Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Animation Techniques - Ink, Pixels, and Everything In Between

Animation has vert few limits. It can tell nearly any kind of story and depict nearly any kind of imagery. Similarly, almost any tool or medium that can be used to make a static work of art can also be used to create art that moves. There are many different kinds of animation techniques out there, some well known, some obscure. But to the average person, some of the terminology and concepts mentioned when talking about animation can get confusing. Which kinds of animation use computers? How can you animated with paint? What the heck is "Flash animation" anyway? In this article, we're going to be taking a closer look at some of the different kinds of animation. Some you may know well already. Other you may have never seen before. All have their particular strengths and weaknesses and the potential to become amazing animation in the hands of talented artists.

Hand-drawn animation

Hand-drawn animation, also called 2D animation, cel animation, or traditional animation, is one of the older animation techniques. A series of drawings, each one slightly different from the preceding drawing, are photographed one at a time onto film to create the illusion of movement. The name “cel animation” comes from the clear sheets of celluloid called “cels” that the final images of characters and other moving elements in a scene would be traced onto from the original drawings on paper for more studio productions. (Independent animators sometimes film their original pencil drawings rather than tracing them onto cels.) Because they were clear, cels could be laid over a background and other cels, preventing the artists from having to redraw the static parts of a scene, such as the background, over and over again. Later productions used sheets of acetate in place of celluloid, which was highly flammable and quick to decompose, but the term “cels” stuck. Most modern day productions of hand-drawn animation scan the artists’ drawings into computers, where they are colored and then composited together with the other elements in the scene.

Hand-drawn animation has been used in everything from features films to television show to advertising and beyond. Most Disney feature films are hand-drawn animation, including their upcoming feature The Princess and the Frog, seen above.

So is most anime, like Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away.

The majority of studio made shorts from the 20th century are hand-drawn, including the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes shorts:

Puppet Animation

Puppet Animation, also called stop-motion animation, is a very old technique. In puppet animation, the sets are sculpted or fabricated models, while the characters are articulated figures. Each puppet has an armature – a kind of metal skeleton which helps the puppet to keep its shape and the joints to both move easily and hold a position. Movement is created by shooting a frame of film, manipulating the puppet slightly, and shooting another frame. Puppet animation can be a very unforgiving technique, since it does not allow the animator to go back and correct mistakes. If a puppet falls over, or a light is in the wrong place, or the animation simply doesn’t look right, the whole shot has to be animated all over again from the beginning. One of the big benefits of puppet animation is that all the characters and sets are existing three dimensional objects. In hand-drawn animation, changing the camera angle during a scene requires making new drawings and usually background artwork. With puppet animation, changing the camera angle is often as simple as moving the camera. Animators don’t have to worry about characters looking consistent from scene to scene since they are filming the exact same puppets, or identical copies of one puppet made to allow multiple scenes to be shot at once or to ensure that if a puppet is damaged, a replacement is available.

Puppet animation used to be pretty common, especially on television. But when computer animation arrived on the scene and provided a way to get a similar dimensional look without some of the drawbacks of either puppet of clay animation, puppet animation wasn't used as much. But the medium still has its fans and proponents and puppet animated feature films continue to be released, like Fantastic Mr. Fox (shown above), due out in wide release this Wednesday.

The Nightmare Before Christmas helped to reinvigorate puppet animation and define it as the animation style for strange and quirky films:

Speaking of Christmas, most of the famous Rankin-Bass holiday specials are puppet animation:

Clay Animation

Clay Animation is a close relative of puppet animation, so much so that sometimes both are referred to as different forms of stop-motion animation. The technique is pretty much the same as puppet animation except that the figures are made of clay or a substance similar to clay. This makes the figures more malleable than those used in puppet animation. While puppet animation figures can generally only move where joints have been constructed into their armatures, every part of a clay animation model can theoretically be moved, squashed, stretched, or manipulated in any way imaginable.

Some of the best known clay animation comes from British studio Aardman Animations, home of Wallace and Gromit, seen above in a trailer for their 2005 movie Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

The long running television series Gumby, created by Art Clokey, used clay animation.

Like puppet animation, clay animation used to be a lot more common before computer animation came along. This advertisement by WIll Vinton Studios for the California Raisin Advisory board became immensely popular and lead to additional commercials, specials, a cel-animated TV series, and tons of merchandising.

Computer Animation

Computer Animation, sometimes called 3D animation or CGI – “computer generated imagery” animation, is a relatively new technique that has only become commercially viable in the past few decades. It’s sort of a digital version of puppet animation. Instead of existing in the real world, all of the characters, sets, and props are built inside of the computer by combining and manipulating simple polygons. The animators can then move various parts of the models to create the motions and expressions they want. In some cases, the animator can pick the start and end point for a movement and the computer can help to fill in the in-between frames. But it’s still up to the animator to decide on the speed of the movement, whether it becomes slower or faster or stays at the same rate, how long a pose or expression gets held, and numerous other decisions that can make the difference between mediocre animation and great animation. Computer animation may seem superior to either puppet or clay animation in that an animator can go back and correct one small mistake without having to re-animated the entire shot. But computers have their weak points. Certain textures and objects – like skin, hair, and clothing – have proven difficult for computers to replicate convincingly, though new technologies have helped to overcome many of these problems.. Computer can also produce bizarre mistakes or even crash, causing an animator to lose unsaved work.

