[mag cover]

From the Summer 1988 issue of Graffitti

Technically Speaking

by Phil Denslow

A friend of mine recently showed me a magazine article containing information about developments that may affect the future of animation, particularly animation for mass audiences. According to the article (Graphics Software is on the Move, by Alexander Wolf; Electronics, May 14, 1987, pp 81-84) we may be seeing the first commercial uses of artificial intelligence techniques for cartoon animation production.

Researchers at the NEC Corp. in Japan, have developed what they call 'story-driven animation' software that can create animated computer graphics from stories written in natural language. The package has three modules: Story-Understanding, Stage- Direction, and Action-Generation. These funtionally resemble the storyboard, layout and animation stages of more conventional production methods. Each module has a library of information it uses to assist the user. In the case of the animation module, each character is defined as a three- dimensional figure controlled with primitive motion equations that can be combined to create complex actions.

In April of 1987, at the Human Factors in Computing Systems and Graphics Interface conference in Toronto, a three-minute videotape The Tortoise and the Hare was shown that was generated on this system.

So, I guess it had to happen sooner or later. We can all pack up and go home now, the party's over. Mankind's ultimate form of expression can be done by a machine. All they have to add is the story-invention module, and the process of generating animated cartoons can proceed indefinitly, unhampered by messy human interferance. There will be a 24 hour Smurfs channel that will only repeat itself every few years or so, although they could add a contemporary tastes module to track changing cultural values and modify the program accordingly.

Actually, I left something out of this 'animatroid' scenario. Someone does have to make choices as to which of the system's motion options to use. This would be something like the current Saturday morning cartoon's practice of reducing the motion choices of the assistant animators to certain head bobs and neck twists. In conventional limited-animation production, choices are narrowed for economic reasons: the studios cannot afford the time it would take for assistants to make so many independent decisions. In the future of 'animatroid: producers would not be able to afford the programming time it would take to develop unique options.

Today, producing cartoons in conventional two-dimensional format on this kind of a system might be affordable, and with the continuing improvement of the price- performance ratio for computer hardware, three dimensional characters and landscapes may become practical for mass production.

The philosophical question of who (if anyone) is 'doing the animating' in this kind of situation is difficult to resolve. Is it the person who writes the 'motion primitives?' Is it the computer system that combines the equations and puts forth the final images? Is it the person or program that controls the story? What if this kind of thing becomes so affordable that every home computer can immediately generate new versions of stories based on ineractive responses (like brain- wave monitoring) from the viewer? Is the viewer then the 'animator?'

I have no idea whether the researchers at NEC and other companies concern themselves much with such questions. They are hard at work trying to see how many new techniques and methods they can squeeze out of available technology. We can't know where all this may lead, but maybe it will ultimately grant to the artist greater and faster ways to contribute to our culture, not just commerce.

Dear Technically Speaking:
I want to get a collection of colored and effects filters for my animation camera, but they cost too much. Help me out.
Filterless in Fresno

Dear Filterless,
Go to a Film/TV trade show (like SMPTE or NAB) and get some of those l"x 3 " filter swatch book samples that are handed out free by lighting suppliers and dealers. I particularly like the Lee filter collection. It includes color correction (tungsten to daylite, etc.) as well as various colors and effects such as diffusion. Or you can go to a dealer like Oleson in Hollywood and talk them ,into giving you a swatch book.

These small pieces of filters are just large enough to cover the front of most 16mm film camera lenses. Also they can be cut to fit behind the lens filter slides On cameras like Bolexs and Mitchells. A great source for star filters (for that glimmering backlit effect) was given to me br my friend Tony Venezia. Rub across a piece of acetate (animation cel) with sand- paper. This creates a series of scratched lines that diffract points of light into star bursts. The more directions in which you scratch, the more points of light on each star. Experiment with different patterns. Put the filter a couple of inches in front of the lens. You can animate the rotation of the filter to create rotating sparkles.

