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2D and 3D: Together For The Better

Sean MacLennan Murch describes how companies are integrating 2D and 3D animation in order to obtain the best of both worlds.

While 3D animation has proved itself as a master of realism, it has often been accused of failing to capture the feeling and characterization that classical animation has offered audiences for the past century. The animation industry has begun to respond to this feedback, and has adjusted it's priorities accordingly. More and more we are seeing a hybrid of classical and 3D animation; each technique being utilized for what it does best. Bringing inanimate objects, or those with simple geometry, to life is well within the digital realm. However, organic figures such as humanoids and animals have continually been proven more convincing when created with pencil and paper. For instance, we all loved Toy Story, but many of us were disappointed with the way the human figures were designed and animated. They seemed to be out of synch with all the great looking, more geometrical, toys.

Toy Story demonstrated that while computer animation is great for animating geometrical forms, organic materials, such as fabric or fur, are still a challenge for 3D computer animators. © Disney.

One creative and economical use of 3D animation can be evidenced in many of the recently released classically animated features. Backgrounds, camera moves, crowd scenes, and machines of all descriptions have been modeled and animated digitally. In many cases this approach can save both time and money. More importantly, it also enhances the look of the film. Duncan Marjoribanks is one of the top character animators at DreamWorks Feature Animation with experience as a lead animator spanning over two decades. He was responsible for bringing to life such timeless characters as Abu from Disney's Aladdin, and Sebastian the crab from Disney's The Little Mermaid. On the topic of 3D animation and digital effects, Marjoribanks' advice is clear. "Wherever it works, by all means, use it!" Marjoribanks notes that "in traditional features, what computer animation does best is to improve the quality of a production, rather than saving money over hand drawn methods." DreamWorks' soon to be released, The Prince of Egypt uses extensive digital animation and effects in their rendition of the Parting of the Red Sea and in the vast multitudes of "extras" necessary for a biblical epic. When asked about the use of 3D modeling and animation for crowd scenes, Marjoribanks declares, "They (the 3D animators) are welcome to them." There are limitations however, to modeling in three dimensions. While it is relatively easy to redraw a 2D character model, it can sometimes be more difficult to radically change a digital model. As Duncan points out, "It's hard to tweak a 3D model too far, without something breaking."

Mainframe Entertainment's animated series, Reboot. © 1997 Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.

Classically Effective

Just as classical studios such as DreamWorks and Warner Bros. are striving to make the most of new technology, 3D producers are looking to classical animation to augment their craft. Whether in the form of separate 2D levels, or in the use of classical timing and characterizations, 3D companies are "getting back to basics" in order to improve the entertainment value of their products. In one case, Vancouver based Radical Entertainment, one of the leading video game developers in North America, is using 2D reference animation as a guide to aid their 3D animators in achieving the best timing and motion possible. Jack Rebbetoy, one of Radical's senior producers notes, "We have explored the use of motion capture for our games and in many instances, this approach seems to capture the essence of the motion that we're looking for, in other, more complex situations, however, we have to rely on a traditional 2D animator to capture that same essence. In addition, we often want to exaggerate these motions for effect. With motion capture, you are limited to the physical abilities of your actor." Exaggeration, of course, plays an integral role in classical animation and is one of the prime reasons to use animation rather than live-action to tell a story.

Using laws of physics and motion, the goal of the digital realm has historically been to re-create reality. 3D animators and animation software developers try to emulate the real world as closely as possible and it is disappointing when this new reality falls short of convincing its audience. Perhaps this boils down to the difference between reality and perception. While software developers strive to create an environment that replicates the real world, classical animators tend to focus more on people's perception of the world, on what they actually want to see. In many cases the entertainment value comes from when the animation diverges from reality. As any good actor that is acting for the theater's back row will say, you must exaggerate your motions and reactions just in order to have them read to the audience. Furthermore, we don't go to mainstream animated films to be given a dose of reality. We have documentaries for that. We go to animated shows for the fantasy element, and to be entertained. We don't want to have to guess if a character was surprised by some on-screen event, we want his or her eyes to bulge a good three feet out from their sockets. We expect it.

Three Dimensional Benefits

The truth is that 3D animation does have a lot to offer in the way of both production value and entertainment. For starters, 3D generated backgrounds exist as an important asset, once created. The same environment can be re-lit, re-shot from a different angle and re-used time and time again. Much like a live action set, these digital assets can amortize the cost of a production without compromising it's quality. Characters can be tweaked and re-rendered to perform a different role in a later scene, or cloned for large crowd scenes. In the classical, hand drawn world this could mean countless new drawings and a quickly disappearing budget. In terms of principle characters and character animation, new developments in hardware continue to increase the quality level of available textures, effects, and motions at an ever reducing cost.

One of the world's most prolific producers of 3D animation is Mainframe Entertainment, producers of the widely successful television series Reboot and Beast Wars. Chris Brough, one of the principles of this publicly traded company describes their approach to 3D animation: "What we really did was look at technology and figure out how to empower that technology from a creative tool aspect, thereby allowing our animators to do just that animate." In order to accomplish this task, Mainframe employs a team of twelve software developers whose sole task is to make the software interface more intuitive for the animators. This allows the artists to concentrate more on the creative aspects, rather than the technology of 3D animation. As Brough states, "therein lies our creative and our competitive edge." On the business side of the equation, Mainframe has also capitalized on the aforementioned "digital asset" aspect of the 3D environment. Brough explains that "there are so many other business and revenue opportunities. It's the same digital database that we explore with the Reboot ride films (for IMAX), the first of which gets delivered next month. It's the same database that we create toys from. With our own proprietary software we translate our database into 3D models that we can create physical molds and models from. We've recently done that successfully with Irwin toys. We can make interactive properties. We could feasibly create, based on the size of our database, a fantasy world that would take you hours, if not days, to navigate. All this is digital, so whatever the future delivery systems are from a technological aspect, we can prepare ourselves for it. I think that communication companies, in time, will understand the significance of this."

The Lost World: Jurassic Park, featuring CG animation by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). © Universal/Amblin.

With the recent exposure of high quality 3D animation in feature films like Toy Story and The Lost World, it looks as though the market for 3D animation is strong. As Marjoribanks points out, "The talent base of 3D animators is still very young. There is no telling what 3D character animation can become. It is still too early in its development to know its unique capabilities. There is also still lots of room for collaboration between 3D and 2D animators." At DreamWorks, 3D and 2D artists are now working side by side in every department, from layout through animation. As software developers and animators continue to work towards a more classical approach to digital animation, the future also looks bright for hybrid 2D/3D productions. The dialogue has begun between the once very separate mediums of 3D and traditional animation. It is this dialogue between animators that will drive the art and the craft of animation forward into the next century.

Sean MacLennan Murch spent four years in London working as both a producer and executive producer. For the last two years he has been based in Vancouver, where he is currently employed as the Director of Development at Natterjack Animation Co. Ltd.

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