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Animating Speech

*This post is from my Tumblr a  while back, but I thought it might be useful to re-post it here!*

After creating my Serafina’s Saga animation (20 friggin minutes of animated frames), I thought I’d share some of my knowledge thus far, particularly tips and shortcuts that work for me. The images I’ll use are from this scene of the animation; watch it to see my personal speech-animation style in action.

Any aspiring animator has probably seen a diagram of mouth shapes corresponding to every consonant and vowel. I found Preston Blair’s diagrams most useful when I started out. But personally, I wanted my mouth movements to be slightly more realistic than Blair’s, which are very exaggerated. At the same time, I didn’t want to go to the anime extreme of just making a mouth flap up and down with very little emphasis.

I don’t claim to be a top expert, but I suspect that what I’ve learned so far would be useful to other people starting out, or other animators searching for a medium between Looney Tunes and Japanese anime styles. Therefore, I have gradually developed my own speech diagram and I hope you will find it useful (please forgive the fact that my current examples are drawn at a slight angle).

CONSONANTS

The good news is that for most consonants, you can get away with using a single drawing: the gritted teeth.

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(K, G, H, S, Z, CH, J…)

This mouth position is my favorite because it can be the most expressive. You can turn the gritted teeth into a grin, a snarl, or a frown while the character is talking. For a sinister character, you can emphasize the jut of the canines over the bottom teeth. You can also leave the mouth in this position in between words, giving it additional exposure.

Due to the fact you will probably use this mouth position frequently and it has the potential to convey so much emotion, I suggest you put a lot of thought into how you draw hard consonants so you can use the position to its full potential.

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Once you have finished developing your hard consonant mouth position, make an altered version with slightly drooped lips for what I call the soft consonant. You will probably use this for a lot of the same letters, but in the context of different words. For instance, consider how the shape of your mouth making the K sound changes between saying “I kicked” vs “walker” (okay random examples but hopefully you get the idea). When saying “I kicked,” the vowels around the K make it a hard consonant. When saying “walker,” the mouth will be in a lower, softer shape, forming the soft consonant.

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Honestly, I use this position mostly for the letter L and hardly ever use it otherwise. The key is to show the top teeth and a little bit of tongue behind them. I don’t particularly like drawing it and I find that whenever I use it—for whatever reason—it looks like the character’s making the L sound, even if I’m using it for D or TH.  Of all the possibilities other than L for this position, I find that the hard or soft consonant drawings work better.

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Without a doubt, this is my least favorite mouth position to draw. It necessitates those awkward creases in the lip and it makes the character look like a chipmunk. But let’s face it, sometimes they need to make the F or V sound. In which case, just go ahead and draw the damn mouth position.

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This one is pretty straightforward, fortunately. The B,P, or Ms are basically just closed mouths. However, you might want to pinch the edges and narrow the lips from the neutral position (like they’re pursing or puckering) to give the sounds emphasis.

THE “OOH” (OR KISS-KISSY) POSITION

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I’m putting this mouth position into its own category because it can be used for W, R, or OO sounds. Personally, I find it very hard to draw, but I always end up using it far more frequently than I expect. The key to drawing it is to form an “O” shape in the middle of the mouth, but make it small enough so the character isn’t making an OH sound. If you still have trouble, just imagine that your character is about to give someone a kiss.

Kind of like the hard and soft consonants, I usually make two versions of this position, one more exaggerated than the other or even showing teeth. Alternate between the two depending on the word, or use the less extreme positions as transitions. A mouth moving from EE to OO can be far too extreme otherwise.

VOWELS

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Take your hard consonant mouth position, pry the mouth open, and you’ve got your basic EE or I sound. But before you claim victory, make sure to turn the mouth up at the edges, almost as if your character is smiling. This will distinguish it from the next position.

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When making the A or EH sound, the mouth pinches slightly at the edges, giving it a reverse slope of the EE position.  Occasionally, you might need to make more versions that are even wider or narrower. If you need to make this position more extreme, don’t show the bottom teeth, and maybe show a little bit of tongue in the back of mouth. In which case you’re shifting it towards the next mouth position…

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This position is another awkward one to draw, because either you show the tongue way in the back of the mouth, or you hide it and thus make the whole mouth look like a drooping black hole. I leave that to your discretion. But make sure you give that arching shape to the top and lower lip, implying the AH or UH sounds. Pretend your character is opening his or her mouth for a doctor’s thermometer.

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And at long last, here is the OH position, which basically forms a wide oval. Similar to AH position, you might want to show a tongue in this drawing so it’s not a huge black hole, but I usually choose not to, because the big black hole is partially what distinguishes the OH sound.

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And that pretty much wraps it up! But first, a few more tips:

  • One of my most frequent mistakes starting out was to close the mouth whenever the character paused between words. I soon realized this wasn’t very natural, especially when I put it VA recordings over it. People usually breathe or leave their mouths slightly open between words. When in doubt, use the hard or soft consonant positions to fill pauses!
  • Don’t draw every single letter in a word; it simply isn’t necessary, and will probably make the character look ridiculous. Watch yourself in a mirror saying the words and figure out which sounds your mouth emphasizes. Then pick which mouth positions to draw and utilize.
  • On the other hand, sometimes you will need to use two mouth positions for one sound. For instance, I provided one mouth position for “OH,” but if I actually animated the word “OH,” the OH mouth position would be followed by the OO position. Usually you just have to feel this out as you go.
  • Although I’ve provided most of the mouth positions I use here, sometimes I need to draw a lot of in-betweens. Stay flexible and be willing to draw more in-between positions if these just aren’t cutting it.
  • On a more technical note, I suggest animating the frames in Photoshop’s timeline and then bringing them into After Effects for timing. Right click on your movie and choose “Enable Time Remapping” to start matching the mouth movements to your sound clip. Once you do that, you might need to go back into Photoshop for tweaking, but it will save you the hassle of trying to figure out all the timing on your own.

