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Hopefully this won't be too painful! :-)

I'm going to use this thread to dig through all of the remains of the animated Christmas Greeting I did for Christmas '08. My hope is that by doing some self analyzing, I'll be able to learn some more about the process and make the next project (The 12-Chapter Wannabe Pirates Serial) the better for it... or at least not make some of the same mistakes again!

I. The Backstory

Less than a week away from Christmas in 2007, I came up with the idea of doing a quick animated greeting card with the one character I had completed from The Wannabe Pirates (Captain Errol Flemm) that I could share online with my friends. My memory is that this was mostly born out of guilt because another year had gone by where I had not thought to get Christmas cards to send out to my friends, but had received several from friends and now I felt rotten about it. For Christmas 2006, I had sent an email Christmas card with a drawing I'd done of some elves, so I thought I could one-up it by doing some animation. I'm sure I had seen Gerry working on his company's animated Christmas card, too.

It was the Thursday before Christmas (Christmas Day was on the following Tuesday) and I turned to my iPod and started going through Christmas songs that I had, trying to find some inspiration while I toiled at work. Looking over what I had, I thought a Dean Martin song would be appropriate, since Flemm looks a little like Dean Martin and there was a certain frivolity to those songs that would keep this from being serious. I was really looking for something cheesey and hit the jackpot with a song called "A Marshmallow World." :-) Fueled by inspiration and not knowing what I was getting myself into, I was somehow able to complete it around 1 or 2 o'clock Christmas morning. Looking back at it now, it is very primitive looking (this was during a period when I was making the characters shiny) and it leaned heavily on cutting to simple Flash animations to keep from having to do the lipsyncing for every line.

It's still online here.

I was pretty pleased with it at the time and I sent links out to my friends and they seemed to get a kick out of it and I though to myself that next year I would start much earlier and save myself the sleepless nights.

II. Coming Up With the Idea: 11/17/2008

Part of the impetus this time around was having upgraded my Adobe Creative Suite to the Production Premium version, which gave me After Effects, Premiere and Encore for the first time. Because I'd never used them, I immediately dug into video tutorials at and one of them discussed doing character animation in AE and showed a workflow process where storyboards were put into Premiere and then as each shot was completed, it was updated until it was completely animated. I was anxious to give this a try and have a practical reason to play around with AE, so I again went to my iPod. I had used Dean Martin last year, but couldn't find anything as funny as "A Marshmallow World," so I started listening to everything I had. Just hoping something would work. For awhile, I really liked the idea of using "Sleigh Ride" sung by Bing Crosby. I could see the cast in a big sleigh (being pulled by a put-upon Poco Boco!) The song has backup singers, meaning that all of the cast could join in.

I still liked the idea of using Dean Martin, though. I just let the music play and "Let it Snow" came on and I just had this image of Flemm singing this while trying to woo Henrietta and failing miserably. Dean Martin, of course, would get the girl, but Flemm wouldn't, and I liked that it became a sort of juxtaposition with the lyrics. He would sing one thing, but something else would happen. The image I remember most came during the line "The fire is slowly dying, and my dear, we're still good-bying" when I pictured Flemm on the doorstep, but Henrietta is already upstairs in bed asleep. :-) That was what sold me.

I quickly put together a rough storyboard template and printed it out and sketched out the basics for the entire animation in between jobs at work.

These are *very* rough, but there's a lot of stuff that made it all the way through to the end:

Click to view attachment

Click to view attachment

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The highlighted lines indicated that we would see Flemm singing them. I was still looking for ways to not have to animate all of the lyrics.
Great background on this! Isn't it wonderful how ideas come together? I liked the "flash" version you did as well. For a moment I wasn't sure if the world as a "snowball" was some kind of global climate change political statement. (it could get cold instead of hot you know. Watch that documentary called "The Day After Tomorrow". Very scary.) wink.gif

p.s. The handwriting in your story boards is so much better than mine. I have story boards I can't even read after a few days. wink.gif

Thanks, Vern!

