A is for Animation

by Graham Edwards

A is for AnimationWelcome to the first post in a series looking at the ABC of VFX. We have 26 letters to get through, so let’s make a start with “A” for “Animation”.

It’s nice to begin with an easy one. Everyone knows what animation is. It’s (1) drawing a picture (2) putting it under a camera (3) exposing a single frame of film (4) drawing a slightly different picture (5) putting it under the camera (6) repeating until (a) your fingers bleed or (b) your eyes fall out.

Except that’s not everything …

Sometimes animation means posing puppets and moving them incrementally in the time-honoured tradition of stop-motion. If you want to include replacement animation, it means swapping fractionally different sculptures one after another to create the illusion of fluid change.

Except it’s not like that any more …

The modern animation toolkit contains IK handles, blend trees and all that lovely data from the motion capture volume. Animation is no longer about a series of discrete poses but the infinitely editable trace of an object as it moves along a three-dimensional path. In fact, the whole concept of the individual movie frame might soon be a thing of the past if frameless rendering ever takes hold.

Okay. So there are lots of different animation techniques out there. Some new, some old. Fundamentally, however, animation is concerned with just one thing, isn’t it?


Except it isn’t …

To explain: the word “animation” comes from the Latin “animus”, meaning “spirit” or “lifeforce”. So “animate” means “give life to”. An animator’s objective isn’t just to move things from one side of the screen to the other. It’s to breathe life into them. When you get right down to it, all animators are actors.

Except they’re not …

You might need an animator who can act if you want a couple of grumpy trolls to start a fist fight. But animation isn’t just about character work. What about all those tireless effects animators labouring to generate fireballs, fountains and all kinds of bad weather? Effects animation doesn’t require personality. It’s just a bunch of dumb objects obeying the laws of physics, right?

Except it’s not …

Everything has character. The thing you’re animating might be a thinking, breathing creature with complex motivations and a very large axe, or it might be the spectacular plume of lava thrown up after yet another inconvenient meteor has struck a distressingly active volcano improbably laced with high explosives. It doesn’t matter. Both have what really lies at the heart of all animation: soul.

Heart. Soul. Breathing life. Surely that’s something we can all agree on, isn’t it?

Except it isn’t …

What about that motion capture volume we mentioned earlier? When it comes to mo-cap, it isn’t the animator imbuing the character with spirit, it’s the actor. You know, the poor sap wearing the dot-festooned leotard. All the animator has to do is make a few tweaks to their digitally recorded performance.

Except …

Rats. I really thought this was going to be easy. Every time you think you’ve got a grip on animation, it slips right through your fingers. The only way to resolve this is to go back to the beginning, to the world’s first animated feature: Snow White.

According to an article in the January 1938 edition of Popular Science Monthly, the Disney artists who worked on Snow White created “more than 1,500,000 individual pen-and-ink drawings and water color paintings”. The article goes on to say, “Since this cartoon required an average of twenty-two individual painted cels for each foot of completed picture, 166,352 finished paintings were exposed to the camera.”

What it boils down to is that animation is a discipline that demands painstaking craftmanship and one heck of a lot of patience. And you can take that one to the bank.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity runs about eight minutes longer than Disney’s Snow White. I imagine both films sent a similar number of animators to the medic with bleeding fingers and throbbing eyeballs. But is this year’s hyper-real space drama as much an animated feature as its venerable cartoon predecessor? Or is it something completely different? Perhaps, even, something entirely new?

“A” is for “Animation”. As for what “animation” really means … do you know?

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