The Compelling Reasons That Will Make You a Fan of Hatsune Miku

If we’re being honest, even I wouldn’t have believed that headline if it was written even six months ago. Clearly being only vaguely aware of who Hatsune Miku is wasn’t enough and it took a proper introduction before I ‘got’ her. Of course there’s a lot of appeal to the character of Miku herself, and that forms the basis for many young fans’ devotion. That’s not what makes her appealing to me though; it’s the concept and execution of the character’s role, and what she represents from a business standpoint. To put it simply: she’s the future.

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Does Pixar Really Have a Technological Advantage?

There’s an annual report called the Global Animation Industry Report: Strategies, Trends & Opportunities. I wrote about it last year, but since there’s a new report for 2014, I’m writing about it again. While the $5,000 price is a bit too steep for me, you can view the contents online for free, and that’s where one sub-heading picqued my interest: ‘Pixar’s Technological Advantage’. While that may have been true many years ago, does it still hold up?

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The Key Difference Between Disney and Studio Ghibli

Disney and Studio Ghibli are often compared when it comes to making really great animation. Both continue to push the envelope of what animation is and what it means to tell an animated story. However, both see progress in a different light and go about achieving it in contrasting ways.

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Who Needs Animators? Type Your Animated Film With Plotagon Instead!

Oh dear, we appear to have come much closer to the end of days as far as animators and storyboard artists are concerned. A company called Plotagon has released an eponymous software program that can create animated content from a written script. Is animating as a career doomed???

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When Animation Software Hinders The Technique

Via: Rob Kohr's blog
Via: Rob Kohr’s blog

Technological developments in animation have allowed the technique to prosper considerably since the early days of Mickey Mouse. If it wasn’t applicable to film in general (colour, stereo sound, etc.) then it was specific to animation in ways such as the multi-plane camera and acetate cels. While all these improvements helped animation, software can also handicap it, which is what we’re discussing today.

Computers Are To Blame

There’s no doubt that computers and IT in general have done wonders for animation, and not just in the strictest production sense either. The internet has enabled the co-ordination and production of a single film in multiple locations around the globe and has resulted in many fine films being produced that otherwise would not have.

Where computers fail though, is in their longevity. No-one uses a computer from 15 years ago and certainly nobody is using the same software that ran on such a machine.

The issue is that the animation produced on such machines may not be able to be read on a modern machine. Sure, Pixar is still in business, but what of other studios? Plenty have either gone out of business or been shut down. The animation they produced resides somewhere but may not be accessible. There’s a big difference between the two.

Rapid changes in IT and computing technology mean that nothing that relies on them can stand still. Hardware and software must be constantly updated to remain competitive and there is always the risk that something will either get corrupted or worse, deleted.

Animation Software is Even Worse

For all the faults that hardware has, it is not the worse culprit. That title belongs to software. The impetus for this post is the recent announcement from Adobe that customers will no longer be able to purchase Creative Suite software. Instead, they will subscribe to ‘Adobe Creative Cloud’ for a monthly fee. Essentially customers will not even be renting the software but access to it.

The change caused a bit of a ruckus but rather than dwell on the merits and demerits of the move itself, let’s focus on the problems it highlights and what can be done about it.

What the Adobe Announcement Highlights

First and foremost, any proprietary software firm will be quite adamant that as a customer, you never ‘buy’ software. Rather, you buy a license for it. In most cases this is a perpetual license, but it is still a license. You cannot do what you like with the software no matter how much you paid for it (legally).

For animators and studios, what the move highlights more than anything else is that the technology that they rely upon for their continued operation is fleeting at best. Adobe, like Microsoft and Apple, does not maintain their software forever and especially in the latter’s case, has shown a willingness to cut off users of older software; essentially forcing them to upgrade or find another provider.

Finding an alternative is all grand and good, but what if there is no alternative? That is to say, what if no-one else makes the piece of software that you need to open/read files?

The Ticking Timebomb

Consider Adobe Flash. It won’t be around forever and at some point in time, Adobe will stop supporting it. That’s grand and good you say, you’ll just keep and old copy on an old dumb terminal just like Disney did with their CAPS system.

