Saturday, September 23, 2006


Excuse me while I beat this drum a little more…

Back when the first CG animated film came out there was a certain kind of limitation to the motion. Things weren’t all super smooth and polished to the level they are now. In fact some folks say that in a few more years that the animation in Toy Story will look very dated, kinda like the Cg version of rubber hose animation. Quaint, but sorely lacking in a certain level of refinement that many presume to be necessary in feature film animation- especially CG. There’s just too many motion artifacts. And artifacts are a cardinal sin in CG. It’s like letting the girl from Kansas see the man behind the curtain. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

For me I like stuff that has some edges left on it. Something happens when you smooth it all out, you take the interesting corners and edges off. I think some of the best handrawn animation has that rough feel to it. I am entranced when I see pencil roughs moving. There’s a kind of life to it. Bill Plympton has made a career out of a motion style that is very rough but lively. Certainly stop motion has that edge-filled feel, that handcrafted artistic roughness. Aardman’s short film The Deadline was a fantastic early foray into adapting the stop-mo look into the Cg environment (go check it out and you’ll see what I mean). But is it just me or does today’s CG animation feel like it’s all finely machined to tight tolerances? Smooth. Buttery. Slick. Might we be sanding off the baby with the bathwater here?

Too much slickness can leave an odd taste & feel in your mouth. A little oil on a salad is a good thing. But drinking a glass full of olive oil is nasty. A pat of butter melting on a hot stack of pancakes is heavenly, but eating a stick of butter would make me barf. And I’m feeling like we’re getting a firehose of buttery smooth animation that has all the interesting edges sanded off of it (for safety’s sake?).
My buddy and colleague Mark Behm was recently interviewed on the site. Mark’s an insanely talented & bright chap (fantastic character design and painting, animates like the wind and he can program or write scripts/tools a wee bit too. Like a lot bit.) And I should add in that he is a super cool guy to boot. So of course he should be shot to remove any further threat to our egos. Heh. But Mark was asked this question in his interview.

Q: Each Animator often has their own tips and tricks for polishing their animation. Can you provide one of your tips that you use?

This is definitely not my strong point and I feel that CG seriously overemphasizes it. I’d rather see a shot that’s really got that spark of life, but a bit rough than one that is dull and buttery-smooth. Don’t get me wrong, it’s like leaving it unfinished if it’s not polished, but I think it should be the last thing you worry about.

Having said that, there’s really no way to avoid spending time in the curve editor to get things clean and polished. What I don’t like is when people “clean their curves” without paying attention to what’s happening on screen. I feel that’s kind of missing the point.

I LOVE that answer!! It’s refreshing to see somebody say it. I think right now the technology is driving the bus in CG animation when it comes to motion styles. Something about CG artists (and I include animators, too) has this adverse reaction to seeing anything with the slightest imperfection to it. Check this little illustration out for an example (click to blow it up for a better look)…


The shape on the left is rough- but bold. You can see some poly edges here and there, some of the arcs and sweeps of the edges have a little awkward swing to them. There are definite corners, and a strong self shadowing line. It is a strong shape that does not equivocate. Sure it could use a little spot cleaning, but I dunno, I think it’s got something going on for a simple little shape. On the right we have the same shape cleaned up to the point where a lot of that life is gone. Yes, it’s the same general shape, but it feels like some vitality has been lost. But the ‘positive’ is that there are no edge artifacts, all the corners are silky smooth, that harder shadow is gone, the intersection with the floor plane is smoothed out. It’s clean, safe, polished, smooth. Dull? In the world of CG this would be chosen as the better result. And to me that’s kinda sad.

In the land of big budget feature animation we either have uber-polished hyper kinetic animation or uber-polished reserved animation mimicing live action. But in the pursuit of the geat Golden Ticket of polish we animators have left the door open for the zombies to eat our brains (and our lunch!). Now we have massaged mo-cap that looks a lot like highly polished CG animation (Monster House’s results don’t look all that different than most of the handkeyed features being done). Give that technology a few more generations to improve (and trust me, it WILL improve) and soon the smart business choice will be “Why hand key in the first place? It looks the same as this cleaned up captured stuff.” Heaven knows audiences won’t know the diff. They’ll just know it’s smoove and buttery. By and large we’re all coming to the same place. Soon there won’t be much of a reason to hand key stuff. The sameness of it all is starting to eat at the foundation of things. Same stories, same designs, same genres, same scenarios, same talking animals/insects, same motion styles, same render look, etc.. How much longer before there’s no discernable difference between the cleaned up mo-cap of the next Monster House and the hand keyed polished slickness of every other feature being made? I mean if all we’re doing is re-creating a bunch of “man in a suit” motion, what’s the point here? Are we losing our cartoon soul? Is our obsession with polish the smoking gun? Somebody needs to explore a bit and find a way to make animation fun to watch again. It’s very rare that the motion or the poses or the facial distortions of a character in an animated film makes me smile anymore. I think it’s all just too polished to be all that interesting. Maybe somebody is doing something right now that will shut me up and blow my socks off. I sure hope so!

That pseudo Aardman style of Flushed Away looks refreshing. Some have mentioned that Chicken Little had a fun style at times as well. Madagascar took a good kick at the can. Parts of Ice Age 2 were nifty to see moving. But I dunno… there are ways in which all of these efforts, though brave and appreciated- aren’t venturing very far off the well trodden path we’re on now. Are these small attempts going to be enough? If we want to keep animating feature films in 6 or 7 years and not just doing clean up on capture data then I think we need more varied motion style voices to keep the zombies at bay. Call me crazy, but I think somebody needs to make an unabashed, unflinching, full out cartoon. Crazy motion- dare I say physically impossible motion, impossible acting ideas, insane concepts. We need it.

Gosh, I’m starting to sound like John K.

OK, fire up those flame throwers. I’m ready. :)

1 comment:

Keith Lango said...

original comments here....