Artists flaunt character development at confab

Animators discuss motion capture, future of f/x

Arriving on the backs of the realistic animals in “Stuart Little 2,” the monsters of “Lord of the Rings” and the digital doubles of “Spider-Man” and “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones,” it’s clear that computer graphic character animation has come of age. And this f/x trend will be everywhere at Siggraph 2002.

A geeky CG cowboy stars in the animated short that will open each screening of Siggraph’s computer animation festival. “Washed Up,” by Will Vinton Studios, was expressly commissioned for Siggraph, and it’s emblematic of the growing CG business that treats the conference as its showplace.

The proliferation of commodity software has opened the door for character experts like Vinton (best known for TV’s stop-motion series “The PJs”) to approach computer graphic films in earnest. Vinton’s Jeff Farnath notes that Blue Sky has followed Pixar and PDI/DreamWorks in creating successful CG character-driven films, and thinks Vinton is well positioned to join them. “All studios are interested in feature animation. They’ll be looking for people like us.”

“We’d always entertain the possibility of distributing a film that was created from one of the other animation houses,” says Chris Meledandri, animation prexy at 20th Century Fox. But, he says, “what we’re not doing is subcontracting any of our production work to other animation facilities. We’re not looking to farm out different pieces.”

F/x house characters also dominate the lineup of the confab’s competitive Electronic Theater. Tippet Studios (which like Vinton came to CG from stop-motion animation) will have two pieces represented, including digital humans in “Blade II.” Framestore-CFC is also a two-time Siggraph winner with “Mosquito” game animation and photoreal animals for “Walking With Beasts.” Among the most dazzling character animation in the show will be Digital Domain’s foamy creatures from “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” For one scene, the f/x house animated realistic riders and horses being swept away in a flooding river, which itself took on the shape of surreal steeds. It’s a perfect example of how CG tools are being used to create a great diversity of images — and make character animation the ultimate visual effect.

Such high achievement typically requires proprietary computer code. While commodity software was used to animate the riders’ clothing, Digital Domain’s Markus Kurtz says, “we used inhouse software to solve the water effects.”

Markus and collaborator Greg Duda will demonstrate to conference attendees how they achieved this animation, which Markus says will cover three key topics in the industry — fluid simulation, volumetric water effects and character animation.

Closely guarded techniques will be lurking behind virtually every bit of character animation shown by Industrial Light & Magic. In a session about digital characters called “Yoda and Beyond,” animation director Rob Coleman says he intends “to talk about more than the technical issues of animating hair, clothing and skin. I’m interested (in) the craft of making Yoda an acting character that has to live and breathe and sustain close-ups; one that has to converse with actors like Samuel Jackson and hold his own on the bigscreen. We’ve broken through to a new realm, where we’re concerned with what’s going on behind a character’s eyes.”

Another trend evident in the work of ILM and others attending Siggraph is the role of motion-capture technology in generating large amounts of computer character animation. “We used libraries of character motion,” says Coleman of “Attack of the Clones.” “A droid is a droid, and we could plunk them right into shots. Because we have lots of clones, there are many shots in this movie that use motion capture.”

Siggraph will present a panel directly addressing “How Will Motion Capture Affect Animation?” Among the panelists will be House of Moves’ Tom Tolles, who notes, “Sometimes very little motion capture can produce huge amounts of animation. Thousands of characters can be created from one day of motion capture.”

An even more significant use may be replacing lead actors in dangerous situations, he observes. “You still want Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance — you just don’t want him underwater with an exploding bomb. Once lead digital characters become more acceptable, movies will be made in a different way.”

Also, notes Tolles, directors will be interacting with virtual actors directly with more immediate results, rather than directing through animation supervisors in a process that takes months to see the animation.

That film directors in the future will direct CG characters themselves is a topic that will be addressed more than once at Siggraph. Sony’s Eric Armstrong, animation director on “Stuart Little 2,” intends to raise provocative ideas at the panel “Animation’s Turning Tide.”

Characters generated with procedural animation software are the wave of the future, predicts Armstrong. “Intelligent programs that create characters will make animators obsolete within 20 years. You’ll go to vendors with names like People Builders and buy their software.

“The majority of character animation will be done by directors giving commands into a microphone, like they do with actors on sets. Animation will be a real-time simulation, and it will be cheaper and faster. I’m not saying this is good — just that it’s going to happen. Nothing will stop the growth of this technology.”

While Armstrong expects to be hated for saying that, he believes one of the best things about attending Siggraph is confronting new and unexpected ideas. “The fun is that you’re never able to guess what those ideas might be.”

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