Learning to animate the Jeff Lew way.

  • Tito A. Belgrave: Hi Jeff, you have been quite a busy man in the past year, tell us some of the things you have been doing and some of the things you have planned for the year.

    Jeff Lew: Hi, Tito. Yes, I’ve been pretty busy. I’ve been working on Matrix: Reloaded for the past 2 ½ years. I just recently got off the project and now I am devoting my entire time to finishing my training video. I started the training video about 1 year ago on my free time. This year will be quite interesting for me. I already have it mapped out. Immediately after I complete my training video, I will jump into production of Killer Bean 3. I started a short scene back in 2001, but you know me, I never finished it. So this year will mainly be about KB3. In parallel with KB3, I will be starting pre production of my next short. Unlike Killer Bean, for this next short I will not do alone. This allows me to get pre production rolling while I am busy with KB3. I’m keeping the project under wraps right now, but it will be much more sophisticated than Killer Bean in all aspects. And yes, there will actually be a story this time! Think of it as in the same vain as my Concussion short, which I never finished.

    Tito A. Belgrave: Can you elaborate on your decision to teach artists (to this extent of a double dvd set) the craft of character animation?


    Jeff Lew: A lot of it came out of the attention I got from Killer Bean 2. A lot of people asked me "how to learn how to animate", or "which animation schools to go to". I usually gave them the common advice of which books to read, and since I didn’t know too much about animation schools, I threw out names of various schools that I knew some of my coworkers graduated from. So as the emails started to build, I became aware that there is a lot of people out there that want to learn.

    At the time, I was planning out an animation course in the company where I worked, to teach other employees the art and science of character animation. That class never materialized however, because things got rough schedule wise. So I had to focus on my actual job. Then things started clicking in my head. I said to myself, “Why don’t you make a training video?” Then I said, “Ok, let’s do it.”

     

    Tito A. Belgrave: I must say 4 hours of solid content on character animation itself sounds like a winner, what can we expect to see in this double dvd set?

    Jeff Lew: Currently, the plan is to have the entire first dvd to teach the science of 3D and the tools of computer animation. The science part of animation is not the actual process of animating, but the underlying functions of how the 3D software will compute your keyframes and motion. There are several things that all 3D character animators should understand, like how the coordinate system works, the difference between global position and local position, how your 3D software will process rotations, how it will interpolate between two points in time, etc. If you can understand how all of it works, then when a problem arises when you're animating, you will be able to trouble shoot much easier. The tools of computer animation are actually interfaces that allow you to control how you want your character to be animated, and they also allow you to see exactly what your software is doing. Some of the tools and features I will go over are a graph editor, a dopesheet, hierarchy, IK/FK, constraints, and some character setup techniques.

    The second dvd will teach the art of character animation and achieving the goals with the tools and knowledge learned from the first dvd. It will focus on the traditional principles of animation like anticipation, follow through, weight, timing, posing, secondary actions, staging, etc. It will also touch lightly on how to develop a character, not only in the way it looks, but also its personality and history. A character with a history is much more interesting than a character without one.

    Finally, somewhere in there, I fit in 2 full examples of animation where I start from an idea and animate the first pass and then return to animate the polishing pass. You can get a glimpse of the two examples from my trailer. They are the green guy doing a jump kick and the blue guy throwing the rock.

    Ultimately, this DVD set is meant to be an entire college course about 3D character animation and maybe even more.

     
  • Tito A. Belgrave: How well will your teachings work with the array of 3D packages currently available?

    Jeff Lew: If a 3D software claims that they have character animation capabilities, then most likely they will all have similar tools that work in the same fashion. This training video will not be a “click in this menu, open this window, etc, etc.” But it will deal more with general practices with the common tools of character animation. We are mostly dealing with keyframes, motion curves, bones, and IK in your average 3D software. If your software has more character animation features, then even better. BTW, I will be using Animation Master for all my examples. Animation Master has the full range of character animation features.

    Tito A. Belgrave: Give us a brief breakdown on your theories and principles in regards to character animation, and tell us how you focus on this in your DVD set.

