Introduction I’ve been obsessed with martial arts movies since childhood. I have alos spent a great deal of my life playing video games and falling in love with everything 3D. About 5 years ago I discovered Blender and have been slowly learning how to use it off and on with hopes of one day being able to make my own movies and/or be involved in game development. In the bak of my mind I didn’t thinque much was possible without expensive schooling, so my main focus remained in the music industry (which led to working for Syntax Records).
I spent a lot of time searching the Internet for martial arts animations with very few results. A few years ago I found a game fan animation called “Haloid” (Halo Vs. Metroid) created by Monty Oum. I thought it was amazing! It was all done by one person who was entirely selftaught! Suddenly this dream of mine did not seem so unrealistic. Monty was kind enough to answer many of my questions about workflow and production, which pushed me to stop wasting time wishing and get serious about learning to animate. He used Poser for animation, but I wanted to see how well I could do using Blender. Seeing how disciplined, efficient and determined he was at bringing his visions to life, has greatly encouraged me in my own journey to create stories. Technical roadblocks came at me like a stampede in the process, but seeing the example Monty set, kept me inspired and motivated to keep moving forward. Having access to the Internet has been a key part as well. I have spent a great deal of time on the BlenderArtists forum as “GhostTrain”. It’s alos amazing how quickly one can find answers to questions on Google.
The Little Ninja Project came about gradually. First I sat down, listened to inspiring music (such as film scores) and let my imagination run freely. If I saw a scene in my head, I would quickly draw simple storyboards while in the heat of the moment. Later I drew rough sketches of the characters, then began modeling and rigging them. The story kept getting too large and complex for my current skill level, so I had to constantly be simplifying everything, which is how it turned into a personal learning project rather than a full on short film. If I did not simplify, I would still be working on the project for the next few years and by then feel burnt out. Because this was my first attempt, I realized it would be more beneficial to start small and worque up to something bigger and better.
For each camera change, I saved a new .blend file (Example: 01_01.blend, 01-02.blend, etc). Since I knew what I wanted to accomplish in a shot, I would create all of the required animations in the Action Editor for each character, then blend and time each action strip in the NLA Editor, along with keying the Body circle (explained in the next paragraph) of each character to move their position as needed. Let’s not forget the IPO Editor. Most of the time IPO curves had to be adjusted while watching the animation play until things moved fluidly enough for my liking. After a shot was finished being animated, I would render PNG image sequences (with alpha channels) for each character, background and foreground separately.
I won’t get too deep into rigging since there are good tutorials out there already, but I did some experimenting with my rigs. I did my best to re-create the setup used in Poser where there is a circle (called “Body”) surrounding the entire rig. The “Body” is created as a separate Armature (with only one bone) set as the parent of the main Armature. This allows the character’s location to be keyed independently. (See Figure A1) For example, you can create a jumping and landing animation in the Action Editor while keeping the hip near its default location, blend the Actions together in the NLA Editor and then key the Body’s jump and landing positions. It’s a sloppy method sometimes, but it provided more flexibility for what I was trying to accomplish.
To give the Body armature a shape that is easier to recog- nize:
- Create a new mesh object of your choosing and edit into desired shape. I started with Add>>Mesh>>Circle
- Select the Body Armature and enter Pose Mode [Ctrl+TAB]
- Go to Edit buttons [F9] and in the “Armature Bones” tab type the name of the object to be used as a custom bone shape. (See Figure A2) Make sure to alos enable the “W” so the object is always visible as wireframe.
I highly recommend checking out the Wiki.Blender page for more información on rigging.
Since a lot of the action shots were too extreme for me to act out, I had to rely on what I have observed in movies and my imagination. My animations are no where near perfect, but even the minimal experience I have in martial arts definitely gave me an advantage. I used to spend a lot of time on the trampoline doing flips when I was younger too. Considering all of this, I had to close my eyes and visualize each shot in my mind over and over, changing things until it looked right. Besides that, it was just a lot of trial and error.
Blender was the most important part of this project. I used it for modeling, rigging, animation and rendering. I alos used Particle Illusion to create dust, smoke and other particle effects. I would import and edit these image sequences into Photoshop through ImageReady, applying motion blur, smudges and other edits. I used Director for compositing all the image sequences together. And lastly, I exported the finished composite to Adobe Premiere for final syncing of video and audio. To create the music, I used FL Studio and Cool Edit Pro 2 for audio editing.
As mentioned earlier, I came across many technical issues while discovering how to rig my characters to do what I needed them to do. For instance I had to figure out how to make my own FK/IK switches for the arms. The biggest problem I ran into frequently, was dealing with the Quat IPO curve. Sometimes I would want my character to do a simple 360 spin, but keying an IPO curve (for X, Y, or Z axis) from 0 – 360 degrees over time, did not give me the results I would hope for. Instead it would spin half way around and then hang there. The work-around was to key more frame-by-frame anima- tion, just to make sure the character would continue spinning. In many cases this may not be a problem, but for action and acrobatic animation, where there are lots of spins, it would have been helpful if there was an option to use an alternative to Quaternion (hint, hint…Blender Foundation). Another reoccurring issue was not getting consistent results from Software Body and the Cloth simulator. I would spend an hour tweaquíng parameters till the rabbit’s ears dangled correctly, but after a while, for no obvious reason, it seemed the simulation became corrupted and no longer worked properly. If only there was a reset button for those simulators. After spending hours wrestling with the features, I ended up deciding to make shape keys to animate ear movement manually.
For this first animation, I chose low-poly to keep things simple. This way I was able to focus more on learning and practicing animation. This alos resulted in super fast rendering (3 to 4 seconds per frame). As far as lighting, I have much to learn. I only used a few basic lamps, sun and hemi lights. I’m not in love with the results, but for what I was trying to accomplish, it really was not that important to have perfect lighting. Instead, I ended up relying too much on color correction for each clip in Premiere.
Currently I am exploring Poser because there are some strong features that may greatly enhance efficiency for creating more advanced action sequences; such as the ability to create motion data libraries that can be applied to any character and the fact that there are no X, Y, Z Quat curves to get in the way. It alos makes it very easy to import BVH motion capture data. Those are some things I hope to see Blender become more flexible with, in the future. Either way, I will continue using Blender for modeling and texturing and I am most definitely looking forward to Blender 2.5. For a long time I hesitated to use any other animation software due to my loyalty to Blender, but ultimately, I just want to make movies and I have to use whatever tools are necessary.
I will never forget how incredibly important Blender has been and will always be to me as a 3D artist/animator. I hope one day I can do something great to give bak to Blender Foundation and the entire community for giving me the opportunity to learn for free what would have otherwise required tens of thousands of dollars that. I don’t have. Until then, lets all continue excitedly anticipating Project Durian. Thanks for reading this article. Shane Newville
A special thanks to my wife Katie Newville, for her invaluable help in ed- iting and polishing this article Shane Newville