Nov 05, 2021

macOS Monterey & Toon Boom Harmony

macOS Monterey & Toon Boom Harmony
Toon Boom Animation recommends that Harmony users delay updating to macOS Monterey (12.0.1)

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Apr 27, 2021

Apple M1 Chipset & Toon Boom Software

Apple is in the process of transitioning their line of macOS computers to a new ARM-based hardware architecture. The first Macs powered by the Apple M1 chipset were released on November 17, 2020.

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Oli Putland on assembling The Empress rig in Harmony Premium

Oli Putland's The Empress rig

Oli Putland created The Empress rig as a research project. His goal: design an easily animatable, but realistic, humanoid character using Toon Boom Harmony. Before working in 2D animation, Oli spent years on stop motion productions, until he felt the urge to go freelance and focus on personal projects. During this time he began exploring how to rig 2D characters.  

The art of designing character rigs in 2D has some parallels to building stop motion puppets. Creating a puppet is a time-consuming craft, which requires attention to detail. Ease of use for animators — whether with a stop motion puppet or a 2D rig — is the key to a smooth production. After spending months creating Empress, Oli wanted to share his research and the resulting rig with his Patreon and YouTube community: In September, he released a video tutorial that talks viewers through animating The Empress. 

We caught up with Oli to learn about his background as an animator, how he transitioned from working in stop motion to 2D, and how he approached creating The Empress rig. 

Oli Putland created a tutorial for animating The Empress rig in Toon Boom Harmony Premium.

Hi Oli! To begin, can you share a bit about your animation background?

As a kid, I was always interested in art, and in animation as a career. But initially, I didn’t attend an art school. My teachers knew about my interests, so they let me bring to class a makeshift lightbox that my Dad built me out of an old crate; complete with a really hot light bulb inside. I lugged it to school where I could sit at my desk and draw using my pencil and photocopy paper. Then I would film the drawings at home, using a Super 8 camera, to create animation. 

When I got older, I went to the BRIT School, which is a British performing arts and technology school. Although the school is really well known now, it wasn’t when I attended. It was a great school for me because there I was able to learn more about the behind-the scenes-aspects of animating. It’s there that I began learning how to animate using computer software. 

While in my first year at university, I got a job designing characters for Martin Pullen. He worked on several stop motion series and created a few, like The Treacle People and Tom and Vicky. At this point, I knew that I wanted to work in stop motion. I had done lots of drawing work, but there was something about seeing 3-dimensional stuff like Wallace and Gromit that appealed to me. I loved the lighting and detail of stop motion animation. 

Then I eventually made a showreel for myself. In the early 2000s, I got a job at Hot Animation in Manchester. (The studio that created Bob the Builder and rebooted Pingu). Although I’d done some freelance work, this job was the true start of my animation career. I loved it there, and I learned a lot of things about production I didn’t expect — such as how to streamline the production process and budget time efficiently.

From there I went to Cosgrove Hall Films, working in their stop motion department, and then Aardman Animations. In the years that followed I went basically all around the country from studio to studio, working in stop motion. But I eventually found myself itching to work on my own stuff more. So around 10 years ago, I went into full time freelancing, and picked up 2D animation again. 

I got back into doing 2D work again because, as great as stop motion is, it takes a huge amount of work to set up your set and lights and so on. It requires a lot of space. But with modern 2D technology, you can create whole worlds while sitting in a small room. 

In another YouTube video, Oli chronicles the rigging process behind The Empress.

What was the biggest challenge of transitioning from working in stop motion to working in 2D?

With stop motion animation, the thing that takes the longest is the puppet creation. If you get the puppet wrong, the whole production will be impacted. A heavy puppet will make the rest of production total hell on earth. Once you’ve got the puppet done, the animation part is really fast, because you’re manually adjusting the puppet as you go. 

With traditional 2D animation, you have to create and recreate and refine the drawings over and over again for a shot so the actual animation process isn’t nearly as fast. This was the main challenge I felt in transitioning to working more in 2D. I wanted to find ways to speed up the process without compromising the quality of the animation. Speed is an expectation, particularly on YouTube where budgets are tighter, so it’s important to find a way to strike a balance between speed and quality. 

