See also the Alien Song FAQ
My first animation with the as yet unnamed Blit (and my second ever, the first being a mediocre walk cycle of a duck) was appropriately called "Alien Test". This was primarily an exercise in acting and timing, and also in working with the software and distilling a good skeletal constraint setup. I wanted to see if I could put the scene that I saw in my head into the computer. In this piece, as in the 2 subsequent pieces, the set is minimal in order to focus on the animation. I finished it in late July of that year, and I believe it was a moderately successful piece, though I could certainly do it better and faster today.
Next I decided to take what I had learned on "Alien Test" and try something more ambitious. I spent some time reworking the constraints and the model, and I built a gun for him to use as a prop. My intent for this piece was to give the character and the gun a sense of weight, and the style of motion and camera work was influenced by martial arts films and Japanese animation. Thus was born "Alien Gun", which I completed in late November of 1998. I'm pretty satisfied with the end result, though in retrospect I would tailor the walk more to the point of view of the camera.
After more constraint revisions and the addition of a shirt, Blit was ready to move on. I figured it was about time I tackled lip-synch so I began to look for interesting audio sources. I didn't want to use my own voice because I don't like the way my voice sounds in recordings, and I don't think that Blit would sound like me anyway. I was considering a William Shatner bit or quotes from some of my favorite movies when, at my wife's office Christmas party, the DJ put on Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive". I was immediately struck with the image of Blit emoting on a stool under a blue spotlight. I'm not a big fan of disco, but I thought the song had some interesting emotional transitions and a narrative that would lend itself well to animation. The combination of Blit and "I Will Survive" is incidental. Blit was the only character I had setup and ready to animate, and I thought the song was good for lip-synching in its own right. The line in the song about "outer space" was just a lucky coincidence. There's really no other justification as to why a dorky green alien is singing like a black diva, but I think this absurdity is somehow working in favor of the animation. My only concern is that people might think that Blit's personality is that of a diva, when in actuality I think of him more as he appeared in "Alien Test": goofy and vulnerable.
I started production on "Alien Song" by creating a dozen or so mouth shapes for Blit so that he could enunciate the words. I located a copy of the song on a disco compilation CD and digitized it. A musician friend of mine, Jamey Scott, edited the song down to just the lyrics I wanted and adjusted the tempo to make it an even 120 beats per minute (this made figuring out the timing for 24 frames per second a snap). I imported the audio and bitmap renderings of the mouth shapes into Magpie Pro, a great little stand-alone ap for figuring out lip-synch and making dope sheets. After lots of scrubbing and pushing images around between frames I had the basic lip-synch worked out, and I transferred that information into A:M. Note: the current version of Animation Master now has similar lip-synch features built in. Once in A:M I was able to fine tune the lip-synch more and add areas of emphasis. Of course I would not be satisfied with Blit simply reciting the lyrics; I had to make a big production of it! Inspired by 70's variety and music shows like "Solid Gold" I choreographed a hokey stage number complete with colored lights, camera dolly and a dance floor right out of "Saturday Night Fever".
I sketched out thumbnails of ideas for "story" poses that would emphasize the key phrases in the lyrics in the song.
Compare these with some of the final poses from the animation.
From there I would go in and create more poses in-between, as well as establish anticipation and follow-through. Occasionally I would animate custom constraints, such as a "Translate To" on the Hand Control Bone, so that I could dynamically attach his hands to his chest or hips without them slipping as his torso twists.
While working on the seated portion of the animation I was also creating a looping "strut" cycle that would form the foundation for the second half of the sequence. This cycle included animation for all parts of his body except for the arms, which were custom animated throughout. With the strut cycle in place in the Choreography I was able to animate additional motion on top, as needed. A:M's ability to layer animations or "Actions" onto a character was key in the execution of this piece.
The trickiest part of the sequence was probably the transition from sitting to standing. I never really got the weight shift or foot placement right, but I was able to hide this with a little creative framing and camera switching. Another "cheat" occurs when Blit points at the camera on "weren't you the one...". I couldn't get his hand close enough to the camera to get the result I wanted, so for that gesture I scaled his hand up by 20% to make it appear more "in your face".
This animation was created both on the Mac and PC, and the final frames were rendered at D1 resolution (720 x 486 with pixel ratio of .9) and sampled down for the web version. I also did plenty of post-processing in Adobe After Effects as I always will, given the chance. I softened the images, added some bloom and film grain, made sure the colors were safe for broadcast and created the sparkles on the disco ball with Knoll Lens Flare Pro.
In total I worked on this piece for about nine months on my spare time, which works out to roughly 250 hours. Because it was a personal piece I allowed myself the luxury of time to tweak it until I was happy with it. I also have a tendency to modify his constraint setup in the middle of animating, which is generally not a good thing to do in production. A lot of people ask me if I had any reference for Blit's motion, and indeed some have gone so far as to accuse me of using motion capture. The truth is, I had neither. The way Blit is moving is just how I thought a diva would move. There were some bits that I had to act out in front of a mirror to figure out the mechanics, but ultimately it's all from my imagination. I must, however, give credit to the members of the CG Char mailing list for their help. It was thanks to their critiques and advice that I was able to push the animation to what it is today. The version of Alien Song that is floating around the internet today is actually the third version I've posted. The first two (which I shudder to look back upon and will refrain from posting here) were works in progress that I submitted to the list for criticism, and I am indebted to those professionals and novices who offered up their opinions and suggestions.
As for the ending, I didn't want to animate the full three or four minutes of music, and I was looking for a quick way out. As I said before, I'm not a big fan of disco, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity for a little comic irony. Some people have complained about the ending, saying that Blit should get back up and keep singing. I also get a lot of requests from people to do more disco lip synch animations, and I'm very wary of that. I don't want to pigeonhole myself or Blit, and I'm much more interested in moving on to new stories and ideas.
In the meantime I am thrilled at the overwhelming response it has generated! I still receive dozens of emails a week from people of all ages, from all over the world, telling me how much they enjoyed it. Every once in a while it will turn up in an newspaper or on a TV show, though usually no one bothers to ask my permission. Blit and Alien Song have also garnered me many opportunities such as licensing deals, speaking engagements at seminars, and most importantly, a job at Pixar. One French reporter asked me if I distributed this movie on the web as some sort of calculated public relations ploy. I never intended this movie to travel beyond the small group of people I showed it to, much less to achieve such virus-like saturation over the internet. Even if I wanted to I could probably never achieve the same result again. I feel very fortunate that I have received all this attention for a piece that was a simple labor of love. I hope that my next animation will be as well received!