Animation is not something that you can explain easily. You can show it but explanations are very technical. Basically, we start with a clay sculpture that is scanned into the computer using a laser system. It gives us a very complicated computer model. This is the foundation to build an animated model that the animators can use. That is a very simplified version of what is an incredibly complicated process in the case of Walking with Beasts.
The difference between mammals and dinosaurs is the movement. Mammals have got lots more moving parts, there are lots of wobbly bits. Take the face of a dinosaur – it has moving eyelids and a jaw, and that’s about it, the rest of the face is rigid. But mammals have quivering whiskers, eyebrows, floppy cheeks, wobbly lips, perhaps long noses, so there’s a whole lot more to animate. Every frame has to be moved in a lifelike way, so it’s a long process to move them realistically.
The audience is also more critical of the movements of beasts than dinosaurs. We know how mammals move and people would easily notice if movements weren't re-created accurately. We don't really know how dinosaurs moved so there was a bit more leeway in making dinosaurs.
Animating the beasts in Walking With Beasts comes in several stages. The very first is to animate a walk, as that’s what gives the creature character. Animators do what is called a ‘walk cycle’, which means that after you’ve animated it, it can repeat the cycle, keeping the creature walking. Tweaking this continual cycle can take a week to get right. You might spend a week getting the character of the creature. Then you move on to things like a run. After that we work on what we call a ‘chill cycle,’ which is what the creature does when it’s not doing anything. That might be scratching its leg or nibbling at a piece of grass or looking around. If it lies down to sleep or rest then you need to cater for that too.
At that point you’ve got the basic character of the creature. Now you can start actually animating the shots. You can take the walk and mix it with the chill cycle, so the creature walks in and eats something.
Because we’re animating against previously shot material, with the movement of trees and leaves, the animators have to take extra care. If there’s a leaf waggling, the creature’s head has to move too. If there’s a splash in a puddle, then the creature’s foot has to land at exactly the time of the splash. It does add to the work but the rewards are great, because any bit of interaction like that sells the shot completely. The moment you see the background moving as a reaction to the creature, it looks like it’s real.
Probably the most difficult task of the series was animating an early human. The hominid in question is called 'Lucy' because when the scientists found her fossils in Africa, they were playing the Beatles song 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' on their camp radio. Lucy is one of the earliest hominids ever to be discovered. The difficulty for us was how to make her seem more than an ape but less than a human, in terms of her movement. We spent a lot of time with palaeontologists trying to get a movement that would suggest the two.
“We love Woolly”
My favourite creature has to be the Woolly mammoth. It was the one that we thought would be the most trouble because of the long fur, but in the end it came very easily to us. The model looked brilliant, the fur looked excellent, and we really enjoyed animating it. When we saw the shots we were really pleased. I’m very fond of the mammoth.
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