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Kids animators blaze trails in 3-D workflow

While it's unquestionably a tough market out there for indies at the moment, staying on top of technological advances in animation software is one way toon producers can up the quality of their output and operate more cost-effectively at the same time. High-end PCs can now support an animation studio, as opposed to the dedicated work stations of yore, and the switch to 64-bit memory has cleared the path for faster and more powerful 3-D animation software.
June 1, 2009

While it’s unquestionably a tough market out there for indies at the moment, staying on top of technological advances in animation software is one way toon producers can up the quality of their output and operate more cost-effectively at the same time. High-end PCs can now support an animation studio, as opposed to the dedicated work stations of yore, and the switch to 64-bit memory has cleared the path for faster and more powerful 3-D animation software.

Leading manufacturer Autodesk, which has aggressively acquired many standard industry programs over the years, regularly rolls out more sophisticated tool-kits and plug-ins. Two brand-new releases that just hit the market in the past year are modeling feature Mudbox and the Maya 2009 upgrade. Bruno Sargeant, the company’s senior TV industry manager, says these new technologies are having the most significant impact in the kids TV space, where 3-D content is embraced wholeheartedly by both the audience and the buyers. ‘Kids engage naturally with CGI because they’re very much part of the current gaming culture, so they’re used to that visual style,’ he explains.

Mudbox and the latest Maya iteration yield better-looking mash-ups of 2-D animation, live action and CGI effects, but the biggest benefit is a huge reduction in rendering time, which helps bring down overall production budgets. Frames that used to take days to render can now be done in less than half the time, and in some cases, even real-time animation is possible.

‘In terms of quality on the screen, animators can now put more detail into a scene and not be scared that it will take four days to render,’ says Brian Gilmore, head of post-production and technology at Dublin, Ireland-based Brown Bag Films, which is currently animating Chorion’s Olivia for Nick Jr. in the US and Five in the UK. He says high-end editing, compositing, lighting, modeling and cloth and hair tools that were previously out of reach for a TV budget have all become affordable.

Time is money
Though real-time production is still in a very fledgling stage, Autodesk’s Sargeant says it’s bound to become a mainstream norm in the near future. In particular, proactive studios using the software to its full potential and developing in-house custom techniques are pushing animation to the next level. The Jim Henson Company is one such prodco that has become a specialist in its field. Using motion-capture technology to create an animation process that mirrors the company’s traditional use of puppets, the studio has developed a real-time digital puppetry process to create shows such as Sid the Science Kid.

‘We had to go out in the universe and find software that works the most like a puppet workshop would work in pre-production,’ allowing the crew to perform rather than animate scenes, says Bret Nelson, associate producer of Sid the Science Kid. The Henson team has developed a proprietary viewer recorder and a set of input devices to recreate a three-camera TV studio in which suit performers work with puppeteers who provide voices and expressions with hand controls that it combines with Maya-created 3-D character files and backgrounds. The process also allows for subtle nuances such as interaction amongst background characters, which would traditionally be too time-consuming and costly to animate. ‘It takes you out of a place where everything you want to try costs too much money. We’re on a day rate now, so we can try different things because the characters are actually up on their feet,’ says Nelson.

Artists on-board
Brown Bag’s Gilmore says one of the biggest benefits of the latest animation software is how user-friendly it is for artists. ‘Before, you had to have a degree in rocket science to use this animation software,’ says Gilmore. Relying on a workforce of animators who were more skilled in tech than craft was crippling the creativity, and Gilmore feels it’s the reason why so much early CGI content wasn’t as good as it could have been.

But the gap between tech and craft is closing now that software has become more intuitive. Mudbox, for example, is a digital sculpting and texture painting program and one of its core selling features is a simple user interface for controlling a creative tool suite. It changes the tedious task of working up a wireframe model to a process that mimics sculpting a clay model. Autodesk’s Sargeant calls the add-on a zero-learning-curve product and put this claim to the test by giving it to his 13-year-old nephew, who was able to start crafting objects immediately.

Autodesk opens up
Brown Bag has also developed customized tools at its studio, which operates on Autodesk’s 3ds Max. Gilmore says the program’s improved workflow tools have allowed the shop to develop its own proprietary character rigs, including a feature nicknamed ‘load & save’ that enables the animators to save an action constructed for one character and apply it to a completely different character in another scene. ‘Animators didn’t have the skill base or the money to customize 3-D software before,’ says Gilmore. ‘But now there’s been an increasing emphasis on the development of integration across multiple applications.’

And along with allowing users to customize its newer software products, Autodesk has also taken off the proprietary locks that kept studios from importing non-Autodesk files into its programs. Brown Bag can now port post-production files created offline into Autodesk’s finishing software, Smoke, which Gilmore says is powerful enough to work effortlessly in HD.

Sargeant is also trying to build awareness amongst kids entertainment and toy manufacturers that CGI models and assets are now sharable between Autodesk entertainment products like Maya and 3ds Max, and the AutoCAD software that toycos use for manufacturing. A standard practice in car manufacturing, Sargeant says it has huge cost-saving potential in the kids entertainment market, as properties develop from TV series to consumer products programs. It essentially enables multiple divisions to have input into an IP’s creative development, while removing the need for duplication that can be time-consuming and that can sometimes lead to accidental inconsistencies in iconic imagery.

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