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3D Animation

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Computer animation (or CGI animation) is the art of creating moving images with the use of computers.

It is a subfield of computer graphics and animation. Increasingly it is created by means of 3D computer graphics, though 2D computer graphics are still widely used for stylistic, low bandwidth, and faster real-time rendering needs. Sometimes the target of the animation is the computer itself, but sometimes the target is another medium, such as film. It is also referred to as CGI (computer-generated imagery or computer-generated imaging), especially when used in films.


To create the illusion of movement, an image is displayed on the computer screen and repeatedly replaced by a new image that is similar to the previous image, but advanced slightly in the time domain (usually at a rate of 24 or 30 frames/second). This technique is identical to how the illusion of movement is achieved with television and motion pictures.

Computer animation is essentially a digital successor to the art of stop motion animation of 3D models and frame-by-frame animation of 2D illustrations. For 3D animations, objects (models) are built on the computer monitor (modeled) and 3D figures are rigged with a virtual skeleton. For 2D figure animations, separate objects (illustrations) and separate transparent layers are used, with or without a virtual skeleton. Then the limbs, eyes, mouth, clothes, etc. of the figure are moved by the animator on key frames. The differences in appearance between key frames are automatically calculated by the computer in a process known as tweening or morphing. Finally, the animation is rendered.

For 3D animations, all frames must be rendered after modeling is complete. For 2D vector animations, the rendering process is the key frame illustration process, while tweened frames are rendered as needed. For pre-recorded presentations, the rendered frames are transferred to a different format or medium such as film or digital video. The frames may also be rendered in real time as they are presented to the end-user audience. Low bandwidth animations transmitted via the internet (e.g. 2D Flash, X3D) often use software on the end-users computer to render in real time as an alternative to streaming or pre-loaded high bandwidth animations.


A simple example


The screen is blanked to a background color, such as black. Then a goat is drawn on the right of the screen. Next the screen is blanked, but the goat is re-drawn or duplicated slightly to the left of its original position. This process is repeated, each time moving the goat a bit to the left. If this process is repeated fast enough the goat will appear to move smoothly to the left. This basic procedure is used for all moving pictures in films and television.

The moving goat is an example of shifting the location of an object. More complex transformations of object properties such as size, shape, lighting effects and color often require calculations and computer rendering instead of simple re-drawing or duplication.



To trick the eye and brain into thinking they are seeing a smoothly moving object, the pictures should be drawn at around 12 frames per second (frame/s) or faster (a frame is one complete image). With rates above 70 frames/s no improvement in realism or smoothness is perceivable due to the way the eye and brain process images. At rates below 12 frame/s most people can detect jerkiness associated with the drawing of new images which detracts from the illusion of realistic movement. Conventional hand-drawn cartoon animation often uses 15 frames/s in order to save on the number of drawings needed, but this is usually accepted because of the stylized nature of cartoons. Because it produces more realistic imagery computer animation demands higher frame rates to reinforce this realism.

The reason no jerkiness is seen at higher speeds is due to “persistence of vision.” From moment to moment, the eye and brain working together actually store whatever one looks at for a fraction of a second, and automatically "smooth out" minor jumps. Movie film seen in theaters in the United States runs at 24 frames per second, which is sufficient to create this illusion of continuous movement.


Methods of animating virtual characters

In most 3D computer animation systems, an animator creates a simplified representation of a character's anatomy, analogous to a skeleton or stick figure. The position of each segment of the skeletal model is defined by animation variables, or Avars. In human and animal characters, many parts of the skeletal model correspond to actual bones, but skeletal animation is also used to animate other things, such as facial features (though other methods for facial animation exist). The character "Woody" in Toy Story, for example, uses 700 Avars, including 100 Avars in the face. The computer does not usually render the skeletal model directly (it is invisible), but uses the skeletal model to compute the exact position and orientation of the character, which is eventually rendered into an image. Thus by changing the values of Avars over time, the animator creates motion by making the character move from frame to frame.

There are several methods for generating the Avar values to obtain realistic motion. Traditionally, animators manipulate the Avars directly. Rather than set Avars for every frame, they usually set Avars at strategic points (frames) in time and let the computer interpolate or 'tween' between them, a process called keyframing. Keyframing puts control in the hands of the animator, and has roots in hand-drawn traditional animation.

In contrast, a newer method called motion capture makes use of live action. When computer animation is driven by motion capture, a real performer acts out the scene as if they were the character to be animated. His or her motion is recorded to a computer using video cameras and markers, and that performance is then applied to the animated character.

Each method has their advantages, and as of 2007, games and films are using either or both of these methods in productions. Keyframe animation can produce motions that would be difficult or impossible to act out, while motion capture can reproduce the subtleties of a particular actor. For example, in the 2006 film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, actor Bill Nighy provided the performance for the character Davy Jones. Even though Nighy himself doesn't appear in the film, the movie benefited from his performance by recording the nuances of his body language, posture, facial expressions, etc. Thus motion capture is appropriate in situations where believable, realistic behavior and action is required, but the types of characters required exceed what can be done through conventional costuming.