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Animation for the rest of us

Speed read
  • Attempts at the illusion of motion can be viewed on paleolithic cave walls and other ancient artifacts
  • High-end software has replaced hand-drawing in the art of animation
  • Animation packages used by professionals come with a steep learning curve

Artists have attempted to create the illusion of motion since prehistoric times.' 

Modern animation is created via computer, and Swiss researchers have crafted a way to make the process quicker and less cumbersome for experts — and accessible to novices.

Archaeologists believe that paleolithic cave painters represented animal movement by superimposing series of successive images on cave walls.

Authoring motion cycles. A breakthrough animation system is simple enough for novice animators while retaining the control demanded by experts. Courtesy Loïc Ciccone; ETH Zurich.

Sequential still imagery can also be seen on ancient pottery, Egyptian murals, and medieval codices. A Leonardo da Vinci work illustrating the muscles of the upper body suggests movement of the described parts. 

Christian Huygens' magic lantern, invented in 1659, is an early type of image projector which displayed simple animations. Animation pioneers created short films in the early twentieth century and the first feature-length animation was released in 1917.

As the film industry continued to mature in the twentieth century, Walt Disney's studio became the epicenter of innovation in animation technique.

Disney animators drew series of slightly differing images on paper. The images were photographed or traced on to transparent acetate sheets called cells. Eventually, the cells were photographed one-by-one against a painted background and transformed into a motion picture film.

Today, animated movies and video games are created with high-end computer tools. While animators of old had to be skilled at drawing, today's artists must be experts in software packages like Autodesk Maya, 3ds Max, and Blender.

Because these tools come with a steep learning curve, Loïc Ciccone of the Computer Graphics Laboratory at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zurich and his team members at Disney Research Zurich have created software to streamline the process.

Ciccone’s software is called MoCurves, which focuses on the motion cycles which play a major role in animation and games. A motion cycle is an action repeated over time, like walking.

Motion authoring tools used by professional animators offer a broad range of tasks that rely on complex mechanisms and require a high level of expertise from the user. (Read: Difficult and time-consuming.)

This means that animation is an experts-only enterprise.

<strong>Triple threat. </strong> MoCurves supports a variety of performance capture devices: The Leap Motion hand tracker, HTC Vive, and a full body motion-capture suit. Novices were able to creat animations in a very short time using the new system. Courtesy Loïc Ciccone; ETH ZurichWith MoCurves, novices can capture motion using performance animation. Performance animation, such as the full-body motion capture in the movie Avatar, is the process of capturing motion values over time by mimicking actions. It can be done with an input device such as a mouse or a Leap Motion controller.

Because motion captured by performance animation can be imprecise, Ciccone’s team developed an algorithm to analyze and extract a motion cycle and remove extraneous input noise. The animator then uses the MoCurves tool to control and coordinate spatial and temporal transformations from a single viewport. The MoCurves interface is attached to Maya Audodesk as a plugin, allowing novice users to bypass Maya’s complex animation features.

While this technology is promising, there are some limitations. The algorithm requires consistent input cycles similar in shape and timing. Wide variation in these elements reduces the animation’s quality. Also, more complex motions such as a roll or lean of the foot present a challenge to the tool.

Ciccone spoke to several animators from the Walt Disney Animation Studios who said they were thrilled by the power that MoCurves provide. “If ever Disney adapts MoCurves into their workflow,” he says, “it would be to provide their artists with more powerful tools to ease part of their regular work.”

Ciccone hopes that someday MoCurves will be available to consumers. He believes, “in the future, the technology will be made more simple, with tools like MoCurves, so anyone can tell animated stories.”

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 642841.

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