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Insight to Innovation

Sarah Baisley surveys industry insiders about what innovations they see in animation and visual effects.

Groundbreaking and first ever were frequently used terms in studio and network promotional copy to describe its latest project. Innovations in animation were coming fast and furious with little time to absorb and appreciate new tricks or even departures in animation production. Has down-sizing and quick turnarounds lessened the time and budgets to experiment or are innovations coming some quickly that they have less impact or there just isnt time to trumpet them? Animation World Magazine surveyed a cross-section of professionals from various walks and levels of animation production for their insights and observations. See in what areas they see innovations are on the rise as well as means and methods that may help you in your projects.

Ralph Guggenheim, exec producer, Alligator Planet, San Francisco

Ralph Guggenheim, exec producer, Alligator Planet, San Francisco

Ralph Guggenheim, exec producer, Alligator Planet, San Francisco

The current economic downturn provides as much of an incentive to innovate as the go-go days of the "bubble" that recently passed. What's changed is that powerful animation tools are cheap and available around the world, making it possible for animation studios to pop up in countries and places where they hadn't been seen before.

Alligator Planet is concentrating on forming partnerships with animation companies (both inside and outside the U.S.) that are taking advantage of what we like to call "disruptive technologies" to lower the cost and accessibility of animation.

A good example of this is our North American representation of TV-Animation of Copenhagen, Denmark. They have a variety of characters and shows that are aired on TV throughout Europe, but haven't been seen here before. Their "disruptive technology" is their Cartoon Broadcast System (CBS) that allows 2D scenes to be pre-animated for subsequent realtime performance. Let me repeat that: realtime performance. Actors walk into a booth, put on a headset microphone and achieve realtime lip-sync of their characters. They can control the animation of their characters in realtime as well through the use of simple videogame controllers. Thus, a 24-minute episode of an animate series can be produced in... 24 minutes! That's only about 10,000 times faster than the current six to nine months it takes for conventional TV episodic production.

What's more, this realtime capability allows kids to call into a show and talk to the characters on the air live, with a live animated character assigned (and lip-sync'ed) to the caller. Furthermore, realtime interactive games can also be created as part of the show, with callers using their telephone keypads as "game controllers" all through this same system.

It's our belief that necessity and adversity are the mother(s) of invention. In this case, the need to create animation that can be customized for various localities and current economic pressures are the twin forces that drive innovative solutions in animation.

Kevin O'Donnell, svp, DIC Entertainment, Burbank, California

Kevin O'Donnell, svp, DIC Entertainment, Burbank, California

Kevin O'Donnell, svp, DIC Entertainment, Burbank, California

What examples have you seen lately that you find innovative in traditional animation or CGI? Personally, the new look on Kid Notorious is extremely eye-catching. It stands out as a unique way of expanding the realm of animation. It also lends itself to the writing so that you have a real connection to real characters, even though they are animated. I've also been impressed by the inroads independent creators are making with Flash-based projects. I think a lot of future of entertainment is floating around on the Internet right now.

What conditions do you need to be innovative? I think you need a challenging environment where the status quo will not work anymore. This could be because of budgetary or artistic reasons. The global glut of animation has put a premium on breakout concepts and new ways of producing shows that cut costs and share the creative burden. There is nothing as motivating as necessity, and today it is necessary to use technology to broaden the palette of production techniques.

Kid Notorious has a unique look. © Comedy Central.

Kid Notorious has a unique look. © Comedy Central.

Are we in a busy time of innovation, or are people too busy with downsizing and budget cuts to be innovative? This is an incredibly innovative time. There is so much new technology that you can't help but be on top of it or it will run you over. Plus, the screens are changing as we speak. Kids are now watching everything from 72-inch plasma hi-def monitors to two-inch phone screens. To them, they are equally entertaining.

Any of your own innovations you'd care to share? We are working on the new Stan Lee series called Super Seven and we are animating it with new CGI technology that allows us to create a POP ART look. We're literally bringing a comic book to life with 3D characters and environments that are flattened out and saturated with colors for a look that hasn't been possible before, without spending feature dollars. We're doing it with a small team of artists and technicians who come out of the gaming world. The result is fantastic and has allowed us to attract other artists from the hip-hop world in order to recreate the traditional cartoon SOUND as well. This show is turning our studio upside down because new doors have opened and once they've opened, you can't help but enter a whole new world.

