Arc Tracking, old school
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.
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!