A bridge into animation and the world of storytelling
I will admit that I have not been focusing on my fiction writing for the last few months. I will though return to a focused approach and dedicate part of my week (as much as possible) to my writing.
The reason for my time away from writing has not been due to a lack of focus, energy or writers block. I have been sucked into a new world of possibilities and transfixed by a new medium (for me) in the realms of storytelling. The responsible party for this, and the subject of this article, is technology – and a very specific technology at that: computer-generated animation.
On my to-do list for some time was the learning of a software called Unreal 4. This is primarily a games creation engine, but due to its growing power and wonderful high-resolution graphics, it is now being used for more than just making video games. It is being used for architecture, film-making and animation.
The film-making and animation possibilities are what caught my eye and finally, about 6 months ago, I got around to sitting down and doing a four hour tutorial with this software and (believe it or not) this is enough learning time to get started with creating scenes and environments. I did another short tutorial and this got me started making animations – all this using only Unreal 4…
Since then I have not ceased to be amazed at the storytelling possibilities, with this software, that lie in front of me. – I have an amazing medium to tell stories and this is something that was not possible to do, with such relative ease, just a few years ago.
Below is the 3rd animation I have made using Unreal 4.
Its real-time render engine makes it fluid and efficient to work with and you don’t need to wait or leave it overnight to render an animation!
This video is the first time I animated characters (the animals in this case) and although I will admit it was a little fiddly and took some trial and error to get the position and movement correct (or at least to a point where I was happy enough to finalise it) it was relatively straight forward to do. The deer, the crows, the fox and the slow undulations of the lake water were all relatively straight forward.
However, all the animations in the video above were pre-made animations where I could control the speed and direction (e.g. A walking animation – not created by me, but downloaded from the Unreal store or another website). These pre-made animations are extremely useful and I will use them many times in the future, but to create in-depth animations that tell narrative stories – I needed to learn how to create new animations.
This is not the easiest process to either carry out, or to find a lot of information on. I spent time investigating and reading up on animations. At first I found that in Unreal 4 there is a section of the software where you can edit and manipulate pre-made animations and even create some basic animations from scratch, although it wasn’t developed for this purpose and is limited to say the least if using it to create new movements.
It was also at this point where I had one of those moments where I felt like giving up. Animations can take a lot of work and without guidance at first they can be daunting. However, after a short break and refresh, I picked myself up and started working at it again.
By piecing together some info from videos on YouTube and some other websites I found out that new animations are created in 3D and modelling software programs such as Maya or Blender. (This will come as no surprise to anyone that works or knows of CG animation, but this was a steep learning curve for me). So for example, you can take a character (export as an fbx/static mesh) from Unreal and import into Blender. In Blender you can animate the rig (or its skeleton bones) as its called, and then when you have a new animation you can export as an FBX back into Unreal 4 Engine. Or start with a model in blender and import that, with its animations, into Unreal engine.
(This can have some complications though, sometimes Unreal 4 will not recognise a rig from Blender or something will get broken in the transfer process. I won’t go into detail of that now as I’m keeping this article non-technical as possible).
The good news is that I learnt how to create new animations, or at least one way of how to do them. Another piece of great news, as I write this article is the firm Epic (who make Unreal 4) are creating an add-on for Blender that will export models and I hope rigs and animations from Blender to Unreal. There is also work on new functionality in Unreal 4 where users can create animations in Unreal with no need for ever stepping outside of the program – this in itself will be an excellent advance.
This brings me to one final point for this article. – I started by using Unreal 4 and ready-made models and animations from Unreal marketplace and other websites such as CGtrader. But along with animations, I realised I would need to create models of characters or objects myself. For this I found Blender…
Spring – A short film by the Blender animation studio
Another amazing program, Blender, free to download and use – is not a games engine like Unreal 4, but a CG modelling, video and graphics program. Here you can create 3D models, add textures and materials. And also you can animate and rig them (to name just a few things!).
Over the last several months I have been engrossed with Blender and have done countless tutorials online. I have learnt how to create models, rig them and more about animations. I can also create stories and animations in Blender without the need for Unreal 4 (although Unreal 4 does have a fantastic real-time rendering engine – animate as you go). Although Blender also has a great real-time animation engine (called Eevee), and the render engine called Cycles which produces far more realistic looking light and models, but takes much longer to render scenes (perhaps even days).
This Moment in History
In some ways, I am fortunate to be around in a moment of history where creating 3D animations and having some amazing tools for film making have never been so accessible. Although one way or another, they give us other forms of storytelling.
Our ancestors told stories over the fireplace and in tribe gatherings, and after that we developed more formalised ways of storytelling, through practice and the setting up of set spaces, stages and amphitheatres, where audiences were entertained, and the attendees were no longer just part of the village, but came from near and far.
After that, we found other avenues to tell tales and stories. Through animated sequences of drawings (cartoon animations) and the use of celluloid film to make movies or short films. Celluloid has now been replaced by high definition digital video (which is also possible on mobile phones of all things – although not to the quality of professional video cameras). But before any camera (from that of the Camera Obscura – to the Red Epic Dragon) we were and are engrossed by storytelling. – This above all else has to remain central to any medium that is used to tell stories. No matter the technology I use, I must remember to keep the story at the heart of the creation. Whether using a Camera, keyboard or pen. – After all it is the story counts.