Monday, November 04, 2013

Doing Animation Wright

I like the new Phoenix Wright game. It translated everything into 3D, so all the characters are 3D models (or very convincing pseudo-3D models). The art style survived almost entirely intact, aside from some damage to the way that hair looks.

But there is one big change that I think I finally figured out.

The motions inherited from the old games (TAKE THAT! WHHAAAAT!) look robotic and excessive. But not all the animations look robotic: a lot of animations originating in this game seem very natural and powerful. It's not universal. Some old motions translate very well, and some new motions are awkward.

It took me a while to figure out why that is.

It's the framerate.

The old games literally used animated GIFs. The frame rate was very low. Because of this, you couldn't really create secondary nuances very easily. Instead, you usually take advantage of the low framerate to put serious "pop" into your animations, the same way you might cut a frame out of a cartoon to give it some extra pop. So the classic style was to cut to just before the primary stance and use a simple "pop" animation to bring the stance to the fore. You put in plenty of exaggeration to make it pop properly.

The classic example is the "TAKE THAT" finger point, along with most of the other lawyer animations such as lashing a whip, pounding on the table, having toupees blown off, and so on. The panicked animations for various witnesses are also done like this. These are perfectly suited for the low frame rate - they take a simple stance and use a POP animation to transition into the final stance.

There are a lot of examples of nuanced animations in the old games, too, usually on the part of people who don't get excited. The most iconic is probably Trucy's bounce. Put her in her primary stance and then just create a subtle bounce. The secondary animation of her hair and cape follow in turn, and make it a very engaging animation. There are other examples, such as Gumshoe's head-scratch, but in all cases these subtler animations were fighting against the GIF format, squeezed into a low framerate and with a significant file size cost.

But in the new game, those are the animations that shine. With 4x the old frame rate and no significant file size problems, the animations can be as subtle as you like. Moreover, nuances and secondary events can easily be put in.

You can easily see this with Trucy's new bounce, which is identical to the old bounce except that the secondary animation is a really intricate ripple. Another clear example is the first witness' hair-pull action, where she tugs on her long braids and causes them to stretch. The new heroine's BLEAH face also has some really great nuanced animations that shine in this new format.

But the old animation style looks awkward and stilted. Just compare the hair pull animation from our first witness to two of her other animations: letting the hair bounce into her eyes, and pulling down a flower inhaler off her hat. Both of these are obviously done in the old style, with a simple starting pose followed by a straight-through exaggerated motion into the final pose. At eight frames a second, they would look great. At ~32, they look clumsy.

It's clear to me that the animation team was working through this same thought process and will probably continue to polish their presentation in later games.

I don't think that big gestures are coming to an end in Phoenix Wright. It's not the big gestures that are bad, it's the oldschool "pop" animation style. There are big gestures which work, such as Trucy's magic trick. But these gestures don't pop into exaggerated existence. Instead they follow a more refined style with standard pre-motion countermotion and a feeling of weight and substance. It is a better animation style, and it's the one they'll use now that they're no longer trapped by GIF.

Of course, the "POP" of the old animations will be missed... they'll have to find some way to make the new animations as explosive and iconic.

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