Animation, Character Essences, Coding & Inventing, Research & Play

Character Essences Begins

After a few years of improv theatre, animation research and coding I think it’s time to begin my dream project. Character Essences will combine theatre techniques of character creation with traditional and procedural animation. Drawing on character archetypes from Commedia dell’arte and the physical theatre methods of Jacque le Coque and Rudolf Laban, the main focus is to find movement parameters (constants and variables) that define well established characters.

Once the parameters of movement have been identified, they can be manipulated to create a large variety of characters procedurally. The uses include video game automated character generation, extra characters in films and autonomous robot movements. One of the goals is also to simplify movement patterns without the need for large data sets like in machine learning. My belief is that by focusing on the intrinsics, rather than the extrinsics of character movement one can better identify the corresponding building blocks.

Characters can range from simple primitive models to animals and humans. Early experiments included Expressing Emotions Through Mathematical Functions (see Research page) for primitive models. I found that combinations of fast, sinusoidal movements can create the illusion of joy in spheres and cubes, for example. These observations are linked more to psychology and to the Heider-Simmel experiment. If human emotion can be identified in such simple entities, surely adding a recognizable shape to the character (eg. biped, quadruped) will produce more relatable experiences with the observer. Let the adventure begin!

Keywords: Archetypes, procedural animation, psychology, biomechanics, equations, theatre, characters

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Acting & Improv, Coding & Inventing, Research & Play

World Problems: Ep.1 – Global Warming and the Magic Box Designs

“Scientists have recently determined that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain – unless it is done with play, in which case, it takes between 10 – 20 repetitions.” (Dr Karin Purvis)

Motivation of World Problems Series

I’m starting Ana’s Research and Play with Episode 1 of the World Problems (WP) series. WP will have longer episodes (~15 mins) that combine ideation, design, prototyping and testing of sometimes crazy inventions. It is intended to experiment with possible solutions to help “save” the world. The approach is a playful one, rather than a worried and tense one. The reasoning is my belief that people achieve their best when fear of failure is out of the way.

The inventions that result from this series might or might not be viable. In this sense, WP presents a humble method to saving the world. My ambition is not to come up with precise inventions that will give accurate results (although they are very welcome). In my experience, having such pressures, under the constraint of limited time, leads to mediocre solutions and headaches. What I am trying to do is follow my curiosity and allowing myself to both innovate and fail (first attempt at learning).     

In the best case scenario, the world will benefit from an invention. Worse case scenario, I will have brainstormed some ideas that fill people with such indignation at my nerve, that they’ll just go and make their own creations. Empathy also motivates me and it is necessary to prevent an attitude of carelessness and lack of responsibility. It is important, however, to use empathy as a driving energy rather than an energy draining one. We should all make a contribution to saving the world we live in, but it mustn’t destroy us in the process – unless it’s a sacrifice of love, but that’s a different story. Let’s begin!  

Episode 1 Summary

In this episode I come up with a few crazy designs to help save the world from global warming, by using random household items. It all starts with choosing the problem out of a list of possible world problems. I then have a warm up (of my mind, not the world) by finding different uses for household items via lateral thinking.

The Magic Box, which is often seen in clowning exercises comes into play. This leads to shotfire brainstorms from Experimental Ana, who gives up grammar for creativity. It all ends with a set of crazy invention designs (see below). One of them or a combination of up to three of them could be prototyped in the future.

The Research

Episode 1 is linked more to brainstorming ideas, but research elements also find their way through. Please see the video description for the references used. Here are some research inspired elements from the video.

  • Choosing the problem
  • Motivation of play based approach
  • Review of a few accidental discoveries
  • Background on Lateral Thinking
  • Ideation of designs
  • Designing possible prototypes

The Play

The structure of Episode 1 is linked to an improv game called Fix it MacGyver! In this game, a character called MacGyver is given a problem and three random items. He or she has to come up with a solution to fix the problem by utilizing the given items.

