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The Animated Scene: “Paperless Animation Production” — Myth or Reality?

In this months Animated Scene, Joseph Gilland addresses the reality of paperless animation production, which used to make his blood curdle.

The incredibly effective Wacom Cintiq 21UX interactive pen display is helping paperless animation become a reality. All Cintiq 21UZ images courtesy of Wacom.

After an almost two-decade stint in the animated feature film industry, I have been re-introduced to the world of television series work, bit by bit, over the last four years. In some cases actually working on an animated television series, but more often as a casual observer, watching my overly stressed-out animation industry friends, who always seem to be rushing off to work over-time on yet another on-going television series with an insanely short schedule. Storyboard artists, character designers, layout artists, animators, effects animators you name it theyre all out there trying to make ends meet, in what seems to be an industry of ever shrinking schedules and budgets.

Whenever I hear about the insanely tight schedules that these artists are working on, my head just spins! Shorter and shorter schedules, smaller and smaller budgets, but is the quality of the shows diminishing? Well, sometimes yes, but incredibly, a lot of the time it is not! We have at our disposal today the tools to make quality cartoons, faster, slicker and better looking than a great deal of the so-called limited animation of years gone by.

This trend that were seeing has taken off in the wake of a staggering plethora of new animation technology, hardware and software, which, for better or worse, has enabled us to create stories, storyboards, animatics, backgrounds, characters, animation and special effects in ridiculously short order.

This is much to the delight of distributors, broadcasters, and animation clients of all kinds worldwide, who find that in todays animation industry, an idea or a script can get from early development, into location and character design, straight into production and actually on the air in a matter of mere months. Projects that would have taken at least a year to fully develop and begin to get off the ground, can now sprout wings and take off in a really big hurry, and at a mere fraction of the cost of an old-school hand-drawn cartoon.

There are some key technological advancements in the tools, both hardware and software, that we use to produce cartoon series these days that have contributed enormously to the speeding up of the overall process, and Id like to discuss a couple of the most important ones, that I feel are changing the way we make cartoons today, besides the obvious technological developments that we have all come so familiar with, like Flash.

The combination of the screen surface with a sensitive grip pen makes artists comfortable with the drawing feel of Cintiq 21UX.

First of all, the whole idea of paperless production (Oh, how that concept used to make my blood curdle!) which has been batted around for the last two decades, is actually starting to successfully take place, largely due to a couple of truly innovative, effective tools that have finally come close to matching the needs of traditional artists, who are willing to work with digital tools, if they actually help, rather than hinder, the creative process. Now we finally have these tools at our fingertips, they actually work and they are rapidly changing the face of the modern animation studio. Not only the television series industry either, or only the 2D animation industry. Every studio, from the smallest hometown commercial ventures, to the biggest feature animation powerhouses, is taking full advantage of this new software and hardware.

First of all, the incredibly effective Wacom Cinitq 21UX interactive pen display is an LCD monitor that enables artists to draw directly onto the computers screen, and it is the first product of its kind that really has artists getting comfortable with its drawing feel very quickly and intuitively. I had tried one of the earliest versions of this tablet many years ago, and it was at that point in time still a relatively frustrating tool for a traditional pencil and paper sort of an artist to deal with. The tactile quality of the drawing pen just wasnt there, and there was an enormous disconnect between the hand and the image. I was skeptical that I would ever be able to become comfortable with such a tool, but that has all changed recently.

The folks at Wacom, in developing the Cintiq have put a lot of time, research and effort into creating a screen surface that actually has some bite to it, much like a real piece of paper, as well as a wonderfully programmable and sensitive pen, and the results are surprisingly successful. It seems that the developers have really been listening to us pesky artists after all! Up until now, getting a really natural drawing sensation that inspired an old school artist was inconceivable.

And I was one of the biggest naysayers to the tablet technology that has been emerging, precisely because of that very reason. The tactile sensation of a graphite pencil digging into the texture of a good quality piece of paper, well, theres nothing quite like it. The sculptural feeling of working a drawing on paper is a key element of how I create design drawings, and, until recently, I had never encountered a tablet that was even remotely satisfying in that respect.

But today, of all the artists I know are using the Cintiq tablets, myself included, the vast majority are enjoying it a great deal and truly getting a good drawing feel with it. It speeds up many aspects of the animation pipeline, by finally doing away with enormous amounts of paper that needs to be scanned and put in binders and archived in filing cabinets. Artists can create everything from storyboards to character, effects, set and prop designs in literally half the time it used to take them, simply by the virtue of being able to undo things quickly and work in layers, which enable quicker development and experimentation with designs.

