Done any doodling lately? Chances are, you have. Done any animation? I doubt it! Doodling is to animation what Legos are to housing developments. First you have to scale up your doodle to a clean, crisp image. Then you have to do it over and over again, with slight, subtle differences. That over-and-over part is the killer. It’s called tweening, short for in-betweening, and it takes a sweatshop full of underpaid animators to pull it off. There are only a handful of good animation houses on the entire planet, and they shroud their methods in secrecy. The little guy just can’t compete.
That was the story until personal computers came of age. A typical PC today has a 16-bit graphics card with resolutions that would shame a TV and enough raw horsepower to equal your own room full of tireless tweeners. Now is the time to look at adding some animated sizzle to your videos.
Eye-catching animation is always in great demand. Try to find a commercial on TV today that doesn’t have some kind of animation. And the range of animation techniques is stretching to include claymation, 3D graphics, computer-enhanced 2D graphics, stop motion, go motion, computer-controlled cameras, motion analysis, rotoscoping, morphing, warping and more! If you can’t do something fun with these toys, maybe you should find another sandbox to play in.
A New Development
About ten years ago, there weren’t any decent animation products available for any home computer platform. Then along came Macromedia’s Director for the Macintosh.
As you might imagine, it has evolved quite a bit since then. It’s a powerful tool, and animation is only one of its talents. Director can stitch together an interactive presentation with sight, sound and buttons. It even includes its own language (called Lingo) that helps you program games of great complexity.
On the animation front, Director can tween positions. This means that you can place a dog at the left edge in frame one and at the right edge in frame twenty. Then Director will automatically slide the dog smoothly across the screen. This is great for a roller-skating dog. But if the dog is an animation cycle, say six frames for a complete stride, then a special version of tweening can make the dog walk convincingly across the screen.
There is even a limited amount of object tweening, or warping, that you can apply to an object. That means you can smoothly squash a rubber ball from a circle to an oval. One of Director’s many strengths is cross-platform compatibility, so you don’t have to double your effort to make your final product playable on a Mac or PC.
Over the years, Director has become an incredibly complex program. This makes it a delight for multimedia development. Unfortunately, its basic animation tools have not changed that much in ten years. The painting tools are still pretty rudimentary, so most users compose their artwork in other paint programs and then import them into Director.
Paint it First
One of those paint programs is Painter 3 from Fractal Designs. Here’s a paint program that will satisfy the traditional artist like no other. This feature-laden program lets you paint with brushes that leave dimensional-looking oil-paint strokes, realistic charcoal marks or wet-looking watercolors. Artists sometimes have a hard time adjusting to the relatively left-brain world of computers, but Painter 3 provides a smooth transition, letting artists work just like they would with real media.
Painter 3 has recently added animation in the form of support for numbered Picts and QuickTime movies (both of which are Macintosh graphics formats). When you load a movie, you can specify the number of layers of onion-skin you want. This is a nice feature that allows you to see the frames before or after the current frame as if you were looking through a translucent onion skin. This is helpful for registration and comparing the motion from frame to frame.
Another terrific aid to the animator is the tracing paper feature of Painter 3. It allows you to trace over the successive images of a video to study (and copy) the motions. You can then use any of the art tools available on your computer to modify these images and make them look like they were hand-drawn. This kind of animation is called rotoscoping, and it’s one of the best-kept secrets of animation.
Disney animators have used (and continue to use) these motion studies to give their animations realistic motion, but they always swore that straight rotoscoping was a cheat that their cartoonists never used. In fact, it seems highly likely that Disney animators used rotoscoping rather extensively for those movies (like Snow White) that used a lot of human animation. It’s one thing to make a cartoon mouse hop around the screen. It’s quite another to get believable human emotions across.
Far from being a cheat, rotoscoping is probably the best way to learn about motion. It can even be a terrific technique in its own right. The trick is to make it fit in with the rest of the character animation.
3D or Not 3D
Today, much of the real excitement in computer graphics is in the world of 3D animation. There are a lot of good reasons for this. For one, it looks terrific. The program automatically calculates shadows and highlights. Rich textures and dramatic lighting are easy to achieve. For another, once you create a 3D object, you can shoot it from any angle, move it around just like a real object or even push it through a brick wall if you want. Most actors aren’t so accommodating.
Another advantage of 3D animation is the ability to use linked objects. For instance, you can create toes and link them to the foot, which is connected to the shin-bone, which is connected to the thigh-bone, etc. Everything is connected in a hierarchy so that moving the shin automatically moves the foot and toes. All of the major 3D programs have some sort of linking available.
Even more powerful is inverse kinematics, a mouthful that means if you pull the toe, the model knows how to move the rest of the leg appropriately. Usually, this kind of power is out of the range of casual users, but more and more features are always being added at the low end, so don’t lose hope.
3D programs require a lot of computer juice. The calculations require that thousands of light beams be traced back through your scene, refracting and reflecting as they go. The problem is non-trivial and can bring even the fastest computer to its knees. So don’t stint on the hardware. Use the fastest CPU/graphics card combo you can get. Don’t forget a floating point processor. If you still need more speed, most 3D programs today let you render across a network of computers. There is very little overhead in parceling out the job–five computers will render about five times faster than one.
Some Sample 3D Animators
Surprisingly, there are more 3D animation programs available for the home computer than 2D programs. On the PC side, there are two good programs with long pedigrees: TOPAS from Crystal Graphics and 3D Studio from Autodesk.
3D Studio is a strong contender in this arena, thanks largely to add-ons available from third-party vendors and Autodesk itself. 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. When they do, everyone benefits.
While 3D Studio has an interface that might remind one of Autodesk’s long-running AutoCad software, 3D Studio is not 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 object tweening, bending and warping.
TOPAS Professional, from CrystalGraphics, is another feature-rich PC program for 3D animation. It comes with a slick video that shows off some of the animations that the product has produced. You will surely recognize many of the broadcast-quality commercials in this video resume. TOPAS has excellent texturing abilities, allowing you to apply up to 256 layers of mapping at one time.
TOPAS has another feature that sets it apart from the crowd: Perspective Matching. This is a well-implemented 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 rotates the graphic and scales it to fit your 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 for about a thousandth of the price.
Studio Pro from Strata is a solid 3D program for the Mac. Since it (mostly) 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. 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 hit 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.
Another animation-intensive program available for a number of platforms is Animation Master from Hash, Inc. This is a great character-creation program that uses splines to create natural-looking surfaces. Then you can warp or twist your character into action.
As its name implies, the program concentrates on animation and provides several powerful tools for the job. It 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 available with inverse kinematics. Give this one a look.
Put it on Tape
All of this awesome software is great, but what are you going to do with it? If your target is animation for the computer, you’re basically done. Turn it into a QuickTime movie, burn it into a CD-ROM and sell that thing. But if your target is video, you have another hurdle to hop. More specifically, you can’t get full-screen, full-motion animation off of a standard PC. Even at 12 or 15 frames per second, we’re talking over ten megabytes per second throughput. That, unfortunately, is out of reach for most PCs.
However, with a dedicated hard disk, you can pull your animated rabbit out of a tiny PC hat. One noteworthy entry into this niche is the Personal Animation Recorder from Digital Processing Systems. It will control very fast hard disks that quickly handle data to and from a VCR. To use this product, you’ll need specially engineered hard drives that avoid recalibration–a nasty habit that leads to dropped frames and loud curses.
Another option for broadcast-quality animation is an 8mm tape drive from Exabyte. These drives put data-grade 8mm videotape to a new use: carrying bits instead of an analog signal. It works great as a data backup system, but it also moonlights as a video image storage device. Using special software drivers, you can off-load these tapes at a video production house to an Abekas hard disk. From there, you can convert them to D1 tape for broadcast. This is mation.
A third option is to output to single-framing VCRs. This is the least exciting method. Your poor VCR is going to do a pre-roll for every blasted frame in your animation. Not only will it be up all night, but it will die at a very young age. You should limit this technique to very short spots.
Expect soon to see recordable laser disks. With random access and no need for pre-roll, this will be a media to contend with.
I know it seems like I talked about everything, but this column just scratches the surface. There is simply not enough space here to talk about some of the other great animation packages like Animator Pro from Autodesk, Infini-D from Specular International or trueSpace from Caligari. And new animation programs are sprouting up every month. But at least you’ve learned about some great ways to jazz up your videos with the magic of animation.
So what are you waiting for? Your epic won’t draw itself, you know. Get tweening!
Scott Anderson is the president of Wild Duck Software, a computer graphics development company.
Desktop Video News & Review
Minolta Snaps Officials at Play, Inc. have agreed to allow Minolta’s Consumer Products
Group to distribute their Snappy video frame grabber. Minolta now has exclusive distribution rights for
Snappy in America, Mexico and South America. Snappy is a small, pocket-sized unit that you place in
the parallel port of your PC or laptop; it will grab video frames at resolutions up to 1500×1125
Fast Cartoons Autodesk has announced that it will sell its popular Animator Pro 1.3 software
with all Fast Multimedia’s Movie Line series hardware. This bundling will take place throughout the
United States and in select markets in Europe. Other Autodesk products will be bundled with the Fast
Movie Line in the near future. Animator Pro is one of the world’s leading 2D animation software
S/Link 2.0 ($249)
The Synclavier Company
Lebanon, NH 03766
What’s been lacking for audio and multimedia professionals is a way to translate among incompatible
digital audio formats. Now, the Synclavier Company offers S/Link 2.0 for the Macintosh. S/Link 2.0
overcomes problems like transferring files with incompatible formats or different sampling rates and
DMX-4B Audio Switcher ($650)
Electric Works Corporation
Fort Worth, TX 76136
Here’s a PC-based audio switcher that accepts four unbalanced stereo signals and blends them into
one balanced stereo output. The board offers stereo switching, mixing and fading control. Also included
is a summed mono balanced output, as well as a provision for external level controls for each audio
source. A bus jack will interconnect multiple DMX-4s on the same motherboard.