For example, let’s say someone’s house is on fire. MacGyver has a cat, a sandwich and a chainsaw. One solution is of course to use the cat as a scout to check if there are any survivors. The chainsaw can be used to cut through the fallen parts of the house, so that the trapped victims can be reached. Once they are out, a sandwich is provided for nutrition, while waiting for the firemen.

The idea of the game is not to “get it right”, since there are “no mistakes, just opportunities in improv” (Tina Fey). Letting your thoughts imagine the wildest solutions is very liberating because it cuts out inner criticism. What improvisers experience with this game is also linked to Julia Cameron’s theory, described in her book The Artist’s Way. She recommends evading the inner critic by free writing three pages of whatever comes to mind every morning.

My Experimental Ana from the video uses this technique of free and spontaneous thought. Censoring of ideas is kept to a minimum, giving priority to the joy of discovering where my own thoughts take me. In the paraphrased words of Keith Johnstone, one of the pillars of improv, “You must trust that your mind, God or the giant moose will tell you what to say.”

The elements of play in Episode 1 are the following:

  • Defining the game guidelines (box of objects + find different uses for them)
  • Magic box game linked to clowning exercise
  • Lateral thinking solutions to a problem breaks patterns of thinking
  • Experimental Ana uses free and spontaneous thought
  • Experimental Ana uses jump and justify improv technique (say the word first and then justify its meaning)
  • Creating designs with commitment

Designs

After the research and play collaboration, seven designs emerged. These are not necessarily viable designs, but they open up a world of possibilities! Please have a look and tell me which of these designs you would like prototyped in the future!

MinivacuumShoesFlowerShapedFlowerpotBadAirSmasherSmartRopeEDangeredSnifferFreshLifeBalancerBoaCleaner

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Acting & Improv, Research & Play

CORE Improv Theatre Course

Character. Objective. Relationship. Environment

If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets, and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on-stage.” (Del Close)

Who: 
Anamaria Ciucanu
(anamaria.ciucanu@gmail.com)

anaonpier

Anamaria

When:
Fridays 10th of May – 28th of June
19:00 – 21:00
(!) Dates might change after taster session,
depending on room availability.

Where:
New Oriel Hall in Larkhall, Bath
Small Studio

How much:
[1] FREE taster on the 10th of May!
[2] Pay as you go 10£/7£ (cons*) per class
[3] Pay for all 7 weeks in one go 55£/40£ (cons)
(!) Offer [3] is the best value for money, plus you get to be in a show for family and friends at the end.
(!) cons* = students, unemployed, low income, retired

What:
Week 1 – FREE Taster Class
Subtheme: Yes and! (Acceptance)
Date: 10th of May 2019

Week 2 – Character 
Subtheme: Letting go of the fear of failure!
Date: 17th of May 2019

Week 3 – Objective
Subtheme: Listening
Date: 24th of May 2019

Week 4 – Relationship
Subtheme: Taking care of each other
Date: 31st of May 2019

Week 5 – Environment
Subtheme: Object work
Date: 7th of June 2019

Week 6 – Practice Class
Subtheme: Jump and justify!
Date: 14th of June 2019

Week 7 – Practice Class
Subtheme: Go deeper, find your why.
Date: 21st of June 2019

Week 8 – Show for Family and Friends
Subtheme: TBD
Date: 28th of June 2019

(!) Each class is self-contained, but people are encouraged to attend as many as possible to feel an improvement.

Who is it for?
CORE Improv is intended for beginners and those who want to hone their skills in the improv craft. People that struggle with anxiety, who want to enhance their spontaneity, confidence and creativity are especially welcome!

More Details:
Improv is a form of theatre without a script. Improvisers create characters and stories on the spot with their fellow actors. Simple techniques like “Yes and”, listening, collaboration and commitment are often used to make laughter and mystery appear out of thin air. Some of the pioneers of this artform are Keith Johnstone, Viola Spolin and Del Close. Their methods influenced the way I learnt and teach improv techniques. See https://anamariaciucanu.com/storytelling/ for a list of all my more modern influences, as well as teachers that shaped me along the way.

This course is a set of 8 self-contained classes, spanned over 8 weeks, starting with a FREE taster class! It is a journey through the realm of improvised theatre, with a strong focus on short form scenes, characters and storytelling. Although not specifically designed as a comedy course, you’ll find that laughter springs often from our interactions and wild ideas.

The acronym CORE stands for the building blocks of any good story: character (who?), objective (what?), relationship (why?), environment (where?). It can also be a metaphor for working on your core creativity muscles. This is pilates for your mind!

“There are no mistakes, just opportunities,” (Tina Fey)  

“as long as everyone is having fun.” (me)  

(!) Click here to see all of my improv related projects and testimonials.

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Chasing the Light, Research & Play, Thoughts About Life

Pebbles in the Storm

‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ (Christ)

girls

Girls in front of a mosque in Mumbai.

This week has been heartwrenching, but also eye-opening and fun. It started with a three day training led by Ash Perrin from the Flying Seagull Project. It ended with a masterpiece film, Capernaum, directed by Nadine Labaki and starring syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea. The voices that echoed throughout the week, however, were the voices of children.

Children in refugee camps. Children running away from authority. Children making their own justice. Angry, sad, hungry, tired, alone children, who have lost so much and yet still find the strength to take care of each other. Like Zain (Capernaum) helping his sister hide her period from her mother, since the blood stain meant she was ready for marriage, at eleven. Or how Zain took care of an infant whose mother had been arrested due to illegal immigration.

Oh, child of the past, where are thou now? What deserts are you wandering through? Who feeds you and gives you drink? Who tells you bedtime stories and gives you shelter? For I have sheltered you in the depths of my heart and people have told me to leave you there. I added more and more layers of wood and brick and your voice became like a distant whisper.

‘Be more mature.’, ‘You have to drop the silliness.’, ‘You’d be so pretty with some makeup on.’, ‘It’s time you got a real job.’, ‘You’ve been in school long enough.’, ‘Stop running after princes and fairy tales.’, they said, sometimes even my family, although I know they meant well. But this week something changed. I was allowed to play. Actually I was told to be sillier, goofier, wilder! Improv for me is usually a place to play and be free, but the Flying Seagull Project (FSP) training was much more than that.

FSP have brought smiles to thousands of refugee and underprivileged children. Dressed up as figments of our imagination, Ash and his crew believe that childhood is a right that everyone should have. They bring games, songs and magic to children all around the world to help them play again. After training with FPS I believe that us grown ups can also learn a thing or two about the joy of being daft.  

Oh, how the tables have turned! Grown ups teaching children to play and children teaching grown ups to raise their young. But we need this, because in order to clean and bandage the wounds of our Earth, we need grown ups to be childlike and humble, while children need to be heard and taken seriously.

So if you have reached the end of this article, take a moment to think. How can you be a pebble in this stormy sea we live in today? Your ripples might seem swallowed by the waves, but they are never lost. The Flying Seagull Project (and I :D) will bring hope, courage and smiles to children. Capernaum and other similar films will help fight child neglect. How can your gifts be used to bring a voice to children…and not only the ones out there, but also the one inside your soul?    

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Research & Play

MIG18 in Cyprus

I wake up at 6am with the sound of a mandolin in my ears. Russian voices can be heard from next door. I turn in my bed thinking ‘For a five star hotel, they don’t have thick enough walls.’ I finally get up and look outside, ‘but they do have a five star view.’

morningView

View from my room at St. Raphael

This is how my first day in Limassol started, at St. Raphael’s hotel, with a spectacular view and russians playing the mandolin. The sea looked so inviting, but I spent most of the day preparing my presentation. ‘Ah, this is torture, but it must be done.’

