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The State of 3D Animation

Straight talk with 3D industry professionals By Stephen Schleicher
In the last 15 months the animation industry has seen quite a few changes take place. To some, the industry has gone from phenomenal growth to decline, while others insist that everything is just fine. In one day a company may be hiring like mad, while another is laying off talent because work has left the country for parts unknown. Despite continued creation and distribution of animated and effect laden features, commercials, television programs, and Internet shorts, the actual state of the Industry is still up in the air.

I've mentioned before that I routinely visit CG sites to check out what kind of great work animators and CG professionals are turning out, I also take the time to visit some of the "chat" groups that abound on the Internet. If you have not checked these groups out, I suggest you do so as often they are populated with industry professionals who are working on some very interesting projects, and once the chat community gets to know you, everyone is willing to speak their mind on what is right and wrong with their profession. Thus was the case a few weeks ago when I began chatting with many of the regulars in a popular animation channel. This spun off into a great panel discussion that includes many animators and industry professionals.


The Panel
It's great to know so many people working in the industry. Not only are they willing to take the time to sit down and talk about what they are doing, they are super friendly people.

Mark Sylvester, Ambassador
Alias|Wavefront
www.aliaswavefront.com
As a co-founder of Wavefront Technologies in 1984, Mark helped to develop The Advanced Visualizer, a 3D computer animation system first used at Universal Pictures, and co-designed Composer, a high-end compositing system that's still going strong as a tool for many feature films. With his grounding in the industry, Mark also articulates Alias|Wavefront's vision of the role of computer graphics for today and the future.

Joe Alter, Founder
Joe Alter, Inc
www.joealter.com
Prior to founding the company in 1999, Joe Alter has worked in visual effects since 1985 starting at industry pioneer Robert Abel/Assoc. Over the years Alter has done work for George Lucas's ILM, Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks SKG, Roland Emerich's CentropolisFX, Warner Bros., Boss Film, Metrolight Studios and Phil Tippet Studios.

His most notable feature production (key shot) work includes The Prince of Egypt, Godzilla, The Mask, Star Trek:Generations and Cliffhanger. Currently Joe is programming Shave and a Haircut: Extreme for the LightWave and 3dsmax communities.

Dave Campbell, Strategic/Product Marketing Manager—3D
Discreet
www.discreet.com
With an extensive history in animation production, Dave Campbell's in depth knowledge of Discreet's 3D Solutions provides him with a solid understanding of the needs of today's ever-changing animation market. Currently, his focus is on driving the vision and direction of Discreet's animation marketing activities. Before joining Discreet, Campbell served as an animator/compositor at one of the pioneering studios behind today's burgeoning PC-based production arena—Blur Studio in Venice Beach, Calif.

Gregg Lukomski, Motion Picture VFX Artist
www.matchmove.com
As a freelance 3D camera tracker and match mover, Gregg has worked on many projects. Some of his most notable feature work includes Gone in 60 Seconds, Disney's Dinosaur, Zooander and Don't Say a Word. Currently Gregg is the Animation Technical Director for Disney's Treasure Planet, integrating traditional 2D animation with 3D virtual sets.

Daryl Bartley, CGI Animator
Saban
Daryl has been working with Saban Entertainment since 1999, creating effects for Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, as well as work on Xyber 9, NASCAR Racers, Los Luchadores and numerous television movies.

Rowsby, CGI Animator
Currently Freelance
www.rowsby.com
Rowsby has worked for Foundation Imaging, where he completed work on Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles, Max Steel and most recently Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future. His freelance client list includes corporations from Alcoa to Zippo.

Digital Media Online: Thank you all for taking the time out of your busy schedules to talk. With so many questions, I guess the first place to begin is by asking, what is the current state of the industry as you see it?

Daryl Bartley: That's really hard to say. More of it is being done than ever, but more people are out of work than ever. I think the same thing is capable of happening to 3D that happened to 2D.

Dave Campbell: I think animation is in a great place right now. Sure, there are always concerns on the production side about where the next job will come from—and any ups and downs in the industry are in many ways a natural part of the cycle.

