Friday, March 30, 2007

The impact of 3D animation software on modern filmmaking

Here's another essay I wrote recently.

The impact of 3D animation software on modern filmmaking

Written by: Mike Jutan

The majority of people would agree that computers have revolutionized the practical technologies that we use in our day-to-day lives. Telephones, microwaves, and even coffee makers now use computer technology in some form or another. The effect of computerization on practical, everyday technologies is perhaps a clear expectation, but it is somewhat unexpected that the arts have also been so heavily impacted by computer technology. The area of animated filmmaking and visual storytelling through the medium of computer animation and visual effects is an incredibly exciting area of computer science and has numerous ties to the development of software solutions for 3D graphics. The multi-billion dollar entertainment and storytelling industry is expanding as 3D animation software becomes more accessible to small animation studios, and, along with large animation studios and visual effects studios, the boundaries of computer graphics and animation are being constantly pushed forward.

To describe computer animation software, first the idea of animation and entertainment itself must be discussed. Animation is, first and foremost, the art of storytelling. Animation acts as an inspiration for millions of people from around the world. To quote myself, from the Intern (Co-op) experiences page on the Pixar Animation Studios job site:

“One day, we had lunch with Ed Catmull, the President and Co-Founder of Pixar. He told us that we are and always will be a storytelling company. Our job is to make timeless stories that inspire people, make them cry and make them laugh. We are not here to just make a quick buck… [Pixar] is much more than just a cool place to work. It is a place where you can live out your childhood dreams of storytelling and filmmaking, and know that your hard work is inspiring people of all ages, all over the world.”[1]

Modern animation has existed for over one hundred years, and is not limited by the methods of computer animation. Computers act as a means for artists to develop creative ideas though a medium that is currently popular with the mass market. Computers are therefore simply a tool for artists to use to inspire audiences. This essay outlines the technology behind animated storytelling, and clarifies some of the technological aspects of 3D animation software on the market today. This essay also discusses the impact that this software technology (and thus computer animation) has had on society, and includes both positive and negative consequences of the development of 3D animation software. Finally, this essay makes some predictions on how industry professionals can make the best use of this technology in the years to come.

Pencil, paintings, charcoal sketches, pastel drawings and initial 2D Photoshop computer graphics are many styles of concept art that are created well before a computer animated feature-film is translated into 3 dimensions. Pencil sketches are scanned into Adobe Photoshop™, a 2D computer graphics manipulation program, and layers are added, blended, removed, and tweaked until a desired artistic look is acquired. Storyboards, along with low-resolution 3D characters and environments, are created early in the idea generation process so that potential problems and design possibilities can be ironed out. Pixar’s motto “Story is King” is followed as the artists and writers work very closely with each other. These two teams propose ideas to the director and combine their visions of comedy and cinematography into a single unit, well before the animation is created.[2] John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Disney Feature Animation and Pixar Animation Studios, who also acted as the Executive Producer for Finding Nemo says, “At Pixar, we’re not digital purists.”[3] The final movie will be computer generated, but concept art and storyboards begin with limitless blue sky, and the quickest route to an idea is still humble pencil and paper. He continues, “The art challenges technology and the technology inspires the art. It’s this wonderful yin and yang.”

