Animation:Master Version 5 is reviewed by Tim Elston with great results.
In 1986, I was reading the classifieds in the back of a computer magazine and was attracted to an ad with big bold letters promising "Disney Animation" on a computer. Wow! That took me back to a conversation I had in 1979 with coworkers at Ruby-Spears about the possibilities of doing animation on a computer and what that could mean to a couple of guys without the capital to purchase a few supercomputers. The program in the ad, which I purchased, was Animation:Apprentice, the start of a long history of products from Hash Inc. After Animation:Apprentice came Animation:Journeyman and Animation:Master.
This month Hash Inc. debuts Animation:Master version 5. A long, long way from Animation:Apprentice, version 5 is a matured and accessible program that covers the full spectrum of tools for the beginner to the experienced computer animator. Using the Microsoft Foundation Class libraries, the interface has everything you need available at the click of a mouse. All of the features and keyboard equivalents are customizable to fit the style of the individual animator. There are also extensive tutorials to help the user on working the features. Macmillan's New Riders computer book division is also close to releasing the advanced Power User's Guide to Version 5.
New Modeling Tools
If you're a 3D artist and haven't worked with splines before, you're in for a treat. Splines allow an animator/modeler to jump in with a 'hands on' feeling for the modeling. I like to imagine splines as rubber bands with thumb tacks at each end. Add a thumb tack (control point) in the middle of a line and you can simply create a curve. Lay down a mesh of splines and you can create beautiful organic shapes. As another example, imagine polygon-based objects that are made of straight match sticks which join at the ends (think of a geodesic dome made up of tiny triangles). Splines don't think of these lines as match sticks but rather as pipe cleaners. You can attach pipe cleaners at each end or in the middle but you can also bend them to get smooth curves.
Over the last year several articles in Computer Graphics World and 3D Design have focused on the work done for Marvel 2099 by Jeff Bunker and the Avalanche group in Salt Lake City using the Animation:Master program. Whereas most polygon-based human forms are limited by the process of being scanned from physically sculpted models, the characters done by Jeff and his staff have amazing personality and a look that makes you feel their presence. Best of all there are no facets so the characters are easy to animate and only take about 10% of the disc space required for a polygon object with the same apparent resolution. Plus, they are modeled by hand (incredible!). The characters have to be seen to be believed.
Those of you that have used Animation:Master before and are knowledgeable of splines will be happy to know about 'hooks.' Hooks allow a modeler to attach, for example, a vertical spline between two other vertical splines to a horizontal spline without needing to carry the spline beyond. This works very well when changing modeling resolutions, like from a face which has a high spline/patch density to the rest of the head which usually has a low spline/patch density.
The character is now modeled and organized differently and more simply than before. If you have worked with Hash Inc.'s software, you know that building a character used to be a process of endless links of segment directories and their sub-directories. Then you would have to skin all of the segments to make one figure (it was like building a car). It was a complex way of handling a complex problem. As Hash Inc.'s development team has grown and understood the subtlety of the software, they have made the program more intelligent to allow the artist to concentrate on the creative modeling and animation process. The character is built as one segment (it's like buying a car) and the movement of arms, legs, head, neck, and so on is handled through 'bones.' Since spline patches are lower density than polygons, a modeler can group the spline/control points of the head to make a bone that forms a "jaw." Then dialogue can be animated and controlled frame by frame with a mouse.
Motion and Rendering Additions
Although motion capture input is available, hand animating a figure or group of figures in this software can be easy and fun to do. Animation:Master allows the animator to express gestures, like facial expressions, expressive poses, pratfalls and takes, with subtle or dynamic timing. The inverse kinematics, or the process that allows one to move a hand and have the arm follow where one pulls the hand, can be set up to allow one to lock the character's feet to the floor. Or one can attach an object to a hand, then place the object on a table, for instance, and have the hand leave without doing the customary scene cut. Also any character with the same number and name of body parts as another can use actions from that character as a reusable motion library.
Any spline in a scene can become a motion path. Imagine a scene of the Harlem Globetrotters doing their basketball wizardry where one of the players is passing a ball down one arm, behind his neck and to the other arm. The arms tilt in reverse as the ball reaches the end of the arm and slows down. The animator can attach the ball to the spline that passes through the arms and as the arms move the ball will stay attached to that spline. Put a rotation on the ball with stride length, add slow in and slow out and the ball will roll across the arms as they teeter totter.
Rendering is now processed through a hybrid renderer. To understand all of the benefits of this new feature, we must first explore how a computer renders an image by discussing color, light and the camera. With computers and digital filmmaking, color is reduced to tiny pixels (PICture Elements) that have their color expressed in numbers. You might say that working with a brush and paints is analog because the artist can mix dabs of paint from many tubes to get any color he wants. The way I use color digitally is by using RGB values usually at 24 bit which gives me a palette of 16.7 million discreet colors. A light source has a numeric value for color, intensity and location. An object in a scene has numeric values of color and specularity (shininess plus jocularity). Other aspects that are considered are where and what the surface is, the location of the object, and whether or not it casts shadows or is transparent. There is also the camera. Its position plus its focal length and atmospheric qualities are all added up into the digital soup. In a typical size picture for video there are 640x480 pixels. For film, resolution is often above 2000 pixels horizontally. For every pixel in the average frame there are millions of calculations. Raytracing is the most expensive time-wise because it does the most calculations. It casts a ray of light out from the light source through every pixel in the screen to see if there is an object there and what color it is etc. Then it reads that light ray as it bounces back into the camera.
