The Complete Animation Course * The Animation Book

All films will become animations. That prediction is based on the rate at which special effects become standard effects in big-budget films. Even a “live action” movie these days is composed frame by frame, and the skills and logic of animation take over. An ordinary digital camera, a hi-end PC or Mac, with iMovie software or equivalent, gives anyone the tools to do cinematic animation without tears. The Complete Animation Course is the best of many recent books riding the re-newed popularity of animated films. This guide is a great how-to orientation for making your own animated film using affordable technology. It introduces you to classic animation basics, and the many methods which combine old fashioned techniques (cartoon, paper collages, claymation) with computer based tools. I found it had just the right level of detail — sufficient to get you going without bogging down in how to do what’s already been done.

The Complete Animation Course is not as thorough on basic technique as the new Digital Edition of Kit Laybourne’s classic The Animation Book, but it is far more up-to-date and digitally oriented. The Animation Book goes deep; there’s none better for grasping the secrets of traditional cell animation. Many of those techniques are still essential. The Complete Animation Course goes fast: there’s none better if you want to use a digital camera, scanner, and home computer to make an animated short.

The Complete Animation Course: The Principles, Practice, and Techniques of Successful Animation
Chris Patmore
2003, 160 pages
$10
Amazon

The Animation Book: A Complete Guide to Animated Filmmaking — from Flip-books to Sound Cartoons to 3-D Animation
Kit Laybourne
1998, 426 pages
$18
Amazon

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:

Twelve Principles of Animation

1. Squash and Stretch.
2. Anticipation. This is setting up the action before it happens, usually with a slight movement in the opposite direction to the main one.
3. Staging. This is related to the way the film as a whole is “shot,” considering angles, framing, and scene length.
4. Straight-ahead Action and Pose-to-Pose. Straight-ahead action starts at one point and finishes at another in a single continuous movement, such as running, whereas pose-to-pose is a variety of actions in one scene requiring clearly delineated key frames to mark the action’s extreme point. How the in-betweens are executed can alter the whole rhythm of the action.
5. Follow-through and Overlapping Action. Follow-through is the opposite of anticipation. When a character stops, certain parts remain in motion, such as hair or clothes. Overlapping action is when the follow-through of one action becomes the anticipation of the next one.
6. Slow In — Slow Out. This means using more drawings at the beginning and end of an action and fewer in the middle. This creates a more lifelike feeling to the movement.
7. Arcs. These are used to describe natural movement. All actions create circular movements because they usually pivot around a central point, usually a joint. Arcs are also used to describe a line of action through a character.
8. Secondary Action is just that, another action that takes place at the same time as the main one. This may be something as simple as turning the head from side to side during a walk sequence.
9. Timing. This is something that can’t be taught. In the same way that comedians who rely on it to get the most from their gags have to learn it through experience, you too will get it right only through practice. Timing is how you get characters to interact naturally. Timing also has to do with the technical side of deciding how many drawings are used to portray an action.
10. Exaggeration. This is the enhancement of a physical attribute or movement, but don’t make the mistake of exaggerating the exaggeration.
11. Solid Drawing. This conveys a sense of three-dimensionality through linework, color, and shading.
12. Appeal This is giving personality to the characters you draw. If you can convey it without the sound track, you know you are on the right track.

These are not hard and fast rules, but they have been found to work since the early days of animation. Bear them in mind at the storyboard stage and your animation will definitely have more fluidity and believability.

In these two shots, from Rustboy by Brian Taylor, we can see the dramatic effect shaders and lighting can have on a scene. The top picture is the flat model produced by the software while you are working on it. The picture below is a fully rendered scene, with all the shaders, textures, and lighting added to give it depth, atmosphere, and believability.




Archos

I commute 2 hours a day by train and also frequently fly coast-to-coast, so I’m always looking for a good portable entertainment device. My laptop is fine to use once in a while, but for my daily commute I just don’t want to bother lugging it around. I have a portable DVD player and an iPod, but neither quite does the job…the iPod is great for music, but nothing else. Same for the DVD player and DVDs. Carrying them both at the same time is worse than having a laptop. I haven’t been impressed enough with portable video players to actually buy one. Then I came across the Archos AV420. Now that I’ve had it, I’m surprised I don’t hear more about them.

The AV420 is made for watching videos, playing music and viewing photos, and it’s pretty good at all three. Music-wise it’s primarily made for MP3s (and WMAs), which is fine by me since I’m not a fan of Apple’s DRM on iTunes. For video it uses MPEG-4 SP, which is not my first choice but is serviceable. And it will store and view any size JPEG for photos.