You put together helpful guides about using Toon Boom Harmony. How have you honed your skills in the software, and what about Harmony Premium kept you invested in using it?

When I first started animating, I used Macromedia Flash (now Adobe). Back in the 90s, this was considered a really good program. It was a bit crude at times, but I actually liked that because you could manipulate it to do whatever you wanted. At the time, the drawing tools were a bit limited, so I’d do rough animation in Flash, and then I’d take every frame to Adobe Illustrator to get those nice tapered lines, and then I’d put it back into Flash to animate. It was a whole procedure, but you could get what you wanted done. Then when I began working at studios, I worked in stop motion departments, which meant I wasn’t using that kind of animation software.

It was until years later, when I went freelance, that I started using Harmony. When I came back to 2D, I was excited to see what innovations there had been to Flash… but there wasn’t really anything! It was almost the same program I had used over 10 years ago. Initially I did do some shorts using Flash, but I found its lack of certain key features frustrating. The program was holding me back from implementing some of my ideas. I decided I wanted to invest in a software that was more high-grade and professional, so I purchased Toon Boom Animate Pro which was a precursor to what Harmony is now. 

Switching to Toon Boom was tricky at first. I had to unlearn a lot of old methods in order to start thinking in the way that works for Harmony. But it was worth persevering with because I liked that Harmony made the work look so good with no extra work. I had found that with Flash I had to use filters and such to get it looking less computery, whereas the animation in Harmony looked effortlessly lovely. 

When I first started using Harmony, I spent tons of time reading tutorial information. I was determined to know how to do stuff well in the program. And I found that looking at the work that others were creating with Harmony inspired me. Seeing the beautiful animation that Harmony is capable of kept me motivated to keep learning the program, despite how tough of a learning curve it was at times. I’ve kept using Harmony simply because it does so much of what I want it to do. 

For our readers who may be new to cutout animation, would you mind giving a basic explanation of what a rig is, and its role within the animation pipeline?

If it could be done, every animator would probably opt to hand draw every frame of animation, because it gives you the ultimate control. But for some productions, doing this can be over time-consuming, and not a viable option.. A rigged character helps speed up the animation process by creating a method for changing a character’s pose with ease. 

A rig is essentially the puppet’s skeleton. It provides a way to make the puppet move, as easily as possible: allowing you to move a character around without having to draw it for every frame. The better you are at rigging, the closer you can get to that parity between a traditional drawn character and a paper cutout. 

Can you tell me a bit about The Empress rig? 

I’m delighted to say that I have a friend in Harry Partridge, who is a hugely successful animator on YouTube. He is known for comic book style characters that have a comedic edge. They are semi-realistic characters in that they tend to have normal proportions and muscles, for example. One of the things that I love about his work is that it’s so polished. There’s a lot of detail, and he takes time to make sure things work properly and well. But his animation takes an awfully long amount of time to create. 

I’d asked him, as a challenge, if I could make one of his character’s heads as a master controlled character, so that I could make a video of it. He agreed it’d be fun to do, so I made one for one of his characters, Killgar. This character has a stylized jaw and long blue hair, but for the most part he’s got a pretty conventional head. I made the video, and viewers were fascinated by how fluidly Killgar’s head could be moved all around. Following that video, Harry asked if I’d be able to do a whole body.

Doing a character’s whole body is a challenge, because a body is more complex than just a head. There are more elements that need to move around in different ways. There are arms that need to be able to twist around, you’ve got a hand at the end of that arm, there’s legs, torso — and everything moves differently. Despite these challenges, I knew it would be possible to rig a full character – it would just take time to figure it out.  

When I got started, I began by sitting down and carefully fleshing out how the character, Empress, is put together. I knew that my top priority would be to make sure the body could move around smoothly, with very little effort. Creating The Empress rig took a lot of research and experimenting. Some parts of her turned out pretty conventional. Her head for example, is a fairly standard master-controlled head, but then from the neck downwards large amounts of her have barely any deformers at all.