But animation itself, be it for use in feature films, games or design, is becoming more accessible to a wider range of people, and the hardware and software involved is making the process of getting the art done much easier.

Mark Sylvester: From a pure numbers position no one can ignore the thousands of positions that have been lost in the [last] 12 months. This is having ripple effects in everything we experience, both at work and in our personal lives. We are making different decisions about our entertainment dollars than we did last year. Consumers are torn between spending $10 on the next cool film, buying the latest game for their console or saving up for the next great gadget.

Advertisers are still compelled to provide interesting images to hook their viewers—animation is still one of the best ways to do this. In a faltering economy, these images must be continue to be leading edge, or they won't draw an audience.

Filmmakers know that even in a depression people want to go to the movies—providing jobs for many of us along the way. But the stakes are much higher than ever before, and decisions to greenlight a project are made knowing that millions of dollars will hang on the capriciousness of their viewers.

Joe Alter: This is an industry that's very eager to please, so there are lots of opportunities and lots of pitfalls as well.

Feature animation is generating enormous revenue, but it hasn't quite made it into animator's pockets just yet. The overhead to produce a feature length film still requires big companies to flip the bill, so this kind of thing will repeat itself for a few more years until boutiques can compete with them.

My feeling is the industry has been in worse spots. People are going to the theaters to see the films, after all.

Gregg Lukomski: I think the entire industry is trying to rediscover itself and is having some growing pains as we search for where we want to take it next.

DMO: What direction is that? Or has no one figured that out?

Gregg: No one has a clue, so we're seeing projects that are technically spectacular, but you're left with the question, "Why are we doing this in CG," or, "Is this story even good enough to justify all this effort?"

DMO: Can you give me an example of a company that has figured it out?

Gregg: Sure ... Pixar. The stories are solid; the tech is amazing; and they are pushing boundaries, but not overextending themselves.

Rowsby: I think the industry is fine, if you're doing stuff in Maya.

DMO: Care to elaborate?

Rowsby: Sure. I worked at a studio that was almost exclusively LightWave. After trying to get bigger jobs in the industry, they continued to fail. Some of that, I believe, is due to how Hollywood works. They love buzzwords. Most of the people that make decisions don't know much about the software; they just remember the name. LightWave is a name they don't seem to recall or think is as good as Maya is, apparently. I think this is terribly unfair, but that's the way things seem to be moving as CG becomes more commonplace in the industry.

DMO: You are making a good point. Do you think an animation package and production house can fail because of a poor movie, or even a great one?

Rowsby: It can. A bad movie can easily kill a studio, especially if their resources are tight. That's true of any business. People will often blame a tool instead of the person using it. It's not that different from racial stereotyping. People do it because it's a mental convenience, not an attempt to understand a situation.

Mark: I would hate to see the tool drive an artistic decision as you outlined. A project should go to the team that has the best grasp of the director's vision and how to help them articulate that on the big screen. I think that Maya is a tool that, in the right hands, can do anything—but that means a commitment to expand, customize and push the software to areas it has never been. This is the crux of why any given studio outperforms the others. Remember that Maya, and 3D in general, is not what the film is about—these combined tools, including physical and practical effects, brilliant art direction and a director with a vision will make a film a success—not the tool by itself.

Dave: I think these kinds of stories do drive people to make a choice about a product—after all, it is the end results that count. But the real tribute for the quality of the final project should go to the artists and designers involved. Some studios will tell the client that they use one package, and then do the job on another package altogether…

Daryl: Maya has the best PR, definitely. It's mentioned in every sentence out of ILM.

Joe: It is no coincidence that [Rhythm and Hues] does almost every talking animal movie and ILM does all the "science goes horribly wrong/disaster ensues" movies.

Gregg: As far as I can tell, the software isn't really an issue.

DMO: Speaking of production house, do you think there are fewer companies doing more work, or are smaller boutiques starting to spring up again?

