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The London Effects and Animation Festival 1998: A Hands-On, Kick in the Pants, Great Time!

LEAF was everything an event about special effects and animation should be. From great screenings, to gleaning excellent, useful advice from the folks creating the cutting edge. George Cairns was there.

A CGI creature created by the author using techniques learned at Chris Landreth's Maya master class. © George Cairns.

The publicity material for LEAF promised "a chance to see a world class line-up of international experts showing the very latest work." It kept its promise. Charged with being Animation World Magazine's man on the spot, I whizzed off to Wembley, North London, for three days of animation related seminars from some of the planet's biggest and best. Excellent Seminars The exciting thing that came through at many of the seminars was the happy marriage between traditional animation techniques and 3D computer graphics. DreamWork's Al Holter demonstrated this clearly in his The Prince of Egypt seminar. Here 2D painted animation of foaming water was texture-mapped onto 3D geometry to create effective and dramatic waves. Holter used video clips and stills to illustrate the fact that many of the shots in the movie contained a composite of 2D and 3D images. While hundreds of 3D characters were created for crowd scenes, the principal characters like Moses were created as traditional 2D animations. Holter felt that the characters "acted better" in 2D. As the movie was character driven this ability to show the characters `acting' was crucial.

Getting good performances from animated characters was a theme that other seminar speakers touched on as well. The always amusing Mark Briely, from Wallace and Gromit creators Aardman, suggested 3D character animators work with a mirror by their desk so they can refer to their own facial expressions. Rich Quade from Pixar quoted John Lasseter's definition of animation as not simply making something move, but "bringing it to life." Talking about the forthcoming Pixar feature A Bug's Life, Quade spoke about the need to give a 3D character "an interior life." The aim should be to make it look like the character is thinking, not the animator. Quade also discussed the danger of "over animating." As animators, we see time broken down into very small units. There is therefore the temptation to have our CG characters doing something all the time. This can give the animation as a whole a "flat" sense of rhythm. Quade also paid attention to the importance of animating eyes effectively. There is a danger of a character's eyes being "doll-like" and unfocused when instead they should be leading the character's action. Quade's assertion that "the eyes have it" was certainly taken up by other experts, notably Alias|Wavefront's Chris Landreth. Landreth explained that the main character in his animation The End had no ears because he "listens with his eyes." (The other reason for the CG character's earlessness is that the animator's deadline didn't allow him time to model them!)

Chris Landreth's seminars were popular with people wanting to know how to create Maya animation like his latest short, Bingo. © Alias|Wavefront.

Bingo Explained

The highlights of the Festival for me were Chris Landreth's seminar and Maya master class. For those readers just returning from the Planet Mars, Maya is the latest 3D modelling and animation package from Alias|Wavefront that's taking the industry by storm. As a Maya user, I was eager to get some tips from one of the key figures behind the package's development. In his seminar, Landreth delved into the background behind the creation of Bingo, a 3D animation designed to showcase Maya's modelling and animation abilities. Landreth explained how the narrative of Bingo was inspired by a 3-minute play ironically entitled Please Disregard this Play, a production by the Chicago-based theater company The Neo-Futurists. I was amazed by the photo-realistic, yet caricaturized, characters he and his team had created. Bingo is like watching Waiting for Godot while under the influence of a powerful hallucinogenic drug (not something this reviewer has tried or recommends!). The grotesque metamorphosis that some of his CG characters underwent also reminded me of Tim Burton's more outlandish creations.

I felt immensely privileged to be at Landreth's Maya master class on the final day of the festival. At the start of the class, Landreth asked who in the audience had used Maya. Hundreds of hands went up. On several occasions during his two hour class he asked, "Who has tried this with Maya?" Each time less hands went up as he showed some truly amazing modelling and animation techniques. One of the most impressive things about the Maya master class was how easy it looked to create a human face with attributes that controlled facial expression. Following Landreth's amazing presentation all I wanted to do was get back to my SGI and get creative. I was not alone in being inspired and it was encouraging to hear that there are plans to make Maya versions of the Bingo CG models available on the Internet. Additional Highlights One of the great things about LEAF was the chance to see some unusual videos. Highlights included an in-house video production by Pixar to promote A Bug's Life. This short video was done in the style of a 1940's information film featuring the Pixar crew being overdubbed by an amusingly cheesy voice-over. `Professor' John Lasseter was assisted by a squeeking purple glove puppet called Fleebie, who met an untimely end on the windscreen of a car. This cheap and cheerful video got some of the best laughs of the festival. Another video playing for laughs was a glossy pilot film -- The Duck. Produced by Uli Meyer of Roger Rabbit and Space Jam fame, this was a technically excellent mixture of 2D and 3D animation with live-action. With lines like, "I'll tear him wing from wing," it should have been funny, though most of the humor seemed to fall flat with the audience. Maybe it's the way you tell `em. The Duck is hopefully to be developed into a feature called Quack.

On Tuesday night it was time to dress up for the annual LEAF Awards Ceremony in the heart of London's West End. Here was our chance to check out some of the best CG animations, pop videos and special effects work from around the world. The French were well represented with the excellent ride film "Return to Dino Island" which bagged an award in the simulation category. There was a lot of humor in many of the films, and the whole ceremony was nicely orchestrated by comedian/writer Jeremy Hardy. As we were in a cinema for the event, I felt compelled to buy and consume a giant bag of peanut M&Ms. Pavlovian conditioning I guess. LEAF was part of Digital Media World, which was basically a huge hangar full of industry giants all peddling their wares. There were stands for everything from software companies to industry magazine publishers. As a 3D animator I was quite keen on the idea of the `Recruitment Village' where I hoped to hand out my Maya CV. There were disappointingly few companies out for scalps, though Digital Domain and Codemasters were among those represented. I went to LEAF as a 3D animator/modeller with no traditional training in character animation. I found the tips and theories from the experts enlightening and can already see my character animation and modelling improving a week after attending the Festival. Sitting in the seminars it was like being a student again. It was the first time I've taken notes in ages and was well worth the effort. I must admit that since taking onboard some of the ideas I was exposed to at the Festival, I've since produced my most complex and versatile CG work ever! George Cairns currently demonstrates the use of Maya at the University of Luton in the UK. In his spare time he churns out computer generated sci-fi art for various magazines. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his CG showreel with the intention of getting a job in the real world.

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