The Numbers Game

To illustrate how numbers are used to bend the truth, broadcast designer Sophia Kyriacou turned to Cinema 4D's flexible deformers 

By Steve Jarratt

Numbers can be misleading: when a company reports a five percent loss, that doesn't sound too bad. But when the actual figure is £10 million, that's a different matter. This strategic use of numbers to hide facts or massage a story is the subject of BBC School Report, which required an animation sequence to accompany the script.

Broadcast designer Sophia Kyriacou – who has more than 20 years' experience working alongside the BBC – was commissioned to create the animation, which runs for just over two minutes (or 124 seconds, if we stick with the theme!).

The idea of the report, aimed at 11- to 14-year-olds, is to help children identify 'fake news' by showing how numbers and statistics can play tricks on you. "In the animation, the numbers shouldn't be taken at face value," says Sophia. "Just because a number is large doesn't mean it's big and important. For some, numbers can be quite a dry subject. Therefore, it was important that the sequence not only explained but also entertained in an engaging and humorous way."

Early in the concept, Sophia decided to represent the numbers as animated characters. The long, multi-digit numbers would appear on stage, while the single-digit figures were to be individually branded with catchy names such as Skateboarder8, SuperHero4 and Unzippy9. This also provided a scope to create individual animated GIFs to promote the animation via social media.

As usual, time was a limiting factor, with just three weeks allotted for the full character animation sequence. Initially, the characters’ animations were going to include walk cycles, enabling them to march on and off the stage but due to the time constraints, the decision was made to lock them to the ground and simply use a trap door and wires to bring characters in and out of the scene and employ the theatre curtains for scene changes. Also, to keep things manageable, the numbers were built parametrically using a Text object and animated using Cinema 4D's deformers – most notably Bend, Twist and Shear.

"Time had influenced how everything was modeled," adds Sophia. "By doing this I had a template that included all the deformers in place, and if I needed to change the number value, I simply typed a new number in the text box. The tools in the Deformers menu became my main source for body language expression. While I've always used deformers in my workflow throughout the years, I hadn't previously explored in detail how they could be used in character animation, expressing mood and body language behavior. A simple bend downwards gave the impression the character was feeling despondent; or a twist to express humorous and naïve interaction with other characters. These are all very simple gestures but most of us think that character animation is only made up of complicated character rigs, when this doesn't have to always be the case."

For simplicity, the arms were made using an FK chain with a separate rigged hand attached. The legs were built using Cinema 4D's Character Builder tool on Biped setting but only using the lower half of the body. The use of deformers required some planning in the way the model was going to be built, but once one figure had been created, all the others were based on the same workflow. 

"I think deformers are sometimes underrated, yet they are very powerful and relatively simple to use," says Sophia. "Just think about where in your object you want the deformation to take place. Having a deformer facing the wrong axis can give you an undesired effect but this is easy to correct. Animation isn't just created by moving an object from A to B or using Transform or Scale to animate… You can resize or warp objects with such power using simple deformers."

For Sophia, the Unzippy9 character proved the most fun to put together. "I knew I wanted its leather jacket to collapse off it, leaving the character looking bare and a little pathetic. That character had the most workflow, with painting in Substance Painter, cloth dynamics for the sides falling off, animating an interior zero spline to full size and a Melt deformer for the front of the jacket. Choreographing the timings took a few attempts to get right for the slapstick humor, but I was really happy with the result."

For the project, Sophia's renderer of choice was Arnold. "I like Arnold as a renderer and the hyper-real look and feel it gives," she says. "I wanted the characters to look like miniature plastic toys."

However, while the single figures set against infinity curves rendered quite quickly, the theatre scenes were proving something of a bottleneck, even on her custom-built PC workstation. Sophia attributes this to the number of characters, all separately rigged with multiple deformers. To speed up the process, she opted to use the commercial render farm, Pixel Plow. "This worked really well and removed the additional stress of having to wait before seeing any final results so I could start to grade."

Because of the short schedule, Sophia admits she didn't get too hung up on multiple render passes, relying on just a depth pass for any depth-of-field effects, and object buffers for alpha masks for the final stages of post-production. "I graded everything using Red Giant Magic Bullet in After Effects. It's very powerful and simple to use. It's a combination I tend to use a lot now within my post-production workflow."

Despite the time pressures, the final result is testament to Sophia's ingenuity and Cinema 4D's comprehensive toolset. However, she does admit there are several things used in this workflow that she would avoid in a bigger character animation project. "The character builds were slightly cumbersome and having them in Nulls wasn't ideal," she says. "But because they were characters fixed in position without walk cycles and full animations, using the deformers to give them character worked. The Twist and Bend deformers are what brought this little animation to life."

Steve Jarratt is a long-time CG enthusiast and technology journalist based in the UK.

Images courtesy of  BBC News.

Sophia Kyriacou Website:

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