Mark: Yes. We hear of startups all the time—even in a poor economy. The barrier to entry has gotten so low that it is feasible to create a studio that is under the radar of traditional Hollywood—and therein lies one of the secrets to their success—low overhead, reasonably paid animators, and a passion to deliver high-end product for low-end prices. As more companies begin to specialize, it is not out of the realm of reason to see shops offering cloth, hair and dynamics effects that cannot be completed anywhere else.

Joe: I'd say there are more boutiques than ever. They haven't gone anywhere, but they've all been going after visual effects work. This is not profitable work right now; there are just too many people after the same dollar. In coming years though, I expect that there will be a few select boutiques making their own movies.

Gregg: At my last count, I know of over 30 CG features either in development, production or release... that's a ton of work, and its equally distributed between the big players and the small crews with a bit of funding.

Daryl: I think small places are definitely popping up; the large places are just getting larger, but a lot of things are just badly managed.

DMO: Such as?

Daryl: People, resources, contacts. look at how FI has grown and collapsed.

DMO: But that seems to be a trend no matter what production house you are at.... They get a few large jobs, hire all the animators they can find, and then as soon as the jobs are completed, the animators are let go.

Daryl: Right, but that's a pretty terrible way to run things

DMO: From who's point of view; the animator or the owner?

Daryl: The animator. Being treated as disposable leads to bad attitudes on all sides.

DMO: What about work going outside of the country? That has to be another reason work seems to be on the decline.

Daryl: The whole notion of taking it out of the U.S. sucks, but that's a problem with animation and production in general.

I mean, it's always going to be volatile; it's just the entertainment biz itself, but it seems like they're going out of their way to make it worse.

Rowsby: This reminds me of a certain production house.... They started trying to teach the Chinese to do animation and funneled money into it. Most of the work that was done overseas, had to be redone. That means that they paid for work done twice. Not good for business.

I'm sure the idea looked great on paper.... Save about 50 percent, but with the language and cultural issues, it didn't work so smoothly.

Daryl: It is not only China, but Australia and Canada too.

Rowsby: I've been laid off twice due to MainFrame [a Canadian based animation house] getting a job that we had hoped to work on. The first time was when Sony pulled out at the very last moment and signed a contact with them to do Heavy Gear. The second time was when they got Max Steel, season III.

Canada is a big problem for the U.S. animation industry. In fact, some people have begun to form a group to defend the rights of animators in this country from unfair business practices.

DMO: But production being sucked up to Canada has been something that has been going on for quite some time…

Daryl: Yeah, it's been going on and increasing for some time, but that doesn't mean anyone has to like it.

Gregg: I'm a union artist, and I want to raise a family while working in this field, but I'm not putting all my eggs in the CG basket.

DMO: What kind of things are the unions doing right now to keep work in the U.S.?

Gregg: Right now, not enough work is being done. I think it's a problem of education. A 20-year-old kid just out of some 3D program isn't looking ahead when he's making an above U.S. average wage at his "first job." I've even heard a few of them make comments like, "At least I'm not a 2D artist; all the work is overseas."

Bottom line, there is no difference between traditional 2D and the 3D industries.... It can all go away.

DMO: So have you lost work to overseas houses?

Gregg: Not yet, but projects like Moebius' 'Thru the Morbius Strip could be the first of many shows that would have be done in the States, Canada or Australia; now they are looking for something even cheaper.

DMO: Regardless of work staying or leaving the country, how is pay for animators?

Joe: Pay is up, but the jobs are harder to come by.

Daryl: As far as I can tell, it's staying the same. I doubt it would go up, more likely to go down.

Mark: As we do not hire animators, but focus on programmers, I can't comment—though I have heard that the ridiculous salaries that nearly bankrupted the industry have come down significantly.

Rowsby: There isn't much budget for top-notch pay for "kid vid" people, which, again, explains why things are going overseas for the kid's market. The same thing has been going on for a long time in 2D, with Asia taking most of the work away from the U.S.

Gregg: I think we're looking at a big overall decrease in pay over the next few years. That is one thing that the union is very good at; keeping the wage base stable.

DMO: Why is pay decreasing?

