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Water Valet - Funny, Animated Short About Robots, AI, and the Future of Office Automation.

The Watercooler Valet of the Future.
Back in 1987 I saw English Actor/Comedian Kenneth Williams on television make a quote about medical specialists that has stuck with me ever since as an idea for comedy.
It's frightening to think with modern medicine and all the techniques available to them... they can't really help you. In the old days, you know, you were better off because nowadays, they are all specialists. Everyone's becoming better and better at less and less... Eventually someone's going to be superb... at nothing.

In consumer robotics it's a very relevant concept that appears to be working in reverse. We're seeing more and more consumer robots released that perform one task really well (robot vacuum cleaners for example) but we're kind of working towards the robot butler/maid/assistant, a single robot that can perform many different tasks.

An early example is the AI used in home speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home where you can automate a number of tasks through voice commands, and networking everything from your house lights to your music listening preferences.

Water Valet

The idea of a Water Valet is a recurring joke that I've used in a number of animated shorts as quite possibly the most redundant office job anyone could have, elevated slightly with a classy job title that makes it seem like a necessary role.

The role is so redundant that the logical next step is to automate the process so no human ever has to perform such a function ever again. With all of the above in mind, watch my latest animated short, Water Valet, below.



Behind the Scenes

This animation started life as a Plotagon Story, an animation app I love to tinker with while I'm watching TV in the evenings because it's entirely focussed on dialogue. I was mere minutes away from hitting publish on my completed plot when the app crashed and my tablet reset itself.

When I logged back in the entire animation was gone from my account. I contacted support and, as I expected, there was no way to get it back (be warned plot users write your scripts in a script writing app first).

That might have been the end of it but the script was short enough for me to remember almost exactly off the top of my head - and too good not to bring it back from the dead. I was going to remake it in Plotagon but I thought, this is a simple animation, I should be able to make it in Cartoon Animator 4 in a weekend, easy!

Famous last words.

Recording the Audio

In the original version I only recorded my lines (if you're new here TET in the animation is an avatar of myself). The robot used a computer generated robot voice.

For this version I wanted the robot to be a little more expressive and less computer generated, but still sounding like a robot. I recorded the entire script into Audacity. Then cut the clips into each character's alternating lines.

I then went online to find tutorials on how to turn a regular voice into a more robotic voice with Audacity. I found two good tutorials including; Audacity: Voice Effects, and How to make your voice sound like a Stormtrooper with Audacity.

Applying robotic voice effects requires changes to multiple settings so I made use of Audacity's ability to automate tasks through creating Macros.

These are the commands and settings I used
for my robot voice macro.

If you're not familiar with Macros, essentially the software records you performing the steps once into a mini 'program'. Then you select however many audio clips you want those effects applied to and the software will literally feed them all through the macro with one click. I had seven clips to feed through.

The Characters

My TET character is made from these
two Garry Pye Creations Bendies.
Both of my characters are from Garry Pye Creations, Bendies, Space Guys series of G3 characters for CrazyTalk Animator 3/Cartoon Animator 4.

Well, that's not strictly true since the suit comes from his Jimmy Talent character, but the Spaceboy head comes as an extra of the Sentry character (i.e. my Water Valet Robot).

To get to my TET Avatar I recolored the suit, added Space Boys head, recolored and shortened his hair, modified his ears, jawline, and added some glasses (from Cartoon Solutions, Veronica G1 Character).

The Set

Here you can see just how much these cabinets
have been deformed to fit the scene.
My Office kitchenette set is entirely pieced together from props found in various Reallusion Content Packs. Mostly ones that came out around the release of CTA2,  compatible with Render Styles, a feature that was introduced at the time.

Render Styles allowed me to remove all the black outlines from the props so they would fit right in with the style of Garry's characters (which obviously are outline free).

I used the Prop Key Editor's deform tool quite extensively to adjust many of my props so they fit into the scene at the angles I needed.

Covering the entire back of the set is a black rectangle with the opacity set to 29. Its sole purpose is to darken everything so the characters don't get lost in the colors of the background.

Finally, I just wanted to make special mention of the 'Evolution of Man' poster placed strategically behind the watercooler. It's not an accident that the two main characters act as a set of bookends to that image as a kind of commentary on the evolution of androids.

Animation

First Pass

I'm not going to go into too much detail on the animation process because this is why the project took far longer than a weekend - stretching out into about two weeks of working, whenever I found some time.

