When it takes 5 minutes to watch a 68 second piece...that's exceptionalism
TLDR: All the walk/run cycle characters were Rubberhose 3
The most common question on this film has been "yeah but what part of this is actually RH3?". The question is fair and intentional. Reece and I hoped to blur the lines between rigged and drawn animation and create something special. An overview of the workflow for this shot:
- Reece designed the characters
- Reece did a cel pass of each character's unique walk/run
- I created rigs from the character art
- I animated the rigged characters to match the cel
- The process helped me build a lot of the new Rubberhose 3 features
Rubberhose 3 development actually began on March 23, 2022, and overlapped with wrapping up a few projects for a search engine company. There have been many false starts on this and it took a long time to really get going on v3 of the system that launched Battle Axe back in 2015, but that is a series of stories for another time. This is the story of how working on the promo helped design much of the tool itself.
Reece and I are collaborators as well as friends and we talk a lot. Around June of 2022 (and way before there was anything to see in the tool), I offhandedly asked "you don't want to work on a promo for Rubberhose do you?"
Quick note: I love working with Reece. Our minds click in a really powerful way and I think it shows in the Timelord and Anubis promos we have created together. I didn't expect him to want to work on this, because Rubberhose is a rigged animation system and Reece is primarily a cel animator. While the two styles can work together, they rarely do. I prematurely limited what the project could be based on a box I put his work inside.
Reece didn't think twice or check his calendar before answering with a clear "Absolutely. When do you want to start?"
Our workflow typically begins with me writing some of my trademark Cryptic Nonsense to set the tone. Reece drew up some quick storyboards without any direction from me beyond "do what you do." He did what he does and came up with an amazing treatment featuring a pretty incredible metaphor of animator as puppetmaster.
Challenge #1: Where is the Rubberhose?
As a quick reminder, Reece is primarily a cel animator and this design lens he sees through is really pretty amazing. My initial thought was "OMG this is great. I see characters in these boards, but how on earth can we rig them?" 🤔 We determined that all 4 of these characters needed to be RH rigs, but that this constraint would not limit the design.
I had been playing with an idea for adding multiple bend points early on and really wanted to find a way to do S-Curves elegantly. The quadruped wolf and bear (it eventually became a unicorn) were the inspiration to get this feeling right.
Challenge #2: How do I animate again?
To take some of the load off of Reece and to give me a chance to dogfood the system myself I agreed to help with rigging the character section. After building out rigs, I decided to stay on to animate the characters.
I say this with complete humility: I am not a professional motion designer or animator anymore. I haven't set keyframes for a client project in over 6 years. I mostly just use Ae to test the tools I'm building. But animating is like riding a bicycle, right? A bicycle that you are also building at the same time. 😬
In traditional Reece fashion, he did a cel pass of the characters to find the timing and energy that can be difficult to capture with only keyframes. This gave me a reference to work from and it was my job to interpret some of the parts that work in cel but might feel jarring when vector art.
At this point Parent to Hose had already been developed, but the more complex art needed a way to be mapped onto these hoses and stretched between segments:
- This is where stretchy bones came from
Challenge #3: These don't look like hoses
By looking at the penciled character designs, I knew that the wolf legs could not be drawn with mono-weight strokes and probably not even tapered strokes. While Rubberhose 2 featured a RubberRig system, it definitely could not handle something like this.
My goal was to build a system to rig these irregularly shaped legs quickly and flexibly. This inspired both:
- the new RubberRig parent-chain setup
- Path to hose that allows for drawing multi-bend rigs in an actual pose
Challenge #4: Are strings even possible
A prominent feature of this section are the strings connecting the puppeteer hand to the characters. I knew it would be impractical to draw these and assumed hoses could easily be rigged to parent the controller ends, and it would all just work. I failed to factor in how the movement of the strings needed to do more than bend and needed to sway to flow with the movement of the puppeteer's hand.
Even with the new multi-bend system, it would have been too time-consuming to keyframe each of those bend points on all 4 strings. With the help of some (relatively) simple sine/cosine math, the strings could procedurally move and also bend.
This gave birth to the:
- Wavy Gravy bend preset
- Informed the idea of bend presets as discrete from style presets
Challenge #5: Tails
2 of the 4 characters have tails, and while it could have been done with cel, I set a stretch goal for myself to find a way to use hoses to draw the tails. I tried several options until finally landing on using:
- a tapered stroke, but tapered on both sizes
- Wavy Gravy S-curves
- Trim paths to allow the wave to be anchored to the animal's butt, and still flap freely
This weird setup became the improved interface for Tapered hose –one of the most used styles in RH2.
I am grateful for the chance to actually animate again, especially on a project this amazing. There is no reason for a product promo to be this good, but it's just how Reece works. He can't help himself.
By allowing myself the extra time to work on this, rework a feature in code, animate some more, and repeat several times, I learned a lot about how I wanted Rubberhose 3 to feel. Like building a bicycle while trying to ride it is usually a failrly negative statement in tech, but it really worked for this one.
I had a lot of fun working on this. If you build products at all, try to find time to do the work sometimes. You can usually find some good ideas.
Mandatory photo of a wolf
As the official mascot of Battle Axe, we are legally required to share ongoing photo's of the White Shepherd we rescued from the side of the road. His name is Twig and we love him.
In a bit of foreshadowing, we had not yet met Twig when Reece first designed the characters (including a white wolf) for this promo. Destiny.