Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Beowulf: Animation or Live Action?

Snow White, The Flinstones, Ratatouille. You think of these movies and you think animation. They were animated in a certain time, using the technology they had. Could one not also say the recent Zemeckis films— Beowulf, Polar Express— as doing the same thing?

For those not in the know, Robert Zemeckis has been making films that combine computer generated actors and motion capture. The contraversy is that is a film is not animated by hand, it's not animation.

I have decided that it is indeed animation, and I challenge those who oppose.

First point, one needs to remove the contention that Zemeckis's films are poorly animated. I agree, since I feel the actors show very little facial animation. The characters seem a little lifeless. When comparing animated results, I feel Remy's animated gestures win over the shiny eyes, but under-acting, of Beowulf.

Second point is to remove the argument that the movie's objective is to make the characters as realistic as possible. Yes, it is my firm opinion, being a producer, that if you want to make your actors seem as real as possible, use real actors on a green-screen. What about Gollum? Yes, use motion capture since we don't have one of those in real life.

Once one removes those two points from the argument, here is my take on the contraversy:
I think there is a paradigm shift in the animation industry, and Robert Zemeckis has brought this to light.


Marriam-Webster defines animating as:
4 a: to make or design in such a way as to create apparently spontaneous lifelike movement

Animators are essentially actors. Instructors state this in animation classes. For example, in Ratatouille, animators needed to act out their characters for Remy's actions. Then, they exaggerated these actions, and the end result looks believable and lifelike. How are they moving Remy around? Using a computer, and a mouse. Basically, tools. Now let's examine Snow White. How did Ollie Johnston animate Snow White and the dwarves? He used celophane paper, pencils, and paints. Basically, tools, and he did it with what was available at that time. No computers.

Now regard Beowulf. It's computer animation. How is Grendel's mother animated? By someone using a mouse and a computer? Almost— the animator is using a new type of tool, called motion capture, or mocap for short. An animator can walk around as a woman to add that special life, accentuating the hip swing. Or an animator can crouch. Or act. Or be an actor.

Can actors be animators? Can animators be actors? Why not? The tools are there for them. Instead of drawing or animating a timeline, they are using a device that reads their body motions and applys the motion to something that isn't spontaneously alive (see definition above). Perspectives should not be so restrictive that one believes animation is only done in a specific way, because it is done in many different ways. Wallace and Grommit is one example, there are many others. Shadow puppetry is debatable.

So therefore, I conclude that motion capture is just another way to animate because the basis is that it is an extension of existing tools.

Before the opposition calls in, I'd like to point out that Disney used the tools that were available to him at that time. He viewed real footage of people in dresses to get the quailty right for Snow White. If Disney reincarnates in a few years, he might be using mocap for his animations as well. Forget the idea that current motion capture films look poor. These devices are going to get better, and better. In the future, one can plug themselves in and remake Snow White using Angelina's body, and animating the whole cast. No one will know or care, as long as it looks good.

It's the future we need to explore. If in 10 years there's a new device that reads your mind to create animation, is it live action?

As much as I love Disney and traditional hand-animation, the industry is shifting its paradigm and we have to recognize that.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Flash CS3-- All Hype, No Class


As a Flash Professional, I've been using Macromedia's version of Flash MX for many, many years. I considered it to be a workhorse and an excellent integration of user interface and productivity.

As years passed, I moved over to Flash 8 and enjoyed the new additions and minor bug fixes. They also addressed some interface problems that actually added some improvement over Flash MX.

Then came the mega-merge and Adobe was in charge. At first I wasn't too upset. Adobe has released some good software. Illustrator, a great tool which managed to set the standard for vector drawing.

But with Adobe's CS product line I've been noticing a similar trend: software-bloat. While some may argue that new features pave the way to a better future, I say that their programmers are underpaid and overworked. New features rarely need to take up so much space. I firmly believe in the "lean and mean" mentality of software. In other words, my tools should work hard and fast without much overhead. Sure it's a stretch, and I'll give allowances for newly revised versions, but Adobe is considered a top notch company and should have programmers that can keep the code wrangled in. Bloat is unneccessary.

Flash CS3 is the extreme end of bloat. While the upgrade is a must for MacOS Intel users, it is a step backwards for Windows users. The size of the install is staggering. Additionally, I found very few features worth noting.

Above all else, I found the new interface to be pathetic. And I will explain.


The best user interfaces are about having options and delivering functionality when asked for. Give me a function when I want it. Don't _ever_ give it to me when I don't want it, because you will just give me another set of steps to get what I want. The faster I produce, the better for all parties involved. Not only speed, but you want smooth and intuitive. These are key components of user interface design.

Flash CS3, on the other hand, is now a glaring, bright utility. While you may think this is good because your mother always said to turn on the lights while you read, it doesn't work here. In design terms, the eye generally goes towards the brightest spot on the interface. When you have multiple bright spots, the areas compete for attention. Thus, the problem with the new color scheme. I've used Flash CS3 for hours and hours at a time, and my eyes feel sore at the end of the day. Above all else, THERE IS NO OPTION TO CHANGE THE UI COLORS. Adobe, you violated a crucial rule.

The rest of the interface is a tad buggy. It seems that Adobe tried to make things easier by having single taps fold your windows, and allow auto-docking. Too bad it always did it when I didn't want it. I can't tell you how often I've place the Actionscript window into the timeline. The old way had the arrow or a specific drag point to merge windows. Made sense, because it's there if I want it, or not if I don't. Another violation to the rules.


The programming side of Flash, which forces the designer/developer debate, has changed as well. While hard core programmers drool over the ability to program DOOM in Actionscript 3.0, the rest of us designers are still trying to wrap our minds around prototypes in Actionscript 1.0.

This is a rift that will eventually separate the prgorammers from the designers once and for all. No more "Flash Guru" job postings, the difference will be too great to get someone who can code 5000 lines and design at the same time.

Scripting, to me, should be scripts. Small, simple, easy. No class constructor planning, just lay it out. I hope Flash retains this, but I fear it will someday be lost.

In conclusion, be aware that I rarely upgrade. I rely heavily on what works to my needs and how I was trained on a piece of software. The best software is like a musical instrument, that you can play easily, smoothly and create beautiful pieces of work. Although some enjoy banging on drums, I perefer piano. Let my fingers float and stay out of my way. Alas, Adobe, you got in my way with this upgrade.