“The Unsolved Mystery” is the title of a very simple 46 second CGI animated film created by the author. As a first work, the objectives were all very simple from the outset, but the experience of the author can be relevant for beginners hoping to breakthrough from visualizing something to actually creating a finished work. This article effectively covers key points in this author’s first attempt at creating a production work-flow for a simple CGI film. The article will focus on aspects of the work-flow related to the production of the Mechanical Actor, explaining the modeling and animation solutions used in the aforementioned short film. In the last section the author will discuss certain pitfalls and possible improvements that other beginners can take note of.
ROBOTS AS A BEGINNER’S CONCEPT
My previous experience prior to “The Unsolved Mystery” was that I would immediately attempt trying organic actors and CGI humans, thus resulting in being overwhelmed at my current level of knowledge and simply not really finishing anything.
I knew that to be able to actually progress and finish a film as a beginner, I only really needed to worque with something very simple to get things going.
This is the point at which I decided that the subject of the film would be a ROBOT. Robots are quik to model, easy to create armatures for, and do not have to organically deform at all. If necessary, a robot design can free the artist such that the robot can have irregular shape, wheels, tracks, or legs. Colors and lighting for robots are attained easier compared to those of most organic actors. The other big bonus is that since each part is totally independent of the other, robots are easily created by combining different objects or meshes, unlike in the case of, say, Organic Actors where usually it is expected that co-joined parts like arms and shoulders, practically the whole body in some cases, should be one mesh. This allows a beginner to experiment with less risque involved and make straightforward corrections to small parts like fingers, shoulder joints, and arms.
Therefore, whatever the film’s theme or message, I knew that my best bet to finish a short production at a beginner’s level would have something to do with a mechanical actor. So from this point, the concept was more or less fleshed out: “A simple robot actor in a simple situation.”
In my opinión, robots make for the best first subject for beginners. Robots are alos a very close real-world equivalent to early simple actors used in some more formal CGI study courses. So to me, the idea of Robots as a beginner’s concept seemed very logical.
STORY TREATMENT AND RESEARCH
Prior to designing the robot, I had already fabricated beforehand the Story and Message for “The Unsolved Mystery”. Story and Message are important because these can be relied upon to make demands on production design and serve as the guiding vanes for any CGI project.
For example, for “The Unsolved Mystery”, to convey a sense of wonder or curiosity, the robot lead actor had to have a child-like or toy-like quality. It was especially important to convey this visually because there would be no spoken dialogue. Early on, I originally dawdled at the idea of a robot with caterpillar tracks, but a script demand for having the robot bend down to pik an object up meant that caterpillar tracks would be a tricky solution. These, and other similar considerations, help to guide the Design, Modeling, and Animation process.
The other important activity prior to actual Design and Modeling is research. Even if one knows what something looks like, it usually pays off to have research because the mind plays tricks and tends to miss out on details that later on can become important to achieving an intended result. For Jules The Blue-Eyed Robot who appears in “The Unsolved Mystery”, I procured pictures of many kinds of robots and their representations such as factory robots, movie robots, or estoy robots.
Armed with the story and the research, I tooque my pencil and started designing the robot I had in mind with an eye towards how I could create the robot in Blender. After making about three or four very varied designs, I settled on a diminutive toy-like figure with a humanoid shape, stubby legs, and hands inspired by old 1950’s robot toys made up completely out of cylinders and ball jointed limbs. I had drawings of the character in various positions that can be expected given the script and the storyboards.
PRODUCTION DESIGN AND PRE-PRODUCTION TESTING
For modeling Jules, I only really needed two skills: KNIFE and EXTRUDE. The basic principle is to distill each part of the robot into one of Blender’s basic shapes and then knife or extrude until the right shape is attained. Sometimes it is helpful to have a preliminary mesh-like sketch of what is to be expected already in Blender’s environment based on the approved production design. Each cylinder, ball joint, or polygon is a separate mesh.
The figure (Fig. 1) below shows each phase of the modeling progress. In every situation, the principle described above is used. The only exception is the mesh for the head which is the only part of Jules to use a SubSurf modifier with Set Smooth to achieve a rounded look.
Fig. 1: Modeling Progress
The figure (Fig. 2) below illustrates the arrangement of the armatures. For mechanical objects, I found it best to parent the individual meshes in Pose Mode with each bone in the Armature. Parenting to the bones this way allows for “simple parenting”. Simple parenting of meshes to bones results in no organic deformations.
