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Drawing the human figure from reference

General / 18 July 2017

I’ve come to frequently use pose reference in my professional and personal illustration work, and there are a range of repositories and services out there for artists to use. One of the more fun resources is SenshiStock on DeviantArt, a pose reference account with a range of models and an outlook to convey the energy, heroism and sheer fun of popular Magical Girl manga / anime Sailor Moon.

SenshiStock ran an event in June challenging artists to draw a pose from reference every week day. Taking part, I found my digital drawing speed increasing, and I got more practised with the processes I came to use for building my drawings up.

Here’s a finished drawing next to the base I used to guide the line artwork:

start by finding a Line of Action, although with this pose there was a choice of whether to draw it down the standing leg, or the raised one. My techniques are a pick-n-mix of different teachers’ recommendations, some Loomis, some Prokopenko, some from animation, some from fashion illustration classes and elsewhere. I like having an array of tools to deploy, and it’s refreshing to utilise them on a project focused on my personal learning, as well as having fun exploring.

Plus! Plenty of practice drawing hands and feet!


What is Layered Animation?

General / 08 February 2017

The last weekend of January I had the incredible opportunity to take a masterclass by Pixar Animator Michal Makarewicz. The 18-hour programme of lectures, Q&A, and live demonstrations in Maya covered important topics for animators such as planning, acting and performance, animating dialogue, polish, and many others. However it was Mike’s explanation and many live demonstrations of the layered animation approach that I found most interesting. I hadn’t heard of it until the lead-up to the weekend, and although I had an inkling what this might be, the masterclass clarified Mike’s layered animation practice in detail.

Since the masterclass weekend I’ve been researching online for resources about the layered animation workflow, although there’s no substitute for participating in a learning opportunity like that in person. The live demos in particular left even seasoned animators floored by Mike’s ability to speedily get CG characters acting convincingly! Given attendees were requested not to record the sessions, here’s my notes for animators of what I learned about layered animation, using online references to explain things more visually and to point you to further resources.


Points covered in brief:

  • Layered animation is an approach, like straight ahead or pose-to-pose. It doesn’t necessarily use the animation layers feature of Maya etc.
  • The idea is to animate the main driver of a character’s motion in your shot, usually the Root, maybe the Head, for the whole shot. This is like a base layer. Then animate the next most important controller for the whole shot, then the next, building up the whole performance, layer by layer.
  • Mike treats each transform channel on each controller, ie. a single curve in the Graph Editor, as a “layer”. Some animation teachers treat a limb as a “layer”.
  • The expertise Mike showed in movement analysis and the concept of portraying the energy of the movement, rather than being guided by golden key poses, seemed to be pivotal in making layered animation, as Mike uses it, especially effective.
  • Mike’s demonstrated the concept of a “Master curve” by copying and pasting keys from one spline to another, then adjusting the pasted spline for its new component in the Graph Editor. A way of speeding up his animation workflow.
  • This article discusses drawbacks to the layered animation approach.

The 4.5th Principle of Animation

Layered animation is a workflow, just as, in Disney’s 12 Principles of Animation, “straight ahead and pose-to-pose” are two approaches to animation in principle four. I already had an idea of what layered animation was before the weekend, as I’d used motion capture for my Skyleigh TRANSFORM!! film. There I had a cleaned-up, motion captured base layer, on top of which I additively animated further layers; facial expressions, hand gestures, foot motion, and more. Maya’s animation layers feature helped a lot with this. However, Mike demonstrated his layered animation technique without making a single Maya animation layer.

Richard Williams’ diagram illustrating the pose-to-pose animation paradigm.

Shawn Kelly (one of the Animation Mentor founders) explains the essence of a layered animation workflow in his opening paragraph from this blog post on the topic:

“Layered animation generally refers to the idea of blocking in one part or section of the body at a time. One example would be animating the up/down of the hips in a walk first, and nailing down that timing since it’s going to affect every other aspect of the walk. Once you have that, you could then do another ‘layer’ of animation by animating the torso of the character. Maybe then you’d do the feet. Then the arms and wrists. Then the head. All of those layers will combine to form one walk.

