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TechTV

With Fresh Approach to Rigging, ‘New Pioneers’ Hopes to Revolutionize CG TV Animation [Video]

Ex-Pixar and Rhythm & Hues artist Chris Perry from Bit Films has produced a pitch for a new episodic TV series and partnered with animation software production specialists Anzovin Studio on a new rigging system to produce it.

The New Pioneers is a show set on a future Earth where humans live in a massive electric dome protected from a hostile natural world. Watch the pitch below and a behind-the-scenes video on the rigging and animation toolset further down this page.

Perry, who won an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Technical Achievement Award in 2014 for his work on Rhythm & Hues’ Voodoo animation system, told Cartoon Brew at the VIEW Conference in Italy that The New Pioneers was a series he hoped adults would watch together with their children.

“I think there’s a lot of fragmentation in animation,” he said. “There are so many shows that are just kids’ shows. But there’s this class of animation, things like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Over the Garden Wall, and Ghibli films, that I definitely love watching with my kids. So, we were wondering, why isn’t there more of that?”

Chris Perry presenting at VIEW.  Photo credit: Riccardo Bucchino. Photo courtesy of VIEW.
Chris Perry presenting at VIEW. Photo credit: Riccardo Bucchino. Photo courtesy of VIEW.

Perry founded Massachusetts-based independent production studio Bit Films several years ago to develop television and film projects. But as an indie house he realized that to break into episodic work, Bit Films would need to produce something that was visually stunning and unusual—but also affordable.

That’s when he got in touch with Raf Anzovin from Anzovin Studio. “He and I had been wanting to make stylized animation for years,” said Perry. “He’s done a lot of it for commercials, but then we finally realized here was a project that we could use for the test.”

To produce the computer animation, Perry says Anzovin developed a new approach to posing 3D characters that is informed more by drawn animation than by CG, as is usually the case. As a result, the poses are more gestural and do not involve animators having to move a rigid hierarchy of joints and bones.

Behind the characters are rigging tools written by Anzovin as Maya plugins (as seen in the video above). “At the core of it,” said Perry, “is a spline deformer as opposed to some sort of linear deformer. Raf has also taken this idea of a ‘free rig’ which first hit press in 2005 with Chicken Little, where all the nodes in the rig are independent. You don’t have a hierarchy of nodes—you can move your character by grabbing and moving anything.”

The idea was to provide a puppet to the animators that was more based on wires than say joints and hinges. The intended benefit is to avoid the complication that arises in a typical animation pipeline where a character is rigged for certain poses but has to be returned to rigging to be adjusted during animation when different requirements are needed.

A still from the New Pioneers pitch piece.
A still from the New Pioneers pitch piece.

“We provide an easy interface for selecting nodes, and then the animator on demand creates a temporary rig at the push of a button to accomplish what they want to accomplish,” said Perry. “There’s a lot of room for improvisation and very low ramp-up time because all you need to learn is which nodes to move.”

The rig setup was used to animate the New Pioneers pitch piece, which Perry has been shopping around. Currently he has not had a sale but does say the feedback he’s received has been encouraging. “We thought we’d try and go through the front doors of some of the major studios, but ultimately we are also trying to cultivate an audience and a fan base. And if people like it, hopefully work will come our way using the same style and tools.”

  • Raf Anzovin

    Awesome to see our project getting an article here! I’d be happy to answer any questions about our process–there’s lots of details that wouldn’t fit in an article. Animating without interpolation is a very freeing experience.

    I’d also like to give a shout-out to Tagore Smith and Brian Kendall, who wrote the plug-ins this toolkit is based on. The spline-based deformer they wrote will eventually be a commercial product–there’s more detail about the rigging tools they are developing at http://www.anzovin.com/art

    • setupSquirrel

      So if you don’t rely on traditional rotational interpolation how are you actually interpolating the subframes. The video kind of looked like it was a linear interpolation. Is the project just so stylized that you don’t have to care about those details? I ask as these types of rigs tend to be problematic in a normal character pipeline where downstream processes like cloth simulation depend on things like preroll and subframes.

      Really compelling presentation!

      • Raf Anzovin

        Thanks! Not only do we never need subframes, we’re actually animating on a mixture of 1s, 2s, and 3s, as a traditional animator would. In other words, we don’t even use linear interpolation–we don’t use any active interpolation at all (everything is stepped keys).

        The only time anything is ever interpolated is while the animator is using the breakdown tool to create inbetweens, and even then we don’t use Maya’s interpolation. We use our own interpolation internal to the tool that uses quaternions to interpolate rotation. Amoung other things, this means that gimbal lock simply does not exist for us, and rotate order is completely irrelevant.

        You’re quite right that this makes any sort of traditional cloth or hair simulation pretty much nonviable, though. That’s ok, because I don’t want to use any. In the best traditional animation secondary animation is part of the characters performance, determined by the animator, and that’s what I hoped to achieve here as well. Plus it cuts an entire set of steps out of the pipeline.

