It’s Alive!


Every time you sit down to watch a movie, you’ve probably watching computer animation without knowing it. Drew Turney looks at the art and science that’s taking over media.

Actor Bill Nighy didn’t appear in a single frame of the first and second Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, even though he’s credited as the character of Davy Jones.

Or rather, even though he was there, he was covered with a digitally animated character whose face was made of slimy, grasping tentacles.

Nighy was on set, going through all the motions of a film actor — talking, blinking, scowling, smiling, eyes wide with surprise and slitted in anger. His mouth and the area around his eyes were painted with special dots that were filmed along with his performance.

The movement of the dots was isolated from the rest of the film, allowing animators to create a wireframe model of Nighy’s face talking and expressing. The parameters worked out by the design of the character and his tentacled face were stitched to the movement of the dots and like magic, a face made of tentacles was directed to move in the same way Nighy’s face had for the camera on set.

The painting of dots on an actor to be fed into a computer and virtually painted with the skin of a character is called motion capture, and it’s one of the most cutting edge methods where software is transforming animation.

From a process viewpoint, it’s not that different from something you’d do in your own computer in a freeware animation program. A design must be conceived, drawn, lit and then rendered. The difference is that your desktop PC can render a simple animation, while the lighting, colouration and detail necessary to make animated characters of scenes in movies look real takes considerably more rendering power.

That’s where you hear stories of the render farms humming away in the bowels of special effects companies from San Francisco’s Industrial Light and Magic (Star Wars, Close Encounters, Transformers) to Sydney’s Animal Logic (Happy Feet, 300) to Wellington’s Weta Digital (Lord of the Rings, King Kong), banks of individual PCs all lending their processing power to a single task. It’s not uncommon for a single frame in a blockbuster Hollywood movie (and remember, there are 24 of them every second) to take hours or days to render animation data.

An age-old technology

Even in many high-end applications for the entertainment industries, most animation software is virtually indivisible from 3D and design software. In fact several of them began as simple design tools, combining technologies like keyframes into drawing and illustrating programs made it obvious that bringing your artwork to life was the next logical step.

Keyframes are all about the illusion of movement that any motion picture technology such as animation projects. Quite simply, a keyframe is a drawing. The next cell of animation (or frame of film) is the next keyframe, and the fast projection of them one after other causes the brain to fill in the blanks so we see a smooth transition of movement rather than a quick flicker of still images.

In the old days the key animator would draw the major keyframes of a scene and pass it down the line to an ever-junior series of lackeys to ‘join the dots’ between one state of motion and the next.

Computer animation software does much the same. The animator essentially draws two pictures, then sets parameters for the behaviour of the scene such as the lighting angle, environmental conditions, how fast things are moving and what angle they’re facing. Using simple maths to work out the different between the two the computer fills in the gap between the two keyframes. Put together a million of them and you have the backbone of many TV ads, movies and music videos.

The big players

It’s as difficult to characterise a typical animation tool as it is to sum up exactly what they do. The abilities of all the software talked about in this article are quite astounding, and getting better every year with the expansion in processing power, but they all do a similar job.

Of course, given that you can source animation software at anywhere between free and $10,000, the difference is in the detail you can wield over animation projects. There’s a reason why digital characters like Jar Jar Binks, The Incredible Hulk Iron Man aren’t animated using Flash.

Maya 2008

Starting at the top end of the market, Maya is the granddaddy of them all. Developed by Alias and now owned by Autodesk, Maya is the first port of call for the big movie and TV studios and won an Oscar for scientific achievement in 2003 for good reason.

Aside from being an extremely powerful piece of software, a large part of the appeal is the adaptability to already-entrenched ways of working, which many large production companies have. It’s possible to retain only the kernel and remove all outwards appearances of Maya’s two versions, letting you retool the interface and compatibility to your own systems. That means large effects houses can still write their own code, but with Maya’s huge range of high-end tools at their disposal.

In two editions (Complete and Unlimited), Maya is the workhorse for all the highly technical processes Hollywood loves, from Motion Capture to Keyframes. It also has among the most developed tools in the industry. During the early 2000s one technical barrier after another was shattered — from realistic water to thousands of individual hair strands — and Maya was at the cutting edge of nearly all of them.


3Ds Max

Another in the Autodesk stable, 3ds Max is a Windows only 3D modelling program more popular with game developers and TV commercial producers because of its strong capabilities in block or polygon modelling, the process for building an environment and then moving around within it.

It works by building on elements called ‘primitives’, basic shapes which form the basis of your world and which you manipulate with Boolean algorithm operations. Harnessing particle emitters to recreate anything from wind to rain further enhances environments.


The rest of us

If you can convince your studio manager to part with several thousand dollars to start pitching work to TVC producers and Hollywood studios, good luck to you! But the rest of us not working in such enviable workplaces shouldn’t lose heart — we’re not completely locked out of the ivory towers of great-looking, professional animation.

Several packages are not only far more affordable, they make a great intro into the field if you need a bit of hand holding.

Cinema 4D

Touted by vendor Maxon as one of the easiest 3D/animation applications to use, Cinema 4D comes with several hours of tutorials and a user-friendly interface designed not to scare off the less than technically competent.

