Friday, August 10, 2012

A word on dragons and sequels

A couple days ago, Michael Offutt posted about the tv series based off the move, 'How To Train Your Dragon'.

...sorry this is going to get a little nerdy...

But you guys know I used to work in animation, right?

Let me start by saying, I enjoyed watching the first two episodes of the new tv series.

Sequels, almost as a rule, suck. And I am talking primarily about animated movies.

Almost always they're capitalizing off the success of the first one, and they never really get there. Often they're downright disappointing. In animation, sequels to hit movies (like Disney) are never made by the same studio as the original. They are farmed out to small studios. Interestingly enough, Canada used to be the cheap place where 'Return of Jafar' and all such hastily made sequels were pumped out, along with the pc games (based on the movies) that were stuffed as prizes into kids cereal boxes. In the last ten to fifteen years, big companies like Disney realized Korean animators work for even less than Canadians.

It's too bad 'cause most of the small studios in Vancouver were already shut down before I finished my animation program... (hence the sideways move into the video game industry), but until that point, fresh-outta-school-animation students got to test out their skills (and be employed!) over 16 hour work days + minimum wage. Oh yeah, it was the dream. Even if all you were doing was digital ink work...

So, sequels... most often rushed through on the coat-tails of the successful first movie, worked on by incredibly green students...

Taking that into account, I was actually pretty impressed with the tv series. Sure, the models were highly simplified, the sizes tweaked, facial expressions are minimal at best, but the animation is clean, there are no obvious weighting problems, popping limbs, mushy walking cycles... all in all, it was pretty good.

But I swear, whoever did the lighting should be fired, or had better QA.

The thing with 3-d animation is that lighting is a major pain when you're not all that familiar with it. Like a tax accountant, big studios have specialists who only do that, but in smaller studios, everyone kind of pitches in.

There's always this big temptation to make sure all the texture is visible, 'cause you've worked so darn hard on the wrap, the luminosity & bump maps, you want people to really see it... you overlight it...

...which makes everything look bleached out, which ruins the entire point of this medium... too much light flattens the image, which means there's less depth, which means there's really no freaking point in making it 3-d with all the pretty textures and animation if it ends up looking like 'Southpark'.

The only scenes that looked somewhat decent were the indoor/night scenes, and even some of those were pretty cringe-worthy... like where Hiccup is holding the torch outside Gobber's house in the second episode... I mean, really? It's supposed to be lit by a small fire, not a lightbulb. And Toothless' eyes should not look like spotlights! Reflected light is your friend, creating a separate/independent light source to fully illuminate the eyes is the enemy. Bad lighting-techy, bad!

As an unpublished writer, the notion of writing a sequel is purely a hypothetical mind-game, but from following writers online, it seems just as hard as I imagine it to be.

Sometimes I wonder if, not even writing a sequel, if I am falling prey to the trip-falls normally associated with sequels.

When you have success, even just a taste of it, it boosts your confidence. It makes you want to repeat the experience, to speed up your process, to get it written in six months instead of eight, to edit it in a single pass, instead of four.

Having confidence is good, being excited is good, wanting to succeed is good... but don't go too fast. Don't send out a project that really should have had another run through QA, another close check on that lip syncing, a careful analysis to make sure the joints aren't popping and the weighting is correct.

And above all... don't overlight it.

...and by that, I'm talking about overwriting, where you just want to reader to see how clever you are, your skillful use of wrapping words into a shiny, deeply-textured sentence. Or maybe that long passage of text explaining some nuance in your incredibly-well-thought-out world.

I know how tempting it is, but remember... it will really stands out, and not in a good way, to anyone who knows what a professional product should look like.

I've been tempted many times with 'Brake Fluid' to use more description, 'cause I love writing it, I love reading it... but in this story, it would certainly stand out as a bad thing.

I want readers to forget they're reading a story, just like an animator wants viewers to suspend their disbelief and believe in their hand-drawn or computer modelled characters.

Lighting is the last thing that's done before rendering. The goal of proper lighting is to showcase depth and realism. So, when I'm editing, or re-thinking parts to cut-rewrite, those are the thoughts I focus on. Do I necessarily need a spotlight on this line, or is it better, within the scope of the story, to let it drift mid-distance?

Sorry I'm such an over thinking nerd ;)

...and damn, talking about this really makes me miss 3-d modelling... and, just in case there are any questions about it, I'm still going to watch the tv series :)

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