I love animation. When I was just a runny nose kid, I took my Kodak 8mm movie camera and spent about 3 weeks drawing a little character and then trying to animate him in camera by clicking on the run button for a second and then moving him to a new position. Needless to say, the results werent spectacular, but when the film was developed, I had 10 seconds of crude but very satisfying animation. Over the years, the little Kodak 8mm has been replaced by an array of increasingly more expensive equipment. From time to time, Ive dabbled in animating when time and work constraints have allowed. With the advent of the computer and packages such as Bryce, After Effects, and others, animation has become something that while usually cumbersome, could be effected with a bit of time and work.
The problem has always been time and money. Its the old story, cheap, fast, or good, pick any two. If you want it cheap and fast, it wont be good. If you want it cheap and good, it wont be fast and naturally, if you want it fast and good, it wont be cheap.
Back to the computer. When the golden days of computers dawned way back in the 1980s, we artistic types looked at them and just knew that they would be making a significant change in the way we approached our art. The breakthrough machine was the Amiga. Those who lusted after it envied those who could afford it. Buying that first VGA card and looking at the supplied images on the installation disk was one of those heart-stopping moments that artists experienced. I WANT those colors! I WANT those surfaces. Who knew that it would take almost a decade to even approximate the work that you had inside your head to be revealed on the screen?
The problem with most 3D software today is still in my opinion, time and money. That old bugaboo that frustrated us back in the day is still with us, but on a grander scale. Sure, studios and big production houses can afford multiple seats of that Aztec program or the one named for that old magician, or even the old doctors cabinet, but regular folks, those of us who have a big dream but a thin wallet are left in the lurch. Theres the money factor. But lets say that you eat macaroni and cheese for about 4 years, dont buy any Monkees albums, recycle your DV tapes until the dropouts exceed the playable footage and manage to scrape the coins together to buy one of the big animation / rendering / modeling packages. What then? Well kids, THEN you get to go back to school to spend your time trying to locate the tool palette to find the pencil so that you can trace your sketch into the view window. That is of course, after youve learned how to get your sketch into the window in the first place. If you cant understand the user guide (and from what Ive seen, Im either speaking another language or that fall I took back in 74 really scrambled my cognitive skills), because when I read those manuals I feel
STUPID. Im lucky in that I have some friends who allow me to use some of their modeling/animation packages, but if the truth be told, I tend to stay away from them simply because I just dont get it! Id rather draw my objects in Photoshop or Illustrator, import them into After Effects, and by manipulating their anchor points and rotation and scale values, get the animation Im looking for. Tedious and only 2D, but effective with the right amount of effort. But I want MORE, I want TRUE 3d. I want a program that will let me make a character walk down the street or bend over and pick up a ball. Ive tried all the typical lowbuck avenues, 3D Amazing, King of 3D, 3D for idiots and the problem is STILL that they are too cumbersome or just dont work anyway.
No, If you want to make effective 3d animation, you HAVE to be willing to shell out the dollars and the hours to work with the Industry Standards Well, that is, I USED to think that!
What changed my mind, and my life (yes, it really IS life changing!) was the discovery of a fine little package called Animation:Master from HASH Inc. While all my friends and I were sitting for years learning how to rig their 3D models, there was a group of computer savants hanging out in Vancouver, Washington who were putting the tools into the hands of anyone who had the price of admission. REAL tools, REAL rigs, Bone systems that could be as simple or complex as your model required. A render engine that was amazingly fast and lighting and atmosphere tools that rivaled and in some ways, surpassed anything available. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the price of admission
. $299.00. WHAT? I hear you gasp, what could you POSSIBLY do with a $299.00 program? Well, how about:
- Inverse Kinematics
- True 3D Modeling
- Compensations and Constraint systems
- Lighting and texturing
- Built in Libraries of Actors, Elements, Surfaces, Materials and Canned cycles.
- Spline based construction of your models (say NO to Polygons!)
- File import and much, much more.
I began by installing the program on my Work/Hack machine, a P4 1.5Ghz 1GB ram system thats about 2 years old. I use this machine for most of my video storage as it has about 750GB of space to play with.
