Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Screen Business

In Mark Mayerson’s recent post about Pinnocchio,
he offers this neat bit of observation…

One thing this sequence excels at is the use of stage business. In too many modern animated films, characters stand around yakking with nothing else to do. The animator is stuck trying to find arm gestures and head bobs that go with the dialog. In this sequence, Stromboli is working with a prop in almost every scene and using the prop to perform specific actions.

That nails it pretty well, don’t you think?

So as usual, I got to thinking, well, why is it this way? The best answer I could come up with is the heavy production process that every CG asset labors under. If it exists on screen, then it has to have the following tasks completed-

  • designed
  • color designed
  • modeled
  • rigged
  • UV’s
  • textured
  • render tested
  • animation tested
  • pipeline asset coordination & compliance
  • multiple version publishing (render version, layout rig, animation rig, etc.)
  • placement & tracking within the scene as it transits from dept. to dept.

And that’s the basic minimum for everything you see on screen, from the smallest ball point pen or coffee mug to a complex machine. The task list is the same, and each task is the domain of a different department, usually. And each task needs to be tracked for schedule, modification, approval, etc. In other words- props in CG are expensive, even “simple” ones. With such a heavy price to pay, naturally the prop list will take a hit when producers are looking for ways to maximize their production pennies. Not to mention that CG character interaction with other objects is still one of the biggest technical pains in the gluteus maximus that exists in the animator’s workday. It’s just a beating. So we take stuff out of the character’s hands and leave the animator to try and find some interesting way to combine hand gestures- of which the general library tends to be somewhat shallow.

Prop interaction (or ’screen business’ in old days speak) allows for a greater variety of actions for the characters to perform, immediately adding a sense of depth and believability to the milieu onscreen. And when you can draw you props as easily as anything else, well, it’s no wonder that 2d films have more of it. A fine example in a recent traditional film was the sequence where we see the introduction of Mr. Silver in Disney’s Treasure Planet. The stuff they have him do in that 2 minute section of him cooking and then sharing his stew would cost many, many millions of dollars in CG.

As in other areas, a good place to look for comparison to CG in this regard seems to be puppetry or stop-motion animation. But even there they’re ahead of CG on ease of implementation. A physical model of a clay coffee cup takes about 15 minutes to make and bake and the animator can put it in the character’s hands easily with a bit of sculpy on the backside. Puppeteers using the glove hand can just pick up the object after they come back from buying it at Target or Walmart. Compared to the flaming technical hoops that CG animators need to jump through just to have something for a character to pick up, and then have that character pick that something up- it’s child’s play.

It’s just another example of how the technology of the medium can get in the way. What would revolutionize things is to come up with an asset production paradigm that was as intuitive and simple as it is in 2d films. Unfortunately the massive command and control requirements of a large scale CG film kinda preclude such low level action.

Seems to me there could be some innovation of thought that would streamline the process and open some doors creatively. Maybe there’s a technological solution, but I think CG practitioners tend to look to the Technology Genie to give them their magic wishes a little too quickly. I’d be interested in hearing if some production of size had managed to find a way to quickly and effectively introduce props or assets in a way that still allowed it to get onscreen with acceptable quality without such a heavy task/workload toll? Do any commenters have any examples or anecdotes that might be had by way of improvement?

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