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Small Studio/Home Studio: An Overview of Low-End Computer Aided Animation Choices

Osmosis Jones blends hokey live-action and slick animation into a cop spoof that is both gross and clever. J. Paul Peszko reveals the process behind these two separate worlds.

The iMac: Macintosh's new answer to the affordable home computer. But can it handle animation software? Time will tell...Photo by Terry Heferman. Courtesy of Apple Computer, Inc.

The iMac: Macintosh's new answer to the affordable home computer. But can it handle animation software? Time will tell...Photo by Terry Heferman. Courtesy of Apple Computer, Inc.

Computer-aided animation has truly come into its own in the 1990s: from computer multimedia and games, to television commercials, all the way up to animated features like Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Small Soldiers and animated TV series like Reboot and Beast Wars. However, most of these cited examples use very expensive equipment, like Silicon Graphics workstations, and either custom software like that used at Pixar or expensive packages like Softimage 3D, once distributed by Microsoft and now distributed by Avid, which runs over $10,000 U.S. However, things are beginning to change in both large animation studios and smaller outfits. Programs like 3D StudioMAX by Kinetix are running on high-end WindowsNT workstations with eye-popping results, and Lightwave3D by NewTek has made incredible inroads in both WindowsNT and Power Mac shops. In both cases, the machines that run this powerful software are heavily "tweaked," with massive amounts of RAM and large arrays of super-fast hard drives that cost large sums of money. These more reasonable software packages are only more reasonable by degrees: 3D StudioMAX costs $3,500 U.S. per workstation, and Lightwave3D costs $2,000 U.S. per workstation. 2-D animation packages are similarly in the stratosphere. Disney uses its own proprietary scanning, inking, painting and compositing program, called CAPS. Other major studios use packages like Softimage Toonz and Cambridge Systems' Animo, which require high-end SGI or WindowsNT workstations to use. Softimage Toonz is $13,000 per workstation, and works on SGI and high-end WindowsNT workstations. Cambridge Systems' Animo only runs on SGI and high-end Intel workstations running NeXTStep, and checks in at U.S. $9,000 per license. The fact is, however, that less expensive, off-the-shelf PCs and Macintoshes can be used for professional results in computer-aided animation. In the past few years, 3-D packages as inexpensive as $200 have emerged to allow students and animators who want to do their own independent projects to create very attractive and fluid animation. Because of the more specialized nature of 2-D paint and compositing software, there are no packages of this kind to match such a low price point. However, for between $500 and $1,300 U.S. per license, very powerful 2-D programs are available, and one can only hope that with more and more people looking to do animation projects on personal computers that lower priced programs will emerge. To run most of the programs we will be mentioning in this overview, one needs a good, strong computer system, be it on the Mac side or the PC side. Macintosh of course tends to run significantly more expensive, but the Mac's superior ease of use and its OS-level support for sophisticated color graphics and color control make it highly recommended for these sorts of applications. However, with intelligent use of third party programs and attention paid to enhancing the video subsystem, a PC running Windows95 or Windows98 is competitive with the Macintosh for these operations; and in some cases there are no Mac versions of these programs, particularly in the case of AXA Personal Edition, a well-recommended 2-D paint and compositing package.

