Thursday, August 21, 2008

Software Part 2 -or- How to be Your Own Full-Service Animation Studio

Teach yourself animation:
http://www.thebeesneezeanimation.com/
The page belongs to Shawn Miller, animator at LucasFilm. Great links. Spend a day there.

Now, on with today's lesson. Software: what you'll need to survive. Or, a wishlist for the independent cg filmmaker. Last time we covered the all-important 3D app, so what else is there?

You need Photoshop. End of lesson. Seriously, if it's the only thing you buy outside of your 3D app, get Photoshop. Everything else is just icing on the cake. But this lesson would be boring if it was just cake, so on to the icing.

Painting on a 3D model is sooooo nice when texturing. By far the most intuitive way to handle things. Photoshop CS3 is teasing us with its ability to import 3D models, but we still do our painting on a 2D plane. Boo. (CS4? Fingers crossed?) Until recently, the choices for painting on a 3D model were twofold: Deep Paint 3D or BodyPaint 3D. And neither was perfect. BodyPaint 3D is probably the most vigorously updated of the two, but it has a learning curve for anyone who does not use Cinema 4D (which it is integrated with). Deep Paint has always been a bit wonky (and crashy) but it has some really awesome brushes. Trouble is, they moved the UV tools to a separate app, Deep UV, so now you need to buy a lot to get integrated functionality. For this reason, you may wish to just stick with Maya's own (limited) 3D paint tools until the industry puts up a stable, affordable, intuitive new standard. Any coders out there want to take this challenge? New industry standard 3D paint tool? Anyone? Here's a darkhorse candidate that was brought to my attention: Thirdbrush. Only thirty bucks. Haven't tried it yet. Send me your reviews if you use it.

Let's turn our attention to 2D apps. You'll need these for previs, storyboarding, conceptual art, matte painting and texturing, as well as fixes on final rendered frames. Corel Painter is the standard natural-media app, as it simulates watercolor, paint, pastels, etc. The main thing to note is that it is a painting tool, not a photo-retouch tool like Photoshop, so it does what you want it to: it mixes the pixels onscreen wet-on-wet style. Not too expensive, but check these cheap-to-free digital paint app alternatives:You can also get some quick-sketch tools to do storyboarding. Sketchbook Pro comes to mind, but if you already have Photoshop, this is redundant. And for 200 bucks, seems kinda lame. When you start doing animation thumbnails, you'll want a "flipbook"-style sketching app. Both Painter's stacks and Photoshop's animation palette can handle this, but if you want a FREE standalone I highly recommend Plastic Animation Papers. It's a full-fledged 2D animation app, but it's also perfect as a previs tool for cg character animators.

Now image organization tools. Adobe Bridge is wonderful, and if you have Photoshop, you probably already have it. But also cool, each in their unique way, is Irfanview, ACDSee, and IView MediaPro. I use them all. Also, get Flipbook Pro so you can play back sequences of frames without making movie files out of them.

You'll also need presentation tools. Your short film needs a website, some business cards and publishing materials, and you'll have to make pitches ad nauseum. (Even if you plan to do your own funding and distribution, you'll end up putting together project pitches and portfolios if only to obtain collaborators). To this end, besides Photoshop, you'll want Dreamweaver (or some web app), Flash (maybe), Acrobat Pro (slideshows and documents), or Keynote (on the Mac). And MsOffice or OpenOffice. And CD and DVD authoring tools.

You still want to make a short film?

Now for the production apps. Google Sketchup can be handy as a previs app - mainly because it's fast and intuitive. Mudbox or ZBrush would be nice for creating high-res displacement maps or just for cool-looking previs work. They are competing modelers in the 3d sculpting paradigm (works like digital clay). Mudbox is by far the easier to use, but purists insist ZBrush produces higher quality results.

Editorial. You'll want Quicktime Pro. No faster way to make little movie files to pass around. You'll also want some image-format and video-format converter utilities. Find some freeware for this. After Effects for compositing and post (or Shake or Fusion or Combustion or Toxik). I recommend Sony Vegas for editorial on the PC: the app that "puts it all together" in the work reel. I use it for audio compositing too. Speaking of audio, you need an audio editor like SoundForge or Adobe Audition. On the Mac, use ProTools LE as your sound mixer (instead of Vegas) and Final Cut for your editing.

Now you can make a short film. With all that money you have left over. Wait, we forgot about hardware. I'll save that for a later post.

Don't cry. Think of all that money your short film will make. Oh, wait. Shorts don't make money. Well, it's still a small price to pay to be a YouTube hero. Have you considered sock puppets?

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