All right, that’s all I’ve got for now! I hope you find this helpful!

Why Art and Business Must Intersect

The last few months have been exciting for me as a creative individual and a burgeoning game developer, because I am learning to think of my studio and my artwork as a real business.

Before you groan at the word business (sometimes it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, too), allow me to explain why this shift in my perception has been so beneficial to both my emotional state and my artistic creations. I am going to use the term “business” in a very general sense, in that it represents any endeavor that can support its creator financially. I’ll also use the term “artist” generally to represent the creative individuals in the field of entertainment and gaming, be they visual artists, writers, designers, or even programmers.

1) Being a business lets you take your work seriously

If you’re a creative type like myself, then I’m sure you’ve encountered plenty of people in your life who sneer down at the time you spend making art. They tell you it’s fine to practice art or writing in your free time (i.e., such pastimes are just personal hobbies)–but if you want to survive in the real world, then you need to get a real job. I understand the practicality of this mantra. I’ve had to conform to it many times, myself. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your art and work separate if that balance works well for you, or if it’s simply necessary for you to get by. Surviving in the physical world means that all of us must feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, as well as do our part to keep society as a whole functioning peacefully. To accomplish this, most of us have to perform a lot of tasks we’d rather not, and that’s okay. Such is life.

But while completing practical tasks is a significant part of living in the real world, I’m here to argue that creating art is equally important. Just as we must all support our physical bodies, so must we nourish our minds. Art allows us to do this, whether we create it ourselves, or we take time to absorb/reflect upon someone else’s work.

When you think of your artistic work as nothing more than a hobby, you’re accepting the belief system that your work is not significant beyond personal gratification. Inevitably, you let your artwork itself become trapped by that definition. If you consider it of little real importance, then you will likely not give your craft the attention and dedication it deserves.

The first step towards becoming business-minded is realizing that your artwork is valuable in the real world. Then you can state that you’re an artist with pride, rather than giggling nervously and saying, “Oh, I fiddle around with making games in my free time.” You can start to take your own work more seriously, and thus expect others to do the same.

2) Being a business forces you to work in constraints

You might look at that heading and wonder, “Is that supposed to be a good thing?” The answer is yes, working within constraints is a good thing. If you don’t understand why, I’ll do my best to explain.

A common misconception is that greater artistic freedom results in greater artwork. I’m not saying that freedom is bad; obviously, artistic freedom is incredibly important in that it allows an individual to express herself in her work. Those aren’t the sort of constraints I’m talking about. When I talk about constraints, I mean practical restrictions within your production process. For instance: a time limit, a budget, a certain number of available resources, etc. Instinctively, most of us would choose to work with fewer constraints rather than more.  However, what many people fail to realize is that working within constraints can lead to better artwork.

But why? I could probably write an entire essay on the many ways restrictions lead to better artwork. But I think that the answer boils down to this: when you work within constraints, you are forced to trim the fat from the globby mess of your artistic vision and find the true core of your creation. When you comprehend the true heart of what you’re producing, then you can focus all your energy on making it sing. And in the end, you will probably communicate your vision more clearly when you trim out all the fat that results from unlimited time and resources.

Game Jams are a great example of how working within constraints can result in great artwork. In a Game Jam, developers must try to complete a game in 48 hours, and on top of that, their game must adhere to a specific theme. You don’t get much more restrictive than that. And yet developers who have spent months trying to complete a project without success often find themselves cranking out a fantastic new game in 48 hours. I believe this is largely because they’re forced to focus on the heart of their vision and yank it out into the open.

3) Being a business brings you closer to your audience

If you’re stuck in perceiving your artistic creations as “hobbies,” you will rarely pause to ask yourself, “What can this project offer to my audience? If I’m sending a message, how do I ensure that I send it in a form my audience will understand? Which parts of my project will my audience appreciate the most, and which parts might they least enjoy?”

When you begin to function as a business, you recognize that your work has true financial worth. And at the same time, you acknowledge the importance of your audience, because in order to succeed, you must provide work that your audience values. This means being open to feedback, even if it comes in the form of scathing criticism. You must listen to your audience, taking note of what they love and what they abhor.

This doesn’t mean that you have to bend everything you create to appease the raging masses. Besides, it’s impossible to please everyone. What it means is that just like you expect your audience to value your work, you acknowledge the value of their opinions, and you use it to constantly improve your own work.

So then… is it all about making $$$?

I’m not here to say that every artist should be scrambling to make a fortune, nor even that they should prioritize making money over genuine creative expression. But I believe that art and money exist in the same world, and because we all need money to go about our daily lives, we need to find ways to harmonize artistic creation with financial sustenance. As an artist, the first step is acknowledging that your work is valuable. It is significant. And if sustaining a comfortable, physical life means slapping a dollar value on your artistic creations, then so be it.