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Cartoon-Style Character Animation

Cartoon-Style Character Animation

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Published by: Roikan Soekartun on Dec 31, 2010
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04/23/2013

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KNOCK HIS BLOCK OFF

By Jim Armstrong Contributing Writer

Cartoon-style character animation involves more than just toon shading. Characters often have exaggerated features and motions. Many exaggerations do not seem to fit the structure imposed by Character Studio Bipeds. Biped structure and dynamics, although flexible, are based upon realistic humanoid motion. This tutorial illustrates how to combine Physique with other MAX modifiers to bend (and in some cases break) that reality. 3DS MAX 4.2™ and Character Studio 3™ are used for this tutorial. An intermediate-level understanding of MAX is required. You should understand the basics of working with Character Studio, including how to create/modify Bipeds and use facilities in the Motion panel to set keys. You should understand the basics of the Physique modifier. Important terms and MAX interface elements are highlighted in bold type.

Introduction One of the hottest animations in the Flash industry (at the time of writing) is the Stickman fighting movies by XiaoXiao. The fast motion and slapstick action is both entertaining and comical. The original movies were drawn by hand, frame-by-frame, with light tweening applied in Flash. The latest versions (installment #8 is the most current at time of writing) employ a mixture of rendered 3D objects and hand-drawn stick-figure characters. As a martial arts action fan, I decided to take this concept to the next logical level -- 3D sets AND 3D characters. Although a 3D stick-figure character presents no modeling challenge, the style of animation involves some exaggerations outside the normal application of Character Studio. Cartoons often exaggerate reality to extreme levels in an attempt to generate maximum humor from the animation. Characters flex muscles that are ten times larger than normal proportions or have limbs stretch to highly unrealistic limits. Eyes will bulge to twice the size of the head. Of course, we all get a good laugh out of these situations -- that is the purpose of the effect. The 3D Stickman character is introduced in the context of a short fight sequence. In the middle of the screen, 3D Stickman is rushed by two other fighters, one from each side. The fighter to his right has a lead pipe in hand and is met with a solid right side kick. As soon as 3D Stickman pulls out of the side kick, he rapidly turns to execute a right spin kick to the head of the fighter approaching from the other side. In the process, he knocks the fighter's head off into the air. The head goes one direction while the body spins down to the ground. 3D Stickman bobbles the head in the air, then catches and balances it in his right hand. This tutorial deconstructs the latter part of the animation. The application of Physique to the simple stick character is discussed. The character is rigged with animation in mind. Two approaches are discussed to rigging the character's arms, one of which produces natural squash at the joints, to enhance the cartoon effect. The 3D Stickman character is extremely basic, comprised of a collection of boxes. For animation purposes, each limb is a separate object. The box representing the torso has a large number of height segments. This was done to allow for some modest bending and twisting during animation. The head is a box instead of a sphere for technical reasons related to file size in Flash. These are discussed in the popup associated with the adjacent thumbnail image.

3D Stickman

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© 2002 Platinum Pictures Multimedia, Inc.

Introducing 3D Stickman

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Well, this guy won't be winning any character modeling awards :) The head is modeled as a box since that object renders to .SWF format with fewer edges. A perspective view of a sphere renders as a circle that requires more 'curves' in Flash to represent than a box. The difference in file size is small, but at 18fps over the course of a several-minute animation, it really adds up. Since the animation is destined to be web-based, anything that can be reasonably done to reduce file size is helpful. The torso box has a higher poly count so that the Biped Spine links can be used to bend and twist this bodypart.

KNOCK HIS BLOCK OFF
By Jim Armstrong Contributing Writer

Physique Part I At first, it seems that the discussion of the Physique modifier for such a simple character is a waste of time. For beginners, going through this exercise provides a fully articulated character that can be used to test the application of mocap and .BIP motion files, motion flow editing, and other advanced Character Studio features without the tedium of rigging more complex characters. We will also see how to exploit limb disparity in the character vs. the rig to enhance the comic appearance of the character. To begin, a Biped was created that matched the height of the character. The following Structure settings were used: Neck Links: 1 Spine Links: 4 Leg Links: 3 Ponytail 1 Links: 0 Ponytail 2 Links: 0 Fingers: 1 Finger Links: 1 Toes: 1 Toe Links: 1 Four Spine Links were used to apply bending and twisting to the torso geometry. While part of the character appears very rigid, the torso section can exhibit some element of flexibility. This apparent contradiction can be used to enhance the cartoonish behavior of the character. Finger and Toe links were added to allow for minor motion at the hand/foot extremities. If you do not wish to add such capability, the Biped could be created with no fingers/toes and no finger/toe links. This character is comprised of fourteen independent bodyparts -- a head, two segments per arm, two hands, a torso, two segments per leg, and two feet. It is tempting to select all the boxes, then apply Physique in one step. This can cause problems in envelope settings at a later point. It's similar to applying Physique to a group. We don't want to group the objects into a 'single' character. Instead, each object is to be independently controlled with no linking or influence from any of the other body objects. The collection of boxes is held together in a form representing a character by applying Physique to each box and initializing the modifier with the same Biped.

