The Brothers McLeod, Patrick Jean, Disney hand-drawn animation, Activision R&D, Cloud-based animation studios

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Brothers McLeod split the year into seconds

BAFTA-winning animators The Brothers McLeod have decided to take it easy this year by producing just one second of animation a day. Jokes aside, the 365 improvised film is steadily charting the comings and goings of the year, both real and imagined, with a second of zany, non-sequential animation each day. The directing, writing and illustrating duo, made up of brothers Greg and Lyon McLeod, is releasing the footage by month, but will eventually be combining the lot into a seven-minute movie.

March 365 from The Brothers McLeod In January we were treated to flying brains, sinking quick-mud, Turkish weightlifting, evil snowflakes and angry polar bears, while February bought us screaming pelvic bones, hungry dinosaurs, pregnant men and pasty conquering. The latest instalment for March is no less off-the-wall, as the brothers bring us banjo playing oranges, conjoined gimps, purple poodles, ticking time bombs and a return of the pelvis, although this time cheering. While the daily musings may appear like an abstract and disconnected stream of consciousness, connections, narratives and hidden meanings may be deciphered by the imaginative, although any underlying message from the animators is unlikely to be revealed. In a statement about the project, older brother Greg McLeod said, "Something during the day will catch my eye or it will be something I've read or overheard. It may be my children who spark an idea or it may be a dream I've had. It may be an interesting building, a painting or image from a book or magazine may provide the source material. It may be a sound that informs the visuals." "365 is a visual self portrait of my year; passing of time, changing locations and emotional states and flights of improvised imaginings, all going towards the final product, a seven-minute film, to overwhelm, to delight in, to laugh at and to baffle in equal measure."

Disney doubtful about the future of hand-drawn films

Disney rocked old-school animation fans last month by announcing that the Hollywood titan that bought hand-drawn classics such as Bambi, Fantasia and Snow White to our screens has no plans to stray from CGI in the future. Speaking at a shareholders' meeting at the beginning of March, Disney chief executive Bog Iger said, "To my knowledge, we're not developing a 2D or hand-drawn feature animated film right now. There is a fair amount of activity going on in hand-drawn animation, but it's largely for television at this point. We're not necessarily ruling out the possibility [of] a feature, but there isn't any in development at the company at the moment." The news rattled fans of the golden oldies, who had high hopes for a resurgence in hand-drawn animation after Pixar boss John Lasseter became Disney Animation's chief creative officer in 2006 and promptly started rehiring many of the artists ditched after Toy Story changed the face of cartoon films in 1995. But despite a modest revival of traditional techniques with the 2009 The Princess and the Frog and 2011 Winnie the Pooh films, the buzz was lost a little when both hand-drawn Disney releases received good reviews but pitiful returns when compared to their CGI comparisons of Bolt and Tangled. Despite the huge revenue discrepancies in the debate over pencils or pixels, however, Lasseter claims that the tools are not important. Speaking in a lecture last year, he said, "[Computers are] unbelievable tools, but they're really no different than a pencil and a piece of paper. No-one goes to [traditional animators and says] 'wow, what pencil did you use? I've got to get me a box of those'. We have amazing tools but they do not create anything. It's really what the film-makers do with it." Despite Iger's doomsday announcement, it seems unlikely that traditional animation will die a complete death at Disney thanks to the Oscar-winning, critically acclaimed short animation Paperman, which used a hybrid of hand-drawn imagery and computer effects. "We were both blown away by the ability that line artists have to put expression just in a single line," Paperman producer Kristina Reed told Wired. "Just how by lifting a lip up a little bit or turning an eye, there's so much expression that can be conveyed. And when you're trying to do that in the CG world, it's really, really hard and you get very separated from the actual art."

Activision makes headway across 'Uncanny Valley'

Game maker Activision may have crossed the so-called "Uncanny Valley" with its latest real-time character demo. The term, first used by robotics guru Masahiro Mori in 1970, refers to the transition of animation from one side of an imagined valley, where characters look unrealistic; to the middle of the valley, where characters look just realistic enough to be creepy; to the other side, where the animation is so good it’s undistinguishable from reality.

Real-time Character Demo from Activision R&D Activision revealed what it terms its "next generation character rendering" at this year's annual Game Development Conference in March with a video played in real-time showing a smoothed-headed man prattling on about yoghurt parfait and running through a range of intricate facial expressions. Although Activision conveniently chose to showcase a character without a single strand of the animators' nemesis known as hair, the eyes, skin and facial movements of parfait man definitely push him towards the far side of Uncanny Valley. The video was also shown on a two-year-old laptop, illustrating that such graphics will be available to real gamers and their current machines. Activision rendering and design expert Jorge Jimenez described the presentation as, "the culmination of many years of work in photo-realistic characters". The feat was achieved through a process of standard bone animation, facial scanning, performance capture and art work. "We believe this technology will bring current-generation characters into next-generation life" Jimenez wrote in his blog.

Cloud creation to democratise animation?

An Ottawa-based software company is hoping to "democratise" animation with a cloud-based platform that supplies 3D rendering tools via downloadable apps. Exocortex Technologies, which has been offering 3D animation software and consulting services to film-makers since 2005, wants to address a problem personified by the recent bankruptcy of the LA visual effects studio that created box office hit movie Life of Pi. Exocortex founder Ben Houston believes that animation studios such as Rhythm & Hues are struggling financially because the technology used to make movies is too expensive to purchase and maintain. Speaking to the Ottawa Business Journal, he said, "We'd like to be the platform that enables tens of thousands of budding creators to realise their vision. In the future, you'll only need a couple thousand dollars and enough time, and you'll be able to make Pixar-quality entertainment from home.” Houston is hoping to raise $1 million for sales and marketing before launching the platform, tentatively named Exocortex Studio, at the end of the year. No installation will be required, and the cloud location will do away with the need for a physical studio and provide unlimited storage for rendering imagery. However, could such a tool exasperate the very problem it is trying to solve? As well as the cost of technology, 3D animators are often stricken by intensive hours and low pay - aliments that are unlikely to be cured by a cloud-based solution linking Western film-makers with highly-skilled and lowly-paid workers in the developing world.

New Patrick Jean’s short examines America's oil addiction

The French animator and director behind internet sensation Pixels has released a new short, a stinging commentary on America's addition to oil. Patrick Jean's Motorville sees a California city, made up of a Google Maps-esque interface, trek across the country in search of oil as it starts to die.

Motorville from Patrick Jean Finding little to quench his thirst at domestic oil fields, Motorville follows the lead of New York and LA by swimming across the Atlantic and gorging himself at the oil-rich wells of the Middle East. When the oil addict takes it a step further and starts shooting up, Motorville's eyes blacken, as do the surrounding countries and all the oceans of the world. Speaking to blog 1.4, Jean explained the concept behind the "allegory of modern megalopolis living on a map, like massive living organisms feeding from oil" "The problem is these organisms are not far-sighted enough to achieve their own survival on the long term, because they consume all the resources around them very quickly ... these cities behave like Zombies, bacteria, robots or drug addicts. Or a mix of all these" Jean said. The Supinfocom  graduate's 2010 short Pixels, which shows Lego-like 8 bit pixels warring over New York City, received plenty of praise both on and off-line and has even attracted the attention of Sony, which wants to develop the concept into a Ghostbusters feature. However, Motorville has not been so well received by American programme makers, with Showtime Channel, the broadcaster that originally commission the piece, refusing to air it after a viewing. Perhaps it cut a little too close to the bone?

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