In the last two months, Cambridge Animations Ltd, a hitherto unsung software developer has sold over 300 software licences to two major US film companies. Warner Feature Films, the animated film division of the Warner Bros arm of Time Warner Inc, bought 200 licences for two forthcoming feature-length animation films. The month before, DreamWorks, the […]
In the last two months, Cambridge Animations Ltd, a hitherto unsung software developer has sold over 300 software licences to two major US film companies. Warner Feature Films, the animated film division of the Warner Bros arm of Time Warner Inc, bought 200 licences for two forthcoming feature-length animation films. The month before, DreamWorks, the entertainment studio headed by Steven Spielberg et al, bought around 100 licences. Cambridge won’t say how much the contracts are worth, but a single licence for the full set of Animo modules costs ú20,000. Add training costs, which start at ú1,000, and software maintainance charged at 12.5% of the contract, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out each each deal should pull in over ú2m. The animation software company has been turning hand-drawn cartoons into digitised sequences for five years and it believes it is in the privileged position of being an early player in an immature but lucrative market. We saw a niche market for writing software to automate the most error-prone and repetive tasks in two dimensional animation, says Ruth McCall, joint managing director and one of the three founders of the company.
Fives years on, the company has grown to employ 40 staff and is set to double in size within the next year. It has an office of 10 staff in North Hollywood which deals with sales, customer support and administration for US clients, one employee based in Japan, and clients in Tahiti, Europe, Egypt and the Far East. Use our software and you’ll save time and money is a claim most software houses would make, but it is one that Cambridge believes it can substantiate. Animo will cut roughly a third off the cost of producing identical work using traditional techniques, says Brian Tyler, head of sales and client services. According to Tyler, UK animation studio Honeycomb Productions Ltd used Cambridge Animations’ ink and paint software for the late-night Channel Four series Beastly Behaviour, and it cut the time taken to produce the one minute animations to 48 hours from three weeks. It’s rather like using a word processer instead of a typewriter: once you’ve formed ideas of what the characters and scenes should look like, the process of refining the work is much faster and easier, says Ms McCall, who believes that this fact alone will lead to the widespread adoption of animation software. Ms McCall says that European animation companies are particularly keen to find new ways of cost-cutting and increase their volume output in order to compete effectively with American producers. In the past, animation companies have subcontracted the most labour-intensivepart of the process, such as colouring black and white outlines known as ink and paint to the Far East to bring labour costs down. By using animation software, studios will achieve similiar cost savings and keep all the animation work in-house – or at least that’s the theory. In practice, however, subcontractors in the Far East have also started using ink and paint software to drive their own costs down, so many animation houses still find it cheaper to ship the process East. Cambridge chose the unusual step of writing the software to run under NeXTstep in the belief that the object-oriented operating system was most suited to graphics packages. Animo was written as separate modules so that animation companies can choose to opt for one package or buy the whole suite depending on how much of the animation process they want to move onto the desktop. Animo Studio, the cut-down version, comprises Scanner, Ink and Paint, Director and Render modules, which can be used to produce a fully animated sequence.
By Krishna Roy
However, the software cannot be used to generate images: pencil-drawn sketches of characters and setting still need to be scanned into the computer. The Scanner software cleans up the pencil drawing, adjusts the tint or vividness of the image to compensate for colour quality lost in scanning, divides the drawing into digital cells and then stores e
ach scanned frame as a file. The Ink and Paint module is then used to colour each cell. The design team chooses the colours needed for each particular scene and then allocates each file with the colour palette to the painter. Inking in the scene is then simply a matter of double clicking on the correct colour and then double clicking on the region to be painted. The worst they can do is apply the right paint in the wrong place, says Tyler, in which case you just use the undo function and rectify the mistake. The company is now refining the automated ink and paint function so users paint the key frames and the computer colours the in-between scenes. The current version will work only on simple animations where there is minimal difference from one scene to another. The software notes the colour of a each cluster of digital cells and paints them the same colour in the next frame. However Cambridge is experimenting with algorithms to make the process heuristic. Once painted, the frames are assembled in Amino Director which gives the user the ability to specify the key frame movement. The frames become a long drawing with a transparent background. Three- dimensional effects in two-dimensional animations are created by superimposing foreground files on background files and then making the foreground move faster accross the screen – an effect traditionally created by camera but now done automatically by the software. Studios can also buy Animo SPX, a library of special effects that include pixie dust – the stars that fall from Merlin’s wand, ripple effects and backlighting. Animo Lip-Sync, another optional add-on, uses speech recognition algorithms to scan a Digital Audio Tape and identify the phonemes in the dialogue. The timing information on the phonemes can then printed out and manually inserted into each frame or used to select key frames automatically from a choice of libraries which are then inserted into the animation. At this stage scenes can then be recorded onto digital tape for previewing and editing. Animo Render is then used to render the complete animation to bring it up to broadcast quality.
The files can then be distributed across machines on the network with the Render software installed. Once rendered, the animation can be transferred to film or video by plugging a digital image recorder into the SCSI port. Although the company is in the process of moving across to Silicon Graphics Inc Indy workstations, a move spurred by the DreamWorks deal, the vast majority of its customers find a 90MHz Pentium with 8Mb sufficient to run the software. The market is difficult to quantify because it’s so new but we use the market for animated feature films as a fair indication of demand for our products, and that’s growing 30% a year, says Ms McCall. To maintain and grow its client base, Cambridge believe it must regularly provide upgrades. Version 1.6 will be out in August, Version 2 by year-end. With Version 1.6, animators will be able to apply special effects at the painting rather than the rendering stage to make editing of scenes much faster. Version 2 will involve a more substantial re-write of code to make it more open and incorporate the Product Manager module as standard. Product Manager, in beta at the moment and out in two weeks, enables the project manager to track each task and monitor work on the network. It also enables users to log on to a NeXTstep machine and see which tasks have been allocated for that day and see changes made to existing work.