LOL, no global climate political statement... just following the lyrics of the song. :-)

Yes, my handwriting has deteriorated to the point of being some alien language, but I was able to figure out what most of it said. I do so little of it now that it's amazing I still even remember. I'm pretty sure I've already forgotten how to write in cursive.
Cool thought processes, and informative too!
You are a natural at this.

I want to focus my remarks here on your first christmas card.
I figure we'll have lots of time to discuss the last years. smile.gif

Your take on 'Its a Marshmellow World' is inspired.
That you pulled that together so quickly impresses me.
That you delivered it with such personality and entertainment... wow!

This is an important piece of history.
I'm so glad you included it here.

I could go on and on about how you used simple animation to effect great storytelling.
Perhaps another time?

My memory is that this was mostly born out of guilt because another year had gone by where I had not thought to get Christmas cards to send out to my friends

Part of the impetus this time around was having upgraded my Adobe Creative Suite to the Production Premium version

Ah... so guilt and technology helped produce such works of art?
Everyone add those to your next Christmas list and we can all prepare to be inspired! smile.gif

I love the simplicity of your storyboards.
Your use of cinematic anticipation (getting the audience to expect one direction then going the other way) is especially insightful and appreciated.
QUOTE(Rodney @ Feb 28 2009, 07:28 PM) *
Ah... so guilt and technology helped produce such works of art?

For me it is a deadline and a lot of caffeine. wink.gif

I was going to comment too on the fast turn around for the first one and also your "style" of documentation. If flows as well as your comic book tutorials. You also have a great talent for "teaching" in a visual media.

Thanks, guys!

Rodney, I'm amazed I was able to do it that quickly, too! Of course, I look it and all I see are the shortcuts. :-)

Doing that first one in such a short time gave me unrealistic expectations about how quickly I could do future animations. The 2008 Christmas animation wasn't as long as the 2007 version and I barely finished it in a month!

Thanks, Vern. I hope that this look back will have some educational value, as well.
III. Story Reel

I'm not going to really spend a lot of time on this part, since it was basically straight forward. In Premiere, I was able to bring in the three scans of the story boards and position them to show each board at a time. I'd already trimmed the audio and brought it in and just placed the images and adjusted the transitions to match the lines in the song. To make it a little clearer (and since I already had the models of the characters), I posed them into the various poses for the storyboards and did renders that I brought in to replace the hastily sketched ones. A version of the story reel was uploaded to The Wannabe Pirates thread proper here (Post #255).

Not only did this give me a sense of how it would look and work, but it gave me the timing I would use for each shot. This was a great resource and basically allowed me to do the editing prior to setting up the first shot. At least, the rough first version of it.

Unfortunately, I had a prior commitment for the upcoming Monday that required me to fly home that weekend and not get back until Tuesday evening, so work halted for awhile. I did use the time to watch the story reel several times, trying to formulate how I was going to solve certain problems.

IV. Shot 1

For the 2007 Christmas card, I had entered the scene by panning down from the sky, following some Flash animated snow flakes. I had thought to do the same again, but I really didn't want to have to create anymore of the house set than was necessary, and that would require showing a roof and a second floor. I thought a better establishing shot would be to move across the landscape, showing the snow-covered trees and then finding Flemm at the window watching the snow.

Many years ago I had started working on an animated Christmas card for the advertising agency I was working at that was a parody of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It began with a left to right pan, so that may have slightly influenced me, too. I was always disappointed that animation was canned. It turned out to be a victim of a power struggle between the owner of the agency and the creative director.

I only created one tree model (loosely based on the 2D version I'd drawn for the 2007) version and realized that since the opening titles would run over much of the shot, they wouldn't be the focus of the viewer's attention, I wouldn't really need to vary the model and could just use duplicates. Besides, I liked the uniformity of them. They weren't supposed to be real trees, after all.

To create the left to right pan, I decided to have the camera stay in a fixed position and rotate around until it made it into position. From the top, the choreography looked like this:

Click to view attachment

As you can see, I staggered the trees around and used a duplicate of camera 1 to move all the way around through the shot, making sure I'd filled in the gaps. The ground plane was a dense mesh that I could pull up points on so that the ground wouldn't look completely flat in the camera frame. I overestimated how much landscape I would need and found that to get the speed I wanted, I only needed a small section of what I'd done.

