Thursday, September 18, 2008

Animating Emotion: An 11 Week Animation Course

This blog features an animation acting curriculum geared towards the intermediate and advanced level animator. It is part of a thesis project in partial fulfillment of the MFA in Computer Animation Degree for Miami International University of Art and Design.

This curriculum features eleven animation exercises that you can follow in a consecutive manner so that you can learn how to animate emotion. The exercises are listed for you on the left hand side of the blog. The exercises feature a few video tutorials and examples that help demonstrate some of the ideas.

Also listed on the left hand side is a sampling of classroom acting exercises that I implement to help students get into an "acting" frame of mind. This is essential in order to create proper video reference to help you in creating your animation.

The project also features an animation called "60 fps", that demonstrates the application of many of the concepts presented in this curriculum. It can be viewed below and serves as an example of what is possible if you try the techniques listed in this blog.

Thanks to my instructors, my classmates, fellow animators, students, family and fellow colleagues for supporting and encouraging me to the completion of this project. A big shout out to all of the animators who made their character rigs available on the internet. They will be listed here once the project is complete. Also, a big hug goes out to the "Acting in Movement" who served as my test subjects for this project. It would not have been possible without your help.

Thanks everyone! Completion and graduation is set for Summer 2008 (Hey, that's today!).

As they say, full steam ahead.

Fire it up!

"Moods" Game

This is a board game published by Hasbro. Players gather around in a circle, and one person sets down a group of ten cards face up with a mood printed on it. Some example moods are: threatening, nervous and flirtatious. Next to each card is a corresponding number and to begin play, a player draws a card from a box, upon which there is a saying, for example, “I can’t believe you said that.” Once the player knows this saying, he rolls the dice and whatever number appears, he must find the corresponding card on the board that has a mood on it. The player then proceeds to say the line in the manner in which the card requests, and is only allowed to act out the mood and line twice, with no hand gestures. When everyone is ready, each person surrounding the player must look at the board and select which of the ten moods the player was acting out. This game is a lot of fun and really pushes the students to find ways of expressing an emotion that people understand. How would you say the line, “I can’t believe you said that,” in a threatening, joyous or flirtatious manner?


I consider this exercise to be an energizer, but it’s also a great introductory acting exercise, especially for those who have never acted before. To begin, everyone sits in a circle and someone is secretly selected to be the murderer. I usually use a deck of cards, and I flag the Jack of Spades to be the “murder card”. Once the cards are dealt, if you have this card, you are the murderer. The selection process must be random if this is to work properly, as no one can know who the murderer is. The murderer then kills people in the circle by winking at them. If you are winked at (killed), you must wait a few seconds, then you must act out a death. The death can be as exaggerated as you wish, but it must be clear to the rest of the group how the death occurs. Some people choose to get shot with a gun, drink poison, have a heart attack, or stabbed, while others choose creative ways to die (literally ending up on the floor). The goal for the rest of the group, is to figure out who the murderer is and anyone can guess at any time who they think the murderer is, but if they guess incorrectly they too are killed, at which point they must act out a death. This exercise generates a lot of laughs, and by the end of the day, we congratulate each other by saying, “That was a great death!”

Acting Out Poses (Video Reference)

Posing Assignment: Video Reference from randolfd on Vimeo.

This exercise is one of the first pieces of footage recorded by the student to be used for their animation. I begin by writing simple emotions on the board such as happy, sad, surprised, worried, thinking and flirty. I then have each student come to the front of the class, after which they are fed the emotions mentioned above one by one. The student responds to each word, by getting in a pose that expresses that emotion. This exercise focuses on body language, exaggeration, reverse curves, and with a simple digital camera that can record movies, discuss proper framing of the subject in the camera as well. After the footage is recorded, the student then uses it as reference and creates the poses in a CG model. This is an important key assignment that introduces students to the concept of animating emotion through the proper use of posing.

Below is an example of the moving holds assignment. As you can see here, the student used the above video as reference so that she is able to animate not only the pose correctly, but the accompanying moving holds as well.

Posing Assignment II: Moving Holds from randolfd on Vimeo.

Laugh Yoga: Ha Ha Ha!

Laugh Yoga: Ha ha ha! from randolfd on Vimeo.

This exercise focuses on the emotion of happy and is an energizer that brings the energy level up in the room. The concept is for the actors to create a type of fake laughter. To begin however, we begin by discussing the attributes of the face responsible for making a person look like they are smiling, then we have a discussion on the health benefits of laughter. In most animation, the ability to generate laughter in a character is key as the emotion translates to the viewer. Another concept to note for this exercise, is that the body does not know if a laugh is real or fake and so in the exercise, the actors must induce a fake laugh until it becomes a real laugh. One simple way to do this is to take a deep breath and together, as one large group, say “Ha ha ho!” The idea here is to generate the laughter from their diaphragm and that they must open their mouths, show their teeth and use their arms to make a large circle. After this exercise, people are already giggly. After we do this three times, I have the students walk around the class, making eye contact with at least five people. As they see each person, they must point at them, give them a big smile, and say “Ha ha ha!”, as loud and as funny as they can. What usually happens, is that people will start to laugh for real, and in the sessions I’ve conducted, many people end up on the floor from laughing too hard. The assignment is silly at first, but after one does it, the action of laughing can be quite liberating.

Palm Tree, Elephant and Giraffe

Palm Tree, Elephant and Giraffe from randolfd on Vimeo.

This exercise introduces students to spontaneity, body movement and working as a team. We begin by having a standard circle with one person in the center. The center person points to an individual, where the selected person, and the two people on either side must work together to make either a group of palm trees, an elephant or a giraffe. As the group makes one of the above objects, they must also add slight movement to make the thing look like it is alive. If anyone of the three people hesitates or creates the wrong object, then that person goes into the center.

An interesting twist on this exercise, is to add the adjective happy or sad to make the objects have emotion. For instance, happy palm trees would look very different from sad palm trees. After the exercise is complete, the class could have a discussion on what types of movement create the emotions happy or sad.


"Acting for Animation" Class Warmup from randolfd on Vimeo.

Before every acting class session, I begin each with physical warm up exercises. Doing this gets students in the right frame of mind as they are going to be involved in constant physical and mental activity. Doing these before each class eases the student into the idea of physical movement and for many students in animation, doing something physical in a classroom setting, definitely gets their attention as it rarely happens in school. To begin, I have everyone stand in a circle. I encourage them to relax and to follow along, to which I begin to do various exercises to warm their bodies up, like marching in place with the knees lifted to about waist height and a few easy stretches to stretch out the large muscle groups in the hips by doing simple hip rotations (hands on the waist). I also have them stretch out their quadriceps and hamstring muscles (for variety I have them partner up with one another and have each person lean on the other), then I have them do simple shoulder and neck stretches. Any kind of light stretching and warm-up is effective and it really depends on the background of the instructor. For this class, I utilized my background in Tai Chi and aerobics to get everyone moving, and for some of the energizers, used many of the group exercises I learned while being a youth counselor for “At Risk” youth.

After their bodies have had a chance to move, I have them stretch out the muscles in their face by making them pronounce exaggerated vowel sounds (a, e, i, o and u). I also incorporate a few centered breathing exercises to help them understand how to use their diaphragms for voice projection, staying relaxed and focused. The warm up session ends by having everyone “shake off” their hands, wrists and legs to release any excess tension in their bodies. This section could be elaborated more, it varies depending on each instructor’s background, but just remember that the point of the warm up is to encourage physical activity and to get used to physically moving around.