Dear Technically Speaking,
I'm experimenting with graphics and animation on my personal computer. How can I record my work onto film?
Nerding in Northridge

Dear Nerding,
The easiest way to record sequential images from your computer is with a 16mm animation camera pointed at the monitor. If you are writing the graphics program yourself, then you should also be able to have the computer control the camera, making the filming automatic. If you are using commercial software, then you may have to expose each frame by hand. If the animation is running in 'real time' on the computer, then you will have to be able to step through the images one at a time.

In any case you need to use an exposure time of at least a half of a second to avoid getting a flickering image. This means holding the shulter open briefly at each exposure, or using a motor that gives you that time. Most cameras expose the film during half of the overall motor cycle, so the motor should run at about 60 rpm or slower. If your camera exposes several frames per rotation of the motor shaft (most simple Bolexs do so at 8 frames per) then the motor will have to turn that many times slower (7-8 rpm for the Bolex). A small DC gear motor can do the trick.

Use daylit balanced film if possible, and shoot test with the brightness and contrast controls at positions you can find again later (scribe them). If you are using tungsten balanced film, the best results will be with a CC-50R filter.

Dear Technically Speaking,
I would like to have professional titles with colored type on a black background for my film, but I'm afraid they will cost too much. Can I make them myself?
Titling in Torrance

Dear Titling,
You can make great looking titles yourself without it costing an arm and a leg. To get white or colored titles on a black background, the first step is to get the typesetting or lettering you need. If you don't have a lot of words, rub-down lettering can workfine. Choose a type style that is neither very thin or bold. Medium styles tend to survive duplication to film and video better. The size of the type is dictated both by design and by the number of characters you want on one line across the screen. Keep in mind that when film is transferred to video you will loose almost a fourth of the screen width. Ifyour art is 12" wide, then keep the type within a 9" area.

Put the black type or lettering on a white background, stacking the lines a half inch apart. Then get a photostat service to make you a high contrast litho negative of the whole thing. This will look like clear letters on an opaque black background. You can then cut the lines apart and arrange them on cels in the compositions you want on the screen. Use black tape and black paper to cover the areas around the pieces of negative. Since the art will be shot backlit, the texture of the tape and paper won't show. This process will save the cost ofmaking separate litho negatives for each title. Use a field chart to align and register the material. It is now ready to be photographed with backlight on a camera stand. Colored gells can be used, but beprepared to shoot test for the proper exposure for each color.

Dear Technically Speaking,
How does one set up a computer to control an animation camera for automatic recording of images from the monitor?
Interfacing in Inglewood

Dear Interfacing,
If you are writing the graphics software for your film, it is fairly simple to add a routine that will start a camera motor automatically. The exact program statements depend on what computer and language you are using, but the general idea is to caurie an output voltage to activate and stay activated long enough to start the motor and then de-activate so that the motor will stop when it has completed its cycle. The output lines available will vary from one computer to another. Apple II computers have an easy to use output on the game-paddle connector. If you are programming in Basic, a poke statement can be used to switch the line. IBM PC users will have to use a parallel output, like a printer connector, and send text or poke statements to the desired line. The tricky part is converting the computer signal, usually 1 volt/4 volt low/high, to the proper switch for the camera motor. If your motor is powered by AC current you must be carefu) to isolate it from the computer to prevent noise from finding its way back into the computer and scrambling its brains. Usually a combination of optoisolators and relays which separate power supplies are adequate. If you are outputting with a printer interface you have to include some logic circuitry to latch the line open or closed. A good source for information about this kind of thing is the book TTL Cookbook by Don Lancaster.

Using a 5 volt DC gear motor as your animation motor will greatly simplify the electronics. The motor and a 5 volt relay to switch it can be powered by an inexpensive non-regulated power supply. You will need a switching transistor to enable the computer voltage to trigger the relay voltage. I recently made a motor for my Bolex camera for filming from my Apple II computer for about thirty dollars. I found the motor, a cam and microswitch (to regulate the beginning and end of the motor cycle), and a couple of toggle switches - for manual operation) at C & H Sales in Pasadena. This is a wonderfuI place to find surplus gadgets and parts. The other items, like the relay and power supply, can be found at Radio Shack stores.

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