Role: Animator   /   Employer: Simon Fraser University, Work Integrated Learning

Paid Co-op: Sept ~ Dec 2016   /  Project Type: 2D animation, Graphic Design, Storytelling, Educational       

Program used: Adobe After Effects, Adobe Illustrator, Audacity

 

“Common Workplace Phrases” is a series of animated videos that teaches the usage of certain idioms or phrases used in today’s workplace. The video was created for the EAL’s (English as Additional Language) Job Search Success curriculum. One of the challenges of being an EAL/international student is the unfamiliarity with different native idioms and phrases that might be used in the workplace. My task as the animator was to educate students and any EAL individuals about these phrases without the need of text blocks but with animation. These videos are now featured in the curriculum and is seen by numerous institutions in Canada. 

 

Humble Beginnings: Pre-production

I was given a list of different phrases and idioms to choose from. The ones I chose would be the feature phrase for an animation. The phrases I chose were; “In a nutshell”, “Elephant in the room”, “Seeing Eye to Eye”, “Piece of cake”, “Hold the phone”, “Taking a raincheck” and “Back to square one”. These ones were chosen because I thought of different scenes I could create just from first glance. For example, with “Elephant in the room”, many EAL students and individual alike take “Elephant in the room” literally when they first hear it, giving birth to funny scenes. A lot of time was spent on the pre-production for character design, environment design and visual styles.

 

Gallery: A quick storyboard of how a story would progress in a "Common Workplace Phrases" video.

 

I took inspiration from Seth McFarlane’s “Family Guy” style of storytelling. In “Family Guy”, Seth McFarlane uses an editing technique where the scene transitions from one scene to a flashback-esque scene. An example of this in my "In a nutshell" video is the transition from the two characters speaking on the phone to a scene where one of the characters roll into the office in a nutshell. The shifting to a different visual scene to humorously and literally, shows what a person’s understanding of the phrase looks like in their head. Combine this with a background story of how the characters came to say these phrases, usually of my own personal experiences, and a script for an episode is created.

 
 Scene from "In a Nutshell" video; showing two characters talking on the phone.

Scene from "In a Nutshell" video; showing two characters talking on the phone.

 Scene from "In a Nutshell" video; showing the "unreal" scene depicting idioms understood in a literal manner. 

Scene from "In a Nutshell" video; showing the "unreal" scene depicting idioms understood in a literal manner. 

 

Designing the Characters

 Initial sketches of the possible characters created in Adobe Illustrator. This art board was a good reference to see what kind of emotions I could evoke from the characters and the visual style. 

Initial sketches of the possible characters created in Adobe Illustrator. This art board was a good reference to see what kind of emotions I could evoke from the characters and the visual style. 

 

One of the biggest challenges of this project was the characters themselves. Initial character designs started out as black outlines but when I started to add color, the topic of racial representation came into play. Working with international students was a big part of the EAL and SFU WIL's vision . Canada is one of the more multicultural nations in the world. This meant it was my task to represent the different nationalities as much as possible. This resulted in the initial four characters of Caucasian origins to be diversified into several different cultures. 

By incorporating different cultures, the video showed that everyone can get these phrases mixed up from their intended meaning; no culture was an exception to this. As a designer, it was a demanding challenge to create characters of different cultures from what kind of hairstyles and clothing they would wear. The approach was to have the characters wear their traditional clothing such as a hijab or turban to help convey the character’s cultural background. This required a lot of browsing through image libraries which educated me on different types of clothing styles different cultures have.  

I made four different character templates; two male and two female. From there, I tried applying different skin tones for different races and chose the combination I found visually fitting. I initially planned for the animation to feature SD (super deformed) characters, but it was my decision that the overly cute aesthetic might not be taken as seriously thus I resorted to more “realistically” proportioned characters. On the bright side, I used the SD versions of the characters for the ending postcards which ended the videos on a bright note. 

 

Character artboards with different color palettes for each character for the different nationalities. 

 Final character designs for "Common Workplace Phrases" with diversified cultural backgrounds.

Final character designs for "Common Workplace Phrases" with diversified cultural backgrounds.

 

Bringing the characters to life

The animation process is as follows: Save each limb of the character as individual image and import it into After Effects. Once imported, add puppet pins to each limb for each joint in the respective limb (wrist, elbow, shoulder, etc). Activate Duik and convert the pins into bones then assign handles to specific bones which I will use to animate the limb. This process is very finicky and easy to end up with unintentional movement, thus attention to detail is very important. 

 Preparing a character for animation: Adding pins (yellow dots) to where the joints would be (hand, elbow, shoulder)

Preparing a character for animation: Adding pins (yellow dots) to where the joints would be (hand, elbow, shoulder)

  Preparing a character for animation: Creating bones (red square) at where the pins are.

Preparing a character for animation: Creating bones (red square) at where the pins are.

  Preparing a character for animation: Creating handles to where the bones are (green symbol) to allow for easy manipulation.

Preparing a character for animation: Creating handles to where the bones are (green symbol) to allow for easy manipulation.

Once all the characters were equipped with the handles for me to animate them, it was time to add motion to them. I followed a linear workflow where I animated one movement at a time. A lot of thought was gone into how a human actually moves about. This animation is a bit on the fictional side, but it still needed to retain somewhat realistic movements. When I needed reference, I would ask fellow co-workers to perform an action I wanted to animate in real life to see how the human body moved.

 Expressing emotions: all it takes is a pair of sticks.

Expressing emotions: all it takes is a pair of sticks.

Because of the visual style I decided to go with for faster production, there aren’t many details about the character’s face to really express emotion. However, facial expression can be achieved even with the littlest of details. In my case, having two horizontal sticks for eyebrows were more than enough to express confusion, frustration and feeling of surprise. By limiting myself to a specific visual style, I was able to find other ways to achieve the same visual fidelity. 

Once the animations were finished, I added the dialogue lines written during the creation of the script. At first, I used a text-to-speech service, IVONA, to get a grasp of the duration of each line in order to make the necessary timing and syncing changes to the animation. After the initial syncing of the dialogue to the animation, I recorded real voice lines with the help of fellow co-workers to end up with the final product. The voices were recorded using a Zoom H4N audio recorder and the sounds were edited in Audacity. Because a computer's reading speed and a real person's reading speed is different, I had to go in and re-sync the character and lip movement. It is my belief that even the slightest off-sync is noticed by the audience. Striving for near-perfection, I spent a lot of effort to make sure that all the audio and the animations were synchronized. 

 

Start of something bigger

 
 

Even though the characters were re-used for certain videos, everything else was created specifically for that video. The script, dialogue, venue, interactions and graphics; no two videos were the same. It was rewarding to see 5 completed videos at the end of the first half of my co-op term. Through this short time span, I learned how to create 2D characters with their own style and personality. I was limiting myself to only specialize in 3D animation and 3D computer graphics, venturing out to new areas of animation gave me inspiration to further continue down this path for the future. It was also rewarding to see the growth of my animation and graphic design skills proven by my current animation project for SFU WIL which is in production right now. All in all, this project was an eye-opener for me to further expand my skill sets to other areas of motion design.