Imitation to Smash Limitations

Between graduating college and entering the professional world of animation, there is a huge and sudden gap in resources and learning. How do we go from a walk cycle or ball bounce to Castlevania?

One of the problems with being stranded in this no-man's land between the two is that we have to set our own goals and ourselves be the judge of whether our work is up to scratch or not.

But how do we know when we've reached this standard?

The benefit of emulating others is that it gives you a direct comparison - are you good enough to achieve what they achieved?

Ghibli of Mana

This was the aim of Mike and I when we embarked upon the journey that is Ghibli of Mana!

The classic Secret of Mana is one of our most nostalgic childhood games. We decided to animate some of our favourite story moments in the style of a Ghibli feature.  

Yeah, I know.


We wanted to try to push ourselves, stretching out of our comfort zones and creating something beyond what we had achieved so far.

To begin, I looked at a lot of Ghibli screenshots to reference how to draw characters in that style, and came up with a rough lineup. A lot of the faces are based explicitly on the faces of existing characters from Miyazaki's films. For example, I relied heavily on shots of Ponyo's mother for Undine's (water spirit) design. 

The first shot we undertook on this project was back mid last year, when we first came up with the idea. 

I completed the rough animation quickly in Toon Boom and then relied heavily on the cleanup stage to pull the character onto model and refine the animation. 

We used an existing background from Princess Mononoke for this shot to see how well we could tie the character into Studio Ghibli's world. Mike's colour pass helped a lot with this.

We had to hop off the project before completing the shot to do freelance work, but Ghibli of Mana continues to be a goal that we always have on the backburner ready to jump onto whenever we have the time. It's a long term commitment but one that continually excites us to talk about and work on.

When time freed up a bit a couple of weeks ago, I pulled together this animatic for the scene in which they first encounter the water spirit, Undine.

I was thinking a lot about the staging in Ponyo when I boarded this. Not only did I want to challenge myself with the angles, I wanted to tell the story as I feel Miyazaki would have wanted to tell it. A lot of this is guesswork, and stealing his staging choices from elsewhere.

This shot also marks the first time I have ever animated water! That's a pretty scary thing. How does Ghibli water move and feel? You could say I was a little out of my depth - haaaaah!

This is the kind of study you're forced to do when trying to emulate a particular way of drawing or animating.

Here, I found reference shots from Ghibli films and traced over the water, trying to pay attention to the shapes used and internalise the look and feel of it. As you can see from the above images, the water tends to have rounded blunt shapes rather than sharp shards, and there is a feeling of thickness and gloop to it, probably partially because of the rounded shapes.

The artists tend to use a base shape + a layer of shadow + a layer of surface marking to show direction and flow + highlights + very thin highlight lines that depict flow and motion.

The water here also tends to move more slowly than I've seen in other animations. Ghibli effects take their time and will not be rushed.

You can see that they have even drawn in Ponyo's reflection. It looks like some of the highlights on top of that are semi transparent, as you can still see her reflection's form through them. They also seem to have blurred it in Post Production. These things, noticed through this exercise, will help us to push closer to authentically capturing the look of Ghibli.

I actually have a flipbook of this scene, so I tried to find this same drawing to compare the actual lines on the effects to the lines I traced, and I discovered that this particular frame has been left out. I found the two frames either side, though! 

 Most likely this sequence made the flipbook too thick, so they ended up taking out every other frame, essentially putting the animation on 2's. 

I mean, it's already pretty hefty!

After looking at Ghibli water scenes, and in particular Spirited Away's bathhouse scenes, I did a water test to see if I could animate something that felt it was in the ballpark of what we were going for. This was my first time animating water, and I took care to try and emulate the same layers of shade and highlight and the same shape language that I saw in the Ghibli drawings.

The background is from Shawn McKelvey's  blog, and was created for Scooby Doo Mystery Inc. 

I have received some great feedback from friends and colleagues on how this animation can be improved, so I hope they'll forgive me that I haven't made the changes quite yet!

After completing the test, I felt like it was time to take the plunge. I spent the last week of Animorning Livestreams creating this piece of animation for the scene.

Believe me, this was a real struggle and took a while. Looking over it though, I could see a lot of problems. I didn't like the way the large round shapes were moving, it felt very unnatural to me. I had also tried to draw a circular guide shape under the boiling to give myself a base to work on, but as it didn't move, the animation I layered on top felt odd and like it needed to pulse and boil more.

