Giving life to Prodigy’s characters: the art of animation

Hello, my name is Alban and I’m the Lead Animator at Hanakai Studio. Today I’m opening a series of three articles that will show you how our characters come to life on screen. I’ll be talking about animation, next month Pierre will tell you all about special effects and to finish, Marin will show you the ropes of cinematic direction.

The images I’ll use as examples are all taken from the animation of Siren’s counter attack, which has never been released before. Excited yet? We’ll be using of the same action in our next two articles, so that you can follow our development process from start to finish.

I’m not going to get too much into the technical aspect of things, but we want to show you a bit of how we do things here at Hanakai.

A lead animator’s job is quite multi-faceted.

I’m one of the people who gets to see a character through every single one of their iterations. From the first sketches sent by a character designer, to the progresses of the 3D model, I have to evaluate if we’ll be able to animate the character. That means checking lots of things, including if characters will be able to move according to their gameplay. In the case of Siren, it’s fine for her to have a long, flowing dress – as a magic wielder, she won’t be running around, like Soha does for instance.

I also get to accompany a character until their implementation IG, as it is also part of my job to help with the animation system in engine. I get to work with our programming team on that, who needs my expertise to establish how the different animations will succeed one another in a smooth, logical way.

But everything really begins when I receive a character’s mesh – that is to say the 3D model created by one of our graphic designers, that defines the shape of the character and what they generally look like. Recently, you’ve seen Pistil’s mesh on Kickstarter for instance. A mesh is of course beautiful to look at, but it’s more or less an empty, stiff shell.

So I start by giving it bones. These will be used as the skeleton of the character. I have to take into account the physiology and anatomy of a character, so as you can easily guess, it’s a lot easier to work on humanoid characters than on fantastic creatures. Though the later are always a challenge, so that’s always fun and cool too!

All the colorful cubes and blocks that you see here are bones. They are used to move whole parts of the body, as well as more delicate parts like the face, and even lay down the road the special effects. But more on that below.

All the colorful cubes and blocks that you see here are bones. They are used to move whole parts of the body, as well as more delicate parts like the face, and even lay down the road the special effects. But more about that below.

The number of bones I use varies, depending on the size and the complexity of a character. You could say that the more bones, the more possibilities. Therefore, playable characters will have more bones than NPCs, as the former will need to be more flexible and precisely animated than the later.

Once this is done, it is time to take care of the rigging. It’s more or less the equivalent of joints in the human body. It allows you to set constraints that will be automatically obeyed when your bones are moving. For instance, your elbow can only open to a certain degree. Or you can only turn your head on your neck up to a certain point – well except if you’re an owl or a chameleon. Or a creature who is part owl or… you get my meaning. It makes the skeleton usable by all animators on the team, for whom I also create small “handles” that will allow them to manipulate more easily the character’s body.

The cubes that you could see in the last part of the previous image now take the shape of ribbons. They compliment nicely the movement of Siren’s arm.

The cubes that you could see in the last part of the previous image now take the shape of ribbons. They compliment nicely the movement of Siren’s arm.

Finally comes the skinning that, as the name says, allows to attach the skin (or mesh) to the right bones. I’ve detailed the 3 steps in this order, but you could totally reverse rigging and skinning. It’s just the way I do things most of the time.

From there, the first step to the animation is to define the intentions for the character. For that I speak with Jean, our Creative Director, and the rest of my team. We talk about the general feel of the character and the way it will affect the way they move. If you take Siren, she’s a Witch, a magic-wielder who always attacks from a distance. Personality-wise, Siren is contemptuous and sensual, while remaining elegant and aloof. So you’ll want her movements to have poise and glamour, as well as a certain kind of unhurriedness.

We do that for each character with the whole team, then have a similar discussion for each action with the animator in charge of it. It usually also involves acting what we’re imagining, which comes with quite a bit of silliness. Please take a second to imagine two or three people succeedingly jumping around with a wooden sword or making aggressive, animalistic faces at each other.

As soon as we have a good idea of what we want the action to look like, we’ll take a short video or pictures to use as references. There are some things that we cannot do ourselves (like somersaulting, or using very specific weapons) so we look for inspiration in movies, video games or simply online videos.

Each action is detailed so that we can identify what we call key poses, then use them to work according to a method called pose to pose. Key poses are the most important and emblematic steps of the action, so it’s important to focus on them first. You want those gesture to be theatrical, heroic, maybe a bit excessive. We’re in a fantasy game, after all! Once they are done, it is only a matter of filling in the transition, so that the result looks smooth and natural.

These are a few of the key poses for Siren’s counter.

These are a few of the key poses for Siren’s counter.

The timing is also important. It depends a lot on the character and the action, but varying the pace of the movements allows you to underline the most important about them. You might want to start slow, so as to create anticipation, mark a stop on a key pose so as to make it more dramatic, then speed it up for an explosive finale. This work on the rhythms of the action will be enhanced by Marin’s directing. He’ll be the one deciding when to do a slight slow-motion or where to place a camera so that a gesture seems even wider, so we regularly show him what we’re doing so that we can exchange inputs.

Finally, it’s important to pay attention to the smallest details so as to make the whole believable. For Siren, it means paying close attention to her fingers, the ornaments of her dress and, of course, her facial expressions. With humanoid characters, it’s pretty straight-forward : you’re mainly using the eyes, the eyebrows and the mouth. It’s a bit more complex when you’re working with creatures, let’s not even talk of Rota, whose face has to remain almost inexpressive while conveying emotions. Did I tell you how much we love a challenge ?

 Siren is going to look quite fierce in this one! No one attacks a Witch and comes out of it unscathed...

Siren is going to look quite fierce in this one! No one attacks a Witch and comes out of it unscathed…

In the following sequence, you’ll see what the entire action looks like when I am finished with it. As in all images in this article, Siren might not look as pretty as you’re used to, but that’s because in these images we haven’t added any texture or shader yet. There’s no fancy camera movement – that’ll be for Marin to do – but it still looks pretty great, doesn’t it?

Not only can you see the way Siren moves, but you’ll also notice the weird ribbon-like things twitching around Siren’s arm. Like I told you earlier, these are bones too, which I create for our VFX artists, who’ll touch them up and turn them into magical effects in engine. That’s not for me to talk about in detail – you’ll learn more about it next month with Pierre – but it’s another proof of how intertwined our jobs are.

Siren animation sequence

And that wraps up my little article on animating characters. We’re putting lots of efforts in it, but I am lucky to have an amazing team by my sides each step of the way. We all think that we have fantastic characters, so it’s only par for the course that we’d do them justice through amazing animations.

I hope you got to discover a few things in this article, but what I can’t wait for is for you to see our work in action each time you play Prodigy!


 

Until then, please tell us what you think of Siren’s counter-attack and the animation of Prodigy’s characters on our official forums!