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Software Review of:
Producing Animated Short Films


In the summer of 1997, Marla Hart read an article in PC Alamode about the computer graphics degree program at San Antonio College and thought it would be a good career move. Now working as a graphic designer for DynaTouch Corporation, maker of touchscreen information systems, she is also working on two animated short films.

From the October, 2002 issue of PC Alamode Magazine

In 1995, a couple of guys in Dallas (John Davis and Keith Alcorn) decided to spend their free time creating a 3D animated short film, titled Runaway Rocket Boy, which was about a genius named Johnny Quasar. Seven years later, Johnny Quasar has become Jimmy Neutron and his rocket ship is flying through a feature length film. While the inspirational success story of Davis and Alcorn, now DNA Productions, is unlikely to repeat itself very often, it truly is possible for anyone with talent and determination to create high quality 2D and 3D animation. Whether the goal is to enter competitions, produce corporate training animations, design computer games or just have fun, the tools available today make all of it possible.

2D Animation
There are many 2D animation programs available, including Flash, Toon Boom, Xara X, LiveMotion and Director. Macromedia’s Flash MX animation program is my software of choice for 2D work. Over 400 million people have a Flash Player on their computers and more than one million designers and animators use the software.

Flash is enormously popular and for good reason. Being timeline and keyframe based helps get an animation rolling quickly with as much control over the results as the creator wants. Some of the recent changes to Flash are the improvement of the organization of windows, palettes and dialog boxes, better drawing tools, and more flexible timeline and layer organization. There is also increased video support, sound synchronization, and the continued evolution of ActionScript which gives the programming designer more capabilities and control. This program just keeps getting better.

Although the drawing tools have been given some attention, I hope they’ll become easier to work with in future versions. When trying to create complex objects, most people give up on the Flash drawing tools and go to a vector program such as Macromedia Freehand, Adobe Illustrator or any of the other vector programs that can export to Flash. Spending time using the Flash drawing tools will improve the results, but time is often in short supply. Additionally, I’d like to see shape tweening (the morphing of one shape into another) improved; its uses are few at the moment due to unpredictable and often unattractive results.

Originally a Web and interactive multimedia tool, Flash is also being used for the creation of Web movies, games and television cartoons and commercials. This powerful, stable software sells for around $400 and is well worth the price.

3D Animation 
For 3D animation, high-end software includes LightWave 3D, Maya, Softimage, 3D Studio Max and Cinema 4D. Their prices range from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars. All of these programs have a fairly high learning curve and they differ greatly in user interface design and methods of creation. Hardware requirements become critical because 3D animation rendering (producing frames of the animation for review of final output) can bring a computer to its knees when hampered by a slow processor, inadequate RAM, etc.

Often, the software first learned is the software one prefers. Sometimes circumstances such as needing an unavailable tool or working at a job where different software is required forces people to try new programs and this can either lead to a switch or confirm one’s prior preference.

My 3D education began with San Antonio based Newtek’s LightWave 3D (and its cousin, Inspire 3D, a version intended for lower resolution Web work). Since then, I’ve only briefly investigated a couple of the other high-end programs because LightWave has everything I could need to complete my animations.

Animators new to LightWave are sometimes caught off-guard by the unique aviation-style movement controls in the Layout side of the program and the overwhelming array of modeling tools, effects plug-ins and environment tweaking panels. These are actually two of the benefits of using LightWave. Once accustomed to the way Layout’s object movement controls adjust the heading, pitch and banking of items in your scene, it quickly becomes a more natural way to work. Though priced far below other cutting-edge animation programs, LightWave already contains many plug-ins that you would have to purchase separately if using most of the other programs. Another important advantage is the outstanding decision by Newtek to use text buttons instead of tiny, confusing icons. Rather than spend time learning which icon represents which tool, you’ll already be creating with the tool in a fraction of the time.

Taking a class and/or spending time working through tutorials from one of the many great books available on this program will help the new user get started. After that, it’s relatively easy to create complex models, complicated scene layout, dramatic or realistic lighting, character animation, texturing, morph targets, lip-sync and more. This sophisticated and powerful program gives animators control of every aspect of their work and ultimately produces an exquisitely beautiful finished animation thanks to the fantastic render quality.

LightWave was used in the films Black Hawk Down, Panic Room, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, The Time Machine, A.I., Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius, Monsters Inc., Gladiator, and many others. It accounts for over 40% of all 3D animation done in film and television and is also used for game creation, industrial design and architectural design, medical imaging, web and print purposes.

The release of an enhanced version of Inspire 3D would be nice, but it seems unlikely. The first and only version is priced at $495.00 and isn’t always easy to find. Newtek does offer significant upgrade discounts to assist owners of previous versions of LightWave or Inspire in upgrading to LightWave 7.5. Comparing prices and features of high-end 3D animation programs quickly reveals that LightWave is one of the best in quality and priced at $1595.00.

With dedicated effort and creative vision, Flash and LightWave can make the creation of exciting new worlds possible, environments where anything can happen, where even a boy genius and his friends can see Ultra Lord, Live!

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