        Of course, you’re right that this would only work in a stylized context where detailed cloth deformation and wrinkling isn’t important, and character design doesn’t force you to spend all your time animating long capes or something. In many ways, what we’re doing here requires both a different approach to animation and rendering to work.

    • Tom

      Coolest rig I’ve ever seen in 3d tbh, Great job!

    • Metlow Rovenstein

      That short your company did ain’t bad. If I were a network exec, I’d definitely greenlight this for a show

  • Chris Fram

    Any news on when these rig tools will be available?? The indiegogo campaign was a while ago…..

  • slowtiger

    Ok, so we have humans on a different planet than Earth, which means space flight technology, living under a dome of pure energy, but have to defend themselves with hand-made spears and crank a generator by hand – sorry, I don’t buy that.

    I’m not much interested in new rigging techniques as long as there’s no progress in storytelling.

  • Chris Webb

    Loved it! Loved the idea, and the toon redering. Great job!

    • Raf Anzovin

      Thanks! Getting clean two-tones that don’t look like crawling ants every time the character moves was an important goal for the lighting/comp team, and there were an awful lot of clever per-shot solutions. I wasn’t directly involved in that side of production though so I don’t have all the details.

  • Googamp32

    All I see is “Storm Hawks” with a duller palette. Everyone moves in a very jerky and unnatural way. I can appreciate the effort on a technical level, but I think it would have been better as either all CGI, or all hand drawn.

  • C

    This is really cool. But, and the big but here, is that all of this requires a lot of time without interpolation. This offers much more control over poses and inbetweens than traditional rigs, but when my TV animation quota is 300 frames per day I want to get as much out of interpolation as possible. I can’t even consider stuff like spacing except in the loosest way. And that’s not even the biggest quotas in the industry. Some of the studios in Vancouver are currently trying to get their artists up to 500 frames of TV animation a day. So this approach would be totally useless for them unless everybody is fine with working 100 hours a week.

    • Raf Anzovin

      You bring up a good point, and the answer is kind of complicated.

      First of all, one of the main reasons to animate without interpolation is that, in my experience, it’s far faster then animating with interpolation–potentially two or three times faster then aiming for a similar result by traditional CG means and with a traditional rig and look. There are several reasons for this.

      One is that many rig features that ordinarily need to be carefully managed–space switching, fk/ik switching, gimbal avoidance controls, etc–aren’t needed. Another is the speed with which it’s possible to judge poses and arcs when you have an onion skin tool and actually know what your other poses look like. Making changes to a shot that has already been inbetweened is also much easier–you can blow away a bunch of poses without worrying about how their interpolation will effect the rest of the shot, instead of dealing with the tangled mess of splines present in a splined shot.

      But most relevant to your point is the ability to avoid polish. The combination of variable frame rate (i.e. using a mixture of 1s, 2s, and 3s) and the stylized look (without which variable frame rate wouldn’t work) allow us to get away with the kinds of shenanigans that are fine in 2D animation but poke-you-in-the-eye horrible in CG. We can stop characters dead, without a moving hold. Polish issues like pops, “hitting a wall,” or imperfect slow out don’t really stand out to the eye, and can often be ignored, when you’d need to spend precious time polishing them out in conventional CG. I find it refocuses me wonderfully on the actual important aspects of a shot–poses, arcs, character performance–instead of the minutiae of rig management and polish.

      But your post calls this into question, doesn’t it? Avoiding polish is great if you were going to do any. At ten seconds a day, that obviously isn’t an option to begin with.

      I do think this is a pretty relevant criticism of our methods as they apply to TV animation. I’m coming at this from the direction of trying to up the quality-to-time ratio so that it’s possible to get strong, engaging, lively animation without the crushing expense of feature animation. I actually think that you’d get the best bang for your buck applying these methods in the feature and advertising worlds, in terms of being able to use that ratio to reduce the costs of production.

      That said, I don’t think working without interpolation (and with stylized rendering, which must go along with that) would make your job any harder, you just wouldn’t gain the huge time advantages I’ve just described. You’re still leveraging interpolation, your just doing in with the inbetweens tool instead of the graph editor, and since you can stop the character dead there are lots of cases where you can use very few inbetweens and still get a watchable result. But of course, I’m speaking from my own experiences, and your mileage may vary.

      • C

        Great answer! I would actually love to work on a show with this style because it would test if I actually know what I’m doing as an animator. Too many TV animators just let the computer handle things and don’t really understand body mechanics or facial animation, and try to get the computer to do as much heavy lifting as possible. A show like this would be a fantastic learning experience. And the plot looks so much more interesting than most shows.

  • Raf Anzovin

    The modeling isn’t really any different from a conventionally rendered character on a technical level–you need a lot less resolution though, which is convenient for weighting and UVs. Texture painting goes pretty quick, as most things are just flat areas of color. The monster, who was named Benny by the art director Chris Bishop, was the only character that required much time be spent in texturing.

    We did a lot of work in compositing, combined with some shader tricks, to get the two-tone look.

  • animator de french

    Love the trailer! However the logic behind their world is a bit unclear, they seem to have the technology to put up an energy/force field but their weapon of choice to fight a monster is a spear?