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CGI Reference Books Reviewed

John Edgar Park reviews two new reference books that provide helpful insight into not only CGI's terms and industry jargon, but also key concepts.


Have you ever stopped to consider the amount of arcane CGI related knowledge you've stuffed into your head? I was talking with some friends the other day about a few technical details concerning Ultra160 SCSI drives, render optimizations and 8-bit bump maps when something dawned on me: we speak a bizarre second language that our own mothers couldn't comprehend if their lives depended on it.

What if they wanted to learn a few phrases in anticipation of a short visit to CGI land? Berlitz, sadly, offers no relevant courses.

Two new books for computer graphics professionals could be the answer: Visual Effects in a Digital World by Karen E. Goulekasand The Computer Animator's Technical Handbook by Lynn Pocock and Judson Rosebush. Not intended to be read from beginning-to-end like a manual or instructional guide, these are instead reference books that can be pulled off the shelf to answer a technical question, illuminate a process that has evaded your comprehension, or settle debates between colleagues. Even with many years of CG development under your belt, you may be surprised to open one of these books to a random section and find yourself learning something new, or dispelling a false assumption.

Visual Effects in a Digital World is a comprehensive dictionary of over 7,000 VFX terms, acronyms and industry jargon. By representing terms and techniques that originate in both practical effects (such as camera lens phenomena) and digital effects, this book provides accurate definitions of the terms that are melding into the modern CGI language.

The amount of research that went into compiling this dictionary is staggering to consider. The editors should be commended for the completeness and accuracy of this work. I recommend Visual Effects in a Digital World to CG animators of all levels. The range of helpful information presented is tremendous, and it's nice to have it all at your fingertips.

The Computer Animator's Technical Handbook makes a good companion piece to Visual Effects in a Digital World. This software-independent work explains CG concepts ranging from basic to advanced. If you work in video, film, multimedia or broadcast animation, you will find in-depth examinations of the many technical issues that one faces daily. The book is broken up into chapters on topics like Anatomy of Time, The Electronics of Video, and Motion Pathways, Keyframe Animation, and Easing. Especially helpful were explanations of timecode, interlacing, pixel aspect ratios and compression. There are many clearly illustrated examples of such concepts as function curve editing, kinematics, hierarchies and constraints.

One interesting thing I noticed while reading this book was that there are a number of technical issues I have learned incorrectly over the years. I was glad to have this book for clarification and education on things like converting between video formats, intermittent 3:2 pulldowns and film processing techniques and optical effects. As our work intermingles with film, video, multimedia, game and broadcast paradigms there are a tremendous number of details to keep track of.

While most chapters range from beginner to intermediate-level understanding, some areas are unnecessarily esoteric. Occasionally, there is a sense that the book is padded with arcane information to fill pages. For example, one chapter contains a series of mathematical curve functions (Chanchoid of Nicomedes?) presented without any real information on how to implement such formulae into your own work. This is the exception, rather than the rule, however. In general, the breadth of useful information is remarkable.

Visual Effects in a Digital World goes for $44.95 and The Computer Animator's Technical Handbook is $69.95. Sure, much of the information in these books may be available by firing up a Google search and sifting through the results. But that's a lot of filtering -- go ahead and look up "parametric singularity" online. Took a long time to find out that that's another name for "gimbal lock" didn't it! The speed with which you can access this pre-filtered and well-edited material makes both of these books worth the price.

And a quick browse could save dear, old Mom from committing an embarrassing faux pas in front of us natives.

Visual Effects in a Digital World by Karen E. Goulekas. San Diego, California: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, an imprint of Academic Press, 2001. 600 pages. ISBN: 0-12-293785-6 (US$44.95/Can$62.95)

The Computer Animator's Technical Handbook by Lynn Pocock and Judson Rosebush. San Francisco, California: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, an imprint of Academic Press, 2002. 464 pages. ISBN: 0-12-558821-6 (US$69.95)

John Edgar Park is a 3D animator, instructor and writer based in Los Angeles. He received his B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia.