Here's an older post that still gets a lot of views - thought it was time to polish it a bit and put it on top of the pile.
The agency likes what you do - that's why they've called you in to take a brief, but they need to be confident your vision for their TV commercial is aligned with what they want. They might ask you to write a Treatment. A Treatment is a pitch - a selling document to win across the agency and client to your vision for their ad. It's your opportunity to show that you totally understand the advertiser's requirement and that you are able to deliver it in the most compelling way.
1. Listen up
Ask a lot of questions so that the brief is crystal clear. Try to gauge how flexible the agency is about the story and visual style. This is important - the amount of creative freedom you have on a TVC can vary. Some briefs will be very specific, with little room for additional creative input. While at the other extreme the agency will have one of those "no idea" briefs that's gonna rely on your creative chops to flesh it out and make them look awesome. Understand who your audience is. Find out what the client likes - and doesn't. Find out if it's gonna roll out on social media as well - this may influence your storytelling.
2. Is the ad Story or Spectacle?
If it's story then it should have a beginning, middle and end, with at least one character. The objective of story is to engage the audience with a plot that resolves at the end with the advertiser's message embedded. If it's spectacle there is no story - the ad is eye candy that relies on attracting the audience's attention with appealing visuals and sounds. In a spectacle the audience is a spectator, unlike story where the audience is a participant. Story doesn't need visual extravagance to engage the audience - but if you're not telling a story then each shot has to be more interesting than the previous one to keep your audience on board.
3. Get your story essentials in place
All stories must have a CHARACTER that the audience can identify with. The character should have a GOAL - he/she/it wants something. Finally there should be CONFLICT - an obstacle to the character getting what she wants, which must be overcome. STRUCTURE is equally important. The beginning is where the character is introduced and the setting is established. Then a problem or incident moves the story to the middle part, where obstacles are overcome. Finally the story resolves and the character is much happier now that (thanks to the product) the problem is solved. Cue the logo and park it for the last second. If your TV commercial has these basic story elements in place, you're in good shape.
Ask yourself these questions - will it fit into the duration you have to work with? Can it be funnier/scarier/more dramatic/whatever? Can I withhold some information from the audience until the end to give them a surprise? Is the main character appealing enough? Raise the stakes - what will happen if he can't get what he wants? Will the audience connect with him/her/it? Could I add a prop or setting that makes the story more interesting? What about the technique and visual style - how can I make it look original/quirky/retro/ whatever. Search for images and videos for inspiration. Identify a theme - a single word that embodies what the story is really about - this can be a useful guide to keep you on track.
5. Getting it down
Start with a brief recap of the objective of the commercial, and how your treatment will get the desired result. Reassure the client how this commercial will integrate with existing content and branding. Give the impression you know the product and what it stands for - but don't over analyse this - the client knows their product way better than you do. Write with confidence and with intention to influence - make it a good read - inject it with your personality - don't be too formal.
Next take the reader through the story beat-by-beat (a beat is the smallest element of a story). Write in such a way that the reader can visualise it. Don't get technical with descriptions of camera angles or visual effects - just tell the story as it is. If your treatment is a spectacle, then keep the description brief because a MOOD BOARD (see next point) will better describe what you want to say.
Write about how your proposed visual style will give the commercial a unique look, and make it stand out. Mention the colour palette - the three main colours that will dominate the commercial to give it a certain look or mood, and how it fits with the brand. If there's a special technique you are proposing, this could be the place to get a little technical (don't overdo it) about something unique you are bringing to the spot that's going to make it special.
Write about the sound. Is there a VO (voice over)? Why - and what kind of voice? Will there be music - what kind? Will the music drive the commercial or will it be used subtly, as sound design, to accent story moments? How will the sound and the visuals integrate to work together?
Explain how it will also work across social media - if that's part of the media plan.
There should be only one main message in a TV commercial. Your client might insist on trying to squeeze 10 product benefits into 30 seconds - this never ends well. An agency worth their salt will back you up on this one. And keep it brief - one or two pages.
