Archive for the 'Animation' Category

Interlude – Enter the Land of Drawings…

One of the classic children’s British TV programmes from the 1970s was Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings, a “meta-animation” in which the lead character, Simon, is able to enter the (animated) land of chalk drawings though his magic chalkboard.

On one reading, we can view the land of chalk drawings as a virtual reality experienced by Simon; on another, we can imagine the chalk board as a forerunner of an augmented reality colouring book.

“Drawn” and “real” worlds have also combined in other culturally significant creations, such as in the well known Take on Me music video by Norwegian 80s pop group Ah-ha.

ACTIVITY: what other TV programmes or videos do you remember from the past that either hinted at, or might provide inspiration for, augmented or mixed reality effects and applications?

At the time, the Take on Me video was a masterpiece of video compositing. But as photo- and video-manipulation tools develop, and as augmented reality toolkits become ever more available, the ability to produce similar styled videos may become commonplace.

For example, creating “pencil drawn” images from photos can be easily achieved using a range of filters in applications such as Adobe Photoshop:

And the Pencil Sketch tool in Adobe After Effects will apply a similar effect to videos.

The Pencil Sketch effect is a applied as the result of processing a video image directly. But a similar sort of end effect can also be created by applying a texture transformation to a motion-captured model.

By manipulating a model, rather than a video frame, we are no longer tied to purely re-presenting the captured video image. Instead, the capture can be manipulated and the performance transformed away from the original motions, as well as the original textures.


Making Moving Pictures Stop

In Making Pictures Move, I briefly referred to the “time lapse” photography technique made famous by Edward Muybridge, in which a series of rapidly taken still photographs could be used to freeze the motion of moving person or animal.

Technology moves on, of course, but sports TV in particular now makes use of similar technique to show how international athletes piece together their performances.

The above movie gives an example of the StroMotionTM effect developed by video engineers Dartfish. The technique can also be used to create static, composite images, as this example demonstrates:

stromotion skateboarder

In addition to augmenting sports broadcasts, the technique can also be used to support the training of athletes, or as a more general educational aid.

The StroMotionTM name presumably takes inspiration from the word stroboscope. Explain in what way(s) this is appropriate.

What video clips can you think of that might reveal some insight if they were processed using the StroMotionTM approach?

Sports broadcasting also makes use of ‘augmented reality’ techniques, for example in the use of digital “overlays” on top of a video image where lane numbers may be overlaid on top of the pool lanes in a swimming competition (or indeed, as a moving ‘world record pace’ line showing how close the actual swimmers are to a world record pace), or distances may be plotted from the ball to the flag in a golf broadcast (see for example the Vizrt VizArenaTM system, which “enables broadcasters to superimpose static and animated 3D graphics over the live coverage of a sports event”).

As another example, the BBC “Piero” system can be used to add ‘tied-to-pitch’ graphical overlays and 3D views of recorded sports action by placing players in a virtual stadium within which they can be viewed from different angles (Piero, also described here: Piero sports graphics system wins two awards).

What other examples of ‘digital overlays’ can you think of in the realm of sports broadcasting? Add any links you find – particularly links to video examples – as a comment below.

The Uncanny Valley

Looking back at screenshots of some of the original video arcade games, and comparing them to the increasingly realistic imagery of games on the latest generation consoles, it is difficult not to be amazed at how much the visual appearance of the games has evolved. The advances in both computer hardware design and software development mean that today’s games hold the promise of photorealistic views in the not too distant future. But is this desirable? (see for example: Videogame Aesthetics: The Future).

Even animated movements themselves are becoming more realistic, through the use of motion capture techniques (as described in Realistic Movement with Motion Capture). However, when the motion capture to animation technique is not quite right, then the resulting animation can feel very off-putting.

For example, in the CGI movie Polar Express, audiences were left feeling uncomfrtable by much of the animation, as this post by animator Ward Jenkins describes: The Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck (conclusion).

This effect has come to be known as the uncanny valley.