Here's some specs on what you need at the heart of your Small Studio/Home Studio: For PC Clone High-speed Intel Pentium MMX, AMD K6, Intel Pentium II, Intel Pentium II Xeon or AMD K6-2 CPU, running at least 200MHz. Intel Pentium Celeron and Cyrix CPUs are not advisable for animation due to various design weaknesses. Wavetable sound card, either PCI or ISA based. The Soundblaster AWE-64 or the Soundblaster/Ensoniq PCI-64 sound cards are excellent choices. Other wavetable sound cards are good, too, but stay away from OPL-3 or OPL-4 based sound cards. Those use FM synthesis and sound like old arcade games. A 16-bit sound system is more than sufficient for our purposes. 17-inch or larger monitor...the bigger the better. True 3-D video acceleration. The 3-D cards you install side-by-side with a 2-D video card which are designed for computer games will not help you with computer animation. Look for Direct3D and OpenGL acceleration, and for chipsets like the Riva 128, Permedia 2, ATI 3D Rage Pro, and Rendition V2200. Look for video RAM amounts of 8MB or greater, although you can get by with 4MB if you are running a 17-inch monitor. TV Video Out is a consideration if you want to output your animations direct to video. You will also need 64MB or better RAM. There are people who say that more than 64MB RAM will cause a slowdown on Windows95/98...not so. Just adjust your "virtual memory" downward until you get Windows95/98 to use your installed RAM and only resort to the swap file to disk in emergencies. 4.3GB HD (hard drive) is bare minimum. Look into the new huge UltraDMA EIDE hard drives. They are only a hair less fast than a fast and wide SCSI drive at a fraction of the price. However fast and wide, SCSI and Ultra fast/wide SCSI is still the performance champ. 4 to 16x (speed) CD-Rom is ideal. Faster CD-Rom drives are often finicky about less-than-perfect CD-Roms. However, slower CD-Roms are harder and harder to find, so if you can only get a 24x, grab it. Drawing tablets are a personal matter. If you like them, get one with which you can feel comfortable. You can use a mouse, but make sure you are comfortable with your mouse. Don't be afraid to switch pointing devices around. Scanners can be helpful in 3-D, and they are indispensable in 2-D animation. If you want to use standard animation paper, you will need a large-format scanner. UMAX and Epson make dynamite scanners, and have oversized formats available. If you can handle using 8.5" x 11" regular paper and can get your own Acme punch, scanners as inexpensive as $80-$100 will work beautifully. Again, look at UMAX and Epson, but don't be afraid of no-name scanners if you can get a crack at trying them out before you buy them. You will need to mount a pegbar on your scanner to keep your images straight. For Macintosh 604e or G3-based PowerPC CPU. However, bear in mind that MacOS X, due next year, will not run on anything other than G3. PCI Macs with G3 CPU upgrades should be fine, though. 17-inch or larger monitor...the bigger the better. True 3-D video acceleration. If your Mac only has an ATI Rage or ATI Rage 2 chip onboard, look into PCI video cards like ixMicro's Pro Rez and Ultimate Rez and ATI's Xclaim and Nexus lines. If you don't know what video chip is used in your Mac, find out. Same advice on video RAM for PCs goes for Macs...if you cannot fit more than 2MB of video RAM onboard your Mac, it's time to look for a video card. If you don't have Video outputs from your Mac, get a card that can do that like the Xclaim VR. All the RAM you can afford. 64MB is bare minimum...the MacOS can utilize as much RAM as you can throw at it. It depends on your Mac. Modern PowerMacs use plain EIDE hard drives internally, which is slow and poky compared to Ultra fast/wide SCSI. However, your external SCSI chain only gives you 5MB/second throughput, which slows down external SCSI drives. You might do well to add an internal SCSI card, or to get just the fastest rated EIDE HD you can. PowerMac 8500, 8600 and 9500 and 9600 machines have fast SCSI internal cables so those are ideal Macs for the job, particularly with G3 CPU upgrades. 4GB is an OK size, but you might want to look at a much bigger HD. The CD-Rom you got stock with your PowerMac is fine. See my PC advice on pointing devices. With the ADB bus, you can daisy-chain pointing devices, so you can get the best of both worlds...a good mouse (Apple's ADB Mouse that came with your system is a fine one) and a good drawing tablet. Again, use my PC advice, and remember that Macs can only use SCSI scanners. Any scanner that has a P next to its model name or which says "Parallel Port Model" or "EPP Model" is PC-only.

