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What's In Your LunchBox?

Kellie-Bea Rainey tests out Animation Toolworks' Video LunchBox, an innovative frame-grabbing tool for animators, students, seven year-olds and potato farmers alike!


Animation Toolworks' Video LunchBox. © Animation Toolworks. Inside the LunchBox...© Animation Toolworks.

A LunchBox holds more than just pastrami on rye these days. That's right, there's more going for a LunchBox then housing HB pencils, watercolors, and charcoal sticks. Now, I'm not talking about fly fishing hooks and live worm bait, nor am I talking about wrenches, screwdrivers and duct tape.

Don't be confused by its ordinary name, for inside Animation Toolworks' Video LunchBox lies quite another innovative story.

"A terrific tool for stop-motion and cel animators...the world's best testing system for animation." - Webster Colcord, senior character animator, Pacific Data Images

"We instantly noticed an increase in the quality of the animation and the fact that, suddenly, there were a lot fewer invaluable tool...frees the animator to concentrate on performance rather than registration." - Doug Aberle, director/animator, Will Vinton Studios

To Good To Be True?

When I got this assignment, I had my doubts. I'm an independent art director and producer and I'm pretty tired of learning supposedly `new' and `better' ways to execute what I already know. Before I even looked at it, I was already asking myself, "What's this thing got that's so darn cool?! Why should I bother? I don't need another `thingy' to learn and get frustrated with. What's in it for me?"

These are great questions. Questions that all of us in the industry, whether we are newbies or 20-year veterans, would be asking. But as we all know, most good advancements come from someone's cry for help. Shooting tests of animation is necessary to help the animator and director see how the shot will work before they dedicate it to film or video. The Video LunchBox answers the cry for an easier pencil test machine, or `framegrabber.'

Talking to Users "The Video LunchBox was designed for teaching animation as well as for the professional animator as a pencil test or reference test device. It is superlative at improving productivity during the early stages of cel animation, or during the filming of stop-motion animation. With the Video LunchBox, the animator, you, get to see your animation instantly. You can learn to use it in minutes." - The Animation Toolworks press kit

I began my research by indeed interviewing professionals and educators alike. Miraculously, like the press kit said, both groups praised the usefulness of this machine. Granted, how the strengths of the product is utilized varies between the two groups but what is important is that everyone using this little machine seems pretty darn happy.

Here's Gesine Kratzner (closest to camera) instructing advertising agency producers how to use the LunchBox framegrabber. Image courtesy of Gesine Kratzner.

The pros are excited by the prospect of being able quickly and easily to see shots before dedicating them to film or video. John Ashlee animated on the award-winning Tropicana Fruitwise Smoothie commercial Bravefruit at Will Vinton Studios and describes how he used his LunchBoxes when in production. "I have two Video LunchBoxes. I use them to compare different aspects of my shoots, especially lighting. However, we also compare art direction, positions, and composition. I store one reference, make modifications and then store the comparison."

Sue Conklin is producer of the annual Animation Camp at Will Vinton Studios where campers spend a day doing their own hands-on animation. "The Video LunchBox is revolutionizing schools' ability to teach animation. We used to be able to grab only 64 frames at a time with the system we created here at the studio. The Video LunchBox has extended our ability to check work before it goes to final stages."

While working on Skullmonkeys, the CD-ROM sequel to the game The Neverhood, animator Mike Dietz explains how he used the Video LunchBox in production, "We had a second video feed coming out of the camera hooked up to an Animation Toolworks Video LunchBox and a monitor. This allowed us to get instant feedback while animating, as the LunchBox is capable of storing and playing back 256 frames of animation."

Mike Dietz of The Neverhood, animating puppets for the game Skullmonkeys. © The Neverhood.

Playback Is Key

Educators agree that one of the most exciting features about the LunchBox is this ability to playback footage. Gary Schwartz, professor of experimental animation at the California Institute for the Arts stated that he'd much rather use the Video LunchBox then the video-based Lamb/Lyon-type pencil test systems. "I love the LunchBox. I can't live without it!" Across the country, Karl Staven, a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is also singing praises of the LunchBox. "We've had the LunchBox for several months now, and it is becoming the pencil test system of choice. We used to, and still use, Lamb/Lyon type systems; VCRs that can record a single frame at a time." However, one of the cons with this technique is "the playback of animation, particularly extremely short tests, is clunky in comparison to the LunchBox." But the Lamb/Lyon is not the only other system for pencil testing. How does the LunchBox fare against the other competitors? Jason Reiner is the Media Arts specialist and Media Center coordinator for the Bay Area Discovery Museum. Jason has been using the LunchBox for eight months with kids from 5-10 years old. Yes, that's right. Children 5-10 years old can use the LunchBox. "We used to teach animation with Hi-8 video cameras, turning the camera on and off as fast as we could to capture frames. This was definitely a cumbersome way to teach animation, but it got the basic idea across and people still loved it. The LunchBox has helped us immensely because the play back is instantaneous and it plays back in all sorts of ways. The way we used to do it, you had to record multiple frames on the camera and then playback the tape which required a lot of explanation and tedious detail for children 5-10 years old. The LunchBox removes that level of tedium and lets the kids really explore how animation works. By allowing the user to play back either frame by frame, 24 or 30 frames, they can easily see how things fit together and move. It is an excellent educational tool for young animators because it allows for immediate playback. They can comprehend how each small movement becomes a smooth animation and try a variety of playback options to see what works best."