Animation:Master version 5 is able to pick dynamically the best type of renderer per pixel on the fly. Some areas of the frame might have shadows that need to be ray-traced but other areas without reflections or shadows can be rendered using a quicker process. Production teams can therefore, finish animation frames in the quickest time possible. The renderer has been extensively reworked and the render times are at least 200-300% quicker than before. In addition to speeding up the process, the Hash programmers have also managed to improve the image quality by 32 times when compared to version 4 of Animation:Master.
But Wait! There's More
The Director module has always been one of Hash Inc's strong points. Actors, props, lights and cameras can be set up in the scene to follow motion paths with channels. Lights and cameras are also completely controllable allowing the director to set the mood with the type of light, color, camera angle, and lens aperture he chooses. Like action, objects, cameras and lights can be added with seven different types of constraints.
Rotoscoping can be done at the level of modeling, action, or final compositing. In Sculpture mode, the Rotoscope is an image imported into the program as a template. Using one image from the side and one from the front the artist can build an object accurately from real life or from artwork. In Action mode, a series of images in sequential order, like Muybridge, can be used as a template to animate. In the Director module, a Rotoscope can be a compositing element for final output.
As in all computer animation, it is best to have a computer that is the highest level Pentium or Pentium II one can get or an Alpha NT machine. 32 MB of RAM is necessary and at least 64 MB or more is recommended. Martin Hash and company believe that people wanting to animate with good tools should have access to good tools. The version 5 of Animation:Master is therefore available on Windows 95/NT, the Power Mac, and the Alpha NT platforms at an accessible price. You can get all of the features described here for $199.00. An upgrade version with more features, like `Multiplane,' a compositing feature, 'Lip-synch,' a utility to help animate dialog, and `NetRender' for rendering over a computer network, is available for under $700.
Most people would think that the $199.00 price makes this program a cheap competitor to the likes of Kinetix's 3D Studio Max $3,000 package or Microsoft's $13,000 Softimage. However in comparison, the power of what you get for your $200 is truly amazing and in the hands of a true animation master can make dreams come true.
Although I have tried to explain things as thoroughly as possible, this is a highly technical field. For those readers who are from a traditional background and would like to understand more, I have included a small glossary. If you have more questions, please email me at email@example.com.
Apparent Resolution - In complex characters, the level of detail of a character. As a general rule of thumb, a character modeled in a polygon-based program has a file size 40 times the size of a Hash spline-based character.
Bones - A bone is made by assigning animation control to a part of a character created in Animation:Master. A skeleton of `bones,' not unlike our own, makes up the `handles' that allow one to grab and move the computer character.
Channel - A window that describes the changes in an object's movement (y axis) over time (x axis). It allows the artist to visualize and tweak motion subtlely.
Constraints - A way of putting motion limits on an object. For example, a human's knee or elbow doesn't normally bend backwards. In Animation:Master there are seven types of constraints: Aim At, Kinematics, Path, Translate To, Orient Like, Aim Roll At, Spherical Limits.
Control Points - Attachment points on a spline allowing the connection of other splines' control points. It is like spline Velcro!
Hooks - Splines are designed to loop around an object or to pass from one end of the object to the other. But in the case of a head where there is a lot of detail on the face and not as much on the back of the head, it allows the modeler to redistribute the detail from the face where it is needed to the rest of the head by being able to end the spline without creating other problems. This was not possible before Version 5.
Inverse Kinematics - Kinematics is a chain of parts (for example, upper arm + forearm + hand + finger) that move together because they're connected. Inverse means you move it from the end of the chain instead of the beginning. For example, it allows you to grab the tip of a figure's finger and move the whole arm.
Motion Capture - The process of hooking up computer sensors to an actor's body to track the movement of the actor. The motion capture files can then be used to animate computer generated figures.
Motion Library - Files describing movement that can be applied to different computer-animated objects.
Motion Path - A spline path in a computer scene that allows the animator to attach an object to move along.
Pixel - A PICture Element. Television screens are made up of pixels. If you look very close at your television screen you can see the individual squares that make up the pattern of an image.
Polygon - An object made up of straight sides (vertices). More detail and curvature can be created by making the vertices smaller or by using rendering tricks to smooth them.
Raytracer - A highly accurate mathematical process of shading an image where every pixel has a light ray shot through it from the light source which contacts any object in that pixel and then records it back to the camera.
Render - The computer process of generating an image.
RGB - Light is made of three primary colors, Red, Green and Blue (R-G-B). Computer colors used for video are usually expressed in numbers for each primary color. In 24 bit color each R-G-B value has a number between 0 (no light value) and 255 (full light value). Black is expressed as 0 ,0 ,0. Pure white is expressed as 255, 255, 255. A pure red would be expressed as 255,0,0. A value of orange could be 128, 128, 0.
Rotoscope - An image or sequence of images used as templates in Animation:Master.
Scan - In 3D, the process of using a device to accurately measure the surfaces of an object for use in a computer environment.
Spline - An infinitely elastic building element of spline modelers. In the hands of the inexperienced it can end up looking like a plate of spaghetti.
Stride Length - The ability of measuring the length of a stride on the walk cycle of a computer character so that when the character is placed on a motion path, the legs move proportionally and don't skate across the ground. It can also be applied to round objects such as car wheels.
Tim Elston is a 3D modeler/animator based in Grass Valley, California. He has been a professional animator for 20 years, and spent 10 years in the animation industry in Los Angeles before learning the digital side of animation. His credits include work for Computoons, 3DO and The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. He is now working on a virtual museum project for The Museum of Ancient and Modern Art, and has several other projects in development.