Why do People Continue to Offer Up Excuses?

The rise in popularity in using technology for animation has brought about a subsequent explosion in creative output. For decades, animation was the preserve of a few who had the right resources and location to do it. That’s all changed though, and while today anyone can create, produce, and distribute animated content, many offer only excuses as to why they’re efforts do not produce results.

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Why Is Animation Like Software?

Software seems like a funny thing to compare animation to, doesn’t it? After all, one is mostly recreational and the other is, well, mostly utilitarian. Yet there are many common traits between the two, especially now that both are expected to be given away for free. Thankfully, someone has already figured out a way to make money from software.

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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!

Where IS Our Open Source 2D Animation Software?

cool Synfig animation by sekaisblog
Via: Sekaisblog on deviantArt

Nina Paley has blazed a bit of a trail in the animation world over the past few years with her near single-handedly produced feature film, Sita Sings the Blues. In a blog post today, she laments the various restrictions of Adobe Flash and the lack of any truly viable alternatives and wonders aloud whether or not a Kickstarter project could create an open source 2D animation software alternative.

Why Open Source Is Needed

Interestingly enough, it was Nina’s numerous struggles to get the film not made, but released (thanks to musical rights) that has placed her at the center of the nexus between animation and free and open source software. Her blog post highlights the fact that she runs an outdated version of Flash on a necessarily outdated machine; the result of not being able to run the software on a newer operating system, in this case Mac OSX.

As most graphics folks are aware of, many software companies (and both Apple and Adobe in particular) love to use technology and lock-in to force everyone to upgrade their software. (In the engineering world Autodesk earns many expletives for doing the same with AutoCAD). The gist is that newer versions use new filetypes that are not compatible with older versions. the result is that you either upgrade or get left behind.

Nina’s case is one that echos with many independent animators and small studios insofar that constant upgrading is not always viable or affordable. In such cases, the old version has to suffice until something absolutely has to be done.

Such a situation is far from ideal and wastes resources needlessly. Adobe charges thousands of dollars for the suites of programs that are utilised to create animation and from the sounds of things, every version of Flash gets worse and worse. (Heck, even I hate the Flash player that crashes my Firefox and all it’s doing is reading files; I can’t imagine what it’s like to make them.)

Why Open Source is the Solution

Amusingly enough, open source animation software is not completely unheard of and does in fact, play a large and vital role in many animation productions from the independent short all the way up to Hollywood blockbusters (check out Disney’s open source site for proof). Programs like Blender help create 3-D animation and have also become invaluable in graphic FX.

However all that work is 3D, not the more traditional 2D that has been around for more than a century. In the case of the latter, there are some alternatives but nothing coming close to encompassing all the features and capabilities that Flash offers. Nina discusses Synfig but notes her difficulty in getting around the user interface; a key hurdle for something that requires lots of user input.

What open source offers as an alternative is all the same benefits that the open source 3D programs do:

  • Drastically lower purchase costs
  • Interchangeable/compatible industry standards
  • Backwards compatibility
  • Cross-platform support (that’s Mac, Windows and Linux-friendly versions)
  • A non-mandatory upgrade path (upgrade if and when you want to!)

Why it Has to Be Done

Nina arrives at the following conclusion:

Time alone has not made this elusive software come into being. Could money? How much would I have to raise to commission an excellent programmer or two to give me what I want? Should I try a Kickstarter? A project like this should have a million dollars; I would aim for one tenth of that. Would even $100,000 be possible?

The result would be excellent Free vector animation software for everyone in the world.

I tend to agree that open source software often contends with the issue of time. The projects are, after all, mostly done by volunteers in their spare time and God knows there’s never enough of that around. In Nina’s suggestion, a Kickstarter project would essentially fund a full time programmer or two to develop a user interface for Synfig that’s more user-friendly.

That’s a great way to get things going and offering people the opportunity to contribute with something they may have (money) in exchange for something they may not have (time/skills).

