This is from the making of the Disney's recent movie "Wreck-It Ralph". It's somewhat ironic that computer animation technology has advanced so much that it can imitate real movement so accurately, and yet these animators had to try to imitate the jerky movements of a pixel-based, arcade game from 30 years ago. (For the record, they did a great job of it).
Several steps are required to successfully plan and carry out the production of a piece of animation. Animation is a trial-and-error process that involves feedback from one step to previous steps and usually demands several iterations through multiple steps at various times. Even so, the production of animation typically follows a standard pattern. First, a preliminary story is decided on, including a script. A storyboard is developed that lays out the action scenes by sketching representative frames. The frames are often accompanied by text that sketches out the action taking place.
The study various techniques and algorithms used in computer animation, it is useful to first understand their relationship to the animation principles used in hand-drawn animation. In an article by Lasseter, the principles of animation, articulated by some of the original Disney animators, are related to techniques commonly used in computer animation. The principles are "squash and stretch", "timing", "secondary action", "slow in and slow out", "arcs", "follow through/overlapping action", "exaggeration", "appeal", "anticipation", "staging", "solid drawing", and "straight ahead and pose to pose".
Photorealistic animation’s quantum leap came in 2009 with Avatar, a project James Cameron had delayed nearly a decade to allow the technology to catch up to his vision. Cameron commissioned the creation of a camera that recorded facial expressions of actors for animators to use later, allowing for a perfect syncing of live action with animation. Cameron demanded perfection; he reportedly ordered that each plant on the alien planet of Pandora be individually rendered, even though each one contained roughly one million polygons. No wonder it took nearly $300 million to produce Avatar.
Computer animation’s next breakthrough came in 2001 with Shrek. Shrek delved into true world building; it included 36 separate in-film locations, more than any CGI feature before it. DreamWorks also made a huge advancement by taking the facial muscle rendering software it used in Antz and applying it to the whole body of Shrek’s characters.
“if you pay attention to Shrek when he talks, you see that when he opens his jaw, he forms a double chin,” supervising animator Raman Hui explained, “because we have the fat and the muscles underneath. That kind of detail took us a long time to get right."
They thrived. The animators began by creating clay or computer-drawn models of the characters; once they had the models, they coded articulation and motion controls so that the characters could do things like run, jump and laugh. This was all done with the help of Menv, a modeling environment tool Pixar had been building for nine years. Menv’s models proved incredibly complex -- the protagonist, Woody, required 723 motion controls. It was a strain on man and machine alike; it took 800,000 machine hours to complete the film, and it took each animator a week to successfully sync an 8-second shot.
Many individuals say the Disney Renaissance began with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, with following entries Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King reaching even greater heights – everyone seems to leave out the forgotten The Rescuers Down Under. Regardless, this represented a period of unparalleled imagination and inspiration within the studio, continuing for several years to follow.
Walt Disney was, of course, the overpowering force in the history of conventional animation. Not only did his studio contribute several technical innovations, but Disney, more than anyone else, advanced animation as an art form. Disney's innovations in animation technology included the use of a storyboard to review the story and pencil sketches to review motion. In addition, he pioneered the use of sound and color in animation (although he was not the first to use color). Disney also studied live-action sequences to create more realistic motion. When he used sound for the first time in "Steamboat Wilie" (1928), he gained an advantage over his competitors.
One of the most well known early animation devices is the zoetrope, or wheel of life. The zoetrope has a short fat cylinder that rotates on its axis of symmetry. Around the inside of the cylinder is a sequence of drawings, each one slightly different from the ones next to it. The cylinder has long vertical slits cut into its side between each adjacent pair of images so that when it is spun on its axis each slit allows the eye to see the image on the opposite wall of the cylinder. The sequence of slits passing in front of the eye as the cylinder is spun on its axis presents a sequence of images to the eye, creating the illusion of motion.
It was 50 years ago this spring that National Bureau of Standards (NBS, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST) computer pioneer Russell Kirsch asked “What would happen if computers could look at pictures?” and helped start a revolution in information technology. Kirsch and his colleagues at NBS, who had developed the nation’s first programmable computer, the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC), created a rotating drum scanner and programming that allowed images to be fed into it. The first image scanned was a head-and-shoulders shot of Kirsch’s three-month-old son Walden.
Many people don’t realize that we have almost as many artists at Pixar working in traditional media—hand drawing, painting, pastels, sculpture—as we do in digital media. Most of their work takes place during the development of a project, when we’re working out the story and the look of the film. The wealth of beautiful art created for each movie is rarely seen outside the studio, but the finished film we send around the world would never be possible without it.
Concept art plays a huge part in the development of any visual story. Here are some great examples: