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Pose to Pose Pop-Through Animation

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Date Added: 9th December 2009
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The First Pass


Have a look at this first pass popThru animation.

This is where I settled on the basic poses that I wanted for this animation. I had my fCurves with zero inbetweening. In Maya it's called a stepped key. In Hash it's a held key. Most programs have this feature. It will hold the keyframe all the way until the next keyframe, where it 'pops" to the new pose in one frame. Thus the name "pop-thru animation". There's no messy or ugly inbetweening to deal with just yet. Right here, in this simple popping pose test I know the basic components of my animation right up front.

Pose and timing. I can show this to my director and get immediate feedback about my pose choices and my timing. He can tell me if he likes where things are headed or not. He can tell me if the acting choices are what he wants or not. Right here, in this very first look on the computer, are the building blocks of my entire animation, all achieved within a few hours of work.

Look at this screen grab of the dopeSheet....

Click to Enlarge

Notice that all the control objects for my character are keyed ALL ON THE SAME FRAME. See how rganized it is? I'm treating each keyframe as a piece of paper. In traditional animation for each keyframe you draw the hole character, so I pose the whole character here.

Click to Enlarge

Nice and easy to edit the keys around if I or the director feel an action is happening a little too slow or fast. Or if a particular pose needs revision, I can do it all at once and key everything. By keeping everything very organized I can quickly make changes without having to re-interpret my previous work. Again, we're looking at two main things here: Pose and timing.

Pose and timing are KING. Every other aspect of animation is secondary to pose and timing. No amount of follow through or overlap or anti-twinning or secondary action or fancy flesh simulation and dynamic fat jiggling is going to overcome bad poses and poor timing. With pose and timing you convey emotion, weight, energy, power- the very core of animation is locked up in pose and timing. So until we're happy with these two things, we don't do anything else.

The Second Pass

Update: It's at this point that I wish to offer an alternative methodology than what was originally discussed in this article from this point forward. Originally I discussed how you would go from the initial pose timing to adding things like breakdowns and anticipations and moving holds and the like. While that is still a viable method, it has it's difficulties which I will address later. An alternative way to proceed from this point is to mix metaphors. Start pose-to-pose, then switch to straight ahead. Choose your poses strongly at the outset, block them in for timing purposes to hit whatever accents you deem as worthy of the emphasis. Then rather than blocking in your anticipations, breakdowns overlaps and moving holds in an "all or nothing" fashion as originally outlined in the article below, you switch to a straight ahead mindset. Now your poses and their timing can still be used as an early sign off for your director and for yourself, but you then work from the beginning of your shot in a straight ahead fashion to reach those pose milestones. How you get there is open to the fluidity and freedom of interpretation that straight ahead allows for, but your animation still has definition, direction and an overarching sense of design to it. This combination of work flows is a powerful technique that can serve your work in immensely.

Now, the first crack at my pop-thru was pretty rough. There's a few things lacking. Like breakdowns on transitions, and defining the inbetween arcs. Since again I've got a pretty well established "traditional" brain, I can think of my breakdowns and arcs without having to see the tweens yet. Here's the second preview animation with some of these things added.


Notice there's a little more definition to the action. The arm sweeps have some arc, the end part where he says "Ten! Ten commandments!" has some anticipation and transfer breakdown keys added. Also, I've blocked out my moving holds. I do this by generally estimating how long I want a movement to take.

Again, I add these new keys with just held frames with zero inbetweening by the computer. Already we're starting to see how things are fleshing out very quickly.

Sidebar on How To PopThru Your Moving Holds:

Let's say the a character hits a pose on frame 10 and from my first pop thru I find that I like that he hits his next pose on frame 24. There's 14 frames in there between these 2 poses. Now I know I want that action where he hits pose 24 to be fairly quick- let's say 5 frames. So I count back 5 frames from 24 and know that the END of my hold for the pose on frame 10 will occur on frame 19. (read that again slowly if you didn't get it.) I could just dupe the frame 10 key at 19 to get the boundary of my hold established, and in my first pass I usually will. But in this second pass I went a little further. I slightly adjusted the pose, settling into it. This is called a moving hold. Most computer animators are familiar with the concept of a moving hold. When a CG character stops dead and doesn't move, it just dies for some reason. So we have the pose move slightly as it's held for the duration. So as a matter of course I add that in my second popThru pass, so I can get a better feel for how fast or slow my transition moves are.

The Third Pass: Linear is as Linear Does


Now that I've defined my poses and timing even more in my second popThru pass, adding arc and transition breakdowns as well as defining my moving holds, I'm ready to see what the computer thinks about it. So in my fcurve editor (graph editor in Maya-speak) I change all my keyframes to have a linear interpolation. This means there's no ease in or ease out from keys, it's just going from one to the next in a straight fashion. Computer loves this phase. It feels so...CG!