This may not seem like something entirely new to so many people who have become accustomed to using digital drawing tablets and working with software like Photoshop and Painter for many years now, but not enough emphasis can be put on how far the technology has come. The natural feel of the pen on the drawing surface of the Cintiq is quite amazing, and the ability to rotate the entire tablet much like an old school animation disc is also a huge asset. I cant believe how quickly many of my old-school pencil and paper artist friends are catching on to the Cintiq, and raving about its astounding functionality.

Old school pencil and paper artists are astounded by how far technology has come. Products like Cintiq allow creative teams to present their drawing ideas quickly, compressing the time it takes to deliver a project.

Today, creative teams are able to send their drawing ideas quickly and directly to the director or lead designer, who can then make changes, notes and suggestions on a new level directly on top of the artwork and send it back to the artists in the blink of an eye. The time saved by an artistic director who once had to be constantly on the go, moving from artist to artist, making suggestions and changes out on the floor of the studio, is enormous. Of course if a more hands on approach, face to face interaction is desired, that can still be done, but the options available to manage the flow of our creative ideas are far greater with these new tools working as well as they do today.

Software too has been catching up quickly to the desire for a natural drawing experience on a computer, and Alias (Autodesk) Sketchbook Pro 1.1 is another tool that is catching on like wildfire, because of its extremely user friendly, intuitive tools, pencils, pens, brushes and levels. The learning curve is extremely fast, no real need for training or leafing through weighty user manuals.

This is the kind of tool traditional artists have been waiting a long time for. No fuss, no superior computer skills required, just a fast intuitive way to draw on a computer. For a purely straightforward piece of drawing software, it is hard to beat, although of course there are bugs to be worked out, and countless improvements that should be, and Im sure will be made.

Personally, seeing the work being created in my current production workspace using the Cintiq and Sketchbook Pro, I am finally becoming convinced that paperless animation production may one day become a reality, even at the earlier design stages where it is still common to see artists using every thing, from charcoal to oil paint, to create design ideas, character, location, special effects prop designs, color palettes, and conceptual look of picture designs of all kinds.

If these tools become even better than they are now, we will see more and more old school artists giving up their beloved paints and pencils, and moving, if somewhat reluctantly, onto the world of digital drawing.

The Alias SketchBook Pro, with its ability to capture ideas quickly, might replace the pencil and napkin. It is extremely user friendly with no real need for training. © Alias Systems Corp.

Beyond the earlier stages of development, design and storyboarding that I have detailed here, of course we have seen digital ink-and-paint and particularly, Flash transform 2D animation into a process that takes a fraction of the time to produce than the old animator assistant/inbetweener/production model of years past. No need to go over that here, we all know the process is speeding up, some of the resulting animation is looking better and better, and not necessarily too far removed from the high quality animation that we all want to see being produced.

It looks to me like digital 2D animation, is really coming into a new and exciting era. Even with shrinking budgets and schedules, we can look forward to creating better looking shows than ever if we embrace and exploit the super efficient digital tools that we have at our fingertips today. Even this crusty, narrow minded, old school, hand-drawn, animators survival kit thumping animator can see that we are entering an era of a much broader and less restricted visual vocabulary.

Of course I for one will never stop emphasizing the need for good old school hands-on training for our students of the craft, if only for the purpose of teaching them the importance and the value of every frame that we deal with in animation. Letting the computer do too much of the work too early on in an artists development may severely stunt their ability to process creative ideas thoroughly in their imaginations before committing them to paper, uh, that is, their digital tablet But even the earliest, teaching, design and development stages of animation production may be done on digital drawing tablets some day soon, as these products become more widely available and affordable.

One by one, my industry friends who use the Cintiq at work are getting them for their home studios as well (at least those who can afford the still rather high price tag). Keep in mind folks, I certainly dont write about animation to advertise these products! In my mind, this phase of technological development is one of the most important developments in the history of our industry, up there with Technicolor, digital ink-and-paint and 3D CGI technology.

Visit a few studios these days, and these new drawing tablets are conspicuously evident everywhere you look. And they are giving us greater and greater creative freedom, as well as making it possible for more new shows to be developed and produced affordably, (even in spite of their somewhat lofty price tag), and within the time constraints of an ever more demanding clientele. Hopefully this will challenge more and more companies to develop and offer us even better and more importantly, even more affordable new digital drawing tools.

In his 30-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with studios as diverse Walt Disney Feature Animation and the National Film Board of Canada. He has worked on all styles of animation, experimental films, television series, commercials, theatrical feature films, stop motion, title sequences, live-action films and documentaries. Formerly the head of the classical and digital character animation programs at the Vancouver Film School, Gilland is writing a passionate book about the art of animation.