Taken from:

The still unproven “uncanny valley” effect was coined by Japanase roboticist Mashahiro Mori, based on his observations about peoples’ emotional response to robotic or animated representations of living things. The claim goes that we are likely to have an increasingly positive emotional response to a representation as it becomes increasingly lifelike until something ‘not quite right’ (i.e. unnatural, or ‘uncanny’) comes to our attention, at which point we become negatively disposed to, or even repulsed by, the object in question.

Read this article on The Uncanny Valley by Masahiro Mori (1970) Energy, 7(4), pp. 33-35 [Translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato].

Have you ever experienced the uncanny valley effect, for example, when watching a photoreaslistic computer generated animation?

(See more “motion portrtait” animations here: Motion Portrait; or a full screen version of the above animation that follows your mouse cursor…)

As gamemakers pursue photorealism, there is the danger that their game characters will put off potential players if they stray into the uncanny valley, as Clive Thompson warns in his 2005 Wired magazine commentary “Monsters of Photorealism”.

For example, in Looking at Movies: The Uncanny Valley, an essay critiquing Polar Express, as well as other CGI movies, from the perspective of the uncanny valley, we get the following observation:

When applied to special effects in movies, the implications of the uncanny valley are clear: if a filmmaker strives for a very high level of verisimilitude in computer-generated characters, they may risk taking the humanlike resemblance too far, causing viewers to notice every detail of the characters’ appearance or movement that doesn’t conform to the way real human beings actually look or move. Our emotional response to these “almost human” characters will therefore be unease and discomfort, not pleasure or empathy.

If the filmmaker decides instead to render characters in a more stylized manner, clearly signaling that they are not supposed to appear “almost human,” we will notice, paradoxically enough, all the aspects of their appearance and behavior that resemble human beings, and we will be more likely to perceive these characters as more complex and more “human” characters than the characters that are designed to look nearly human.

We can extend the concept even further to acknowledge that, when an animated object or a creature that is clearly not human is shown onscreen exhibiting certain human traits or emotions, we may actually feel more sympathetic to that creature than we do to overly detailed “human” animated characters.

James Portnow takes a similar viewpoint with respect to games in this article: GAME DESIGN: The Uncanny Valley.

As computer animations – and robots – get ever more realistic, we naturally get more opportunities to test out the validity of the Uncanny Valley Hypothesis…

To what extent do you think that the uncanny valley is a plausible theory? In what ways do you think that computer games may be susceptible to the uncanny valley effect? If computer game characters can wander into the uncanny valley, so what?

See also: In Search of the Uncanny Valley, F.E.Pollick, published in USER CENTRIC MEDIA, Lecture Notes of the Institute for Computer Sciences, Social Informatics and Telecommunications Engineering, 2010, Volume 40, Part 4, 69-78, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-12630-7_8

Virtual World Films – machinima

As well as providing environments within which games can be played, game worlds (and other virtual worlds) are increasingly offering the ability to record action from within a game. As the game worlds themselves support richer and richer interactions and behaviours, the game world becomes a virtual movie set that can be used for the production of game related “fan fiction”, as well as ‘standalone’ animated movies.

Machinima is the name given to computer generated films that are rendered in real time using a game engine. That is, machinima represents a form of emergent gameplay in which the game characters are treated as “digital puppets” and used to act out a story that can be recorded using screen capture, or a screen recorder built in to the game to specifically encourage the recording of game demos, or more general machinima short films.

Read the Futurelab article: Machinima and education (September, 2007). Bear in mind the following questions as you do so.

  • What are the four (4) most common machinima production techniques identified in the article and what do they involve?
  • Give two or three examples of how the genre of a game can influence the sort of machinima it can be best used to create.
  • In what ways does machinima ‘democratise’ the film-making process (that is, how does it lower barriers to entry for people wiching to get started with film-making?)?

If you are interested in the evolution of machinima, this article from the August 2007 issue of EDGE magazine (issue 178) is a good place to learn more: Screen Play: The Future of Machinima.

