Ara's Tale - short film wip


I am in the progress of creating a short, all done as a one man project.
Its a tale about a young girl - Ara - and her encounter with a dragon.

         This is a project I do in my spare time for educational purposes only. I started several weeks ago with the script, storyboarding, concept design and first modeling tasks.
         I thought I give it a try and post the evolution of this short here in the WIP section, where I might get useful critique, which is essential when working alone.

My (naive) estimation for finishing this short is summer 2010.

         Currently I am back at refining the storytelling aspect and are reworking the storyboard and storyreel.
         I plan to publicly show the evolution of the first 90 secs.
         See [here]( for the currrent version of the storyboard/storyreel.
 The progress in more detail can be seen on [my blog](
 Here are design sketches of the two main characters
         The dragon
     Environment sketches
     [img][/img] [[img][/img]]([[img][/img]]( [[img][/img]](
 modeling images on next post[...](


cont’d from previous post:

Modeling progress so far ( no sculpting, shading and texturing at this stage )



I will update this thread (and my blog) as new work evolves and is ready for critique.

As mentioned in the first post my main work now is refining the storyboard and get the visual storytelling worked out to a great amount.


A lot of work has now gone recently into reworking the storyboard/storytelling. The most part of it into the second half of the short, which unfortunately will not be shown before the short is finished :slight_smile:

A quite final version of the first 100sec of the storyreel can be seen here .

The next phases (redoing the animatics, rough sets) should give more to show as wip.

For a more in depth report of the project see here.


I wish you best of luck for this short.
Hope you’ll find the resources to finish it.


This looks interesting, I’ll follow your progress.
Good luck!


Thanks guys for the heads up :). I certainly try to keep my motivation going.

I have now worked mainly on two aspects of Ara’s Tale.

[li]preparation work for Ara’s rigging[/li][li]adapting the roughsets to match the new storyboard and mapping out the shots[/li][/ul] The rigging preparation included some rework on Ara’s mesh and (again) some research on how to combine Ara’s animation with the cloth simulation.

For mapping out the storyreel in the rough scenes I just set up a extremely simple rig with deforming bones only and using Auto IK for very crude posing. The process of mapping out the shots showed me quite well where emphasis has to be made on the rigging and where I can get away with less effort.

Unlike the first time, I decided not to do a full animatic this time as it tended to get me distracted and in the end gained nothing from the extra effort put in. Once I have broken down the production to individual shot files I may come back to 3d animatcs to try out the best camera work.

See here for the first 80 secs of the storyreel now mapped to 3d . The sets are VERY rough, but at least Ara is used with her actual mesh, but very crude posing.

Once animation for the actual shots starts, I will have to enhance the sets, maybe not final but certainly finalizing the terrain Ara moves in. All the parts where Ara and the dragon are interacting with the environment should be finished. I hope this workflow turns out to be feasible.


Contrary to my expectations about putting the project to rest for some weeks due to my wedding preparations and to my own utter surprise I was able to invest some time on Ara’s Tale.

This time I started the rigging for Ara. Before actually doing a rig I had to do quite some research. I have never done a serious rig before, so I read a lot of tutorials, threads on rigging on blenderartists and cgtalk, watched various video tutorials just to get an idea what the essence of rigging looks like.

I soon realized, that I should not create a general purpose rig, but only implement the things I really need. The shot breakdown done with the storyboards gave me a good idea what to expect.

As always, learning is iterating. A lot of the problems discussed in various threads and the solutions provided in tutorials were just theoretical concepts and hard to categorize for me. So I just set up a simple rig and did some posing and first animation attempts. That gave me quite some insight and the tutorials and discussion threads made much more sense and provided additional insight.

After quite some iterations I am now at a point where I have a basic body rig for Ara which seems to work for all of the animations tasks ahead (face rigging will be done later, after I have done some serious animation work).

