Thursday, February 02, 2006
Former Chico State University student puts emotion into computer animation
By DAN BARNETT
We stand on the shoulders of giants.
Back in 1968, Ira Latour joined Chico State University as a professor of art history. The school's Web site notes, "Latour was in Ansel Adams' first class of the photography department at the California School of Fine Arts in 1945. ... Now retired, he was a 1999 Ansel Adams Research Fellow at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography."
One of Latour's students, Mike Wellins, has taken a photographer's eye into the booming field of computer animation. In his new book, "Storytelling Through Animation" ($49.95 in paperback, with a companion CD, from Charles River Media, Inc.), Wellins pays fitting tribute to his mentor:
"Ira is perhaps the most prolific artist, filmmaker and photographer I've ever known. He has always been a great source of encouragement, humor, and inspiration."
In a letter, Latour notes that "Mike teaches a course in computer animation each summer at Fresno State in our California State University Summer Program. He has made many films, both computer-crafted and live-action, for which he has won numerous awards. Several of his 'epics' have been premiered here at the Pageant Theater in Chico."
The book focuses on how the story appears on the screen. The first two parts deal with "emotions in motion" and "visual storytelling" and only then does the author take up preproduction, production and postproduction issues. Throughout the book Wellins has included long interviews with practicing professionals, including Disney animator Glen Keane ("The Lion King" and many others), Pixar animator Andrew Gordon (the lead animator for the character Mike in "Monsters, Inc.") and Mike's brother Dean ("Osmosis Jones" and an upcoming Disney project).
Wellins emphasizes that the considerations needed for live-action film (sound, lighting, narration, character development and so on) are the same for animation (either stop motion or computer generated). He notes that "The history of film and animation is about a fascination with illusion -- the illusion of movement and the story. The characters on the screen aren't just a projection, but become people to whom the audience is emotionally connected. ... From each frame, pose and choice, the filmmaker who has distilled the ideas down to their key emotional connections and truly understands what connection he is trying to make overall will have that much more control and creative ammunition on every decision he makes."
Wellins illustrates his points with dozens of black-and-white photographs and diagrams, a color section and an included CD that contains several short features. One, Wellins' own "Shards of Death," is available for free viewing on the Internet. The feature only runs a couple of minutes and features an interview conducted by a mean-looking monster with a "small blue fairy creature" who wants a job in a video game. The ugly monster has a soft side (that's part of the humor) and plays counter to type. The small creature is cute, cute, cute and that sets up "a hopeless situation: a cute character applies for a job in a violent video game, and the scarier the character tries to be, the cuter the character becomes. In directing both characters," Wellins continues, "the setup of two such extreme characters creates a natural dynamic of tension and absurdity."
In this case it's important that the camera does not draw attention to itself. There is some camera movement, but not enough to distract from the bizarre interview going on. There is an explosive ending but, as the big sweet monster might say, it's all in a day's work.
Wellins' description of the "animatic" or story reel, a kind of first draft of the visual story that helps establish how long "each scene, shot or effect will ultimately be," is fascinating. "Animatics are created by photographing or scanning the storyboards and other elements and then editing them to time with a dialogue, scratch track or other temporary sounds and music." That's the start. Here the author returns to emotions, because the animatic must take into account the pauses needed when one character delivers bad news to another, or the quick cuts needed in a comedy film.
"Storytelling Through Animation" is a wonderful and detailed introduction to the field from someone who sees clearly every aspect of a film that must be in place in order for the animation to "click" with audiences. He, too, stands on the shoulders of giants.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.