Once a story has been ironed out, scene details have been discussed, and characters and sets have been designed, the 3D portion of the animated film process can begin. Typically, this requires the use of a 3D Animation software product, such as: Autodesk Maya, Autodesk 3Ds Max, Avid Softimage XSI, Side Effects Software Houdini, and more. Sets and characters are modeled (sculpted) in a 3D modeling environment, using techniques borrowed from the Fine Arts discipline. After 3D models have been digitally sculpted, textures and shaders are applied to the model to increase realism and believability. Shaders are often procedurally generated through a scripting language such as the RenderMan Shading Language (RSL). The shaders define the surface material of an object, and how the properties of this surface material change with modifications to the view, or camera eyepoint. Some shader types, such as metal materials, are view dependant. This means that when viewing a view dependant surface, the resultant colour or material properties will be different depending on the location of the camera. Once the 3D object has been modeled and shaded, it can be rigged. Rigging is a process in which an underlying skeleton of bone structure is attached to a 3D object, so that animation applied to an underlying skeleton structure is translated effectively to its parent object. This ensures that muscles and facial features react to the movement of the character’s skeleton. After rigging, animation occurs. Animation is the process of keyframing and tweening. Keyframing is reasonably self explanatory – the process requires the animator to set the key frames of the scene. These poses are set at effective moments along a virtual timeline. After keys are set, tweening (or “in-betweening”) occurs. In the past, this was a painstaking process that was usually carried out by interns or less-experienced animators. Nowadays this process has been somewhat automated, and can be accomplished by interpolation between animation data points, and the manipulation of animation spline curves. After animation, particle effects are added along with hair and cloth simulation, special effects (eg. explosions, snow, rain) and lighting. At the end of this process, the final set of images are rendered. These images are played together in sequence at a rate of 24 frames per second to create the final animated film.
Further advancements in computer hardware technology have fueled the development of computer animation software. The consistent decline in hardware prices over the years, coupled with a consistent increase in computational power has allowed for rapid improvements to animation software technologies. One benefit of the wider accessibility of animation software has been the expansion of operations in smaller, Canadian-based animation studios. Smaller production companies now exist with the goal of creating special effects for films or advertising, along with short-length or feature-length computer animated films. Locally, these companies include Toronto-based Topix (http://www.topix.com), Toybox (http://www.compt.com/), DKP Effects, now Starz Animation (http://www.dkp.com), and CORE Digital Pictures (http://www.coredp.com). Recently, The Wild, the first Canadian feature animation was created by CORE Feature Animation, and was released and marketed through Disney Pictures.

There are usually both social advantages and disadvantages caused by the adoption of new technologies, and this is certainly the case for 3D animation software. The field of animation has benefited from the recent surge in 3D animated films, and the technological push to create these films and improve upon existing software solutions. In 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (A.M.P.A.S.) added the category of “Best Animated Feature” to the annual Academy Awards, to further push animated film studios to strive for excellence in their filmmaking. Millions of people around the world, across a wide range of age groups, are given a strong message and moral lessons from Pixar films. The popularity of these films in the mass market allows giants such as Pixar to make strong social statements and encourage viewers of all ages to become better people. The downside of the increased cost-effectiveness of producing animated films and the accessibility of 3D animation software is that not only high-quality films are being created. A large quantity of silly, slapstick 3D animated films with cliché scriptwriting and confusing storylines are being created, and lumped together in the same category as other high-quality animated films. As John Lasseter describes in his 1987 ACM paper,

“Unfortunately, these systems [Computer Animation tools] will also enable people to produce more bad computer animation. Much of this bad animation will be due to unfamiliarity with the fundamental principles that have been used for hand drawn character animation for over 50 years. Understanding these principles of traditional animation is essential to producing good computer animation.” [4]

Another negative response to the increasing public interest in 3D animation was that some studios, such as Disney, decided that they thought the public was no longer interested in 2D Animation. The result was the closing of Disney’s 2D Animation unit, starting with layoffs in 2000. The idea that 2D animation is an old technology and the public now enjoys only 3D films and is thus no longer interested in 2D films is simply incorrect. With the recent purchase of Pixar by Disney, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, the former heads of Pixar, are now in charge of animation at both the Disney Feature Animation studio and Pixar Animation Studios. One of the first announcements that John Lasseter made was that Disney would be re-hiring those traditional animators who had been previously fired, and that Disney would start producing hand-drawn animated films again. He said that recent 2D animated films have been unsuccessful because they lack the kind of stories that exist in classic Disney films such as Snow White, Bambi and The Lion King. The negative impact that 3D animated films had on the 2D animation industry is slowly being reversed. Disney plans to release The Frog Princess, a 2D animated feature film in 2009, marking its first foray into traditional hand-drawn animation in 5 years.