Once I'd completed setting everything up in the first frame, I moved the duplicate camera to match the end of the shot and used that to pose Flemm.

For this shot, I only needed a small part of the house set. I built the house set as a series of separate models for each wall, so that I could assemble it as needed.

The snow and titles I added in After Effects. I'd found a tutorial showing how to alter the bubbles effect to look and behave like falling snow. It worked pretty well. The snow does track with the camera, but I was again counting on the viewer's attention being focused on the opening titles until after the camera had stopped panning.

In hindsight, I think the biggest thing would have been to have figured out the timing and speed of the camera pan much earlier. I wasted a large amount of time placing trees, adjusting them to fill gaps and raising up sections of the ground and the majority of the area wasn't needed in the final render.

Flemm's animation is a little hurky jerky in this shot and I think I had his body moving a bit too much. The light in the window makes sure that he's the center of attention, I didn't need him to move around alot to draw that attention.

Click to view attachment

One thing, I should point out is that I had intended this time to be able to make a DVD of this Christmas card to mail out and wanted it to be widescreen. Researching the matter, I found that standard definition DVD pixel size was 720x480 and the pixel aspect ration was 1.21. So, my cameras in A:M were set to render at that size with that aspect ratio. (That's why they appear scrunched up prior to having the correct aspect ratio applied to them.)

I love how you did the storyboards and planning with AE. Replacing with renders as you go. I tend to do too much ahead of time IN AM first, and then do blocking. I should save myself all the extra work and do more sketching and tighter storyboards (change your pants had NO storyboards except "in my head".) <sigh>. Pencil and paper... <sigh> Have to find a pencil... I used one a few years ago... where did I put it... wink.gif

That part of the process is the best info for me. The blocking, composition and timing of your animation was really well done. It was the first thing I noticed.

Thanks, Vern. The credit for the story reel (for me, anyway) goes to that character animation tutorial I watched on Lynda. It really made a lot of sense and it also meant that as I went, I could watch it over and over again, watching as more and more of it came together. It also forced me to consider what had gone before and what was going after shots, rather than thinking of shots as stand alones.

And the beauty, too, was that my storyboards were very loose and easy to do (I hadn't intended to ever show them to people!) :-)

Like my alien language handwriting, they only had to make sense to me.
V. Shot 2: The Fire is So Delightful

This was a big shot. First I needed to model the interior of the house, keeping in mind what I needed it to do functionally in this shot and upcoming shots and yet, not killing myself. I had more time than I did in 2007, but not *that* much more time. One of the things I knew I needed was something for Flemm to knock over during the "lights are turned way down low" shot, so I came up with a little 3-legged table with a vase on it and placed it along the wall. I also created a couple of paintings to hang on the walls.

Click to view attachment

Because of how I'd set it up in the first shot, I needed Henrietta and the fireplace to be on the right behind Flemm, not the left, like I'd storyboarded.

The lyric here was a contrast to the first lyric, and I needed to show that contrast. That the fire really was delightful. I partly did that by lighting and ambient color.

To transition, I started with Flemm looking off to his right and used Depth of Field to give the fire and the rest of the room a soft focus look. It also served to give Henrietta an introduction.

Click to view attachment

With her back to Flemm, looking at the fire, I have Flemm turn to his left and back towards her and the fire and then animate the depth of field changing to bring the fire and Henrietta into focus, while taking Flemm out of focus.

Click to view attachment

Now we see why the fire is so delightful. :-)

The fire was a challenge. My first thought was to use actual video of a fireplace and I even downloaded an HD video of such from a bit torrent. It wouldn't really work, but it gave me enough of an idea of what it should look like that I was able to fake it. I drew the layers of the hearth in Illustrator and then exported the file with layers into Photoshop. In AE, I created a fire animation and exported that and brought it into Photoshop. After some trial and error, I was able to assemble all the layers to get the look I wanted and rendered the video out of Photoshop.

I created a model with just the one patch that would be placed into the fireplace model and set up the video to display on it. I did so in a pose, so that I could adjust it with a pose slider.

