My friend Mike is prone to spontaneous buying, and no one can help him. When he decided his video studio needed animation, he grabbed his beloved mail-order catalogs and dialed up a raft of dazzling hardware and software. Unfortunately, the dazzle must have scraped off in the mail, because what he ended up with bore very little resemblance to the slick catalog photos. Of course, most ads are honest, but how can you be sure? The best way is to talk to Mike, but he’s still sulking.

The other way is to cast your eyes over this article. I’ve been through the wilderness–with Mike–and I’m here to guide you. It turns out that there really are some great solutions available. You just need to do a little soul-searching and decide how deep into the brush you want to delve. Amateur or pro, there’s an animation product just for you.

The following product list consists of two separate categories: 2D and 3D programs. Within each category, the list is arranged by increasing cost, to help you allocate your funds. We’ll be covering a number of products in a hurry, so you may want to check out the sidebar “Animation Buzzwords Demystified” to get up to speed on some of the terms you’ll see here.

The 2D Programs

  • Deluxe Paint from Electronic Arts (Amiga $79, PC $99) Electronic Arts has recently upgraded its Amiga version to Deluxe Paint 5. It has a rich assortment of painting and retouch tools, including color, blend, smear, shade, mix, color-cycle and rub-through. It also has an image hose (like Fractal Design’s Painter 3) that lets you spray a series of related images, like clover leaves or pebbles, to quickly build up a textured background.

    The new version adds some nice animation features, like simulated 3D and a virtual camera. This lets you add effects that change with distance, including fog and fade-out. You can create backgrounds that are larger than the screen and pan or tilt over them using the camera.

    Deluxe Paint supports positional tweening with ease-in and ease-out control for quick animations. The onionskin feature makes it easy to see what you’re doing as you create cells, and anti-aliasing makes composites look seamless.

  • Painter 3 from Fractal Designs (PC, Mac, $350) Here’s a paint program that will satisfy the traditional artist like no other. This program lets you paint with brushes that leave dimensional-looking oil-paint strokes, realistic charcoal marks or wet-looking watercolors.

    Painter 3 has recently added animation in the form of support for numbered Picts and QuickTime movies. It also includes onion-skinning and good rotoscoping tools.

    The program lets you record a session–a set of mouse-clicks and key-strokes–that you can play back. Using sessions, you can apply a painterly effect to each frame of a movie, automatically.

    You can create what artists call a frisket, or mask, to protect your image. This leaves you free to paint or paste without worrying about interfering with the masked areas of the screen. This technique lets you create, for instance, a foreground object that your characters can walk behind.

  • Animator Studio from Autodesk (PC, $500) This program offers both positional and color tweening, with good rotoscoping capabilities. It records paint strokes or sprite movements and then lets you edit the path. You can set the ease-in and ease-out settings for the path motion.

    The program has a handy selection tool that can automatically mask out the background, and it has good blue-screen tools for compositing. It also supports friskets, as well as some limited anti-aliasing.

    The program’s functions include support for titles, with several well-conceived canned effects. You can even create Star Wars-like titles, running off into the far distance. These effects require only a few keystrokes for fast and accurate results.

  • Animation Master from Hash, Inc. (Mac, $699) This is a great character-creation program that uses splines to create natural-looking surfaces. Then you can bend or twist your character into action–you can even get wrinkles in the skin.

    Animation Master lets you build characters out of a skeleton and muscles to provide realistic motion. It even has tools to help with lip-syncing. This is not only one of the least-expensive 3D animation programs around, it is one of the very few with inverse kinematics. Give this one a look.

  • Lightwave 3D from NewTek (Amiga, PC $995) One of the first 3D programs on a PC, Lightwave is good enough for broadcast TV. If you don’t believe me, check out the TV show Babylon 5. The show got its start using Lightwave on a farm of interconnected Amigas. You may have also seen Lightwave effects on SeaQuest DSV, Hercules and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not bad for a “consumer” Amiga program.

    Lightwave benefited from an open architecture that has encouraged third parties to develop add-ons like gravity, particle systems and image processors. NewTek, surveying the wreckage left by Commodore, has developed a PC version of this venerable program.

  • TOPAS Professional from CrystalGraphics (PC, $400) TOPAS comes with a slick video that shows off some of the animations produced with the product. You will surely recognize many of the broadcast-quality commercials in this demo reel. TOPAS has excellent texturing abilities, allowing you to apply up to 256 layers of material to an object at one time.

    TOPAS has another feature that sets it apart from the crowd: Perspective Matching. This is a clever technique for inserting computer-generated graphics into a real scene. By simply moving a bounding box around the graphic to match a corresponding box in the photo, the computer graphic rotates and scales to fit the rest of the scene. Drop a shadow into the scene and you have perfect compositing.