Later on I’ll explain how Mike’s demonstrations showed this concept of layers of animation combining into a whole taken to a different level. But the core idea is the same.

The following video conveys how one layered approach to animation works in action:

The layered approach seems to be more common for animating walk cycles, run cycles, etc. On the animation classes section of Virginie Michel d’Annoville’s website, she teaches the layered approach for biped walk and quadruped gallop cycles, but walks the student through a pose-to-pose workflow for animating an acting performance.

If you imagine your timeline in Maya (or 3DSMax, Motionbuilder, Blender etc.) being like the length of a rectangular layered cake, the process of building up your animation in a layered fashion would be laying the base layer of sponge cake, then spreading on chocolate cream, then layering chocolate sauce, then layering another sponge… and so on building up your animation.

In this analogy the length of the layered cake represents your animation timeline… Pose-to-pose would be… more like trying to build the cake with slices and gaps, then filling in the gaps?

Characteristics of Mike’s layered animation technique

As I discuss layered animation for character performance, I’ll highlight a number of characteristics to Mike’s approach that stood out as aiding in the application of a layered workflow to a performance. During the live demonstrations in Maya he explained what he was doing step-by-step, suitable for 3D animation newcomers to understand, but demonstrating the precision in his way of working.

Mike primarily worked in Maya’s Graph Editor rather than the controllers in the viewport (or in a 2D “picker”) of whatever rig he was using. He recommended Aaron Koressel’s Maya workflow scripts for manipulating keys in the Graph Editor more conveniently, enabling him to work more efficiently. [UPDATE: I'm still constantly using several Koressel scripts assigned to hotkeys in my work as a full-time games animator. ~10/11/2019]

A pivotal distinction of the way Mike teaches and uses layered animation is that he treats each individual Graph Editor curve as a “layer”. I had thought of my experience with motion capture as being “layered” because I added a facial animation “layer” to the mocap, then a hands “layer” and so on. That sounds similar to Shawn Kelly’s explanation of “animating the torso … maybe then … the feet”, limb by limb. But Mike looks at each component of a controller separately, as a “layer”, working constantly in the Graph Editor.

Finding Dory © 2016 Disney Pixar

In one of his striking demonstrations Mike opened a scene with a Dory rig and a clip of dialogue. He acted out the dialogue several times through, getting a feel for the acting and envisaging a target performance to animate with the Dory rig. His next step was to identify which controller would most “drive” the performance, and which component on that controller. A good choice might be Translate y (shortened to Ty) on the Root controller. As Mike crafted a spline for Root Ty motion, it was like seeing movements emerge where Dory was convincingly miming the dialogue, albeit in a limited fashion. Next Mike added Tz, building up the motion on the Root controller. With each “layer” being one spline in the Graph Editor, Mike built up the character performance, working from the component giving the most “bang for your buck”, then to the next most impactful, then the next, in an organised fashion.

Not having used this technique I find it hard to imagine being able to engineer good movement in each spline that will add up to an appealing performance. I question how I could imagine just one component’s contribution to a future whole performance, without the context of the other components in motion, too… Mike was very disciplined as he authored splines, eg. making a point that ease in / action / ease out should have keys dividing each section rather than trying to get one curve between keys to do double-duty as, say, both action and ease out. Mike revisited components many times to adjust and tweak them as further components were layered in to the animation. Seeing performances crafted live this way was eye-opening.

This video by Kyle Balda shows the layered animation technique applied to a character performance (watch from 1'40"):

Something Shawn Kelly’s description of layered animation and Mike’s explanation have in common is starting with the main driver of the movement, then the next most important element or component and so on. In another demonstration Mike used the popular Norman rig, starting with Head Ry as the main driver of the performance, rather than starting on the Root. (Mike noted that you need a rig with “head align” for this to work best, or animation you do on the Root after you have animated the Head affects the work you have done on the Head, meaning you need to counter-animate the Head as you work on the Root…) Both animation teachers highlight that you can hide or mute animation layers or parts of the rig you have already worked on, in order to focus on a new part of the process with less distraction.

