12 October 2011

The Rhythm of Life

Timing, and rhythm is one of the fundamental principles of animation and I'm sure every animator has their own approach to timing (and measuring it). Personally, a stopwatch had always been perfectly adequate. But, in the pursuit of improving my workflow and technique, I'm always looking for new things to try and new ways to work. Inspiration comes from many places, and towards the end of last year, several things converged and got me thinking (and now working) differently about my approach to timing.

I'd stumbled across the blog of Olivier Ladeuix (Animation with a moustache) and a post titled Animation Beat Box. It referenced part of the 1988 TV documentary "I Drew Roger Rabbit" (below) where Richard Williams stalks his way around Soho Square in London, timing out the beat, rhythm and motion of the people and animals around him.

This is fascinating stuff, and really every animator should have the physical capacity to tap out the rhythm of life around them with a similar accuracy. Sadly, not all of us have the sense of timing that Richard Williams does. That ability comes through years of experience, practise and dedication. But, there are ways we can improve our sense of rhythm (as Olivier has done with the "Animation Beat Box"), and even carry the ability around in our pockets.

There was something else in the documentary had caught my attention, and helps to explain how Richard Williams has such a good feel for a beat. The sequence that follows on from Soho Square, Mr Williams is back in his studio, and is seen setting the tempo of a metronome, flicking through an animation sequence, re-setting the metronome, and flicking through the sequence again. Working with the constant beat of the metronome, the rhythm will, after a time, become second nature. It's much like a sportsman (or woman) repeating the same movements over and over to perfect their technique.

I remembered reading, as a student, about the use of metronomes by animators at Disney. This had never really seemed relevant to me. But times change, and with age and experience come different perspectives.
"Some of the old Disney animators used to work with a piano teacher’s metronome on their desks. This enabled them to assign a particular tempo to a planned animated character."
- Timing for Animation

The idea of using a metronome started to intrigue me, and it soon became an itch that needed scratching. After a fair amount of digging around, I found very few references to using metronomes for animation timing. But the book "Animation Unleashed" seemed to hold the key to what I was looking for. In the chapter "Timing and Rhythm Structure", Ellen Besen talks about acting out your action to the beat of a metronome. So with pocket metronome in hand, I gave it a go.

After a bit a trial and (mainly) error, I realised how uncomfortable and unnatural my performance felt and therefore looked. In the same chapter of "Animation Unleashed", Besen also mentions "using the metronome while watching". Now admittedly, I've taken this line out of context, but actually out of context it has more relevance to what I was looking for. So, flipping the idea on it's head, I set about timing other peoples actions. This had its own impracticalities. The unsuspecting members of the public I was trying to time were, more often than not, way off in the distance by the time I had an accurate tempo on the metronome.

This was incredibly frustrating. But, after a little re-evaluation, I realised my mistake actually lay in the equipment I was using. Yes, "a bad workman always blames his tools", but in this case it was the right tool, but the wrong type (a bit like using a cross head screw driver for a slotted screw).

The key thing that I had missed was having the ability to "tap out the rhythm of life". These days, there's a wide variety of metronomes available, from the old fashioned "pendulum" style that sits on your piano, to small electronic ones, to all sorts of mobile apps. Aside from the majority being a more practical size, many come with a "tap tempo" function, enabling animators, of whatever skill level, to replicate the ability Richard Williams and other great animators in the local park or shopping mall.

Now, having spent a good period of time stalking round à la Richard Williams, timing out the movement of unsuspecting colleagues, friend, family and unsuspecting members of the public, I came across another issue. I'd got the tempo of how fast (or slow) someone or something moved, but now I needed converting from metronome beats (bpm) to frames per second (fps). This (I found) was actually relatively easy once you get the right information. As long as you know your constant divisor factor, it's relatively plain sailing (with a little rounding up or down to the nearest frame). The divisor factor for 24fps is 1440 (ie.60 seconds x 24 frames). But in the modern era of Film, Television and Games, another issue is thrown up.

Depending on your area of the animation industry, the fps you use or are used to will differ. I started animating over 20 years ago on film, and 24fps was standard. But over the course of my career I've worked at 24, 25 and 30fps. And although I still do, it's rare these days that I work at anything other than 30fps, making "march time" 15 frames (an easy enough calculation), but what of all those other walks, runs and actions I've been timing out?

NB. I feel I should make it clear that I am a Maya user these days, and this next paragraph is specifically aimed at other Maya users.

I've been lucky enough throughout my career to be surrounded by some supremely talented artists and technicians, and it was one of them, a technically minded guy called Neil Dorrington, I went to with my problem. I asked if he could come up with a MEL script to help with my conversion problem and within what seemed like minutes he created a MEL script that is effectively a Beat Calculator (pictured). That script is available here.

It allows the user to convert bpm to fps (and vice versa) through direct input or the use of a slider, giving the tempo results in 30, 25 and 24fps (NTSC, PAL and Film respectively) and highlighting the speed settings you are working on.

These days my trusty stopwatch lies gathering dust. I guess I might use it again someday, but the "tap-tempo" metronome gives me more freedom and flexibility to accurately record the timing for what I want to animate.

Credit where it's due, and a note of thanks has to go to Olivier Ladeuix, Richard Williams and Ellen Besen for the inspiration, and Neil Dorrington for the MEL script. If, as Animators, we are to progress our art form, we need to be constantly thinking, learning, questioning and being inspired.

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Blogger The Independent Animator said...

I'm glad to see people referencing my old friend, Olivier Ladieux! He is a smart guy and deserves way more attention than he receives!

12 October 2011 at 14:22  

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