Arc Tracking, old school

 Tracking and re-tracking a wrist
 Tracking and re-tracking a heel
 Process reveals two pops / off-path frames with Hip
 Process reveals two pops / off-path frames with Head. Note the use of a constrained locator and the hiding of the head itself for a more accurate approach. (Incidentally, I had a camera pan happening, so the tracking was mostly done via a duplicate of this constrained in same position with the camera animation removed. This also made it possible to zoom in for more detail. I'm not sure there'd be any use tracking onscreen with a moving camera)

Here's a series of photos I took while doing polish work on my last Class 2 assignment, "Snatcha".
Raquel, my class 2 mentor, encouraged me to get down to trying this old arc tracking method out: the good old "draw on your monitor with a dry erase marker" method. With today's flat monitors, it would not seem advisable to actually draw directly on the monitor (that was fine for the days when monitors were made out of glass, but I'm not so confident the plastic surface of a flatscreen would be unharmed). But it was a simple matter to set up all the same: a visit to Staples, and I had a cuttable desk protector plastic sheet and a new pack of Expo markers, total cost around $15. I cut the sheet to size, a bit of sticky-out-rolled scotch tape (four corners and the center, like the five side of a die, worked nicely). And I was set to go. Easy to put up, easy to take off, as needed.
Now, I had resisted doing this for a very long time. I had of course known about the method for years, but it seemed silly. However, enough pro animators actually do this that it seemed worth at least trying out.
So what does it amount to?
I'll back off a bit and explain a more basic fundamental point, first, for those of you who are not animators:
A lot of people imagine the role of the computer&software in digital 3D animation to be some kind of magic. Perhaps thinking that, once a person has "braniacally" wrapped their head around the admittedly confounding matter of accustomizing his/her-self to the use of this most compex of art tools, they will then have the apparent advantage of the use of their own entire brain plus the full force of the computer brain to - boot in their work. Or, in other words, they'll be inclined to think that the computer does a lot of the work for ya, and it's some kind of smooth sailing from thereon in.
Not exactly.
The machine, as I think of it, is a brute beast that simply follows instructions, and can barely even do that half the time. Perhaps comprable to Igor as a mad scientist's companion: eager to help out, but not yet intelligent enough to be useful in all the ways one would hope it to be; AND most certainly UNintelligent enough to bring quick destruction to any of our efforts if we do not maintain a watchful eye. We are, of course, getting the machine to do the one thing it is least skilled at: the creation of art. What this comes down to is that it simply doesn't cut it. It can do a whole lot of other stuff, even making really impressive images, but it can't really "do" the art itself. This is good news for us humans anyway, because at least we aren't in danger of being replaced by these things anytime soon. But getting to the matter of the work of animation: with regards to anything original, meaningful, and lifelike, the essence of those ideals still has to all come via the minds of the artists themselves, just as has always been.
Now, more specifically, looking at the animation workflow, the computer&software's helpfulness comes to the fore more in the "middle stages" of it. With the splining, for example, you do get some stuff "for free". That's the computer&software helping out. Yay. But: the planning takes grunt work, the blocking is best done by keeping the computer&software role to a minimum (to make sure we as the artists do not take the risk of shutting our minds down or deferring to it, so to speak). AND, in the context of this posting, when it comes to final polish work, as with the blocking it's also all about keeping your eyes on the viewport and once again forgetting about what's under the hood (at least to the extent that one can manage to do so). This counter animation is kept to the last and is to be avoided except where necessary. But it IS necessary and unavoidable in many cases.

So the long and short of this is that the immediacy of marking tool - to - surface is still often unrivalled by the computer. It's true when it comes to good planning, and it's true when it comes to arc tracking too, to a certain extent.

Was it useful to use the hands-on arc tracking method?
It was very useful in three key respects:
1) you can track anything. Any part of the character's body can be drawn and its path seen.
Being unable to track any old thing, admittedly, isn't necessarily an inherent problem. When I was working in XSI I was able to ghost anything and everything without any difficulties. It seems that either the AM rigs or Maya itself places limits on what will ghost: some things ghost, some things won't. Don't know why, but it just isn't happening in this realm. STILL, even if any old thing could ghost herein, this method permits overdraw simplification and immediacy.
2) you can redraw.
I'd use one color to draw, then another to redraw (usually red). This is definitely not an option with other methods, yet it's obviously very useful to be able to do so. Once a new path is drawn, it's then a relatively simple matter to match the posing to the target locations. So this is an even more powerful thing. And generally speaking I do find that software tends to inhibit the ability to PLAN effectively. It's as if the planning facets of a workflow tend to be overlooked in the designing of all of this tech stuff. (OR, one's eyes tend to "glaze over" under a sort of hypnotic effect of all the techyness). After all, shouldn't there already be an application that emulates this dry erase at a top level of the screen? Something of a transparent drawing application that stays on top of all currently running applications. There isn't yet, not that I'm aware of, for the PC. But I think the mac has it, I'm not sure.
Now, the most interesting discovery, for me, was the third:
3) it makes you stop and think about it in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner.
I was most pleased to discover that doing this seemed to help me think more clearly about what I was trying to accomplish. And it's easy to understand why: it's 100% direct hands-on. So there's nothing distracting from the idea of the matter itself. And this also relates to the second point above.
In fact, in short, all three advantages are the very advantages of good old drawing itself. Which makes perfect sense: "all this is" is simply going right ahead and DRAWING on the monitor. 