Mike’s clarity with the Graph Editor seemed vital to reaching an advanced level with a layered animation technique. Personally speaking, the Graph Editor was very intimidating when I was introduced to 3D animation and has become less so with time and practice. I agree with Aaron Koressel calling curves “the building blocks of animation” (see here). It’s very powerful to be able to accurately manipulate the raw material of your animation in detail. Mike emphasised working cleanly with splines, rather than making lots of keys and cleaning them up in a later pass.

It seems like your ability to analyse movement and to break it down in your mind into hierarchical components is another vital skill to getting good with layered animation. Mike linked to this video to show how the classic Disney animators’ work was grounded in skilful movement analysis:

Rough Bambi animation by Milt Kahl, moving volumes in hierarchy drawn-over by Colin Giles.

The “Master curve”: Recycling animation

Mike explained how he speeds up his work by looking out for animation he can reuse. He calls a spline a “Master curve” if it can be used again and again by copying its keys and pasting them to another spline in the Graph Editor. The Koressel scripts mentioned earlier include shortcuts suitable for rapidly manipulating a pasted curve, to modify it so the movements fit on a different component. Specifically Mike showed the use of vertically flipping a curve and changing its amplitude. A simple example of copying and pasting a curve might be animating a character breathing, first by animating a Left Shoulder Ty. The spline from this can then be copied and pasted over to the Right Shoulder Ty. Then it could be pasted to the Chest Scale X, Y, and Z components and adjusted to look appropriate. Perhaps the same curve could be applied to a Head Rotate component to have the character nod subtly along with their breath. Mike copied and pasted “Master curves” to demonstrate how to rapidly build a rich character performance.

Another example was, when animating a mouth to dialogue, layering down the jaw rotation spline, then copying this to the corners of the mouth with a frame or two offset, flipping the spline vertically, if necessary, and amp’ing it up or down to fit. For most times the jaw is open wide, the corners of the mouth should move correspondingly by travelling towards each other, making a stretched mouth shape. But Mike flipped select peaks on the spline when the character was shouting loudly, so the mouth widened as the jaw lowered instead. The stretched mouth shape is physically correct, and the right choice in the right context, but the enlarged mouth shape is emotionally correct, and a better choice, when the context is right for that. Throughout the weekend, as a general animation guideline, Mike taught the audience to go for what’s emotionally correct.

Referring back to the horse gallop layered animation video above, it shows the utility of copying a spline from one component to another, and adding an offset if necessary. Offsetting a pasted animation curve by a frame or two was common as Mike’s demonstrations proceeded at the masterclass.

Are there any drawbacks to layered animation?

Mike was very even in appraising a layered animation approach versus straight ahead versus pose-to-pose. His key critique of his workflow was that, unlike pose-to-pose, layered animation doesn’t emphasise clear, readable silhouette on golden key poses. This makes it arguably less suitable for cartoon-influenced 3D animation. Mike emphasised how energy in motion helps him shape a performance, rather than golden poses. I took this to mean having an intuition for breaking down movement (or body mechanics), as the Bambi video above shows, and for how emotional energy expresses in body language.

Mike’s showreel evidences that a layered animation approach can handle character performance to incredible effect.

It seems to be harder to learn how to use a layered animation approach than other techniques. Shawn Kelly recommends new animators familiarise with pose-to-pose character animation first, and that it’s less appropriate for certain shots, one where the character is fairly static in the frame, for example.

Mike mentioned that layered animators at Pixar are fewer in number than pose-to-pose animators. (Some started out as pose-to-pose animators and learned the layered approach to supplement their technique, learning to switch where desirable.) He mentioned another studio who only use pose-to-pose, in the name of consistency across that studio’s staff.