Gregg: Simply because of the competition for work, both at a facility level and down in the artist trenches.

DMO: What about working conditions?

Mark: Wow—I just finished reading about the excess of the dot.com startups—expensive furnishings, lots of creature comforts—and all that is gone now. If you look at animation studios in America, there are frequently six people to a room—no privacy—but a lot of camaraderie—so it doesn't appear to have a negative impact. These conditions mimic what I see when I travel to Asia—there it is not unusual to have 30 to 50 animators in the same amount of space as we would put 10—yet the same level of frenzied activity persists. I have to say that I came from a production environment—though it was in the world of professional kitchens—and nothing is more important than getting the job done—animation is the same. If you have to sleep at the workstation to assure the render completes, then that is what you will do—being a tool maker, I can go home at night and sleep in my own bed. I appreciate the difference immensely.

Joe: If by that you mean ergonomic desks, insurance plans and semi-normal working hours, I'd say working conditions are great. But there's a price for all that stuff. The contracts you have to sign to get that stuff are extremely exploitive; read them carefully. The "worst case" clauses do get exercised fairly routinely. If your contract says they can impale you with a stake, you can be pretty sure you have a nice pointy stake at some point in your future. Don't hesitate to cross out ridiculous things on your contracts before signing them.

DMO: So pay may be up, it may be down depending on where you are working, but what about what package is used? Do animators need to be diversified on many CG packages, or can they make a living on one package alone?

Joe: Animators should ALWAYS know as much as they can. It also depends largely on what kind of animation they want to do, and where they want to work. For instance, if you want to work at ILM, you need to know Softimage to animate, Maya to integrate, and Renderman to render. If you want to work at Digital Domain you need to know Maya or Houdini to FX animate, and Renderman to render (they don't do much character work). If you want to work in games, you need to know Max. If you want to work in broadcast graphics, or TV series work, learn LightWave.

This is kind of oversimplifying, since most studios will evaluate your work regardless of what tool you used to create it, but mostly they'll be looking for plug and play into their pipeline, both in terms of your tool experience and the types of companies you've had experience working for. So two guys have about the same skill in two different packages, they're going to hire the one that's most compatible with their pipeline.

Also, not to be under estimated, if you're applying to a big studio, they'll want to see that you have spent some time in a similar environment as well and are familiar with the culture and process that surrounds a production.

Gregg: You can really move pretty freely between packages these days, as long as you are an expert at the underlying fundamentals. You can become comfortable with package X if you don't have a ton of bad habits.

DMO: What kind of bad habits do you have to avoid?

Gregg: Using a package's automated features as a crutch, that can tie you to a specific toolset and make learning another one difficult.

Dave: Well, having made a great living knowing 3ds Max, I'm of the belief that you can do it with just one package. If you are in the freelance realm, it would pay to know a couple of packages for some job security just to grab overflow from everywhere you could. But there's nothing like immersing yourself fully in a package.

Daryl: If you have to be one package, it's Maya; anything else you need to learn, [learn] it and Maya. LightWave seems to be dwindling; either the shops are getting smaller and leaner or just disappearing. Still plenty of LightWave being used, but the spots are filled already.

Mark: I believe that to be successful they need to know more than just 3D—of course Maya would be the ideal choice, but that is based on what I am hearing from recruiters, animation schools, students, teachers and the big studios. However I also believe that a well rounded new media student would be well versed in the Adobe and Macromedia suites of tools, as well as having an ongoing continuing education program with a local community college or art school.

DMO: Let's talk about some fun stuff for a moment. What are you looking forward to seeing at this year's Siggraph?

Mark: This will be my 17th Siggraph, and I wouldn't miss it for the world. My favorite part is seeing all of my friends—especially at AWGUA@NIGHT, our annual gathering of users from around the world. As far as the show itself, I look forward to discovering the small startups that are at their first show. This is where I find some of the clever innovations that Siggraph is known for.

Joe: This year's kind of make or break for my little company, so I'll be pretty focused on our booth.

