Knowledge & Career - 12/08
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 12 (Dec. 2008)

Knowledge & Career - 12/08

Easy-to-use 3D animation programs can help students previsualize their vision

Textbooks have long dominated the classroom, but with the current trend of integrating computers, multimedia software, and other digital tools into school curricula, the conventional education setting is transforming.
Professors are finally embracing animation technology and taking advantage of the new teaching techniques of the Classroom 2.0 era. One particular department, film studies, is proving that computer animation and 3D graphics tools can be used for more than just a hobby. Media arts and film educators are using the software to bring textbook subjects to life—not only allowing students to visualize classroom studies, but also helping them to jump-start their careers.
From Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah to the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in the UK, educators and their students are adding a new dimension, quite literally, to the way animation technologies are being applied in the classroom. 3D software programs are being used to illustrate key Filmmaking 101 methods and to clarify camera techniques, such as the 180-degree rule and Pudovkin’s theory of editing.

BYU professor of philosophy Dennis Packard even worked with his class to produce short video definitions of basic terms, and used 3D animations to visualize the techniques and terms being defined. Educators are also utilizing animation technology with controlled virtual environments to support the advanced teaching of complex scenes, to communicate which camera choreography produces the most compelling results, and to adapt creative ideas in real time—all with instant visual feedback.

Animation software provides an easy and affordable way for classes to experiment with film actions and viewpoints. The technology often does not require external specialist training and features user-friendly interfaces for both novice and advanced users. With 3D animation software tools, educators are able to simulate a virtual video-production class to teach the basics, while minimizing expensive overhead costs, such as camera and lighting equipment.

Antics is just one company offering easy-to-use tools to help students learn better and faster by using 3D animation.
Four NFTS students were challenged to produce a 20-second models-and-miniatures HD test as part of their Visual and Special Effects Diploma course. The students chose to combine multiple motion-controlled camera passes, live action shot against a greenscreen, and a one-sixth scale model of a London street, and then composited and graded the results. To further complicate the task, they decided to test atmospheric physical effects on the model set, allowing the shot to move from a rain environment to one with bright sunshine and, finally, heavy snow. With virtually no budget and only two days of filming to get everything right, animation software delivered immediate benefits to the project and helped in many parts of the process.

“We had a very tight shooting schedule and budget,” says NFTS student Wilson Stockman. “Technical issues, such as the road curvature on the miniature, which needed to be level, and scale issues relating to the motion-control footage of the miniature and the live-action shots, had to be fixed before going on set.”

Stockman’s project partner, Pedro Pinto, adds, “Antics allowed us to firm up our ideas and communicate the plan to others. As directors, it allowed us to work out our camera moves, and anticipate and solve problems before going on set.” Antics Technologies’ ­Antics3D, an animation tool set requiring no specialist training, allows fast 3D set construction, character animation, and camera choreography.

Another important way film studies programs are incorporating multimedia tools into the classroom is by encouraging students to produce 3D animated storyboards or to previsualize their projects. Media arts educators emphasize the importance of pre-production planning and are suggesting animation technology as a way to work out any production challenges before ever setting foot on a stage or location shoot.

Traditional previs applications, such as NewTek’s LightWave and Autodesk’s Maya or 3ds Max, are geared toward the pro and have steep learning curves, but there are other, easier-to-use animation software tools out there suited for educational settings that allow creative student cinematographers, writers, or editors to bring their own ideas to life with only basic computer skills.

Animation offers an inexpensive way to experiment with film action and camera angles prior to shooting.
According to John Rowe, NFTS head of digital postproduction and VFX/SFX, the school “recognized the necessity of understanding the ever-increasing demands of previsualization.” Therefore, it recommends real-time animation tool sets for student filmmakers so they can produce an entire version of their project before wasting time, money, or film. Class instructors can then provide feedback and input, and suggest changes based on the previs, helping students produce a better end result.

3D animation software also improves upon the single-frame, 2D storyboarding method of the past. If changes had to be made to a 2D storyboard, students would have to restart from the beginning. 3D previs animation technologies not only save time in the pre-production process, but also provide the film crew and talent with a clear idea of camera angles, actor and prop positions, and movements. Furthermore, costs may be reduced as well by not having to reshoot or significantly edit scenes.

BYU’s Packard uses 3D animation to story­board and develop entire previsualizations of feature scripts with his new directors. Working with Campus Studios, an intercollegiate online group designed to bring filmmakers together, Packard encourages his class to audience-test and then revise their animation projects based on the critiques—before the filming process begins.

“Animation software is essential within our university’s professional mentoring program,” Packard says. “Students can produce their own pieces quickly and with little production costs, and submit the previs films to their peers or professors for review. We encourage projects that integrate all types of production and lend themselves to criticism and interpretation.”

As the Classroom 2.0 era unfolds, animation software will continue to transform the traditional education environment, especially with regard to creating and critiquing films and other visual arts. Media arts professors and students can bring their own stories and scenes to life with easy-to-use and cost-effective 3D animation and graphic tools. University-level programs, like those at BYU and NFTS, can enrich their students’ learning experiences by providing them with the opportunity to develop animated films in a truly hands-on way.