Over the past three years, AXIS Flight School has been involved in a joint venture with Good Goblin Games to develop a new kind of skydiving app – AXIS Skydiving, available on Google play and on the Apple App Store. The goal was to create an educational tool/reference manual that covers body-flight and canopy-piloting concepts in a fun and engaging manner. Brianne Thompson and Niklas Daniel are the co-founders of AXIS Flight School and have a history of writing educational articles and creating online video tutorials. Bruce Fournier is a talented animator and app developer and fun jumper at Skydive Arizona. Brianne and Nik are the subject matter experts for the app’s content, providing Bruce with instruction and feedback in creating the animations. The purpose of this app was to develop an innovative way for an audience to visualize movement. From the start, the team wanted to utilize a 3D model. This allows the user to interact with a subject of interest in a way that a picture or video cannot provide. It is important that a user can change viewing angles, time, and use tools that can help visualize the body’s interaction with the relative wind. This led to the creation of Woody, a three-dimensional interactive dummy and AXIS’ new official mascot. Woody offers viewers insight by demonstrating specific maneuvers related to skydiving. In addition, each chapter in the app also comes with a detailed article, photos, and links to tutorial videos. Specific maneuvers are quickly and easily located as they are grouped into categories, such as body-flight orientation and transitions. Brianne puts it simply: “This is the best damn skydiving app in the history of the world.”
Playing with Ideas
Accomplishing this would have been difficult to do with most standard developer tools. In order to jump over this first hurdle, the team was inspired by video games, as they are specifically designed to display and animate 3D graphics. With a background developing games for mobile devices in his past and still creating game prototypes in his spare time, Bruce understands the potential and power of such an approach. We quickly decided to make the app in a video game engine called “Unity”. This game engine has grown rapidly in the past decade and is used by small indie developers to big name game studios. Although video game engines are rarely used for educational apps, Unity provided all the tools and flexibility needed for the AXIS Skydiving app endeavor to take shape.
Woody was created and animated in a 3D animation program called “Maya”, which is
also used by major video game developers and movie studios. Created entirely from scratch, Bruce did not use any downloadable or royalty free elements. This is where the team decided on what Woody was to look like and any other accompanying gear he might use such as a rig, canopy, and more. Creating the correct and engaging visuals proved challenging. The original idea was to have the app feel like a textbook come to life with Woody jumping off every page. However, the first few drafts were aesthetically boring and uninteresting. After multiple redesigns, the team settled on a look that can be described as stylized minimalism. Through the process of trial and error, the team learned that “less is more”. Avoiding elements that can confuse and distract the viewer, AXIS wants you to see only the bare necessities and what is relevant.
Bringing Woody to Life
After Woody took shape and was finalized with Maya, he was then imported into Unity to breathe life into his movements and appearance. There were some unforeseen challenges in the animating process where the team had to think outside the box. Referencing pictures and videos of a particular action is helpful, however the team had to take a different approach when applying standard animation techniques to skydiving. This is because realism and accuracy of execution is the backbone of the app. Animators typically reference the ground and analyze the position of their subject’s feet. Doing this literally grounds the character and guides the animation process. Woody always being in the air however makes the animation process difficult since there is nothing to ground him in reality and is just one of many hurdles we had to overcome. Bruce: “ Animating Woody was a unique challenge compared to the usual way I animate. Most other animations of a humanoid character I can much more easily reference by physically doing silly things myself like jump, run, and crawl around to get the feel of how something is suppose to look. I just hope no one else is around at the time to watch me make a fool of myself. Pictures and videos of someone else performing the action is always very helpful but this also came with its own problems compared to the usual way I animate. When referencing a picture or video, one of the first things I do is look at the ground and see where the person’s feet are positioned. Having this initial point of origin helps guide many things down the line for the whole animation. For skydiving it is literally not grounded. It also doesn’t help that this is an educational app and the animations in particular have to be accurate. Depending on the project you know you can fudge some things and as long as it looks cool and somewhat believable to the average end user it gets a pass. Big name movies and video games do this all the time. We can look at one of our favorite super heroes Iron Man as an example. It may look really cool when he is flying but in reality he would be crashing into the ground if we think about the real physics of how something is flying.”
Though Nik and Brianne help Bruce with the animation of movements, Bruce spends most of his time working on the app by himself. Working on the project part time, around five hours per week over three years, Bruce has spent more than seven hundred hours in front of his laptop!
