Animation World Network - Siggraph 98 Special Report

Respect for Tradition Combined With Technological Excellence Drives Cambridge Animation's Leadership

Cambridge Animation Systems was established in 1990 to develop and exploit new ideas in computer graphics. The company is now the worldwide leader in 2-D professional animation, with more than 1,200 seats of its Animo software installed in 220 animation studios in nearly 50 countries. Officially launched in the United States at the SIGGRAPH conference in August 1993, Animo has rapidly become the world's leading 2-D animation packages for feature films, animated television series, commercials, games and multimedia development. The company has headquarters in Cambridge, England, a U.S. office in Glendale, California, and distributors worldwide. Customers range from small cartoon operations using a single Animo system, to huge digital studios such as Warner Bros. Feature Animation and DreamWorks SKG.

The Animo operating system. Image courtesy of Cambridge Animation Systems.

Tradition and Technology
Cambridge Animation has reached its dominant position in the professional 2-D animation world in the face of competition from rivals owned by Microsoft, among others, through a unique philosophy: respect for tradition combined with technological superiority.

While competitors attempted to convert animators to new ways of working in the digital world, Cambridge Animation adapted traditional tools to the computerized environment. Animo allows artists to do their original drawings on paper. Once scanned into Animo, the system preserves the hand-drawn look of the original art. Animo helps artists to achieve the look and feel that they want, while maintaining consistency and output quality. The software dramatically improves the production speed of high-quality animation. Plus, Animo provides a wide range of special effects that would be too difficult or time-consuming to achieve using traditional methods. Recognizing that animation production, especially for feature films and televisions series, is increasingly a team venture, Cambridge Animation has designed Animo to run over networks of PCs and Silicon Graphics workstations. The software allows groups of animators in different locations to work together on a project, without stepping on one another's toes. With Animo, animators always know where their colleagues have left off.

A Technological David Against Marketing Goliaths
The product's success in this competitive marketplace is not only an indication of the technological superiority of the product, but also a dedication to customer service and support. Cambridge customers are using Animo to redefine the look and feel of animation in a variety of media. Two recently acclaimed projects are the feature film The Prince of Egypt, and the television series Bob and Margaret.

Dreamworks' first full-length traditionally animated feature, The Prince Of Egypt, is an epic drama that tells the story of Moses (Val Kilmer) and Rameses (Ralph Fiennes), two brothers raised on a lie and ripped apart by a secret revealed. The film also brings together the vocal talents of Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, Sandra Bullock as Miriam, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah, Steve Martin as Hotep, Martin Short as Huy, Patrick Stewart as Pharoah Seti and Helen Mirren as Queen. TM & © Dreamworks LLC, 1998.

Entertainment and Grandeur
Scheduled for release on December 18, DreamWorks SKG's The Prince of Egypt retells the story of Moses, from the time he is set adrift in a basket on the Nile as a baby to when he leads his people out of bondage in Egypt. Not only must the film entertain, it must have a grandeur that fits its subject matter. To create The Prince of Egypt's opulent visual style, DreamWorks animators studied the work of French illustrator Gustave Doré, impressionist painter Claude Monet, and British director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia). DreamWorks used Cambridge Animation's Animo 2-D software as the central production tool to create the nearly 2,000 shots in the 90-minute film.

"The Prince of Egypt pushes the artistic envelope," says Rob Hummel, head of animation technology at DreamWorks. "Every single scene has more of everything - more characters, more 3-D, more multi-planes, more effects." Animo provided animators with the necessary capability and control to create the complex images that are essential to the overall style of the film.

Animators took painstaking care to create a sophisticated look that matched the serious subject matter. Every scene in The Prince of Egypt makes extensive use of different effects, so the ability to modify and extend Animo was especially important to DreamWorks. In fact, DreamWorks developers wrote more than 120 plug-in filters, including ones for motion blur, 3-D rendering and image processing.

"Every scene in The Prince of Egypt has at least one, usually several, of our custom filters," says Dave Morehead, digital scene plan supervisor. "Without Animo, we would have been stuck with a set of features built into one package and it would have been difficult to build our custom plug-ins."

The Prince Of Egypt. TM & © Dreamworks LLC, 1998.

Animo's ability to work with other software packages was essential to the production. Animators used several 2-D image processing programs, including Photoshop, Chalice, Eddie and Elastic Reality. A variety of 3-D software was also used, including Alias, Softimage, Houdini and Renderman, as well as hundreds of utility programs and scripts to glue the pipeline together. "It was essential that we have a strong foundation on which to build all the programs needed to achieve the effects in The Prince of Egypt," says Morehead. "Animo provided a solid and easy-to-use base on which we could attach a very large, complex assembly line with endless capabilities."

A Seamless Mesh of 2-D and 3-D
The ability to integrate 2-D and 3-D elements seamlessly was vital to the sumptuous look of The Prince of Egypt. While every frame is 2-D, about 25 percent of the film includes some 3-D elements.

DreamWorks used its own proprietary program to coordinate the Animo 2-D renderer with 3-D renderers. The program allowed layout artists to construct and move through sets made up of artwork that included 2-D animation, 3-D environments and background painting. It was used to create one particularly complex scene showing thousands of slaves on scaffolding working on a giant sphinx. A vertical camera moves across the scene to show 2-D characters on the 3-D scaffolding, with 2-D boats on the Nile in the background.