Backing It All Up

Other items that are helpful for your small studio/home studio computer system are a good backup drive. The Iomega Jaz or SyQuest SyJet are the best choices for the Mac and decent choices for PC. PC users have the additional choice of the SyQuest SparQ drive, which uses cartridges with a capacity of 1GB, identical to the original Jaz drive but with a media cost one-third that of the Jaz. The SparQ comes in IDE and Parallel Port versions, the IDE being the best choice due to its faster and more reliable performance. Unless you have already invested in the Zip drive, don't bother. For $12-$20 per cartridge you only get 100MB of storage. When bought in three-packs, the SparQ media costs $33 and holds ten times as much. Another thing to stay away from are tape drives. Yes, they are extremely cheap on media prices, and the costs of tape drives have gone way down, but they are very slow. The tape drive on my PC takes two hours to back up, then verify 200 MB of data. I'm throwing out that tape drive as soon as I can afford a SparQ. Let's Talk Money... Anyway, all told, a PC of the caliber you need to run most of the programs I will mention here will probably set you back no more than $1500 to $2,000. Macs, of course, are more expensive, but if you are willing to look at refurbished Macs you can get an 8600 for less than $2,000. The G3 upgrade can be less than $800, and the RAM upgrade will probably add $200 or $300 to that. The monitor, however, can run $400 or so for a good 17-inch monitor and soars into the stratosphere from there. Monitors are the most expensive elements of a computer system at this point. A few years ago, RAM was the big expense. I remember a comic book startup I was involved with which spent $10,000 on 128MB worth of DIMMs. Now an 128 MB SDRAM DIMM will cost about $128 if you are lucky -- a collapse of a hundredfold in price. Good monitor manufacturers include Viewsonic, Hitachi, MAG Innovation and (if they are to your taste, some find them harsh to look at but they certainly are sharp) Sony. Good economy brands include Optiquest, Viewsonic's economy brand, and Princeton. The brands that Apple put their mark on are usually very nice, albeit expensive. If you want to use a PC monitor on a Mac, you will need an adapter. This adapter is easy to get and your dealer will probably pre-configure it for you. OK, so now you have your computer. Here's a quick overview of some good software packages available to you. 2-D Animation Tools Unfortunately, the market is kind of limited and very, very rich. There is no such thing as a cheap 2-D animation program, unless you count the shareware and freeware programs out there for doing little animated .GIFs for the World Wide Web. Currently you have two choices under $2,000 (That's right, $2,000!): AXA Personal Edition and Linker Animation Stand Multimedia Edition. Animation Stand Multimedia Edition is $500, but will only export at a resolution of 512 pixels by 384 pixels, which is fine for cutting Quicktime and/or .AVI files for CD-Rom or the Web, but insufficient for video. AXA Personal Edition is a fully-functional version of the program missing only a few features for heavy-duty production, and costs $1,300. AXA has distinguished itself by being used by overseas animation house AKOM for electronic ink and paint and compositing on the TV series The Tick and Casper. If you are on a Macintosh, the only choice you have is Animation Stand Multimedia Edition. AXA is a PC-only product. One can only wish that someone at REI, the software company that makes AXA, would see fit to port AXA to Macintosh. However, with all the fear, uncertainty and doubt spread by those who profit from the WinTel monopoly, it is unlikely such a port will happen. If you perceive that there is no market for a port of your software to a platform wrongly perceived as dying, you will probably not bother. An additional expense of doing 2-D animation on computers is either a large-format scanner or your own Acme punch (yes, that's what animation paper punches are called -- this might be the origin for all those Acme products in classic Warner Bros. shorts) to punch letter-size paper to use at your animation table. Unfortunately either route is expensive. Decent-quality large format scanners by makes like UMAX and Epson cost around $2,500 to $3,000. An Acme punch costs something like $400; a big expense, but at least more reasonable than a big scanner. However, an animator used to 12-field paper might feel a little constrained on letter-size paper. It's a trade-off. In any event, you mount a pegbar on your scanner to keep your drawings in registration. AXA comes with a calibration target to help you properly position the pegbar.

When I mentioned the dilemma I had in recommending a 2-D package on Usenet, I received several e-mails about a common kludge that animation students often use: the combination of using Photoshop to scan the drawings and Premiere to composite and assemble the drawings into finished animation. The trouble is, the cost of Photoshop and Premiere, when bought as full products and not as upgrades or under a student discount, is just about as much as AXA Personal Edition, so you might as well opt for either AXA or Animation Stand Multimedia Edition. However, the paucity of choices begs the question: when will someone put out a truly inexpensive 2-D animation solution? Since MetaCreations seems to be very keen on putting out inexpensive 3-D animation products, and has flirted with 2-D animation in its consumer product Art Dabbler, why don't they put their prodigious talents to work on a Small Studio/Home Studio Ink, Paint and Compositing program? One last program in this category needs to be covered, and that is Macromedia Flash. However, I will discuss Flash in a later segment of this article. Plentiful 3-D Programs The picture brightens considerably when you look at the embarrassment of riches available to the Small Studio/Home Studio animator in 3-D. There are many choices available, from hobbyist level to professional quality. None of the programs I will discuss here are over $500, which is really good news. The company which has strength in numbers in the low end of 3-D is MetaCreations. From the low end to the high end, their line-up includes Ray Dream 3D, Bryce3D, Ray Dream Studio 5 and Painter 3D. Ray Dream 3D is MetaCreations' entry-level program. It is designed to take the neophyte by the hand and teach them the basics of 3-D animation. It uses the familiar "wizards" approach to guide the user through steps like setting a stage, animating existing objects, or modeling his/her own objects. One of the coolest things about Ray Dream 3D is the provision for exporting your work as animated .GIFs for the World Wide Web. It seems as if MetaCreations has not only 3D animator wanna-bes in mind, but Web developers as well. The price is right, too: $100 or less. Bryce 3 is a program like no other. It is designed from the ground up for the creation of sophisticated landscapes, and is set up in a very intuitive fashion. Want to "play God?" You can here. This new version allows for animating the landscapes, like adding rushing water, rustling leaves and night skies that change. Bryce 3 would be a fine tool to use in connection with other programs like Ray Dream Studio 5 or Martin Hash Animation:Master 98. Ray Dream Studio 5 is the high-end, semi-pro version of Ray Dream 3D. It is a polygon-based system like 3D StudioMAX, and has a feature set comparable to the $3,500 U.S. system. It also uses advanced features like physics models and collision detection, a rarity on the low-end. The program is available at less than $300 U.S. at most outlets, and can be expanded with plug-ins. The MetaCreations web site lists only two plug-ins, but promises more to come. Painter 3D is not a 3-D animation program as such, but a drawing program which allows the real-time decoration of 3D models. The sometimes arcane process of applying textures, surfaces and "decals" onto 3-D models is turned into an intuitive process, familiar to anyone used to Photoshop, Illustrator or MetaCreations' own Painter programs. Painter not only works with Ray Dream Studio 5, but programs like 3D StudioMAX and Lightwave 3D. It usually runs about $300 "street price." One of the most exciting aspects of MetaCreations' products is that they are working with Microsoft on a Web content architecture called "MetaStream." Not many details are available on this new system, but it promises to provide Web designers and video game programmers a way of plugging in files created in Ray Dream Studio 5 or Ray Dream 3D and presenting them in an economical, fast-loading fashion. We'll stay tuned for future details.