The key facts of my rig are as follows:

[li]Strict separation of deforming, helper and control bones[/li][li]The leg setup is IK based, with a foot roll control driving action constraints. I may add a FK chain and an IK/FK switch as I noticed some problems getting the walkcycle correct (shin swinging …)[/li][li]arm setup is FK but I will use auto-IK for posing. There are two shots were an IK setup may be helpful, so I also may introduce an IK chain for this.[/li][li]The fingers on each hand are driven through separate controls for curling and and splaying. For very fine tuning I have left access to the individual finger control bones.[/li][li]The toes are not controlled separately.[/li][/ul]I have read a lot about FK/IK switching and its inherent problems for smooth transitions without jumps and as it seems, even more importantly, the workload when you start tweaking the animation. As of now it seems to me that using Auto-IK with FK is a good compromise for the animations tasks ahead of me.

Rig controls

Full rig

The weight painting to tweak the deformations and maybe even adding corrective shape keys is still on my todo list, but that shouldn’t interfere with the actuals animation work.

There were countless pitfalls setting up the rig and I may still come back and built it from scratch, but having a working rig for Ara, I started to create a walkcycle. My very first walkcycle ever done.

I learned two things from it:

[li]Animation is a hell of a lot of work to get it anything near watchable.[/li][li]I really have fun doing it :)[/li][/ul] On a personal and very subjective view I am quite pleased with the cycle produced. On a more objective perspective, I realize that this walkcycle has a lot of problems.

What helps in this project ( at least I think it does) is that Ara is wearing a long dress and thus obscuring various glitches.

Anyway I am really curious to what level I can push my animation skills during the work on this short.

See here for Ara’s first steps.

The next step will be to actually animate one of the opening shots where Ara is walking along a path with the cage in hand. To do this I have to investigate a little bit on a proper animation workflow.

One thing for instance is the use of the NLA editor in combination with cyclic actions. It would be cool to setup a walk using a basic walkcycle and using the NLA modifier system to layout the walk path. To work then on the details it would be nice to ‘bake’ the NLA strip to a new action and work on this action from then on. I will try to find an answer on the forums.


I have decided to continue with the facial rigging as this suits my currently available time schedule better.

I started with rigging the eyes. Major sources of information and inspiration were the Mancandy rig as well as the facial rig tutorial by Paul Cageggi. I also got a lot of information from Gordon Goodwin’s rigging repository.

The rigging process itself was relatively straight forward and the used techniques quite clear. The really time consuming part was the weight painting and additionally reworking the mesh.

I am quite satisfied with the current setup and think it should be sufficient for the several extreme closeups of the eyes. At this time there are no corrective shape keys/blend shapes used, its pure bone deformation.

See attached for some examples of eye-posing.

I have also done a small test animation. I have provided two versions, one a viewport rendering where you can see rig controls and then the same animation normally rendered. In these animations only the eye controls are used, all other parts are still.

I will continue with the face rigging. The next part should be the areas around the eyes and the brow.


kind of anxious to see it in animatics, keep it up.


Now that I am happily married, I start to gain momentum and motivation in returning to and working on Ara’s Tale.

I totally underestimated the challenge of rigging the face. Its very demanding, both technically and artistically.

Based on my research my first naive approach was to set up some bones for the areas of the mouth, brow and cheeks and play with the weight painting. That way led to frustration. Coincidently the [Durian team]( ( more precisely Nathan Vegdahl ) posted on [their blog](, that he abandoned a bone based rig and returned to a shape key based one.

Follwoing this, there was also a very informative thread about ways to rig a face.

I did a step back and considered the situation. My rig should just do what the storyboard showed me it should do, no more, no less. So no need for a generic rig with a full expression range. I started anew and created several shape keys based on some basic expressions found at the [artnatomia site]( Only the jaw is bone deformed.

I ended up with 3 shape keys for the brow area, 3 for the mouth area one for the cheeks and one for the lower eye lids. I hooked all the shape keys to control bones in my rig and started playing and tweaking.

I still have some problems with the mouth area, but I think the system I have now will fit my needs.

Initially I thought it necessary to create higher level actions for basic expressions, but after playing around a little bit I think I will use the bare controls for the moment.