The best produced machinima films are scripted in a similar way to any animated short film, and then acted out using game characters. As well as one off short films, machinima has spawned several of its own series, such as The Strangerhood, a sitcom(?!) created using The Sims, which even attracted a review from the BBC when it was launched several years ago: Review: The Strangerhood (via BBC News).

See if you can find out what other ‘cult’ machinima series Rooster Teeth, the producers of “The Strangerhood”, created using the Halo game engine?

Creating Machinima

If you are interested in how to get started producing your own machinima, the following presentation gives an excellent overview – “Making Machinima” by Jeremy Kemp:

The two videos recommended in the presentation can be found here: What is machinima? and Inside the Machinima (both on Youtube).

Using footage from one game in another

One early use of machinima was as a production technique for creating cutscenes in one game, using the game engine of another. This approach has quite a long history, and is described in this Gamasutra article Machinima Cutscene Creation, Part One dating back to September, 2000, and followed up in Machinima Cutscene Creation, Part Two.

If you are interested in creating short, cutscene films, read the above two articles. They provide a good introduction to the storytelling techniques that go towards making an effective cutscene.

In more recent times, the growth of online multiplayer games has enabled full ‘cast and crew’ machinima productions, in which one character may take on the role of cameraman, filming the action as it is ‘played out’ by characters controlled by other game players.

How does machinima in general differ from “speed run” or walkthrough recordings of how to complete a game, or the production of game demos or game trailers from within the game itself? (See also Post hoc Game Documentation – Walkthroughs and Speedruns)

If you would like to view some more machinima, there is plenty on social video websites such as Youtube, as well as on dedicated machinima video sharing sites such as The GameSetWatch article World of Warcraft Exposed: A Moviemaking Culture describes the rise of machinima in the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW), and provides several links to directories of machinima created in that virtual world.

Friday Fun #7 Try Your Hand at Animation

Picking up on a post from earlier this week, (Breathing Life into Animated Objects), why not have a go at creating some simple animations of your own.

I came across Pencil the other day, a desktop application that works on Macs, Windows and Linux, that provides an excellent environment for creating your own line drawing animations. (Just reading through the user manual is also quite instructive in terms of finding out what sorts of support computer applications offer an animator today!)

Here’s a rather blurry tutorial of how to do a ‘traditional’ bouncing ball animation in pencil (the lines are faint at times – try watching the video in full screen view…): the bouncing ball tutorial (pencil).

If you fancy something a little more, err, casual, then why not try the online AniBoom shapeshifter application (bouncing ball tutorial).

Whilst not quite animation in the traditional sense, SketchCast offers another interesting way of telling stories through drawing…

If you’d rather just play a game, it being Friday and all, then why not try Grid16? There are no instructions given (apart from the hint that you need to use the arrow keys!). The game is made up from 16 minigames, each of which tests a particular style of game mechanic. See if you can work out what the aim of each minigame is, and then see if you can improve your score!

And if game playing is even too much for you, just sit back and watch this: Animator vs. Animation ;-)

Breathing Life into Animated Objects

In several of the most recent, previous posts, we’ve considered how stories can be plotted in a variety of ways around narrative events that take the characters in the story on an emotional journey (and hopefully take the audience with them on that emotional journey too!).

So how can an animator create a character that the audience comes to identify with on a physical level, as communicated to the the audience through animation?

The Twelve Principles of Animation

Although the techniques for doing much of the hard work of animation have been revolutionised by digital media, the pioneering work in ‘traditional’ film animation done by Walt Disney and Disney Studios on how to animate characters in a lifelike way still holds good today…

So for example, if you were to search for “principles of animation”, you’re quite likely to come across references to “the 5 principles”, or “the 12 principles”, or even “the 28 principles”. Most commentators, however, would go with 12 – the twelve principles – as developed by a core team of animators from Disney Studios in the 1920s and 1930s.