Finally, close with a short summary to wrap up your treatment and drive home that you and your team are going to make this commercial a hit.
6. Make a Mood Board
A Mood Board is a montage of images you have borrowed from the internet, that create an impression of the visual style, colour scheme and brand values that you want to bring to the commercial. Your mood board might be one or more full pages of your PDF document. It might be projected at a pre-production meeting. The design of the document itself is a statement about the aesthetic you are bringing to the project - so make it look good.
Author: Steve Bristow lectures in Story and Screen Language, has screen credits as a Director, Creator and Story Editor, and has produced or directed hundreds of TV commercials and web videos.
Here’s a handy list I put together originally for the Malaysian artists on the Saladin TV series, then later expanded and updated for the animation teams on the Sherazade TV series - who were spread across India. With so many animators of different backgrounds and skill levels spread across the country - we had to get them on the same page when it came to facial animation.
STAGE EXPRESSIONS CLEARLY
1. Make strong poses (expressions) - animated character expressions are more exaggerated than human expressions.
2. Hold the pose - allow it to change in intensity if the dialog or situation calls for it, but don't change the pose until it is time to go to the next pose.
3. Don't overdo movement on the face - keep the expressions clear and simple. Once you have created an expression hold it while the mouth moves for the dialog.
4. Make sure the poses are different enough to notice the change of expression - the poses should contrast to show the character's thought process at work.
5. Make sure the audience notices the change of expression - don't change an expression during a fast body movement, change it just before or just after the movement.
6. Be careful not to hide expressions behind a big nose, moustache or unfavourable orientation to the camera.
7. Do not let the expression conflict with the dialog. The expression must reflect the emotion in the dialog.
8. Have you created the optimum expression - are all parts of the face working together to relate this one thought - the brows, eyes, eyelids and mouth?
9. Generally avoid symmetrical expressions. A character's personality will come across better with asymmetrical expression quirks such as a curled lip or a raised eyebrow.
10. Remember the face is only one part of the whole - the expression must be captured throughout the whole body.
11. Tilting the head is powerful way to make a pose stronger. Tilting to one side will improve a questioning or curious expression. Tilting forward will improve a stern or serious expression. Tilting back will improve a surprised expression.
12. Tilting the head the wrong way will weaken a pose. For example avoid looking up for a frown. A slight tilt down will make a frown more powerful. A head that tilts down during a smile will change the meaning from a friendly smile to a sinister smile.
13. The duration of an expression change is important - an excitable fast-talking character will change expressions quickly. A sinister devious character might change expressions slowly.
14. The duration of an eye blink is an indicator of emotion. An excited character will blink quickly, a tired or sinister character will blink slower.
15. The thought is slightly ahead of the dialog. So actions (manifestation of thought) will generally precede dialog by a few frames. For example a head-turn will precede accompanying dialog…
16. …and eyeballs move as fast as thoughts - so an eyeball turn will precede the accompanying head turn by a few frames. Eyeballs always lead any change in expression.
THE EYES ARE THE WINDOW TO THE SOUL
17. Use eye blinks on the expression changes, eye direction changes and head turns.
18. Ensure eye direction is accurate. In 3D animation, constraining the eyeballs to the target with a locator may not necessarily give the best result. Use what looks right rather than what is geometrically correct.
19. Eye direction can indicate the thought process: Eyes looking up and to the left or right indicate remembering an event or trying to recall an image or incident.
20. Eyes looking to the left or right indicate recalling something that was said or trying to think of something to say.
21. Eyes looking down to the left or right indicate some internal dialog where an emotion is being held inside, such as embarrassment, sadness or shyness.
22. Eyeball scanning is another way to indicate thinking (life!). When eyeballs look in a direction they seldom stay still for long. Eyeballs will subconsciously scan their subject with a quick small movement to a new position, stop for a while then move again, and so on. Some animators call these 'eye darts'.
23. An exception to the scanning eyeball is for a character who is focussed, driven or in concentration. It is better to hold a stare for this character to create more intensity.