Getting to grips with layered animation

There was far more to take in during the 18 hours of Mike’s masterclass than just this topic. However I thought it the most unusual element of the weekend and that with the most potential for impact. It’s not a silver bullet and it seems difficult to learn, but with practice it can clearly be very powerful. I’ve tried to detail characteristics of Mike’s technique as he demonstrated and taught that I think have particular synergy with a layered animation process. I hope my notes have clarified this approach to animation, although, once again, it’s nothing compared to seeing a top Pixar animator in action!

It would be interesting to hear from animators who have tried this approach, or who view themselves as  a layered animator. I’d like to hear from you if so, possibly for expanding on this in a future article; please leave a comment or email em [at] emeraldsong [dot] com.

A massive “Thank you!” to Cloudscape Studios, who orchestrated Mike’s visit to Carlisle, and who invited applicants to participate in their four week “School for Gifted Movie-Makers”. Thanks also to Creative Skillset [now called Screenskills ~10/11/2019] for funding the course, where I’ve  learned loads about animation production, storyboarding, lighting, compositing and much, much more!


Short animated film “Skyleigh TRANSFORM!!”

General / 16 September 2016

During my final year of studying and practising 3D animation at Bournemouth University I made a short, "magical girl" genre anime-inspired animated film.

I was motivated by the idea of taking the “transformation sequence” as a template and creating a hero that a young non-white female viewer might feel excited about as a positive representation of “someone like me” on screen. Acknowledging that this was a very personal project, my initial aim was to keep the animation length to about 15 seconds, to counteract the risk I was taking on in tackling all the stages of end-to-end production myself.

Preparations made during pre-production included analysing a number of “magical girl” anime for common themes, visual motifs, and camera and editing styles. Based on this research, and with the design of the hero being refined, I made the following animatic:

During production it became clear that the final film would be more than twice the length of the animatic, especially when motion captured animation turned out to last tens of seconds for just one shot! I made many difficult decisions, including to simplify the character design, so the final film doesn’t feature the skirt and accessories that were intended to emphasise the arcs and rotations of hero Skyleigh during the sequence.


Perhaps what I’m most pleased with in the production is how the care taken with the ZBrush sculpt paid off, with animated Skyleigh looking compelling and alive. It’s deceptively difficult to get a cartoon human looking appealing rather than creepy, and I made a lot of effort to study the best 3D examples, gather valued feedback from tutors and classmates, and iterate on the design and model.


Swordplay sessions at Nine Worlds Geekfest 2015

General / 09 September 2015

posted photos from Nine Worlds Geekfest 2015 on Monday, where I also mentioned the sheer variety of the sessions comprising the programme. There were many options I had to miss because they were scheduled against something even better, but as a guiding principle, I tried to prioritise attending workshops with direct application to my own practice and projects.

One strand of this is medieval combat.

On Saturday I participated in a “Monsterclass” with Sebastien de Castell (author of Traitor’s Blade, the Greatcoats series), and on Sunday a much more open session with David A McIntee (author of numerous Doctor Who licensed novels). Both communicated an ocean of knowledge and experience as writers and historical martial arts practitioners, with de Castell’s session structured to help writers craft fight scenes that vividly convey their characters, and McIntee’s more led by audience Q&A, compelling personal stories, and energetic demonstration.

Here are a few key points I’ve learned that’ll feed into the fight scenes I develop going forwards.

Both de Castell and McIntee recommended video resources. The opener for the Monsterclass was observing two contrasting cinematic fights, one from The Princess Bride, the other from Ridley Scott’s first film, The Duellists. Viewing was punctuated with de Castell announcing stages one to six, a scaffold for building and deconstructing narrative fight scenes. (The stages according to de Castell aren’t the topic of this blog post, but I definitely left feeling I have a more confident handle, through this framework, on how to invest fight scenes with emotional conflict expressed through the action.) McIntee emphasised the growing body of videos available online, recommending searching for HEMA and SCA. (Acronyms standing for Historical European Martial Arts and The Society for Creative Anachronism!)