PC Video Edit ($60)
Sima Products Corporation
Niles, IL 60714
Sima Products has offered low-cost consumer video enhancement products for some time. Now Sima
enters the world of computer editing with the PC Video Ed/it. The unit uses the hard-wired
source/infrared record scheme, with support for Control-L (Sony) or Control-M (Panasonic) source units.
Pushing a button makes a finished recording of up to 99 scenes you log through the software.
Colorado Springs, CO 80920
Plum is a low-cost professional nonlinear video editing system for PCs that boasts broadcast-quality video sampling at 720×480 pixels. Plum makes use of PCI-bus architecture, offering data transfer at up to 132MB a second. Configuration is of the Plug-and-Play type. Your computer will need a 90 MHz Pentium PC with 24MB RAM (minimum), PCI bus and AV disk drive (4.2 gigabyte minimum recommended). Included is a fast SCSI-2 card and Adobe Premiere 4.0. A Mac version is on the way.
by Doug Polk
StoryBoard Quick 2.0 ($229)
1233 Hermosa Avenue Suite 302
Hermosa Beach, CA 90254-3525
PowerProduction Software’s StoryBoard Quick is an application for creating pro-quality storyboards
on the Macintosh. You do this using specialized graphics made with the program’s drawing tools, or by
importing picture files.
The software will run on any Macintosh with system 6.05 or better and at least 1MB of RAM. You will also need 1MB of free hard disk space to save both the program and your project files.
Once the program is up and running, it’s not unlike a paint program, except you spend more time
placing props and characters from a large library of clip-art than you do drawing anything.
To create an individual storyboard frame, you first lay down a background from the tool bar. You can create the background yourself, or choose pre-drawn backgrounds from a locations menu.
At the bottom of the locations menu is a listing of effects. For example, you can apply the "starry
night" effect to the "country road" location. The bright, sunny sky suddenly becomes dark and full of
Next, you take clip-art props from the tool bar, such as lamps, tables, chairs, machines, automobiles, airplanes, guns or whatever you need and spread them about the frame where you want them. Then you choose from a number of characters and place them where you need them in the frame. You can use the zoom controls to change their sizes. Finally, you can add arrows and other markers to indicate the screen direction of any action taking place.
Other features include a mouse-driven drawing tool, different aspect ratios and a shuffle feature for changing the order of the frames.
StoryBoard Quick is easy and rather fun to use, and it’s certainly a logical approach to making
storyboards, especially for those who can’t draw too well. Take a look at StoryBoard Quick. It may
Ease of Learning: (4)
Ease of use: (4)
Video Magician 1.0 ($399)
Multi-media Computing Solutions
MMCS breaks into the world of IBM PC-compatible video editing with its new Video Magician
computer-based edit controller. The Video Magician will control any of Sony’s new ViSCA protocol Hi8
VCRs. Through the Sony VBox, it can also control VCRs or camcorders with Control-L or Control-S
connections. The Video Magician also reads Sony’s RC time code.
Video Magician can control up to seven ViSCA or VBox devices through a daisy-chain connection, making A/B-roll setups a snap. Also, any ViSCA or GPI (general purpose interface) controlled titler or special effects generator will fit right in.
Video Magician has three program-controlled GPI ports that connect to your peripherals through a
Sony VBox. Additionally, the software will control one CD player and one digital wave player. All items
connected on the daisy-chain have their own control window on your computer screen.
The device control windows for your source VCRs or camcorders include all tape shuttle controls and time code numbers. As you find the start and end of each scene you want to keep, you enter them into
the clip builder, which registers the time code numbers (or counter numbers if you don’t use time
Once you complete each clip, you send the info to the project builder which builds up an EDL (edit decision list) of your shots. The only limit to the length of EDLs you can build is your computer’s
memory and disk space.
The Video Magician works quite nicely and is easy to learn. The company claims +/- 4 frame
accuracy with RC time code, but I achieved +/- 2 to 4 frames and usually less than 4. The speed control
bar found along the bottom of each VCR control window was a very useful touch. For the price, Video
Magician is a good ViSCA control program.
Ease of Learning: (4)
Ease of use: (3)