The principles refer to a set of techniques that describe how the characters might move from scene to scene as characters:

  1. Squash and stretch
  2. Anticipation
  3. Staging
  4. Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose
  5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action
  6. Slow In and Slow Out
  7. Arcs
  8. Secondary Action
  9. Timing
  10. Exaggeration
  11. Solid Drawing
  12. Appeal and Character Personality

If you’d like to listen to a brief (15 minute) summary of what constitutes each of these principles, try this Introdution to Cartooning: Principles of Animation presentation.

If you prefer the written word, I’ll be drawing on “Applying the 12 Principles to 3D Animation” by Tito A. Belgrave and “The 12 Principles of Animation (annotated for stopmotion by Mike Brent)” to try and characterise these principles. My summaries of the principles are very brief though, so if you would like to learn more, please see either (or both) of those references for more detail.

If you find any short movie examples of any of the principles, or create one yourself, please link it back to this post – over time, I’d like to be able illustrate each of the principles with “found” resources from the web…or the Digital Worlds’ readership… ;-)

Squash and stretch

If you bounce a rubber ball, it squashes up as it hits the ground, and then it stretches out, as the first 10 seconds of this high speed movie clip demonstrate:

Although the squash and stretch effect can be exaggerated, it is important that the “mass” of whatever is being transformed is preserved. For example, if you are animating a bouncing rubber ball using clay, you would not add or take away any of the clay as you record each frame.


Before a character performs an action, it should physically “wind up” to perform that action. Anticipation draws the attention of the viewer, so that they focus on a particular area of the screen and prepare themselves for something to happen there. The classic example is of throwing a ball, in which the character draws their arm back in a possibly exaggerated way, before performing the action. Without anticipation, you have surprise – or maybe even an unnatural looking action. Suspense draws on a slightly different sense of anticipation, in which the viewer has an expectation that an action is will occur, but they are not sure where or when.


Staging refers the set – or setting – of the scene, and the way in which it is portrayed. Staging is an important element of all the dramatic arts, from theatre, set design and stagecraft to film cinematography. In animation, staging a scene is likely to involve “set design”, “lighting” and choice of camera angle and other camera techniques (close-ups, slow-motion etc.), as well as visual composition of the scene in much the same way that a photograph is composed.

Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose

Straight-ahead action refers to a production technique, such as stop motion animation, in which a scene is captured in frame order – for example, using motion capture or a dynamic computer simulation. Pose to pose refers to the key frame technique of animation, in which certain key frames, or poses, are drawn first, and then in-between frames are added that “move” all the elements from one pose to the next.

Follow Through and Overlapping Action

Follow through refers to the way a character behaves whilst completing an action, and can often be used to communicate a character’s feelings about that action or the likely consequences of it. In the case of throwing a ball, the action continues after releasing the ball, both in terms of how the character’s arm moves, but maybe also their facial expression as they realise how good their throw was. Overlapping action relates to the follow through behaviour of ‘secondary’ features, such as the motion of hair or clothing. The main focus is on the motion of the arm, but this must be dressed with overlapping action to make it look real.

Slow In and Slow Out (aka Ease in, Ease Out, or Acceleration, Deceleration)

Most actions start slowly and end slowly. If you think of a car, it doesn’t go from 0 to 60 instantaneously, nor it is likely to stop immediately from traveling at any speed. Slow in and slow out models this acceleration and deceleration.


Most things don’t move in straight lines. if you throw a ball, it doesn’t fly horizontally for a bit, then drop vertically down. Gravity acts on it all the time, pulling it in a downward arc. For body parts, if you swing your arm round, your hand doesn’t describe a square shape – it follows a circle, an arc, centred on your shoulder.

Secondary Action

Secondary actions are the incidental actions that make things look more realistic and may add to the anticipation of an action. For example, our ball thrower might be playing with the ball in their hands, or bouncing it from one hand to another, before actually performing the main throwing action. The movement of hair or clothing, or body twitches and facial gestures, are often likely to count as secondary action.


