Gone to the Dogs
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 4 (Apr. 2009)

Gone to the Dogs

James Thurber, a 20th century writer/cartoonist from Columbus, Ohio, was known for his short stories, cartoons, and essays focused on people and animals. He is especially known for his amusing dogma: The humorist identified human traits in dogs, and brought them to light in many of his drawings and musings. Known as Thurber’s Dogs, they, along with their master, became a national comic institution.

Recently, a team of graduate students at Ohio State University’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD) re-created these old dogs, originally crafted through simple line drawings, by using new tricks: computer graphics technology. First, the nine students modeled the dogs using 3D software, and then brought them to animated life during an orchestra performance. But this was no ordinary musical selection: It was an encore performance of composer Peter Schickele’s Thurber’s Dogs–Suite for Orchestra, which had been commissioned a few years earlier by the Columbus ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in partnership with Thurber House, a literary center and museum that had been the writer’s former home.

In all, the students animated six sequences, based on Thurber’s famous dog drawings and stories, that accompanied six musical movements from the suite. The animations, which are between two and five minutes in length, were projected onto a large screen above the orchestra. When the suite debuted in 1994, slides of the original dog drawings were used. But for the recent encore to celebrate anniversaries of both ProMusica and Thurber House, the two groups were looking for more bite in the visual accompaniment, so they approached ACCAD.

“They asked if we would be interested in coming up with animations and stories based on Thurber’s drawings and the musical piece, to bring Thurber’s drawings to life,” recalls ACCAD director Maria Palazzi. “It seemed like a perfect collaboration for our research center.” ACCAD, which focuses on the study of CG across multiple disciplines, offers hands-on collaborative opportunities for scientists and artists to work on various projects such as this (see “Extracurricular Activities,” pg. 45).

“Our goal was to create an aesthetically interesting experience for traditional classical music lovers,” says ACCAD animation specialist Vita Berezina-Blackburn.

Animal Research
Setting up this project as it would any real-life production, ACCAD selected a team based on the students’ individual expertise. “It was a great project for art and design students,” Palazzi says. A lot of the initial work occurred during independent studies classes, where the students had the opportunity to incorporate personal research into the production. In the quarter prior to the show, the students worked together as a group, during class hours and beyond.

Under the direction of Berezina-Blackburn, the students sunk their teeth into the work, starting with research, as many of the students were unfamiliar with Thurber’s work. The group formed last spring and spent numerous hours reviewing Thurber’s drawings and talking to the folks who run Thurber House, getting their take on the intention and meaning behind the humorist’s cartoons. “They were committed to creating a 3D animation that reflected the spirit of Thurber’s drawings and the techniques he used,” says Palazzi.

Graduate students at Ohio State University’s ACCAD re-created writer/cartoonist James Thurber’s line drawings using 3D tools, and then animated the imagery as a visual accompaniment during a special orchestra performance of a suite composed in honor of Thurber.

One student, Beth Albright, who now works at Pixar, says everyone in the group looked at all the Thurber dog drawings they could get their hands on, and read the related stories, too. “Although the music was inspired by specific drawings and not specific writings, the writings did give us story ideas that we could weave in,” she says.

For the most part, though, the research focused on different ways and angles to draw the dogs, “and we found out very quickly that if you line [the dogs] up, they weren’t the same,” says Albright. “A Thurber dog has a specific look. It has specific characteristics but many other features, as well. So we designed our Thurber dogs to be true to all the references but to fit within our specifications, so they could be animated in the way we wanted to animate them.”

Of the eight grad students who worked on the project, two of the students did the storyboarding and concept development. The others chose specific roles, as well, such as rigger, animator, or VFX artist, thereby assuring continuity in the style of movement throughout the segments.

Animal Development
Although the six movements of the suite would run approximately 20 minutes, the group initially planned to complete just one minute of animation for each movement—essentially adding visual paws and then pause. However, as these artists became engrossed in their work, they produced more and more CG to where animation played throughout most of the musical piece. “Some segments at the beginning of each music movement are left blank, and then the animation starts about 15 to 20 seconds into the movement,” describes Berezina-Blackburn.

