animated short

‘Man vs Nature’ (Bravery) – 3D Previs, Modelling and Rigging

3D Previs

Erinn and I put together a 3D previs version of our animatic, where we worked to really nail down the layout of the environment and the timing of the action.

The two shots below are effectively the buildup of the joke, the pause right before the punchline, the moment where the tension of the entire short is at its peak before being broken –  so I tried my best at ensuring the timing and acting was good in both.

Side note: I have since learned how to hide elements such as nurbs curves and controllers from Maya’s display and to create playblasts in better quality then what you see above.

I also wanted to experiment with camera settings and the use of depth of field, so actually rendered out my animations for the last three previs shots in Arnold, using these articles as reference. I did not increase the camera samples a lot as I didn’t want rendering to take a long time (I was rendering on my home laptop) so the result is slightly grainier than a proper render would be.

Though I like the depth of field effect a lot we probably won’t use it in our final film due to the fiddly business of making sure the effect would be consistent across cameras and the inefficient render times it requires to render nicely. However it was by no means a waste, as even from such a short shot I learned a lot about camera work – it was something I genuinely enjoyed experimenting with and figuring out.

Here is the final previs, edited together by Erinn:

Again, I worked hard on the timing and acting on these shots, probably harder than is necessary for a simple previs; but I hope it will make animating easier when we get to it. I also do agree with the feedback we received about the final shot, where it was suggested the spider be on the father’s back rather than his arm, as the version in the previs is awkwardly staged and hard to read.


I retopologised Erinn’s initial head sculpt, imported from ZBrush, but made some adjustments with Maya’s sculpt tool first. I thought modelling in halves would make things faster but I don’t know if it paid off in the end as I had trouble uniting meshes of the duplicated halves. At least I figured out the object symmetry option early on, and had a good idea about how best to create loops, starting with the eye, lips and jaw. I wanted to ensure that I had optimised topology and edge flow that wouldn’t have too many polygons yet would allow the character to hold good facial expressions.

Despite it seeming like a simple task, it took me a while to do. There was a lot of trial and error and I restarted several times, though I do not have many progress screenshots to show the amount of work I put in. My thanks to Maggie for giving me advice, and to Alec for revising the topology and helping to meld the halves together.

I think this is what I spent the most time on – it definitely took much longer than it should have done. I worked hard on it, I really did, and I think I did an alright job; but my perfectionist tendencies were definitely more of a hindrance than a help in this case. The whole time I was convinced I was doing everything wrong, and holding the entire team back by not getting it finished sooner (despite the body or daughter rigs not being finished until well after I finished working on the head).

UV Mapping and Texturing

When I’d finished modelling the head I got started on the UVs, and I think it was working on this that I finally, properly wrapped my head around UV unwrapping and texturing. Since it was a pretty simple object cutting and stitching the UV shells for the head wasn’t tough, though it took a fair amount of experimentation to get the texture right!

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The final version of the head.

As well as his skin texture I could have also UV’d the dad’s eyebrows and hair, but I thought that it would be tricky and frankly unnecessary work as they looked fine with a simple coloured lambert.

When I received the model of the dad’s body, Erinn had already cut the UV shells so I was mostly working on the textures themselves. However I did alter the layout slightly when creating the textures, which became a problem for a while as with each new version of the model I would have to readjust the UVs again, until we settled on working on a version that had my altered UV layout it it. I know now to be more efficient about these things next time.

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I also textured Sarah’s model of the daughter character.

Though I’m proud of what I did, I wish it had occurred to me to try out bump mapping, especially on the clothing, as it could really have improved the overall look of the models.

Blend Shapes

Creating facial expressions with blend shapes was fiddly, but I had a lot of fun!

I really liked my work here, but unfortunately, these versions were lost and I had to redo them a couple more times before we figured out how to preserve and transfer blend shapes between models. Though it was frustrating and I have a feeling that the final blend shapes aren’t as good as they could have been, at least I got faster and more efficient at creating them as a result.

Luckily, after that the daughter’s blend shapes were a breeze!

I also set up a simple eye and eyelid rig, which was later reworked by Erinn for the final film.

At the time of writing, we have not yet started animating as the character rigs are still being fine-tuned. I will admit to being more than a little frustrated with the project already, especially since I have had to keep redoing the things I’m working on due to the ongoing alteration and updating of the models and their rigs. But we’re getting there.

Side note: I don’t think I can properly convey the relief I felt when I found out that essentially every time a rig acts weirdly, it is because of skin weights, i.e. not my fault and apparently inevitable at our current experience level. 

POST-DEADLINE POSTSCRIPT: I have some grievances to air here. Due to lapses in communication between team members during the holidays, I ended up having to redo the dad character’s UVs, blend shapes and also skin weights five times in the space of a week. Convinced I was holding my teammates back from starting the animation, I would dedicate nearly all of my waking hours (and more than a healthy number of my sleeping hours) to getting the finishing touches put on a rig as fast as I could, only to find out that I would have to do it all again tomorrow. A lot of stress on my part could have been avoided had I just known that the current rig was still a work in progress and I didn’t need to stress myself trying to get everything perfect. I could really have used the extra time to work on other things.

I’m not blaming my teammates so much as the inevitable lapse in communication that occurs when you are not working together in person, as well as the tricksy, nearly ephemeral nature of the things I was working on and their nasty tendency to mysteriously disappear on you until you figure out ways of stopping that from happening.

But enough griping! The end result is I now have a much firmer grasp of blend shapes, skin weights and UV unwrapping and texturing. I learned better and faster ways of doing these things, and now might even call myself speedy – at least compared to when I started. I feel genuinely proud of myself for getting good at fiddly stuff like this, and for getting it done despite the pressure. And really I’m counting my blessings that I wasn’t the one doing the actual rigging of the characters: I have to give big props to Erinn for that, as well as to Bradley for singlehandedly creating the environments for the film. I really admire my teammates’ efficiency and workflow, their ability to get things done, and I hope I can learn from their example in the future.

I also don’t think I handled these blog posts very well, trying to cram all my progress into one gargantuan post that I only finish after the fact, when several smaller ones made as I went along would likely have been much better. Taken into consideration for next semester!

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