I played around with the lighting and color of this shot a couple of times to try to make sure that it felt significantly warmer than the opening shot in the snow.

I was really happy with how this shot came out. It would have been great to have had some furniture and more things in the room (I had intended to have a Christmas tree, but didn't have time), but I don't think it takes away from it very much.
QUOTE(largento @ Mar 2 2009, 07:38 PM) *
I had intended to have a Christmas tree, but didn't have time

Pirates don't do christmas trees. It doesn't go well with their swashbuckling image. wink.gif

p.s. How do you swash a buckle anyway?

QUOTE(heyvern @ Mar 2 2009, 11:58 PM) *
Pirates don't do christmas trees.

You know what Winston Churchhill said the 3 things the British Navy was known for? (You'll need to use Google cuz I ain't gonna say...)
QUOTE(heyvern @ Mar 3 2009, 12:58 AM) *
p.s. How do you swash a buckle anyway?


It is exactly like buckling a swash, but the other way around.
Hey Largento
i think thats great stuff, i like the way you have gotton your inspiration from music. so you make your layers in photo shop. Them, do you bring the layers back to AM to finish up. or do you work it, just in photoshop? interesting thanks posting it smile.gif
QUOTE(kwhitaker @ Mar 5 2009, 10:42 PM) *
Hey Largento
i think thats great stuff, i like the way you have gotton your inspiration from music. so you make your layers in photo shop. Them, do you bring the layers back to AM to finish up. or do you work it, just in photoshop? interesting thanks posting it smile.gif

Thanks, Katt!

In this case, I was using Photoshop to build the inside of the fireplace. Since CS3, Photoshop can have video layers, so I could put everything together there and then export video of it. Here's a breakdown of the layers for the fireplace interior:

Click to view attachment

1) The simple art I made in Illustrator and brought in;

2) I added the fire video I created in After Effects. It's on a black background, so I set this layer to "screen";

3) An adjustment layer to add in orange;

4) A duplicate screened layer of the fire video to bump up the flames;

5) Another adjustment layer to adjust the color balance;

6) The foreground grating.

Once I had it looking the way I wanted, I rendered the video out of Photoshop to individual frames and then brought those frames into A:M to stick on the 1-patch model in the fireplace... making it sort of like a television.

I'm sure I could have done this in After Effects, too, but I felt more comfortable in Photoshop at this point.

VI. Shot 3: The Turnaround

This shot was intended mostly as a setup for the gag where Flemm fogs up the window. (A sequence, that would end up being abandoned!) Since I already had him turning his head back to see behind him, I could get away with going to the 180 and have him fully turn around.

Click to view attachment

To help with animating the turn, I took some video of me doing the action. For just this sort of thing I bought one of those little Flip video cameras. They are relatively inexpensive and it worked great for what I needed it to do. I did not intend to use the video as a rotoscope, but just to see how my legs moved. As such, I never exported it to my computer and happily deleted it from the camera once I'd finished. :-)

So, no embarrassing video of me pretending to be Flemm. :-)

Even though Flemm's feet weren't visible in the shot, I wanted to do the turn correctly, so I did animate his feet and tried to adjust his weight accordingly. I even added some movement to his sash.

I rendered it out with an alpha channel for the window panes and added in the snow and exterior in After Effects.

I like the energy that this shot adds. I haven't done a whole lot of "big" animating, so this was a hurdle for me.
So, no embarrassing video of me pretending to be Flemm. :-)


Regarding both the fire and the Flemm turn around...
Save those in a safe place. You are sure to need those again.

Flame Effects are something I know I'll need some day but as of the moment I haven't played with them outside of Xtas's MUFOOF fire effect. I did note that TWO had some very nice fire in the Yoop sequences. Thanks for the write-up on that here.

It sure looks like you've got the art of compositing down.
Alpha Channels... what can I say to those looking in except... use them!
With A:M's ability to render out to PNG format for use on the internet, life is indeed good.

I like the energy that this shot adds. I haven't done a whole lot of "big" animating, so this was a hurdle for me.

