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Animation Evolution

Jul 1, 2008 10:00 AM, By Kristinha M. Anding

Students change the course of the Siggraph Computer Animation Festival.


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Mike Stern's Distraxion screenshot

Mike Stern used Autodesk Maya and Mental Images mental ray to create a saxophone-wielding character in his short, Distraxion.

Mike Stern
Distraxion

The path to a career in character animation has been a long one for Mike Stern, who slowly wended his way through a past life in advertising and into the DreamWorks animation department.

After earning his bachelor's degree in advertising design from Syracuse University, Stern worked as an art director for three years at J. Walter Thompson in New York. He returned to school to study computer animation at New York University (NYU), and upon realizing that character animation was his primary interest, he simultaneously enrolled in Animation Mentor, an online animation school focusing solely on the specialty (see this month's Dream Job on p. 58 for more on Animation Mentor). “My thesis semester at NYU was my first term at Animation Mentor,” Stern says.

While at Animation Mentor, Stern started Distraxion, a humorous short detailing the travails of an office worker besieged by the cheesy saxophone riffs of his colleague's favorite music. The recording blaring from his coworker's stereo takes on a life of its own under the guidance of Stern's imagination, which conjured up a smooth-moving saxophone player who invades the beleaguered main character's personal space and drives him to the brink of madness.

The biggest challenge was finding time to work on the short, says Stern, who continued to produce the piece during the next two years while simultaneously working full-time at DreamWorks, where he contributed to Bee Movie and Kung Fu Panda. “It was tough coming home after a day of 8 hours of animation and then doing more,” he says.

Another challenge was conquering the mechanics of the animation. “I didn't have an exact reference [for the saxophone player] that I could watch and pick apart, so a lot of it had to come from my imagination,” Stern says. “I ended up looking at a lot of clips of dancers and saw how they moved and how they control their weight and create lines in their bodies.”

Stern used Autodesk Maya on a PC for modeling, rigging, lighting, and texturing (Animation Mentor provided all rigs for the characters); Mental Images mental ray for rendering; Apple Shake for compositing; and Adobe After Effects and Apple Final Cut Pro on a Mac for editing.

Getting Distraxion into the Siggraph Computer Animation Festival was the goal all along, Stern says. “There were times when I was working at 2 in the morning and thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? What is ever going to become of this?' But when I found out I was accepted at Siggraph, I knew I'd have a chance to be in a room and see how people respond to what I've spent the last two years making. I'm excited about hearing the crowd reaction.”

Stern says he is also excited about continuing his education, this time at DreamWorks. “I just want to keep getting better at this stuff,” he says.

Patrick O'Brien's Goobees

Patrick O'Brien's Goobees depicts epic clashes between anthropomorphized chocolate candies and gumdrops. He and his team used Autodesk Maya, Pixar RenderMan, and Apple Shake and Final Cut Pro to create the short at Texas A&M.

Patrick O'Brien
Goobees

For Patrick O'Brien, getting his short Goobees into the Siggraph Computer Animation Festival was like “winning the gold medal.”

“It was the pinnacle for us in terms of recognition,” says O'Brien, who completed the piece with Seth Freeman, Michael Losure, and Tony Piedra — all students of Texas A&M's Visualization Sciences master's degree program.

Goobees occupies the darker end of the thematic spectrum, featuring a world in which anthropomorphized chocolate candies and gumdrop guys are pitted against each other in a fight to the finish. The short starts out during the aftermath of a bloody battle, in which the chocolates have emerged victorious, and then moves inside of a factory, where the sweets repurpose their victims into a new candy treat. A young boy purchases these Goobees from a vending machine, which happens to have a magic window through which he can witness the next match-up about to take place. “We wanted to have this bright candy land with this dark understory to it, where all these candies are fighting and killing each other,” says O'Brien, who handled lighting and shading for the piece.

The students took advantage of their school's Visualization Sciences Lab, using Autodesk Maya for animating, effects, and modeling; Pixar RenderMan for rendering; Apple Shake for compositing; Apple Final Cut Pro for editing; and Adobe Photoshop for matte paintings. All work was done on a Linux system.

O'Brien says one of the biggest lessons they learned was the importance of preproduction. “We all had a general idea of what we thought it should look like, but we just started working on it instead of nailing that down in the beginning,” he says, noting there was a lot of work they could have avoided by being more thorough in the planning stage. “There was a real rush to jump in and get going and a lot of time pressure.”

One thing O'Brien says he feels they did right was cutting down on rendering time by using Shake. “We tried to do a lot in post — complex stuff and volumetric effects — using Shake to do a lot of little fixes as opposed to having to rerender,” he says.

The success of Goobees has opened doors for the four students: O'Brien and Losure are employed at DreamWorks, while Piedra and Freeman are at Pixar.

“I think, for all of us, just getting our foot in the door is really exciting,” says O'Brien, who finds himself living outside his home state of Texas for the first time thanks to his new job. “We're all really happy that Goobees helped us do that.”

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