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Make It Real — Part 2: Marks in the Sand

In Part 2 of this series, Ellen Besen sits down with former Disney animation artist Charlie Bonifacio to consider the changing role of 2D in a CG-dominated world.

Animation veteran Charlie Bonifacio feels motion capture misses details that an artist can capture and make a statement of. Photo by Kiera Bonifacio.

Animation veteran Charlie Bonifacio feels motion capture misses details that an artist can capture and make a statement of. Photo by Kiera Bonifacio.

Be sure to check out Part 1 of the series Make It Real Off the Beaten Path.

What do we do about 2D animation? Is it just a relic from another era? Are those of us that love it (and please understand that, much as I like Ryan, I also count myself among these ranks) clinging to the past? Like thinking, lets hope those nasty talking pictures just go away so we can get on with making more silent masterpieces? Get rid of computers so we can go back to our typewriters? Bring back the dial phone? DVDs be damned, I love my videos? Screw those CDs, Im sticking with my 8 tracks? Are we, in other words, flogging a dead horse here?

Okay, Im being melodramatic. But less than 20 years since it was revived from a near moribund state (a revival that took almost 20 years in its own right), 2D is once again on dicey ground. Yes, its holding its own, in limited form, on television and the net. But the top end, fully crafted, classical stuff, the kind that only really gets a proper workout in features, is being shunted into a kind of no mans land.

After that vigorous talk with Chris Landreth last time, I was anxious to see how this new landscape looks from the vantage point of 2D. So I sat down with renowned animation artist Charlie Bonifacio, who has worked on such features as Mulan and Lilo and Stitch, to talk about the future of 2D in a CG dominated world and see what role it has to play in making animated work more convincing.

We began by talking about motion capture and some unexpected ways in which pencil and paper and a solid classical background can contribute to the creation of digital performance.

Right off the top, Bonifacio pointed out that motion capture faces some special challenges. First, there is the question of how actors can adapt their performance to make it work in the graphic arena. Then there is the reality that even when adapted, live action performance has more subtlety than even the most advanced system can capture. Perhaps then the key to success lies in what happens after the material is captured. Examples like Gollum show there are ways to make it work. So whats missing when it doesnt?

Gollum shows that the way in which live-action performance is handled in post can make motion capture work. © 2002 New Line Productions. All rights reserved.

Gollum shows that the way in which live-action performance is handled in post can make motion capture work. © 2002 New Line Productions. All rights reserved.

Comparing stills from Polar Express of Tom Hanks as himself and as the conductor offers a clue. Bonifacio noted what an artist would capture from that performance compared to a computer, even from looking at a single still frame. Things like tension in the neck muscle, he said, Theres a little crease in the back of his neck, in this still, from tilting his head back. On the computer rendering this gets softened. But an artist could capture that detail and make a statement of it.

Mocap can capture the result but perhaps not what makes that result, Bonifacio goes on to say. By comparison, the artist understands that the muscle has anchor points and that its stretched as far as it can go. The artist can capture the tension that holds that muscle and skin against the bone and can even capture the structure of the muscle fibers.

But they probably dont have motion capture that will take this end of the muscle and that end of it, says Bonifacio, And realize that its at the end of its stretch.

Technology can capture where a crease is but it cant so easily capture the compression of the flesh or the pull of the muscle that creates the crease. This is important because when we look at a facial expression, we perceive not just the crease but the tensions creating the crease and it is those tensions which help transmit emotion. The artist perceives the tensions and being human, knows what they mean and can use them to communicate a statement. But for the computer, they are just points in space.

And then, continues Bonifacio, They transfer those already arbitrary points to a character with totally different architecture that might have different stretch factors and end points. The end result is performance robbed of meaning.

Computers soften details like tension in the neck muscle. The artist can capture that tension. Above, Tom Hanks mocaps the conductor in Polar Express. © 2004 Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

Computers soften details like tension in the neck muscle. The artist can capture that tension. Above, Tom Hanks mocaps the conductor in Polar Express. © 2004 Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

Rotoscope is probably much the same thing, says Bonifacio, You make a tracing of a line that just means, this is where the crease is. What you dont know is how this line fits into the context of what came before and after. Is the line moving forward, is it moving back? Without context, explains Bonifacio, the line becomes arbitrary.

Context is created by a decision making process and Bonifacio points out that this precisely where the technology is weak. A camera takes a picture of whatever you put in front of it. And the good photographer knows how to open the aperture, says Bonifacio, And close the door and light the room. The photographer makes those decisions and comes up with great photographs whereas you and I could be in the same place, at the same time, with the same camera and only produce snap shots.

The computer makes this more complicated because it has a degree of decision making built into it. Take the issue of lighting. If you dont have someone doing CG lighting who understands composition and form, explains Bonifacio, what tends to happen is that everything is the same focus you could take a photo of this office and it would be a dogs breakfast or you could make a painting of the room where you would sit back and make choices about what you do and dont want to see.

Studios like Pixar and C.O.R.E. Digital are bringing in people with fine arts and 2D backgrounds to help make those kinds of suggestions with, for example, drawings on top of CG layouts. They can fix the lighting; maybe even move the composition around a little to get better negative shape or clarity.

This way, theyre lighting for effect instead of just letting the machine do what it does, Bonifacio says, And its not the CG guys who are figuring it out but 2D guys who understand graphic design principles.