Since the MP3 player part works like most others based on MusicMatch, I won’t waste time on it, other than to say it’s fine for what it is. Same for photo viewing and storage. Video is where it gets interesting, since the AV420 is really a pocket-sized VCR with some fledgling Tivo-like abilities. Hook it up to your TV and you can record whatever is on, and you can also schedule recordings, including having the AV420 change channels with its IR suction cup attachment. You can do some rudimentary Tivo-style scheduling through a My Yahoo! Account but, since I have a Tivo and can dump recorded files directly into the AV420, I haven’t bothered with it. The AV420 has 20 GB of storage, enough for about 40 hours of video.

You can also record DVDs to the AV420 for playback on the built-in LCD screen, a brilliant 3.5 TFT. Unfortunately the AV420 will pick up macrovision encoding from standard DVD players, meaning you can’t play recorded DVDs from the AV420 to an external device like a TV. Since I bought it to watch on the train, this isn’t an issue for me, but could be a deal breaker for some. On the plus side, if you’re only going to playback the video on the built-in LCD, you can record the file at a lower resolution to save space. It will still look great on the LCD, since the screen is lower resolution than a TV.

You connect the AV420 to your computer via USB2, and since an XP machine will see it as an external drive, you can store anything you want on it (though it will only display the previously mentioned files). Very handy. It also has a CF card reader that can take an adapter so it can read most digital camera storage cards. I plan to use this on vacation to free up my meager 256K SD card when it’s full rather than carrying extra cards.

The AV420 has a docking cradle that is a bit of a nightmare in terms of design — a total of six 2-foot-long composite cables and an S-video cable dangle out the back, in addition to the power cable — but is perfectly functional otherwise, though I wish it had component inputs/outputs. That, aside from the macrovision, is the only real drawback for me. Battery life for video is 4 hours, but on the 20BG version the small rechargeable battery can be switched out so you can buy a second one for long trips. For me, 4 hours is fine for video, and that goes up to something like 12 for audio if you don’t use the LCD screen.

The street price of the AV420 is $450, and it tends to get two reactions. Either, wow, that’s pricey, I can buy a Mac Mini for that. Or, wow, that’s only $100 more than a photo iPod — what a bargain! I obviously fall in the latter category.

Manufactured by Archos

-- Craig Engler  

[*Newer models with more memory have since been released, such as the Archos 5, which offers 250GB for $300. -- SL]

Archos AV400
$467 (now $200)

Available from Amazon



Toshiba SD-H400 DVD-Tivo

If you want Tivo, but don’t want to subscribe to the monthly Tivo fee ($13), or the very high lifetime fee ($300), then this basic Tivo box is great.

It is the least expensive Tivo box which offers the Tivo Basic features. This is a no-fee service which allows you to program the Tivo either by manually specifying a time and channel, like a regular VCR, or you can choose to record from a 3-day-in-advance programming guide. You can store up to 80 hours on the Basic (highest compression) quality. On the Best quality, which I use exclusively, much less compression occurs, and you get about 24 hours.

Pros: The Tivo interface is exactly the same, except items that are only accessible to the Tivo Plus paid service subscribers do not appear on several menu pages.

Cons: No advance Tivo features, like season pass, or search lists to snag future shows based on keywords. And the 1 button, 30 second commercial skip is not supported on this unit. You can still scan forward/backwards in one of 3 speeds, just like a normal Tivo box, so honestly, I really don’t miss it. Also, the remote control is not the same as an elegantly designed Tivo remote. (In addition to the buttons for Tivo control, there are buttons used for the DVD control.) Tivo Basic does not have the Wish list feature.

Summary: The Tivo Basic feature is great if you just want simple time shifting capabilities, and the convenience of random access, high-speed scanning of a digital recorder. With no subscription fees.

– Jaime Villacorte

Toshiba SD-H400 80GB
$210
From discounters such as
Overstock.com

Or $275 from Amazon
Amazon

Manufactured by
Toshiba

 



iStopMotion

From my 7-year-old son’s stop-animation of the Hulk action figure.

This is a very cool application that creates stop-motion and time-lapse videos. For years my kids and I have been making claymation episodes, doll and figure animations, paper cutout sequences, and fun time-lapse movies with our family handy-cam, but our primitive method of simply blinking the on-button has always been less than satisfactory. Our brain-dead way creates three problems: the interval is too long (jerky movement), you can’t see what motion should be next, and you can’t edit out goofs when you make a boo-boo — which is 100% certain.

iStopMotion software is a much better way to do animation, and it solves all three problems. You connect a live video feed from your camera to your computer (via USB or Firewire) and then you control the film from your keyboard — or this is cool — via voice command! After you capture a frame, the program overlays that frame as transparent layer over the current camera view so you can see exactly where you need to move next. You can even request the last 5 frames (onion skinning animators call it) to get a sense of direction and trajectory, which allows a very fine tuning of the motion. And you can edit mistakes, and do redos on the fly. All this is simple enough that my 7-year-old could instantly manage it. Yet it is sophisticated enough that film students use this software for thesis projects. Making time-lapse films is even easier.