Would I switch exclusively to this method?
No, not at all. It isn't efficient in many cases to plot out a whole ton of points or shapes on the screen, particularly where the paths are succeeding in being relatively smooth in the first place.
I found myself mixing this method and my generally preferred "locator" method. In a mixed approach, one (sensibly) gets the computer to do the plotting via ghosting, and then I (sensibly) use the dry erase to indicate the places for corrections. I switched fully to the hands-on approach in the places that I knew were problem areas.
However, alongside of the ghosting glitches already mentioned, the AM rig also appears to "defy" accurate ghosting even of a simple locator when parent constrained to certain body parts, e.g. wrists, a lot of geometry objects. A confounding annoyance that also gives benefit to having an alternate approach ready and available.

Variety of method is a good thing. Akin to the ergonomic advantages of using both a mouse and a tablet. And in problem solving, it's always good to have more than one way to do something, in case certain routes get blocked for some reason or another.

And THAT is an exhaustive look at straight-to-screen arc tracking!

An aimless walk down memory lane

Well, as promised in my first post, I've finally gotten around to taking video of these two early animations I did, the first time I've shared this work outside of my own family. The first book has about 180 sheets / frames, done in 1984, and the second about 300, done in 1985. I wasted some time trying to capture them frame-by-frame; when I did a test of this I found that the ideal frame rate is around 8 fps, and it ended up looking "off" (it was all done straight ahead, and timing was purely intuitive and obviously depends on how the flipper chooses the pace). But when I filmed it directly, it looked alright! The flipping seems to mask the rather slow frame rate through the blur of the moving sheets, an interesting little discovery. Smear frames of sorts, you could say, perhaps a subtle advantage of the well-established method.
The method being primitive naive, it's interesting to retrospectively observe how I didn't have any qualms about jamming stuff all together on the same page with my first try. Reminds me of the bush art that decorates the hills of Zimbabwe, where the ancient artists would just go right ahead and paint over the work that was there before. Perhaps also being the case with tagging and graffiti: not overly preoccupied, impulsive and unsentimental in nature. "In the moment".
Seven years after this I was investigating animation school options for the first time.
And then I ditched the whole idea for about another 15 years, not so much because I didn't think I could do it, but because it seemed entirely impracticable: far too expensive and inefficient. But then the computer changed all of that, and here I am at it again.
I actually did quite a lot of "messing around" with animation on our old Atari 1040ST back in the late 80's. I even did some 3d stuff back then. I remember using an early version of something like autoCAD. It was odd using 4 viewports with the orthographics + perspective for the first time (all stuffed into a VGA resolution monitor). I followed instructions with the promise of getting an animation as an end result. When I was done, "all" I had was a series of images. Then I thought "that's it?! What am I supposed to do with that?" Of course, that's all it is, animation: a series of images, played back in quick succession. But the software we had, at that point, lacked that crucial last step of being able to actually do just that. Or, more specifically, the computer itself probably wasn't powerful enough to do this in the first place.  It would probably have to have been shot onto film to be seen for what it was meant to be.
All those old files are un-revisitable. I had surfers on waves, dinosaurs eating green leaves, self-assembling polyhedra, all marvelously primitive in style (I mean: masterpieces now lost forever). If the floppies are still knocking around in my parents' place, they still would not be compatible with anything existing today. Let us hope the efforts of today's digital work are more enduring.
Well, that's enough of aimlessly wandering about on memory lane. Now back to the now.


Checkin' the ego at the door

 Rick speaks a word of realistic advice regarding the good ol' creative ego.
Great stuff to take to heart when working on a shot.
It's already "not about me" as a student, and all the more so in production.
(Excerpt from AM on Facebook)
Had to chop "the best part" off my shot this week at my mentor's request. So this one's this week's theme for me.