Fluffy, an independent film created with Hash Animation:Master, has been screened at animation festivals around the world.

Fluffy, an independent film created with Hash Animation:Master, has been screened at animation festivals around the world.

Martin Hash Animation:Master 98 (AM98) is not as well-known as Meta Creations' line of products, but in a lot of respects it is the most powerful program on the low-end of 3D. Unlike even Ray Dream Studio 5, AM98 is used extensively in professional settings, including TV commercial production and video game character design. Duke Nukem and his opponents in the smash hit game Duke Nukem 3D were all designed using AM98.

AM98 is not a polygon-based system, but a spline-based system. As such, it has more in common with the tools that Pixar developed in-house to make Toy Story and Geri's Game than with 3D StudioMAX or Softimage 3D. Lightwave3D has a somewhat similar concept going called NURBS, but NURBS are similar, but not exactly the same as the splines that are at the heart of AM98.

AM98 can be used for all the classic 3D clichés like fly-throughs and flying logos and whatnot, but what it excels at is character animation. The entire program is set up and optimized for creating characters, from the realistic to the cartoony, and animating them in a realistic fashion. The results can be nothing short of magical. When I first saw AM98 in action at the New Animation Technology Expo, I was impressed by how the results compared to the computer animated commercials done by Will Vinton Studio and Mainframe Entertainment's cartoon series ReBoot and Beast Wars.

AM98 is put out by a small software company, Hash Inc., which doesn't have the budget to buy space in computer catalogs and advertise in the big computer magazines. They sell direct from their web site and by mail order. What AM98 has that a lot of the low-end animation programs don't is a very faithful, very clueful group of passionate program users. It's a lot like the following the Mac has: people get downright evangelical about AM98 and are very willing to share their experiences with the program. Once you start using AM98 there is a host of tutorials on various aspects of the program available all over the World Wide Web. There are people on the AM98 e-mail mailing list talking about producing collaborative animated films with the software, and sharing rendering time. Plus, almost no question is a bad question on the list, and list members are happy to answer questions and help newbies.

Oh, and did I mention the price? $200 for the product, and all the upgrades and betas you want for a year. Each subsequent year's subscription costs $100. It's an incredible bargain. There is a $700 version which adds the ability to set up an unlimited number of workstations to do distributed rendering, but that's primarily useful for bigger animation studios. Of all the programs I have examined for this article, Martin Hash Animation:Master 98 is the most promising and most useful for serious animators. If you are used to 3-D modeling using a polygon-based program, you might have a little bit of a learning curve. If you are an absolute beginner, you will also have a learning curve to deal with, but again, the help is out there.

One last package in this category of software is one just released by NewTek, called Inspire 3D. Inspire 3D is a low-end package by the same company that developed Lightwave3D, and shares many of its features. It is unclear from the documentation on Inspire3D that I have been exposed to what changes have been made in Lightwave to arrive at this more limited program. Apparently NewTek is targeting this not only at people who are looking to get into 3-D animation, but also at web developers (with full support for VRML 2.0) and graphic artists. Some of Inspire 3D's features are the ability to export as Photoshop files, use Photoshop filters, and take Illustrator files and extrude them as 3-D objects.

