Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Japanese Ladder

Learning Japanese vocabulary (or that of any other language) without going insane

This is completely unrelated to art or animation, but I wanted to write this down somewhere because it’s been mulling in my head for a while now. I’m currently living in Japan and before coming here I took four years of Japanese in college. I am now studying for the level 2 Japanese proficiency test, and the most important thing for the test, by far, is vocabulary.

But there are so many words! It’s very easy to get discouraged. The concept of the “ladder” has helped me deal with studying Japanese without getting frustrated. It goes as follows:

The Japanese Ladder

Maybe you watch a movie, and you look up 30 completely new words while watching the movie. Imagine that your brain has all these tiny ladders in it. All those words form a tidal wave hitting the bottom of the ladders and a small number of those words, maybe 10%, catch on to the very lowest rungs of the ladders.

Those words, clinging to life on the bottom rungs, are those words that, when you see them later, feel familiar even though you can’t read or define them. So, you look them up again. This moves the poor word up the ladder a rung. You notice the word in a few other contexts, like in a video game or a magazine. Each time you look up the word or even just see the word, it makes some progress up the ladder. The ladder represents a gradual progression in the memorization of a word, from barely sounding familiar, to being a permanent fixture in your memory.

Japanese learning ladder

A few rungs from the bottom are those words that you know you’ve looked up a few times, but can’t remember its meaning or reading.

Then a few rungs up from that are those words that you can read, but can’t define. (Or can define, but can’t read.)

Then further up from there are words you can define and read if they are in a familiar context, like if they are in a familiar sentence pattern.

Then even higher are those words that you can recognize in most contexts, but occasionally space out on.
Then at the very top of the ladder are those words so ingrained in your memory that you will never, ever forget their meaning or reading, not for the rest of your life.

The point is this: Don’t get frustrated that you have to look up a word you “think you should know.” There aren’t any words, “you should know.” There are just words on their way up the ladder toward being in the ‘unforgettable’ rung. If you look up a word, whether for the 2nd time or the 50th time, you should feel content that you’re helping that word up the ladder.

A few summers ago, I had tried to study four new words every day, and review past ones every day. I eventually gave up because I was frustrated that I was forgetting the words from even the day before. It’s better to expose yourself to a large volume of new vocabulary, even if most of it doesn’t stick, rather than trying to learn a few words perfectly. Statistically speaking, the greater diversity of words you look up, the more chances that some of those words will pop up in other contexts later. And the more contexts you see a word in, the more it moves up the ladder.

Words on the bottom rung can fall off, and no longer familiar, if they never come up again. That’s why it’s good to have constant and varied exposure to the language. Do a little of everything – Anime, Japanese movies, radio, TV, American movies in Japanese, manga, books, magazines, newspapers, video games in Japanese … I’ve dabbled in it all. And discovering connections between words is like unraveling a great mystery novel. For example, I learned the word for “pirate ship” from playing “Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass” in Japanese, and then I recognized the ‘ship’ part in the word for ‘balloon,’ the kanji for which literally means, “wind ship.”

In review:

1. There are no words you “should know.” Each time you look up a word you forgot, you are moving that word up the ladder toward long-term memory.

2. Expose yourself to all sorts of sources of information. For Japanese that’s easy, with anime and movies and music and manga and all that. Even if you only do a little bit here and there, make sure you look up new words.

3. The more words you look up, the more chances are that you’ll find and recognize those words in other contexts later. You won’t remember all of them, but a small number is better than zero.

4. Don’t try to force yourself to learn a few words “perfectly.” Seeing the same words over and over in the same context, like in flash-cards, can work in the short term, but you need to see them in other contexts for them to become meaningful and useful.

Sounds like a very bad, cheesy self-help book. I apologize. The important point I’d like to make is that a change in thinking can affect how you study new vocabulary and keep you from getting frustrated.

I just had another thought. This is basically all part of my grand realization that you can’t start off making anything perfect. Everything starts with an imperfect step that gradually gets better. Before you can paint a beautiful painting you have to paint a few less-beautiful ones. Before you can embed a new word in your mind, you have to forget it a few times first.

Painting Backgrounds – Rainforests

Painting Rainforests

Painting Rainforests

Painting Rainforests

Drawing Backgrounds – Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests


I used pictures of rainforests I took in Panama. I did one drawing almost every day for about two weeks. Each picture took about 20-40 minutes to draw. (regular 0.5 mechanical pencil.)

Lessons Learned

-The drawings are arranged in the order in which I drew them. And I'm happy to say that the newer ones are bigger, more detailed and generally look nicer than the first few. It's nice to see the direct effects of practice!
-Forests are intimidating because of the formless masses of foliage. Rather than trying to worry about overlapping foliage, work from from front to back. Do the foreground leaves, trees and such first and then gradually add more forms behind it. The greenery in the far distance will have the least detail.
-There are so many plant types! But, really, the same ones came up over and over, and practicing them has been very fruitful.
-The dark and light tones will do more for setting the scene than the actual drawings of leaves. The picture should be studied carefully for the light/shadow information.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Drawing Faces from The Lord of the Rings

I've been plowing ahead with several different projects at once, as well as my day-job, but I wanted to get these drawings up. I was watching The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers (in Japanese) and decided to make a drawing activity out of it. With a twitchy finger on the pause button, I waited for a beautiful/ugly/interesting face to appear and then drew it. It was a lot of fun.

Here's the first round:
Lord of the Rings Faces Drawings

I had so much fun I did a second round using Lord of the Rings: Return of the King:
Lord of the Rings Faces Drawings

I hope some of them are recognizable from the movies ... those are the ones I'm proud of. The ones I'm less proud include the following:

Drawing #21

I think that was supposed to be Frodo ... but, a few things definitely went wrong there.