Physique Part II Each box representing a bodypart was individually selected. The Physique modifier was applied, using the same Biped for initialization. Normally, N Links blending is applied during Physique initialization. For this character, most often only one link is relevant. For certain effects, it may be useful to employ two links. You may wish to change the number of links to two at most. Rigid envelopes were used for every bodypart. For each box, the link most directly in line with the bodypart was activated. All other links whose default envelopes have any influence over that bodypart were turned off. For example, the only link active for the box representing the right forearm is the Biped R ForeArm link. Its envelop setting is Rigid. Many of these settings can be handled during initialization, as illustrated in the upper thumbnail image to the left. The lower thumbnail image illustrates the envelope settings for the right forearm. Notice in the split display that the hand and upper arm links are turned off. All other links are not relevant as their default envelopes have zero overlap with the right forearm vertices. You may wish to turn them off for the sake of completeness. This general approach was followed for all the individual character bodyparts. Two notable exceptions were the torso segment and the upper arms. These are discussed in the next section.

3D Stickman

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Link/Envelope Settings

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© 2002 Platinum Pictures Multimedia, Inc.

Initializing Physique

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It's easy to fall in the habit of always using default parameters when initializing Physique. We can preset the use of Rigid envelopes and set Blending to two links in advance. 1 Link would be appropriate for the most basic animation of this character. Two links are used for reasons to be discussed in a subsequent section.

Right Forearm Link and Envelope Settings

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The default forearm envelopes provide complete influence over the box vertices representing the character's right forearm. The Biped R UpperArm link is turned off, having no influence on that geometry. The same is true for the Hand link.

KNOCK HIS BLOCK OFF
By Jim Armstrong Contributing Writer

Torso Although most of the character's motion is completely rigid, a few modifications were made to the geometry and rig to provide for some slight exaggeration. The box representing the torso was given a much larger poly count. Instead of one link influencing the torso, it is influenced by the Biped Pelvis and each Spine link. As the COM rotates while feet remain planted, the box twists at the lower extremity, providing the appearance of wider 'hips' at the bottom. As the Spine links bend, the torso appears to bend as well. This is particularly noticeable with Bend Links mode activated. The mixture of fluid and rigid motion enhances the comical appearance of the character. The Pelvis envelopes are illustrated in the adjacent thumbnail image. The boxes indicate the range of influence of each Spine link. In this particular screen shot, the character has been moved into an intial pose that is used to illustrate a point in the next section. click to enlarge The Neck and Clavicle links have no influence over the torso. Those links are turned off. The same is true for the Upper Leg links.

Pelvis Envelopes

Upper Arms In this character, there is not a 1-1 match between Biped links and bodyparts. For example, the Stickman character has no clavicles, only an upper arm segment that is disjoint from the torso. One of the features I wanted to add to the character was some natural squash at one or more joints. For example, as the arm moves up and down, it would appear to be thinner at the shoulder joint than at the elbow. The same appearance could be applied to the upper legs. This would appear to Clavicle Influence on Upper exaggerate the forearm during arm motion without bulging the forearm box (that did not have the poly detail to support bulges in the first place). Arm The squash is accomplished by allowing the Clavicle link and the UpperArm link to both influence the upper arm vertices nearest the shoulder. Blending is set to 2 Links during Physique initialization. When the arms are moved, the Clavicle links are left in place most of the time. The Biped UpperArm link exerts some influence over the vertices nearest the shoulder. At the same time, the Clavicle link tries to keep those vertices stationary. The result is that over the course of extreme arm motions, the box representing the upper arm appears to squash near the shoulder. The Clavicle link influence is illustrated in the upper thumbnail image to the left. Notice that even with the arms slightly dropped, you can see that the vertices nearest the shoulder do not move in a manner consistent with those nearest the elbow. The amount of squash can be controlled by varying the amount of Clavicle rotation during arm movement. As the Clavicle links move in tandem with the UpperArm links, the squash is minimized. It is maximized when these two links move in opposite directions. click to enlarge Compare vs. the lower thumbnail image to see the result of simply turning the Clavicle link off. You could also change the nature of upper arm movement by NU scaling the length of the Clavicle downward, then increasing the length of the UpperArm link. This would allow the latter link almost complete control over the upper arm motion. This illustrates how to use Physique to create cartoon-like deformations even with extremely simple geometry.