The joy of this tool is that your computer screen rather than your camera screen drives the animation. The downside is that you either need to do all your filming within cable reach of your desktop, or else on a laptop (with sufficient shade on the screen outdoors). The closer you can get your screen to your “stage” the better. When you are done animating, or time-lapsing, it is very easy to export the Quicktime file to iMovie to add a soundtrack and titles.

There are three programs in this genre and all three run on Mac OSX. I’ve tried all three (iStopMotion, FrameThief, and Stop-Motion Studio) and iStopMotion is by far the superior. It has the most features, ease of use, speed and stability. It is also the best designed. Check out the entertaining examples completed by folks on the iStopMotion website.

-- KK  

iStopMotion
$50 (free demo for 7 days)



Cheap Home Theater

home_screen.jpg

Five years ago we moved our video habit from a tiny 13-inch monitor that was hardly bigger than most laptop screens to showing DVDs on something a little bigger — like a wall-sized movie screen. It’s been pure joy since.

What we had in mind was an assemble-it-yourself home theater.

I considered big TV screens and large flat panel displays, but in the end choose a projection system as the most reasonable way to go. Finding an inexpensive screen was not difficult; you can try eBay for a real bargain. I bought a new one that was 6 feet by 8 feet. Yep, it’s big. We hung our huge screen on a wall; it rolls right up and disappears when not needed.

To project the DVD image I bought the cheapest, smallest, computer projector I could find, the kind of portable conference projector you see advertised in airline magazines. You can get a good one now for around $800-900 (see below).

In addition to the small projector we also added surround sound to the room using five strategically placed Bose speakers, each no bigger than a softball, and one woofer hidden beneath a table. The result: With a good DVD offering 5.1 surround sound, the experience is as about as good as our rinky-dink local half-plex theater.

Is it perfect? No. Our cheap home theater quality does not match the experience of viewing a good print on a large screen in a good theater. Also, because of the large windows in our room, we use the theater mostly at night. With a projector of 2000 lumens you can watch during the day, but you don’t get the full theatrical experience unless the room is dark. The projector has a fan in it so it is not as silent as a TV or a flat panel, but in a large room with the surround sound cranked up you won’t notice the hum at all.

Our set-up includes our trusty old VCR that also plugs into the projector. The quality of a lot of tapes projected on this scale is, let me put it this way, less than one desires. But the total effect is still better than on a small screen. DVDs on the other hand are crisp enough. Another down side is that the expensive bulbs in the projectors are rated to have a lifespan of several hundred hours; however after 5 years of running a couple of movies a week we are still on the original bulb. It is, of course, possible to run a TV signal onto the screen, too, say, for sports events.

When I first researched this idea I discovered a couple of things. First, salesmen of the projectors report that a lot of other people had the same idea: this was the low-rent way of making a home theater, even though the manufacturer’s literature and the home theater publications have ignored this use because the cheap projectors aren’t optimized for TV. But the cheapest “home theater projectors” I could find started at $6,000, and these monsters needed expert “set up.” Forget it.

Secondly, all you need is the cheapest projector. Essentially the quality of even the low-end projectors exceeds the quality of video. It’s not necessary to get super-duper res, because while this will improve a computer display’s image, it won’t do much for a signal from a DVD or VCR.

Five years ago the cheapest projector was the Sony VPL-CS1. It still works fine for us. We have also used the Sanyo ProX-III, a little larger box, slightly more money, same result. I have not tried it, but Epson is now selling a portable projector, the PowerLite S1 for $800 street price. It is being sold as a home theater projector. The main distinguishing feature at the low end is lumens — the brightness. The difference of a few hundred lumens will not be noticeable; the level has to double before you can perceive the increase. If you show at night, a lumen level of 1000 is probably all you’ll need.

We combined our Sony with a Pioneer Dolby DVD player and receiver with the aforementioned Bose 5.1 surround sound speaker system. Our screen is a Da-Lite model; I picked a mid-range quality screen (not flat white, but not the highest reflectivity either). From about 12 feet away the projector will completely fill a 6-foot high by 8-foot wide screen. This size screen is large enough that wide-screen mode (which doesn’t fill the screen) is still plenty big.

All the electronic gear sits compactly hidden beneath a tiny end table, on the floor. (By design the projector angles upward slightly so it fills the screen from the floor perfectly.) Most visitors to the room don’t have any idea that it can transform into a serviceable home theater in the time it takes to roll down the screen.

Now that most films can be rented or bought on DVD, we only venture into a movie house a couple of times a year, primarily when we want to see something early, while everyone else does. The rest of the year, the home theater is more than adequate.