Maybe There's Something To This

Hmmm...this is a lot of positive talk and since frame accuracy is monumental in animation, I'd really be interested in the LunchBox. Then again, it's another piece of hardware I'd have to learn and teach others. Lord knows I hate wasting my time dorking around with equipment. What really stinks is getting one of my tech-heads in to tweak it all the time. It probably won't be compatible with all the other things (read expensive things) that we already use in house, and, if it's like computers, it'll need to be upgraded every 3-6 months. If this is the case, I think I'll resort to brown-bagging my lunch.

No Geeks Necessary In most cases, computers as framegrabbers offer more complications than solutions. Many frustrations stem from the complexity of learning the computer, the software and it's constant upgrades. But one of the things Gary Schwartz likes most about the LunchBox is that the system requires no techno-geeks. "Computers are too complex and the technology upgrades are so frequent that the learning curve keeps you from mastering the tools. It seems that computers are taking the focus off the art. The Video LunchBox has a minimum learning curve with no upgrade manuals. Everything is in the box, just plug it in." All you need, I was told, is a monitor and a camera, and a VCR, if you eventually want to save your animation by recording it to tape. When you get the system there's a two minute tutorial included. `What can you possibly learn in two minutes?' I thought. But Reiner agrees with Schwartz, "We used computers to create animation, but they are more difficult to explain and the playback features are more tedious. The elegance of the design for the LunchBox makes it the best educational tool for animation available today". It's That Easy?

Okay, so I can presumably do it all myself. This sounds promising so I'll try it out. Here I go, opening up the box. Let's see what we have in here. Here's the actual LunchBox and man, is it lightweight. What else have we got in here? Two BNC cables for the camera and the monitor, a power cord, and a few loose leaf documents. That can't be it! Where's the 500 page manual rewritten from a foreign language that no one, button-pusher friendly beginner included, can comprehend? Where's the step-by-step CD-Rom with the ever-annoying and frustrating actor/sales person instructors? Maybe there's another package with an encyclopedia of instructional materials...Wait! Here's a one-sided 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper with a 15 step tutorial. Only 15 steps?! That can't be it. Knowing me, it'll take me five hours and it'll be in 200 pieces. Now that I'm all heated up, I decided rather than further discouraging myself, I'd go back to my interviews and see what they had to say. Potato Farmers Can Animate After many stories, a common theme was revealed. Just about anyone can learn to animate: from professional animators and art students, to seven-year-olds, to even potato farmers? Gary Schwartz has taken the Video LunchBox to places that animation could never go before. "The system is light enough to carry into a rural country town, plug it into a socket, and play it. It's that simple. I took it out to a potato farm and taught the farmers how to make animation all in one day." The system can do time-lapse animation as well. Karl Staven revealed that the two recent projects include pixilation in a school hallway which was then digitized and composited with animation created in Softimage The enthusiasm that working with the Video LunchBox generates is most evident as Jason Reiner describes his experience at the Aquarium. "I teach stop frame animation drop-in workshops at the museum on Saturdays. During that time, kids and their families can drop by the lab and walk out of the museum with their own animated short, complete with sound and music. The look on a seven-year-old's face when you hand them their tape that they made in under an hour is so incredible! They can't wait to show their friends and family members what they have created".

Making Mistakes

Yes, it sure does seem easy enough for anyone to use, most impressive. But what about shooting on twos or more? Is there any way to insert frames into an animation? What if I make a mistake? I posed these questions to Howard Mozeico, CEO and the man with all the answers at Animation Toolworks. He explained, "You cannot insert or delete frames, but you can replace frames. So, it doesn't truncate if you replace a frame. This is handy when you accidentally have your hand in the image, or you record the wrong image. It also makes rotoscoping possible. By using the real-time capture, you can store a reference, say a real person mouthing some words, within the LunchBox. Then, by using our flip-flop mode, which toggles between the live image, your drawing, or clay, and the stored image, the real person, you can draw accurate lip-synch. You can then replace the real person that is stored, with your animated character. Proceeding frame by frame, you replace your real person with your animation.