Here for example is a fight between two master fencers, the “Game Over” moves highlighted red in replay:

I have a sense for the frightening deadliness of sword duelling from reading Richard Cohen’s By the Sword, but hadn’t grasped how this affects the dynamic of combat. Both sessions highlighted how skilled swordspersons will hold back from full-on engagement, as whoever makes the first major move is likely to find their opponent will respond accordingly, exploit how their attack makes them vulnerable, and take them out. Therefore, medieval combat is over very quickly once the fight really begins. For people working in visual media, this means you can’t show the action for very long if you are committed to grounded historical representation. Something to think about… My leaning is away from realistic brevity for key fight scenes in my comics, as I create fiction, after all! This is also my considered response to my influences from anime and manga.

Many of my questions and takeaway points revolved around training for combat. Since my characters would know that typical confrontations are over so quickly, the key qualities these soldiers would need to train are:

  • Reaction time, in order to dodge, and exploit the weaknesses the enemy reveals as they attack
  • For fighting multiple opponents, committing combinations of strikes to “muscle memory”, so a series of blows emerges on the battlefield without pausing to think
  • Sheer stamina and strength
  • Adaptability to fight in non-standard conditions, such as with the off-hand in case of injury, or unarmed combat
  • Combat mindset; un-learning the flinch reaction to being attacked

The spectacle of combat and romance of history attract me to portraying knights and castles, but my desires to convey nuanced and believable characters lead me to telling stories.

Thanks to the convention organisers at Nine Worlds and the session facilitators and workshop leaders for sharing their talent and knowledge and infectious enthusiasm!


Published in “How to Draw Manga Made Easy”

General / 29 June 2015

I’ve moved house lately so, although it was published on 15th May, it was earlier this month that I collected my artist’s copy of How to Draw Manga Made Easy. Last December I had the opportunity to submit some content toward this volume: pieces of artwork and sequential descriptions and images to explain tho process of making each of them. A fantastic list of artists who have decades of professional experience feature in the line-up among the pages here!

emeraldsong artwork is featured in this new book, published May 2015

How to Draw Manga Made Easy is unusual because it’s a collection of artists, each speaking with their own voice about personal processes. I don’t think there’s anything else quite like it out there, and it was fun to glean from their descriptions how each individual’s method is tailored for their own particular style and preference. It also breaks down the preconception that there is any one method! For example, some artists create the pencil sketches for their pieces digitally, and then print out to ink using traditional methods, while others sketch by hand and then scan the pencilled base drawing in to ink in a program like Clip Studio Paint. (As it happens, I’ve been weighing up pros and cons for digitally sketching and inking using dip pens, and I think it’s down to my own preference rather than any way being definitively “better”.

Flame Tree Publishing have a range of books in their Art & Design section, with a notable line in genre arts drawing instruction and collected artists’ showcases. (Eg. Dragon Art, Steampunk…) With any luck I’ll catch them at a future event, hoping to browse some of their attractive titles.

Here are some links to the online galleries and blogs of other artists featured:

[UPDATE: Drawing Basics Made Easy which was published in October the same year as How to Draw Manga Made Easy also featured two new illustrations of mine with guidance on topics like photo reference, studying animal subjects and colour palette choice. ~11/11/2019]


“Ye Olde Axe” Published!

General / 05 October 2013

An anthology of London-based comics creators’ stories

For much of this year I’ve collaborated on organising events and workshops with the WIP Comics meetup group with some other plucky volunteers. September marked the achievement of a real milestone: Publishing our group’s anthology, Ye Olde Axe. I had felt that participating in the organisation of workshops and feedback sessions through March to August was plenty, yet while I declined to have a direct hand in the process that it’s taken for printed books to materialise, I’m really proud of the group’s accomplishments and applaud intrepid editor Matthew Duncan for steering it through.

The unusual unifying factor across the diverse contributions is a building in Shoreditch, the anthology’s namesake Axe. I get a little creep of a horror vibe from many of the stories, though genres span comedy, parody, action, fantasy, gag strips, slice-of-life and more. There are some real gems inside, my favourite is best described as Cthulhu meets Monty Python!

I hear that some copies are wending their way over to Gosh! Comics on Berwick Street, so please have a look if you get a chance!

Cover artwork by the talented Tim Hassan.