Right off the bat, I opened the program and began with Exercise 1 in the supplied manual (More on the manual later, its not like any manual that youve worked with before). The first Exercise/Example/Chapter covers the basics of navigation in Animation:Master. Using one of the supplied Actors, you can move, and pose the Actor in a variety of ways.
Moving on, I got to the meat of the program, actually animating something!
Using the supplied actors and actions/choreography I completed the following little skit in just under and hour (I probably could have done it faster, but I kept peeking ahead
Click here to see a .wmv of the animation.
Okay, its not Disney, or Pixar, or even something original of mine, but it IS animated and it was easier than I could have imagined. By looping the animation, you can have your little characters doing the CanCan all day long. With a small bit of time and a little bit of talent, you can animate virtually anything that you can think of.
You will notice that all the attributes of each and every element are completely adjustable. I can increase my lighting, reposition it, add or subtract lights and even use volumetric's to add smoke or fog.
I mentioned the manual. It is unlike any normal manual Ive ever run across in that there are no sections devoted to the skeleton of the program. That is to say, you wont find a glossary of terms, or a section describing what tool does what. Instead, the manual (which is more of a guide) is laid out as small tutorials, which get progressively more complex.
It begins with a short introduction to the program and the general IDEA of animation. The reader is led virtually by the hand into the program and by utilizing the models accompanying the CD we actually get some instant gratification (see the CanCan animation above). From there, the lessons get more involved, and while it can be a bit confusing at first (especially for someone who always thinks that they KNOW how things work!) a little bit of repetition goes a long way in coming to grips with the absolutely incredible power of the program.
Now Im no animator, but in less than a week (thats right, a WEEK) I constructed the above head, animated it and had it speaking complete with lip poses with ALMOST accurate phoneme reproduction! ( The ALMOST part is due entirely to MY lack of skill at this point, but in all honesty, Im not that far off from having it nailed) THATS IMPRESSIVE! The head was constructed with a simple rotoscope sketch, applying splines to the side view and extruding and shaping it from there. The actual head shape took less than an hour to have a complete half (all the construction is done in half and when you are satisfied with your results, you simply copy/flip/attach the geometry and VOILA! Your model is done!
If you prefer to work with traditional cartoon animation, A:M has a little feature called TOON SHADING. The above head looks like this when that is applied:
You can render your entire animation Toon Shaded as well as Rendered 3D. Either way (and there are more options in the render engine) your animation will be true 3D in any case.
With the ability to choreograph, light and animate your models the results are stunning. As a way to show you just what is possible with Animation:Master, hop on over to A:M Films and see what people are doing with this program. (http://amfilms.hash.com/)
With all the ability of Animation:Master, I am amazed that I hadnt heard of it until just recently. In terms of quality and ease of use, I will be spending a lot more time working with THIS program than with the more complex and less intuitive packages that are currently enjoying such popularity. The simple fact is that with Animation:Master, Im getting results rather than frustration.
My one gripe had been the manual, or my perceived lack of one. As much as I rant and rave at complex manuals, I suppose that Im so indoctrinated to their use that the lack of one (at least one where I can look something up) makes me uncomfortable. So I was a little put off by my notion that there wasnt enough hard core documentation other than the User Guide that comes with the software. I mentioned this to Ken Baer over at Hash, and while he didnt actually call me a dunderhead, he quite politely suggested that I look a little deeper into the documentation on the CD. Well, Im secure enough in my manliness to be able to admit that I need to take a trip to the eye doctor. There it was, right where he said it would be, a VERY nice bit of documentation that cleared up some of my niggling little questions that always pop up when youre using any program.
There is also an abundance of help available from the website as well as a large community of users who graciously devote their time and expertise to helping new users come into the fold. The Forums that are run at Hash are populated by knowledgeable and helpful users who waste no time in giving answers to those thorny problems. (Like How to I get that damn ball to roll across the ground?).
So there I was, ready to slice off a half point for the whole manual fiasco. Shouting EUREKA! IVE FOUND A DEFECT! But happily for you, (and humiliating for me)...
|COW Rating: The Score remains at a PERFECT 5 COWS and Im reduced to half a ration of raisin pie for the rest of the week.
5 COWS You just HAVE to get this package!