24. The mouth, as well as performing dialog is also an indicator of emotion. Anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise can all be expressed with the mouth. Avoid symmetrical timing and poses - let one side of the mouth lead the other to resolve to an asymmetrical pose for a more natural look.
25. The position of the brows probably convey more information about an emotion than any other part of the face. Utilise them fully to extract the most emotion out of your character. Avoid symmetry in timing and posing.
EVERYONE IS AN EXPRESSION EXPERT
We humans naturally understand and communicate with expressions. Since we were children we learned to associate certain emotions with certain expressions. In our daily lives as adults we are engaged in a continual dialog of communications of which expressions form an integral part. We are all experts in interpreting expressions. For this reason, even the slightest discrepancy in your facial animation will be noticed by your intuitively expert audience, diminishing the performance. Your own face is the very best resource for experimenting with expressions before committing them into key poses in an animation. Use a mirror to rehearse and try different expressions when working with your dialog track.
By Steve Bristow
Image from Sherazade The Untold Stories, initially developed by Hahn Film.
©2017 Hahn Film | Chocolate Liberation Front | Toonz Entertainment
Is there a missing 13th principle of animation? Why does this fundamental truth about animation fly so much under the radar? Let me explain…
The animator's goal is to make a connection with the audience - a connection so strong that the audience with empathise with - or share the feelings and thoughts of a character. Wait a minute…thoughts?…feelings?…only living things can think, right? So that means before any serious entertainment can take place, the audience must believe the character is alive.
Okay so what is it specifically that animated characters do that makes an audience believe they are alive? Is it the quality of the motion - will an audience 'connect' with a perfectly crafted walk cycle? Is it a compelling pose - will an audience empathise with a well executed expression? No - and here's the thing - a character is only truly 'alive' and therefore able to connect to an audience when it thinks, or at least…when the audience believes the character is thinking
And don't take my word for it - Ollie Johnston said in his famous book "It is the thinking that gives the illusion of life". While the overall performance is important - the face is the most powerful indicator of what a character is thinking or feeling. A strong facial expression in itself can convey an emotion, but not thinking. So here's my proposed 13th principle - the thing that conveys that a character is thinking is…
CHANGE OF EXPRESSION
The central concept of facial animation is that for each single thought there is one expression, and while it can change in intensity it will not change in feeling. When a character gets a new thought or has a realisation about something, she will change to a new expression, indicating that thinking has taken place. So...change of expression = thinking = life!
Here's the essentials to make thinking (and therefore life) happen…
1. KNOW THE CHARACTER
Before you can make a character think, you must know her. If you thoroughly understand the personality of the character, then you will know how she thinks, and combined with the emotional cues within the dialog you will be able to make decisions about what those changes of expression could look like.
2. STRONG POSES
In the same way that animators create strong poses for characters, and the changes from key pose to key pose propel the audience through the character's performance, the face must also move through strong poses or expressions.
3. BREAK DOWN THE SCENE TO FIND THE EXPRESSION CHANGES
If there's dialog, listen to the track. A typical scene might be a few seconds long. During those few seconds identify the thoughts driving the dialog. Ask yourself these two questions - how many thoughts are there in the dialog, and where are the changes of thought? These are the places where the expression will change.
Maybe you already do this intuitively. So look for opportunities to show a change of expression when you are storyboarding or animating, and your characters will come alive.
By Steve Bristow
Images from Sherazade The Untold Stories, initially developed by Hahn Film.
©2017 Hahn Film | Chocolate Liberation Front | Toonz Entertainment
Lip sync can make or break your character animation - done well it can take your character's performance to another level - done badly it can turn your shot into a train wreck. This post is for the animator who submitted the offending shot, and the producer or director who can see that it's not working but aren't sure what's wrong with it.
1. The dialog seems too early or late
I've seen it happen more than once where the dialog has accidentally been nudged along the timeline a few frames - so my first take on this would be to slip the dialog track back and forth on the timeline and see if it falls back into sync.