Raquel Benitez, ceo/president, Comet Entertainment Inc, Toronto

Raquel Benitez, ceo/president, Comet Entertainment Inc, Toronto

Raquel Benitez, ceo/president, Comet Entertainment Inc, Toronto

What examples have you seen lately that you find innovative in traditional animation or CGI? Animation is an industry in which the advances go depending on other industries developments like computer software. By this I mean that the introduction of animation software like Animo, Toon Boom and others long ago, lead all the producers to the use of wonderful tools in creating new visions like the camera movements, longer pans, etc. However, if we do need to mention someone who was really an innovator, it was Disney with his cameras, sound system and many other advances. Without his ideas the animation industry would never be in the position where is now.

What conditions do you need to be innovative? I would say time and funds.

Are we in a busy time of innovation, or are people too busy with downsizing and budget cuts to be innovative? I will go with the second option you provide.

Any of your own innovations you'd care to share? Well, I would say that our company is well know because our digital pre-production that help the studios to save money and be faster.

Eric Coleman, vp, animation development & production, Nickelodeon, Burbank, California

What examples have you seen lately that you find innovative in traditional animation or CGI? I've been excited by some pitches and demo reels lately that combine 2D or Flash with CG environments with a quality that I didn't see a year ago. More than ever before directors and producers are making the technology work for their creative vision, and for the production schedule.

Are we in a busy time of innovation, or are people too busy with downsizing and budget cuts to be innovative? I believe lean times actually lead to innovation. When we are forced to re-think our methods for development and production, we are always looking for new ways to apply or adapt the various technologies out there.

Rose Bond and her work Illuminations #1. Photos courtesy of Rose Bond.

Rose Bond and her work Illuminations #1. Photos courtesy of Rose Bond.

Rose Bond, independent media artist, www.rosebond.net, Portland, Oregon Innovation is spurred by a set of circumstances. Within, innovation thrives when there's a willingness to risk coupled with a drive to realize a vision that won't let go. It happens when you hit a wall and just have to get through. In the outer world, innovation can happen when someone trusts enough to give you support even though they don't really know what you're up to. Innovation takes a flexible mind, a belief in more than one way, and an ear to voices outside the mainstream. Innovation is not the tried and true.

For an independent animator accustomed to 16mm and mini DV, innovation means securing equipment that has been pretty much the domain of high-end, media savvy corporations. Innovation needs support from others. For Illuminations #1, I owe my thanks to Mitsubishi, Comp View, Sound Ideas and the corporate people who saw potential in an AE laptop test.

Peter Scott, head of Impossible TV

Peter Scott, head of Impossible TV

Peter Scott, head of Impossible TV, London

Innovation is an odd beast. Its often said to disappear when budgets tighten and companies reduce expenditure on R&D... on the other hand, in these circumstances, you can be forced to innovate just to make anything work.

We had a similar situation on our recent series MechaNick, a 40x7 CGI pre-school series, part-funded by Carlton International and screened on Channel Five in the U.K. Impossible TV has been around for over six years now, primarily making youth and mainstream-aimed cartoons for late-night audiences, and this was our first pre-school project.

But the issue was that after a short pre-production phase, we had to make an episode every four days from the start to hit our delivery dates. To maintain high quality with this kind of turnaround meant we had to come up with a cost-effective way to produce a large quantity of animation effectively.

We mainly use 3ds max and character studio, and so utilized MAXs ability to create plug-ins to write programs to speed up our production. Many were produced, the main innovation a lip-sync system that everyone, from our most junior animator to me as the boss, can use with little or no training.

The high-flyin' adventures of MechaNick. Photo courtesy of Impossible TV.

The high-flyin' adventures of MechaNick. Photo courtesy of Impossible TV.

The program is incredibly simple load the audio in, press a key to move through it and then click on the mouth-shape you want. Then another keypress previews what youve just done. And thats it. This system meant we could lip-sync an entire episode of MechaNick with one person in two or three hours. On our previous series, Audrey and Friends, it took three animators a day to lip-sync the same amount to the same quality.

But then we thought we could apply the same rules to other areas of animation. The same system expanded to do expressions, initially just the mouth, but then the eyes and eyebrows too, so it became a quick and easy way to auto-animate the entire face. Click on sad, happy, concerned, puzzled, thinking... options that expanded as the series went on. The program created a file that was then loaded into the 3D scene and tweaked manually to give the best possible outcome.

Without a tight timescale and the need to innovate in this area, wed never have developed this system. Its what everyone always knows pausing for a short while at the start of production, in order to assess what can be done to ease the process, ends up saving vast amounts of time over a 30+ week production cycle.

And the results are lovely!

