Nyanko is a very lively, exaggerated and cartoony character.
While Nyanko does not fit the original lore of the Bakeneko and the Nekomata with its association with death and magical powers, it is imperative to establish what kind of character Nyanko is. Nyanko, as mentioned before, is a catgirl who is cute, full of energy, and with a childish, overly exaggerated and cartoony personality.
For my animations, I really wanted to emphasise the fact that she is a catgirl and that she has a childish personality. This meant that I had to add characteristics and motions that were prominent in a cat and in a child. This meant that I had to look at how a cat would move and how they react to different stimuli. The tail plays a very important part in all animations as it is another outlet of emotion as well as another sign as to how gravity is effecting the character.
For her walking and running animation, I wanted to show the childish part of her personality and it’s emphasised with how she uses her giant paws in every action. In fact, her giant paws are what gives her weight. When she walks, she has her arms out straight with her head swaying to the left and right in a very carefree manner. However when she runs, she loosens her arms and runs with them behind her like in Naruto. I made sure that whenever she hits the floor with a step, her arms and tail bounces as well and that the tail does not sway when running.
For the Jump animation, the animation principle of Anticipation as well as Squash and Stretch and Timing is very important here. Nyanko first locks her eyes at something. She then prepares her jump with her knees bending down and while she prepares, she wiggles and springs up with her paws stretching out. She then bends her legs in and brings her paws forward to help break her fall, and finally lands with her paws down. There is a little bit of a bounce when she lands and she stands back upright and is ready for the next action.
For this animation, I looked at a numerous different references such as how cats prepare for a jump as well as a pounce, how they land, as well how the Miqo’te in Final Fantasy 14 jump. This was an animation that I had to go back and forth due to frame speeds because the Timing was always off. I wanted to show the butt-wiggle because it was a cat’s important characteristic but I was not sure as to how long it would take and whether or not it was visible to the audience. Thankfully, I was able to get it to a framerate that was always somehow a multiple of 24, despite having to edit it again in post after rendering the turntable with Renderman. I also made it a point to keep the animation graph to its slopes as it creates a smoother transition between keyframes. I think most of the work was done on the graphs as they were also another way to manipulate frames.
I definitely think from an animation standpoint, Nyanko could have used a better walk cycle and some more work on the run and jump cycle. I think a more bouncier walk would have fit her better like skipping. If I added the fingers on the rig, I would be able to add more little details to my animation but if the basic animation is not good then I do not think any embellishments like relaxed fingers or them touching the ground would make my animations better. I do not think it will save it either. From a technical standpoint, moving the arms into place for almost any animation through IK was a bit of a challenge so the general rule for myself was that arms should be in FK while legs should be in IK. I’m saddened by the fact that you can’t play FK and IK at the same appendage without baking your animations.
I think these animations could have been a lot better if the rig allowed for just a little bit of stretch and squash because it makes the object look soft and malleable. For someone like Nyanko, creating smear frames would certainly help boost her personality and therefore add to her animations, like the ones you see in a lot of 2D and 3D animations like Ren & Stimpy, Steven Universe, Madagascar and the Ice Age movies. Even Clay animation has its smears. It is not an obvious detail and they look strange by themselves but when it is slipped into a sequence, then the animation is better by a significant amount.
I talked about the auto-rig tool that lets you rig a biped character in Maya and how it is becoming more and more the norm in the industry. I also found out that Maya has a stretchy IK script that comes with the Bonus Tools package which makes it easier to create just a little bit of the exaggeration that you see in a lot of smear frames. I didn’t implement it then but I wish I had. Cage Rigs or as Pixar calls it Harmonic Coordinates follow the same principle but with faces and moves with both IK and FK. The rig created here is mainly focused around creating realistic animation or imitations of a live-action footage, akin to rotoscoping and Nyanko isn’t like that. I wanted to trick the viewer’s eye with limited animation but I can’t do that without attaching some extra features such as blend-shapes and some extra bones to help prevent unnecessary crease deformation in the mesh. The rig is also more likely to create a “broken” pose or two that snaps back to its next keyframe but it will look awkward and terrifying without a blur effect.
The smear helps with movement of the frame and could help with the timing of the animation. While one could argue that the smear and blur effect is something done in post-processing for example by just turning the motion blur on in the render settings, the effect would not mesh well if the base material did not give the blur effect the time and the frames that it needs and my animations are just a small amount apart, so I have to pose where I need to pose and fix along the way. You don’t see a smear frame because it is blurred anyway and they are there to add extra movement in less frames. If the rig allowed me to do abnormal deformations like rigs in Sony Animation or the rigs in Source Filmmaker then the zany and exaggerated cartoony animation style that I intended Nyanko to have would be possible without having to slow down the animation and speeding it up again in post. In live-action film, motion blurs are normal but in animation, you have to make them from scratch and the smear is a very small detail that I think Nyanko needs to have in her animations to bring her to life and make herself look more appealing to the eye, especially with squashing and stretching.
I do have to add though that smears are not entirely necessary when animating an action. Early Walt Disney films like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and almost every Studio Ghibli film to date rarely use smears and mostly only use it to convey objects in high speeds. As mentioned before, Smears are used to speed up and emphasise an action and it can help with its Timing. While an action does not necessarily have to be instant when a player hits a button, it needs to feel solid and satisfying. You could have as much delay on your anticipation as you want but if the resulting action does not pay off, then it will not feel good for the player and Monster Hunter is a great example of that. Nyanko’s jump could be used for a game if the preparation was a third of its original length. That would mean cutting out the butt-wiggle and maybe using it to charge the player’s jump or for other animations like crouching, a pounce or perhaps even a simple emote or taunt. Smears are an animation gimmick and like all gimmicks, you can only go so far with them.
Overall, I think Nyanko’s animations are definitely going in the right direction and that they’re a mix of technical limitations and design choices that could have been better. I got Nyanko’s character with the type of poses she would use to express herself and that the tail animation. I am familiar with animation but I have never used this kind of system and in retrospect, adding that Stretchy IK function to my animations as well as some blendshapes would have made a big difference and they are all features I should consider using more often.