- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

The days of making animated feature films solely from hand-drawn sketches are finished, says Jamy Sheridan, a professor of digital arts. When teaching his students at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Mr. Sheridan makes sure they understand how the process was done in the early days by filming transparent hand-painted cels. He also introduces them to the animation that is being created through today's technology.
Clearly, the field has come a long way since 1928, when Walt Disney Studios introduced Mickey Mouse in "Steamboat Willie."
"We are moving into a world in the computer where you create objects," Mr. Sheridan says. "If you have a computer, you can make your own film, if you know what you're doing."
Computer animation is a growing field with revolutionary technologies that have gained immense popularity with the success of blockbuster movies such as "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." The technology also is used widely for commercials and video games. At times, film and animation are even synchronized for a seamless result.
Dan Philips, vice president of production at Big Idea Productions in Lombard, Ill., says "Jonah, A VeggieTales Movie," the animated feature film released this month by his company, used software such as Maya, a modeling and animation package made by Alias Wavefront in Toronto. The program also develops backgrounds, casts light and shadows on objects and gives texture to items.
Completing the movie took two years of intense work, Mr. Philips says. About 100 people contributed to the animation every week throughout the duration of the project.
"People look at animation and think, 'Oh, that's fun,' but they don't realize how tedious it is," he says. "They think it's magic."
When using Maya to design the characters in movies, such as "Jonah's" Bob the Tomato and Archibald Asparagus, animators sculpt objects on the computer screen to the desired shape, Mr. Philips says.
The computer saves the information on an invisible grid, recording the mathematical coordinates for the structures. As the animated creatures move, the graphic software interprets the mathematical variations and displays them as images.
"The human person specifies the way each thing looks, but the computer does the number crunching to achieve it," Mr. Philips says. "Underneath it all, it's mathematical programming, but a great big set of humans have to decide what they want it to look like."
Dariush Derakhshani, an animator at Sight Effects in Venice, Calif., says this technology is not limited to movies. Using Maya, he has created many virtual objects to enhance commercials, such as a talking cow for the company Gateway in Poway, Calif., and animated squirrels for Electronic Data Systems in Plano, Texas.
"Animation is a really big part of commercials," Mr. Derakhshani says. "If you take note of what you are watching, a background with a lush green landscape and beautiful blue sky was probably put together in a computer."
Three-dimensional animation also has caused the standard of video games to rise, says David Stinnett, co-owner of Blur Studio in Venice, Calif. His company's clients include Miramax/Dimension Films, Disney, Hanna-Barbera and DreamWorks Interactive.
"If you look at the games done now and years ago, it's so much better quality now," Mr. Stinnett says. "There are a lot of animators out there that are really talented, and they know the software really well."
While studying at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, cinema and television students learn to use the programs that are a mainstay of professional animators, says Richard Weinberg, research professor and chief technologist at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television.
"The tools have changed fairly radically and continue to evolve on a weekly basis," Mr. Weinberg says. "People going into this field are really faced with a continuing educational requirement to keep up with the technology."
The pupils become proficient in Maya as well as other programs, including Toonz, two-dimensional animation software for feature films, videos, commercials, multimedia and Web animations that is made by Digital Video, based in Rome. Toonz allows an artist to scan drawings into the computer and paint them through the program.
Mr. Weinberg says this method allows designers to avoid dealing with liquid paint and storing their work on drying racks in a dust-free environment, which they would have to do if they created the work completely by hand. They also don't have to worry about scratching their compositions once they are finished.
"It allows you to correct mistakes much more easily," he says. "It's easier for the computer to stay within the lines than a student with a paintbrush."
Using a computer to generate a crowd also is a common way to save time, Mr. Weinberg says. Instead of animating every creature separately, an animator can tell the computer to create a crowd of objects with specific parameters, instructing the program to give each figure a slightly different movement. Softimage 3D, which is made by Softimage Co. in Montreal, is used routinely for this purpose.
One even can transfer human movements to animated objects through 3D Motion Capture, which tracks and records a performer's motions in three dimensions. For instance, if an animated movie features a baseball player, a professional's movements can be filmed. The data files that are created as a result can be presented to animators who use computer graphic packages. Then, animators place the professional's motions on the virtual character.
Sometimes, feature films that mainly involve real-life scenes also incorporate computer animation. For instance, movies such as "The Matrix," "Spiderman," "Titanic," "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and "Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of the Clones" weaved film and computer animation together through computer programs such as After Effects by Adobe Systems Inc. in San Jose, Calif., and Shake by Apple Computer Inc. in Cupertino, Calif. After the various images are collected, the software overlays multiple layers of live action and animation.
When "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" was being made, there were instances when it was easier to use a 3-D image rather than a human being because of the availability of the actors, says Randy Cook, director of animation for the feature film, during a phone interview from Wellington, New Zealand.
For instance, while the scene in which Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo, is injured by the cave troll was being filmed, Mr. Wood was busy on another set. Mr. Cook opted to use a 3-D image of Mr. Wood made through Maya. Also, Mr. Wood and friends were designed as virtual images in Maya for safety purposes for when they run across a bridge in the cave over a huge chasm while being chased by the monster Balrog.
Other times, the fictional story required animators to create characters from scratch, Mr. Cook says.
For example, by using Maya, artists designed Gollum, a character who was an early owner of the ring. They also used 3D Motion Capture technology for his movements in some scenes by recording the actions of actor Andy Serkis, who also speaks as the voice of Gollum. "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," the sequel to the first movie, which also features Gollum, arrives in movie theaters Dec. 18.
Even though a vast array of computer programs is available, a strong story and artistic skill are still of utmost importance, Mr. Cook says. The computer may allow one to develop myriad images and effects, but that doesn't mean it knows whether the creation is good.
Because the computer is extremely precise, it may sometimes move the character in finer increments than those that are attained by living creatures. The better the skills of animators, the better the final product because only humans can recognize good composition and movement.
"State of the art is important, but it's always secondary to the state of the artist," Mr. Cook says. "It's unwise to let the computer do too much work for an animator. The animator has to make sure to slap the computer around."

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