Would it benefit everyone? Absolutely! A program that could create 2D animation that doesn’t cost the earth would offer tremendous benefits to every animator and studio alike. Money saved from buying software can be spent on other things (like animators!) and could make areas where animation is currently quite expensive to produce (think North America) more appealing to producers.

At the end of the day, a freely available, open source 2D program would open up doors for literally thousands of people who currently can’t get on the animation ladder thanks to the price of admission that Adobe and others charge. We should encourage this as a means of furthering the technique within the media landscape.

Is this a project you could get on board with or even use? Let us know in the comments!

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.

The Two Weeks of My Life When I Could Have Been Considered An Animator

Via: Wikipedia.org

Yes, the tagline for my blog is not entirely accurate, I did dabble in animation before I became a civil engineer. Now granted, I still cannot draw properly, and never really have been able to do so. I once entered an art competition for the Community Games and it was only after they announced the winners that my mother pointed out that my drawing had everyone swimming out to sea, complete with tropical island and palm trees. Needless to say, I did not win.

So drawing really isn’t in my genes. I kind of wish it was, but at the same time, I know my kids (all four of ’em) will have at least some capabilities that enable them to draw more than a straight line.

You would think that would have limited me in the animation field wouldn’t you? Oh, no. This is the 21st century, where I could, theoretically, carve a whole career out of making films consisting straight-lines all made on the computer (if I really wanted to). But this post is set before that, all the way back in the early, early days of 1997 AD (or BCE for the Jewish folks).

It was at the very beginning of January that year that I paid a very rare visit to the US with my Dad. Long story short, my uncle had a computer (with something called America On-Line that allowed you to do stuff on the “internet”) and on said computer was, Where In The World is Carmen Sandiego. However, that is not all. Also installed on that Packard-Bell-branded PC was a copy of Spider-Man Cartoon Creator.

Sadly, Google failed to turn up a screenshot, but if you can imagine a screen with a scene in the middle and plenty of big buttons around the outside for adding characters, objects, etc. then you’ve got the gist of it.

With this basic program, you could create an entire show using either the included backgrounds and characters. For the voices, you had to supply your own, and I’m sure I did the best impressions of Peter Parker I could. Everything was based on Spider-Man: The Animated Series which was being or had recently been broadcast and is one of the very few comic book TV shows that I watched regularly as a child.

Naturally, whatever I created has long since been lost to the ether, but I remember having great fun playing it and acting out the role of a creative overlord. Perhaps it was because I was a kid and kids are more easily entertained, but I really did have fun when my imagination ran wild.

After nearly two weeks of playing the game, it was time for me to head back to The Auld Sod, but before we left, we headed up to a computer show. Now this is back in the pre-dotcom bubble when computers were awesome and not merely a tool of everyday life. Long story short, we’re wandering around and guess what I see is for sale. That’s right, the Spider-Man Cartoon Maker!

My Dad asked me if I wanted it, and I did, but at the time, I thought computer programs cost $200 and up. Where I got this notion, I do not know, but long story short, so I said….no, because I didn’t want my Dad to spend $200 just on me (I was a selfless kid, really).

Where would I be now if I had had more than a fortnight to act out my animation fantasies? Who knows. I would most likely still be an engineer, seeing as having a cartoon-making program on the PC will not exactly improve my drawing skills in the slightest.

What the program did teach me though, was that cartoons are ‘made’, they don’t just appear out of thin air on the TV or cinema screen. I suppose it’s just a wee bit of a shame that the full realization of that didn’t come about until I was about 20 years, 7 moths old.

Your Thought for the Day: What Animation Software to Learn

What does this have to do with you? Well for one, if you learned the right software, you could be applying for a job with an Academy Award-Nominated outfit in Dublin. If not, you’d be stuck looking for another posting. Last week, Cathal Gaffney highlighted that finding animators in Ireland with a knowledge of Maya was getting increasingly hard.

This leads to the question: With the growing proliferation of animation software, which one is the best to learn, and do you pigeon-hole yourself if you learn only one?

Think about it, and post any thoughts in the comments below.