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Mix and Match: Animation Techniques

Today's hybrids that combine traditional techniques and new digital tools are creating some fascinating looking animation. Fred Patten asks a number of innovators how they created their animation.

Animators working in short film formats are continually challenged to develop new looks to catch the visual attention of increasingly sophisticated audiences. With the addition of digital tools and just plain innovation, there is an exponentially increasing number of ways to achieve a new, fresh look. Here is how four projects -- a CGI film envisioning music, an Estonian television short, a funky TV commercial and a promotional CD-ROM -- have recently seized these opportunities.

pattensurvey01.jpgpattensurvey02.jpgHarmonic Voltage. © 2001, Animusic. Stick Figures. © 2001, Animusic.


Wayne Lytle, Animusic Founder and Director Animusic, Cortland, New York

Wayne Lytle first began to envision music animation in 1982, in the very early days of MIDI. In 1989 he began coding his first MIDI-driven experimental animations, introducing More Bells and Whistles at the SIGGRAPH 1990 Electronic Theater.

Music animation has continued to be his passion, and to this end he formed Animusic in the mid-'90s. Animusic produces computer animation video albums, released on DVD. A video album is comprised of several "pieces" -- or "singles" (in record industry lingo) or "animated shorts" (in film industry lingo).

As Lytle explains, "In each piece, the goal of Animusic is to create virtual instruments that give the illusion of creating the music heard on the soundtrack. The music is created on synthesizers, and the animation is all data-driven computer animation."

Musical instruments are modeled using commercial 3D animation software, and then animated via proprietary algorithmic animation software called MIDImotion™, created by Lytle. MIDImotion analyses the MIDI data in a pre-process and calculates all motion for a given time range. For each frame, the entire musical context is taken into consideration, including not only the notes currently sounding, but those that have played recently, and those coming up soon. This allows for accurate motion-planning.

There are about a dozen different algorithms applied to create the object motion. These include algorithms for percussion instruments, sticks and mallets, vibrating strings, and various more general music-based motion. Typically each instrument will use several algorithms simultaneously in layers.

Although logically the music drives the graphics, the music can be composed in parallel to the set and instrument construction and either may be changed at any point up to the final render. In fact, some Animusic animation have visualized music that was composed, sequenced and produced several years before the instruments were constructed, while others have had the entire set built before the music was even started.

Animusic is excited about various emerging distribution opportunities in the record/video industry, but until a deal is finalized, DVDs are still primarily being distributed online.


Cakes do not tempt Pete. © 2001, Multi Film, Ltd. Pete seeks attention in the worst way. © 2001, Multi Film, Ltd.

Bushman Pete

Margit Lillak, Director Multi Film, Ltd., Tallinn, Estonia

[In creating Bushman Pete], we started out as if we were making a cut-out animation. We made the puppets by hand using different materials and collage. We preferred materials that had some dimension and were not flat, and we combined the "2 and a half D" characters with different photos and landscape paintings of mine. The thing that maybe made it unusual looking the most was the possibility to work the camera three-dimensionally in a 2D world, and that gave it more depth. And the whole concept was that the main character Bushman Pete is always in movement, either running or jumping on the moving road.

In order to prepare the sets and puppets for the animation program we scanned them and processed them through Photoshop and then started to build the scenes in CreaToon by putting together a system of layers. We wanted to make the camera movement as authentic as possible by laying the layers very far apart from each other and the characters in front.

The biggest challenge was probably the camera work, and how to make the pans and the zooms work so that they would look natural. We had to find the right distance for the separate layers as if to imitate nature's distances. The other challenge was to figure out how to keep the road moving continuously so it wouldn't disturb the viewer.

We made another short animation in the same program before as a pilot called Jack the Nose and Jane the Thumb. This film is a second part of a TV series called The Bogey-Bob Stories. We wanted to make a series for children that would differ from the mainstream and sort of walked on a sharper edge showing the bizarre side of children's pranks. The stories originate from the Estonian author K. A. Hindrey and were written in the 1920s.

Chick Walker

David Kelley, Director Curious Pictures, New York, New York

I was asked to make an example of how I would animate Butch Belair's beautifully distorted characters (the models in the Steve Madden print campaign). Tom Kane, the creative director at Hampel Stephanides, wanted to see how the girl in the poster could be animated into a scene, in an interesting way. So the way I envisioned working was to make a series of still shots for the background, sequence them in the computer, take the model from the poster, cut her out and walk her in a cycle of about 80 frames. Then track her into the shots frame by frame using Adobe AfterEffects compositing software. The stop-motion backgrounds combined with the strangely walking model culminated in a very striking look; it was a totally different look because the way the camera moved through the scenes was incredibly dimensional. The test proved this animation technique would work for the whole spot. We could do anything we wanted. We could tell any story.

The spot was storyboarded and planned very carefully; R&D was done 2 months before we shot the real spot to figure out how the look would manifest. Tom Kane was responsible for the Steve Madden ad campaign, and utilizing Butch Belair's photo illustration style (the women with the big heads).

pattensurvey06.jpgpattensurvey07.jpgChick Walker. © 2002, Curious Pictures.