See here for a sequence of images where Ara goes through a series of expressions. This is all done with the shape key system combined with the already in place (bone driven) eye rig system. Its only greyscale since GIFs can only display a 8bit palette based images and the color version has some serious color banding.

I may still tweak the shape keys and even may add some more, but the moment is nearing when production is finally starting, meaning the animation phase will start in earnest and I will start with the first shot to animate.


I am happy to say, that the production phase for Ara’s Tale has started. That means that I am now actually starting to animate the individual shots.

It was quite some work and major headaches to get the template scene files and models ready for action.

First I checked again my setup from my previous research for having a simple rough cloth ( without the simulation) for animation preview and when the animation is finished to actually turn on the cloth simulation. It turned out that I had to modify my setup a bit.

The dress is linked in from the model file but I have local copies for the rough dress and the cloth simulation. The rough dress is driven by Ara’s rig and the cloth simulation is only parented to the main bone of the rig and the rest is done by the cloth simulation and collision.

Next I ran into a bug when using proxy armatures for rigs with action constraints. After saving the scene file with the linked armature all action entries from the action constraint fields were gone. I learned that if I protect the bone layers in the model file this prevents this problem to occur. Alas, it also prevents to add custom constraints in the scene file.

What I had totally ignored was to setup a camera rig. I soon figured out, that this was something to have and came up with a first solution, where I have a camera with bones for main position, camera position, camera point at and lens value. In combination with a follow path constraint I think it will pretty much cover all the shots I have to do.

Speaking of shots, there are a total of 42 in it. It seems like there lies an universal truth in this answer …

What I learned so far, is that animating is hard and tedious work. And I have yet to find a workflow which suits me and gives good results in an acceptable time frame.

What I also plan to do, is try to reuse certain parts of the animation in other shots. Shot 3 from scene 1 e.g. is just Ara walking with the cage along the path seen from front. I hope to reuse the walking animation I have now for shot02 with just added head movements and some tweaking.

You can see here the first production animation done so far for Ara’s Tale. This is version 1 and for sure not final as there are quite some rough edges to it. I may leave it though in a not totally perfect way and go on to other shots and come back later.

See here for Scene 1, shot 2, version 1


Contrary to my idea of reusing the animation from shot 02, I started doing the walking animation from scratch. Its a good thing I did this, as I have learned a lot during this shot.

I studied the advice given in Richard Williams’ book ‘The Animator Survival Kit’ ( which I should have right from the start and used this to get Ara walking up the bridge towards the stairs.

Until now I wasn’t quite happy with the footroll mechanism I had built for Ara, but as it turned out, I just used it in the wrong way. Reading carefully through the walkcycle basics I started to use the footroll control in a different way and to my astonishment it worked quite well.

What I have learned too, is that more planning is required before starting animating a shot. This time the planning is for the actual acting. I have to know know what will happen in this shot to lay it out correctly. This is certainly an area where I will have enough opportunity to practice.

I was not quite sure how the workflow is for layering actions over a basic animation. I tried to use the NLA editor for this but in the end went back to do it all in one action as it gave me the best control and more important overview over the animation.

Another point I discovered was, that the lookat control for the eyes was nice but not really usable in the animation. The control was parented to the head, so that if you set it once, the eyes would always stay fixed in respect to the head. This is not what the eyes are doing in reality. They focus on something out of the reference of the heads coordinate system and stay locked on it. For this to work I had to rework the lookat control somewhat. Ii am still not completely satisfied but for this shot it is sufficient.

And, I couldn’t resist to test my theoretical cloth workflow on this shot. Better test it early than be sorry after all the shots are animated

See here for the current version of scene 1 shot 3:

And, btw, I will certainly redo scene 1 shot 2 from scratch with all the new knowledge I have now regarding walkcycles for Ara.


Ok, here is more progress.

Scene 1 shot 4 is mostly done. This time I had to figure out how to climb a steep staircase.

Allthough I knew I had to plan the animation properly I again got distracted by the mechanics of a stepping cycle. To put the real animation on top of the stepping cycle was some additional work I could have avoided. I will see how I fare in the next shots.

Nonetheless the result isn’t too bad.