Although I’m in my natural element walking around the stage pretending to be a pirate and giving orders to my ship mates, I don’t like presentations, at least not formal ones. I guess I haven’t convinced myself yet that although people may judge, they really want you to succeed. I didn’t know what to expect from the conference I was about to attend, I just knew that the mustard suit my mum made me buy would be like a kangaroo sticking out from a flock of sheep.

The next day (08/11/2018) was the first day of MIG18 (ACM Siggraph’s Motion, Interaction in Games conference). I was in limbo state, not too nervous, not too calm. I went to the sea to rest my thoughts, as the sun was slowly lifting its head over the morning sky. My room card had stopped working by the time I got back from the sea and a light breakfast. Reception quickly sorted it, but it was 8:30 and I had to dress up for my presentation at 9:00. Guess what? The maid was in the room, making my bed. ‘Erm, do you mind if I change in the bathroom.’ I said, holding my mustard suit, which had been dry cleaned the previous day.

It turned out I didn’t have to hurry so much, Prof. Nadia Magnenat Thalmann wanted to swap presentations with me, since she had a plane to catch. It’s funny that she presented exactly what I wanted to hear: a way of classifying (salsa) dancing using simple motion features. Yes, salsa can be decomposed into simple patterns of movement, emotions can be decomposed into action features. What else can be simplified and understood about the human nature? What are the invariants to human perception as Rogelio Cardona-Rivera implied in his wonderful keynote on The Science of Game Design. I go deeper and ask myself, what are the simple patterns of movement that unite us all, that move us to tears, that enhance our empathy towards one another. Can we use technology to understand such patterns and, subsequently, understand one another?

Machine learning is the hot topic of the day (for how long I wonder). It also was ridden all over the conference, with topics like Data-driven Autocompletion for Keyframe Animation by Xinyi Zhang et. al,  Physics-based Motion Capture Imitation with Deep Reinforcement Learning by Chentanez et. al, two very good key notes on ML by Daniel Holden and Jungdam Won etc. Although my initial attitude towards ML was skepticism, I must confess I finally saw what all the fuss is about. If my interest is to understand behaviour from the intrinsics of a character outwards, ML was doing the opposite.  Since capturing the complexities of human nature in a closed form equation is virtually impossible, why not humbly understand its approximations by analyzing as many people as can fit in a database? Yes, I’ll think more about it…

Now for some cheese:

The number of surprises was endless, but I’ll just mention a few wonderful events and people that made my experience at the conference worthwhile. I loved how friendly everyone was, people really were curious and wanted to help eachother out. The organizers, Panayiotis Charalambous, Yiorgos Chrysanthou, Ben Jones and Jehee Lee were very welcoming and down to earth, always making sure we were having a good time. I loved Matthias Muller’s keynote on Physics Based Dynamics. I realized I had quoted him in my thesis as he was awkwardly receiving a fertility totem as a thank you gift for his talk.

I was humbled and happy to meet the charming, smart, warm and confident Xinyi, Athomas, Bea, Anastasia, David, Usman, Luis, Loic, Daniel, Philipp, Dario, Yuri, Jason and many, many others :). Sorry I haven’t managed to talk to everyone!

mig2018

MIG18 people (picture taken from MIG18 Facebook Page)

 

Last but not least, the day out in Nicosia and the two amazingly cypriot dinners really got everyone to socialize and loosen up. Do I even need to mention the cypriot dancing? It was nice to see people volunteer and do curious glass balancing or oversimplified zorba moves around the restaurant. It was funny that every type of dance had some form of courtship: courting in the wheat field, courting by the well, showing off glass balancing in front of the young bride to be :))

glasspeople

Traditional cypriot glass balancing.

 

Our Nicosia tour guide reminded me of a confident cypriot granny who knows exactly what to put in her meze dishes. She walked us around Nicosia and shared the city’s disputed history. Probably the most haunting moment was when we saw the green line wall separating the greek and turkish cypriots. The police there seemed friendly enough, however, which gives me hope. I loved the quaint, narrow streets with fairy lights illuminating the pavement, the local crafts shops and the friendly people around. It was nice to see young people trying to revive the old market place with art.

All in all, MIG18 in Cyprus was awesome and I hope to come again! Thank you for the adventure!

 

greenwall

Green line wall between the greek and turkish cypriot sides of Nicosia.

police

Green line wall police seem ok. 🙂

guide

Our Nicosia tour guide.

wax

Local wax crafts shop.

coolkids

The cool kids in the local market in Nicosia.

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Research & Play

Research is not Academia

After a few years of a rather painful experience as a PhD student, or should I say Engineering Doctorate (EngD) student, which is even more demanding, I have some thoughts I’d like to share. I do not wish to be ungrateful for the experience and support I have been given, financially and on an advisory level, but there are some things that have changed my feeling towards what I though academia was.

Firstly, why do I say doing an EngD is even more demanding than doing a PhD? It’s because after one year of confusion, where you’re deciding on which topic you would like to pursue, you end up doing something marginally close to your heart. Don’t get me wrong, I have colleagues who absolutely love what they do and it is a pleasure to see their progress throughout the 4 years. But these cases are very rare and often people settle to working on a project they like, but don’t feel passionate about. One year at university, one year where you make friends and where you find out what makes you tick and then you move to a different city where you have to start over. When it works, it can be miraculous and you also get industry experience, awesome! But when it doesn’t work so well, one can feel very isolated.

I feel I’m complaining a lot these days and I do not like this sobby version of Ana, I do apologize. I wish I could restore myself to a previous version, the version that fell in love with animation after watching Finding Nemo in 2004. My life, unfortunately, does not have version control so I have to keep overriding my mind with happier experiences. If doing an EngD isn’t hard enough, try adding a broken relationship, changing supervisors 3 times and your company shutting down after 2 years on placement (for an EngD, placement lasts for 3 years).

The biggest obstacle, however, is realizing that there is a huge difference between research and academia. The word itself, “research” means to search again, to fail a lot (Thomas Edison comes to mind), to discover, to explore, to create. Academia means to publish. Research is, or at least should be, the biggest part of academic studies. Students should be encouraged and helped, especially at the beginning of their PhD to “do the scary thing, fight the monster” (Jacob Banigan) and fail happily. Linking in to the philosophy I have learnt in improvised theatre, “There are no mistakes, just opportunities.” (Tina Fey).

Constraints like time running out, feeling guilty for wasting resources, the impostor syndrome generate fear or at least stress. A mind subdued to long periods of negative emotions such as these will not be inclided to create. I am currently talking from personal experience and from what I have observed, but I am sure there are a lot of references out there, for the more scrutinous amongst us. The high level of depression in academia is very real and has been overlooked far enough.

I believe there should be a change, a revolution even, in the way academia is structured. My inspiration is improvised theatre (impro), where I have found a supportive and fun atmosphere to explore storytelling and ideas. Keith Johnstone, one of the founders of this art form introduced the notion of “happy fail”, where we actually celebrate failure. In impro, people say “yes and”, in academia people say “yes but”. In impro people collaborate, in academia people compete. In impro people actively play and interact, in academia people sit at conferences with an invisible wall between them and the presenter. Lastly, in impro, people feel happy to explore, in academia, people feel fearful to share their work.

I don’t know about you, but I am starting to see a pattern emerging. Academia should be about research and research should be about exploration, collaboration, discovery, creation and, most importantly, happy fails. Results should be just as important as failures. Ideas should be just as important as publications. Funding shouldn’t be seen as a salary, but as support towards the creative process. People shouldn’t be telling audience members what they’re doing, but should be actively showing them and bringing them into their circle.

Alas, where are the days when pubs used to be public places, where people would share their amazing discoveries informally, where the truth really comes out? Of course, some level of formality is required, we don’t want a group of drunk academics playing football with the audience, while explaining relativity. But we do need to make research fun again and only then will it become truthful, because “the truth is funny” (Del Close) and also memorable.

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