The future of 3D animation is extremely bright. Areas such as AI will continue to benefit computer graphics as crowd simulations become more common and software such as Massive is used by more studios to create crowd effects. There is an ongoing precedent set for technical innovation shown by companies such as Pixar and Dreamworks. Personally, I believe that we will see two major schools of animation in the future, each taking advantage of different areas of the software and hardware technology. The first will be a continuation in striving for realism at studios like Pixar. These studios will continue to push the technical envelope, and incorporate more and more complex effects into their films, with the ultimate goal of inspiring the audience and producing effects that are innovative and original. The other school of animation I believe will stem out of the ever-expanding real-time gaming industry. The line between films and computer games is growing closer by the day, and the distinction between these two technologies is becoming blurrier. I think that some studios will be drawn into the immediacy of real-time animation, and once this technology becomes closer to rendered animation in terms of quality, this style of animation will be adopted by smaller studios that do not necessarily require precise, physically correct simulations in their films.

To summarize, the effect of 3D animation software on the animated film industry is astronomical. 3D modeling, shading, rigging, animation, lighting, effects and rendering tools are necessary pieces of the 3D animation process. Due to the success of 3D animated films, studios such as Disney shortsightedly closed down 2D animation production when they incorrectly assumed that audiences no longer were interested in 2D films. Fortunately, this trend is reversing itself, and 2D films are beginning to re-gain some popularity. The important fact for consumers to remember is that animated films are good if they have a good story, and the medium (2D vs 3D) has very little to do with the enjoyment the customer can expect to have from the film. The future of the animation industry is exciting and full of many possibilities and interesting areas for research. Toy Story, the first feature-length computer animated film was released in 1995. Twelve years later, over 34 major feature-length animated films have been produced in the USA. This trend will continue as long as animation studios continue to create interesting stories which inspire people of all ages.

References

“3D computer graphics.” Wikipedia. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_computer_graphics

“3D computer graphics software.” Wikipedia. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_computer_graphics_software

“Alias Systems Corporation.” Wikipedia. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alias_Systems_Corporation

“Autodesk Home Page.” Autodesk. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://www.autodesk.com

“Autodesk Maya.” Autodesk. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://usa.autodesk.com/adsk/servlet/index?siteID=123112&id=7635018

“Computer-generated imagery.” Wikipedia. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer-generated_imagery

Cotta Vaz, M. “The Art of Finding Nemo.” (2003): 9. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003.

Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation.” ACCAD. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://accad.osu.edu/~waynec/history/lessons.html

“How 3-D graphics works.” How Stuff Works. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://computer.howstuffworks.com/3dgraphics3.htm

Lasseter, J., "Principles of traditional animation applied to 3D computer animation." In Computer Graphics, Volume 21, Number 4. ACM, 1987.

“Massive (software).” Wikipedia. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_software

“Massive Software.” Massive. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://www.massivesoftware.com/

“Monsters, Inc: The Human World DVD,” Dir. Pete Doctor and David Silverman. Perf. John Goodman and Billy Crystal. Pixar Animation Studios, 2001.

Pixar Jobs.” Pixar Animation Studios. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://www.pixar.com/companyinfo/jobs/uni_internships.html

RenderMan Shading Language.” Wikipedia. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RenderMan_Shading_Language

“Return to form — 'Frog Princess' is Disney's first foray into hand-drawn animation in 5 years.” Deseret News. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,660203506,00.html

“Timeline of CGI in film and television.” Wikipedia. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_CGI_in_films

“Toy Story at Silicon Valley ACM Siggraph.” ACM Siggraph. (1995): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://silicon-valley.siggraph.org/MeetingNotes/ToyStory.html

Walt Disney Feature Animation.” Wikipedia. (n.d.): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 28 Mar. 2007. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Disney_Feature_Animation#History



[1] Mike Jutan, Internships - The Pixar Path. http://www.pixar.com/companyinfo/jobs/uni_internships.html

[2] “Monsters, Inc: The Human World DVD,” Dir. Pete Doctor and David Silverman. Perf. John Goodman

and Billy Crystal. Pixar Animation Studios, 2001.

[3] Mark Cotta Vaz, The Art of Finding Nemo (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003), 9.

[4] John Lasseter, Principles of traditional animation applied to 3D computer animation (Computer

Graphics: ACM, 1987)

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