technology behind magic blog


Let’s congratulate The Croods for winning The Animated Effects award at the 41st Annie Awards! In honor of this achievement here is a progressive reel that was recently released by DreamWorks Animation Studios. This film is a prime example of how far we’ve come in the digital arts. I personally thoroughly enjoyed the film’s story and character dynamics, along with its incredible visual effects. In a prehistoric world that is falling apart right under their feet, the Croods experience nature lashing out at them again and again. From thick black smoke to a mass horde of man-eating birds to the ground crumbling into an abyss, the film’s excellent Visual Effects department certainly gave this family the cinematic journey of a lifetime. This short video is just a taste of how The Croods was made. They certainly deserved this Annie Award!

I have an important announcement so listen up!

Since we’re all stuck indoors with nothing to do I’m going to do some shameless self-promotion! So I’m working on a little blogging side project that involves discussing the different departments that work on animated films. I started this because the internet generally doesn’t know the difference between animation and visual effects. Being in the visual effects department it saddens me greatly every time I see the animation department getting the credit for the efforts of my field This is especially evident as of late with the release of Frozen; I’ve seen so many posts giving the credit for Elsa’s gorgeous outfit, her hair, and her ice powers to animators, when in actuality they had nothing to do with that portion of production. It is time to give credit where credit is due.

In my blog I’ll be discussing the differences between animation and everything else, along with the various departments that work on an animated film. I’ll also be posting videos and links to material I find interesting or educational to those wanting to get into the digital arts. If you’re interested you should follow me! I’m going to start posting tomorrow so just click right on down here, and tell your friends!

What is Actually Animation in an Animated Film

It is unfortunately an online norm to give the visual effects credit of an animated feature to the animation department. I have seen my fair share of such posts and in turn offered corrections to any wrong information I happened upon. The specifics of producing an animated feature film is far from common circulation, so I do understand why this happens. But at the same time, the world of CGI is far from new. Animated feature films have been produced commercially since the 90s, as with all know with the establishment of Pixar Animation Studios releasing Toy Story back in 1995. Therefore animated feature films have been produced, released, and adored for nearly twenty years, yet the general public hardly understands how they are made. That is why I am hoping this blog makes some form of impact upon this notion that CGI is merely the product of a computer. You would not give the fine artist’s paints and brushes the credit for his masterpiece, so why do the same to digital artists? Thanks to the internet the efforts from the digital arts community is being recognized now more than ever, but the credit does not always go to the right department. 

This is especially evident in animated feature films. Whenever I scroll through posts I almost always see a GIF from a popular animated feature, then a caption exclaiming how amazing the animation quality is; yet what they’re talking about is not character animation. For instance, in Disney's Frozen the credit for the impeccable detail in Elsa’s dress was being given to animators. The same goes for her hair, for her magical ice powers, for even the last breath of life leaving Anna’s mouth at the film’s end. I know for a fact that all of the above examples were produced by the Visual Effects department, and I can even give you the exact title of the Visual Effects artist responsible. But instead I see popular circulating posts praising the character animators for the efforts of all the other departments.

Character Animation involves breathing life through movement and emotion, whether through a human or creature. When it comes to the other aspects of their character including the actual construction of its being, its clothing, its hair or fur, its textures, that is done by members of the Visual Effects department. Their character was designed by the Visual Development department, and given a skeleton and muscular system by the Character Technical Directors so the Character Animator can actually animate. As you can see, there is so much more to a character than just the animator. Furthermore, when it comes to the movement of natural phenomenon such as fire, water, lighting, wind, and ice, as well as technical movement in vehicles or machinery, that is also done by the Visual Effects department. In fact, those specialties incorporate animation principles into their effect’s execution.

Let it be known that I am not tearing away at Character Animation, rather I am just explaining what is actually the animation in an animated film. In fact, I majored in animation until mid-sophomore year of college. I have plenty of friends within that major and I have nothing but respect for their craft. I understand how difficult and complex animation can be. There is not anything easy about producing a film, every single department has their own trials and challenges. That is why I am deeply saddened that the other hundreds of people outside of Character Animation who worked tirelessly for years on one film are commonly swept under the rug. It is time to give credit to where credit is due.

There are numerous areas of specialization that all fit under the Visual Effects department. Not many people know this fact, and probably have not heard of a majority of the careers on this list. Because this list is so incredibly long, this post won’t go into detail otherwise it would be thousands of words in length. They will be clarified in the future on this blog. Posts of such nature will be marked by the above logo.

The bellow list is courtesy of the Savannah College of Art & Design website. Here are the areas of specialization that are considered to be Visual Effects.

