hand, but to animate them from the very beginning--the very first key poses I put down already included the ears and hair tufts as an inherent aspect of those poses, already contributing to silhouettes and arcs. It’s pretty difficult to get an accurate idea of exactly what percentage of my time animating the shot was devoted to them, but I’m going to guess it was only a few percent.

This is only possible because the stylized look allowed me to ignore the “higher frequency” details that would be required for a fully rendered character, and I expect these same details would also be unnecessary for character clothing. I’m much more interested in character silhouettes then I am in wrinkles and clothing detail, so some simple secondary that’s really just part of the character’s pose would actually be more effective.

The idea here is that this isn’t just any form of stylization--it’s a specifically chosen set of stylizations that support each other in the goal of massively reducing the amount of work involved. And that means choosing subjects that work with the grain of those stylistic choices. For instance, you may be wondering how I’d approach a long flowing cape or a long coat. The answer is...I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t generally put characters in long coats or capes. There are about a million stories you could tell that don’t require anyone to wear a cape. Creating low-cost CG in this manner would be about making the design choices that let you get the most bang for your buck production-value wise while maintaining the essentials of character animation, a very different goal then that which I suspect drives companies like SPI and Disney to create stylized CG.

This also applies to the NPR rendering. There are a lot of ways to approach this problem, and some may be very time consuming! The two-tone methods I’m using here aren’t, though. I was able, as an individual with some understanding of the problem but no custom tools, to sit down and do the shading for the Monkey test without much trouble. Partly this is again choosing the most direct path to something that both looks good and is efficient to create. The simple two-tone present in the monkey test carries far less detail then the more painterly frames from Spider-verse, but I think it wouldn’t have any difficulty supporting emotionally engaging characters or exciting action scenes.

That said, the efficiency of this process could be improved a lot, and there’s a lot of room for R&D here--there’s still a required level of manual tweaking that I’d like to get rid of, and the two tone shapes could be improved. I’m hoping to tackle some of those problems this year.

There’s still the question of how that process, however reasonable on a small scale, would scale up to a large production like a feature film. In many ways, it may help to think of the look development for such a production as being less like a conventional film production pipeline, and more like a game. Ideally, except for certain FX shots, such a production would not even have a rendering/compositing stage--what you would see working on the shot would simply be the shot. It might be quite literally “in-engine” if using a game engine as the hub of production turns out to be the right way to approach it (this is something I’m getting more and more interested in). While this doesn’t remove all potential issues with scaling the approach to feature film size, I think it does drastically simplify the problem. Of course, we haven’t actually produced a long-form project using these techniques, and I’m sure there are going to be unforeseen roadblocks, so we shall see!

In any case, thanks again for your comment! I hope this illuminates how I envision this production process being different from the way I imagine that Spider-verse is being done, and why I think that the immense cost gains I’m claiming here are achievable.