Looking for that extra something to make your videos really sizzle? Why not try a little animation? I know, it seems impossible. You’ve probably heard that it took a billion artists 50 years to make The Emperor’s New Groove, or that it required the combined computing power of the entire Western World just to make the fur in Monsters, Inc.

But the truth is, computer animation has never been so available to the ordinary mortal. This article will point out several ways for you to jump in and get your feet wet, hopefully without getting in over your head.

But How?

Animation is simply a matter of changing an image slightly from frame to frame. You could even use Photoshop to create animations this way, drawing one frame at a time and building up a movie. You could even watch grass grow.

Incredibly, that’s how Winsor McCay created the first of the big-league animations in the early 1900s. In one notable movie, called Gertie the Dinosaur, McCay hand-drew over 10,000 images to make his prehistoric character come to life.

The modern way to make an animation feature like this is to draw the foreground characters on transparent sheets, called cels. Then, you can lay these over a background and shoot off another frame. But, in McCay’s day, cel animation hadn’t yet been invented, so he was forced to redraw the same background in each and every frame. And you think you have repetitive stress injury.

Fortunately for McCay, the movie was a big hit, and left a high-water mark on the history of animation. Individual frames from Gertie the Dinosaur now sell for around $4,000. That values the whole movie at around $40 million not bad, even by today’s standards.

Something Simple for Starters

Before you sit down to draw 10,000 Photoshop images, start with something a little simpler. Let’s dispense with drawing altogether how about some animated titles?

Most video editing applications let you create simple titles and glide them across the screen, and chances are your titling program lets you animate your titles as well. These programs can make the computer do the most tedious parts. That frees up your creativity for other things all you need to do is set certain "key" frames in the animation, and the program figures out all the frames in-between. That’s called "tweening," and it is the most labor-saving invention in all of animation history.

To animate a title in After Effects, for instance, you could take the baseline of your text and bend it from frame to frame. Put an upward curve in Frame 1 and a downward curve in Frame 50, and the program will create a wonderfully smooth transition between the two key frames, wagging your title with two simple steps. You can warp, magnify, stretch and otherwise mangle text for some very compelling effects.

A good animation program will give you some kind of timeline so you can follow the action, frame by frame. The timeline should be capable of showing images and even some way of visualizing the soundtrack. By coordinating text warps with a graphic soundtrack, for example, you could make your titles dance in time to the music. And since it’s just text, you don’t have to draw a single picture.

An important subtlety to animation is how fast you move from one keyframe to another. Do you race from point to point like the Road Runner, or do you ease in and out of an action like Pepe LePew? A good animation program will give you control over these dynamics.

Want to animate a still image? That’s easy. Just import the picture into After Effects, and warp it into action. For extra realism, throw in some motion blur.

There’s an amazing amount of emotional impact you can add to a still image by slowly panning or zooming in on it. These basic yet powerful techniques were used to great effect by Ken Burns in his epic Civil War and baseball documentaries.

Most animation programs also provide layers, which are the computerized equivalents of cels. By stacking images in layers, you can create thickly-textured images that will rivet the user’s attention for a longer time.

Now for Some Real Fun

If you’re willing to draw even a few simple shapes, you can get a lot of visual bang for your buck. One way to create animation is to simply go frame-by-frame. You start with a frame and make adjustments to it, one frame at a time. This is simple, intuitive, instructive and is rarely commercial.

By far, the best way to animate is by creating storyboards; even the roughest of sketches will do. It’s the equivalent of a writer’s outline, and it keeps you on target throughout your project.

Noteworthy programs for 2D animation include Macromedia’s Flash and Director. Although these programs were designed with the Internet in mind, they can produce movies at any resolution for video as well.

Flash lets you use tweening on titles and objects that you draw. In computer graphics, the word "paint" has a different connotation than the word "draw." The former is just what you might expect, with computerized versions of brushes and spray paints. But drawing is different. Drawing is more like connect-the-dots, where you create pictures by outlining them. Also called vector drawing, it has the advantage of being resolution-independent. That means you can display a vector picture as a tiny 16×16-pixel video icon or in full-screen 70mm Cinerama and it will look great in both places. This is quite different from blowing up a traditional image, which also blows up the pixels in the process. Because vector drawing is based on mathematical points, it can be scaled and reproduced at any resolution desired.

That also means you can easily tween them. Draw a face in Frame 1, then drag up the corners of the mouth in Frame 30. A smoothly-tweened smile results in just a couple of mouse clicks. Once you’ve tweened, you’ll never go back.


Add Another Dimension to the Fun

The real pinnacle of animation is 3D. However, it’s only slightly easier than brain surgery, so don’t expect to master it immediately. Just one peek at the interface has made many artists swoon on the spot. But 3D is a place where computers have made massive contributions: saving labor, increasing realism and pushing the creative envelope.

3D animation is so powerful, it is destined to dominate animation if it hasn’t already. Look at Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Dinosaur, Shrek, Final Fantasy and Monsters, Inc. They are obviously 3D, but the more interesting tidbit is that even traditional 2D animations like Lion King, Aladdin and Hercules are often inspired or directly computed by 3D animation software.

All the animation studios agree: 3D is in. It’s not that 2D is out, it’s just that 3D, for all its complexity, can be faster, easier and more useful than 2D.

It has always been a notorious bear to create animation. That’s still true, but programs like Discreet’s 3d Studio Max, Alias|Wavefront’s Maya and NewTek’s LightWave allow you to create creatures and worlds that you can then photograph from a zillion different perspectives. That means that a single 3D model can give rise to hours of animation. Try that on your hand-drawn cels!

Just as with 2D animation, the easiest way to start with 3D is with a titling program. Here again, you can achieve masterful results just by typing. Programs like Crystal 3D Impact! Pro from CrystalGraphics or Ulead’s COOL 3D can get you up and running in no time, at a fraction of the price of the 3D powerhouses listed above. It’s a great way to get started with animation, especially 3D animation.

And So?

So, what are you waiting for? These programs are wonderful, and if you haven’t played with one of them yet, you’re really missing out. Computer animation is a whole new world, and your video will never be the same once you find out how easy it can be. Don’t expect Monsters, Inc. on your first time out, but even an hour spent with a good 3D-titling program can give you some killer results.

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