To My Dearest Collective Human Consciousness:
Wiki defines animation as, “the rapid display of a sequence of images to create an illusion of movement.”
The information technology industry, which has widely been used as an entertainment tool, is extensively used for marketing endeavors to obtain buy-in from consumers.
There are still purists out there (peace and blessings to them for being true to their craft) that create animations by hand – most products of which dance around abstraction. These days, animators that desire realism leverage the hundreds of computer software platforms available, many of which are open-source.
Basic Animation Workflow
1) Start with a software package that has the capability to create renderings or lifelike still images of 3D computer models from one camera perspective.
2) Move the camera ever-so-slightly in one direction or another and capture another image…times several thousand.
3) After all the images are captured, import them into some version of a sequencer where they are played rapidly one after another at a specified speed and saved into a single computer file that is recognized by movie playing software.
Thankfully there exists relatively easy ways to accomplish this. Animation supported software usually consists of:
-A virtual camera rig with a variety of zoom lenses (adjustable via a dialog box of some kind). This usually includes a menu for scripting (controlling) the camera’s motion as well.
-The ability to create targets which informs the virtual camera where to point.
-An animation producer dialog menu where animators can set parameters such as film speed (measured in frames per second. About 30 frames/second is adequate to create what the human eye perceives as seamless fluid motion), and a basic scripting ability. The latter includes the ability to tell cameras when to turn on and off, which one is active at any given time if multiple cameras are used, and so forth. Think of it as the megaphone tool, where animators are the directors and the virtual cameras and targets are their crew. This directs the whole production.
-A scrubber. This is a timeline that gives each animation frame a tick and a slider bar, allowing animators to move to any position in the animation sequence and test-play what they have so far in real-time.
I have used a variety of animation software platforms to include Bentley’s MicroStation and ‘Pointools Edit‘ (laser scan editing and animation software), Autodesk’s Revit and 3DS Max, Blender, Lumion, Unity, and others. Some of my favorites are simply those with the best results and the least amount of complexity. The choice I make for animation software depends on the application. Because I have a toe in 2 different worlds of data: point clouds (laser scans) and 3D polygon models, I change platforms frequently. To date, in my opinion, Unity or Unreal are possibly the best animation software platforms for professional industrial use with Lumion and Enscape closely behind for their simplicity.
Years ago, Microstation was among the best for animation because it could render both polygons and point clouds using the Luxology render engine with distributed rendering capability. In fact, renderings and animations I created from this platform led our team at i-TEN Associates to win the Bentley “Be Inspired” award in 2011 in Amsterdam, Netherlands; Perhaps the greatest career achievement of my life.
First, MicroStation shipped stock with Pointools Vortex Rendering Engine. This was the fastest and most photorealistic laser scan rendering engine for the price on the market. For the architectural, engineering, and construction industries, that is important. Although, Unlimited Detail was a close competitor. Second, MicroStation also happened to ship with the award winning Luxology Rendering Engine or “MODO“. This rendering engine is absolutely out-of-control in it’s ability to create photo-realism. Third, MicroStation had all the functions of CAD software and remains a very stable, interoperable program that only releases a new version when the folks at Bentley are darn good and ready – and not a moment sooner. Finally, on the animation front, MicroStation has the ability to distribute rendering over multiple computers, reducing rending time significantly for those of us who set way too many lighting parameters on complex models…because, well, we like to do that sort of thing until 3am on a weeknight.
However, depending on the application, there are other terrific animation platforms that provide that extra special touch to one’s project. Here are some highlights:
-Autodesk products are leveraging the cloud to assist in render/animation costs (recall the term “cost” = time spent waiting for your glorious creation to manifest on your monitor). This is a fantastic move on their part. Autodesk has been an industry leader in the animation world. No doubt.
-Blender is a game engine builder and has built-in physics simulation control which is pretty amazing. That means animators can make a ball bounce (like it really would) or create fluid simulations that make animated water in CAD software have a run for its money. I say that not only for the sake of the visuals but also for the ease at which these simulations can be created. I’ve personally used Blender water animations and imported them directly into MicroStation as animated materials (more on that later).
-Lumion may be among the best out there to date for simplicity of use and stunning visualizations. Like most animation software, Lumion leverages key-frame animation and interpolates between frames. This is great for new, fledgling animators because the only requirement is to pick a series of camera positions with your mouse navigator and essentially hit “go.” Lumion figures out all the intermediate camera frames that you missed and creates a seamless animation. This is available in most CAD software as well but thought it worth mentioning. Additionally, 3D models can be imported into Lumion from other software platforms in a few formats – among the most popular is the FBX and DAE (collada) formats. For those who want to play with this software, they offer a free trial.
I’m a big fan of interoperability and as such, here is a little workflow I used to create the Evergreen Wings and Waves Waterpark fly-through marketing video. (this was almost 10 years ago! My how we’ve advanced with CAD rendering technology!)
1) In MicroStation V8i, I created a hybrid 3D model of the waterpark from point clouds to fill in the gaps where the laser scans did not pick up data. I then photo-textured the model using the pictures taken from the laser scanner itself to ensure a seamless color match.
2) Part of the project scope was to show the actual water, so in Blender, I created a 100 frame animation of water that moved like a swimming pool. On the right of the image below are the normal maps that tell the surface I paste the animated textures on, how to reflect (bounce) computer-simulated lighting. Here is the TUTORIAL I used to do this in Blender.
Color wasn’t important since I could change that in my later importation into MicroStation. For this workflow, I recorded the water moving about on my monitor using CAMSTUDIO (open-source) and then broke the created .AVI file apart into sequences (individual frames) using VirtualDUB (also open-source).
3) After applying the sequenced frames to my swimming pool polygon surface placeholders, I used the ‘Animate Textures’ tool in MicroStation to have those water ripples play on my polygons, like a little movie. By using lighting, this gave life to the scene.
4) I ran several b-splines (curvy lines available for drafting in CAD software) and attached virtual cameras to them. I created targets that were key-framed and moved about the waterpark while the cameras moved quickly along the b-splines and kept their eye on the targets. I learned this technique from George Lucas…although not in person. I watched the Making of Star Wars when I was a kid and saw that they put cameras on wires and had them fly around the room around stationary plastic spaceship models (which may have had fake tans). This gave the illusion that the ships were flying. I used this technique in the intro of this video with the Evergreen jet flying through the sky.
5) Finally, it was all brought together with Adobe Premiere Elements – easy and fast:
So there you have it. My trade secrets revealed (for that project…). For some, this is old hat. But my hope is that some of you who have yet to explore this marvelous and creative world of animation will come back someday and post your amazing workflows / insights/ challenges / nightmares…just for fun –
Beloved animators: ensure your alien coffeepot timer is on. It’s going to be a long night – business as usual…
Speak. Use words if you have to.