Maintaining Quality in Complex Scenes
Animo's Director module was a central tool in maintaining quality within the complex scenes that populate The Prince of Egypt. An example is the "Hieroglyph Nightmare" scene. In this dream sequence, Moses goes back in time to when the Pharaoh, who later becomes Moses' adoptive father, orders Egyptian soldiers to kill all first-born, male, Hebrew children. As soldiers chase his family, Moses' mother sets her baby adrift in a basket on the Nile.

The complicated scene is depicted using a hieroglyph on a wall, complete with bevel-cut stone, sand texture, and painted, animated characters. Drawings were carved into artists' background paintings to create depth and realism. Camera moves and lighting effects were done in 3-D to enhance further photorealism within the scene. Custom filters were used in conjunction with Animo to produce color texture and displacement maps for the final rendering within Alias PowerAnimator. Some of the maps were built from images at several different resolutions, with Animo providing a scaleable coordinate space within which to assemble them.

Bob and Margaret. ©1997 Nelvana Ltd.

Animating a Decidedly Unanimated Couple
On a completely different note, one look tells you that Bob and Margaret are not likely to do anything extraordinary - they simply aren't drawn that way! The TV series Bob & Margaret is a perfect synthesis of character and animation style. The look is deceptively simple, but rich in gestures and expression. It's not a look one would readily associate with computer animation, yet, behind the scenes, Cambridge Animation's Animo software has been a key tool in maintaining the look and feel of Bob and Margaret, while at the same time meeting the demands of a weekly television series.

A Tough Act to Follow
Bob & Margaret is the creation of husband-and-wife team Alison Snowden and David Fine. Set in England, the sitcom reveals the everyday quandaries of an average middle-aged professional couple and their two perpetually ravenous dogs. Small misfortunes abound for Bob, a dentist, and Margaret, a podiatrist. The series airs in the United States on Monday night on Comedy Central and will premiere this fall on Canada's Global Networks and the U.K.'s Channel 4.

The central characters in the series first appeared in Bob's Birthday, a 12-minute production that won the 1995 Oscar for best animated short film. The film's scenario presaged the type of situations in which the couple often finds itself in the TV series: Margaret's surprise birthday party for Bob quickly turns into a fiasco as he proceeds to insult his friends, whom he doesn't realize are hiding behind the furniture.

Snowden and Fine faced the challenge of delivering episodes on a weekly basis that match the quality and sensitivity of the Academy Award-winning Bob's Birthday. They had used Animo for Bob's Birthday, giving them a comfortable ally in making the transition to the production demands of television. "Animo was a vital tool in helping us achieve exactly what we wanted on the Bob & Margaret series," says Fine.

An Animo production shot from Bob and Margaret, produced at Nelvana. Characters by Snowden Fine. ©1997 Nelvana Ltd.

Maintaining the Integrity
Snowden and Fine are writing and executive producing the series for Nelvana Limited, which has used Animo for almost four years. Nelvana takes advantage of Animo to maintain control of all paint and compositing work for its first prime-time series. "The Bob & Margaret look is very clearly defined," says Jocelyn Hamilton, supervising producer of television animation at Nelvana. "It was important to maintain the integrity of the look of the short and still allow us to produce 13 half-hours within our schedule. We were able to accomplish this with the help of Animo."

Nelvana's compositors create a three-drawing "boil cycle" on all the characters to keep the animation active and preserve the distinctive hand-drawn look of the series. The series derives much of its humor from the characters' expressions, especially those of the dogs, which are conveyed by subtle, wobbling lines. The principal value of Animo is that it retains the artist's original line, thereby maintaining the integrity of the characters.

The Need for Speed
Animo's digital tools also provide the flexibility to make changes quickly and experiment with options, a luxury that would not be available using traditional methods. Nelvana uses Animo to reframe shots, revise lip sync problems, create light effects, and add characters to scenes in order to fill out shots in a time-effective manner.

Production speed is, of course, essential for a weekly production. Animo's fast ink-and-paint tools are critical to meeting Nelvana's rigid deadlines. Using such digital features as auto paint, auto gap-fill and line thickening, the producers are able to paint an episode in three or four days, achieving exactly the look they want. "Traditional cel paint has imperfections such as cel flares, negative dirt and platen problems that the digital format never has," says Hamilton. "Animo gives us a crisp, clean look."

Digital compositing for an episode is completed in a week using Animo's intuitive Xsheet and the interactive scene graph, which is the digital version of layouts that are used to track activity within a scene. "Animo's digital paint and compositing allows us to make changes in our own backyard that would normally have taken a long time to ship back and forth to the Orient," says Hamilton.

Supporting Time-Tested Elements and Beyond
Unlike in the upcoming Prince of Egypt, Animo software is not being used in Bob and Margaret to push the production envelope and wow viewers. It is instrumental, however, in helping the producers create characters and an animated look that are a perfect fit - probably the only thing that's perfect in the often-messy lives of Bob and Margaret!

For all spectrums of animation production, Animo can offer solutions.

Click here for more information on Cambridge Animation Systems


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