  • Compositing Supervisor 
  • Computer Graphics Supervisor
  • Crowd Simulation Artist
  • Digital Compositor
  • Digital Effects Animator
  • Digital Environmental Artist
  • Digital Matte Painter
  • Lighting Artist
  • Location/Stage Supervisor
  • Look Development Artist
  • Matchmover
  • Modeler
  • Pipeline/Workflow Technician 
  • Previsualization Artist
  • Shader Writer
  • Surfacing Artist
  • Technical Animator
  • Technical Director
  • Texture Artist
  • Visual Effects Cinematographer
  • Visual Effects Producer
  • Visual Effects Supervisor 
  • Visual Effects/Animation Art Director

As you can see, there are so many different specialties that a person can invest themselves in the Visual Effects field. We literally have our hands on a majority of a production, from development all the way to post-production. If you would like to learn more about a specific career listed above, most of them will be described in the future.


Video Break! Personal Favorites Worth Sharing

This video is a hilarious parody on what people usually think how animation works. All you need to do is ask the character to move - make sure you ask him nicely manners are important - and he does the animation for you! This was done as a final for Animation Workshop student Giovanni Braggio. It went viral among the digital art community when it was released a few months ago, but I love it so much I’m sharing it now with all of you!

Character Animation with Pixar Animation Studios Films

Character Animators are responsible for breathing life into a character through actions and expressions. They utilize the Twelve Principles of Animation in order to create believable characters that stirs some form of response from the audience, whether positive or negative depends upon the individual character’s role within the story. 

If you would like to learn more about these principles please refer to this post. These principles were developed by the original Animators back in the infancy of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Though 2D animation was not created by this studio, they certainly established animation an innovative artistic medium whose ripple effect has been felt throughout the entire world. When 3D Animation came into existence during the late 20th century it was established as a major digital art form by Pixar Animation Studios. As with Disney, Pixar did not create 3D animation, rather they revealed its incredible potential through the release of the first 3D feature film in 1995, Toy Story. Being a CGI blog, this post will be going only into 3D animation - as a side note all three categories are 2D, 3D, and Stop Motion.

The responsibility of a Character Animator is to convey physical movement and emotion through their character, whether that character is a biped (two legs), quadruped(four legs), multi-ped (More than four legs) or even an inanimate object. In a feature film production setting different responsibilities are handed to each Animator, this condition depends on both the size and pipeline of the individual studio. For example, an Animator could be given just run and walk cycles, or they could be responsible for every single one of a character’s movements in a particular shot. The studio factors in the individual Animator’s experience level in their shot distribution. 

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In the early stages of production animation tests are conducted upon character models. This is done to lock-down a character’s individual physical pattern of behavior so other Animators can maintain consistency. Examples include how they walk, how they stand, and their habits. The individuals who establish a character’s behavior and oversee all the animation that occurs within the production are Animation Directors, with the interchangeable term being Supervising Animators. Depending upon the pipeline, they are in charge of a single character or a set of characters. If you watch the credits of Monsters University you will notice that there was one Animation Manager, who was in charge of everything under the Animation department. Under her were three Directors of Animation,and working under all of them were well over one-hundred individual Animators. Further more, the Animation Manager, Animation Directors, and Supervising Animators do not necessarily animate during production. Overall they establish the initial animation style, distribute shots, and review the animators’ work on a daily basis. Another thing to keep in mind is that the Director of a film and the Animation Director are not the same thing at all.

You can view an example of Animation Tests for Pixar's Brave right here.

During production Character Animators are given a shot and are told what should be happening within that moment to their character, such as dialogue or an action sequence.The Animators behind one main character could vary from a handful to well over a dozen, depending on the length of the production. It is crucial that the character looks like it was animated by one person, consistency is key in believability. At a studio the higher positions described in the previous paragraphed are worked up towards, they do not directly hire Animation Directors, Animation Managers, and Supervising Animators. These individuals began as Animators then were promoted through their quality of work and professional experience.

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It is important to keep in mind what portions of a character’s body are animated by a Character Animator. The lip syncing, emotions, and bodily movements are all done by Character Animators. When it comes to the character’s clothing, accessories, and hair, those are all handled by Technical Directors, or TDsThe TDs add in these factors after the Character Animators finalize a character’s animation. 

So I do not turn this post into an even longer novel, please refer to this post that describes the misinformation that surrounds what Animators do in a feature film. 

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The animation of a film is done within a process that begins from storyboards all the way to final animation. Here is a visual demonstration of this process using Pixar's Ratatouille. After storyboards are complete the animators create a Layout, and if you watch the video you can see that this looks silly. Regardless it is very important, the characters are placed within the scene to establish timing. Then comes the Blocking Pass where the animation is starting to be developed. When the final animation is complete the Animator will move on to a different scene. After this you will notice the addition of clothing and hair simulation, which all depend upon the character’s movements just like in reality. During this entire process the Animation Directors/Animation Supervisors are constantly critiquing each shot every single day for every single Animator. 

Below on the left side is what the models looks like when they are handed to the Animators, the right side is the final product.

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There is no denying the fact that Animation is incredibly challenging and requires much time and dedication. Character Animators must make changes constantly or even be told to throw out everything they’ve done and start all over again. It is a lengthy process that takes hundreds of people and years of work, since this section of the pipeline can last from one to over two years. Though difficult it is so rewarding to see the character come to life on the big screen in the end.

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