2002 / 11月
Laura Li /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Robert Taylor
Have you seen the film Wag the Dog? That smoke-filled battlefield scene is actually a digital game, calculated from all kinds of predefined parameters. As technology advances, the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional, the real and the virtual, will gradually blend into one, challenging not only the visual sense of audiences, but also the creativity of digital technology workers.
In the broad sense, the term "digital content" can be applied to any informational content distributed or displayed on digital tools such as computers. However, some technofreaks who pursue whatever is newest, coolest and most fashionable might not agree. In their view, only works conceived and created using the latest digital technology are worthy of the name.
The merging of mind and computer
In animation, for example, cartoon contract work was once a classic labor-intensive industry. Just a second of screen time requires a sequence of 30 separate images; a 75-minute cartoon film uses 135,000 images! After receiving the story and concept art from the client such as Disney, the artists would set to work designing the characters, drawing each posture and movement, and finally adding color, running the frames in sequence, and making repeated corrections to make the movements smooth-only those who have spent their days crouched over a drawing board know the price paid in tears for each moment of joy on the screen!
Vincent Liu has worked at Wang Film Productions, the world's largest cartoon contracting company, for over ten years, and is now its artistic director. He recalls how in the past, the water-based inks and pens they used for coloring filled half the desk, and the fine airbrushes were very prone to clogging up. If the boss decided that one part of the image needed a bit more red, the artist would painstakingly airbrush it on, but if the effect was no good the whole image would have to be done again from scratch, so that all the previous effort was wasted. This could be very dispiriting. But today, with a click of the mouse artists can undo any action, so that they can try out all kinds of changes with ease, and let their creative juices flow without restraint.
As for backgrounds, since the advent of various drawing software packages, most can now be composed entirely on the computer. But to show off their skill the artists will still pick out a few segments-such as a patch of flowers on a hillside, or a boulder in a river-to paint in more detail by hand. The addition of a few hand-painted sections sets off the whole scene and brings it "alive."
Cartoon characters' movements are exaggerated, and their mouth shapes have to be matched to the script. The task of listening to the soundtrack and painstakingly synchronizing the lip movements used to be a big headache for animation artists. But today with specialized software, whatever the language, lip-synching is no longer an onerous task. Once the art has been completed for the individual frames, they can also be run in sequence on the computer. There are always some mistakes, but correcting them is now much easier.
Handmade or machine-made bread?
With digital technology, "one person can do the work of three." This saves a great many man-hours in the production of animations, and releases artists from much laborious drudgery, allowing them to give greater rein to their creativity. However, computer-drawn art relies on calculations based on predefined parameters, and is therefore apt to be formulaic and repetitive. Wang Film executive producer Wang Tong, who was formerly a director, says, "It's like the difference between handmade bread and machine-made bread." Hand-drawn work always has a unique vitality, texture and tension that just cannot be simulated on the computer.
Vincent Liu of Wang Film believes that one should make the best use of the advantages of digital technology, but not be hamstrung by it. Everyone at Wang Film is highly skilled in both hand and computer art, and they often spend half the day painting minutely in watercolors and the other half in front of the computer integrating images and making adjustments. "There's no-one here who can't learn to use the software, but anyone who lacks creativity won't last long," he emphasizes.
However, three-dimensional animations cannot be first painted by hand and then scanned in, but must be produced entirely on the computer. They present a different challenge.
Tonny Fang, technical director at CGCG Inc., Taiwan's largest specialist 3D animation company, admits frankly that any observant viewer knows immediately when they are watching a computer-generated 3D animation. This is because they always have pure colors and clean lines, and the resolution is six times that of TV images, making the characters' faces especially clear. All their expressions and lip movements are produced by simulation, and the clarity of the image makes this more obvious. By contrast, in the real world, rapid changes of light, and dust in the air, produce more diffuse images in which the degree of clarity is always varying, and changes in characters' expressions are far more subtle. People find these images much more entrancing than computer animations.
3D for its own sake?
Designing 3D animations is like having control of a complete studio. As well as simulating three-dimensional shapes step by step by defining points, lines and surfaces, the artists also have to consider the "camera" angle and changes in lighting, to create a three-dimensional scene on the two-dimensional computer screen. For example, if a customer wants an animation of a monster, but only sends a two-dimensional front-view drawing, should the monster's back be covered in fur, or spines? This is left up to the imagination of the artist.