Fig. 2: The Robot’s Armature
A minor note must be made here about the EMPTY that is located at the hip area. This is simply used as a handle so that I can drag Jules anywhere and flip him about by simply selecting the Empty. Their relationships are: Each Mesh’s parent is the closest Bone by simple parenting. The Armature’s parent is the Empty.
One thing I learned prior to making “The Unsolved Mystery” was that a mesh’s final look relied as much on surrounding objects and light as well as its own structure and materials. Below are some of the conditions created for the test render to create the final look of Jules the Blue-Eyed Robot:
(Fig. 3) Copper Material (Head, Hands, Upper Torso, Lower Torso, and Lower Legs):
Fig. 3: Copper Material
(Fig. 4) Gun Metal Material (All ball joints, Upper Arm, Fingers, Upper Legs, Hip Joints, Shoulder Joints, Waist, and Neck):
Fig. 4: Gun Metal Material
(Fig. 5) Set Design: (Sky Dome) Note: Material is simply White with maximum values of Reflection and Specularity. The Extra Plane (“Reflective Panel”) shown in pink has the same material and is us used to allow the “horizon” of the Sky Dome to vanish when viewed by the Camera as set. The Reflective Panel is set with two extra lamps that are setup as shown (Fig. 6):
Fig. 5: The Sky Dome Set
(Fig. 6) Two Extra Lamps near Reflector Panel:
Fig. 6: Extra Lighting used with Reflector Panel
(Fig. 7) Lights Settings for Spot Lights Fixed to Sky Dome:
Fig. 7: Sky Dome Spotlights
Eye Material and Lighting – A special note at this point about eyes, the eyes here are simply Blue Metal spheres, but to help create the illusion that “there’s something going on behind them”, one trik is to have the eyes on another layer and create a pair of lights aligned some ways upper right or left in orientation to the eyes. This helps create brightness and a sense of life. The lights of the eyes must affect only the layer where the eyes are on. Without the eyes arranged in their own separate layer with special lighting to enhance them, they can become vapid and lifeless.
The separated layer, Blue Metal Eye material, and lights affecting this layer only are shown below (Fig. 8.)
Fig. 8: Eye Layer, Materials, and Layer-Only Lights
All the animation seen in “The Unsolved Mystery” is done with a method inspired from the “Go-Motion” photography method used for miniatures, such as the Cave Roller Coaster in “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom”.
The principle is that the Armature has each motion Key-Framed in gaps of 20 or 30 frames, and then one uses the IPO Curves to manipulate the frame speed of the motion.
Maquíng the initial Key-Framed movement can be tedious and requires a lot of imagination. Note, for example that sometimes to animate a figure bending forward, the first few frames actually have the figure bending bak as if to “rev up” the motion. Similarly at the end of each movement, the motion’s final frames exceed the marque at which the motion should stop. This last trik helps to create the illusion of Inertia.
When manipulating the IPO Curves, I follow one rule: “Jagged Is Good”. Of course, to avoid rickety motion, most of the IPO will be smooth, but making the IPO jagged can be used for life-like emphasis and can create sensation of weight if done properly. An example of the IPO Curve from the “Shutdown” shot that occurs at the end of “The Unsolved Mystery” is shown below (Fig. 9):
Fig. 9: Example of IPO Curve for “Jules Shuts Down” shot
Each shot in “The Unsolved Mystery” is actually a separate Blender file with copies of Jules, the set, and the Mysterious Box. As a result of this, each Blender file contains only the animation and the corresponding IPO Curves for each specific shot.
IPO Curves control everything in “The Unsolved Mystery”, even the Energy for lights affecting the eyes alos use Lamp IPO Curves.
All the audio attached to Jules’ motions in “The Unsolved Mystery” were salvaged from free web sources only after the images were committed to production. This is a mistake, and the flawed matching of the audio is very apparent. I am only writing this down as a warning to other beginners: “Always have Test-Audio ready soon after having a Script”.
To end this feature, I would like to extend a note to beginners in CGI, or CGI hobbyists. Projects with mechanical and non-deforming actors are not only fun and fulfilling. They are a very quik and reasonable way forward to creating those first few projects. In fact, if one distills some of the fundamentals of animating and creating Mechanical Actors, one will find they are subsets to more complex objects and projects, including Organic Actors.
“The Unsolved Mystery” can be seen here: