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Wool Cat Sequence Animation: A Step-by-Step Guide Using Blender and Cartoon Animator

This article is featured on Creative Boom
Deb Ethier – animator, graphic designer, writer, and musician

About Deb Ethier

I’m Deb Ethier, animator, graphic designer, writer, and musician for Rusty Bolt Theatre and Seat of the Pants Film Lab (which is basically just me!). I started making short and micro-short animations back in 2016 and my films (from comedies to full dramatic narratives) have been honored with awards at film festivals around the world.

I’d like to share a bit of what went into making “Madcap Catnap” featuring Louie the Cat (one of my favorite characters), and how I used several software resources to achieve the finished film.

Turning Realistic 3D Dolls into 2D Characters

The idea of a cat’s dream world allowed me to play with fun concepts. I had used Louie as an animated 2D character before, but never with this many pose variations. The original Louie is a 2.5 inch tall needle-felted character! I often make my characters as real 3D “dolls” so I can photograph them from every angle to process into animated 2D characters.

Using GIMP and png-enhancing software I decide what angles I need and transform those. Louie’s size offered a bit of a challenge, but I finally got the wool texture right so he looked like the tiny, blocky felted creature that he is.

There were eventually several “Louies”; mostly free bone, a couple more traditionally rigged in CTA5. 

Creating Facial Animation

His face animation is really important as it needs to show emotion. I prefer morph heads in Cartoon Animator for various reasons, one being that the eyeballs actually sit in the eye sockets giving lots of expression to facial animation. 

Morph heads can be tricky at first, but taking the time to do a lot of careful tweaking back and forth between previews and adjustments really pays off. 

The dream world had to be surreal. I often get my inspiration from paintings, and partially went with the look of the Post-Impressionists this time, adding my own graphic touch. Layering these in CTA5 with flat color-field landscape elements throws the world further off-kilter. 

Animating 2D Characters with Spring Bones

The new features in CTA5 (like Spring Bones) make it a very versatile 2D animation software. Before, I would rig tails as a spine and either keyframe manually or use one of the premade spine animations. However, by rigging the tail with Spring Bones, a lovely, smooth movement was achieved. A banner was also rigged this way. But I think the most fun application of this new feature was in the final chase scenes through the dream tunnel. I rigged the entire front and rear views of Louie with Spring Bones to give that comical frantic wiggly walk-run that cats often do. It gave a great cartoon feel, and I could still add facial animation easily.

Adding Free-Form Deformation Effects on Props

The Free-Form Deformation (FFD) editor was also extremely useful as I was able to make the “crop” of underwear dance in the wind by applying FFD to each pair of shorts (after capturing images of the underwear from various angles in Blender). 

Creating Animated 2D Scenes with 3D Depth

Layering and moving the camera along the z-axis (as in Louie’s run down the road) remains one of my favorite original abilities in CTA as I love to push the dimensional boundaries in 2D animation software. For that scene, I simply animated the back of Louie running separately and layered it with the rendered scene so it appears as if we’re seeing it from Louie’s POV.

Rendering Props and Making Effects in Blender

CTA5 was at the forefront in this project, but I also have other tools that work really well with it. Blender is one of these. I’m just a beginner in this 3D software but it wasn’t that hard to get the basics for this project. Manipulating characters and props (either original or from premade models) in Blender allows you to save images at any angle for importation into CTA5 for rigging

One of the most pivotal things that I found Blender really useful for when it comes to CTA5 is creating rotating or turning characters or props. In this film, I used a propeller and windup key (but there are lots of other possibilities). Animate and render as an image sequence in Blender for input to CTA5. (I use popVideo for input because my image sequences were quite long, but the new version of CTA allows for short APNG sequence import). 

You can reverse that workflow too. For the cat food can I animated the label in CTA5, rendered it as an image sequence, and imported this into Blender to be attached to the can. I then keyframed the camera position and rendered out for import back to CTA5 via popVideo. I think there could be a lot of use for this technique.

The dream tunnel at the end is an effect made entirely in Blender, following a tutorial. Load it as a video into CTA and you have a wormhole! I think there is a lot of scope for expanding the play between Blender and CTA5, something I intend to explore further. 

Video Compositing

When it comes to a video editor, I look for versatility and available plugins. I have used HitFilm Express (with all the add-ons) for a long time, but their business model changed when the company was taken over by Artlist. In searching for a viable alternative I came across Vegas Pro and it seems to be a very good fit. I am just learning its ins and outs, but have found it to be user-friendly with a lot of support available. I particularly liked the fact that it is an excellent host for some of my favorite third-party effect plugins — but Vegas Pro also has a lot of native plugins. 

To test its user interface, I created the title sequence for the film with it and applied effects to sets, props, characters, and scenes. I then tested it with some of my favorite effects combinations from Hitfilm. It performed remarkably well. To test it further against Hitfilm, I created an easy blur effect for fast movement without using motion blur (which can really bog down the render). I duplicated the video and applied a long-angle blur to the bottom copy. Stretched it out, angled it correctly, and positioned it against the original, while playing with opacity. It works well in both pieces of software and is a very useful, easy smooth effect to use. Vegas Pro will likely be phased-in as my main video editor.

Although I love integrating other software into my animation workflow, CTA still remains my main tool. It’s very versatile, well-supported, and quite adaptable to my many styles of animation. It just keeps getting better with the addition of new features on every update!

Deb Ethier:

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The original article was written by Deb Ethier and featured on Creative Boom.

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