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The world is the best classroom By Stephen Schleicher
One of the things that I enjoy about teaching is that it gives me a chance to share the knowledge that I have accumulated over the years and help the student as they prepare to enter the professional arena. But sometimes the world before our eyes can be the best teacher.

Grand CanyonThe environment that surrounds us can greatly influence how we model and animate. As a student myself, I was always amazed and maybe a bit confused when tutorials would have me create trees I had never seen, or tell me to use fog to simulate the general haze that hangs in the air. The confusion came because the environment where I lived had no trees like the ones in the tutorials, and there was no haze, as you could see forever in the bleak desolate landscape where I grew up. When I moved, even the varied environment in Atlanta did not match up to the animated flora and fauna I was seeing in other animators work. It wasn't until I got to California that it all kicked in. Most of the work I had seen was created by animators who lived in California, and the environment that was right outside their window had directly inspired their work. While this works if you come from that region of the country, referencing that landscape to represent a different area of the world can make the animation very unbelievable.


Painted DesertRecently when I had the chance to drive across this great land of ours this idea hit me again. The painted and high deserts of the Southwest United States are some of the most beautiful regions I have ever seen. It is a beautiful combination of brightly colored bluffs and mesas with grass, trees, and flowering plants giving one breathtaking views. Unfortunately I don't see that environmental representation in CG work, as the closest dessert for California animators is the I-15 to Las Vegas, Yuka Valley, or Death Valley. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that animators are not capable of creating beautiful environments, in fact I have seen a lot of excellent work, but again it is usually a representation of ones immediate surroundings.

One of the best solutions to accurately represent the land where the movie or short takes place is to immerse the animator in that area. If you can't take the animator to the environment, bring the environment to the animator. When Disney animators were working on Bambi and needed to see how animals moved and looked in real life, they converted a portion of their studio to a zoo so the artists could accurately portray the animals for the movie. This idea and tradition still continues today in many studios around the world. Since moving an entire animation team to a location can often be expensive or cost prohibitive, sending one or two people who can capture that environment with video or still cameras may offer a solution that gives everyone a chance to study the details and recreate them in the CG world.

Another aid to creating a believable world that people can relate to is by doing research on the area or subject matter you are trying to animate. The Internet is one source I would recommend. There you can find blueprints to just about every building, automobile, or aircraft ever built. There are websites that contain hundreds of photographs of distant lands that can serve as a visual reference while you are creating. If you can't find what you need on the Internet, the bookstore or library should be the next source to turn too. Need to see real animals? Go to the zoo. Don't underestimate museums. Artifacts, stuffed animals, and documents from around the world and ages can be valuable.

One of the questions I am constantly asked by new animators is, "does this look real?" or, "What can I do to make this look more realistic?" My typical response is, "Why do you think it doesn't look real?" This will typically cause the student to respond with, "It doesn't look detailed enough", or "I don't really know what the real object looks like". A common problem with a simple solution. Get your hands on that real object, go to the place you are trying to recreate, and study it. Pay attention to all the details. Sometimes it is a simple matter of grunging up a surface or modeling minor details. Other times it may be applying an environmental map, or just lighting the object correctly.

Now matter what skill level you are at, sometimes the best aid in improving the realism in your animations is to turn off the computer, get off your butt, and go explore the world around you. Sometimes it is the best teacher...

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Stephen Schleicher has crossed the country several times over the last couple of years going from Kansas to Atlanta , Georgia, and Southern California. In his time traveling, he has worked as an editor, graphic designer, videographer, director, and producer on a variety of video productions ranging from small internal pieces, to large multimedia
corporate events.

Currently, Stephen shares his knowledge with students at Fort Hays State University who are studying media and web development in the Information Networking and Telecommunications department. When he is not shaping the minds of university students, Stephen continues to work on video and independent projects for State and local agencies and organizations as well as his own ongoing works.

He is also a regular contributor to Digital Producer, Creative Mac, Digital Webcast, Digital Animators, and the DV Format websites, part of the Digital Media Online network of communities (www.digitalmedianet.com), where he writes about the latest technologies, and gives tips and tricks on everything from Adobe After Effects, to Appleā??s Final Cut Pro, LightWave 3D, to shooting and lighting video.

He has a Masters Degree in Communication from Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. As a forward thinker, he wrote his Thesis on how Information Islands and e-commerce would play a major role in keeping smaller communities alive. This of course was when 28.8 dialup was king and people hadnā??t even invented the word e-commerce.

And, he spends what little free time he has biking, reading, traveling around the country, and contemplating the future of digital video and its impact on our culture. You can reach him at schleicher@mindspring.com

Related Keywords:animation, details, computer graphics, teacher, learning, observation, stephen schleicher, digital animators

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