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Animating a Talking Mask

In my 15 months working for OtherSide Entertainment on Underworld Ascendant, I created whole animation sets for at least 10 different characters and creatures.  There were undead skeletons, lizard men, ghosts, even a massive slug.  All fun stuff.

However, one of the tasks I enjoyed the most was making a static mask move as though it was speaking.  I love bringing simple, inanimate objects to life.  Plus, this gave me a very focused way to practice and study head movement during dialog.  I found it fascinating.

With over 4 minutes of dialog to animate and a limited time frame, I knew I had to be pretty efficient.  I didn’t want to just jump in and make it move around as though it was speaking.  I wanted to try to get across some of the sub-text of what Cabirus was saying as well as how he was speaking.

For me, that process always starts with recording myself delivering the lines.  I shot multiple takes of each phrase and then cherry-picked what I thought was the best performance, often editing clips together.  Click on the image above to view reference with the finished animation.

When animating, I quickly settled on a very different approach to my usual ‘pose-to-pose’ method.  Moving straightforward through the reference, I would key one transform at a pass.  That means that I would start by just keying the head translation in Z – to and away from the camera.  Then, separately, I keyed Z rotation (side to side tilt), Y rotation (twisting) and X (nodding).

At this point, I would stop to do a quick, overall polish pass.  I would push any extremes and adjust timing to give the performance as much life as possible, without going over the top.  I would also focus on making sure the nose and chin were following nice arcs.  I would wait to adjust the overall timing to better match the dialog until the very end so I could more easily follow the reference.

Then, I would key the Y and X translations – up and down, side to side.  These translations really helped give life to the mask and make it seem like maybe it wasn’t so disembodied after all.  Finally, I would slide the keys around a bit so the movement better matched and accentuated the dialog, punch things up a bit more and remove any sort of hiccups in the movement.

I found that by keying each transform individually, the masked moved more like our own heads do when we talk.  Sure, the movement is all coming from a single point, but not every rotation hits extremes at the exact same time.  Things are offset a bit.  By focusing on each one individually, the offsets are built right in to the initial animation and I could move quickly through the set  while still creating a good performance.

A seemingly simple task, but an enjoyable one and a great exercise in head movement.  I can’t wait to apply this technique to a talking head that’s actually attached to something.


Hometown Visit

Yesterday, I made a quick, nostalgic trip to my hometown of Lewiston, Maine.  I had hoped to take plenty of photos of all the places that fill my memories, but didn’t manage to do that.  I think I was just enjoying the moment too much to make an art project out of it.  Anyway, here’s the best I could come up with.


Forward to the Past

I’m excited to let you know that my personal project, 1979, is now ready for production and up on Artella.com .  First, is the search for an illustrator to draw all of the characters in the music video.  Then it will be up to me to make the paper cutout puppets out of the drawings and then animate them.  It will be a completely different challenge for me, but this is an idea that’s been burning in me for a while, so I can’t wait to finally realize it.

You can follow the process here.

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FlexShopper T-Flex Holiday Spot

I had a great time working on this spot with Brickyard VFX.  It was up to me to take the dialog and action notes to break it up into shots, set the camera and action within each action, fine-tuning with feedback from Brickyard and the client.  Then, I got to work with the modeler/rigger on developing a strong rig that could be used for this and future spots.  I always take great pleasure in telling riggers what to do.

Last but certainly not least, was animating this fun, t-rex character.  It was a good challenge to determine how he should move and to strike a balance between realistic and cartoony.  As noted, I animated the first three T-Flex shots and Ed Hull animated the last two.


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Hardees & Cheetos – Thickburger Spot

I have yet to try adding Cheetos to my hamburger, but I did have fun working on this spot.  Again, working as Lead for Brickyard and with the very talented animator, Ed Hull, we churned this one out in record time.  The most challenging shot, weird as it may seem, was Chester behind the bun rack and deciding what his reaction would be once he was revealed.  For some reason, we just couldn’t nail down the right response.  I’m happy with the one we ended up with.


It was easily one of the scariest moments of my life.  The weather was changing from hot and humid to a cool, dry September day, requiring a powerful transition.  On Sunday morning, the wind started picking up so I went out to the backyard to roll down the patio umbrella.  As I did so, the umbrella was caught by the wind and started leaning in one direction.  In the next moment, it was leaning in the opposite direction.  My only thought was, ‘Uh oh.’

I raced inside just as the first tree came crashing down at the edge of the backyard.  Then another.  Then another.  I stood, mesmerized by terror as I felt this beast move from the backyard, down the space between our house and the neighbor’s house and out into the street before evaporating.  We had no time to react.  No time to run into the basement for safety.  I just stood at one end of the house waiting for I don’t know what – the other end of the house to get ripped off?  It seemed a strong possibility in that moment.  Surely, a tree or large branch would come crashing down through that side of the house.  All the trees falling over somehow missed the house.

The most haunting feeling I had was that this ‘thing’ had a presence.  It was a beast.  It moved quickly, but not so quickly you couldn’t track it’s movement.  I’ll never forget it.

In the aftermath, even though over fifty trees were either uprooted or snapped in half and discarded, there was very little property damage to the four houses in its path and, thankfully, no injuries.  Our neighbor’s shed was destroyed and cleanup will take months, but if that’s the worst after experiencing a tornado, I’ll take it.