A fine theory, but completely improbable if you rent the software instead.

If Adobe decides at some point in the future (willingly or not) to suspend access to Flash or another creative program, you are quite literally very far up the creek without a paddle.

How many studios out there use Flash or a similar program? A lot. What could happen if those programs disappear? Mayhem.

That isn’t to scaremonger either. Old files are much more than just animation data; they’re content! If that isn’t cause for concern, consider the many 35mm films in Hollywood archives that literally represent history rotting away. We’re talking about the digital equivalent of that. Goodness knows Pixar got a shock when they discovered that the original Toy Story files had been corrupted while being digitally archived

What Can Be Done

First and foremost, its important to identify what is causing the problem; namely technology that is no longer profitable to produce/maintain but whose customers require access to.

Proprietary technology is notorious for causing these headaches and while they have been tolerated for the most part, we re getting to the point where there are no more excuses.

As I wrote in this post, open source software offers an alternative that may lack slightly in the features department, but more than makes up for that with its open nature that promises at least the ability to always be able to create a way to read/edit files. Proprietary systems lock this ability up and are under no obligation to release it.

Animation studios (and independent animators too!) need to consider things such as this because they have the potential to cause very expensive mistakes at some point in the future and surely it’s better to actively avoid them than to try and deal with them, right?

Existing programs such as Blender and Synfig are steps in the right direction; we just need a major studio to step up and promote the idea that if we are to rely on technology for creativity, then we should at least be able to build some permanence into the system. It works for pencils and paper after all.

Do upgrade prices give you high blood pressure? What about Adobe’s Creative Cloud? Is it a bad idea and if so, why? Let us know with a comment!

How 3D Printing Will Impact Animation Off Screen

Constant improvements in technology mean that new and exciting ways of doing things are constantly being invented, with 3D printing being no exception. It’s exactly what you might expect it to be; namely printing but with the addition of the third dimension. The technology has been around for a while, but only very recently has its cost started to come down to a relatively affordable level for consumers.

What Does 3D Printing Have to Do With Animation Off Screen?

Ah, an excellent question. Well, it’s not so much to do with production (Laika used the technology extensively for ParaNorman) but for all the things that animation sells off-screen. Consider the picture below:

Via:Thingverse
Via:Thingverse

It looks kida familiar doesn’t it? That’s because it is! It’s a 3D printing plan for the rocket that Tintin took to the moon in Destination Moon!

Via:The Tintin Wiki
Via:The Tintin Wiki

The possibilities are astonishing. Imagine being able to print models right in your own home? Instead of hoping for a company to produce a character or prop model you desire, you could make it yourself, in minutes! Otaku’s will have a field day!

There’s just one problem…

Copyright

NPR recently took a look at 3D printing, and Steve Henn’s report places a hefty emphasis on the recent issues surrounding the use of copyrighted characters with the technology. Yoda is a popular presence on Thingverse, a website that allows people to create and share their 3D printing plans. Similarly was Tintin’s rocket, until it was taken down via DMCA notice (the one above isn’t the original):

Recently, Moulinsart, which owns the rights to the cartoon Tintin, served Thingiverse with a Millennium Digital Copyright Act [sic] takedown notice. The company insisted that the site remove printing designs of Tintin’s cartoon moon rocket.

Weinberg says Moulinsart was well within its legal rights, but he thinks the move was a mistake. People printing out copies of Tintin’s rocket were the company’s mega-fans, he says. Instead of attacking them, Weinberg adds, the company would have been better off selling digital designs to print out Tintin himself.

If you think in terms of animation, almost anything could be created using 3D printers. Characters, props, sets are all ripe for the DIY mold and while no studio has freaked out just yet, there could be plenty of problems down the line.

Since copyright covers everything to do with an animated film or TV show, making plans of characters and printing them yourself does fall foul of existing law. That’s where the real problems will soon come to light.