When it is necessary to combine 2D and 3D images, reaching a compromise between them is especially difficult. Ting Hui-fang, technical director at Wang Films' subsidiary AniTime, says that in 2D animation, in order to create exaggerated and amusing visual effects artists love to distort the characters' bodies in all sorts of ways, such as an arm disappearing behind the body when it is waved. But when the animation has to be integrated with 3D images, the arm cannot simply disappear, but has to be extended further backward to appear natural. Thus the angle at which the arm is waved has to be increased, but this is at odds with the original aesthetic effect. In the end the two departments inevitably have to negotiate and each make concessions.
In recent years Wang Film and CGCG have collaborated on a number of films. One of them, the 26-episode TV series Xcalibur, which took three years to make for a French company, has won major animation awards in Canada and other countries. Tonny Fang says that the challenge with Xcalibur was that the original creator demanded "realism," so all the movements had to be plausible. The characters were not allowed to make movements that a real person could not make, and this greatly increased the difficulty of design.
In Fang's view, animating cartoon characters is not so difficult-it is much harder to simulate the movements of real people. The US-Japan joint production Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, released last year, is seen in 3D animation circles as scaling new heights: "Even just the skin texture on all those 3D warriors takes tremendously complex rendering calculations, and designing them also requires a thorough understanding of human anatomy. No-one in Taiwan can match that at present," says Fang enviously.
However, Wang Film's Vincent Liu, whose background is in 2D animation, regards the same film as a case of "pulling down your trousers just to fart": "If you use animation to simulate real people, they're not as fluid in their movements as real people, nor are they as amusing as cartoons. Isn't that daft?" Should one indulge in "3D for its own sake"? Between technical aspirations and aesthetic considerations, there is plenty of room for debate.
Art is art, technology is technology
To produce a long 3D animated film is a complex process requiring expert management. To achieve this, CGCG has specially developed a production management system that breaks down the tasks involved in producing each scene into different categories. Designers are responsible for designing the characters, animators are responsible for adding movements, and other processes such as adding color, lighting and special effects are also handled by specialists. All these tasks are conducted simultaneously to reduce the amount of time needed to complete the project.
In order to "separate the art from the technology," CGCG has also developed a computerized "processing farm." After completing a design an artist need only enter a command to hand over all the repetitive work of various tasks to a farm of over 200 servers. In the quiet computer room, the stacks of computers carry on working day and night. If there are problems with the commands, the software can detect errors and make automatic corrections or display warning messages. CGCG calls this system the "spider," and hopes that like a spider's web it can be sensitive enough to "detect movement wherever it happens."
3D animation is difficult, but combining 3D and real people is an even greater challenge. Just the task of matching together a conventionally filmed image, which is full of "noise," and the clean but rather wooden virtual image, takes a great deal of skill. Helen Huang, chairman of Digimax Corporation, which has made 3D special effects sequences for the Pili glove puppet film Legend of the Sacred Stone and Sylvia Chang's Princess-D, says that in this regard the skills available in Taiwan fall some way short of those overseas.
Quoting the example of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Huang says that the first fight scene between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, where they run up walls and over roofs, and chase each other across a large group of buildings, caused overseas audiences to gape in amazement. But what most astonished people in the business was the fact that every movement was shown: "They didn't fly up from the ground onto the roof-they ran straight up a vertical wall, and the film didn't skip a single step of it. That's not like a traditional kung fu film, where as soon as the character lifts his head the second shot has him already up on the roof. In terms of difficulty, they're just not in the same league!" says Helen Huang with undisguised admiration.
Inside a virtual scene
In a 3D scene, the virtual lens can be moved up or down and can observe the animation subject from any angle. But the subject itself can only rotate about its own axis or be observed by the camera revolving around it, or pass through the scene in midair. For instance, a twisting and turning high-speed flight through a dense jungle or along a narrow valley, with a ball of fire following close behind, is a typical 3D special effect.
But for 3D animators, just letting users "watch" a 3D scene is not enough. They want them to be able to use their mouse to travel at will inside the virtual scene, exploring a digital pyramid or wandering through a virtual Louvre. To achieve this effect, you need "interactive 3D" technology. But a 3D image is made up of points, lines and surfaces, and the more surfaces are involved the greater the demands on the computer. Hence creators always have to strike a balance between the limits of the hardware and the refinement of the image.
Taking interactive 3D a step further, how do you put a real person into a virtual scene? This is where the "virtual studio" comes into its own.
