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Producing Animation: The 3D CGI Production Process

Catherine Winder and Zahra Dowlatabadi give an overview of the 3D CGI production process from pre-production through final film/video output.

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We explore the nuts and bolts of production in Producing Animation's Chapter 9 starting with the description of the role of the producer during this phase. The production pipelines for both 2D and 3D CGI projects are also outlined here. Using flow charts, we define each stage, in addition to describing the specific background experience required for individual job categories. The 2D production pipeline starts with workbook and goes all the way through final checking, compositing and film output. The 3D CGI production process emphasizes the importance of pre-production and how integral it is to setting up a smooth production path. It covers design, modeling and rigging steps through touch up and final film/video output. The following is the introduction to 3D CGI production set up.

3D Computer Generated Imagery (3D CGI): From Pre-Production Through Final Film/Video Output

Perhaps the best way to understand CGI is to consider it a merger of two methods of filmmaking: 2D animation and live-action. The process for generating CGI animated projects is very similar in many ways to traditional animation, with some subtle but significant differences in production procedures. Unlike hand-drawn animation, in CGI, artists must create a three-dimensional world in the computer. Three-dimensional sets must be built, lit and painted, much in the way that sets are constructed for live-action films. CGI also resembles live-action filmmaking in terms of spatial conceptualization, lighting, cinematography, scene hook-ups and blocking of actor's movements. To get from idea to screen, however, CGI follows the traditional animation model in which the artist must go through a series of steps to first create and then define the image.

It is important to keep in mind that unlike traditional 2D animation, which follows a fully established path, CGI production is still in the midst of defining and standardizing its processes. Depending on the style of the CGI show -- for example, cutout animation versus 3D -- the software used and the actual production process is different. The following is a basic outline of the production steps involved in setting up a 3D CGI project.

1. Design 2.Modeling 3.Rigging 4.Surfaces (texture and color) 5.Staging/workbook 6.Animation 7.Lighting 8.Effects 9.Rendering 10.Composite 11.Touchup 12.Final film/video output

Using the 2D designs as a guideline, the first step, called modeling, is to describe the shape of the objects and characters to the computer. These are mathematical descriptions of the three-dimensional shape of the object. Following this step, the objects must be prepared for movement. This process is referred to as rigging. In the case of a character, an internal skeleton is defined, which becomes the basis for the character's motion. The surface, or "skin," of the character is attached to the skeleton in such a way that when the internal skeleton is manipulated, the character's skin bends in the desired way. From here, the surface properties must be defined, including texture and color.

At the same time as the character is undergoing modeling and rigging, the environment or location is designed in 2D and is then developed in the 2D workbook stage. After 2D workbook is approved, a rough 3D set is built matching the key drawings in the storyboard sequence. By setting the camera in different locations (per the 2D workbook), the spatial requirements for the sequence are established. Throughout this process, the space is altered as needed in order to make sure that what has been planned for in 2D also works in a 3D environment. The entire workbook must be approved in 3D before the start of animation or the building of actual set pieces. The next steps are character animation followed by lighting and effects. After the scene has been completed and approved through the above steps, it is ready for rendering, compositing, touchup (if needed), and final film or video output.

The main advantage to CG animation is that it is a non-linear process. Parts of the above pipeline can be separated out and worked on simultaneously. For example, the final sets can be constructed while animation is in progress and lighting and effects are being developed for the scene. It is possible to animate the character in steps; that is, start with gross body movements and add subtle enhancements later. At the same time, different animators can work on a character's facial animation while its body movements are being worked on by other artists. When revisions are required on a scene, it is returned to the appropriate department to be fixed. This doesn't always mean the artists must start from scratch; they can often correct the existing artwork and the scene can continue on the path to final render and composite. Since this is a recurring pattern in CGI production, we refer to it as a "circular path." An important consideration for a producer is to create a schedule that will allow for as much research and development in pre-production so that the majority of the "circular path" takes place before the start of production. Otherwise, the management of a show will be close to impossible since it can't move forward. The producer must therefore allow time for problem solving during production, while making sure that every effort is made to stay on target and meet weekly quotas.

Catherine Winder has worked as both an executive producer in television and feature animation. Her background in development, as well as production with studios from around the world has given her a rare global expertise in the field of animation. In her present position as vice president production for Fox Feature Animation, she is overseeing production of the studio's 2D traditional and 3D CGI animated movies. She has co-written Producing Animation with Zahra Dowlatabadi.

Zahra Dowlatabadi, an award-winning producer, started her animation career in 1986. Since then, Dowlatabadi has worked in almost every major studio in Los Angeles along with many internationally acclaimed animation studios and talent. Dowlatabadi is the founder of an organization entitled Animation Team, which assists studios with production staffing needs ranging from qualified line producers to experienced production assistants. She also has co-written a book entitled

Producing Animation with Catherine Winder for Focal Press.