Albright, along with another student, storyboarded each of the six segments; later, each assumed responsibility for three of the boards and created animatics using Adobe’s Photoshop and After Effects, and Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Next came the modeling and rigging, which was done in Autodesk’s Maya. The crew then used After Effects for the final rigging and postprocessing.

The team was already on the production for nearly two quarters when grad student Iuri Lioi joined them. Lioi, who graduates this year and has a position waiting for him at DreamWorks, modeled, rigged, and animated the adult dog. He spent 10 weeks on the production—two weeks modeling and the rest animating.

The project presented both technical and conceptual challenges. According to Lioi, the rig had to be flexible enough to support the changing proportion of the dogs’ front and back legs throughout the piece, “to make it look like a Thurber dog illustration being animated,” he adds. The complex rig, built in Maya, supports FK and IK, and contains three layers of bones for each of the two main dog characters.

“We were trying to reproduce Thurber’s style, which uses 2D lines and is organic, only we were doing it in three dimensions,” says Lioi. “That was challenging.”

Leashed Creativity
As Lioi explains, artistically, the students had to ask themselves, “How would Thurber have animated his own drawings and illustrations?” Then the group had to animate the art based on Thurber’s style, not their own.

This was easier said than done. The group started with a source that was nontechnical: 2D and, in some cases, 1D drawings that are cartoony. “His is not a subject you would look at and immediately think you should do it in 3D,” points out Albright. “For us, the challenge was using the tools we had available that allow us to do many things, yet remain true to the charm and the particular look of Thurber’s work. It’s very specific. People can identify his drawing style.”

The Thurber dog animations were projected above the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra during the live performance.

Palazzi agrees with the students’ assessment. “In the beginning, the art looked deceptively simple because Thurber’s drawings are deceptively simple,” she says. “But once the students started studying the anatomy he was drawing for the dogs, they found that the anatomy changed from drawing to drawing.”

Thurber particularly focused on hounds, Scotties, and poodles. However, when inspecting the dogs closer, the students discovered that in one instance, Thurber had used a part from one dog and another part from a different dog, and combined them into a breed that didn’t exist. As a result, the students had to interpret the anatomy of the unique dog and come up with different types of movement based on that anatomy.

At one point in his life, Thurber become blind in one eye, and many of the characters he drew were especially flat, with very little perspective and an orientation that favored one side, notes Berezina-Blackburn. As a result, the ACCAD students’ imagery had to reflect those same qualities. Also, the artists had to proceed without orthographic views or maquettes as references.

“They didn’t know what was on the other side of the dogs because [Thurber] didn’t draw that, but the students had to include [the missing information] in their 3D models,” Palazzi says. “Many of the students started out thinking, ‘Oh, this shouldn’t be too hard,’ but once they really studied the drawings, they found the work to be more of a challenge than they had realized.”

Another big challenge was simply producing the 20 minutes of animation, which is still laborious, no matter the subject. The models were rendered using the Maya software renderer, which supported Maya Paint Effects, used to create the black cartoon outlines for the subject matter. The students also created custom paintbrushes within Maya Toon shaders.

“Technically, Paint Effects and Toon are rich tools, but there were many variables that were difficult to control,” says Berezina-Blackburn. “You can get a lot of cool effects easily, but achieving something precise is difficult.”

The group used After Effects for postprocessing, to give the imagery a hand-drawn feel and a lower frame rate than the traditional 30 frames per second.

“Thurber’s drawings are very conceptual rather than physically accurate or photo­realistic,” says Berezina-Blackburn. “He used lines to express a mood or a state.” The team had looked at early hand-drawn animation material to see if they should imitate or replicate a particular style, or come up with their own way to stylize the movements of the dogs. In the end, they decided to “reinterpret” Thurber’s drawings.

