Animating a theme park ride

Computer animation is playing a major role in the production of a theme park rides. Charles Gibson, of Rhythm and Hues, addressed an audience on the subject at the Annecy Animation Festival. David Jefferson reports.

A seminar entitled “Technical and aesthetic issues involved in integrating images” was staged at the Annecy Animation Festival. A number of French and American animators described their production methods and for this article I am going to single out the talk given by Charles Gibson of Rhythm and Hues.

Rhythm and Hues are primarily a computer animation studio. They specialise in commercial films for the USA television market. They do a small amount of work combining live-action and computer imagery and an increasing amount of integration of classical animation with computer animation. “This is something that has become very appealing for my studio recently,” said Gibson. “We are creating a new kind of imagery that has not been seen before in computer animation or cel animation, we do it by combining the strengths of both media.” Ultimately they would like to produce one-hundred percent computer animated feature films for cinema release. This is expensive now, but Gibson predicts it will happen in the next few years.

“We have analysed how the computer can work together with cel animation and we have found the computer can help in two ways,” declared Gibson “The first way is to streamline the animation process and make it much more efficient; computer assisted ink and paint and general automation of some of the non-creative, non-animation tasks, rostrum camera work and so on.”

Characters from the Hanna-Barbera theme park ride.

The present solution is to produce work overseas and exploit low cost foreign labour. Using computers to produce this kind of work is not conjecture, companies are using it in production. “Disney has a complete system in place for this automation and virtually all the major animation studios in the world are looking at this,” revealed Gibson.

The second area that is most interesting to Gibson is the expansion of the medium: “We have a new creative flexibility with computer graphics. The computer is very good at several things. It can draw complex perspective almost perfectly. It can draw detail that is impossible to achieve by hand, such as mechanical objects, with perfect precision. It can draw texture and shading that is also impossible to achieve by hand. The computer can help by doing some of the perspective work before hand animation for layout frame-by-frame as a guide for cel animators to use.

The goal for this technology is to create a much more cinematic form of film making. “It is claimed that cel animation is totally flexible but in reality cel animation has always been oriented, in terms of its presentation, in things that are easy to draw,” suggested Gibson. “An animation camera is limited to two-dimensional moves unless complicated multiplane work is introduced. It has been possible to overcome these limitations with the computer.”

Rhythm and Hues have undertaken two cel animation projects and are starting their third. They used a combination of cel and computer animation in both projects. They completely rendered moving three-dimensional backgrounds using the computer, and some of the complex foreground objects that need to operate in perspective such as vehicles.

“The ability to work in the third-dimension has freed the camera,” reports Gibson. “We can present the images in any way arid it has created an extremely dynamic form. Both the pieces we have produced so far have taken advantage of this.”

Gibson wanted to stress that when you use the computer to render it does not mean you are limited in look to something that is computer-like. Many people fear the look of computer animation because it is cold and plastic and that need not be the case. “The computer is a chameleon, it can mimic any look, anything from flat painted cels, airbrushed cels. In our projects we have incorporated hand painted textures into the image and manipulated them as part of the scene. The look is one of traditional animation hut it moves in a new way.

In one project Rhythm and Hues worked with a background painter. They had him paint textures that were scanned digitally into the computer at a very high resolution and mapped onto three-dimensional objects. The film moves very fluidly and if an individual frame is examined there is no sign that the image is not a hand painted background. Gibson predicts an extremely bright future for computers in producing totally integrated work like this.

Another way to use a computer is to do digital post production of cel animation. You scan cel animation in frame-by-frame with high definition scanners. “We use a scanner with 6,000 by 6,000 resolution. We can process the image in a similar way to using optical printing techniques in the past, but it is a lot more flexible. We can add shading to the images, dimension, focus effects, transparency, special effects to warp and change the images in addition to what has already been animated. This is image processing, it is not computer image generation. We are working with the original artwork and manipulation it so there is no computer look to it.”

Rhythm and Hues recently worked on a theme park ride. It is a point of view journey through three different Hanna-Barbera cartoon worlds. The film was produced by three production companies:

Rhythm and Hues, Graph Warman (that no longer exists), and Don Bluth USA. Bluth handled the cel animation. It was drawn on ones to integrate with the computer animation. Tone mattes were used to add a shaded look to the ccl animation to help integrate it with 3D computer animation. There are three segments in it: a Flintstone section, a Scooby Do section, both of which were produced at Graph Warman; and a Jetsons section produced at Rhythm and Hues.

The story is told in two parts: pre-show action in which a character is kidnapped and the movie ride chase sequence. The audience is solicited to chase the kidnappers through the movie environment and try to bring the victim back to the safety of the spaceship. “The audience are in a room where the chairs are moving around, and to achieve a dynamic feel, everything moves very quickly,” explained Gibson. “This kind of motion is perfect for computer animation, it is very easy for us to create these endless landscapes out of nothing.”

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