    Jeff Lew: Most of the theories and principles of character animation can be learned from a book. Of course, this DVD set will cover all of them as much as possible. (refer to question #3) But the strength of this DVD set is in its method of animating. Say you are a traditional 2D animator, then you already know all the principles, but if you have to sit in front of a computer to animate, then what do you do? These DVD’s will show you

    the principles and then show you how to achieve those principles in a 3D software. It will also show you methods of keyframing on the computer and ways of organizing your keyframes so they can be easily edited if you want your animation to change later on.

    Tito A. Belgrave: Which audience is targeted for the DVD's? Is it generally for beginners or do you believe seasoned professionals can gain some insight from them as well?


    Jeff Lew: Beginners will benefit the most from these DVD’s. These DVD’s literally start from scratch. You don’t have to know anything about character animation beforehand. What you do need to know is how to get around in the software that you are using. Also, you should know some character setup in your software package. These DVD’s are primarily about animation.

    Seasoned professionals may learn a few things as well. From working in many companies in the FX industry, I learned that most animators animate differently. If you are a seasoned pro and are noticing that some of your coworkers are finishing their animations much quicker than you are, then you may learn a few new ways of using the tools and more efficient means of animating from these DVD’s.


     
  • Tito A. Belgrave: Being involved as an animator in such films as X-Men, Kung Pow and the recent position as lead animator on the upoming "The Matrix Reloaded", how have these experiences helped you in assembling your own training material?

    Jeff Lew: Well, people in the CG industry tend to jump around to a few different companies a few times. The last place I worked had artists and technical people from many different companies and many different schools. In most companies, the employees specialize, meaning that they only do one thing. An animator just animates, a rigging person just sets up the character, a modeler just models. This has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the artists can focus on what they are hired to do and excel at it. The disadvantage is that you need a big support team. If an animator gets into technical trouble, they often have to wait for the rigging department to address the issue. BTW, in my experience, most character setup people are not animators themselves, so they may not setup your character in a way that is easy for you to animate. In this DVD set, I will go through many tips on how to setup your character to be animated easily.

    Also, if a traditional animator transitions into a 3D animator, then they may not be using the software as efficiently as possible. So when I was planning this DVD, I added training material that will help animators trouble shoot their animations and also overcome some technical hurdles. This way, the animator will be more prepared to go out in the field without having someone to assist them.

    I’ve seen talented animators who animate very well but may lack in experience. An animator may animate something great, but then a director may say, “It’s good, but let’s have him do this too and let’s take this part out.” If you are inexperienced, you may try to change your animation to the point of destruction, and the great animation that you once had has been mangled beyond recognition. (trust me, I’ve been there!) In this DVD set, I’ll show you how to organize your keyframes so that they are easily editable, and how to go about your animation while anticipating changes from a director.

    Tito A. Belgrave: Matrix 2: Reloaded is more than likely the most anticipated film this summer, is there anything you can tell us in regards of the shots that were lead by yourself?

    Jeff Lew:
    Yeah, I spent a LONG time on them! But other than that, I can’t really tell you anything else. You have to see it for yourself!

    Tito A. Belgrave: In your trailer I noticed you don't only focus on animating, but also the importance on poses with "depth" Can you elaborate on this?

    Jeff Lew: Posing is part of the art of animation. Not only should a pose have depth, but also portray the character’s mood, intent, and/or personality. I also go into character design and character development lightly in the DVD set.

     

     
  • Tito A. Belgrave: One of the shining qualities I noticed from the trailer is that it's not just a voice you hear when you're watching the training material, but more as if you yourself are actually there "teaching" us in a class. What was the idea behind this?

    Jeff Lew: The one thing I wanted to avoid from this video is boredom. The video will be 4 hours long and I don’t want the viewers to be bored. I’ve watched a handful of CG training videos. All of them were of a computer screen with you just watching a mouse move around while listening to a voice. I had to force myself to stay awake on those videos. Some of them I fell asleep in 2 minutes.