Andrew Orloff, CG supervisor, Zoic Studios

Andrew Orloff, CG supervisor, Zoic Studios

Andrew Orloff, CG supervisor, Zoic Studios,

Los AngelesWhat examples have you seen lately that you find innovative in traditional animation or CGI? I think that with the price of powerful hardware and software coming down at such a rapid rate, we are in time of extreme innovation in all areas of CG animation. Boutique animation houses and individuals alike now easily obtain tools previously unreachable by the all but the largest of companies. TV series, commercials and even features that once necessitated large teams with huge facilities can now be done literally out of a garage. Global illumination and radiosity are becoming standard with most new rendering packages bringing truly photorealistic rendering within everyone's grasp. Motion capture is now commonplace and the data is easier to work with than ever. Professional quality video editing equipment is now available at your local mall. Animation students today have so much more production value at their fingertips now than they did even 5 years ago.

Are we in a busy time of innovation, or are people too busy with downsizing and budget cuts to be innovative? I think we are in an exciting time where the old way of doing things (big studios, big budgets) are giving way to a more dynamic system. We will see many more new creative voices from the DV generation than we have in the past. Newer, more powerful, cheaper tools will make it so any 13-year-old kid, from Minnesota to the Nepal, can write, produce, shoot, edit and distribute their own feature. The Internet is already a fertile playground for animation ideas and techniques, and I believe that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

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Kevin VanHook (left), vp/gm, Forum Visual Effects. Image from The Amazing Jorge, a CGI short that has been entered for Academy consideration.

Kevin VanHook, vp/gm, Forum Visual Effects,

N. Hollywood, CaliforniaWhat examples have you seen lately that you find innovative in traditional animation or CGI? One of the most creative uses of animation that I have seen this year was in Quentin Tarantinos Kill Bill, in terms of the way the movie was able to seamlessly segue from a live-action story to a traditionally animated piece, very much in the style of manga comic books. Without any foreshadowing or apology, it just transitioned from live action to animation and back, yet it still felt very much part of the whole.

Much more high profile in terms of pure animation was Animatrix. To be able to take nine very talented animation studios with disparate styles and mold together all these backstories into the fabric of The Matrix was a very exciting and innovative use of animation.

What conditions do you need to be innovative? There are two sides to this question. One set of conditions occurs when you have enough of the luxuries of money and time to be able to stop and think about how to do something differently than whats been done before. Yet, the exact opposite can be true too. If you havent got the funds and the time, often you are forced to be innovative in terms of your creativity and production model, and I think thats an interesting dichotomy. In either case, you can end up with wonderful directions to go in. UPA in the 1950s is a prime example of what you can do with very little money. They were able to design a streamlined style of drawing that set an entirely new tone and style that represented the design of the commercial art styles of the time.

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Are we in a busy time of innovation, or are people too busy with downsizing and budget cuts to be innovative? I think we are at the dawn of a new period of innovation. With some exceptions, I think that the industry has been a little content over the past few years with the status quo. But what we are going to see in the next two or three years will be quite different. We're coming out of a period where the downsizing and budget cuts were forcing people to approach things a certain way; the immediate reaction was always to simplify. Unfortunately, people who made the larger salaries were often those cut first, and those are the people who typically brought more experience and creative clout to a project. I think that companies are now seeing that that probably was a mistake and are allowing those kinds of people to have a more creative voice once again.

Any of your own innovations you'd care to share? I am not sure I have actually innovated anything; I am standing on the shoulders of giants! But on the other hand, Film Roman this year completed an unusual short film called The Amazing Jorge, the story of a famous Polish clown. Thematically, its a film that provides a reflection on the true nature of celebrity and fame. All 3D animation and modeling was completed by Forums Chadd Cole, and the biggest thing he brought to it was to combine a photorealistic render with this unusual, bizarre character design.

The fact that you can have any animator tell a story for nine-plus minutes of what is essentially a talking head and keep it interesting is quite a challenge. Jorge emotes, he cries, he laughs and hes rude. And as with any good actors monologue, you actually fall into the trap of what hes saying, despite the fact that you are hearing all his dialogue being translated by some unknown narrator. Though its a short, I think its some of the most innovative CGI Ive ever seen, and weve even entered it for Academy Award consideration.

Trevor A Bentley, ceo/vp co-production, Atomic Cartoons, Vancouver

What examples have you seen lately that you find innovative in traditional animation or CGI? Lately, there seems to be a trend to re-do or revamp old toons from the past. As much as I like the old stuff I'd prefer to see development money put into new ideas. Obviously the other big trend is vector-based animation. There is some really nice stuff out there.

Trevor A Bentley of Atomic Cartoons, which uses the

Trevor A Bentley of Atomic Cartoons, which uses the "Atomic Mojo" animation pipeline on its project Baster. Photo courtesy of Atomic Cartoons.