Scene 1 shot 04

With now 3 shots animated (okay scene 1 shot02 has to be redone) I did a rough test on editing and cutting these 3 shots for the opening sequence.

What I had seen during animation of the individual shots, was that each shot was in effect longer than the planned sequence in the storyreel animatic. If the ratio was to hold true for each shot, the final movie would suddenly be at ~7min runtime with all the effects on total render time and such.

Now with the first editing, the time is down again. not exactly as the initial planning but close. Lesson learned here is, that the context gives the timing and pacing. A single shot is a context in itself and seems to demand more runtime.

And again, to avoid unnecessary animation a good planning and rough blocking could be of some help here.

See here now for the first edited 3 shot sequence

first draft opening sequence


This is from the last shot of scene 1, where Ara climbs the last steps and enters the canyon. I wanted to portray Ara’s hesitation on entering the canyon as this brings her nearer to her destination.

After this shot I will revise shot 02 and have to do a dummy shot 1, which in the final short will be mostly effects and compositing work.

vimeo link to shot 05


I am proud to say, that the principal animation for scene 1 of Ara’s Tale is finished.

I redid shot 2 and animated shot 1 (only the dancing lights) which will act as backdrop for the title before leading into the movie.

And to celebrate a little I have done again a very basic cloth simulation and put all the shots together, which now results in the most complete animation of Ara’s Tale so far

There might be still some polishing, but overall this scene is finished. So, these 5 shots took me 54 hrs in total to animate, done over the course of 14 days. It will be interesting to see how long I will have to work for the other 38 shots. Just doing simple arithmetic leads me to another 410 hrs of animation over 110 days. If I want to keep my internal deadline of october 2010 this will be quite a challenge.

I have now learned enough to appreciate that some of the shots ahead will be very demanding, while other should turn be relatively easy. A big unknown will be the dragon, but that will be done in the end.

Anyway here is scene 1


Next update:

After having returned from my honeymoon, its time again to keep on working on Ara’s Tale. I had 2 shots ready before I left to egypt and worked now hard to get two additional shots ready.

Its not easy right now as I am fighting against some unknown infection, which keeps me from working more on the short, but I hope to get well soon.

I have put the last shot of scene 01 and the the shots from scene 02 together to get an idea of the flow. Keep in mind that shots 2-4 are missing from here.

vimeo link

Next I will either do the missing shots or work on the panning shots directly after shot07.


As promised previously, I finished shots 02,03,04 and 08.

Shot 02 and 04 are animated as one piece and edited to the two shots seen in the video below. Shot02 was the first longer shot where I had to do facial animation to portray Ara’s emotions. It turned out that I used almost the same emotional expression as in shot07. That was not planned and may hint either at my limited ability to portray emotions or limitations in Ara’s facial rig. Or it could be both.

Shot08 was a demanding shot in terms of camera movement. I had a very specific type in my head and tried hard to get it translated to my camera rig. For the first time in this short I used a path with a ‘clamp to’ contraint to bind the camera’s movement to a predifined curve. It works, but is a lot of fiddling work. Its not quite clear for me how a x/y/z translation on the position bone translates to the movement on the path. Furthermore as soon as I edit the path I have to setup the key positions for the camera position again. But its by far better than a ’ Follow Path’ constraint, which I didn’t get working at all.

And for now I have come to a decision regarding the quality level of my animation. I hope I have managed to have about the same level in all shots done so far. The animation isn’t stellar and looks a little stiff at some places. I decided to leave it this way for the time being and concentrate on finishing the animation for all shots trying to match the current level of animation. This should define the overall timing and let me lock down the animation for Mikkel, my sound effects artist and furthermore for Leeran, who will do the music score.

If I have time I can come back to enhance some parts of the animation. My opinion right now is that the current animation level is good enough to carry the story and is able to give Ara a little personality. Any opinions from you about the state of the animation would be a real help, as I fear I am starting to develop a kind of tunnel view.

Anyway see here for the first 8 shots of scene 02.

vimeo link

And its just another 8 shots before the dragon appears, which unfortunately I won’t document in full here to keep the tension :). But some non revealing shots will certainly find their way to this wip.

