An interview with Animation Wizard, Mayo Tirado.
Conducted via email by John S. Rhodes (31-May-2000)
Animation and Usability
What are the critical usability concerns related to the use of animation on web sites? For example, are you worried that not all users have Flash installed? What about bandwidth issues?
It all comes down to whom we are trying to reach with our message and the nature of what we are trying to say. Sometimes we'll find companies or individuals that go too far trying to be fancy and will put more than they need to on their web sites and forget who's the end user.
I've seen excellent sites that have a good design and they are very functional and pleasant to look at. There's no need for animation and heavy graphics when all people are looking for is information. I particularly like the HP web site because I can get there very fast, find what I'm looking for and leave. The same with Buy.com where I usually get computer supplies and AtomFilms where I watch short films. These sites are not overly done, they have a good design and do what they are supposed to do very well.
When people are looking for entertainment on the web is a different story because most users know that flash animation, 3D games or QuickTime movies will require some download time, especially with a slow connection. I think this type of audience is willing to wait because they know what they're getting is a lot more than just information in text form.
Bandwidth has been a problem in some cases but we need to understand that internet technology is still at an early stage and is changing rapidly for the better. I recently got a DSL connection and even though it is more expensive than a regular modem I don't mind paying the extra dollars because it has allowed me to visit web pages I just couldn't open before because of my slow connection. It will just keep getting faster, better and cheaper.
I think the use of animation on the web is great as long as it is used in a clever way and in situations where it really improves the design of the page. Sometimes, animation is the actual product on the page. There are a few websites that contain animated series done with Flash and they look great. They even load fast on a 56K modem and some of them are very entertaining.
I think that was a tough lesson for people who should have known better. Just a little bit of market research should have helped to detect potential problems at an early stage, before spending millions. It is hard to believe that some companies do not know about planning, but it happens. This is not the first time we've seen it. It probably won't be the last either.
Short films online are one of the greatest things that ever happened to new filmmakers. Imagine all the talent out there that don't have the resources or the contacts to get some exposure and show what they are capable of. Today, you can produce movies on a desktop computer with a relatively small investment and put it on the web, so the world can watch! Sites like ShortBuzz.com or Atom.com bring a great opportunity to filmmakers and studios alike, since this new medium allows people to show their capabilities and audiences to enjoy their work. Studios can find very talented people and perhaps give them the opportunity to produce for the big screen. Audiences also benefit since they can watch great films without leaving their desk. Of course the best place to watch a film will always be the movie theater.
Tell us about your work on the upcoming movie Titan A.E. What is the movie about? Why is it cool? What was your role? What tools did you use? Is there anything special about the movie? Do you have any cool inside information that you'd like to share?
At Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix, we recently finished the upcoming movie Titan A.E. An animated sci-fi story directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, whose expertise has always been in musicals with traditional animated films, like Anastassia. Titan A.E. combines traditional and 3D animation in a clever way, taking advantage from each style and creating a new look that has never been achieved before.
I was involved in all aspects of 3D that go from creating models and textures to animating and lighting scenes. We had a small team and unlike other studios, everybody had a chance to show their expertise in different areas of 3D. Getting the movie done on time was a huge challenge by itself. Plus, we had to be able to integrate traditional elements with 3D in a way that was believable. There are many scenes where the main characters wear space suits, which were designed with a lot of detail and could not be animated traditionally, so 3D models of these suits were built, animated and printed on paper frame by frame. This way traditional animators would draw the characters' faces inside. Final rendering of the 3D elements was done with a function that creates ink lines from these models, so the Ink and Paint Department (where color is added to the animation) would treat everything as though it was hand-drawn. As a result, we see a lot of dimension in many scenes where we kept seamless integration between the characters and their environment.
Background artists provided with texture maps of rusted metal and dirt that we applied to the surface of space ships and other vehicles. Then we used very sophisticated lighting techniques to make all the 3D models integrate with the traditionally painted backgrounds.
The main tools that our department used to work on this movie were Softimage 3D and Maya (from Alias/Wavefront). Each one of these programs provided with different ways to solve all kinds of problems and it was up to the artists to choose the best tool to get the work done. That kind of freedom is what made working in this movie a pleasant experience.
We also did a lot of compositing and color correction work using Softimage's Toonz and Eddie (see the Softimage web site). We had close to one hundred rendering licenses that were distributed over the computer network giving us a massive amount of rendering power.
At some point during production a team form Lucas Film in San Francisco was brought on board to help with their expertise in designing action sequences. They did a great job editing and doing pre-visualization work for The Phantom Menace. I think it was a great idea to make them part of this movie. They really helped to make Titan A.E. a good action film.
Titan A.E. is aimed to teenagers who are old enough to watch an action adventure movie but young enough to enjoy the type of characters, story and music that this movie presents. With that taken into consideration, I believe we have a good entertainment product that will bring to the market a different type of animated film. No talking animals. No fairy tale characters singing beautiful songs. That has been a typical formula for decades, but today audiences are ready for something new and exciting. We've certainly put a lot of effort to make that happen and the viewer will have the last word.
Things that audiences may see as minor elements such as texture and lighting can sometimes become a critical part of a scene in a movie. In Titan A.E. I had the opportunity to work on scenes that showed the main subject: the Titan, which is a incredibly large space ship that has the power and technology to create a new planet. Showing the scale of this ship was a real challenge, since it's about one mile in diameter. Textures and lighting played a major role in making the ship look really big. By painting very fine lines on its surface and using a multitude of light sources on each scene, we were able to make the Titan look the size itís supposed to be. A good sense of dimension was important since that's the first time the main characters get to see the ship.
Many shots in Titan AE took weeks to be lit and textured properly only to appear on screen for a couple of seconds. Without all the detailed work put into these scenes the end result would not be the same.
What are your plans? What's next? What is your dream job? What do you want to work on now?
I think computer animation today allows artists to tell the most fantastic stories in a way that is absolutely believable. Now it is a matter of being creative and come up with good stories, and not base movies only on explosions and special effects.
My dream is to work with other talented artists on telling great stories whether they are all CG [computer graphics] or only parts that really justify the use of animation to produce good characters and good action. Wherever that may happen, that's where I want to be.
I really enjoy books that contain fantasy illustration and preproduction artwork. It inspires to see the incredible work from other artists. Dinotopia: The World Beneath is one of my favorites, Along with the Disney, The art ofÖ They let us see some of what goes behind making some of the best animated films ever made.
My favorite web sites are AtomFilms.com that specializes in short films. Adcritic.com, which shows some of the best TV commercials and movie trailers. And VFXpro, to keep me updated with what's going on in the animation industry.
No matter what kind of industry people work on, communication is key to make things happen, and the most important aspect of the communication process is to focus on who's your target and what their interests are. If we can figure that out effectively, we can anticipate success.
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