And if you do need to project a computer, you’ve got a fine unit at your service. Just unplug and carry.

-- KK  

Epson PowerLite S1
$993

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Epson



Remote Web Cam

Stand alone web cams have been around for a few years but only recently have dropped in price to a few hundred dollars. Stand alone web cams differ from standard web cams in that they have a server and connectivity built in making them independent of a computer. That means you can put these web cams somewhere far from a computer (say in a cabin, or the top of a building) as long as you have a phone or ethernet connection. The cameras made by Axis seem to be the most compact and well-designed. These cams use a Linux-based server and come with an ethernet port so you just plug it into the network, assign it a public IP address, and presto, you are live on the web. Far from a network, you could even plug the camera into a phone modem and have a PC call the camera to see the images. We’ve had an Axis working in our office window for a few months without problems. There is a choice of models depending on whether the camera will be indoors, outdoors, or wants sound, etc.

-- Alexander Rose  

[This review was written for the 2100, which may no longer available. The 211 series appears to be similar.]

Axis Standalone Network WEB Camera
Manufactured by AXIS
$705

Newer models available from PC Connection
888-213-0260

Axis remote network cam used as a London "Jam Cam" for web-based monitoring of traffic. Can be viewed here



Personal Video Recorders

Personal Video Recorders or Digital Video Recorders like TiVo are the coolest bit of lifestyle kit to come along since, what? The computer? The cellphone? The answering machine? These are like an answering machine for your TV. You can watch shows whenever the hell you want, skip over the annoying “messages” (commercials and late night talk show guests that bore you) and put shows on pause to answer the door, eat dinner, listen to the annoying messages on your phone answering machine, etc. We have a mixed household, with an unrepentant TV addict (me) and a devout TVphobe (my wife). The PVR allows me to record or pause what I want and watch it when she’s not around. I’ve only used ReplayTV, but TiVo is definitely the front-runner in the market now and the hands-down fave among geeks and gadget weenies ’cause of its use of Linux and a more hacker-friendly attitude from the manufacturer.

-- Gareth Branwyn  

TiVo
$200 – 400 (renewed DVRs as low as $50), $13 Monthly service
877-289-8486



Netflix

Netflix rents DVDs on an all-you-can-watch subscription basis. You can rent as many movies as you want (but no more than three at a time) by paying $20 per month. That includes free shipping coming and going, a task made easy by handy mailers. Great selection, shades of the video-on-demand world coming. It’s filmaholic heaven.

-- Richard Kadrey  



CyberHome DVD 500 Player

A wonder of our globalized economy:

As everyone knows, DVD players are sold encoded to a particular region to block imported DVDs from playing. However the *cheapest* DVD players are manufactured for low-price sales world-wide, and are thus engineered with (a) easily re-programmable regional coding (only one unit to make) and (b) chips that convert PAL signals (a system used over much of the world) to NTSC signals (a system used primarily in the United States and Japan).

The CyberHome CH-DVD 500 progressive scan DVD player (available at Amazon, Target, and elsewhere) is sold for about $80. Among other machines, it can be easily reprogrammed using the remote in accordance with instructions accessible to the Google-literate. You can then watch any DVD manufactured anywhere in the world at home.
– KK

CyberHome CH-DVD 500 Progressive Scan DVD Player
$80 (used only)
Available from Amazon

There are many sources for international DVDs, including the national Amazon sites – Japan, France, UK, Germany – as well as CDJapan.com, and yesasia.com., among others. A very large proportion of the titles are digitally subtitled in English, and usually indicated as such on the sites.

What can you get? Depends on what you like: British television comedies and drama, uncut and uninterrupted, years before local release if ever; Japanese animation and the new wave of Japanese horror films; the massive (ten films a month) restoration and release of the Shaw Bros. film and television library from Hong Kong; classic releases of Bergman films from Artificial Eye in London (Fanny and Alexander uncut); French noir from the fifties and sixties, and on and on. The best place I know of for international DVD obsessives is called dvdtalk.com. The international forum, which has tons of shopping information and stuff about individual releases (“Von Trier’s Kingdom with subtitles out in Denmark on August 1!”: that sort of thing) is nerd-out.com (now called DVD talk).

– Dennis Dort

 



Videohounds World Cinema

Great movies, maybe the best movies, are made in other countries, often in a language other than English. With the advent of DVDs, there is no need to wait until they show up in an art film house — if they ever do. This is the best guide to non-English movies in print. I prefer it because unlike other anthologies of “foreign” films, this one was written by a single author, and therefore has the benefit of comparative reviews and context. (more…)

-- KK  

Videohound’s World Cinema:The Adventurer’s Guide
to Movie Watching
Elliot Wilhelm
1999, 559 pages
$9
Visible Ink Press

Available from Amazon