Animating the way to lower costs

Alexandros Gouvatsos is a Research Engineer at the Centre for Digital Entertainment, an EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training.

Animation features in many forms of entertainment, from traditional hand-drawn classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Castle in the Sky all the way to blockbuster films with cutting-edge visual effects, like Avengers: Age of Ultron. Many studios have adopted three-dimensional (3D) computer animation to push the limits of what is possible to show on screen. Cartoon characters mixed in together with real actors, impressive explosions and giant monsters destroying famous landmarks all become possible at a lower cost than in the past.

Currently, most methods of animating 3D characters require knowledge of complicated and expensive software. These methods have made the field highly technical and modern animators are expected to possess many more skills. Big companies can afford to have their own research teams and hire technical teams in addition to artists. This disparity gives them an advantage over the hundreds of smaller studios that have to be careful about each pound spent.

To address this issue I have been working at Hibbert Ralph Animation, as part of my Doctoral Training at the Centre for Digital Entertainment, to develop an animation method combining technology and traditional animation that is intuitive, accessible and viable for both large and small studios, in terms of equipment and budget. Our idea is to take advantage of how intuitive and ubiquitous drawing is for animators, by allowing them to automatically pose 3D characters by using hand-drawn sketches. In this way, the focus of animation can be shifted back to its artistic roots.

To achieve this, our research focuses on two main questions:

  1. How can we understand and compare the poses of hand-drawn characters automatically?
  2. How can we manipulate a 3D model until its pose matches the one of the drawing?

Some of the advantages of our idea are clear: making 3D animation accessible to anyone who can sketch, by reducing the technical complexity. However, there is another advantage that can save studios significant amounts of money. Hand-drawn sketches are still used today, especially earlier during the production, to quickly visualise ideas and to create an initial version of the TV series or film. Small studios can save money by using these early drawings that are part of the process anyway, in order to automatically pose their 3D characters.

"Alex has been actively involved in Hibbert Ralph Animation's research and development in improving 3D animation pipelines and developing the use of game engines in animation. Amongst other things, his work helped to secure a Technology Strategy Board grant, for which all the milestones were successfully reached. He is highly knowledgeable and played an invaluable role within the Hibbert Ralph Animation team."

Jerry Hibbert - Director, Hibbert Ralph Animation