What 3D Printing Means For Animation

Many animated shows rely on toys (among other merchandise) to remain profitable. Pre-school shows are especially exposed, but plenty of other ones also sell models based off the animation. Many shows rely on those sales to remain profitable and therefore on the air. Think of The Simpsons, or any anime show known to man. They all rely on sales of models to some extent. Here, have a Nibbler as an example:

This impossibly cute thing is made by Kidrobot
This impossibly cute thing is made by Kidrobot

Now what if instead of buying a model at a shop, you simply printed it at home? You would gain, but the studio would certainly lose; especially since those plans can (and will) be all over the internet for free.

So this could potentially affect every corner of animation; from features, to TV shows to web series to short films. It could be a boon but it could also be a bust if all the players don’t handle it correctly.

I haven’t even touched on all the printing that will be made from fanart, just think how popular that‘s going to be?

It’ll Ultimately Be For the Fans

Ultimately, 3D printing will be for the fans. Animators and studios can gain, but they will have to rely on things like superior production tools and giving fans something extra over what they can make at home.

Just look at that Tintin rocket, I would kill to be able to make one of those for myself, but I would gladly pay someone to make me a high quality one that’s over a metre tall instead.

Think in those terms, and get ready to ride the roller coaster for the next few years.

What would you print with a 3D printer? Let us know with a comment!

Dreamworks Want Us To Be Producers

Over at Daily Disruption is an interesting interview with DreamWorks’ head of enterprise technology, Kate Swanborg, in which she discusses the role of technology within the company and how it affects their relationship with consumers. All in all an interesting read but what is truly worth taking away from it is a quote from right at the very end:

I think that one of the most exciting things that we’re seeing is the idea that, as a consumer, I can actually create. I can go and start creating characters and imagery. Now, of course, at DreamWorks Animation we go and identify the best artists and engineers on the planet, and that talent is still critically important. But mobile technologies are really allowing the consumers to take those wonderful assets that are created and bring them into their whole lives and actually become producers in their own right.

Now that got the cogs in my head turning. Does she mean that the advances in technology mean that consumers will soon be creating content on a par with the studio, or as I believe, she wants us to use their characters in our own creations?

The reason I’m guessing the latter is because she talks about the narrowing gap between content producers and consumers. The idea is a novel one, but it does completely ignore one aspect of content: copyright! Of course plenty of people simply ignore copyright and gleefully create content independent of DW, but it’s hard to take the effort on their end seriously when studios and networks continually go after fans.

Such collaboration will come about in the end, as studios stand to gain too much from being intricately involved with the fans who provide them with revenue.

Will Motion-Capture Take Over?

One of the things that is easy to lose sight of is the fact that technology and techniques are constantly developing and improving. At the beginning, animation went from paper to cels to colour to multi-plane. Even the drawing aspects of the process changed, with inkers disappearing as the xerox process eliminated the need for them. With the arrival of the digital revolution, everybody who worked on paper was suddenly under threat as the computer meant an entire production could be done without felling a single tree (at least theoretically).

So how will animation technology continue to develop over the next decade or two? Here’s a theory.

The first thing to consider is that the cost of computers relative to power will continue to fall at a fairly rapid pace. Bear in mind that modern smartphones are more powerful than supercomputers were not 20-25 years ago, so in another 20 years we should be carrying around devices that are as powerful as perhaps a whole data center is today. By that extension, the processing power employed by studios or even regular desktops will, in all likelihood, allow for real-time animation on par with what Pixar puts out today.

So if real-time animation is possible within the next decade or so, who stands to gain the most from it? Traditional animation (in the real sense) depends on an animator creating the movement. Right now that is normally done at a level of detail that is well below the finished product, with layers of detail added after the movement is completed before everything is rendered. Real-time animation will at least allow an animator to see how their work will appear as it will in the final stages of design. DreamWorks is already moving in this direction but they still have a lag for rendering. That will disappear in due course.

But what about the other aspect to real-time animation? Traditional proceses will benefit, that is certain, but what if costs, budgets and public demand pushes things in the other direction, towards motion-capture?