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No Clavicle Influence

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© 2002 Platinum Pictures Multimedia, Inc.

Torso - Spine and Pelvis Link Influence

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The Pelvis envelopes are illustrated, above. The red boxes indicate the area of influence of each Spine link. Notice the blending between the Pelvis and lowest Spine link (indicated by the light brownish vertex color). This setup allows for some fluidity in bending motions, and some twist at the bottom of the torso, enhancing the cartoonish behavior of the character. The amount of bend/twist can be controlled by reducing blending and/or turning links on/off.

Clavicle Influence on Upper Arm

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Both the Clavicle and UpperArm links influence the Box vertices closest to the shoulder. As these two links move in tandem, the edge of the Box at that joint area remains relatively constant. If the UpperArm link moves while the Clavicle remains fixed, the box tends to squash at that joint. This makes the forearms look relatively large during extreme arm movements without applying a bulge to the forearm. The same technique can be used to play the Forearm/Hand links and Pelvis/UpperLeg links against one another to add a variety of comical appearances to character motion.

No Clavicle Influence on Upper Arm

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This illustrates the effect of no Clavicle influence on the upper arm. Compare the two box edges. In this rig, the upper arm over-rotates. This can be compensated for by shortening the Clavicle length and increasing the UpperArm length.

KNOCK HIS BLOCK OFF
By Jim Armstrong Contributing Writer

Side Kick Keyframing the side kick - spin kick tandem was discussed in detail in the Martial Arts Action tutorial. This section illustrates the scene setup and a couple key points during the action. This leads up to the point where one fighter's head must be literally separated from the body. Apex of Side Kick After rigging, the Biped and character bodyparts were cloned twice to create the other two characters in the intro. shot. The central character was given a dark-colored texture (remember the Chuck Norris movie, 'Good Guys Wear Black?') . The other two fighters were given light-colored textures for contrast. In order to quickly isolate the heads of each character, the colors (in the viewports) for the geometry were changed. One of the fighters has what appears to be a lead pipe in hand. The pipe is a simple cylinder controlled by a Link Constraint. Up until the point where this character is kicked, the pipe is linked to the Biped R Hand. At the apex of the kick, the character bends forward from the impact and starts to drop the pipe. The pipe object is then controlled by a Dummy helper and falls towards the ground. The apex of the side kick is illustrated in the adjacent thumbnail image. All three characters in this scene use the same bodypart geometry and the same type of rig. Notice how the torso geometry bends forward, responding to the impact of the kick. If the torso had been rigged to be entirely rigid, the character could have bent forward at the pelvis, but the effect would not have been as impressive.

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Spin Kick Immediately after the side kick, the first fighter's crumpled body drops to the ground. The second fighter moves into camera view and is met with a spin kick. This is illustrated in the adjacent thumbnail image. Apex of Spin Kick The movement from side kick to spin kick is rapid. As 3D Stickman recovers from the side kick, his head spins around to see the other fighter. The arms and torso whip around, ahead of the lower body. The body bends downward as the lower body and right leg whip around to the complete the kick. The screen shot illustrates the point just before the foot impacts the fighter's head. The script calls for the head to pop up in the air while the body flips over, then falls down. This would appear difficult at first as the Physique modifier will continue to move the head in tandem with the Biped. Notice that the lead pipe has already fallen down, yet there is still a stationary helper object in view. That is the subject of the next section :)

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© 2002 Platinum Pictures Multimedia, Inc.

Apex of Side Kick

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That looks like it hurts. As the purple character leaps through the air with a lead pipe, he is met in midstream by a vicious side kick. The torso geometry and rig allow for some flexibility in the upper body. The combination of fluid and rigid motion is rather entertaining. Meanwhile, off-camera, the other fighter is sort of running into position for an attack. The running motion picks up expression as the character moves into camera view.

Apex of Spin Kick

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Mr. Purple is already out of commission. Mr. Blue is about to lose his head -literally!