Offsetting the lip sync can actually help - sometimes the mouth shapes may be accurately timed to the dialog sounds, but it still doesn't seem to be in sync when played back. Try offsetting the mouth key poses a frame or two earlier than the corresponding sound - this can improve the readability of lip sync. The exception is the closed mouth sounds B, M and P, which should fall right on the closed mouth pose.
2. The mouth shapes are too big
If the character's mouth moves through BIG shapes for open mouth sounds like A, E and O - this can look pretty grotesque. An animator tackling lip sync for the first time might have referenced a mouth shape chart like Preston Blair's famous 'DIALOGUE' page and created key mouth poses that are oversized. Lip sync mouth shape charts often show exaggerated poses - to make the point, rather than to be followed verbatim. Scale down the size of the extremes of the mouth shape and try it again.
BTW - that single page was the only published document on lip-sync pre-internet days, and a generation of animators owe a debt of gratitude to Preston Blair (RIP) for getting them out of trouble.
3. Too many mouth shapes
If the mouth is moving through too many shapes in the dialog it will looks jittery and unnatural. It's a common mistake to try to hit every single phoneme with a key mouth pose. Identify the important shapes that define the word, and skip over the lesser ones.
Generally you should try to create lip sync with as few mouths shapes as you need to make it convincing - real speech is like that - the mouth doesn't move all that much. An extreme is anime - whose limited animation style typically achieves lip sync with two mouth shapes - open and shut (millions of anime fans never complained about this).
The best way to check what's really going on with speech is to rehearse it in a mirror - and all good animators have one on their desk - right?
4. The wrong mouth shapes
If the mouth is open when it should be closed or wide when it should be narrow, it should be pretty clear that the wrong mouth pose is being used. I know it sounds obvious, but I've seen it many times and unless it was somehow accidental - there's really no excuse for it. As a supervising director once told me - animators who do this should be publicly flogged. That might be a little harsh - but you get my drift.
5. No follow through
It's not a good look when a mouth slams shut - back to the default closed position at the end of a word. Unless the word ends on a closed mouth shape, the last shape of the spoken word should hold for a while.
The final word is that there are no hard and fast rules for lip sync. What works for one character design or animation style, won't necessarily work for another. It may seem bewildering at first, but once you nail it - it's magic. And lip sync is just a subset of facial animation - which is another blog post.
Sherazade The Untold Stories (2017) is an animated TV series initially developed by Hahn Film. Images are from season 1 episode 10 and episode 17, directed by Steve Bristow.
Here's a link to the storm sequence from episode 17
Got any more lips sync tips and tricks? Post 'em as a comment.
Motion Capture (mocap) is the process where actor performances are captured as motion data, then applied to computer generated characters. An 'optical' mocap stage is a large room lined with infrared cameras, which track markers on actors wearing black body suits.
Choice of mocap for an animated TV series
During pre-production of Saladin: The Animated Series the big question was whether to use mocap or to keyframe the animation manually. After much deliberation - it was decided to use mocap. Reasons were - the character designs were humanoid, it was an action genre that would require a lot of complex animation, and there was a belief that mocap would be a time and cost effective solution for the volume of animation needed to make 26 x 24 minute episodes.
Bye bye cartoon physics
The decision to use mocap meant we would have to forego those appealing cartoony qualities like squash, stretch, anticipation, exaggeration and snap. Instead the animated characters would move with realistic human motion. While it's true that mocap'd motion can be edited, in practice it's not that easy to manipulate mocap motion curves (think spaghetti), and in a busy TV series pipeline where artists are under the pump to meet daily quotas, not a practical option. It was a big decision stylistically, that set the tone for the look of the show.
Casting for actors
Not all actors are interested in playing mocap characters. While they will get a screen credit, their face will never be seen, and their voice never heard. Actors will be acting on an empty stage and will often be acting parts alone - unable to play off other actors.
Generally actors will need to be pretty athletic, with good physical performance skills, and if they have other abilities such as martial arts or dance then they may be able to double up and play other characters as well.