This is almost the graphic equivalent of what CG does to motion in the motion capture process: the computer on its own cant make those artistic, sometimes visceral judgments that make an image speak what it needs to speak. So, just as Disney animators only use rotoscope as a first draft of the animation, mocap works best when the captured material is interpreted by an animator with a trained eye who can reconnect those arbitrary points to emotional and physical meaning.

But what about movement animated entirely with the computer? Is there the same issue of lack of focus? And how does the movement and performance quality compare to pencil drawn animation?

Technology can rob a performance of its meaning. For the computer, they are just points in space. Above, Dr. Sid from Final Fantasy. © 2001 FFFP. All rights reserved. Square Pictures Inc.

Technology can rob a performance of its meaning. For the computer, they are just points in space. Above, Dr. Sid from Final Fantasy. © 2001 FFFP. All rights reserved. Square Pictures Inc.

Bonafacio noted that the animation in Ryan, as an example, definitely had different levels of subtlety than most animators can achieve. Even Frank and Ollie have suggested that the computer allows people to make more subtle movements with, for instance, eyelids, says Bonifacio.

In the classical process, theres a level of subtlety that is not only hard to control with a pencil but also get through all the production stages without being lost.

That shift in degree of subtlety is noticeable to lots of people who have moved from classical to CG, according to Bonifacio. Of course, how much subtlety the technology allows is only one half of the equation. The other factor is whether people have the skill to access it.

This, of course, brings us to the whole question of CG training. Keep in mind that, regardless of the approach, the quality of training is always going to be a variable. And that there will always be those truly natural talents who will figure stuff out no matter how it is presented to them, though they are few. Nevertheless, Bonifacio clearly feels that 2D has a role to play in CG education.

But given that CG offers related but distinctly different options than 2D, is there really a specific reason for teaching students a 2D, pencil and paper process first? Might it not, in fact, be getting in the way? And anyway, isnt what weve been talking about so far really just good art training? Couldnt this stuff be learned directly on the computer?

Bonifacio feels that rotoscope results in arbitrary images because the tracing of lines doesnt fit into a context. Above is a moment from Waking Life. © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment Inc.

Bonifacio feels that rotoscope results in arbitrary images because the tracing of lines doesnt fit into a context. Above is a moment from Waking Life. © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment Inc.

Ive become convinced, explains Bonifacio, That to train in 2D (with pencil and paper) is still a beneficial process because, of necessity, it slows you down and makes you focus on mastering those key decision making processes. With CG, it may just be too easy to let the computer effectively take over that role but 2D training forces animators to make those decisions themselves.

Drawing helps develop ones perception of axis, tilt in space or the relationships of form that create tension, he goes on, People who do not draw seem to be less consciously in tune with these aspects.

Theres also the issue of intimacy. CG animators have expressed that animating on computers is not intuitive, says Bonifacio, Instead, its mechanical. But theres an intuitiveness and an intimacy that naturally develops with 2D.

This might change with a new generation who experienced computers at 1 year old, he continues, But we draw from the time were children -- we make marks in the sand, messes in our food- drawing is immediate and it connects to our emotional history and physicality.

And its an emotionality that is totally immediate: some CG animators draw to plan, to explore a scene and tap into that intuition. Then they force the computer to follow. When you sit at a computer and animate a scene, you may or may not be able to access that intuition. Its like when animators first start animating: they might work on a drawing for an hour and then do another drawing and it takes an hour and so on. And in the end, theyve moved pictures but they havent animated.

Here, Bonifacio offers the Disney process, as a comparison. In the Disney process, he says, You do rough sketches to plan out your scene. This way, you can quickly animate a scene in one sitting and it becomes a performance.

2D drawing is beneficial to 3D training says Bonifacio. Above is a 2D sketch of a scene from The Incredibles. © 2004 Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

2D drawing is beneficial to 3D training says Bonifacio. Above is a 2D sketch of a scene from The Incredibles. © 2004 Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

So a big question is can you work as quickly and intuitively directly on the computer? Its Bonifacios feeling thats its much more difficult.

"What we need to create, says Bonifacio, Are not students that are locked into certain styles, but ones that have a passion for decision making. You may have to create a new way of training people but that doesnt mean you dont train your students to make the kind of choices that artists make, to understand design concepts, lighting, timing and how to create meaningful focus.

So for immediacy, perception and the discipline of having to learn how to make those key decisions, 2D may offer a defined edge. But when we start talking about styles- performance styles and how technically they are achieved- isnt there a risk that starting with an orthodox 2D approach will do just that- lock the students into a certain style that will then limit what is generally attempted or even expected of CG?

And doesnt that bring up the issue that we focused on last time- the limitations of 2D and perhaps even the 12 principles and the style of acting associated with it both in its application into CG and as part of the prognosis for its own future? These are the issues that Chris Landreth brought to the forefront in Ryan. Next time well look at Charlie Bonifacios response to all that.

Ellen Besen studied animation at Sheridan in the early 1970s. Since then she has directed award-winning films both independently and for the NFB, worked as a film programmer and journalist, taught storytelling and animation filmmaking at Sheridan and given story workshops at many institutions and festivals, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She is the director of The Zachary Schwartz Institute for Animation Filmmaking, an online school that specializes in storytelling and writing for animation.

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