Teaching Woody to Fly
Bruce: “At first I simply tried to read AXIS Flight School’s articles as a guide to the animation and reference pictures as best I could. I am also a novice skydiver compared to someone like Nik and Brianne and figured I could at least have a slight idea in my head how it should look and feel. Long story short, the first batch of animations came out a little sloppy. We later found the best method to make animations is to have Nik and Brianne sit in with me where I do all the technical computer magic and they describe in detail how Woody should look and occasionally Nik or Brianne have to look silly for me to reference from.”
Nik: “It was a fun and challenging process to teach Woody to fly. Since Brianne and I
coach full time, there was no difference in our approach. AXIS is fully aware that there are many ways to perform a particular maneuver. Models and analogies are always limited in their descriptive power. Choosing a method and focusing on tracking the movements of joints is one effective method of getting a concept across. Of course focusing on joint movement alone is not the whole picture. Timing and body tension are impossible to relay in an image and even video, that is why every chapter in the app has an article to help cover these aspects.”
Brianne: “In order to get the most realistic and accurate representation, Nik and I always started at Woody’s core and worked outward. Since we did not have a net or tunnel walls to reference, we needed to keep a close eye not just on Woody’s body movements, but how he moved through space. Without a reference we frequently used masking tape as a place holder on the monitor we were working on.”
In addition to body-flight concepts, the AXIS Skydiving app also features canopy handling drills. As canopy parts and elements are very intricate in nature, AXIS turned to its canopy sponsor Performance Designs. Since accuracy is the backbone of the app, the team wanted to ensure that the depictions and animation of a canopy would be realistic as possible.
PD was able to provide a 3D mesh of one of their products – the Sabre 2. This was instrumentally helpful, but Bruce had to go to work on building a version that could be joined with Woody. Bruce: “Building a functional container with a canopy was one of the most difficult things I ever had to create. There is so many little details and functions that most people don’t realize. There was now three layers of complexity at any given time: 1) Woody by himself, 2) A container that freely moves and morphs accurately on top of Woody along with the function to show if it is open or closed, and 3) Lastly a canopy attached to the container that also functions from real world inputs like pulling your toggles or rear risers. Like the animations before I really couldn’t fudge anything since this was an educational app where accuracy is the most important aspect of the entire project.
The rig I made is a mix of three different rigs. I used several reference pictures of Vectors and Curvs, along with my own Mirage that I closely studied. The first attempt I made at
building a canopy on the other hand wasn’t bad and in most cases I would have been happy with it and moved on, but again this is an educational app and there were too many small mistakes that a real canopy would not have. A lot of 3D animation work is studying the environment around you that most others don’t notice. It can be a scary though if you have a lot of the basics down of how something is supposed to work but it just isn’t quite coming together.
Just because I have an accurate looking canopy now there was still a lot of work to be done in order to make it work in our app. I first had to delete a lot of geometry. This does make the canopy look a little more blocky with jagged edges, but building stuff for a game is a huge tight rope dance between what will look good and what will actually work with no slow down. The computer or in our case limited mobile devices have to process everything in real time. From there I have to texture the canopy so it isn’t just grey. Then I have to rig it. This means I have to build a skeleton for the canopy and lines. This might sound a little strange but you have to think of how the canopy is going to move and bend for our needs. I place several “bones” that have “joints” and this dictates how the canopy can actually move. After making the skeleton I then make special controls so I can more easily create animations instead of moving one bone at a time.”
In addition to featuring top-notch animations, the app also includes some useful tools to jumpers of all kinds. Calculators to determine: exit separation, reserve repack cycle, wing loading, and a canopy size orientation guide. Formation skydiving competitors can benefit from an adjustable count down times with audio cue, access to dive pool images, and a performance analyzer.
The AXIS Flight School team is excited to have launched their innovative new app and is looking forward to watching it grow and evolve. As motion-tracking technology is not available to the team, each maneuver that Woody performs is hand animated and requires many dedicated hours of screen time. There are limited copy and paste features available in this work process. This means each animation is created nearly from scratch even as the app is updated with new content on a monthly basis. Bruce: “From developing other projects over the years I have learned that it is best to try and make everything as modular as possible. That way I can take out and plug in just about anything much more easily instead of redoing everything from scratch.”
“Thank you for downloading and subscribing!” – The AXIS Team
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