Initially I placed the characters in my scene, added in all their recorded dialogue, then key framed all my camera shots timed to when the characters speak. The camera is pretty standard for this kind of scene: 
  1. Start with a wide shot to establish the location and where the characters are within it. My wide shot has a subtle zoom in just to give the viewer the feeling of moving into the conversation that is about to happen (really standard stuff).
     
  2. Next is a medium close up of both characters so we get a good look at them from the point of view of a third party in the conversation.
     
  3. From there cut to single shots of whoever is speaking, and occasionally cut back to the two shot for variation or to show the reaction of the character not speaking to what the other is saying.
Once that was done I basically had a lip synced animatic (thanks to CA4's auto lip syncing) and could get a feel for the timing etc. and most importantly, whether it made me laugh.

Second Pass

Most of my body key framing was
working on character arm
and hand movements.
The next stage was to work one camera shot at a time in sequence, blocking in all the character body motions, using the closest motion from my motion library to what I was needing the character to do in each scene. I used quite a few 'talking' and 'standing idle' motions.

Once those were done, I key framed my modifications. If you really watch people talk, you'll notice they accentuate almost everything they say with hand gestures. They'll particularly use hand gestures to emphasise important points or to highlight something they're saying.

The majority of my key framing was working on the hand gestures of both characters, through moving the bones and sprite switching the hands.

Third Pass

Using expression templates in the Face Key Editor.
The final pass was facial animation, which is kind of my weakest area, in my opinion. I made the mistake of doing all my eye blinks manually with CA4's Facial Puppeteering first. This effectively puts a face key frame on almost every frame of the animation. Which is a real problem when it comes to using the Face Key Editor.

The difficulty arises because, whatever expression you create in the Face Key Editor, it's immediately changed as soon as you hit the next key frame in sequence. If the next key frame is the very next frame you won't even see the expression you set up. I spent a lot of time clearing out large chunks of key frames from my character's face track.

I would recommend using Face Puppeteering last if you plan to also use the Face Key Editor, as Face Puppeteering has a checkbox that will blend what you're doing with what you've already set up.

Sound Design and Editing

Other than the dialogue all other audio was added in my Video Editor (if you're interested I'm currently using Movavi Video Suite). Sound design really only consisted of adding one long ambient noise sample of an office that I got from freesound.org.

The only other sound effect is a really handy swoosh sound I use a lot - also from freesound.

There was no real video editing to do since it's a one scene skit. My video editor was used mostly for sound and adding opening and closing titles.

Highlights - Things You Can Take Away and Use

My favorite moment in the animation features no animation at all. The moment where the Valet stops TET from getting his own water. 

This motion happens between the cut from TET's close up, as he moves forward to get his own water, and the wide shot where the Valet is now already bent forward, blocking his arm. Right on the cut you hear a swoosh sound, indicating something is moving very quickly. You never see the Valet actually move to stop TET.

You never see the Valet move into this position. You only hear his
movement right on the cut from close to wide shot.

This kind of trick can be a real time saver and is often more effective than actually showing the action. It works because the viewer perceives a very short space of unseen time between changing camera angles (almost like an eye blink as they turn their head to see the new angle). You can do a lot of 'animation' in that small window of time.

Low Points - We'll Pretend That's Not in the Final Cut!

Aside from the issue I had with Face Puppeteering before using the Face Key Editor, the other elephant in the room is TET's walk right on the opening establishing shot. It's kind of like some weird, semi slow motion drift. It's not great and it did look better at one point.

To make him walk I used a looping walk motion and then a transform key frame at the start and end points of his walk. Inevitably this caused his feet to drift a little on the floor.

In an effort to make each foot stay in place as he walks I tried key framing on the transform track (the one that moves the entire character from A to B). It kind of worked but not really, creating the weird walk you see.

In the end I decided the weird walk was better than the foot sliding walk but I did cut the distance you see him walk right down in editing, hoping nobody would notice. I really need to learn the new CA4 kinetic features where you can lock body parts in place, eliminating things like foot drift.

Awkward Pause at the End

Plotagon TET Avatar.
Is this a thing now? We're really doing this? 
...

I hope you found this walkthrough of my process useful. I like to think I turned a negative into a positive. 

Had I not lost the original Plotagon version of this animation, none of this would have happened, and this blog post would have been very different.

As it stands, I completed my very first animation project since purchasing Cartoon Animator 4. If you have any comments, feedback, observations, or even questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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