The Saga of Rex Comes to Life with Toon Boom Harmony
(a software review - august 20th, 2012)

After finishing Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, I pretty much concluded that the time had come to start migrating away from Animo—a software I had been using to create animation since 1993. Not only, did I use it, I actually helped develop it. I even spent time in Cambridge, UK, working with the programming crew. I used Animo for Prelude to Eden, Sensology, Osmosis Jones, The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and many more.

A few years ago, Cambridge Animation, the company that developed and supported Animo, went out of business. I still had my portable license of the software but knew that the end was coming. I didn't want to switch software during the production of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, so I kept working with Animo for that project. When ITSP was completed, I devoted my time to finishing ZED: A Cosmic Tale, a 280-page graphic novel. And then, in early July, I was faced with deciding what to do next. I knew that this was the perfect time to face my animation software dilemma.

I love the Adobe software: Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere are all part of my arsenal. So my first instinct was to go into my Adobe collection and start playing with Flash. I had dabbled with Flash in 2005, when I did the interstitial series, Insanely Twisted Shadow Puppets, but I hadn't seriously looked at the software again since. After two days, I was done. I knew I wouldn't be able to get the look I want with the tools available. I'm not saying it's a bad program—it's just not for me. Not compatible with how my brain operates.

I turned my attention to Toon Boom, a series of 2D animation software that is receiving a lot of praise from members of the animation community. I downloaded the trial version of Toon Boom Animate Pro 2.

For my first little test, I took one panel from my graphic novel, The Saga of Rex, to see how fast I could animate and composite the whole thing in full HD. I opened the software and immediately felt at ease. The interface bears similarities to After Effects so I was still in my comfort zone. Also, my experience with Animo ported easily to Toon Boom Animate Pro 2. In a matter of a couple of hours, experimenting and poking around, I was up and running.

My first task was to create all the background elements. For this, I essentially used the layers from the original PSD pages of the graphic novel. In Photoshop, I isolated each background element and saved them as separate files. I first saved them as Tiffs, but importing those into Toon Boom Animate Pro 2 revealed a strange hallow around the transparent edges. I tested various formats and finally settled on PNGs as the type of file that provided the best quality when composited. Each of these files were imported into Harmony, straight, with no vectorization.

One of my goals with the software transition was to be able to go completely paperless. With Animo, I still drew a big part of the animation on paper, which was later scanned and digitized. With Animate Pro 2, I started roughing out the animation using my 21" Cintiq tablet. I was immediately impressed with the line vectorization. My drawings were automatically converted into vectors as I drew.  Not only that, the final rendition on the screen seemed to retain all the subtleties of my drawing. This was one of my points of contention with Flash. The fact that it re-interpreted my line was unacceptable. With Animate Pro 2, the soul of the drawing was there—and it was all vectors! Toon Boom was showing me a way to work with vectors that was compatible with how I draw and animate. Needless to say, having all the files as vectors has many advantages in terms of workability, resolution and memory space  issues.

After 10 hours of work on Animate Pro 2
After 10 hours of work on Animate Pro 2

My first test with Toon Boom Animate Pro 2 lasted about 2 days and within that time, I was able to import all the background elements and do a short little piece of animation in color. It was rough around the edges, and the compositing was truly basic, but there was no point in pushing further since I'd eventually have to redo the scene anyway (on the trial version, a Toon Boom watermark covers the rendered screen and the files are not compatible with the regularly licensed software).

In early July, shortly before I left for San Diego Comic-Con, I sent my first little test to Toon Boom and asked them about acquiring the full version of Toon Boom Harmony. A few days after coming back from California, I was set up and ready to start my big test.

To start with, I selected 4 pages that I thought would make a good self-contained clip. I gave myself a three-week deadline. In my review I wanted to be able to say, "single handedly done in three weeks, with no experience on the software" and see how far I could take it within that time constraint.

A big advantage with using The Saga of Rex as my test project, is the fact that I've already done a big part of the art direction and storyboarding. When I did the graphic novel, I saw it as a movie in my head. That's some of the equation already completed. Building on these elements, I prepared my scene set-ups, using Toon Boom as my animation and compositing workstation.

I loved working with the nodes on Animo and was happy to find that Harmony also had that feature. The architecture of the node system is a bit awkward and can quickly become a complicated mess if you're not careful. I can see ways it could be streamlined a bit better and I could get very technical here, but this would be boring as hell—more suited for a private discussion. At any rate, It's a valuable asset for compositing.

After 3 weeks of work on Toon Boom Harmony

With all my background elements imported into Harmony, I created the layers for my animation. First roughing out all the general movements with very loose sketches. Then, creating a layer on top and doing a nice clean-up version of the key drawings. The keys were then inbetweened. I found an amazing way to do the inbetweens that makes the process more accurate and faster than what could be done on paper. Perhaps I'll do a tutorial of that in the future.

At first, I left a lot of "gaps" in the line drawings which was a problem further in the process. When it came time to paint, I needed to find all the tiny gaps in the lines and close them in order to properly fill the containment area with color. Animo had an automatic closing line option that put a little invisible barrier between small gaps. I did not see that in Harmony, so I had to be a little more careful with my drawings. Once I figured that out, the painting was easy and fast. Update: I'm told there a way to do this in Harmony but I haven't really figured it out yet. I saw a "close gap" option in the drop down menu of the paint tool, but I'm not clear how to automate it for the whole level and without me having to locate the gaps first.

I used the graphic novel panels as my color models and for each new scene, I imported the previous color palette. I didn't have any real color model set up as you would have in a production, so I can't really comment on that aspect of the software.

I love the fact that you can view your animation in real time, right in your working window. It's automatic—just press enter and your animation will automatically playback. I used to rely on physically "rolling" the paper to test motion and timing. Because scanning is so time consuming, I hardly ever video tested before scanning the final clean-ups. It's great to have that new luxury with my hand drawn animation. Being digital from rough to final clean up definitely has its advantages.

For me, a software has to be sufficiently intuitive so that I can proceed without tutorials or reading a manual. I have a trial and error approach that lets me discover software at my pace and on my terms. If I can't make sense of it, I quickly loose interest. Harmony keeps me curious and inquisitive. There is much depth to the software—so much to explore. I'm welcoming the journey!

I've been drawing on the Cintiq for years in Photoshop, doing comics and illustrations. Animation was my last link to the old animation table. Frankly, I was always a little scared of making that move—of letting that go. Indeed, I had never found a software before Toon Boom that could do better what pencil and paper had done for me for years. With their intuitive interface and excellent vectorization system, Toon Boom has finally brought me into the 21st century. I feel confidently equipped to face any animation challenge.

Note: Other software that was used in making the sequence include Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere, and Cineform Codec Plug-in for video rendering.