Animating in Source Filmmaker – “The Big Surprise” & how I did it


As I put together my animation reel & portfolio earlier, it became apparent that I had no recent examples of character acting nor dialogue scenes. This obviously lead me to assign myself a project – find a good juicy line of dialogue, and animate a character to it. Now I’ve already been exploring & learning the freely available Source Filmmaker tool from Valve, so I immediately thought to springboard off with it. The focus of this new clip was to show off character animation, so that fortunately saved time by restricting it to a single shot, without extra camera moves nor cutting.

The Audio

First, I headed over to an old standby from my college days: The MovieWavs site!
This place is a fantastic resource for finding short audio clips (In .wav or higher quality .MP3 format) for animators to use in their own personal projects. I hit up the movies section, and just browsed, clicking on various films.
Important Tip! Try to pick something that has a range to it – monotony is dull – and pick something that ISN’T from your all-time absolute favorite film. Why? Avoid favorites because you will hear that line over, and over, and over… You can end up HATING that part, because you’ll hear every little nuance. Same tip applies to animating to music – don’t pick your favorite song.
Ultimately I settled on a classic movie, The Shining directed by Stanley Kubrick, and Jack Nicholson’s scene in the kitchen pantry. It was a great monologue, and it had laughter in it, which was a good challenge. Making laughter look convincing without straying into a mechanical staccato motion is a good exercise for animators.

The line transcription: “You’ve got a big surprise coming to you. You’re not going anywhere. Go check out the snowcat and the radio and you’ll see what I mean. Go check it out! Go check it out!! Go check it out.” (Link to MP3)

The Planning

Never skip the planning stage when creating any kind of work, including film & animation! Unfortunately there’s little for me to show you, as I have just pages of notes I wrote, breaking down the emphasis and pacing of the audio. Little scribbles in the margins & between lines like “BIG! (1.1sec)” or what sort of emotion to aim for at key points. I also drew a very loose thumbnail storyboard of the poses I thought would work with the phrases & sub-phrases. Ultimately the final product differed from those initial sketches, but you need to start somewhere in order to see where you need to go.
Also, I did a bit of “location scouting” in Source Filmmaker, looking for the right kind of map from Team Fortress 2 that I could use, as well as finding the right kind of props to inspire me in the Source engine’s asset library. The Shining lent itself to looking for wintry COLD maps, which narrowed my search massively, and fortunately there was a great medical/interrogation chair from Half-Life 2 that I could use. The idea I had in my head from when I found the audio made it much simpler to build the shot. There is nothing worse, nothing more soul-destroying, than aimlessly lumping stuff together until it looks “sorta cool.” With the initial setup done in Source Filmmaker, it was time to begin animating!

The Animating

It is worth mentioning at this point that everything I write/say is what I think – it may not fit perfectly with your own processes! Every artist has an individual methodology that lands on a vast spectrum – some are easier to learn than others, but the difficulty in each is up to the individual. Some of the best creators I’ve seen use convoluted labor-intensive plans, that come as easily as breathing to them, while others freely surf the wild abandon of “straight ahead” into gleaming final products. That said, it helps to have an idea of what works, when you know WHY it works for that person. Onwards!

The first phase of character animation I tackle is the Line of Action. Much like the flour-sack exercise taught in many animation courses, it is essential that the very core of the actor is moving & shaped in the way of their business in a scene. On this foundation, all the other additional layers of animation serve to enhance & strengthen the animation. For this clip, it was the pelvis, spine, neck & head of the Sniper. If I could make just those parts LOOK like he was saying the words and laughing, the hardest part of the animation was achieved. The best facial animation in the world will be useless if the body is a lifeless broken mannequin. Body posture and movement can speak volumes while the actor is hidden in a mask (See V for Vendetta and Bane of Dark Knight Rises)

The results of the first phase:
Note: I also blocked in a rough eye direction with the Sniper rig’s view-target, as the eyes where solid white 95% of the time – distracting!

The second phase – I targeted the shoulders, arms (via elbow up-nodes), hands & fingers, the eyes, and the jaw bone. At this stage it’s a little odd to call it “secondary” action as these are still quite essential to the overall character animation, but these elements do reinforce the primary core. It takes self-restraint to avoid over-animating any one part. The best way to control it is in the planning stages; I had notes like opening up the hands & eyes during the “BIG” phrase.
Important tip! The jaw animation was a good reminder of what we humans see versus hear – do NOT just flap the jaw to match the sound waveform in the audio – it will look off and ‘too slow.’ One of the main factors as to why is that we generally open our mouths before we begin to vocalize – forming the shape of the lips, tongue and jaw before firing the voicebox. There’s no dead-set rule as to how early to start, but generally 2-3 frames (in 30 fps) is a good starting point. Re-playing OFTEN will tell whether you need to go earlier or later, as well as the speed of the change.
Further lip-sync animation would be done in the final phase – I chose to render this phase before the final finished clip.

The Final Phase

This is the last of the parts to be animated – the face, with the brows, cheeks, nose, and lips. By this point all the underlying animation will inform you where to place those keys, and where to put the extra polish in. I’m also going to the earlier parts for some minor tweaking, like the head was going a bit too far, or adjusting the timing of the eyes – there’s always room for improvement. (But you also need to know when to stop and move on!)
Another important tip! Human beings are inherently lazy – we will seek energy-efficient movements as often as we can, consciously or not. Same applies to speaking – Do. Not. Enunciate. Every. Syllable. The general speed of human speech means that we visually “smear” our phonemes, and if you try to make every sound have a visual shape, the character will look like a bizarre machine. Instead try to aim for the primary emphasised syllables first, and then work down from there. Sometimes a word will be long enough that the mouth can blend into the next syllable clearly, even if it’s a soft one.
The eyebrows – I love expressive eyebrows, and it’s up to you to determine of the character will use much of them or not; some people have very static faces, while others have lively animated phases that figuratively show the gears turning in their heads. I use the brows to reinforce what the eyes are doing, as well as swing the intent of the character’s thinking. It was unfortunate that the TF2 Sniper rig wasn’t as broadly expressive as I’d like, but that’s just how animation work goes – you work with what you’ve got. Once again, take care to avoid over-animating the face! Unless it is your intent to make a very nervous/twitchy character.

The above image is to give some of you an idea of how complex facial animation can be, here’s what the animation keys & curves (change over time) looks like for just the face rig in isolation, with a portion of the audio it’s synced with.

The finished result!

Some of the things I learnt from this self-assigned project:
– The Source Filmmaker tool, while great, has some picky quirks (especially in the keyframe editor) that I had to burn a fair bit of time to devise a work-around or change in my workflow. This is always the case when still acquainting yourself with new tools/pipeline. So don’t freak out if it takes you longer than you initially guessed.
– Short is sweeter. This scene clocks in at 32.9 seconds, which generally speaking is much longer than most shots on a TV show, movie or game cinematic run for. That said, it’s good to reach for the stars and go for broke once in a while.
– In future self-projects, I look forward to going for more dynamic editing in a single short, and with additional characters. Even though that WILL increase the workload dramatically!

Thanks for reading, and good luck with your own animation work!