Animation, motion pictures created by recording a series of still images—drawings, objects, or people in various positions of incremental movement—that when played back no longer appear individually as static images but combine to produce the illusion of unbroken motion. The term animation applies to creations on film, video, or computers, and even to motion toys, which usually consist of a series of drawings or photographs on paper that are viewed with a mechanical device or by flipping through a hand-held sequence of images (for example, a pad of paper can be used to create an animated flipbook of drawings). The term cartoon is sometimes used to describe short animated works (under ten minutes) that are humorous in nature.
There are many ways to create animation, depending on whether the materials used are two-dimensional (flat, such as drawings, paintings, or cut-out pieces of paper) or three-dimensional (having volume, such as clay, puppets, household objects, or even people). In each case, an animator must keep in mind the basic principle of frames per second (the number of images needed to produce one second of film). Because sound film runs at 24 frames per second, a film animator must make 24 images for each second of animation that he or she wishes to create. A common timesaving practice is to film animation on twos or on threes, meaning that the animator actually uses one image for two or three frames of film in a row, rather than using each image only once.
After choosing an idea for a film, an animator must think about a concept in terms of individual actions. For instance, if the animator decides on an action that will take 3 seconds of animation to complete, he or she will have to create images to fill 72 frames of film (3 seconds of movement multiplied by a running speed of 24 frames per second). Filmed on twos, 36 drawings showing progressive changes in the movement will be needed to create the 3-second action. Different media use different frame rates. The standard for American videotape (National Television Standards Committee or NTSC) is 30 frames per second, while some digital animation programs (such as Macromedia’s Flash) can run as slowly as 12 frames per second. No matter what standard is used, the ability to think in terms of incremental movement is essential to the animation process.
An animator must do a lot of planning, or preproduction work, before an animation is recorded. Whereas live-action filmmakers might improvise on the set, most animators have everything precisely timed prior to filming. Before any animation of images can be done, many details must be completed, such as developing the concept; storyboarding the concept (sketching the major events in a story with panel-like drawings, much like a comic strip); developing and recording a dialogue track, if used, and other sound elements; timing the dialogue or other sounds and recording this information on a time sheet (which shows, in seconds, the length of each bit of sound); and timing the action to fit the sound. In some cases, dialogue is recorded after animation is complete; this has been a common practice in the Japanese animation industry.
Depending on the size and budget of the production, the animator may work with a team of character designers, model builders, background artists, inspirational sketch artists, colorists, and other professionals who influence the look of the work. An individual, or independent, animator can take on all these roles.
If an animator is basing the animation project on drawings, one of the most common animation techniques, he or she will first create a series of rough sketches that often will be filmed in a pencil test (simple line drawings of the animated images done in pencil) to determine whether the desired motion has been achieved. If the pencil test is satisfactory, images are refined (“cleaned up”) by removing excess lines. Beginning in the mid-1910s, animation was often completed using acetate cels (sheets of celluloid), although this technique is now being overtaken by computerized methods. Using the traditional cel process, cleaned-up drawn images are traced onto a cel by a person known as an inker, using special acetate-adhering inks. Later, a painter applies vinyl paint colors onto the back of the cel. Starting in the 1960s, to save time and money many large studios used a photocopy process, rather than hand inking, to transfer lines from the drawn original to the acetate cel.
Puppet animation uses three-dimensional figures that are moved incrementally for each frame of film. Well-known puppet animation directors include Hungarian artist George Pal, Czech artist Jiří Trnka, and Russian artist Ladislas Starewicz. Animation using wooden puppets has been associated principally with Eastern Europe, which has a strong tradition of toy making. Since the 1980s latex figures—rubber-like puppets usually supported by a flexible internal skeleton called an armature—have become popular in animation. This type of puppet was used in the animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
Clay animation employs figures made of Plasticine, a material that has an oil base to keep it flexible. Like latex puppets, clay figures are typically supported by some kind of armature, ranging from a complex “ball-and-socket” skeleton to simple twisted wire (which provided the armature for the popular Gumby character). Clay animation is often associated with the Will Vinton Studio, located in Portland, Oregon, which in 1986 created the famous California Raisins television commercials using its special Claymation technique. More recently, Aardman Animations—based in Bristol, England—has emerged as a leader in clay animation with the Wallace & Gromit series of short films and the full-length feature Chicken Run (2000).
The animation technique known as pixilation uses humans or other live subjects filmed incrementally in various fixed poses; when the movements are played back, the subjects move in an unnatural or somewhat surreal way. One famous example of this type of animation is the short film Neighbors (1952), made by the Scottish animator Norman McLaren at the National Film Board of Canada. Pinscreen animation, a relatively unusual method, was developed in France by Russian-born Alexandre Alexeieff and American Claire Parker. The pinscreen (also known as a pinboard, or by its French name, l'écran d'épingles) is composed of a large upright frame containing a white board that is perforated by millions of pins, or nails. Using rollers of different sizes, these pins are pushed inward or outward. Lit from the side with a single spotlight, the pattern of pins creates shadows. Dark shadows appear black, light shadows appear in variations of gray, and brightly lit areas appear to be white. This technique was used in Une nuit sur le Mont Chauve (Night on Bald Mountain, 1933) and a few other films.
Computers can be used to automate many animation processes, such as shading and coloring (see Computer animation). Although computers were once shunned by studios and animators who prided themselves on handmade craftsmanship, recent projects, such as the motion picture Toy Story (1995), demonstrate that new technologies have gained greater acceptance in the industry. Computer animators are generally expected to have the same drawing skills and understanding of incremental movement and timing that are necessary to create more traditional techniques. Many computer animators work on projects intended for video games and the Internet, and they also find employment creating special effects for feature films.
Studios employ an extensive range of technologies in the creation of computer animation. Many studios take widely available off-the-shelf software programs and make proprietary (studio-owned) modifications to enhance the capabilities of the programs. Some digital animation, particularly that which is created for games or for special effects in live-action films, use a technology called motion capture. Motion capture entails the use of live performers who wear suits containing a number of “data points” that transmit data through a variety of wired or wireless technology and cameras situated around the performance area. Using the data collected during the performance, computers can be used to construct relatively lifelike animated imagery, either in real time (immediately) or through postproduction methods.
Motion capture often is compared to rotoscoping, a technique where individual frames of an actor’s filmed performance are projected onto sheets of paper and traced to create a series of drawings. When filmed, these drawings can create an animated sequence that is very lifelike in its appearance and movement. Austrian-born animator Max Fleischer patented the rotoscoping process in 1917.
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