Is this with the rig Mark Skodecek added or your own custom rig?
Thanks, Rodney. The body rig is TSM2, but the face rig is Mark's. I can't say enough great things about Mark S. The rig is awesome and his help with it really helped bring these characters to life!
Paul Forwood
This is an excellent breakdown, Mark! Very well presented too.
VII. Shot 4: The Abandoned Version

Click to view attachment

This shot was problematic. The gag from the storyboards was that Flemm would turn around to look back out at the snow and as he sang "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow," the window would progressively fog up. I turned Flemm around in the previous shot, so that I could have a big, excited movement from Flemm.

The plan was that I would cut in closer on every "snow" and Flemm would disappear when the glass fogged up. Then in the next shot, he would be seen wiping the window with his hand.

It just didn't play right.

My original thought was to have Henrietta be very nearly hostile from the outset. So there would be this contradiction, where it actually looks fun outside and not fun inside. (Again, making the song lyrics ironic.) But as I animated Henrietta in the second shot, I didn't like the idea of her basically just being angry the whole time. I thought I should make it so that as the song goes on, Flemm becomes progressively more annoying and that would lead up to her tossing him out the door. As it ended up, I decided to play her as being a little more patient with Flemm.

In the end, I think I also just didn't feel like it was such a great gag.

Here's all I did on the shot before abandoning it:

Click to view attachment

It never made it to the point of doing the close ups.

Thanks, Paul!
Wow, I hadn't intended to completely abandon this, but out of sight, out of mind... :-)

Let's see if I can finish this up!

VIII. Shot 4: New Version

No longer enamored with the fogging up the window gag, I needed to come up with something new.

I knew that I was going to be introducing the Mr. Sneeze and Poco Boco characters with a wheel barrow in the final shot, so it seemed like a good idea to introduce them earlier to show they were around.

Remembering the snowman character from the 2007 Christmas animation, I thought it would be fun to put him into this version and came up with the idea that Sneeze would be lifting Poco Boco up with the wheelbarrow to place the hat on the top of the snowman.

Out of this idea, came the thought of using the villain Cutthroat Jacques in the video and thought it would be funny if they had made the snowman look like Cutthroat and had stolen his hat to use. Then I thought, what if Cutthroat finds them doing this and chases them off!

I had a very limited amount of time for this shot and realized that I would need to start with the hat already on the snowman. Alas, because I was making the snowman different now, the only holdover from the 2007 snowman was his arms. :-)

Click to view attachment

Looking at the setup, it occurred to me that a quick way to escape would be for Sneeze to propel Poco Boco into the air with the wheel barrow, pluck him out of the air and run off with him under one arm. One of the unique problems was how Sneeze could do this with a hook as one hand. I ended up animating the wheelbarrow first, then Poco Boco being launched into the air and then Sneeze interacting with the two. (Keeping in mind that he was supposed to be generating the animation of the other two.)

For Cutthroat, I used a simple run cycle as an action and drew a curved path so that he would enter from the right side of screen and turn and run almost straight towards camera. In hindsight, it does look a little mechanical since I really didn't take the time to animate his face. I would definitely do more with him if I had it to do over again. This was an ambitious shot to add to what time I had to do it in (and the fact that it only generated 3 seconds of video!) :-)

All three of these characters have very short legs which made it difficult to show them walking. For Sneeze's exaggerated movement, I actually stretched his legs out when necessary, trying to create a cartoony speed blur. This happened in such a quick period of time, that I literally animated it frame-by-frame as if it were 2D, looking more at the individual frames than thinking about any sort of 3D reality. I even went so far as to have his leg stretch out incredibly long so that his foot would remain on camera after his body had left. :-) I had some stretch with his arm, too, when he's pulling Poco Boco out of the air. I wanted that to have a sort of "snap" so that he starts moving before he pulls Poco in. That part didn't have quite the speed I wanted.

Here's one of the frames where Sneeze's right leg gets reeeaaally long!

Click to view attachment

The rule-of-thumb I used was that something needed to appear on screen for at least 2 frames in order to register with the viewer.

This was a complicated shot mostly because I was dealing with the three characters and I needed more motion than I had previously attempted. I ended up rendering it as a single pass, which sped up the render and looks fine in the final product.

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