Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Manufactured Image: Tasks & Assets

Lots of fun discussion in the comments section of previous posts. That’s good to see. And thanks to Amid at Cartoon Brew for sending folks this way for the party.

So why do I think that traditionally animated film pipelines have some kind of inherent advantage over CG pipelines when it comes to making integrated artistic imagery? Am I just some disgruntled old 2d animator tipping at windmills? No, I’ve been a CG animator from the start. I love CG. It’s my home turf. So why do I think typical Cg pipelines are dealing from a short deck? For me it comes down to how you look at your tasks & assets. What do I mean by tasks & assets?

Assets are the things you see on screen. Characters, props, furniture, vehicles, special effects, rooms, environments, etc. With no assets you have nothing to look at. In order to have each of these assets on screen you must assign a task in creating it. So in Toy Story, in the scene where Buzz Lightyear is looking at the moon delivering his ‘empreor zurg’ speech, Buzz is an asset. So is the moon, the gas truck, the petrol station and the sky. And in CG you need Buzz’s performance, which is a separate asset than Buzz himself. In the Iron Giant the scene where the squirrel runs up Dean’s pants, Dean’s animation is an asset, as is the squirrel’s animation, the newspaper, coffee cup, coffee, diner and background characters with all of their props. So an asset is merely a thing that needs to be created to show up on screen. How you make these things (ie: the technological nature of your tasks) determines how you build your pipeline to create your assets. How you create your assets in large part determines how they can be used.

In a typical traditionally animated film the focus of the asset production is scene based. Assets are created specifically for a given scene. Occasionally you can re-use a background or a bit of animation in another scene, but the overwhelming majority of assets are created specifically for a particular scene. The defining goals for the asset are scene specific. From the moment the scene is conceived until it is shot onto film every asset in that scene was crafted specifically for that scene and no other. This is not a minor thing. The character of Hogarth does not exist outside of any scene in TIG. There is no Hogarth in a file folder. No Hogarth on a shelf. Hogarth does not exist outside of the task of drawing & coloring him for a specific scene. In reality there are hundreds of Hogarth assets in The Iron Giant -one for every scene he appears in. This is a productivity downside due to the loss of the economy of scale in re-usability, etc. But there is an upside as well- the ability to completely customize the asset for the specific scene without having any limitations due to other scene needs. The Hogarth in scene 200 is created (drawn and colored) from scratch. The scene 200 Hogarth animation asset is built only with scene 200’s needs in mind. There is zero separation between bringing the asset into existence and fulfilling it’s core purpose for the scene. This is a major, major advantage for creating integrated artistic imagery.

The same applies to backgrounds. The nature of a hand drawn background requires that it be camera specific. Only in the rarest of instances can you use a single background asset for every scene in a sequence of film. Each scene pretty much requires that you draw and paint a new background asset to accomodate the new camera view. Again, loss of economies of scale, but more freedom to custom tailor the background to best meet the artistic needs of the scene. By and large the creation of a background asset for a traditionally animated film is driven by the needs of the one scene for which is it built- again with a zero degree separation between the asset’s creation and it’s scene specific goals. Now when you assemble the assets they seem like they were made for each other simply because they were made for each other.

CG in contrast has a bigger hurdle. In Toy Story you could not animate Buzz Lightyear under the truck until you had a Buzz Lightyear puppet to move about. You could not render that Buzz lightyear until it had materials and textures and lights (all seperate tasks done by different people at vastly different points in time). So the Buzz puppet is created not for any one scene, but for every scene that Buzz will appear in. Ditto his colors and textures. Only his lights would seem scene specific, but even they are not. They are environment specific (asset driven, not scene driven). All scene lighting for all characters and props in the petrol station environment are derived not from the specific needs of the scene as much as from the petrol station asset’s master lighting recipe. The master lighting recipe for the petrol station occurs outside of the needs for any one scene but is built to be a baseline for all scenes in a sequence. There is only one petrol station asset and it is used in all and it rules all. The petrol station is created before you even know what every camera angle will be (and thus what it’s bgrd needs to be) for a sequence. In Cg there is by nature a gap between the task of building an asset and it’s application for the needs of a specific scene. This again is no small matter.

Cg assets are built to meet the overall needs of many scenes, not one. So the upside is the economy of scale. The downside is one size fits all. As noted, exceptions exist, but generalities are the topic here. No one general asset can be great for all shots. It will be better for some scenes, worse for others, depending upon a wide array of variables. Conversely specific assets for specific scenes are great for only one scene and will be of practically no use for any others. The difference is in the value of customization vs. generalization. A suit off the rack at JC Penny will be OK for most fellows of a certain size and fine for your garden variety family wedding. But a custom tailored suit built just for you (which would be an ill fitting annoyance to anybody else) is just what the doctor ordered for life’s special occasions.
The difference should be immediately apparent to those keeping score.

But this doesn’t explain everything. As noted earlier, the giant in TIG is CG. Increasingly many assets in traditionally animated films are CG assets. So while the scene specific focus of asset creation goes a long way toward showing the inherent advantages for creating integrated artistic imagery, it doesn’t explain how re-usable general CG assets have been successfully integrated into predominantly hand drawn animated films. For this I think we need to examine one specific area of the process: The tone, color and texture process.

Next post: Where is the decision made about an asset’s color and detail? What affect does this have on creating integrated artistic imagery in animated film?

1 comment:

Keith Lango said...

original comments here...