    The trick works with animation, too. You can have your character run in and out of a moving photographed scene with perfect registration. This is the same technology that made Roger Rabbit possible, only a lot easier and for about a thousandth of the price.

  • 3D Studio from Autodesk (PC, $3000) 3D Studio is a strong contender in the animation world, thanks largely to third party add-ons. These add-ons allow 3D Studio to perform some pretty exotic stuff for PCs, like smoke effects, water waves, fireworks and particle systems. All these extras cost more, of course, but it’s nice to know that the program is extendible. More manufacturers should open their architectures like this–everyone benefits.

    3D Studio has an interface that reflects its heritage as a revamped CAD program. It is well-loved by engineers, but artists sometimes flinch at the thickly-layered menu structure. Nevertheless, 3D Studio has good animation capabilities, including morphing, twisting and warping.

  • Studio Pro from Strata (Mac, $1000) This is a solid 3D program for the Mac. Since it adheres to the standard Mac interface, you can be up and running in seconds without even cracking the book. However, animation is tricky, and 3D animation is tricky squared. Cracking the book is a good idea if you plan to animate with Studio Pro.

    Studio Pro, like 3D Studio, has a bevy of third-party add-ons to enhance its already-extensive functionality. The brooding, foggy images in the CD-ROM game MYST came from Studio Pro.

    For animation, Studio Pro includes several techniques for aiming the camera that can help you shoot that 3D roller-coaster ride or a wild-banking airplane ride.


Hardware



To get good results from animation, you can’t rely on some clunky old bit-banger. On the PC side, you need at least a fast 486. On the Mac side, a Power PC is recommended. An Amiga should have a math coprocessor or the AGA chipset.

Youll also need a lot of RAM. If the program requires 8 megabytes, you can be sure that 16 megabytes is closer to what you’ll need. When you stint on RAM, the programs will slow to a crawl as they use the hard disk to make up for it. RAM is so expensive it’ll make you cry, about $45 per megabyte. But you just need to bite the bullet and do it.

Of course, this is animation, so you need a good, fast graphics card. Go for 16- or 24-bit color and on a PC, look for a local-bus card for speed. A computer with a high-speed PCI bus will let you spend more time animating and less time waiting for data to drain from one peripheral to another.

If you intend to include digital video with your animation, your best bet is a fast and wide SCSI bus for your hard drives. If you can get 6 megabytes per second of throughput, you can capture broadcast-quality video. Four to five megabytes per second will suffice for VHS.

All that video has to live somewhere, and it’s a terrible real-estate hog. You should be looking at gigabyte drives to start with. If you want to capture video, you’ll need an AV drive that provides consistent speed without interruptions. Micropolis and Seagate make gigabyte AV drives, and unlike RAM, they don’t cost an arm and a leg.

For even more capacity, you might look at disk arrays (called RAID for Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Drives). By stacking up eight hard drives you can get eight times the throughput. A fast system like this is actually a full-fledged nonlinear editor, and it isn’t cheap.

Can you still mix animation and video with a bare-bones system? Absolutely. With a genlock or overlay card, you can lay your animation on top of real-time video and record the mix straight back to tape. You never actually record the video stream onto a hard drive, so you can get by with a plain vanilla PC. An overlay card, like the Bravado card from Truevision, synchronizes the computer signal with the video frame.

Another way to output your animation is to use a single-frame animation controller like the DQ-Animaq. This NuBus card can control a single-framing VCR. Some VCRs, like the GVR-S950 from Sanyo, have a single-frame controller built in. For every frame in your animation, the VCR must do a preroll, then record a single frame. For a 30 second spot, that’s almost a thousand preroll-record cycles.

A better method–one that won’t thrash the life out of your expensive VCR–is to buy a hard disk-based animation recorder like the DR2100 Personal Animation Recorder (PAR, $1995) from Digital Processing Systems. This plug-in board, when hooked up to a hard drive, stores animations one frame at a time when they’re done rendering. Then, it plays the animation back at 60 fields per second in real-time. All you need to do is hook up an ordinary VCR to the PAR’s video output and press record.

SIDEBAR

Cels

The individual frames of an animation. The term is short for celluloid, the favored transparent material for drawing animation in the old studios.

Ease-in, ease-out

To make animation look more real and fluid, you need to accelerate and decelerate the motion. Disney animators are masters of the technique–every move starts slow, speeds up in the middle, and then slows down before halting. Most good animation programs support this feature.

Exposure sheet

This is a list of the frames in an animation and how many times each one plays or “exposes.” It is a frame-by-frame script of the animation.

Frisket

This is mask that protects some part of the screen. You might make a frisket for a tree so that birds could fly behind it.

