Animation on a Draconic Scale: Getting From Ideas to Final Results

Articles
02/21/2020

My name is Vitalii Halka, and I’m an Animation Artist at Plarium Kharkiv. In this article, I want to let you know what the workflow of game animation is like using my experience of animating the dragon from Raid: Shadow Legends.

Setting Your Objective

From the outset, it is important to have a clearly defined objective for your task. If this is clear, it allows you to select your priorities, pick suitable reference art, and form a concept that takes into account all limitations and conditions.

My task was to create some of the animations for the dragon and meet the following requirements:

  • Unique animations – meaning that they wouldn’t be used for creatures that have different anatomies
  • Boss-worthy – none of its moves should be boring or conventional
  • Weight considerations – the dragon is 8-10 times bigger than the playable characters, so its moves must be reflected in its weight
  • Animation specification matching – each animation has a technical specification that the dragon’s moves have to match
  • Animation sequence line-up – the order in which the animations take place is important and should be agreed upon with game designers and technical artists
  • No prolonged animations – animations shouldn’t feel like they’re dragging on, and should adhere to the frame sequence duration

Here is the list of animations we decided to make for the dragon:

  • Skill 1 – the dragon launches an AOE fire breath attack
  • Skill 2 – the dragon places a buff and strengthens itself. This takes a whole turn
  • Skill 3 – the dragon launches an AOE attack while strengthened by the buff
  • Idle – the dragon rests and is strengthened by the buff
  • Hit 1 – the dragon receives minor damage when hit during the idle animation
  • Hit 2 – the dragon receives major damage when hit during the idle animation, and the damage is large enough to remove the buff

I began with the animation of Skill 1. The idea was clear: we needed deadly fire breath with a noticeable inhale phase (in preparation for the attack) and a sharp exhale phase. The dragon would lower its head as close to the ground as possible to make its attack more accurate and make sure all its enemies are engulfed by its noxious flames.

After outlining what the dragon would do and how, I made sure, as always, to talk with my team lead or art director to get approval before I proceeded to find reference art.

Finding Reference Art

Because they have been featured in countless movies, cartoons, games, and TV shows, there is a plethora of dragon reference art. But what that means is that there are also countless variations to consider. So, taking other dragons into account, I had to make some decisions regarding the anatomy of the dragon we were going to create. This included its neck length, differences between its fore and hind limbs, the size of its wings and where they were placed. We decided to attach the wings to the forearms rather than placing them separately on the dragon’s back.

Artist: Javier Franco Santacreu https://www.artstation.com/javierfrancosantacreu

I used several reference sources when working on just a single animation. I would pick the parts I liked best such as shoulder or leg movements, or the shake of a head. Working on some other movements even required filming myself.

What’s great about recreating movements yourself is that you get a much deeper understanding of the nuances that are critical for a great animation.

Timing

To figure out the timing, I prepared a simple cube animation (see below). This allows me to assess quickly whether or not an idea will work. It is also simple to edit in this form, so introducing corrections and changes is easy too.

Blocking

The next stage I moved onto was blocking. This is where I set key poses using our rig. I used the cube as a reference object to determine placement and timing. During the blocking stage, the most important thing was to focus on the high and low poses. To keep that focus at this time, I kept the wing geometry hidden until the splining stage.

Inbetweening

Next I added the intermediate frames and adjusted the initial key poses before interpolating the keys to be splined. Then, to make our character easier to read, we checked our animation using the camera coordinates that are closest to the in-game view.

Splining

After the inbetweening stage, the next step is splining the keys. Remember that the dragon is colossal in size, so almost every part of its body has residual motion. We gave residual motion only to the dragon’s most basic, massive body parts. It is at this point that it is best to check your animation using elements of the in-game scene.

Finalizing

In this final stage, we added micro-movements, vibrations, and residual motion to almost every body part. Animation layers and auxiliary objects are quite handy in this process. There is an excellent tutorial here on using Layers. Layers is not only useful in addition to other tools, it is actually a powerful and self-sufficient tool that can be used to create animations from scratch.

In the animation below, only four key poses were used:

  • Idle – the character’s initial and final resting pose
  • Anticipation – when it was preparing for action and accumulating energy
  • Hit – when it was launching an attack and hitting the enemy
  • Settle – when the action fades and ends

For the subtler, finer, and more realistic movements, I used the following tools:

  • BroDynamics – This is a plugin based on the standard Particle Goal and nHair tools. It is used for various animations that require overlapping
  • bhGhost. This tool is based on Ghost. It is quick to access and has handy controls
  • Spring Magic – This is a script that can create dynamic animations for bone chains. It’s used for tail, cloth, hair simulations, and so on
  • Studio Library – This is a free tool for pose and animation management in Autodesk Maya
  • AnimBot – This is a plugin with a whole toolset of helpful animation functions

The tools listed above can really boost the quality of your animation.

Reviewing and Optimizing

I was still working on the animation for Skill 1 when I got an idea on how to connect and transition between the animations from the initial list. I decided to cut the Skill 1 animation into two parts:

  • Idle Pose 1 – the dragon’s initial resting pose
  • Idle Pose 2 – the dragon’s initial resting pose with the buff applied




Cutting a single animation into two helped solve several tasks at once. We gained ideas for Skills 2 and 3, as well as Idle Pose 2, which became the starting point for Skill 3, Hit 1, Hit 2, and the Idle animations.

Conclusion

Creation of a top-quality in-game animation requires a solid foundation. The best way to get to a roaring final product is to thoroughly plan the animation pipeline, find suitable reference art, pick scripts to optimize and enhance your work, and (most importantly) have plenty of patience.

Original article: render.ru