After looking it over and after a lot of tweaks and redos, I decided to go back to the drawing board and restart. This time, I would animate just the basic shapes and would also work backwards from the keyframe I liked the most to make sure everything geared up to that moment.

This may just be a simple block of shapes, but I do prefer how it moves, and I feel like I have learned a lot already about how to approach effects animation. We can't always get wins, but the failures are great learning experiences.

I'm finding this project extremely difficult and that is simultaneously my torture and the most fantastic thing about it. I know that I will come out of this a better animator with more tools in my belt - and that is the beauty of trying to walk in the footsteps of giants :)

Some would look down on those who emulate the work of others, but I think it's an invaluable exercise that helps you to see exactly where your work falls short, so you can target these areas. 

Emulation is not photocopying - it is not an unthinking process. It requires you to understand the choices the artist/animator is making and why. That is why I tend to avoid reproducing an animation frame by frame (though this has its own value). Creating my own shot 'in the style of' forces me to analyse and understand the choices. I have to constantly ask myself the question 'How would Miyazaki draw this?' 'How would he make this move?'.

I hope you guys will try to achieve the same standard as your favourite artists/animators and use this to push you to a professional level!

Now, Doig is going to take the reigns and show you guys how he emulated the colour direction on effects on our recent fanart piece for...

Blossom Detective Holmes

Last week, we entered Steve Ahn's Blossom Detective Holmes fanart competition - and we're delighted to let you know we were awarded a Grand Prize for the looping animation we created (featured in this posts banner image). 

For those who don't know, Steve Ahn is a director/storyboard artist who has worked on series such as Voltron and Avatar: The Legend of Korra. If you've not seen the first episode of his mystery thrilller miniseries you can see Episode 1 here

Steve Ahn is currently funding future episodes through an active kickstarter campaign - as of writing there are 6 days left!

My role on this project was to colour the animation frames to match the style and feel from the animated episode.

We gathered reference material from concept artwork, stills sourced from the episode and the fantastic color script animatic to arrive at the flat colours, which are an amalgamation of the hues picked from varying lighting scenarios that the characters were found in.

The flats felt a little static and lifeless to me so we don't stop there! In this next step we've added a Gradient Layer Style to the layer, which adds a linear light to dark transition over the characters to give the impression that light is being cast on them from above.

Additionally a Color Balance Effect has been applied directly to their layer with adjustments made to their Midtone ranges, here are the settings:

Both the red and blue channels have been heightened in the mid tone range. Red, to add a little warmth in color temperature throughout and blue due to the lighting from the surrounding environment, as this would have an influence on their perceived colours.

I tried to capture the mysterious camera effect featured in the episode as shown below.

We had to compromise on the effect, choosing to have the camera flash occur after the glow so we could use the flash to hide their disappearance. In the actual episode the outer glow effect / magic happens after the flash.

We hit a snag when applying the inner glow effect to the masked layer, and this can be seen on the bottom of the panels where the glow hits a sudden horizontal boundary and results in unnatural lighting which mismatches with the shape of the characters!

We solved the sudden boundary glow by adding a duplicate layer of the characters above and then masking the top section of them with Feather applied to the mask. 

Feathering softens the edge of the mask, similar to a gradient.

Looking at the glow effect in comparison to the reference still now, we feel that the intensity and vibrancy of the glow should have been increased. They also used a smokey / misty edge to the glow which provided additional character and specificity to their effect which we were not able to replicate in the short amount of time that we had.

Having the guidance of an established team and how they approached the colour design of their characters and gloamy lighting that they're placed in, it was a fun challenge to try and emulate them in a recognizable way.

Exploring new palettes in this way helps to broaden my own understanding of colour relationships and possibilities. It almost feels like there is a natural palette each of us gravitate towards because we find it appealing, and it's refreshing to shake that off in favour of understanding someone else's approach - to see where their influences have taken them.

I'm currently working on an amazing comic where I need to match and emulate the unexpectedness of the artist Matias Bergara - I'll let you know more about this in the comic update on Wednesday.

Next time!

There is an upcoming project that we are excited to get started on that we will be announcing next Animation update, so watch out for that!
We'll also be talking about why you should do what you love.

In the meantime, please let us know which artist or animator you think it would push you most to try emulating in the comments below!

Doig & Swift

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