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Creating Computer Animation at Home

by Mike Amron

Everyone dreams of creating a film at home, but now, in the era of Y2K it's easier than ever before to use a personal computer to create animated material.

Putting Together the Hardware
First, a decision must be made as to the computer to be used. Putting together a system that's affordable and powerful is pretty easy, and a system can be assembled fairly inexpensively these days. Even your current desktop system might be used to run animation software. The new Intel-based machines are surprisingly powerful enough to handle the demands of current animation software. A typical or average configuration can include a 450 MHz Pentium II (PII) processor, 250 MBs of ram and a 9 gigabyte hard drive. That set-up will handle most production requirements. The new Apple computers are fairly quick as well. Used SGIs (extending up to the O2 model) bought off the web are also a possibility, in order to keep prices at around US $1,000.

After the machine is set-up, an operating system must be chosen. The probable choices are Windows NT and IRIX, a form of UNIX on the SGI. (Note: You need Windows NT in order to run the popular production software packages, as most don't run on Windows `98.) Apple has its own operating system on their machines. Keep in mind the cost of upgrading or maintaining your chosen operating system. To keep things current it costs approximately $700 a year on the SGI vs. $100 a year for an NT.

For peripherals, I recommend a drawing tablet. Doug Sayre, an animator who's been freelancing from home creating animation for television shows in Lightwave, recommends a good monitor (19" or more) and back-up system, such as Jaz, Exabyte, CD-Writable, or Zip.

Choosing Software
Then a package on which to concentrate must be chosen. Lightwave is a possible choice of software, as are Hash Animation Master, 3DStudio and Truespace 3D. Softimage 3D and Maya are used extensively in the industry, as are Houdini and Renderman, so research the packages on the web and decide which to learn. Each package has advantages. Lightwave is easy to use, but Hash Animation Master has a rich set of tools for character modeling and animation and is very inexpensive at a regular price of approximately $200. Truespace has some great modeling tools as well. Softimage 3D is well known for character animation. Maya is also gaining a reputation as a good particles tool and expressive character package. Houdini is known for its procedural animation approach (one uses abstract modules in order to create animation) and great Renderman interface. Moreover, Renderman is known to be the highest-quality renderer in the industry.

The disadvantages the packages have are: Lightwave has basic polygon modeling and the character animation is not as developed; Maya's renderer isn't as good as some other renderers; Houdini is more oriented to people who program and isn't very intuitive for traditional animation; and Renderman is very programming intensive.

Educational package prices are affordable and if you are a student, you should definitely take advantage of this. Many high-end packages offer student discounts that greatly reduce the cost of using a professional package. Maya and Softimage can be obtained by a full-time student at a tenth of their off-the-shelf prices through special student programs by the vendors. Maya is priced at $500 for the complete version of software, and the student has the option to purchase the permanent license at half price after one year. The unlimited version is priced at $750. Softimage is priced at $995 for a student license that can be upgraded to the current version as long as the student is enrolled full-time. The version reverts to a game version permanent license after the student finishes classes. Lightwave is offered at $895 for the student version.

Making the Most of Your Skills
Concentrate on learning the package you choose thoroughly and translating your skills as a traditional artist to the computer realm. If you animate traditionally, learn the tools to let you keyframe and pose a critter, and the animation curve tools that let you create timing and pacing. Traditional animators, once they make the transition, will find a wealth of tools for creating expressive key poses of their characters. If you come from a video background utilize your skills in lighting and camera set-up. If you illustrate or sculpt, translate your aptitude for creating detailed imagery and characters. A background in computer graphics concepts is also very useful.

An interesting concept a company called think 3 took with training people on their software is to create a CD-ROM game that teaches the software as one plays the game. A player must use the concepts of the software in order to play the game. What an original and useful idea! I hope other companies adopt more innovative approaches to teaching their software. Reading through dozens of manuals isn't very inspiring. Beta testing is another possibility of working with a software company to develop tools useful to animators.

It Pays to Surf
Once the animation package is familiar, it can be customized. Plug-ins to create any effect you can conjure up are available, and have come down in price drastically. Once again, student discounts make plug-ins even more affordable.