Drawing #29

That's supposed to be Aragorn. Not "Walker, Texas Ranger" (as denoted by the "WTR?")

Drawing #34

Why do I get so lazy with eyes? She was this close to being a super hot drawing, and then, well, I'm afraid the ziggidy-zaggedy eyes just take it down a few notches.

Drawing #39

His left eye is literally melting off his face.

Seriously though, this was a great exercise. I highly recommend trying it, especially if drawing faces is intimidating. Plus, it's Lord of the Rings. Enough said.

One thing that really hit home doing this exercise was to pay attention to those eyebrow muscles (see drawing #46). I think I have a tendency to draw faces as if the eyebrows are just floating masses on the face. They're not. The muscle mass that the eyebrows sit on push and pull on the upper part of the eye, affecting the expression. Thus, you can have a great, spooky, half-moon eyes look without pulling the eyebrows all the way over them. Let them sit higher, and imply the muscle by making the eyes half-moons anyway (as in drawing #46).

I also picked up on the fact that I like drawing eyes BIG. For drawing #44, I started out drawing Arwyn's eyes too big. Once I shrunk them down about 50%, the face looked much more natural and delicate.

In general, there are so many fun shapes and shadows and such going on in these faces that they make great reference for cartoonists like me. It's hard to describe all the lessons I've learned ... even if I could pinpoint them, I couldn't explain them. It's better if you just trying doing this yourself. I'm absolutely sure you'll learn a lot.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Background Painting/Animation Practice

Here is the final product:

[kml_flashembed fversion="8.0.0" movie="" targetclass="flashmovie" publishmethod="static" width="500" height="333"]

Get Adobe Flash player


I've been working on storyboards and scripts for the past two weeks, so I wanted to do something a little less on the 'pre-production' side and more on the 'final product' side. I tend to get paranoid if I spend too long planning things that I won't have the skill/patience to bring it to fruition.

Drawing the Background

I started with my background. I looked through some of the pictures I took when I went to Panama during my third year of college. Once I found a good picture, I traced a 720x480 box on paper using one of models I made in Photoshop (described here).

I drew a somewhat rough version of the picture. I've tried doing drawings from pictures like this many many times before, and I usually get bogged down by trying to draw too many details. I was feeling impatient, so I just indicated the shape of the landscape and some of the major tree shapes. It looked like this:

Drawing the Background

The ugly looking white bits are where I later painted over some of my pencil lines in Painter. This was sort of a revelation to me. Usually, I don't like editing the sketch once it's scanned, but if I paint over the lines in white in Painter (instead of trying to erase them in Photoshop) then I can do it gradually, so it doesn't look obvious that it was edited (although it does when you just look at the sketch).

Painting the Background

Next, I moved into Painter. I set the sketch to "Gel" and made a layer below it that I filled solid with green. Also beneath the sketch layer, I made a layer for the light values. I put in the bright sky in the upper right corner and the trees below it, as well as the light bit in the middle of the path.

Then for the dark layer, I did a bit more sculpting of the ground, added many many more trees and silhouettes of foliage. I definitely used a lot more dark on this painting then in my last painting tutorial.

Then I added another layer for some of the greenery, but it wasn't standing out so well with the sketch covering it. So, I started adding layers above the sketch layer for foliage and other highlights. It's nice when the scanned drawing is good and you want the lines to define things ... but that really works better for indoor settings, where you can delineate objects easily. But with a forest, you can't delineate bushes and grass so easily, so I needed lots of layers above the sketch layer for those kinds of things. I still have a lot to learn about painting forests, but I don't think it's too bad. :)

After I was done in Painter, I took the painting back into Photoshop and flattened it (and saved it as a separate file). Then I took the lasso tool and selected the farther elements of the scene and applied a nice 2.0 Gaussian blur for an added feeling of depth. And voilĂ , it's done:

Animation Background

Animation Preplanning

Feeling somewhat satisfied with the painting, I decided I would go ahead and put some animation on it. I took the painting into Flash MX and immediately started to animate my character, Kanook, running through it. It was a horrible disaster. I sighed, I resigned myself to the fact that I would actually have to do some preplanning.

I sat down and thought about Kanook's run cycle. I basically broke it down into five frames:

Animation preplanning

Then I went frame by frame and sketched many cycles of those 5 frames into Flash. The tricky part was the end. I really wanted him to disappear off the screen, but nothing I was doing was looking right. That's why I left him still in the shot on the last frame. I will have to do some research on how to do that later ...

With the sketch animation done, I went and did the nicer version. I was careful this time to make the lines closed and without holes so I could color them easily with the fill tool (as described here).

Using Masks to Add Depth

Here's a neat little trick I've used many times. I make masks over the characters to show them moving behind background elements without having many background layers.

For example, see how Kanook is running into the shot:
Using Masks for Depth

I want to make it look like he's coming out from behind the trees. To do this, I first make a new layer and paint colored shapes where I want the character to appear. In other words, I don't put color on the trees that will be in the foreground. Here's shapes I drew for this animation:
Using Masks for Depth

Then, make that layer a Mask layer, by right-clicking on the layer and clicking "Mask." Drag all the layers you want to be affected by this mask under the mask layer (see the pictures for what it should look like).

If the mask layer and all its linked layers are locked, then you'll see the mask effect. Here's what what the final product looks like:
Using Masks for Depth

This is not a super great example since I'm so zoomed in and the tree shapes aren't so clear to begin with ... but hopefully you get the concept (ask me if not).

That's all I have to say about this animation. It was a fun little exercise that only took a few hours to do. And I hope my explanation was helpful to you, too!