Several people are making cameos at my booth showing cool stuff that has little to do with my product[s]. Scott Kirvan, for instance, will be showing his radiosity render "Brazil;" Greg Ercolano will be answering questions about his "Rush" render queue. These are all guys that I consider innovative and interesting to have around, and I am constantly looking for ways we can work together.

Siggraph has become so "in your face" about sales, we're hoping to create a "Siggraph within a Siggraph" where people get together and discuss and play with all sorts of technology and trade notes with the guys who actually wrote it.

I don't think we're going to be alone with this approach, so the convention floor should be pretty interesting this year if you sniff around. There are several other innovative little seedlings that are going to be sprouting up around the convention floor that I'll be watching with great interest.

Dave: I'm looking forward to catching up with my buddies! The community around Siggraph really is the best thing about the show in my opinion. Sure, there will be great technology, and software vendors will have something new to say, but it's the people in our industry that make the difference. But otherwise, I'll be at the Discreet booth; it's a big show for us this year.

Rowsby: I'm planning on attending and meeting some people I haven't seen in a while. I suppose the most important thing I'm looking forward to right now, is the Job Fair.

Daryl: I am going to try and go a few days. I am looking to check out the new Matchmover. LightWave is going to have a ton to show as well ... anything else is fluff really....

DMO: I got to see Matchmover back at NAB; it looks really nice.

Daryl: 2.0 is supposed to have automation, more similar to boujou. boujou right now is the most amazing thing I've seen. You feed it the footage; it turns out a track; and that's pretty much all you have to do.... It's genius. They did some stuff literally while we watched.

Gregg: I'm interested to see the latest camera tracking and matchmoving software. There are a ton of really powerful features that have made the scene in the [last] year.

DMO: Any one tracking or matchmoving software you favor?

Gregg: Nah … they are all just tools in the toolbox.

DMO: A lot of talk has been circulating about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Have you seen it? What are your thoughts?

Mark: I think that in five years we will see young animators that are in the business as a direct result of being inspired by this film. It resets the bar on what we thought could be done with computer graphics. Fully articulated, dimensional, lifelike humans are now possible. Sure, it takes a ton of people, a bunch of awesome plugins, a well-oiled pipeline and a devotion to reinvention—but it is all worth it. Even if the movie makes no money, Square has set a new milestone for our industry, and I am personally proud to have been a part of it.

Joe: I've only seen trailers, I'll be seeing it this week sometime. Some really talented young guys worked on it. Andy Jones, for instance, is a guy I worked with at Centropolis on Godzilla. The guy was animating final shots faster than you could sneeze and held the "Animation Supervisor" title just a few years out of school. I think he wore out several mice before the show was done, so I'm sure there'll be some very cool stuff to see.

Dave: Awesome graphics, a shame about the story. On a general level, I believe that Hollywood's run of graphics-intensive films with no plot will have to end at some point. The audience out there loves a good story and are getting desensitized to CG to the point where the audience's attention is really on what is happening, not just how cool it looks. Again, it was a beautiful looking film. But, I think that the lip sync and facial expressions in Final Fantasy were what let them down from attaining that ultimate goal.

Rowsby: Final Fantasy was essentially a 3D anime flick. From script to lip-sync. I found those elements pretty disappointing, but, visually, it was quite nice.

Daryl: I think it's getting a worse rap than it deserves, but it definitely had problems. It's typical of Square's other stuff, technically brilliant, unsurpassed visuals, but low-key or even goofy writing/story.

DMO: Part of the hype with Final Fantasy was how realistic the CG humans were. How far away is the industry from completely replacing a real actor with a virtual one? Virtual extras don't count....

Dave: We're getting closer all the time to matching the visual aspects, but it is the subtleties of human movement that are the main hurdle. That being said, if it hasn't been done convincingly in the next three years I'll be surprised. But I think audiences enjoy human actors for many different reasons, and I hope that never changes—but for aliens, monsters and animals, I see that reaching even new levels of realism in the near term.