I Gotta Try

After hearing everyone's experiences, I felt I'd really be chicken salad on pumpernickel if I didn't try it out. So, here it goes. I took the two-minute tutorial and taped it to the wall. I cleaned off a work table and set up a stage and a character. Then I put my Sharp Slimcam on a tripod. To plug my camcorder into the LunchBox, I needed to get a cord with a RCA adapter (under $10 at any electronics store). Most industrial or professional cameras can use the BNC adapter which came with the LunchBox. Once the camera was plugged into the LunchBox, I focused it on my animation set-up. Next, I plugged in my monitor. All the machines were on and all the lights were green, standing by. It's time to hit the red button on the LunchBox and animate! Yippee! Look Houston, we have an image! That was quick, easy and most of all, painless. I want to do more, and more, and even more. The next time you hear from me I'll be having fun, teaching my own animation classes and making my own characters come to life. I think Gary Schwartz says it best, "The LunchBox brings the student back to what animation is all about: art, self-esteem, results and creativity." On this note, I send you away to consider what you'll be wanting in your LunchBox. After giving this product the full test, I compiled the following reference list: Video LunchBox Features and Details It can quickly and easily capture single frames, or full motion video. It can play back animation, and loops at 15, 24 or 30 frames per second, with no delay between the first and last frame of the loop (a problem with some PC based systems), so one can get an accurate evaluation of animation cycles. It appears to be extremely easy to use. You don't have to learn how to use a computer, worry about manipulating files, or dealing with all the complexities of a computer system. Because it is dedicated hardware, it's capabilities, and limitations are absolute. It is not upgradeable in any way (other than perhaps frame capacity). It will never be a system for editing animation, or providing other features besides being a pencil test or reference test device. Because it is dedicated hardware, it performs the functions that it does, the shooting and playing back of animation tests, extremely well, and very simply. One ability that it does not have is a way to capture or play back audio for lip-sync tests.

Input / Output

In order to use the LunchBox, you will also need a video camera and monitor to provide input and output. It only supports NTSC cameras and monitors, so it wouldn't be ideal for users in the U.K., or other PAL-format countries. You can use a NTSC video recorder (i.e. VHS VCR) to record animation to video tape. Quality The advertised capacities (256 frames, 512 frames, etc.) are for what they call "normal" resolution. This means a resolution of approximately 512 x 256 pixels, or roughly half that of standard video. This quality is likely sufficient for any test animation and line tests, for which the LunchBox is designed. For better quality, you can use the "high quality" mode to get resolution of 512 x 512 pixels, a little less than standard VHS video quality, but this reduces the frame capacity by half (i.e. the 256 frame version can only record 128 high quality frames). The input and output is not broadcast quality, so it's unlikely that you would want to use it to produce actual animation for recording to video. It is a device for testing and experimenting with different types of animation. It may be useful to use as a final recording / output device for multimedia quality, but the user should evaluate it first. Again, it's an animation test machine, not a recording device.

Technology All frames are stored in the device in a digital format, so there is no loss of quality by repeatedly capturing and playing back animation. Storage is provided with solid state computer memory (RAM), so it is extremely fast, and reliable. There is no hard drive, so no moving components, and it is not susceptible to being dropped or bumped. The fact that everything is stored in RAM probably influences it's cost significantly. RAM is much more expensive than hard drive space (but also much, much faster, and more robust). Because storage is in RAM, all frames are lost when the device is turned off. If you need to keep a copy of your animation to review later, you need to output it to video tape before you turn the device off. Performance Everything is performed in real time. There is no delay in capturing frames, or playing them back. It can even record full motion video in real time. This makes it easy and fast to test several versions of an idea or to experiment with different techniques. Warranty, Durability Because there are no moving components, and all the images are stored in computer memory, it is very robust. Animation Toolworks claims that one of their demo devices has survived more than ten round trip flights going through the airline baggage system without damage. It comes with a one-year parts and labor warranty.

For a current model description and price list, visit the Animation Toolworks web site.

Kellie-Bea Rainey is in the animation and SPFX industry and has produced both traditional animation and computer animation. Kellie-Bea has worked for Pacific Title Digital, National SIGGRAPH `95, The Baer Animation Company, and most recently, Jim Henson Interactive. Kellie-Bea is currently the owner and president of her new studio and school, The Better Mouse Trap.