“They contain movement and are so rich with gesture that you wouldn’t know how he would have approached the movement itself,” Berezina-Blackburn says. “This project offered students the chance to deal with a unique subject. It is not the typical photorealistic 3D animation process they are used to.”

Setting the Tone
Another unique challenge the artists had to face was the music—in particular, animating the dogs to the music. As Palazzi points outs, each drawing did not necessarily have a full-length story written for it. So, the student artists interpreted a single drawing and came up with a story line for it. “The music allowed us to imagine a story,” she adds. In fact, that is what the composer had done when writing the music, though he only used a single drawing for his inspiration.

“We listened to the music and imagined what was happening during the pieces,” Palazzi says. “That inspired different types of designs for objects and movement. The animation fused together what Thurber and the composer were expressing.”

Conceptually, the group was working with music that would be performed live, so there was no way to perfectly synchronize the animation to the music. “You would think that classical music is performed with great precision, but sometimes the music would fall behind during the performance, and then get ahead, but it always ended perfectly,” says Berezina-Blackburn. “So, we were not trying to match a specific ‘Bam!’ with a visual splash. We had to make a semi-loose structure for the animation.”

Had the group been given more time, Berezina-Blackburn says she would have liked to have stylized the dog movements even more, and added more stylized deformation to the body in motion. “Looking at the drawings, when a dog is jumping forward, the limbs are sort of curling backward, doing something not anatomically possible. We didn’t quite go there because we didn’t have the time to figure it out,” she says.

Nonetheless, Berezina-Blackburn found the project fun and different. “We wanted things to be simple, because that is the quality of his work. But with 3D, you have to make it more complicated than it appears,” she adds. “One lesson we will take with us is how to streamline our own work. You don’t always need to make something function like a real object.”

Often, it’s the more simple things that are the most treasured. And perhaps that is why Thurber’s work was so captivating.

Extracurricular Activities

When Charles Csuri founded the Computer Graphics Research Group (CGRG) at Ohio State University (OSU) in the early 1970s, his goal was to realize the potential of computer animation across a number of disciplines, offering the opportunity for scientists and artists to collaborate on projects. “He believed that both sides (the arts and sciences) needed each other if CG was going to come into being,” explains ACCAD director Maria Palazzi.

CGRG eventually evolved into ACCAD, but the spirit of uniting the disciplines remains today. And the cooperative nature of the program extends to the outside, too, as ACCAD offers students a chance to work in a real production environment. And with the Thurber project, it became a perfect opportunity to link current OSU students with a famed past student: Thurber.

For former OSU student Beth Albright, working on an outside project such as Thurber’s Dogs augmented lessons learned in the classroom. “We had several production-based classes where you are in a class environment working on a class assignment. But a class like this [independent studies class], where you are doing a production with others, really does emulate the work environment where you work alongside others, have deadlines, restrictions, and specifications, must meet the outside client’s needs, and have to find a way to get it all done,” she says. “Sometimes you have to give up your personal aesthetic and goals to accomplish the aesthetic and goals of the group and the project as a whole.” And that is not a lesson that is usually taught in the classroom.

Albright notes that for Thurber’s Dogs, the team had to complete the work in 10 weeks, teaching them the value of a deadline. “You can’t not get it done,” she adds. “It was going on stage on a certain date.”

The project also offered the chance to learn and grow by giving the team a chance to try different roles and new things.

Iuri Lioi, another student, also found the project experience invaluable. He was completing a thesis on the process of creating an animation, from design to final product. “I was studying that on my own and writing the thesis, but for the first time I was able to see and experience the whole process,” he adds, “analyzing how big the project was, assigning tasks, coordinating, communicating, organizing…things we never had an opportunity to do in class. We talked about it and studied it, but there was no chance to put those things into practice.”

Lioi says he will take the practical knowledge he gained on Thurber’s Dogs with him when, this summer, he begins his job at DreamWorks, where he interned last summer. –Karen Moltenbrey

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.