Friday, October 26, 2007

Drawn Out

AAAAhhhhh, computers. They've made our lives so easy. Now when we make animated films they look like complete crap during every iteration, through department after department, until they finally emerge lit and rendered at the very end of the production cycle. Huge research efforts aim at getting some life into those early stages of development, but to no avail. Your first 3D animatic always looks cold, lifeless, dead. You have to keep going back to the original hand-drawn conceptual art to remind yourself how cool it's GONNA look, so many many months from now.
In traditional animation, coolness flowed freely onto the page at the deft touch of the skilled animator’s hand. If you've ever seen these initial pencil tests, the "rough animation" pass, you know that there was life in the project from the very first flipbook. Often these rough, scraggly lines had more life and energy in them than the final cleaned-up inked & painted result! Point is, the momentum of a project could build on the excitement of seeing kinetic energy at every dailies session, as people packed into the director's office to see each new scene burst to life: scribbly pencil lines weaving in and out of each other in that 24 fps dance of unbridled gesture. Gesture is the key word here: the graceful arcs of the character's movements are flung to the page through the actual arcing gestures of the animator's hand swooping over the light table. There was an immediacy, a gratifying fulfillment we sorely miss, adrift as we are in our CG world. Today, our first glimpses of our characters are of boxy gray stiff manikins, floating ghostly, droid-like through a barren landscape of polygons. Thus our quandary: now that machines have made life so easy for us by freeing us from having to hand-draw our own animation, how do we artificially get that hand-drawn look back into it? And I’m not talking about the toxic plasticity of toon shading, either. I’m talking about GESTURE. About what Michael Mattesi would refer to in his excellent life drawing manual, Force ( as “the artist’s opinion about the subject.” This opinion is conveyed subtlety, through nuances of line and form. The hand-drawn gesture.

In the next weeks I hope to explore this problem at length, offering some clunky band-aids in the meantime, and opening the discussion for the dreamy “gesture toolset” of CG’s future.

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