Mike Dietz explains The Neverhood's unique stop-motion animation process in detail.
Download a Quicktime movie of Mike Dietz demonstrating his animation techniques. 1.7 MB. © Animation World Network.
How do you go from stop-motion puppet animation to CD-ROM computer graphics? Mike Dietz of The Neverhood details the animation process for us, using their project Skullmonkeys as an example.
The animation done for the Skullmonkeys game is broken down into two groups: one is the interactive/gameplay animation and the other is the cinematic sequences.
The interactive animation represents all of Klaymen's actions (Klaymen is the character that the game player is controlling), and all of the actions of the characters that Klaymen interacts with during gameplay. All of this animation was done by two animators, Edward Schofield and myself, using a system that I developed during production of our PC game, The Neverhood. Since every game session is different, it is impossible to script out exactly what Klaymen and the other characters are going to be doing. As a result, what we do is animate short sequences of actions such as runs, jumps, climbs, etc., and design these sequences so that they can flow smoothly from one to the other in every conceivable order.
Our process of doing this for Skullmonkeys was first to animate all of these sequences out on paper before any stop-motion work was done. We then scanned these drawings into the computer and did a quick digital ink and paint job using AXA software. This allowed us to take these digital pencil tests and put them into our game engine. We could then test the actions in actual gameplay before moving on to the stop-motion work. Any problems found at this stage were easily fixed by altering the pencil test drawings.
Once the animation was approved, we built our puppets using traditional stop-motion techniques (clay, latex, wire armatures, ball and socket armatures, etc.) and shot them on green screen sets. Green screens were used so that any given action only had to be shot once and then later dropped in, in front of the many different backgrounds in the game.
The animation was shot using Sony DCR-VX1000 digital cameras connected to Pentium PC's via Sony DVBK-1000 Fire Wire Still Image Capture Boards. Using this combination of camera and capture card allows us to capture the images digitally and transfer them to the computer without ever having to do an analog conversion. We also had a secondary video feed coming out of the camera hooked up to an Animation Toolworks Video Lunchbox and a monitor. This allowed us to get instant feedback while animating, as the Lunchbox is capable of storing and playing back 256 frames of animation. Also patched into this monitor was a second camera mounted on a copy stand with pegbars, so that we could use a Panasonic Digital AV mixer to flip between our live image of the puppet and our pencil test drawings. This made it easier to make sure all of our sequences hooked up properly, and allowed us to see if we were straying too far from our original drawings.
Once the animation was complete, we took the sequentially numbered bitmap files (that is the output file format from the Sony Capture software) and loaded them into Debabelizer Pro, where we chroma-keyed out the greenscreen. We then took these images and built our sequences using our proprietary animation scripting software, ToolX, which was written by one of our programmers, Kenton Leach. Using this tool was similar to entering the images into an exposure sheet, which then wrote out a proprietary sequence file which could be read by our game engine, which again was written by Kenton, Tim Lorenzen and Brain Bellfield. Rather than having a programmer try to get it as close as he can, ToolX allows our animators to have complete control of how their animation looks on screen.
The cinematic sequences, which were all directed and nearly all animated by Doug TenNapel, were shot in a much more traditional fashion. These are the short, non-interactive movies that a player gets to watch throughout the game. The only difference between these sequences and a typical stop-motion production was that Doug used the same digital camera set-up that Ed and I used on our green screen sets. Once Doug was done with his shots he loaded his sequential images into Autodesk Animator Studio, where he edited them and built .AVI files. These .AVI files were then compressed for playback on the PlayStation using the Sony PlayStation movie compressor. At this point, the final soundtracks were also mixed in as .WAV files.
And that's pretty much how we produced all of the animation in the Skullmonkeys game.
Some people can make it sound so easy.