by Steve Siercks, Jordan Streiff, & Chris Rogers
computer news with the teen perspective
The iTeens Interview Maker Of "The Animator's Apprentice" and "Windowsworld"
by Jordan Streiff
June 1st, 2000
Ever see "A Bug's Life", "Toy Story 2", or most recently Disney's "Dinosaur? Well, if you have, you were probably amazed by those awe-inspiring computer generated graphics. You're probably thinking that something like that would be impossible for one person to accomplish, especially if you were only a youth of 17.
Low and behold, we actually found someone who did exactly this, Raf Anzovin, the maker of "The Animator's Apprentice." While his computer animated movie wasn't quite as lengthy as the epics from Dreamcast and Pixar, it sure did light up my day. Though this interview was done almost a year ago, it still holds much interest and relevance to me. So, without boring you with more details, I bring to you Raf Anzovin, teenager and aspiring animation prodigy. Enjoy:
JS: When did you get your first mac?
RA: My father got a Mac Plus in January 1987.
JS: What did you use it for at first?
RA: I played Brickles, I think (Brickles was a variation of Pong that was written for early Macs). That was twelve years ago, when I was five, so I could be wrong.
JS: When did you become interested in graphics and animation?
RA: It may be a cliché, but I have been interested in art and drawing for as long as I can remember. I was particularly influenced by the awe-inspiring work of Dr. Seuss, and in fact, I still am. Some of the designs for The Animator's Apprentice were directly influenced by The Sneetches and The Cat in the Hat. The images in his books are so vivid with motion already that they beg to be animated (curiously, most of the animated adaptions of Dr. Seuss have been extremely mediocre) and that is probably what led me into an interest in animation.
There have been computers in my house since before I can remember, usually several at once. We had an Amiga 2000 at the same time as we had the Mac Plus, and an Amiga 1000 before that, and an Atari somethingorother before that. I grew up with computers, so melding computers and animation together was natural and in fact I can't pinpoint any specific time at which it happened.
JS: How do you find the time to work on animating with school and everything?
RA: Ah, now this is an interesting question. The fact is that I determined that it was not possible to learn and go to school at the same time--the two things are mutually exclusive--so I left. I haven't been officially enrolled in a school since the 8th grade, and I've never missed it once. I sometimes take courses at the local University of Massachusetts, but for the most part I'm home schooled, or what home schooling proponents sometimes refer to as "self-schooled."
JS: What program did you start out with?
RA: I started out using StrataVision 3D, which Strata is now giving away for about ten bucks. It's not a particularly good program, but it did what I was doing at the time well enough.
JS: What program would you recommend to beginners who are interested in the same field?
RA: To me, CG animation means character animation, the movement of objects in such a way that they appear to think and feel, the "illusion of life." For this, there is no better tool at a sane price, for beginners or otherwise, then Martin Hash's Animation Master (www.hash.com). The program costs about $200 ($130 if you can get an educational discount) [Editor's Note: As of June 1st, 2000, the current retail price of Animation Master is US$299. Check with your source for educational pricing to get the current education price.], but there's no tool like it until you get to programs like SGI's Maya and Avid's Softimage, both of which cost several grand and neither of which will run on a Mac [Editor's Note: Since the time of this interview, Maya has been announced for Mac OS X]. Because it's written from the ground up for the purpose of animating characters, it has a very elegant, well designed toolset that makes moving and posing characters relatively easy. Character animation in itself, like any other artform, is a process so involved and detailed that it can never be fully learned--you just have to keep advancing towards mastery until the day you die. There's no reason to complicate that already incredibly hard process with a program that fights you every step of the way, and Animation:Master is the most responsive program I have yet come across.
On the other hand, a lot of people who would like to try the animation field may not be thinking of animating complex characters, but just making inanimate objects and moving them around. You can use MetaCreations Logomotion (which is about $99, I think) to play around with basic objects [Editor's Note: Since this interview, MetaCreations has been destroyed from within by inept management and Logomotion is no longer available.], and if you want to do complex scenes and environments then the best program to use is probably Newtek's Inspire 3D, which is about $600. (This is lower-end version of the much more famous Lightwave 3D. Fortunately, the only thing Inspire is missing is Lightwave's character animation tools, which are not particularly good.)
By the way, I might point out that anyone really serious about learning to do character animation should invest in some new hardware: a 6B drawing pencil and a pad of high-quality drawing paper. Even if you don't have any drawing skill, sketching everything out in detail before you do it digitally almost always results in a much better final product.
JS: I understand that you are a contributing writer to MacAddict. How did you become involved with this?
RA: My father has been in the computer journalism business for practically as long as there has been a computer journalism business. He was one of the original columnists for Compute! magazine (which none of your readers probably remember, considering that we were all children at the time). When he started writing for MacAddict, he asked if it would be all right if I gave a shot at writing a review, which he would correct. I think the first review I wrote was of KPT Bryce 2, and most of the corrections he did were about cutting it back from its original length, which was about twice the word count they originally suggested (I still find it very difficult to write to a specific word count, and usually run over the intended size by at least 150%. Take this interview, for instance). So they gave me the job of being the 3D and general graphics correspondent.