KNOCK HIS BLOCK OFF
By Jim Armstrong Contributing Writer

Linked XForm One of the reasons the characters were created from separate bodyparts is to allow for independent animation of each section of the body. The Biped is used to maintain a structured relationship between each independent segment. That structure happens to fit the form of a bipedal character. As the Biped moves, Physique constantly influences the head geometry. At first, it seems difficult to move the head independently of the remainder of the body. Animating the head or linking it to a dummy often results in undesired effects. The head may appear to move as desired when setting keys, but snap back in place during playback. A Linked XForm modifier was added to the stack to pass the results of the Physique modifier to another object, known as the control object. In this scene, the control object is a Dummy helper named headControl. After applying Physique to the head vertices, PRS animation of the control object is added to the motion. Applying Linked XForm is very simple. It is important to assign the control object at frame 0 for an animation. This was done for the current scene. After applying the modifier, there is a single control in the Parameters rollout. This control allows you to pick the control object. The adjacent thumbnail image illustrates the stack for the head geometry of the fighter who is about to lose that head :) Now, we can animate the character's head by offsetting Physique motion with translation and rotation of the control object.

Linked XForm

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Animating the Control Object In order to achieve the desired motion, the headControl object should remain stationary from frame 0 until the impact frame (frame 38 in this scene). From there, it moves in short increments (few frames between keyframes) to offset motion in the Biped Head link. A Linear Position controller was assigned to the Position track of the headControl object in track view. Since it is not necessary to control the motion along individual axes, a Position XYZ controller was not used. A Linear Rotation controller was assigned to the Rotation track. After Impact The adjacent thumbnail image illustrates the orientation of the headControl object at the next frame in sequence. 3D Stickman's foot has swept past the head, literally knocking it off the body. The body spins in place, reacting to the impact in a cartoonish manner. The control object moves upward as that is the primary motion called for in the script. Some of that upward motion compensates for the downward motion of the Biped (which is hidden in these screen shots). Notice how the lateral motion in the control object offsets opposing motion from the Biped as it spins. From the screen shot, you can also view the keyframes for the control object. These were set to offset Biped motion and make it appear as if 3D Stickman was bobbling the head in the air.

click to enlarge

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© 2002 Platinum Pictures Multimedia, Inc.

Linked XForm

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Add the Linked XForm modifier in the stack after Physique. Scrub the time slider to frame 0, then assign the control object. In this scene, the headControl Dummy helper serves as the control object.

Control Object Motion Just After 'Impact'

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Notice how motion in the control object offsets movement in the Biped Head link. If the motion was an exact offset, the box representing the fighter's head would appear to remain stationary. Additional motion in the control object allows it to appear as if the head has been literally kicked off. 3D Stickman bobbles the head, then balances it on his hand in the final animation. Very unrealistic animation, yet easily accomplished even within the confines of Character Studio, a tool designed for 'realistic' animation :)

KNOCK HIS BLOCK OFF
By Jim Armstrong Contributing Writer

Final Animation Flash Animation

If you have the Flash 5 player, you may view the entire intro. animation (minus some of the production visuals and sound). Although the presentation contains a preloader, there is no 'replay button.' Right-click and use the 'Rewind' and 'Play' options to replay the animation. Notice at the end of the intro, when 3D Stickman is turned slightly to one side, the bottom of the torso is slightly flared.

click to enlarge Summary Beginning character animators are often lead to believe that character geometry is continuous. This animation illustrates how fourteen boxes are arranged to provide a 3D representation of a simple stick figure. The CS Biped provides structural control and organization. The independent nature of each bodypart allows any section of the character to be separately animated with Linked XForm (and possibly other modifiers). Some types of cartoon-style animation can be achieved by using two or more Biped links to control sections of a bodypart. Squash at joints can be achieved even with Rigid envelopes. While the Stickman geometry is incredibly simple, some of the animations that can be performed with this character are far from simple. We will return to this character and more martial arts action in future tutorials. In the mean time, do not be deceived by the simple nature of the character. As Bruce Lee said in 'Enter the Dragon,' "It is like a finger pointing towards the moon. Don't concentrate on that finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory." I hope you find some of these techniques useful in future projects.

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© 2002 Platinum Pictures Multimedia, Inc.

Flash Animation

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This movie requires the Flash 5 player. Although a preloader is employed, there is no 'replay' button. Right-click and use the control options to first rewind the playhead, then play.

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