"A virtual studio is also called a blue-screen studio or green-screen studio," says Andy Wang, vice president for 3D graphics and virtual reality at Imagetech, the first production company in Taiwan to introduce virtual studio technology. He explains that the spacious virtual studio only has simple props, but the blue background is removed from the image by computer and replaced in real time with scenes prepared in advance using Maya or Max software, so that the combined image can be directly broadcast.
Real and virtual intermingle
With virtual studio technology, production firms no longer need to manufacture, install and dismantle physical sets, nor do they need huge warehouses to store them in, for the environments that appear on the screen are all virtual. When filming an introduction to the Louvre museum, for example, the real-life presenter has to be guided around the bare-walled blue-screen studio by a light shining on the floor to show him where to position himself. But in the finished version, when he points his finger, what appears in front of the audience is a famous painting. When he is tired, he leans against a simple blue box in the studio, but what the audience sees him leaning on is an elegant tall-backed palace chair upholstered in velvet. But there are many challenges in this process. For instance, how should the presenter's shadow fall onto the virtual chair? This alone is enough to sort the experts from the wannabes.
The "avatars" that have been all the rage recently are also produced in the blue-screen studio, using "motion capture" technology. A real person wearing specially marked clothes acts as a stand-in and converses with the presenter in the studio. The computer tracks the stand-in's movements, and in real-time hides the human figure and substitutes an exaggerated, appealing avatar, which is what the audience sees.
Virtual studios and interactive 3D technology make possible scenes that would be impossible in the real world. But this visual magic is not only good for the entertainment business-it can also be very useful for news reporting and education.
For instance, says Andy Wang, at the time of the last US presidential elections, CTS news anchor Li Ssu-tuan went to a virtual studio to record reports for which Imagetech created a 3D map of the US. As Li walked across the map from the east coast to the west coast, the votes garnered by each candidate in each state popped up in real time. This kind of effect cannot be achieved with traditional ways of working. In the future, when personal computers are all equipped with digital cameras, viewers everywhere will be able to call in over the Internet in real time, and themselves become characters on the screen.
It's creativity that counts
In a virtual studio there is not only a big central screen, but the four walls also hide cameras, all connected to a computer. The system costs as much as NT$50 million. In the United States, because of the strong demand for film production, the going rate to hire a studio for a day is US$60,000. But in Taiwan, "You count yourself lucky if you can get US$3000," says Andy Wang with a wry smile.
Fortunately, after more than a year of intensive promotion by Imagetech, since the middle of this year the rate of use of its virtual studio has been rising continuously. Thus Taiwan is now far better off in this regard than the mainland Chinese TV stations in Beijing and Nanjing that have also invested vast sums in setting up virtual studios, but have to hire them out at rock-bottom prices for lack of demand.
Andy Wang freely admits that due to limitations of experience and funding, the virtual studios in Taiwan fall somewhat short of those overseas in technical terms. But where the real gap lies is in "creativity."
To take Imagetech's flagship program Sisy's News as an example, after the 9-11 attacks last year, the program's presenter, legislator Sisy Chen, had the backdrop changed to the mountains of Afghanistan, in which she appeared dressed up as a bearded "Sisy bin Laden." This had audiences in stitches. But to produce a constant stream of such ideas that have serious content as well as being fun, so that viewers are always presented with new surprises, is no mean feat.
Digital technology can dress all kinds of information in bright clothing and give it a new appearance. Why not open your mind, give rein to your imagination and let yourself go with the electronic flow, to explore the new magical realm of the virtual world!
Defining points and lines, designing textures, performing detailed rendering-3D design is carried out step by step in this way. (courtesy of CGCG Inc. and Ellipsanime)
In the quiet animation office at CGCG Inc., everyone concentrates intently on their computer screens, their moods rising and falling with the movements of the points and lines.
Designing 3D animations is like running a one-man studio. Every angle and every detail of light and shadow has to be considered. When the characters depicted have the proportions of real humans, the degree of difficulty is even greater. (courtesy of CGCG Inc. and Ellipsanime)
Drawing board, colors, airbrush-images hand-painted stroke by stroke and line by line have a unique beauty. Our picture shows a scene at animation company Wang Film Productions.
Clean lines, bold swathes of color, the ability to change and experiment at will, and a desktop that never gets dirty-these are some of the advantages of computer art. Pictured here is a workstation at Wang Film Productions.
The TV series Xcalibur, which combines magic, martial arts and many difficult visual special effects, has won many film awards in Europe and North America. (courtesy of CGCG Inc. and Ellipsanime)