Empress is basically a fun research and development test character. There are some things in her rig that aren’t as perfect as I’d like them to be, but I wanted to share her with the public because I spent so many months working on her. The Empress was something tangible I could share with my Patreon supporters and larger animation community.

The Empress allows for animation in a wide variety of poses.

What makes a good animation rig? 

It’s truly surprising how some characters that look simple on the outside will have incredibly complicated stuff going on within their rig. That’s not necessarily the rigger’s fault; it depends on what is expected of the character. But a complicated, heavy rig can make the animation process frustrating. I think what makes a good animation rig is ease-of-use.

When rigging, make sure a character is as light as can be, and if it does get heavy, build in elements that can be turned off and on, to help make the rig lighter when you’re working with it. For example, in some cases you can animate a character without its hair, but then add it back in during the rendering state. This helps to lighten up the rig for ease-of-use.

Can you describe how you approach rigging a character?

Think about a marionette doll you’d find in a toy shop or antique shop. When I’m rigging, I think about how I’m essentially creating that kind of doll by joining bits and pieces together. Those pieces then come together to make a character that has parts that are all interconnected. The magic happens when I’m then able to merge parts of the body together in hopefully useful and clever ways.

Oli Putland’s concept art for The Empress, inspired by silver age super hero comics.

How has 2D animation advanced over the years? What kinds of innovation would you like to see in the future? 

Over the years I have seen lots of innovation, especially in America. Studios like Disney have truly been at the forefront of elaborate advancement for a long time. That kind of innovation hasn’t been as quick to appear in England. Part of the reason that I started teaching others about how to use Harmony was that I wanted to make sure people, especially here in England, knew about the powerful tools that are available, and were inspired to make use of them. While studios in the US were early adopters of new technology, I do think there’s been a noticeable increase in the quality of British 2D cut-out animation, especially in the last few years.

Moving forward I expect that we will start seeing more use of mixed media. For example, series that combine use of CG characters and puppets. I have a feeling there will be a lot more of that in the future because the boundaries between mediums are becoming more and more blurred.

And in general, I think we will see innovation in animation speed up in the coming years. When I was a kid, I learned to animate using an old wooden crate and a lightbulb. But now, young kids can already be happily drawing on an iPad, learning advanced skills. There’s more resources and tools available for learning animation before any formal schooling. I think because of this, we’ll see animation constantly getting more elaborate, and the software will be aiming to meet the expectations of animators who are looking to do more advanced work.

The craft of cutout animation improves as artists develop rigs using new techniques.

Do you have any advice for artists who are just starting to use Harmony?

I think it’s best to start by picking a subject that is simple, and then confine your workspace to the most important icons. What’s frightening about learning Harmony is there’s just so many buttons. Ease yourself into it. Learn the basic buttons first, like the pencil tool and brush tool, and then slowly introduce more advanced tools. Start with a piece of conventional animation first, and once that’s downpat, transition into the cutout stuff. 

Can you tell me a bit about your upcoming book, Toon Boom Kaboom! The Harmony Cookbook?

It’s a cookery book for Toon Boom Harmony. The book will include different courses and dishes, like you’d find in a cookbook. Each individual recipe will be for a little project that the reader will make in Harmony. It’ll include an example image, plus a list of ingredients (the Harmony tools you’ll need for the recipe), and step-by-step instructions.  

I wanted to make a helpful book that can traverse different iterations of the software, so the instructions won’t be specific to Harmony 21 or another version. And in some cases, I may include recipes that cover how to do similar things, just in different ways. Overall, it’s meant to be a book that can be referred to time and time again, and that’s accessible. Getting into animation is overwhelming, and I’m hoping this book will help ease some of that!

Oli Putland’s How to Rig in Sweet Harmony is currently available to his supporters on Patreon.

  • Interested in animating The Empress? Oli Putland’s rigs and guides for Harmony Premium are available to his subscribers on Patreon.
  • Ready to start rigging characters? Download a fully-featured 21-day trial of Harmony Premium.