Joe: I don't think they were aiming for photo-real, and all the CG versus human hype seems a little over blown. I think they were just aiming away from plastic toys. A photoreal human is certainly possible. ILM did a very convincing Frankenstein test several years ago but shelved the project. The question you have to ask yourself is, "Is photoreal enough?"

Rowsby: Well, ILM tried it with their scorpion king character in The Mummy Returns, and it's pretty clear that work between studios, or even teams in studios, can vary greatly. I think that the tools continue to improve, and so are the people using them. I would say it's around the corner.

Gregg: I don't see it happening for quite a while....

DMO: why?

Gregg: The public doesn't buy People magazine to hear that some TD upgraded "Aki's" facial targets, but if Tom Cruise shows up at some Hollywood eatery, it's big news. That's the power that causes people to pay $10 to watch a movie.

Daryl: I'd give it a few years. The real problem is if it's necessary. Most of the uses for virtual humans are as extras, stunt doubles or for a specific effect. There's no reason to have a virtual actor, which takes five to six people to perform, versus one.

I think visually they're there; they just have to work on the motion, which is where a lot of CG fails. The mo-cap was actually about the best-acted mo-cap so far, but the rest of it was under-acted.

Mark: We are easily five years for a full screen, frontal close up—however, unless we make some serious headway in lip syncing it may take longer. This seems to be a real sticky point right now.

But the longer answer is 10 to 15 years—with a convergence of AI and CG, we may get to the next level, in my opinion, that of Directed Characters. No longer will we have to struggle over walk cycles that take a day to complete—but a director will tell the virtual character—walk over to the chair, sit down, and laugh....

DMO: Okay, last question. What is the next "Big" thing for the animation industry?

Joe: CG characters need to become better actors. I don't think it's as simple as saying we need better animators, I think the software bogs the animators down a little too heavily with details. I still think AI will play a role in this; motion capture (in my estimation) is a pointless exercise (for features, great for games).

Mark: Directed Characters, models with intelligence—behavioral control of animation, is my first answer. The real answer is making this technology that we have developed over the past 17 years truly intuitive, easy to manipulate, and approachable. The learning curve is still perilously steep—for us as an industry to grow any larger, we will have to pay attention to the coming class of young animators that don't have the years of growing up with innovation like we did—they are forced to learn it all, quickly, so that they can get into the food chain—unfortunately it is not that easy. Yet.

Dave: The next big thing? Well, you'll have to wait and see what Discreet brings to the table.... But the next big hurdle to overcome is education of the growing number of student animators. Project-based education is the key to having new animators fit into a production pipeline and be at a point where they help the pipeline rather than having to then be educated on how it actually works in the real world.

And the next "big" thing technology or process-wise? Well, next year's desktop computers will rock—and from my perspective, we're going to see some pretty crazy levels of interactivity available to artists sooner rather than later.... But what I'm waiting for is the Holodeck that's currently under development—let me jack my brain into THAT puppy when it's done!

Rowsby: That's a good question. Right now, I think it's improved software, doing better soft dynamics and compositing, etc.

As for trends,... furry things seem to be replacing creatures that were scaled. Was a time you could only want to hope to pull off a dino in a film. Fur technology has gotten quite good in the last couple years, and there are more examples of fully CG animals in the movies now. 102 Dalmatians used a lot of them, for instance.

I think there will be more attempts at doing believable humans, since that's the benchmark of our species, but I think it will take a while to fully fool the audience, as they become more educated as well.

Daryl: Not sure there is a big thing left.... It's all refinement.

Gregg: We haven't seen it yet.... If it's on the radar now, that's not it.

DMO: Thanks for your time and great responses.

Stephen Schleicher is the producer of DMNTV, Digital WebCast and Digital Animators and is the host of the Digital WebCast forum at the World Wide User Groups. He has taught at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, and at the American InterContinental University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he also ran his own animation company, Thunderhead Productions. Stephen also freelanced in the Atlanta area as a producer/editor for five years working on everything from training videos to live shows.

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Stephen Schleicher is a well known writer, visual effects artist and media guru! You can see more of Stephen at
www.majorspoilers.com and www.stephenschleicher.com
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