Actors are essential - they are trained in performance. And the same goes for stunt performers and dancers - so don't skimp on your mocap talent.
Directing mocap actors
Directing mocap actors is more about choreographing movements in time and space, than extracting sincere emotional performances. With the task of capturing thousands of shots for a TV series - it's a production line.
Before performing a sequence - play the animatic to the actors. Brief them on what's happening in the story at that moment, the emotion in the scene and your vision for the scene. Rehearse the shot. Let the actor interpret your instruction - allow them to have input. Help to locate their starting and ending positions on the stage. Rehearse the shot until you and the actor are ready to go for a take.
Timing of actions is critical - the animatic should have already been cut and timed to dialog recordings before starting any mocap - or at bare minimum the storyboard completed. Sequences are therefore in effect pre-edited - so if a storyboarded shot has the actor taking three steps, turning left and jumping - in three and a half seconds - then that's what has to be performed. There's little room for improvisation - the actors are essentially performing what's already been storyboarded and voiced by vocal actors.
When the mocap technician is ready, she will call 'standby' then 'recording'. Like a film director, the mocap director calls 'action' and 'cut'. This protocol might vary from one studio to the next.
The mocap technician will review each take first. If the take was technically good - without corrupt data caused by occlusion (explained later) or other system limitations, then it will be reviewed by the director and actor to assess whether it's a keeper or not. If not, subsequent takes will be made until a good performance with clean data is achieved. Sometimes a continuous sequence of several shots with different camera angles may be captured in one take, and later in the animation department, the shot cut up into the different camera angles.
Mocap stages will have some basic props and performance aids such as platforms and boxes to simulate stepping or climbing motions; mats for actors to fall or tumble on, and other props such as weapons (typically simple non-reflective wooden or plastic proxies).
The active area of the stage is a performance limitation - actions in the storyboard that need more space than the stage can provide will need to have workarounds figured out - such as cycling a running action or capturing big actions in parts.
Occlusion (in optical mocap systems) is when a marker is obscured from the cameras. Markers need to be visible by at least two cameras to triangulate their location in 3D space. Whether it's self-occlusion or occlusion by other players or props, the result is bad data and retakes. Generally, the more cameras and the fewer players on the stage, the less chance of occlusion. Unless you're on a Hollywood budget, you may be working in a small mocap stage with 12 cameras or less, in which case you can probably put only one or two actors on the stage at a time.
On a mocap stage there is no physical camera to compose the shot, and the actor/s may have no awareness of camera placement or shot composition. So the director has to imagine the performance as it will finally appear on the screen.
However, a well equipped mocap stage will have a virtual camera - a small hand held screen that acts as a viewfinder for the director to frame the shot. The scene is rendered in the screen in real time - and may also include virtual props and set. The director can use the virtual camera to get real time feedback and make composition, staging and lensing decisions. The virtual camera also has markers so it's position and movement can be recorded.
Mocap directors must understand screen direction and continuity if they are capturing scenes for continuity cutting. When all the shots are conformed in the animation timeline later, they must be continuous, otherwise it's back to the mocap stage for a retake, which means time and money (and an anxious producer).
Selected mocap takes are sent for 'clean up' before they can be added to the animation pipeline. Autodesk Motion Builder is the standard app for cleaning mocap data. If you're lucky your data will be pretty clean, if not there will be jerks and bumps caused by occlusion, reflections or other system glitches that need to be smoothed out.
Mocap vs keyframe - conclusion
So did mocap make it easier or faster to make 26 half hours of animation? Well... no. Mocap added a whole other layer of complexity where things could go wrong. The time taken to capture 8,000 shots and the cost of the mocap stage, technicians, stage hands, actors, clean up artists, mocap directors could arguably have been better spent on more animators, resulting in a more traditional animated motion and simpler pipeline. End of the day the realistic motion didn't look out of place on the stylised human characters and the co-production partners were pleased with the outcome.
I'd love to hear about your experience with or thoughts about mocap - leave a comment.
Steve Bristow is an animation producer/director based in Melbourne Australia.