What conditions do you need to be innovative? Lately, I'm finding quiet works best. Also lots of good reference doesn't hurt.

Are we in a busy time of innovation, or are people too busy with downsizing and budget cuts to be innovative? Depending on the studio I think people are still being innovative. Even the big studios are still able to try new things and are.

Any of your own innovations you'd care to share? Currently we are maximizing the "Atomic Mojo" animation pipeline. A combination of 2D, 3D and clay animation. Keep your eyes peeled.

Jerry Spivack, cd, Ring of Fire, West Hollywood, California

What examples have you seen lately that you find innovative in traditional animation or CGI? Webster's definition of innovation is: Something new or different introduced. Introduction of new things or methods.

The work is getting better and the tools are getting faster, but I have not seen any breakthrough innovations lately. I have seen different ideas combined together in new ways that are somewhat innovative, but the word innovation to me seems like the kind of bigger idea word that needs a major breakthrough to be called innovative.

What conditions do you need to be innovative? There are a few important elements that need to be aligned in order to be innovative -- having the right team put together, time, lots of booze, food and a masseuse.

Are we in a busy time of innovation, or are people too busy with downsizing and budget cuts to be innovative? Innovation happens everyday and on every job. Every job requires some of it, some more than others -- whether it is approaching a shot with a combination of different techniques that develop a new look or dealing with innovative ideas in a short time frame and budget.

Any of your own innovations you'd care to share? Not really. In this competitive market any innovative edge that a company has is best kept as a bonus for your clients and for others to copy. If I told you I would have to kill you.

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Patricia Beckmann, SCAD

Patricia Beckmann, chair of the animation department, Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia

What examples have you seen lately that you find innovative in traditional animation or CGI? Improvisational acting is becoming a popular form of storytelling.

What conditions do you need to be innovative? A healthy budget.

Are we in a busy time of innovation, or are people too busy with downsizing and budget cuts to be innovative? Innovation may be coming out of the ambitious artists who are unemployed, but love the medium enough to continue working on personal projects. The industry is not likely to provide innovation that is not tied to profit. Much innovation comes out of students who cannot find coursework in something they want to do, and must devise ways to accomplish a task on their own creatively.

Any of your own innovations you'd care to share? Suhwan Pak, a master of fine arts degree candidate in animation, is creating a realtime animated character.

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Gene Deitch, Oscar-winning independent animator, Prague

Animation Innovation or 2D-3D-Doo-Doo In recent times we have been confronted with a terminology that has threatened to divide our craft. Now there is 2D animation vs. 3D animation. The truth is, there is only animation!

Lets be sensible. What is a painting on a wall? Its a 2D medium a flat piece of canvas, but upon which a painter is usually attempting to create space. The same is true of any drawing on paper, or any other piece of graphic art..

In so-called 2D animation we have always attempted to create a sense of depth. 3D animation is usually just a term to mean CGI Computer Generated Images.

3D means 3rd dimension. True 3D movies are in stereovision, where viewers usually have to wear red/green or polarized spectacles to be able to witness a realistic spatial effect.

What is now called 3D animation is basically a technology enabling rounded appearing, textured characters and objects that increase the effect of solid realism, produced on highly refined computer programs. One of the prime movers of this technique, John Lasseter, said that the computer is just another tool, as was a pencil or brush. He says that working with the computers can be learned relatively quickly, but the computers themselves cannot animate. Animators are needed to produce CGI movies! The same principles of animation needed for 2D animation are required for 3D animation. Its simply a new tool for an animator to work with.

The main threat of CGI animation is not to so-called 2D animation, but more likely to stop-motion, tabletop puppet animation. Such puppets are generally locked to the table, and only with a lot of gadgetry, wires, threads, and supporting devices, can they be made to lift off the ground. Their actions can rarely achieve animation perfection, nor be tweaked or refined after shooting. The most devastating problem with puppet animation is that any error usually requires re-shooting the entire scene. CGI work completely eliminates all of those problems, and opens the way to effects impossible to achieve in puppet animation. It offers countless possibilities for corrections and refinements, without the need to redo entire scenes or sequences. That in itself is a principal innovation.

And traditional, drawn, 2D animation, scanned, colored and composited onto computers, offers the same new possibilities. Computers offer new protection and flexibility to both 2D and 3D animation work. Rather than divide those two various graphic input styles into opposing camps, computers can actually bring them together and combine them in new and exciting ways.

In my mind, true innovation in cinematic animation will always come in the conception, story content, staging, acting the creative elements of the art and craft rather than in the technologies employed!

Sarah Baisley is editor of Animation World Network.

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