9/20 Update: Dragon Star, SH Season 2, Animation Upgrade

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Releasing the season finale, “Broken Promises” was a major hurdle for me. It was something I wanted animated for the longest time, but never thought I’d be able to. For years that was really my goal, to finish the first act of the book’s adaptation. Sure, I thought about what I’d do after it, and the scenes I wanted to animate, but I don’t think I ever really took myself seriously. I never thought I’d really be able to go that far. Yet here I am, ready to do just that.

Shattered Heaven is a web series, it’s not an anime, not a fanime, not whatever other buzz word or terminology you want to come up with. A web series by nature is something done specifically for the web due to lack of budget and serious backing. Quality was never meant to rival a major production studio, it’s just not feasible to do that when working with a web series without financial backing AND consistently release. There has to be a middle ground, you have to be able to build an audience, keep that audience engaged all while improving. That’s not something you can do if you’re on your own and striving for studio quality production. Episodes would most likely be a year + apart and who knows how long, certainly not more than 10 minutes. You don’t keep an audience’s retention with that. Not if you’re doing a overarching story. If you’re doing one off fan animations about Dragon Ball Z, then that’s a different game all together. That audience has already been established for years.

So that in mind, Adobe Flash was always the best animation software to pull this off. It’s easy and simple. You have a timeline, some brush tools and a canvas, boom, done. But as easy as it is, when yous tart improving in your art, anatomy, proportions, character depth, Flash starts to become a problem. You start feeling held back and hindered by the software you’re using. And that’s what started happening to me around Episode 4 and more so in Episode 5.

I used to draw in Photoshop a lot but switched over to vector (Flash) drawing to get used to the program. Flash’s lines are, for a lack of better phrasing, shit. They’re too sharp and jagged. The brush tool is okay, but even that is still awkward. If you fill your brush tool line art, you have the chances to ruin the line art. Adobe has tried, but Creative Cloud, Animate, are not good. No where near as stable as CS6. While the later updates to the program have added additional options to the brush strokes, the programs tend to freeze up and lag a lot more. That right there is a major turn off, especially when animating. But around Episode 4, I started to go back to pixel/raster based art in Clip Studio Pro. Let’s touch on the difference between Vector and Raster art for a second.

Vector vs Raster (Pixel)

The short version is that Vector is scale-able without losing quality. Art, lines, text, etc are based on math, so when you increase it’s size, the computer will redo the math for the new size. Raster/Pixel is based on pixel ratios. Resolution “dots per inch” or DPI are what matter for image quality. You set it in advance and do your thing. But when you resize the raster art, it’s going to go through pixel degradation and you’re art will look a bit blurry, lower res.  By this alone you probably think Vector is the best avenue for art and animation, but it’s not. Vector is specifically geared for printing. You need a banner? Vector is what you should use, you can take a logo that might be 250 x 500 and upscale it to 2500 x 5000 and your quality will remain the same. But for web, exported jpegs and even video files, vector doesn’t really matter. These are all pixel based formats. So all that vector work, doesn’t matter since it’s being converted to a pixel based format. Vector’s scale-able features don’t matter here and all you’re getting are really sharp looking colors and line art that aren’t necessarily too easy on the eyes, depending on what you’re going for.

Raster/pixel art has a much smoother look, you’re able to blend colors together for soft painting/airbrushing, something that Vector can not do effectively. There are ways to emulate it, but it’s not efficient.

So why do animators desire/swear by Vector’s ability to be resized so much? 

Newgrounds. Simplest answer. Newgrounds used to only use swf formatted files. Flash exports swf by default. Swf files are Vector based and can be resized without losing visual quality. So when animators would upload their animations on Newgrounds, it didn’t matter what the screen size was, the quality always remained the same. Using this format for years gets you used to it and ultimately makes any, superior animation method extremely intimidating. You’re used to being able to upscale your animation, but the problem is that swf isn’t a universally utilized format. It’s used on Newgrounds, and maybe some interactive websites, but outside of that, no one uses it. If you’re uploading to Youtube, Vimeo, Facebook, exporting for use on a blu ray player/PS4/etc etc. then you’re not using Flash, you’re using mp4 format. Once you’re doing that, that whole up-scaling ability is moot.

But Adam, those uploading sites compress your video and you do lose some quality, with swf you don’t experience that. 

Correct. But again, no one uses swf only. Newgrounds, the site that emphasized that doesn’t even use it by default. They let you upload mp4s. And also mobile, most smart phones  (*cough* Apple *cough*) are not swf/Flash compatible. In a world that’s becoming mobile dedicated, swf/vector video files are not the way to go.

At this point you’re just holding back your art quality by relying too much on Vector. It just does not look as good as Pixel/Raster.

Learn and ingrain HD dimensions and canvas sizes into your head.

All monitors use pixels to determine their visual output, not mathematical equations, again pointing out why Vector video is not a thing. When animating, vector does not matter, because as long as you set the default canvas dimensions to the resolution you want, then you’re already getting the highest quality you can possibly get from any monitor.

Widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9 is default and the way to go. 1280×720 are the canvas dimensions

Full HD is 1280 at 1920×1080 pixels.