JS: What advice would you give to our readers that are interested in computer animation?
RA: Again, it depends on whether you want to create character animation or static, inanimate objects. If you're interested in learning to create the best-looking inanimate objects possible, then I'm not really the person to talk to (I would, however, recommend Bill Fleming's books on modeling and texture creation as a start--they can be found at amazon.com). On the other hand, if you're interested in creating moving characters that will appear to your audience as a thinking creature with a soul, then I have a few suggestions that would be useful. For one thing, mastery of the software is far less important then mastery of the basic animation techniques that apply to any animation method, digital or otherwise, and in fact many other forms of visual art as well. Animation is all about arranging the poses and timing of a character in such a way that they can emotionally effect the audience and express the characters thoughts. To learn how to do this, rent really well animated films, and go through them frame by frame. This can give you a good idea of how other animators have already achieved certain effects. Many of the basic building blocks of animation have already been distilled into a set of general principals, such as Overlapping Action, Anticipation, and Staging.
There are a couple of books that I would recommend. The Animator's Workbook by Tony White is a good book to introduce you to the basic mechanics of animation. The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson (two of the famed Disney "nine old men") is considered by many to be the animation bible, and is basically a must-read. Animation from Script to Screen by Shamus Culhane is another good book, which is perhaps most valuable as a look into the philosophical end of animation, despite the technical goals of the book. All of these are available at amazon.com.
Study of human and animal anatomy is also very useful. Medical textbooks can be used for this, although there are a large number of anatomy for artists books out there. Even if you animate characters that are very cartoony, their movements can almost always be improved by reference to the real anatomical structures that would create such a movement in real life, plus knowledge of anatomy comes in handy when devising character setups and designs.
But the most important thing you can do is to study the real world and the people in it. Most animators become very good at analyzing motion quickly as studied from real life. It's a good idea to take a pad of paper into a crowd and try to draw people as they walk by. Even if you can barely handle a pencil, the experience of trying to reduce fast motion to a set of lines can be extremely valuable.
Another good resource is the CG-Char mailing list (www.cg-char.com). This list has a couple of people on it from every major studio, from Pixar to Oddworld Inhabitants, and most of them are more then willing to look at a beginners' work and critique it.
JS: Can you give us some more information on your next film "The Animators Apprentice?"
RA: The Animator's Apprentice is an update of the Sorcerer's Apprentice story. Dennis plays the apprentice, and when he foolishly appropriates his masters futuristic animation tools, pandemonium erupts in the form of a mischievous blue animated cat, brought to life by Dennis. The animator finally shows up to put things to rights, but not before the cat has wreaked havoc on the studio with an army of hundreds of cat clones.
Apprentice is going to be as much of an advance over Java Noir as Java Noir was over my first film, Windowsworld. In Java Noir, I considered a shot with four characters in it to be really difficult. Apprentice has shots with literally hundreds of characters. In Java Noir, Dennis spent most of the time sitting rigidly at a table and only walked twice. In Apprentice, Dennis only sits down twice. He doesn't just walk--he dances and jumps, he runs down stairs and crawls on all fours. He and the other characters are constantly in contact with and affecting their environment, and often each other. They can act and use body language in an extremely fluid way, which is particularly important because the film has no dialog. Everything from the quality of movement to the lighting and rendering quality has been improved tenfold, partly because I'm now using better software (Java Noir was animated with Lightwave, Apprentice is being animated with Animation:Master) and partly because my own artistic and skill level has grown since I created Java Noir.
Dennis himself is a good example. I have completely redesigned Dennis for Apprentice. In previous incarnations, Dennis has always been pretty much a cartoon dog, and his body and face were designed that way. In the new version, I've tried to take the design in a different direction and make it anatomically plausible. I worked out a musculoskeletal structure for Dennis based on aspects of human and canine anatomy and figured out how it would affect the surface as different controls were moved around. His arms won't bend like rubber hoses anymore: they bend like a real arm with bunching muscles underneath the skin and bones pushing on the surface to form an elbow shape as the arm is bent. His head was designed to show the existence of a skull and jaw bone affecting the surface, one which is based on a canine skull but shows human features. It results in a more realistic looking character, but more importantly, it results in a much more expressive character. Far more subtlety in facial expression is possible with a face based on caricatured anatomy than in a simple cartoon face. In Java Noir, Dennis had essentially four expressions: world-weary unconcern, joy, blind rage, and sad disbelief, and not all of them were strong and easy to read. In Apprentice, his new face will be displaying a much wider and deeper range of expression then was possible before. Oh, yeah, and he wears a vest in this movie--not a rigid plastic-looking piece of fabric like the leather jacket he wore in Java Noir but an open vest which can billow after him as he walks and knock against other objects realistically.
I plan to release The Animator's Apprentice in the spring of the year 2000, which gives me a little less than a year from today to finish it. Unlike Java Noir, I'm hoping to bring it not only to video and the web but to actual film as well (which will make it eligible for film animation festivals). In the meantime, a one-minute teaser trailer will be up on my site (www.anzovin.com) on May 11th.
Note from Jordan: As of June 1st, 2000, The Animator's Apprentice is nearing completion, so be sure to check the site out.
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