Computer-aided techniques enhance artists' tablet work

The term “hand-drawn” evokes images of pencil-wielding artists painstakingly flipping from one drawing to another to create the illusion of life and movement. But in reality, computer tools play a big role in all types of animation today, not just the 3D computer-generated toons from Pixar, DreamWorks and other studios.

Disney’s Eric Daniels, a technical director on “The Prin-cess and the Frog,” says, “In my opinion, hand-drawn animation is more visually exciting today than it has ever been, due to technologies which enable the artists to use more camera moves, more colors, more levels, more optical effects — more of everything — than ever before.”

Innovations in computer software have long been pushing the boundaries of Disney’s 2D films, from the sweeping camerawork of 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” (courtesy of the Disney/Pixar-created CAPS system) to the computer-aided wildebeest stampede in 1994’s “The Lion King.”

But today’s 2D animators don’t need the deep pockets of a major studio to benefit from digital developments. At Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon, headquarters for “The Secret of Kells,” director Tomm Moore used affordable off-the-shelf software to create his Oscar nominee. Wrangling the work of 200 artists spread over five countries might have been impossible without the production management system called Hobosoft, he observes. “It’s a great way for teams that are not all under one roof to coordinate with the supervisors and the director.”

Daniels, who previously earned a sci-tech award from the Academy for developing the special Deep Canvas CG effect featured in Disney’s “Tarzan,” cites a variety of tools used in hand-drawn animation today: Toon Boom Harmony, Apple Shake, Side Effects’ Houdini and Adobe After Effects. These software apps do everything from combining artwork scanned into computers to simulating visual effects.

On “Princess,” the animators went paperless with the film’s effects animation, drawing ripples of water, shadow and magic directly onto pressure-sensitive Cintiq tablets. “‘Little Mermaid’ was the last film that actually used cels. For the last 20 years, we’ve inked and painted electronically,” explains John Musker, who co-directed both “Princess” and “The Little Mermaid” with Ron Clements. “On this film, all our backgrounds were done in Photoshop, and it was inked and painted electronically.”

The Cartoon Saloon team is using Cintiq tablets and the French software TV Paint on its next production, the 2D “Song of the Sea.” “I am very happy with how close to paper and pencil we can make our animation,” says Moore, who will again collaborate with artists in several countries. “It’s a very efficient way for small studios with limited budgets to create full hand-drawn animation in a multisite way.”

Because “Princess” marked Disney’s return to traditional techniques, its directors actually eschewed a number of digital innovations that might have made their jobs easier. The opening sequence, which pans from the evening star to the La Bouff mansion and then moves through the window, recalls the beginnings of “Peter Pan” and “Pinocchio.” “If we were doing it the Deep Canvas way, we might have built that set on the computer and flew the camera all the way in, all in one shot,” Musker says. “We consciously decided to do it more retro-style, moving through a series of cross-dissolves.”

However, the “Princess” team did use digital assists to help render the La Bouff mansion as well as the film’s New Orleans streets and other complex sets. According to Musker, rough underdrawings were modeled in Autodesk’s 3D software Maya to achieve low angles and tricky perspectives, which animators then traced and colored to match the rest of the film.

If Disney chooses to continue the hand-drawn tradition, it will need artists with both digital and hand-drawn experience. Much to Musker’s surprise, many young animation students still choose to specialize in 2D. “Our movie had 22-year-olds right out of CalArts who wanted to do hand-drawn animation,” he says. “They didn’t even know if there would be an outlet for it, but we fortunately came along with a hand-drawn film. So there’s hope for the future with those animators.”

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