That all said, moving forward I am no longer using Flash for animation. I learned a lot because of it, but it’s just holding me back. As of this year, Clip Studio Pro added an animation feature to their software, so that is what I’m going to be using moving forward.

Comparison of animation quality from Season 1 to Season 2

Episode 6 quality

Episode 6 - Our Reasons-Pt25 Episode 6 - Our Reasons

Season 2 starting point.

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Gifs were too big so here’s a video of animatic to final. This mech clip plus the other animation test.

 

Dragon Star

Dragon Star has had an interesting production process. A trailer was made and released last year as an initial test. But even back then I knew I wanted to do something different for the series. It was a chance to start a new web series and force myself out of this animation comfort zone Flash had given me. But I didn’t know how to approach it. Many animation friends insisted on Harmony, the industry standard, or even trying TV Paint. Both programs are nice, but for what I’m doing, it didn’t “feel” right.

Again, the most important factor for a web series is its consistency and balancing act with quality. If I’m not able to comfortably animate, if I feel I have to do too many steps to get something done, then it’s not efficient enough. Might be if there was a massive animation team, but one person animating it, not so much.

So for a while I didn’t have a solution. Shattered Heaven’s first season needed to end before I would transition to Dragon Star. I had started my show and I needed to end the first part of it. So with time running out, I figured I was just going to use Flash again, but try different ways to improve the quality.

But I really didn’t want to use Flash. The first scene’s animatic had been done for months and I started clean up like 2 weeks ago. When I was preparing to finish the clean up, that’s when I learned of Clip gaining an animation feature. Since Dragon Star wasn’t done, I decided to say screw it, tossed the clean up progress and chose to start over with the clean up.

But like any new program, I needed to get used to it before diving head first into a full episode. I spent the last two weeks working on short quality tests. Coming up with ways around some short comings in Clip that wouldn’t get in the way of my animation. After finishing the last tests, I knew it was time. So yesterday I started the full animation clean up process on Dragon Star.

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Above is the quality Dragon Star would have had if I stayed in Flash. Below are from the current clean up process.

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Final screen shot from Episode 1

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The New Animation Process

Going forward, my animation process has changed. Clip does not have audio, so I needed to come up with a workaround.

Here is a very simplified run down of the new process.

  1. Animatic in Flash: Like normal, I make an animatic in Flash based on the audio mixdown I’ve created in Audition for the scene.

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2) Export the swf file, convert it to mp4, then convert it to avi in Premiere to make a much smaller avi file to import into Clip: Wow that sounds convoluted! It’s really not. Windows based Clip Studio ONLY works with avi files. They’re the highest quality video file possible, but that also means they’re ridiculously huge. Clip has a 2 gb import limit. If I was doing short animations that wouldn’t matter, but my scenes are long and would export around 8gb from Flash directly. But exporting the swf, converting it to an mp4 in Swivel, then export it to avi in Premiere, saves so much room. The avi’s size is tremendously smaller than it would have been if I did it from Flash directly.

3) Import the avi into the Clip timeline: This is more or less what I did previously. I’ll trace over the animatic, make line art, add colors, details and backgrounds in Clip Studio. Since the audio has been synced already to the animation in Flash, I don’t have to worry about Clip’s lack of audio feature.

*Important* Make sure the file in Flash matches the dimensions in Clip. If you’re doing 1080p, then make sure the canvas in Flash is set to 1920×1080 px. Also make sure the Frame rate is the same. When you export the final avi you’re given the option of choosing the frame rate, make sure it matches the chosen frame rate you’ve set for Clip’s timeline.

 

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4) Export the avi from Clip and then import it into Premiere. Import and place the original audio mixdown track from the animatic and your animation should align with the audio.

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There’s other things I have to do now, like panning still shots are done in Premiere and imported into Clip, but I’m not going to go into that. I just wanted to give a basic rundown of what this new process entails. It might seem like it’s a bit more, but I’ve noticed it’s faster. The clean up portion has been going so much faster than it ever did in Flash. After drawing in Clip for so long, I’m extremely used to how it works, my preferred brush settings, and I’m not worrying about the program trying to “assist” me like Flash does. In Flash I’d often do a stroke, only for Flash to alter it, then I’d waste time fixing broken lines, adjusting what the Flash assisted stroke did, etc. This program is far more efficient in the long run.

Here is a current lip sync test that I’m working on. The newest thing I have to do now that I didn’t before is adding lip syncs to the animatic. I used to always add them last after clean up. But that’s not possible now, I mean it sort of is, it’d just be redundant. It’s more efficient to lip sync the animatic and then draw over it in Clip. I’m actually almost done with this, I just haven’t updated the upload.

So what’s next?

Dragon Star. That is the priority project at the moment. The goal is to have Episode 1 out before 2017. It’s definitely possible and I am to have the clean up of scene 1 done within 2 weeks, maybe sooner. Shattered Heaven Minisode 4 is the next animated release, but that’s already done, just waiting on lines and then sound design. No more animation is needed for that. It’s also the last release that’s done in Flash.

What about Shattered Heaven Season 2?

It’s being worked on between Dragon Star. I’m currently receiving and directing the voice actors for all the episodes of the next season. I’ll have a season 2 preview before the end of the year, most likely coming out with Dragon Star Episode 1. Also there’s Minisode 4 which should be out either this month or next.

 

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