Think about it for a second. Shows such as King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Futurama and others contain plenty of movements that are normal for any human. Mo-cap would allow studios to dramatically cut costs if they can utilise cheap actors in suits to do these movements and save the costly animation for the parts that actually require it. It’s a hybrid model of sorts as the efficiencies of both techniques are extracted. Once you throw in the real-time abilities on top of that, you’ll have the ability to churn out a TV show in dramatically less time than today.

Combined with the shift towards online viewing and web series, the opportunity to serve up animated shows (and potentially movies) in much less time and cost than they are now will be almost too tempting for studios and networks to pass up. Expect to see motion-capture becoming more and more commonplace in animated programming, and remember, they don’t have to be human either. Mo-cap is equally applicable to other anthropomorphic characters with a bit of tweaking on the part of the animation team.

Why theorise on all this? Animation remains a successful industry with more variety now than at any point in the past. Employment is good (although wages could be better) and the quality is continuing to improve at a rapid pace. The reason is simple. Technology and its associated changes don’t wait for anyone. Think of all the inkers who got the floor taken out from under them thanks to the xerox process. Animation as a skill will not go away, but the way in which it is conducted will change. Mo-cap is likely to become much more prevalent, especially once the uncanny-valleyness of it is figured out, which it will.

Are you in a position to adapt? How can you ensure that audiences won’t accept mo-cap once is becomes good enough or commonplace enough that they can’t tell the difference between it and traditional animation? I’m sure these are all questions that the Animation Guild has already thought about as they make a push into the VFX sphere, which is what studios are more likely to consider folks utilising mo-cap rather than animators, which is what they sort of are.

Anyway, just something to think about today. Have you any thoughts on such a potential future for animation? Share them in the comments below!

Updating Old Animation To Modern Standards

The video above is a sample of what I’m talking about. It’s basically the original Sonic the Hedgehog 2 game remade in full, glorious, widescreen high-definition. It’s very much a fan project, but it could have uses in animation. There are plenty of older properties out there that could benefit from an overhaul.

Which ones do you think could be done?

Jeffrey Katzenberg and the Folly of Faster Technology

Via: PC Mag

Yesterday, at the Techonomy conference, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg revealed that through technological developments, the studio would soon be able to animate in “real-time”. This statement has got a decent amount of attention from the relevant media, but just how accurate or true is it?

While Katzenberg is keeping the details close to his chest, it’s safe to assume that he is referring to the rendering part of the process. In other words, the part where the computer has to crunch a lot of numbers to get things to look how they’re suppose to look.

This has been a time-consuming process since day dot. Heck, even in the old days, you had to wait for the ink and pain department to colour your cels before you could even begin to visualise how the characters would look on screen.

However, what Katzenberg is hoping to achieve is the ability to animate and render at the same time. This is not an impossible goal. However his statement does seem to ignore how technology has developed over the last 60 years or so.

That is to say: it never really gets any faster.

Why? Because new more impressive software is always coming out that pushes hardware to its limits, just like its supposed to.

Take for example Toy Story. We all know it took a year to render or something like that, but just imagine, I could theoretically render Toy Story on my home computer right now, and there’s a good chance it wouldn’t take me a whole year to do so. So why don’t studios take advantage of technological developments and create films that take advantage of shorter render times?

The answer is simple, who wants to see a movie that looks like it came from the mid-1990s?

Which is precisely the problem. As long as studios continue to push the boundaries of what they can produce, there will always be the same constraints of time.

The only way this will change is when someone comes out with a new way of creating CGI animation that does away with the rendering altogether.

Until then, we’ll have to continue waiting.

Quick Note: Software Skills

Just a quick note because I’m actually waiting for class to start. When it comes to animation and technology where does software skills play into things?

What I mean is that with a wide variety of different programs out there how do you choose which ones to learn?

Are they the ones taught at your school? If so could you end up in a situation where you are being taught outdated or unpopular software?

Even moreso are you spending time learning a new program that may well be obsolete in a few years? Animation software (bar Renderman) is still somewhat new and the pace of development is currently breathless.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Should we revert to the good old ubiquitous paper and pencil or do we commit ourselves to learning something that may only benefit us for a short part of our careers?

PS please excuse any typos, I wrote this post on my phone.