Here's a look at the above animation switched to linear....

Not bad, but certainly not good either. Here I can see a few things that I didn't see in my pop-thrus.

One being the transition on "has given unto you" is way too slow. The second being the hand rotations are pretty ugly and the arcs need more definition in places. There's also a few little things about the pose timings that I'd like to adjust, especially in the part where he looks down at the dropped tablet. There's also a few little things about the pose timings that I'd like to adjust, especially in the part where he looks down at the dropped tablet.That moving hold moves a bit too much. So I make a note of every thing I want to fix and I fix it. This is a good habit to get into: find everything wrong that you can, note it and fix it. THEN do another preview. The temptation is to twiddle each thing in detail and preview every fix as you're making it. But that can just eat your day away waiting for preview animations trying to fix one little thing instead of fixing them all at once, then previewing and working in more detail afterwards.

So anyhow, here's a look at some of the things I did to tighten stuff up after seeing my first linear pass...

Click to Enlarge

The Fourth Round: Hey, this looks sorta like animation!


Here's my next pass after cleaning up some of the junk my first linear pass revealed to my eyes...

At this point I've pretty well nailed the core of my animation. I like the poses, I like the speed of the transitions, I like the arcs, the breakdowns.
Generally I'm ready to start loosening things up.

Remember I mentioned earlier on that pose to pose animation can tend to look stiff and robotic? Well, this fourth pass is just that: good timing, good poses, but a little dead, a little stiff. Here's where the rest of the '12 rules" comes into play (or not). We need to loosen things up a bit, to let it breathe and live some more.

Now lots of folks have different ways to loosen up their work. I'll share what seems to work for me. It helps me put out good animation at a pretty decent clip (which my employer appreciates, and my kids benefit from. After all, I gotta make a living, and being good AND fast is a nice combo in a tough animation market). I have some shortcuts and tricks that I use that may make some animators gasp in horror. That's cool. Whatever works for you. Having said that, here's some things I like to do...

Offsetting Keys

Update: As I noted above, the simplistic means of keyframe offsets as explained originally in this article are insufficient to handle the area of emphasizing a particular aspect of your animation. While this step does loosen up some movements, to really get a greater sense of fluidity to your motion you're gonna have to dig a little deeper and harder to find the right combination of offsets and eventually keyframe deletions. With that in mind, the original technique outlined below is good for that "gotta get it done" quality of animation that a lot of us are paid to produce.

One nice and easy way to get some loosening up is to not have everything hit on the same frame, which is contrary to everything I have said so far. But that organization served it's purpose and now it's time to back off from that rigidity. Up to this point, we have hit our poses solid. Every part of the body comes to hit the pose at the same time.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

That's not natural. So we need to shuffle things a bit. Here's a look at some dopeSheet screen grabs that show how I like to do this...

I'll grant you that my approach is a bit formulaic, but again, we're working outwards toward our goal, from organized structure at first into disorganized life in the end.

So for offsets I'll shuffle my head from my spine and my spine from my hips to have the torso of the body sorta flow into a pose. Depending if I want the motion to lead with the hips or the head will determine which way I'll offset my keys. Sometimes I'll shuffle some keys and things will look awkward for a certain pose or transition. That's OK, I can shuffle them back for that spot. It's a cheap way to get rid of that robotic feel of pose to pose. I'll offset the hand's rotation to occur a frame after the hand hits in place. Now this is assuming an IK arm set up (as I used here). Since the hand controls where the arm will swing as well as the hand rotation, it's a good idea to break this up so it looks less like a marionette being pulled by the wrists. Alot of folks don't like using IK arms. I used to hate 'em, but got used to making them look OK after some work. I know Rick May is a fan of the IK arm, for those keeping score at home. As far as I can tell the key to having IK arms look decent seems to be in good breakdowns, careful observation of arcs and offsetting hand rotations from IK handle translation. If I were using an FK arm, I'd offset the lower arm a frame from the upper arm and the hand a frame from the lower arm, allowing the arm to have a sort of unfolding overlap, the "successive breaking of joints" kind of feel. Again, with IK I'll do it with breakdowns and offsets. In general, anyways. Again, where it looked funky I'd step back and not do it there. These are just cheats, not rules. The only rule is the animation: does it look good? If yes, then the cheat is good. If not, then the cheat is evil.

Oh, one more thing, I offset both arm animations to get rid of twinning in my pose hits. Just in case anybody cares.

Here's what it looks like after all that offsetting and shuffling....

Smoother, but not quite loose enough for what I'd like this to be. By the way, this is about as loose as it gets for us at work. After this I'd be ready to run a smoothed fcurve spline filter on the curves and be on to lipsync and grabbing my next assignment. The style of our show is pretty tight, which fits the deadlines. For my own stuff at home I sometimes like to explore loosening things up a bit more.

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