Inverse kinematics

A branch of dynamics that deals with the manipulation of mechanisms involving moving parts. This is the process which allows you to control the realistic movement of animated figures.

Jaggies

If you look closely, a simple line drawn on the computer looks like a tiny staircase. This is called aliasing, or more descriptively, the jaggies. To minimize this annoyance, software can pack some fainter pixels around the little steps to smooth the line out. This is called anti-aliasing or dejagging.

Matte, or alpha channel

Like a frisket, this is a mask that animators use to composite images. Called the alpha channel by computer folk, this is usually an 8-bit gray-scale map that defines the opacity of the overlaid image: transparent where it’s black, opaque where it’s white.

Onionskin

This is a method of registering frames of animation. It displays previous frames, usually dim and/or transparent, so that you can gauge the motion. The term comes from a type of translucent paper used in traditional pen-and-ink animation.

Rotoscoping

This is one of the best-kept secrets of animation. By tracing over video, you can create instant animation. Considered a cheat by some, rotoscoping is nevertheless a great way to learn about natural motion.

Spline

A method of defining vector graphics with a flexible line. A spline consists of two or more points; each point contains values affecting the angle of the lines entering and exiting it. Splines are the easiest way to define the motion of objects through your animation.

Tweening

Short for in-betweening, this thankless task is often performed by underpaid artists in large animation sweatshops. After the key-frame artist draws a few key pictures, it is up to the tweeners to supply all the slightly different in-between frames. Without tweening, animation looks jerky. Most animation programs provide positional tweening, where an image moves between two positions. For further control, most programs include a way to ease in and out of the motion.

Animation Buzzwords Demystified

Cels

The individual frames of an animation. The term is short for celluloid, the favored transparent material for drawing animation in the old studios.

Ease-in, ease-out

To make animation look more real and fluid, you need to accelerate and decelerate the motion. Disney animators are masters of the technique–every move starts slow, speeds up in the middle, and then slows down before halting. Most good animation programs support this feature.

Exposure sheet

This is a list of the frames in an animation and how many times each one plays or “exposes.” It is a frame-by-frame script of the animation.

Frisket

This is mask that protects some part of the screen. You might make a frisket for a tree so that birds could fly behind it.

Inverse kinematics

A branch of dynamics that deals with the manipulation of mechanisms involving moving parts. This is the process which allows you to control the realistic movement of animated figures.

Jaggies

If you look closely, a simple line drawn on the computer looks like a tiny staircase. This is called aliasing, or more descriptively, the jaggies. To minimize this annoyance, software can pack some fainter pixels around the little steps to smooth the line out. This is called anti-aliasing or dejagging.

Matte, or alpha channel

Like a frisket, this is a mask that animators use to composite images. Called the alpha channel by computer folk, this is usually an 8-bit gray-scale map that defines the opacity of the overlaid image: transparent where it’s black, opaque where it’s white.

Onionskin

This is a method of registering frames of animation. It displays previous frames, usually dim and/or transparent, so that you can gauge the motion. The term comes from a type of translucent paper used in traditional pen-and-ink animation.

Rotoscoping

This is one of the best-kept secrets of animation. By tracing over video, you can create instant animation. Considered a cheat by some, rotoscoping is nevertheless a great way to learn about natural motion.

Spline

A method of defining vector graphics with a flexible line. A spline consists of two or more points; each point contains values affecting the angle of the lines entering and exiting it. Splines are the easiest way to define the motion of objects through your animation.

Tweening

Short for in-betweening, this thankless task is often performed by underpaid artists in large animation sweatshops. After the key-frame artist draws a few key pictures, it is up to the tweeners to supply all the slightly different in-between frames. Without tweening, animation looks jerky. Most animation programs provide positional tweening, where an image moves between two positions. For further control, most programs include a way to ease in and out of the motion.

SIDEBAR:

Animation Software Manufacturers



This list is only a sampling. It is not meant to be comprehensive.

Autodesk, Inc.
2320 Marinship Way
Sausalito, CA 94965
(415) 507-5000

CrystalGraphics
3110 Patrick Henry Dr.
Santa Clara, CA 95054
(408) 496-6175

DiaQuest
1440 San Pablo Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94702
(510) 526-7167

Fractal Design Corp.
335 Spreckels Dr.
Aptos, CA 95003
(800) 297-2665

Hash, Inc.
2800 East Evergreen
Vancouver, WA 98661
(360) 750-0042

Macromedia, Inc.
600 Townsend St.
San Francisco, CA 94103-4945
(415) 252-2000

NewTek
1200 SW Executive Dr.
Topeka, KS 66615
(913) 228-8000

Strata, Inc.
2 West St. George Blvd. Ste. 21
St. George, UT 84770
(801) 628-5218

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