In addition, many resources are available for the learning animator. Doing a search on the web for your particular software package should yield dozens of sites. After surfing through them, you'll find some sites offer tools for your package, examples of work users have done with the software, and tutorials on a variety of topics from modeling characters to compositing live-action with computer animation. Take advantage of the material on the Internet. It can be a resource for enhancing your software. Incorporating programs and plug-ins off the web can streamline production and make life easier. Plus, the Linux development effort, a UNIX operating system that's essentially free, portends much innovation in the future.

Doing Pro Work at Home
A number of animators find it preferential to work at home, setting their own hours and communicating with fellow workers through e-mail and fax. An example is Doug Sayre, who has been working for a while with his own home system, and freelanced for years with an SGI. However, Doug recently moved to an Intel chip-based machine because it was a more affordable and faster solution to fit his animation needs.

"Working at home is a lot easier on my nerves," Doug explains. "I do my billing, correspondence, preview animation with avi's and send zipped scenes through the web. You can concentrate more because there are less interruptions. And your commute time translates to work time."

A lot of his work is done in Lightwave. His system is a 450 PIIMMX with 256 megs of ram and 18 gigs of hard drive. The system also includes a scanner and digital camera. Doug has a 19" monitor and uses both Exabyte and a writable CD as a back up system.

Independent animation at home is what many artists are finding is a feasible alternative to company work. Mike Huber, an animator with production experience on The Fifth Element, Godzilla, Star Trek: Insurrection and Armageddon, decided to work in 3D Studio Max on his personal project. Mike's system is a 450 dual processor PII with 1 gig of ram and 30 gigs of space, a CD burner and DAT for backup.

Gork by Mike Huber. © 1999 Huber Digital Film.
Steph Greenberg, director of The Physics of Cartoons, has been developing his own projects at home for a number of years. The system he used on "Physics" ran Softimage on a Netpower NT system. Steph's next project is using Hash Animation Master on a PII generic PC. Steph says, "It's great being able to work at home and on a project I own."

Doug echoes those sentiments: "You can spend time with your family, have dinner, and work into the night. When you work at home you work in a relaxed atmosphere. You can work on multiple shows and create your own schedule. It feels good to be an independent, sworn to fun, loyal to none."
Working at home is only going to become a more viable solution as communication techniques and technologies improve. As internet access speed gets quicker, the possibility of data transfer through the web will be even more feasible. Some work can be e-mailed now. I find using a Jaz to transfer work is convenient as well.

The Physics of Cartoons by Steph Greenberg. © 1999 Steph Greenberg.
Going the Distance
I encourage anyone who has the imagination and drive to create independent animation projects. Independent work gives one the opportunity to create without relying on a studio. Independent animation projects are a viable commodity. As the web grows and bandwidth gets faster, more programming will be needed. Individual animations will be a highly sought-after commodity.

Of course, the motivation to work at home has to come from within. It's difficult to keep the high amount of energy needed to finish an independent project. Creating a project with a group of friends can help everyone stay motivated. A group of students can band together to work on a project. If everyone keeps their ego in check, a cool animation can happen. It wouldn't be the first time a company grew out of a school project.

Inspiration is unavoidable if one's attracted to CG. Everyone wants to make creatures running through synthetic landscapes, but gathering material for a reel is essentially a matter of good taste and originality. By creating a reel with a concept and story that is original and unique, an artist can take advantage over reels with oft-used walk cycles and space scenes. It isn't the package, but the way the software is utilized. After all, the main motivation for creating animation is to entertain the viewer, so hopefully a reel will entertain and keep a viewer's interest for the duration of the tape.

The bottom line is: the bottom line has gotten lower and easier to deal with. Desktop systems make it possible to envision one's animated dream and create quite a beautiful realization. The tools are there to make it happen.

Mike Amron is a computer graphics instructor at DHIMA. He has worked for a number of leading visual effects companies, including Digital Domain, VIFX and Industrial Light & Magic.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.