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THE ANIMATOR: EVOLUTION OR EXTINCTION?

Technology, as in every facet of our society, has had a profound effect on animation over the years. Traditionally, it is an art form that requires patience and the investment of countless hours, literally creating a film one frame at a time. The integration and assistance of computers in various parts of the production process however, has not only changed the way animators work, but also altered the perception of animation as an art form and the role that it plays.

You would be hard pressed nowadays to find a part of animation that isn´t touched by a computer in some way. Even traditional hand-drawn animation can be drawn via the use of a tablet directly into the computer, removing the need to manually scan, ink and paint each individual drawing. But even though technology like this has helped speed up the animator’s workflow, and in many cases completely change it, the scientists and tech heads are still yet to create a piece of technology that can replicate the skills of a great animator.

It is a common gripe of both myself and colleagues in the industry who are all too familiar with the comments that come from friends and strangers alike when the subject of work arises. Comments like “Isn´t that all done with computers these days?” or even better, “In a few years we won´t even need animators will we?” Sadly these comments aren´t said with jest and industry pros have all heard statements like these so often that it has become a bit of an industry inside joke.

So what does an animator do? An animator´s job is to bring inanimate objects life. Whether it be a series of drawings, a figurine or a 3D computer model, the role of the animator is not just to create the illusion of movement in a film or video game, but to bring the characters to life using principles and techniques that have been around for over a century. It requires incredible patience as well as an eye for mechanics, physics and perhaps most importantly, acting, emotion and the human condition. It is an art form that has continued to evolve over the decades but has now reached a point where advancements in technology have such a major influence that the traditional craft is getting lost and is sometimes perceived as a dying art.

The technology that has had the biggest impact on the animation industry in recent times is the advent of motion-capture within film, television and video game productions. As the name suggests, it is the process of capturing or recording the motions of people and objects usually with the help of special suits and cameras. This motion can then be the saved and applied to a computer generated (CG) character within a film or video game. The great advantage of motion capture technology is the realistic results that it delivers and the speed at which it can deliver them. Animation that would have previously taken days or sometimes weeks can now be captured within minutes and to a quality that was virtually impossible beforehand. Depending on the production, facial expressions can also captured with the use of tiny head-mounted cameras that pick up every little facial tick and movement the actor makes. Performance Capture technology is now used so often in productions that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the general public to tell the difference between reality and it´s virtual counterpart.

Due to the introduction of virtual characters in films such The Lord of the Rings (2001), King Kong (2005), Avatar (2009) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the words motion capture have moved from a somewhat specialist term into the average movie goers lexicon, and the technology utilized to make the big blockbusters is often used as a selling point during the marketing of the films. But while being very impressive technology, the truth is usually distorted by studios with all credit going to directors or actors with little reference to the many animators working tirelessly behind the scenes. The illusion is built that with the nothing more than a funny looking suit and a few cameras, the actor’s performance is captured and applied to a computer model with nothing more than the click of a button.

Andy Serkis Caesar facial comparison

Figure 1: Andy Serkis plays Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes series.

Andy Serkis, famous for his roles as Gollum, Caesar and King Kong angered many animators in recent times, describing the role of the animator as “painting digital makeup onto actors”. While the quote from Serkis seemed to be taken out of context and generally misinterpreted by many, it received a lot of media attention and once again put the emphasis on the technology behind the films and not the individuals making them.

“..they (Weta) have now schooled their animators to honor the performances that are given by the actors on set. And the teams of people who understand that way of working now are established. And that’s something that has really changed. It’s a given that they absolutely copy [the performance] to the letter, to the point in effect what they are doing is painting digital makeup onto actors’ performances.”
- Andy Serkis (Slashfilm, 2014)

It is the combination of art and technology that bring these amazing characters to the screen and not technology alone. Motion capture, although sounding like a magic solution, needs to be processed and cleaned, and when working with CG characters, the less they resemble the actor, the more work needs to be done to ensure the digital character’s movements appear natural. On many projects, it is also not uncommon that an animator makes changes to an actor’s performance or enhance it in some way. This can be to improve the acting, blend it seamlessly with the action of a stuntman or sometimes create something completely new by hand that cannot be created using motion capture technology. So although the old handmade stop-motion figurines of Jason and the Argonauts (1963) are no longer present in most current day film productions, large teams of animators are still working hard, applying their skills digitally using the computer as the middleman to get their craft on the screen.

As in the film industry, the growth of motion capture technology within the video games industry has had a major impact and has increased productivity and helped take animation quality to a whole new level. It is a massive time saver and although it may seem to remove the need of a large animation team, the new technology has also increased the expectations of both consumers and developers with animation fidelity and variety constantly needing to be pushed to greater heights. A current generation third-person action game like Assassins Creed 3 (2012) or Ryse: Son of Rome (2013) for example, requires somewhere in the range of 8,000 animations for the player character alone. To produce this amount of animations to a high quality, with or without the use of motion capture, requires a large team of animators trained to ensure that the animation not only looks great but also feels fluid and natural for the player.

“It’s something you have to consider when making a big game. You know not to do unique animations for every single character.”
- Jonathon Cooper (Polygon 2014)

While we have these big titles that rely on realism and require the need for motion capture we are also seeing huge success with titles such as World of Warcraft, Dota 2, Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends that are moving away from a realistic style and therefore relying on the pure skill of the animators to bring the characters to life. Video games audiences have also changed over the years with teenage boys no longer seen as the only consumers. The introduction of smart phones and tablets over the last ten years has brought about a more casual consumer who not only plays games on their computer at home but more on the train on the way home from a hard day at the office. Major game developers such as Electronic Arts, Valve, Ubisoft and Blizzard still dominate the industry with their large scale projects, but now we are seeing a far greater number of independent developers producing different types of projects for these casual gamers. From an animation perspective, this allows animators to work on projects of different styles where they can utilise their skills to create fun, new and exciting motion that doesn’t necessarily fit within a realistic world.

We have also noticed an interesting shift in the animation industry over the years within film and television and due to hit shows like the Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy, the current generation no longer views animation as just a child’s medium. This opens up the possibilities of new shows and themes that may not have been previously tackled.

“There’s a sophisticated audience out there, which is exciting. People are less attuned to it just being a cartoon, as cartoons traditionally were for a younger audience, and suddenly you’ve got animation simply as a format much like live action or anything it’s just a way to reinforce what is your storytelling, and that’s a big opportunity.”
- Alex Bulkley (Business Insider, 2014)

So we have seen big developments in animation over the years and there is no doubt that it will continue to evolve artistically, technologically and culturally. Technological advancements, while powering forward and altering the way we work, has not yet replaced the need for the animator as we know it. The medium continues to expand from a child’s entertainment medium to an art form used for a variety of purposes both in and outside of the entertainment world. It is a fascinating art form with more and more children wanting to work in this exciting yet very scary world. And just as photography did not replace the painting, motion capture and other similar technology will not remove the need for animators, but simply enhance the art of animation and hopefully push it into new and exciting directions. And when the question of our importance comes up in the future, then it is up to the animators themselves to decide if they want to evolve with the times or stay stuck in the mud and wait for extinction.

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