In its simplest form, timing refers to the choice of when an action is started and how long it takes to perform. Many comedians are highly rated not just because of (or even in spite of!) what they say, but the exact moment at which they choose say it…


Exaggeration can be used to focus attention, and stress a particular action. Exaggeration can also be used to develop character, as for example in the case of a caricature.

Solid Drawing (Solid Modeling)

Getting the drawing – or computer model – right. Whatever you’re animating should be a solid drawing, well crafted and executed and apparently capable of responding appropriately to the physics of the world it is performing in.

Appeal and Character Personality

The characters should appeal to the audience. They should be able to provoke an emotional response and also demonstrate their own “emotions” through their actions and gestures.

Putting (Some of) The Principles into Action

Hopefully, uncourse readers will start linking back resources that demonstrate the twelve principles back to this post – so keep checking back to see any new links/comments below! (Remember, you can always subscribe to the comments feed using an RSS feed reader…)

In the meantime, the following page has an excellent walkthrough of how to create a bouncing ball animation, illustrating along the way the principles of Squash and Stretch, Timing/Spacing, Solid Drawing, Slow in/Slow out and Arcs:

Animation Tutorial: The Bouncing Ball

Why not have a go at making your own simple bouncing ball animation, full of stretch and squash goodness?;-) You don’t even need a computer… remember the flip book in Making Pictures Move? ;-)


Developing a little further the story of Making Pictures Move and the tale of convergence that is Bringing the Digital World Alive, we shall have a quick peek at what was going on in the middle of the 20th century.

The development of electric ‘cathode ray displays’ – that is, CRT (Cathode RayTube) displays meant that it became possible to create electronic images on a small screen directly, rather than projecting light through a series of rapidly changing fixed film images on a movie reel. If you have ever seen a traditional oscilloscope, this a CRT in it’s ‘simplest’ guise.


This new media was soon appropriated by experimental digital artists such as John Whitney. Here’s a video of his 1961 showreel: “Catalog”.

Whitney pioneered techniques in the creation of both digital imagery and electronic music. If you search for “John Whitney” on Youtube you are sure to turn up several other examples of his work.

If you search a little more widely, you may also turn up Whitney’s essay Computational Periodics, in which he writes:

We may assume that a time will come when that which I am about to describe will name itself—but for now: ‘Computational periodics’ is a propositional and tentative term which may help to designate a new unified field for a heterodimensional art; a field whose special dimension is time. An art which is temporal, as music itself; being, that is, spatio-temporal. An art whose time has come because of computer technology and an art which could not exist before the computer.

As we shall see later, creating soundtracks for computer games has required innovations in the composition of repeating elements that may have to play for many minutes, even hours, and early scrolling background imagery also used to require repeating elements. I wonder too, whether ‘games’ like flow, which I introduced In the Beginning…, may be said to demonstrate some sort of “computational periodicity”?

As well as artists, of course, came play. If you remember the game Pong, either from way back when, (or more recently from the Understanding Games tutorial I introduced in So What is a Game?, and reviewed in Thoughts on the ‘Understanding Games Tutorial, Episode 1′!) this game may seem familiar:

‘Tennis for Two’ is often claimed as the earliest ‘video game’, dating back to 1958, and created as an entertaining diversion for visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and intended to demonstrate some an analogue computer working with a CRT display. (To this day, much of the most exciting university research demos are put together for visitor open days!) You can read more about it here – The First Video Game – and here: Video Games – Did They Begin at Brookhaven?. If you do follow the links, about how long did it take to put the demo together? ;-)

The other game that competes for the mantle of first computer game is Space War (1962):

What was the aim of Space War? What might a design document for it look like?

This review of the Space War ‘project’ has some interesting things to say about the design brief that informed the creation of the game: SpaceWar! – the First Computer Game.

What guidelines did the design team adopt regarding what the game should achieve? To what extent have the games you have created with Game Maker so far conformed to the guidelines? ;-)

PS I bundled the movies from this post together into a show on the Digital Worlds Splashcast video channel