Originally developed as a 3D program, the animation system was rewritten from the ground up in this, it’s 10th version. There are also eight standard modules that contain everything from hair to sky to lighting and particle effects, and they’re available separately if your project calls for a specific aspect.

Targeting the engineering, architectural and broadcast markets with specialist editions and modules, Cinema 4D castsa broad net.

Price (all include GST): CINEMA 4D R10.5 Core — $1320
CINEMA 4D R10.5 XL Bundle — $3289
CINEMA 4D R10.5 Studio Bundle — $5412
CINEMA 4D R10.5 Architecture Edition — $2706
CINEMA 4D R10.5 Engineering Edition — $3025

Lightwave 3D

Newtek’s 3D animation suite seems to be the tool of choice for TV graphics animators, having won several Emmys for the same sort of performance as Maya has for movies.

Lightwave consists of two different programs — Layout and Modeler — which focus on specific areas. The big advantage of the Lightwave 3D suite is a multi-threaded approach, which means multiple processors in the same machine can be working on different renders at once. There’s also a more holistic approach to lighting effects.

Price: $1,299

Poser 7

Originating in 1995, Poser was designed from the ground up to create realistic human and animal figures. It comes with a huge library of data to get you started, including a series of male or female figures, children, animals, robots and more. There are also hundreds of poses, facial expressions, full body morphs, hair, clothing, light sets and props ready to deploy or manipulate the way you want.

Poser’s animation comes through a series of tools like automatic keyframes, which let the software effectively redraw the next step of your movie so you don’t create every frame from scratch.

Price: $349.95

Bryce 6.1

The first version of Bryce used fractal geometric shapes to create realistic looking landscapes like mountains. First released for the Mac only in 1994 by a student of Benoit Mandelbrot (famous for the Mandelbrot Set fractal shape) it didn’t include an animation component for several years.

Now you can set a camera position and trajectory and virtually ‘fly’ through the scene you’ve created, the software re-rendering the scene from the new angle and position required. Bryce also now allows for importing of characters are much more.

Price: USD$99.95

Endless possibilities

Of course, there’s much more to animation than designing characters and environments and moving through them. A dictionary describes it as ‘successive drawings or positions of models to create an illusion of movement when each image is shown as a sequence’.

That means animation covers anything that moves, and there are at least two fields of animation we haven’t touched on. One is motion graphics — the spinning logos, company names being built from nothing, trademarked terms emerging from the mists or media company idents that end with the distinctive look or company symbol.

Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional

Just like Adobe owns page layout and web design, After Effects is the place to go for what’s called compositing. A very big deal in the latest version is the ability to render effects on vector designs, meaning they’re resolution-unspecific like a 2D vector image is.

True to Adobe’s style, they’ve changed a lot, almost all of it in the right direction. A good example is the way you now treat text characters with 3D. Called per character 3D, you now treat every character as a unique object rather than having to apply changes to the whole word or text string if it’s on the same layer.

Also very cool is the puppet tool, which lets you animate figures by laying a mesh over your image and then letting you drag pins to manipulate it. And as always it’s tightly integrated with the rest of Adobe’s CS3 applications.

Price: $1,811

Then there’s the burgeoning field of online animation. Whether it’s a game applet, a tiny animated gif for your blog or a fully appointed website with beautiful flourishes of interactivity, web animation has grown as fast as every other online technology.

Adobe Flash CS3 Professional

Once more taking advantage of being part of a big family, Flash deals with imagery from Illustrator and Photoshop pretty seamlessly. It also borrows many of Illustrator’s tools so you’ll already be familiar with many of the tools use to draw and manipulate shapes.

Thanks in part to the local iPhone launch, mobile content is tipped to explode in Australia — we’ve traditionally lagged behind the rest of the world. Designing content for a PC-based browser only soon won’t be enough, and Flash takes advantage of Adobe CS3’s device central to repurpose all your content for a range of popular mobile device models.

Since its launch in 1993, when it was called SmartSketch, Flash has grown through leaps and bounds. After software-based mergers and acquisitions with names from Shockwave, it’s still the standard for online animation design and design.

Price: $943

Starting out

If you don’t have the budget to dip your toe into the waters of animation, jump online and download any of the thousands of free or shareware tools. They’re designed for as many uses as there are animation styles, from animated gifs to image morphing, websites to screensavers and everything in between. A quick search for ‘animation’ in a popular shareware search engine turned up 3,600 of them, and they were just the ones for Windows.

The tools that can put you on the road to a career in animation work with formats as varied as Flash to AVI, but they all have one thing in common — they’re all concerned with the illusion of movement between two states of being. Keep that in mind and the software won’t seem as scary or complicated as it once did.

And if you don’t have the means to acquire any of the pro applications above, don’t let that stop you. Get started right now — open Photoshop and draw a few images to represent your movie. Since Creative Suite 3, Adobe has jettisoned Imageready, so just open the animation palette, create your first masterpiece and you’ll be on stage at Hollywood’s Kodak theatre collecting your first Oscar for best digital effects any day now…