BTW, total hours spent so far are 455 with about 83 accounting for the animation.


The next milestone is reached !

I have completed the animation (albeit some left out polishing) for the first ~ 3min, which I have decided to show publicly here in this WIP and the internet during the production phase.

This preview consists of a total of 17 shots. The time invested into the animation accounts to ~ 90hrs.

One remark though on the last shot where Ara sings. This is still a kind of placeholder, as I am waiting for Leeran to provide me with the recorded real song, so that I can match the mouth movements to the actual song. But first I have to finish all shots during which Ara sings, so Leeran has an idea how long the songs actually lasts and he can start with his composing work.

Animation for the remaining 26 shots will continue but will not be shown in full during production. I may choose selected shots (especially those including the dragon) to be shown here, but I do not want to give away the remaining storyline.

So let me celebrate a bit and show you the full animation of the first part:

vimeo link

The timing of the editing is not final and will have some cuts here and there but nothing dramatic The few remarks so far have confirmed me in handling the animation issues as I intended to do: keep on going to get the short finished.

I hope this preview has piqued your interest to see more and I appreciate any comments about your view on the current state of Ara’s Tale.


update: this time work has continued on the dragon …

Although the dragon was modeled first, I decided back then to postpone the production rig to later. I wanted to gain experience with Ara’s rig, both from the perspective of rigging as well as animating.

Well, as now I am about to animate the shots where the dragon finally makes its appearance, it was time to rig the dragon. I applied all the knowledge gained so far with Ara’s rig to the dragon rig: deformer bones, mechanics bones for hidden mechanical inner workings and final the control bones, those which are actually animated.

So far the rig was quite straight forward and I tried to do a fly cycle to see if I had all the control necessary for the dragon. In the shots the dragon will only be flying and never lands, so the rig was targeted to flying and moving the long neck and tail. Well and exactly the neck and tail area were the parts where it got nasty.

I just couldn’t get a flowing, sinuous and most importantly a controllable movement. Whatever I tried it failed. Thats when I suddenly recognized what spline-ik is really for. Up to now, spline-ik was just a name and a theoretical concept, but it was stored in the back of my head.

So I did some research on how to build a spline-ik rig with the tools available in blender 2.49. Blender 2.5 will have it built in, but 2.5 is not an option here, as least not for the rigging and animation. In the end I settled on a modified version of ‘The Bones on a Curve Spine’. Modified insofar, as I wanted to avoid the cyclic dependencies when controlling everything with bones, which I wanted to have at any cost.

That meant, splitting up the single armature into two parts, a deformer/mechanics armature and a pure controller one. It was quite some work to split and rebuild/rewire the whole beast but in the end it worked beautifully.

A screenshot with the current rig and only the controller bones visible. Custom shapes are still missing here but will be added next.

The neck and tail are now controlled with a spline-ik setup and give nice results. I will also build a spline-ik rig for the tongue.

Here is a quick fly test animation, quite rough at some areas but it shows to idea and makes me confident to have now a tool, which allows me to animate the next shots.

vimeo link


After reworking the dragon rig and some test flights I started doing the animation for actual shots from Ara’s Tale.

Its now the same with the dragon as it was with Ara in the first shots. I had to get familiar with the rig and methods to get the dragon flying. I am now back at 10+ hours per shot but getting better (I hope).

The rig is still not perfect but it will handle the shots I want to do. The only thing which sucks is the tongue rig. I implemented it as spline ik like the tail and neck but I ran into the problem that my tongue (and eye ) controllers didn’t hold their position relative to the dragons head and ended up in all the odd places during animation. Parenting (or any other related constraints) had me introduced a cyclic dependency again and was a big pain during animation, so I went back and implemented a very crude ik rig, which in the end will not survive to the end of the film

I thought I show you two consecutive shots from the film to give an impression how the two main characters act together. These shots give nothing away, so I am fine with this. In the first shot the dragon is seen from above while rising from the abyss. This may be not clear because of the lack of texturing and thus perspective.

vimeo link