And Finally, the Web

Let's take a look at the Web, a new medium, and its new tools. In the past three years, an entirely new medium has sprung up: The Internet. From people throwing Quicktime and .AVI files onto the Internet and the occasional animated .GIF, now there are new media types which are specifically designed for the low-bandwidth conditions of the Internet.

Macromedia Flash is now in its third iteration, and has become quite ubiquitous on the Web. Currently my web site, Animation Nerd's Paradise, is running two different web cartoon programs made with Flash. You can find them in the ANP "Funny Pages" at http://anp.awn.com/funnies/ .

Flash is perhaps the most affordable 2-D animation format available. For $300 you can get Flash 3 and have almost all the tools you need to create web cartoons. If you like to draw on paper rather than use a tablet or a mouse, you will need a scanner (a pegbar and Acme-punched paper is good but not entirely necessary) and a vector art program like Adobe Illustrator or Macromedia Freehand. A good audio recording and editing program is also helpful. Some good ones on the PC front are Cool Edit Pro and Sound Forge XP. However, all the tools you really need to bring it all together are there in Flash.

You do not need to have anything up on the web server you choose to host your web cartoons other than the proper MIME-type set on the server. If your hostmaster doesn't have it set, tell them that it's application/x-shockwave-flash . Nothing is capitalized, there are two dashes and one forward slash. Ask your hostmaster nicely and it should be a breeze.

The amazing Flash3! Photo courtesy of Macromedia.

The amazing Flash3! Photo courtesy of Macromedia.

Flash has one Achilles' heel, and that is sound. Sound is often tinny and odd in Flash, and lip synch is loose at best. Oddly enough, the way to get around the sonic weaknesses of Flash is to turn it into RealFlash. Consult Animating the Web: RealFlash in Animation World Magazine for the entire skinny on how to process a .SWF file into the composite RealFlash format. Unlike plain RealMedia files and Flash files, RealFlash requires a server to pull the pieces of the presentation together. However, when RealNetworks releases its G2 Basic Server later this year, you will have a freeware tool to deploy RealFlash on your web server. Again, ask your hostmaster nicely.

Another technology which is beginning to come of age on the Internet is VRML. VRML is pronounced VER-mill, and the acronym breaks down to Virtual Reality Modeling Language. VRML is now in its second iteration, and there are now reasonable tools available to create virtual worlds on-line.

Even though VRML is a text format like HTML, it is pretty much impossible to hand-code VRML. You have to have some sort of tool. One good VRML editor is made by Cosmo, a spin-off company from Silicon Graphics. It's called Home Space Designer and it's basically a scaled-down version of their $600 Cosmo Worlds program. There are other programs that can do VRML, including the new NewTek product Inspire3D and to a lesser extent, AM98. But Home Space Designer is specifically designed to create VRML, and it's only $100. Unfortunately, Home Space Designer is only available for Windows95/98 and WindowsNT. No Mac version currently exists.

VRML is still in its infancy. VRML plug-ins are often unstable, particularly on the Macintosh side. But it's a promising technology, and all the people who got on the SGI site to play with the virtual Sojourner Mars Rover came away with a little thrill. It will be interesting to see where the technology takes us.

With the evolution of the World Wide Web, and the rise in availability of wider bandwidth like Cable Modems and xDSL, the future of rich media on the Internet is very bright indeed. Once the average speed on the Internet accelerates beyond 28,800 bps, towards the megabits-per-second realms of Cable Modems, xDSL, satellite modems and other wonders planned for the future, we might see cool stuff like video on demand, and TV-like broadcasts. When this happens, a new chapter may indeed be written in the history of mass media.

The glory of the Web is that now Freedom Of The Press doesn't just belong to those who own a press and have distribution. Anyone with a computer and an Internet account can be a publisher. Hopefully in the future, anyone with a computer and an Internet account will have the power to become a TV programmer or a movie mogul.

This article will be continued on Animation Nerd's Paradise, including more in-depth reviews of the various products mentioned. We will also be interviewing animators who have their own Studio/Home Studio, and bring their insights to you. ANP is located at http://anp.awn.com/

ANIMATION NERD'S PARADISE -- The most honored animation fan site in Web history! http://anp.awn.com. Now a proud part of the Animation World Network.

Michelle Klein-Häss is editor/webkeeper of Animation Nerd's Paradise, and lives and works in the San Fernando Valley, California. She can be reached via e-mail at michelle@anp.awn.com.

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