Computer animation is very popular right now and can be seen all over the place. Above is a scene from Pixar's Toy Story, the first fully computer animated feature film. All of Pixar's movies are computer animated, including the upcoming third Toy Story film. DreamWorks Animation started off producing hand-drawn animated films, but now focuses exclusively on computer animation, like their next movie How To Train Your Dragon.

As computer animation has become less expensive to make, it's shown up more and more on television. The first fully computer animated TV series was Mainframe Entertainment's ReBoot. Shown here is the intro to a third season episode called "Firewall," parodying the openings of the James Bond films.

Flash Animation

Flash Animation is another one of the newer ways to animate and another technique that utilizes the computer. Flash animation is animation created using Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash) or a similar animation program. Basically, Flash allows animators to break down characters and other elements into numerous pieces. The face of a character animated in Flash may consist of the head, two separate eyes, a mouth, and maybe even separate hair. It’s sort of like hand-drawn animation with an infinite number of cels. Flash also lets the animator take these individual pieces and tilt them, flip them, deform them, change their size, or swap them out for different pieces. If the animator wants to tilt the character’s head to the side, he or she could group all of the pieces of the face together and rotate all of them to the desired angle. The program fills in the in-between steps based on where in the timeline the animator sets the start and end of the movement. Additionally, to make the character blink, the animator can swap the eyes out for a drawing or series of drawings of the characters eyes closing. These drawings can be saved to a library of different pieces that the animator can use again and again. So if the character blinks again, the animator can reuse the same drawing or drawings of the blink.

Flash was originally designed to create simple animations that could be viewed on the internet over the slow connections that were common at the time. Some of the earliest Flash animations used very simple limited animation, which kept the file size down. Since then, bandwidth has increased, allowing for longer and more complicated animations. The time saving features of Flash have also made it attractive for television animation production.

Above is the opening of the TV series ¡Mucha Lucha!, which was mong the first television show to be animated in Flash.

Flash is still used for web animations, which can be found all over the place. A couple of examples are the Homestar Runner cartoons, the extremely violent Happy Tree Friends, and the absurdist parody (of sorts) "Baman Piderman," seen below:

Cutout Animation

Cutout animation, also called cut-paper animation, is a technique in which the characters, props, and backgrounds are flat cutouts. They are usually made from paper, though some animations use cloth or photographs. By moving the cutouts a little at a time and shooting frames of film for each small movement, animation is created. Getting complicated movements requires many individual pieces. For a character to lift his or her arm, the arm needs to be at least one cutout piece separate from the body. If an object turns around, several different cutouts will be needed to show the object from different angles. Like puppet and clay animation, cutout animation does not allow the animator to go back and correct mistakes without re-animating the whole shot.

Computer programs like Flash have allowed animators to simulate the look of cutout animation while enjoying the benefits of animating on a computer, such as not having to keep track of potentially tiny pieces of paper and being able to alter a single frame of animation. The TV series South Park, for example, used actual cutout animation for its original shorts and pilot episodes, but then began using computer programs to achieve the same effect. Currently, the show is animated using Maya, a computer program generally used to create 3D computer animation. Though many animators like the advantages of using a computer to create animation which looks like cutouts, some still prefer the hands-on approach.

The example above is a Terry Gilliam animation from Monty Python's Flying Circus. Below is short clip from a much older example of cutout animation and the oldest known surviving surviving animated feature film: Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

Paint-on-Glass Animation

Watch Korova / The Cow by Alexander Petrov in Animation  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

A less common animation technique, paint-on-glass animation involves the animator painting a scene on a piece of glass, shooting a frame of film, and then reworking the image slightly. Oil paints are most commonly used since they dry very slowly, though other types of paint can be mixed with different agents to give them this quality. This method requires the animator to erase and repaint parts of the image. For this reason, working with paint on glass can be very difficult. If the animator makes a mistake, not only is there no way to go back and fix the mistake, but much of the original image may be gone. With no clay, puppets, or cutout pieces to reposition, the animator must either start over completely or live with the mistake. But paint-on-glass can also be very beautiful, giving the look of a painting come to life like no other animation technique can.

Because of it's difficult and time consuming nature, paint-on-glass animation comes mostly from independent animators. The short above is called Korova - "The Cow" - by Alesandr Petrov, one of the masters of paint-on-glass. Caroline Leaf's film The Street uses the same technique, but a very different style:

Sand Animation

Another less common technique, sand animation is created by the animator making images with – you guessed it – sand. Like paint on glass, sand is not a forgiving medium in that once the sand is moved, it can never be put back exactly the way it was.

Some people will remember the animation above from Sesame Street. The short below is Atormenta by CESARLINGA Animations.

Sand animation has been getting some attention recently due to the sand artist who recently won the television talent competition Ukraine's Got Talent. While this technique is sometimes also called "sand animation," it is not really animation, since there is no illusion of movement created. The artist uses the sand to create images which are projected onto a large screen for the live audience. Despite not being animation, it is fascinating to watch and should give you some idea of the work that goes into making art with sand, whether static or animated.

This is by no means a complete list of every method of animation out there. There are many others, both old and new. Animators are always trying out new techniques or using old ones in ways never thought of before. Rhe medium of animation is always growing and changing.

If you have any questions, comments, or other animation techniques you would like to discuss, please share them in the comments section.

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