Technology takes animation to the limit
By Reneé Rades | NIE Educational Consultant
It's hard to imagine a cartoon movie that wasn't created using computers, either in part or entirely. For some movies, like Disney's Lilo and Stitch, computers were used to color in hand-drawn images for most of the movie, although it looks completely hand-created. For other movies, like Polar Express and the movies Shrek and Shrek 2, computers were used in every step of the production. In fact, many of today's cartoons use characters who resemble the sophisticated style of George Lucas rather than the style of pioneer animator Winsor McCay, because it takes a lot of technical know-how to create a cartoon feature that captures the attention of today's audiences, as well as shows artistic skill and has a good story.
How far is fiction?
Al Pacino as Viktor Taransky creating the first totally believable synthetic actress Simone in New Line's Simone - 2002. Photo: Darren Michaels
Since Toy Story came out in 1995 as the first feature-length cartoon created totally on the computer, the technology that made it possible can now be used to create images that make the original Toy Story look like…well, kids' stuff. Computer graphics can mimic how light hits an object, how wind and water react with objects, and even textures like hair, skin, grass, or fabric. Using computers, programmers and digital artists can make movies from the creators' original renderings of characters and settings as well as the recordings of the voice actors. Characters in a scene can be programmed to move as they are needed, instead of requiring traditional animation crews to redraw scenes that a director may not like.
Let's say that a 30-second scene calls for one character to get hit by a really big wave at the beach, and to come out looking drenched. In traditional, hand-drawn animation, artists created frames for each scene to be played out in. Motion pictures and animated films play at 24 frames per second, so a 30-second scene requires 720 frames to be drawn! What if the director wants the character to pull a starfish from his face as a gag? Then, the scene has to be sent back to the animators to be redrawn. In computer-generated movies like Shrek or The Incredibles, the characters are already in a computer, so the director and programmers need only to reprogram the character to come out of the water with a starfish. While this process is more complicated than simply redrawing a scene, it takes a lot less time to complete if all of the programs are working correctly. These programs are not only used to create scenes, but to polish them as well. They can be used to create an individual strand of hair on a character's head to make him or her look more realistic, or to control how hard rain may fall in a scene.
Hero Boy (voiced by Daryl Sabara), Hero Girl (voiced by Nona Gaye) and Lonely Boy (voiced by Jimmy Bennett) in Warner Bros. The Polar Express - 2004
Another new technology that impacts animation is the use of motion capturing, as in Polar Express. For this, everything that will appear in the movie is digitally created or pictured from every angle possible- top, bottom, and all around, and saved on a computer. Then, instead of having the voice actors come in to simply read lines for their characters, they are instead fitted with special suits that capture their motions as they act out the parts of their characters. These suits look a lot like wetsuits with a bunch of ping-pong balls stuck all over them. The actors also wear smaller balls or dots on their heads. The dots are used as reference points so that programmers know how the actors move and how light is affected as they move. The result is that an actor's moves, down to the blink of an eye or a twitch of the finger, are recorded for a realistic rendition of a character. The computers are then used to "paint" on facial features, skin, clothes, and to simulate lighting effects. In such a scenario, if a director wants a starfish on a character's head, he or she can have the actor act out the scene with the changes on the spot, with the effects added on later for water and the starfish. This technique is especially good to use when an actor is chosen for a part based on his or her body language and mannerisms and takes pressure of animators to match up a character's movements to an actor's voice.
Nobody can say for sure where technology will take moviemaking next, but we've come a long way since Gertie. Some things are certain, though: A good story is where it starts, and today's technology is the magic that makes it happen.
Try these cool activities using The Daytona Beach News-Journal!
1. Look in your News-Journal for articles about animation and how computers are used in making movies. What are some jobs that are mentioned? They may not be what you'd think of right off the bat--like computer programming! Look up some of the jobs using information from your guidance counselor or the Department of Labor website http://www.dol.gov/, or the Career Connection pages found at www.nieworld.com . Would you like to have any of those jobs? Talk to a parent or a friend about your feelings. LA.A.1.3, LA.A.2.3, LA.B.2.3
What will the future bring?
Anthony, 17, works at a computer station. He majored in computer engineering. April 17, 2002. (Photo: N-J/Bob Pesce)
2. You may not know it, but many of the cartoons and movie characters you know today got their start in newspaper comic strips! Use recent editions and the archives of The News-Journal to find comics that have been made into cartoons or movies. Choose a strip that has run in The News-Journal and research its journey into animation. Share this information with your classmates or even the Newspaper in Education website at email@example.com. You'll be surprised at what you find! LA.A.1.3, LA.A.2.3, LA.B.2.3
3. Use The Daytona Beach News-Journal to find advertisements about movies that are soon to appear in your area. Where are the advertisements located? What information do they contain? Now, use this format to create an advertisement for one of your classes. Who stars in the class? What might people look forward to if they joined your class? Share your ad with your classmates and the teacher whom you "advertised." LA.A.1.3, LA.A.2.3, LA.B.2.3, LA.C.2.3, LA.D.2.3, VA.A.1.3
4. Use The Daytona Beach News-Journal to find a review for a movie you saw recently. Do you agree with the review? Why or why not? Now, using the review as an example, write a movie review of your own about the same movie. LA.A.1.3, LA.A.2.3, LA.B.2.3, LA.D.2.3, LA.E.1.3, LA.E.2.3, TH.E.1.3, TH.D.1.3
5. Use The News-Journal to find articles about new technology in the entertainment industry and clip them out. Organize them into two categories: Making Movies and Distributing Movies. Paste the articles to a poster board and display your work on a wall or bulletin board. LA.A.1.3, LA.A.2.3, LA.B.2.3, SC.H.3.3
Want to know more about digital entertainment? Check out these awesome links!
Follow an idea from the script to the final editing, for a computer-animated feature film, in this "how we do it" guide from Pixar. http://www.pixar.com/howwedoit/index.html.
Here's a screen nobody would mind having in the living room, that is if it'd only fit! Explore the technology behind what makes the 8-story tall movie experience of IMAX work. The site also lists places where you can see IMAX movies in your area. http://www.imax.com.
For an in-depth explanation of the motion capture process, check out http://actionadventure.about.com/od/polarexpressmoviefaq/f/aapolarxfaq4.htm?terms=motion+capture.
Low-budget doesn't have to mean low-fun! Make your own digital stop-animation film at http://www.klick.org/kids/techietalk/animation/claymation/. This site also includes links to other kids' animation and digital art projects.
Check out the Polar Express movie Web site at http://polarexpressmovie.warnerbros.com/index.html. The site includes information about the story, about the actors, and about how the movie was made.
Check out The Incredibles at http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/incredibles/main.html. The site includes games along with information about how the movie was created.
Published January 5, 2005