Here is the latest and greatest 3D animation I've been working on for the past two weeks...
It is still a work in progress, and there are a few fixes that need to happen with his head and the bat, but I have to say that I have been pleased with the results thus far. I started this animation with video reference of myself doing a couple different swings. Anyone who has watched at least one baseball game in their life knows that there are seemingly infinite variations on how a batter can stand in the batters box and take a hack. For this particular animation I decided to start off right away with reference.
It was fun to take imaginary batting practice in the parking lot, but after reviewing my results I realized that the swing I was using was too "normal" and didn't have enough character (or caricature) in it to make it entertaining. It also began to take into consideration the rig I was going to use. Since "Gus" is a big, hulking, cartoony guy I felt that maybe he would be a bit more exaggerated. Back to the camera I went.
The second time around I tried to push the action a little farther. Frequently in animation one must "over act" in the video reference in order to get a feel for the physics of the action. Also, "over acting" in live-action often translates really well to animation. When I filmed the clip above, I was trying to make the swing a little more ridiculous, but not in such a way that made if feel like I couldn't actually hit the ball hard if I were to make real contact in a batting cage. In animation, BELIEVABILITY is far more desirable than REALISM.
The next step was to pin down the key poses from the live action reference. I try to stick to quick gesture drawings to make sure that I understand the line of action and where the weight of the figure is coming from and going to. The tendency at this step of the process can be to follow too closely to the reference and not truly internalize the action or the character. Thumbnails are CRITICAL, and Pixar animator Victor Navone has an excellent gallery of his rough sketches on his website. This is one of the most important steps in my 3D animation process because this is when you begin to actually UNDERSTAND what you wish to portray.
I also consulted photo references at this time. By perusing examples of other (more accomplished) hitters than myself, I can also make sure that I'm gathering my visual information from more than just my own reference and imagination. It also occurred to me that the 3D character that I had chosen to animate with, although a cartoon, didn't look that different than some of the muscular power hitters that have inspired a variety of headlines over the past couple years... interesting.
After many pages of thumbnails (the ones above are merely a sampling) I begin to take the key poses that feel the best and I start animating them in DigiCel Flipbook to get the timing down right. Once I began implementing this important step into my 3D workflow my animation improved almost immediately. Essentially, by animating in 2D first, I am able to test out the animation in my mind via a few quick gesture drawings first, to see if I like the timing and spacing. If I don't, I rework the drawings or the timing until I get a the desired result.
The rewarding thing about roughing out the animation in Flipbook first is that it provides instant feedback and gratification. It literally can take as little as 10 minutes to get something that feels like your animation up and running on the screen, whereas solving your animation in 3D can be a long, frustrating, and fruitless process - especially when you're a rookie! In Maya it can take at least double that to get one pose right.
Play to your strengths! Perhaps the most important thing I have been learning by doing this animation is that you need to do things that interest you! If you are genuinely interested in what you're doing, you will do it better and more often than if it feels like a chore. I played baseball for 18 years and have watched at least 1 million swings in my lifetime - many of them in slow-mo in order to study hitters (and learn how to get them out). This has been a great example of animation body mechanics for myself because I can focus on animation because I already have almost 2 decades of first-hand experience to pull from.
I also don't mean you should avoid your weaknesses, because that will eventually lead to problems too, but don't shy away from the things that you do well and interest you!