Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 5 (May 2000)

USER FOCUS: Preserving a Legend

Animators use new technology to re-create an ancient Aztec folktale

By Karen Moltenbrey

With the onslaught of new technologies, the world is becoming a much smaller place. The advantages to having a one-world society are countless, but there are pitfalls as well. Many are finding that cultural traditions and folklore, passed down through generations by word of mouth or in art form, are becoming extinct, lost forever in the wake of globalization. So it seems ironic that 3D imagery and other high-tech graphics tools are being used to re-create a type of ancient Aztec art in an effort to preserve the rich history of Mexican Indians.

Voxel, an effects studio in Mexico City, created a 26-minute animated short film called "La Sirena Aalamatzin," or "The Mermaid Legend," that aired several months ago on Mexican television. Mexico's cultural ministry sponsored the project, a re-creation of a centuries-old verbal story, culled from an Aztec legend, in the artistic style of papel amate (bark painting). This type of primitive painting is named for the paper on which the drawing is done. A form of art still practiced by some Mexican Indians, amate features simple images of bold primary colors painted onto the rough bark-textured paper. These drawings, which can be found in old Mexican codicils and wall paintings, are also known as "historias" because they are used to tell stories. These tales typically depict everyday village life while adding a healthy dose of natural elements-both realistic and fanciful.
Artists used a combination of 2D and 3D animation to create a movie, based on an ancient Aztec legend, in the traditional yet simplistic style of amate, or bark painting.

"The goal of this project was to retain this native method of storytelling for future generations," says Jaime Cruz, director of the film. To further draw on the region's cultural roots, the movie was voiced in Nauhatl-the original Aztec language still spoken in some areas of the country-and subtitled in Spanish and English. Besides airing on national television in Mexico, the film is being shown at local screenings throughout the country and has appeared worldwide at various film festivals.

"The Mermaid Legend" recounts the story of the old "river woman," who represents Mother Nature, and a boy destined to become the sun. When the mermaid provides the boy's father, a fisherman, with a plentiful bounty to feed his family, the father gives the catch to his mistress. Angered, the mermaid orders the father to give her the boy, who she knows will eventually become the sun. But the boy runs away, aided by his sister, Luna (the moon), and with the help of the forest animals and an old couple, he learns about his future and comes to terms with his destiny.
The animators at Voxel received help from an original amate artist to achieve an authentic look-bold colors and bumpy textures-for their digital imagery in the film "The Mermaid Legend."

While the legend has a straightforward story line, using computer graphics to tell the tale proved a challenging task, especially when replicating the ancient style of amate painting. Cruz wanted to give prominence to some of the simplistic imagery, similar to what is accomplished with a child's pop-up book, in which certain objects "pop" out of the page as three-dimensional elements. "I wanted to create the same concept so I could make the characters come alive amid all the imagery," he says. To accomplish this look in the digital realm required the artists to take an approach that combined both 2D and 3D animation.

All the characters in the film were hand-drawn, then inked and painted using Cambridge Animation Systems' (Cambridge, UK) Animo software running on a variety of SGI (Mountain View, CA) and Windows NT workstations. With Animo, the group integrated the hand-drawn characters with the 3D backgrounds, created with Side Effects Software's (Toronto) Prisms, and added all the camera moves. Final compositing was done with Side Effects' Ice.

Another challenge was to maintain the unusual proportions between the human characters and the other objects-an amate trademark. "We had to find a bal ance so that our 3D backgrounds still resembled the ex tremely flat amate images drawn by the Indians," Cruz says.

The animators also had to match the brightly colored, bumpy textures that result from painting on actual bark paper. To replicate that look digitally, the group used Adobe Systems' (San Jose, CA) Photoshop, supplemented with Ice and Corel (Ottawa, Canada) Photo-Paint.
To make some of the images "pop" out of the scenes, the animators placed hand-drawn characters, digitally inked and painted with Cambridge Animation's Animo, into 3D backgrounds created in Side Effects' Prisms. (see image below also)

To replicate the bumpiness for both the 2D and 3D images, the group digitized samples made by a woman who still paints amates. From these, they determined the exact density that the digital painters would have to achieve to maintain the appropriate brightness, saturation, and color for the 2D ob jects while still preserving the amate textures. For the 3D textures, the group processed the digitized images in Photo shop, then adjusted the amount of roughness, scale, and bumpiness. The artists then layered those textures with some original digitized amate paintings. At the compositing stage, they adjusted the blur, emboss, and layers for the backgrounds, foregrounds, and characters.

"We consulted with the amate painter to make sure we were on track," notes Cruz. And while the artists worked hard to match the film's bright colors with those found in original amate pieces, Cruz says they did lose some color contrast when the images were moved off the computers and onto film.

Nevertheless, Cruz believes the use of high-tech tools to imitate the low-tech way of amate painting worked well. No one would mistake the digital pictures for original native artwork, "but when you see this movie on the screen, you feel like you're living in an amate," he says.

Animo, Cambridge Animation (