    On the other hand, I’ve watched many documentaries, and good documentaries keep your attention and leave you wanting for more. Documentaries make you eager to learn. So I decided to make my training video in a documentary fashion. Expect to see many different types of footage edited in with live footage. I also plan on composing a multiple song soundtrack to help deter the boredom and snoring. Going the extra mile has added a ton of extra work, but this DVD set is something that I hope people will watch more than once. So I hope to make their viewing experience at least doable if not pleasant!

    Tito A. Belgrave: One thing I have to ask, your character animations always seem to execute with great precision and given the content of the DVD's and your recent work, one has to wonder if you took any martial arts training yourself?

    Jeff Lew: Yes, I have. It's actually a funny story. Growing up, I loved watching action movies. In fact, that was the only genre I watched. (Don't worry, I watch more genres now!) So in high school, I borrowed my dad's video camera and my friends and I made all sorts of crazy action spoofs. Most of them were kung fu spoofs. One of them was called "Cyborg Ninjas Gone Bad." That'll give you a sense of how stupid these movies were. Anyways, we had a lot of fun making them, but then we all split up to go to college. Well, one of my goals in college was to actually learn martial arts to make better home

    movies! I mainly learned Tae Kwon Do. I took that for 4 years. I also took karate for 1 year and I dabbled in kung fu after college.

    Taking martial arts definitely gave me a better awareness of my body and how a body moves. A lot of people who haven't taken any martial arts don't get that it's very scientific. For example, Tae Kwon Do has a lot to do with momentum, using the physics of centripetal force. Say 2 guys the same build take turns kicking you in the gut. The first guy is a white belt and just uses his leg strength to kick you. Ooof! Big deal. I'm still standing. Then the next guy is a black belt and first torques his upper body, then follows with his hips, then accelerates his knee and finally his foot. That's already 4 things accelerating instead of one. But he just doesn't aim at your gut, he aims through you about a foot behind your gut. You will fly through the wall on that one.

    So in terms of animation, since I know how the body should move to generate power, then I can translate that into keyframes much easier. Showing weight and power are two very difficult things to do in animation and I almost never get them right on the first try.

    Learning martial arts and gaining a martial arts mentality has also helped me a lot in choreographing better fight scenes. In KB3, not only will you see more intense action, but also a much deeper mood between characters. People are people. Going through the mental process of squaring off against another person in full contact sparring makes you realize that from a movie-making perspective, action for action's sake is quite boring. It is only when you can see and realize what a person is thinking and emotionally feeling, then the action gets a whole lot more interesting. That's one of my goals in KB3.

    Tito A. Belgrave: The question on everyone's mind is, when is the set releasing?

    Jeff Lew: Argh! With so much done already and still a ton to do, I hope to have my part done in 2 months, but then there’s authoring and replication. So expect a release to happen in 3 months.

     
  • Tito A. Belgrave: As for price you stated at one point you would like it to cost less than a playstation game! This is remarkable considering the amount of time and effort that will be involved, any particular reason why?

    Jeff Lew: Well, I don’t have a degree in business, but something tells me that video games have found the sweet spot for pricing. I also put myself in the consumer’s place. Would I want to pay $200, or $100, or $70 for a training video? What if I don’t like it? Then I would feel ripped off. And since this DVD set is geared towards students and beginners, it needs to be affordable to them. So depending on the cost of manufacturing this DVD, I will try to keep it below the price of a playstation game.



    Tito A. Belgrave: Jeff you're an inspiration to many, and I think I can speak for everyone reading when I say, we anxiously look forward to the upcoming Killer Bean 3. All the best to you.

    Jeff Lew: Thanks! Killer Bean 3 is gonna blow up the spot!! I really can’t wait to get back on it. It’s funny to hear that I’m an inspiration to others. I’m not that old, am I? To me, it only seems like a couple years ago when I was inspired by others to get into CG. BTW, thanks for the great interview!



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    Related Links:
    Download the trailer
    Jeff Lew official website

    From the Director of Community Development, Tito "Lildragon" Belgrave
    Jeff Lew has been and still is to this day an inspiration to many including myself, which is why this interview has been extra special to me personally, based solely on the fact that Jeff Lew himself was the main reason I started the long venture into 3D Character animation. So I hope everyone reading enjoyed this feature interview as much as I have and until our next feature, salud!
    - Lildragon -