The Evolutionary Process of Animating Wendy
Recently, we launched a special video project called “You are Here: Wendy’s Welcome to the ED” in conjunction with Massachusetts General Hospital for Children (MGHfC). With the intent of comforting children who are admitted to the hospital, the nine minute short film explains hospitalization through the lens of a twelve-year-old girl, Wendy, who has spent much of her early childhood in and out of the hospital. From arrival to departure, the original Wendy character is digitally animated to reassure children during a time that often feels scary and uncertain.
Alan Kawahara’s original sketch of the character Wendy – Illustrated with two distinct poses and interstitial motion/animation
In March 2016, the project had developed into a collection of analog figure drawings and a well-organized supporting script. In efforts to move the project forward, we needed to design a method for animating Wendy. One of the earliest techniques involved a literal manipulation of the hand-sketches. The drawn character was inserted into a video/animation editing software (i.e. Adobe Premiere/Blender) and was manipulated “by hand” (click of the mouse). Stylistically this technique posed many opportunities, yet the team felt that alternative methods should be investigated to accomplish the desired look and feel.
An early investigation probing time lapse videography, motion tracking, and figure positions
We conducted an investigation of scripting strategies. This process was a literal “tracing” of hand drawing using digital tools found in Rhino, RhinoScript, Grasshopper, and AutoCAD. Using similar concepts derived from the “tween curve” command, fragments of the Wendy character were animated and stitched together to form individual frames. While this approached proved to be successful for short ten-second clips with singular character positions, many inefficiencies were discovered. For example, if two or more poses were to be blended (tween-curved), curves often overlapped to form a “deconstructed” Wendy. This was bad. The approach proved to be extremely labor intensive and was soon jettisoned.
Rhino + Grasshopper scripting strategies were used to develop a secondary approach for character animation
RhinoScript exploration testing character animation through the blending of distinct positions in time
After hours of research and self-educating from digging deep into online forums, I designed an approach that would simplify the animation process. Ultimately, this would allow for a larger team to manipulate the Wendy character with ease. Using Adobe Illustrator, the original Wendy hand-drawing was digitalized – ensuring that a well-organized layer structure was maintained. Once re-drawn and reimagined using vector graphics, individual layers of the character (i.e. face, eyes, arms, body, feet … etc.) were linked into Adobe After Effects. Once re-assembled as a still figure, inverse kinematics (IK) was introduced to develop a skeletal structure within the static drawing. A series of invisible “bones” and “joints” were identified and inserted throughout the body. These nodal points were strategically stitched together to form natural anatomical limb motions using the “Duik IK” plugin. The digitized Wendy “puppet” now had movable parts that could be keyed along a time slider. This was our first Wendy rig.
Diagrams extracted from a Payette “how-to” tutorial session discussing the basics of Adobe After Effects animation using the newly-developed Wendy character rig
An early study experimenting with the first Wendy character rig
While the first Wendy rig brought the project to a new level, there was a strong need for refinement. Over time, the rig was deconstructed and reimagined to add additional functions like adjustable hand/arm positions, foot/leg positions, an articulated spinal chord, a movable mouth, and blinking eyes. Eventually, the final “standing Wendy” rig was developed to a point where it could be used to animate the first scenes of the script. We were then able to expand our team to a handful of specialized Payette animators. We held a brief “how-to” tutorial session and the team was off and moving forward rapidly. After individual key frames are created to set each pose in time, we saved an Adobe After Effects file that was linked into our Adobe Premiere master edit. When changes to the figure drawing and keyed poses were desired, we could simply edit the illustrator and after effects files. Strategically, the files were set up to auto-update in the master edit using our nested Adobe dynamic link system. This refined process was repeated for five additional Wendy rigs (new character positions) – each with their own distinct features and functions.
A study testing the effectiveness of face/mouth rigging + animating
Diagrams illustrating the project workflow from the initial analog drawings to the final digitalized animation
This exercise allowed the team to test and learn new tools through active investigation and iterative problem solving. As architects, we design much more than buildings and landscapes. We were provided a unique opportunity to influence the comfort level of our users through emotion with our skills in videography, animation, and narration. It is particularly rewarding to learn about the impact it has had over the past few weeks. I look forward to future instances of positive influence with “You are Here: Wendy’s Welcome to the ED.”
MGH for Children / You Are Here: Wendy’s Welcome to the Emergency Department.
Payette Team: Stuart Baur, Brian Carlic, Caitlin Cashner, Leon Drachman, Austin Ferguson, Gordon Grisinger, Dave Hamel, Garrett House, Alan Kawahara, Mike Lee, Parke MacDowell, Justin Miller, Erin Polansky, Scott Rawlings, Karen Robichaud, Dan Smith, Bob Schaeffner, Heather Taylor, Jamie Zhong, Jie Zhang.