The backgrounds were shot with a still digital camera with a fish-eye lens, hand held photo montage scenes were shot, then sequenced in AfterEffects. The models were shot by Butch Belair, 2.25 film stills, then scanned at a very high resolution, the models were distorted and carved up into pieces, so I could animate the facial features/expressions (supplied by Butch), eyes, hair bounce as a wide-shot or an extreme close up. The jewelry, arms, legs, hands, hair, hips, etc. were cut into joint sections in Photoshop, imported into AfterEffects, then linked to each other so all joints could swing in proper relation. The models were then animated to work as perfect walking loops, in 3 different angles: front, back and 3/4. The little chick was also done the same way, but not looped, because his hopping/walking style needed to be more spontaneous. Motion blur was added where necessary, the models were tracked into the photo-mation background at 15fps, hand animated frame for frame to match the movement of the jittery backgrounds.

It was great working with a small crew (co-director Butch Belair, Tom Kane and a producer and a p.a.) to shoot the backgrounds. New York City has limitless locations and the ease and speed of shooting with a digital camera allowed us to experiment with multiple scene variations. I could shoot a scene and be animating it 30 minutes later. No developing, no film to tape. And the digital resolutions are so high, the latitude is very wide, and colors are saturated. It was really fantastic to work this way compared to the obvious limits on video, or the time and money constraints of working in 35mm film.

We shot the models in 6 phases of the walk cycle, and animated the body movements between the key frames, making sure not to make the movements too smooth or normal. I loved the funky look to how they walked -- something a little off. We added window reflections, and shadows that fell on the bodies as they moved through scenes. We made the tag on the bird collar flip around, lots of detail, mainly because it had to look like the girls were shot in the actual scenes using thousands of still photos. Accidents, anomalies and serendipity were welcome.

Software used was primarily After Effects 5.5 and Photoshop 6, and Final Cut Pro.

Hardware was Final Cut Pro on a G4 Macintosh and a VooDoo Card running un-compressed D1.

Master of the Sixth Speed

Debra Wittlin, Producer TBWAChiatDay, Los Angeles, California

Delving into the realm of anime filmmaking was an elaborate undertaking with an incredibly rewarding result. It was our intention to capture the core essence of the anime film genre. The film spans almost 4 minutes; there are 91 scenes (not including the opening/closing credits).

Master of the Sixth Speed was animated though a combination of 3D and 2D animation techniques. Will Vinton and Celluloid Studios created and animated the characters (Hero, Chief, Viko) in 2D cel animation. Rhythm & Hues animated the Nissan car, backgrounds and all other vehicles in 3D CGI animation. The 2D characters were composited into the 3D backgrounds for a seamless, believable aesthetic. Rhythm & Hues handled the final composite.

pattensurvey09.jpg "Code name: Hero," Nissan's pseudonymous young engineer. © 2002 TBWAChiatDay. pattensurvey10.jpg Hero evades one of Viko's deathtraps, thanks to Nissan's maneuverability. © 2002 TBWAChiatDay. pattensurvey11.jpg Viko the renegade engineer. © 2002 TBWAChiatDay.

The 3D environments and the vehicles were the first elements to be animated. The Sentra SE-R was scanned and photographed in 3D at actual size so that the animated car would be scale-accurate. The backgrounds and other vehicles were initially approved via layouts and then reviewed in the form of 3D animated scenes. Once the background environments and the car were underway, the 2D characters were created. The usual 2D process unfolded: initial drawings/character design sketches, locking into the model for each character, layout sheets which showcased the action of the character within a specific scene. Key frames as well as pencil tests were reviewed, modified and then sent to final ink & paint. The final 2D characters were then added into the 3D world.

The shading on the 2D characters was developed during the character design and animation stages. The folds in the character clothing and shadow detail on the face, hands, legs/feet and wardrobe are part of the initial character design. These elements were then provided in layers (shadow and highlights matte passes, etc.) for final animation. This type of detail is a signature part of the anime genre and as such, it was a creative priority. Each 3D scene was lit upon final animation. After the 2D characters were composited into the 3D scenes, the overall environment lighting could be dialed to taste to accommodate the addition of 2D elements.

The 3D CGI technology allowed for intense camera movements and unique perspectives, which added a level of dynamic filmmaking and enhanced pacing to the piece. We took advantage of this at every possible opportunity. For example: during the helicopter chase sequence the chase ensues on the mountainside and the Sentra SE-R outpaces the helicopter -- this particular scene consists of a long, continuous, dramatic camera move and perspective shift. Another example is when the Sentra SE-R exits the tunnel from the Nissan Design Center; a camera move reveals the exit and the transition to the mountainside environment where the chase takes place.

The two animation houses maintained constant communication. One of the challenges was ironing out any questions pertaining to frame count and what was best for the 2D and 3D animation elements. Since anime is typically generated at a reduced frame rate, it was determined that this film would be animated at 15 frames per second. The 2D would be animated on a scene specific basis depending on what had been established for the backgrounds. Although the film was primarily done at 15's, there were individual scenes at 30 (such as those with car video effects).

Another challenge was the ensuring that the 2D animation lined up with the 3D backgrounds -- this was particularly complicated when dealing with characters' hands and feet and how they looked and felt within the 3D animated Nissan Sentra. Will Vinton and Rhythm & Hues circumvented this potential challenge by doing pre-comp tests (pre-composite with pencil tests) to review the registration before final animation was completed.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainment's The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).