The Pixel Crush

-------------------------------------------|Digital Animation & Game Criticism|-------------------------------------------

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Aah, Aah! He'll Save Every One Of Us!

After having the flash concept work deadline sneak up on me like a panther in a pool of tar on a cloudy night, I have been doing little else recently. I started by perusing the clips made available for our usage and settled on D which contains a suitably comic awkward silence which I thought would make good comedic challenge.

The debate starts with the students discussing the merits of handwritten versus typing methods of working. This led me to represent the argument very literally in the way only animation can. This meant a cast consisting of a pc, monitor, bag and ink pot. I started sketching these and had a pretty clear idea of where I was going with each character. The hardware is based on the comuters we had at my college: old, nasty and beige; the bag is based on the rucksack I used for years on end all through primary school; and the ink pot I struggled with. I wanted a character who would represent the arty and opinionated character. I thought of a watercolour or paint pot but they didn't feel right or weren't functional in attributing facial features to them.
Then I went about recreating them in flash and found that using the paint brush tool with smoothing turned down and pen pressure affecting brush stroke width I could get a style I liked that stayed true to my usually wobbling line drawing style.

Then I went back and began designing mouths for each of the characters making sure they were consistant with the materials each was made of (though there are obligatory teeth and tongues). This is why I chose a pixelated mouth for the monitor and a zippy/sewn mouth for the rucksack.

I still need to work on mouths for the ink bottle and apply a lot more detail to the background as its just a bare desk at the moment. I look forward to continuing this project as the amount of life imbued into this characters through speech alone is very satisfying.

Group Shot:

Monday, 15 February 2010

Vertex Syndrome

On Georg's recommendation I have attempted a tutorial that instructed me on how to model a coke bottle. Though a bit beyond my skill level I managed tpo bypass a few stages (like UV unwrapping) which are totally beyond me at this point and it doesnt help I don't even know what UV unwrapping is other than that its something to do with flattening for textures. Even with this cut down process it still took several hours to get it looking as it does now. I have learnt a number of interesting things though and it has made me curious to try something more creative.

I've ended up with a bottle that looks pretty sic but is missing the coca cola logo displacement map and a couple of bits and pieces but has some lovely refractions to make up for it. The geometry was a total bastard in places, I could not get the bottom and middle sections to merge nicely. The "edge flow", I believe is the correct terminology, wouldn't fit. And deleting obselete edges after creating the right ones seemed to make smooth mesh preview screw up so I left it a little messy in places. Also selecting the correct components can be a pain, especially when you're deleting unwanted vertices and you accidentally remove something on the hidden side of your model. I suppose backface culling could potentially fix this but I remembered the feature existed too late. The bottle in the background is the orignal polygon geometry with smooth mesh preview off and no fancy shaders. I put it there for interesting refractions, comparison, and to remind everyone how i love rendering.

Here are the final renders from a number of angles, as always, click to enlarge:

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Model Of War

Here is a making of video from the upcoming PS3 exclusive God Of War III.

this is crazy. I wish I could model like this now.
I wonder what software is being used.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010


Up early (relatively) for CGI modelling today, always fun and informative. Today was texturing and then using textures for specualr lighting maps, bump maps (yay), and transparency maps. I even made some renders to give an idea of the simple shapes that were used and how nice they started looking after some basic work. I say nice...

So just using a plane and a sphere in terms of geometry these were created (click to enlarge):

Who Creates Meaning In An Animated Film?

Who Creates Meaning in an Animated Film?

“Like emotion, meaning is important to our experience of artworks.”
(Bordwell & Thompson, 2001: 60)

There can be a number of sources of meaning in animation. Two obvious sources are the audience or reader of the film, and the creator/animator/institution that conceived the film. As every reading of the film will be slightly different for each member of the audience; due to a massive number of variables in their personality, opinions, and status within society, can one ever say it could be purely from one source or the other? Rather a unique blend of intended meaning and circumstantial meaning. This relationship between animator and audience, this communication between creator and viewer is so diverse in its deciphering that it is a very tough to say on a case by case basis, who does create the meaning in an animated film?

Pixar has always enjoyed massive commercial success, (The worldwide gross for Pixar’s most recent animation Up (2009) currently stands at $727,104,164. [Nash Information Services, 2010]) but not at the cost of masterful and often meaningful storytelling. Wall-e (2008) was Andrew Stanton’s second film as director and was classified by some as a member of the science fiction genre: “Here we have the plot of a proper, adult sci-fi: a vision of a dystopian, homogenised future in which commerce has killed individuality and independent thought.”(Smith, 2008) The sci-fi genre’s conventions have long been used as a catalyst for social commentary and philosophical debate within film. Against this galactic backdrop of post apocalyptic earth, was a simple story whose focus was a small lonely robot. The director was then able to utilise this grand stage as a mechanism to make comment on the manner in which mankind treats his habitat and the rate at which he consumes and disposes of resources; the way mankind has forgotten what is truly of value. “Precisely because artworks are human creations and because the artist lives in history and society, he or she cannot avoid relating the work, in some way, to other works and to aspects of the world in general.” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2001: 58). This is contrasted in the character Wall-e whose innocence allows him to see beauty in the most mundane of items and value in the most insignificant of things, for example Wall-e’s home is filled with shelves upon shelves of everyday domestic items, exhibited as prized possessions. The director uses Wall-e, as the protagonist, and his value system to align the beliefs of the audience with the ideologies perpetuated by the animated film. In this way the audience has been guided through the characters design and naive nature to identify with the greater themes of the film and find greater meaning therein.
Disney’s chief creative officer John Lasseter, one of Pixar’s founding members, has always put character animation and character driven narrative at the forefront of his film-making as he finds it is a more meaningful method of storytelling: “This is what John Lasseter strives for over any photo-realistic effect that computers can provide. ‘You cannot base a whole movie on just the imagery alone,’ he says. ‘It has to be the story and the characters.’” (Lyons, 1998) This is what makes Wall-e a polysemic animation: it’s many layers of meaning. While any film could be seen as polysemic; Wall-e is polysemic in that its layers of meaning seem to have a defined dichotomy. For example a viewer could watch the film and identify with Wall-e’s solitude and feelings for the foreign android Eva, therefore deriving a meaning based on the power of love. A different viewer, or even the same one on a second viewing, could then read more into the subtext and context of the film and derive a meaning based on the environmental ramifications of the ideologies embodied through the “Buy ‘n’ Large” corporation in the film. What determines which of these interpretations prevails? Perhaps this is where the prior knowledge and experiences the viewer brings to the reading come into play, the director can provide the audience with meaning but the viewer may choose to disregard what they are shown or not perceive it at all; effectively working to negate the meaning.

In the same vein of family oriented CGI animation is Blue Sky studio’s adaption of the Dr Seuss book Horton Hears A Who (2008). Being an adaption of a children’s book into a feature length animation, there is clearly already a process of interpretation and mediation at work. So Seuss’ original intended meaning is already being read by the audience through the changes and additions that Blue Sky has made. The animation however does appear to maintain most of the book’s initial ideology and meaning through the same layers and polysemy employed in Wall-e.
The book follows the story of Horton as he endeavours to protect the residents of whoville who inhabit a speck on a clover. This allows the film to follow a linear narrative following Horton’s journey to discover a safe resting place for whoville, this is perhaps the depth of meaning that the younger segment of the films audience will ascertain. Another theme that is repeated throughout the film through Horton’s dialogue is that “a person is a person, no matter how small”, this basic moral value of equality may register on a subconscious level with the younger viewer and can be easily identified by an older viewer. A final layer, which is debatable as to whether it was part of the intended meaning but worth noting nonetheless, is the use of the infinitesimally tiny Whos as a religious metaphor for faith in a fable-style narrative slant. “As an alert perceiver, the spectator is constantly testing the work for larger significance, for what it says or suggests. The sort of meanings that the spectator attributes to a film may vary considerably.”(Bordwell & Thompson, 2001: 60). Being so tiny they’re invisible to the naked eye and Horton’s only proof of their existence is that his sensitive ears can pick up the sound of their voices, this is met by scepticism from the rest of the characters and his belief is questioned right up until the film’s denouement where the Whos finally manage to make enough noise to be heard by all. This belief in the intangible being tested by non believers resembles an allegory for religious faith in a god being tested by atheist ideology. It seems more likely that this was Suess’ intended meaning rather than Blue Sky’s. Suess’ children’s book often contained deeper subtexts like this one and The Lorax (1971), a book which explores the greed of the consumer: “everyone needs a Thneed” and environmental devastation for commercial gain depicted through illustrations of pollution, fleeing wildlife and industrial imagery. It is perhaps for this deeper dimension of Suess’ work that there have been two live action adaption’s of his work and one animated. The visual style, rhyming narrative and allegory lend themselves perfectly the family target audience that most CGI animation caters for.

I remember discussing the recent release District 9 (2009) and finding that the person with whom I was having the conversation nurtured an intense dislike for the film. While it is not an animation, half the cast is made up of CGI animated aliens. The film’s basic premise takes the discrimination of apartheid in South Africa during the time just before its abolition (the time and place the director/writer grew up) and situates it in an alternate reality where aliens are asylum seekers in the slums. Once again the sci-fi genre is used; its function being to bring tough issues to a new audience in a more palatable guise, allowing the director to convey meaning without being overly literal “Most social scientists approach media accounts as value-laden instruments of meaning, instruments with the power to confirm cultural beliefs and construct specific social realities.” (Cerulo, 2000: 155). The director uses genre to his benefit when attempting to convey a very specific meaning relating to his own experience of race issues. The visual style borrows a lot of conventions from documentary; like handheld cameras, low fidelity image quality, interviews and camera awareness. This ‘cinema verite’ aesthetic allows the audience to attribute the events of the film with authenticity and credibility; therefore allowing the film’s meaning to have greater impact. Except the person I previously mentioned seemed to be unaware of any of the South African context and wholly unappreciative of the aesthetics. So the director has failed to create meaning from the film for this viewer.
So in this case we deduce that the missing component was context, and without it none of the narrative carries weight rooting it on reality, nor is it relatable to the viewer’s prior knowledge or experience. So the viewer struggles to create his/her own meaning from the confusion and as a result dismisses the film as pointless. The director intended a meaning that was overly referential and, though he created it, the viewer did not read it and therefore for that viewer meaning does not exist. While for the much of the audience the film explored the issue of race, ‘the other’ and mankind’s fear of it.
One element in District 9 that highlights an interesting aspect of viewer interpretation is the representation of violence. While the film appears on one level of meaning to be examining the violent and unequal treatment of different groups, it does so whilst engaging the viewer with hyperbolic action sequences in which the protagonist uses advanced alien weaponry to destroy soldiers in increasingly gruesome ways. These two elements of the film appear to contradict one another and it is through the ‘story sequencing’ explored in Karen Cerulo’s Packaging Violence (2000) that the director attempts to justify the violence:

“Of particular importance is the temporal order by which the information enters the foreground and then recedes to the background of readers and viewers attention, the sequence of a message [...] a method by which those who tell the stories of violence unfold and arrange the dimensions of a violent event.” (2000: 155)

District 9 opens with a brief interview with Wikus, the main character, and establishes him as the everyman with whom the viewer will empathise with through his flaws and innate humanity. It is a good deal of time, during which Wikus is victimised and hunted, before he becomes hostile; therefore we witness the corporation (Multi National United) turn against its own employee in the most violent and illegal manner before Wikus retaliates. So we are manipulated to see Wikus’ explicit violence as both necessary to his survival and warranted, even righteous, in light of the misdeeds of the corporation and the freedom of the aliens.

In the process of creation, the artist must create for a specific audience or with an audience in mind. That is certainly the case in the films I have studied so far. And in accepting this we reach a theoretical scenario that threatens to change the view of artistic control over audience interpretation. What if the artist’s concepts, narrative, themes are governed by a hypothetical audience whose needs and expectations existence shapes the work of the artist even before it has manifested itself in any significant way? This thesis has been explored in a psychological and linguistic context before: “In ordinary conversation, we tailor what we say to particular people we are talking to. We have a good idea of the knowledge and beliefs they share with us at the moment and what they are thinking of, and we design our utterances accordingly.” (Clark & Murphy, 1982) But it seems to contain enough relevance to media consumption to merit further discussion.
In the same way as the audience can be seen to direct the artist, so too can the institution, with its commercially minded worship of the audience; develop a parasitic triangle in which the institution feeds off the audience, the audience feeds off the artist and the artist feeds off the institution. This is most obvious in Horton Hears A Who as the film is interspersed with popular culture references; from hip hop to anime, the institution has chosen a specific audience and the artists must conform to that audience’s popular culture so that the institution can feed more and consequently the artist gets fed. It’s the triangle of greed, and in the centre sits genre; the web that ties all the components together.

The many topics of debate surrounding Roland Barthes’ the “death of the author” ties into the same vein of thought that questions the validity of intended meaning on the author’s part.

“In fact [...], the significant doctrines underlying the ‘death of the author’ are far removed from the convivial debate about intentions and have their sights set not just on the humble author but on the concept of literature itself and even the concept of meaning.” (Peter Lamarque, 1990)

A disconnect between the artist and the creation is thought to be made in the act of creation itself leaving room only for a pure meaning based entirely on the interpretation of the audience. I feel that this tempts extremism in determining who creates meaning; as without the artist there is no meaning to be read, however tailored that meaning may be, and without the audience there is no reader of the meaning, however skewed the readers perception may be. There can only be co-existence of the two for any kind of meaning to burst into life, especially when it comes to the medium of animation as every frame is created by the artist from nothing; there is no chance of unforeseen visual or auditory elements garnering new and inexplicable interpretations.
I see very few merits in attempting to interpret a text as a reader without the context that I mentioned earlier pertaining to District 9. A reading without knowledge of the values, beliefs and opinions of the artist then becomes a very isolated experience. One cannot share the emotional resonance of meaning with another as the likelihood of having the same understanding of the film is low, or perhaps it is this diverse array of interpretations that creates the appeal of this theory. It would however, be advantageous to derive meaning from a text without having one’s perception distorted by external influence, for example the mass media and its coverage of an animated film may subtly alter opinions and taint the meaning construed, rendering it less personal and therefore less affecting. One cannot experience animation as a communication between artist and audience when the artist’s beliefs have been discarded in the attempt to construe true meaning, why would one want to remove this communication at the cost of animation’s profundity? For purity of meaning? Then what meaning is there beyond the expression of this dead author that is worth forsaking the artist for? For me there can be no satisfactory answer to this particular query as I endeavour to uncover the meaning hidden for me by the artist, in order to have my beliefs validated and my moral values reinforced.


Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin. (2004). Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education.
Cerulo, Karen A. (2000). 'Packaging Violence: Media, Story Sequencing and the Perception of Right and Wrong' in New Forms of Consumption, ed. by Mark Gottdiener. pp 153-176. Oxford: Rowman & Litlefield.
Clark, Herbert & Murphy, Gregory. (1982). “Audience Design in Meaning and Reference”. In: Language and Comprehension. Ed. by Le Ney, Jean & Kintsch, Walters. North Holland Publishing Company.
Lamarque, Peter. (1990). “The Death of the Author: An Analytical Autopsy”. In: British Journal of Aesthetics. Volume 30, No. 4, October 1990. Oxford University Press
Suess, Dr. (1971). The Lorax. Random House.
Lyons, Mike. (1998). “Toon Story: John Lasseter’s Animated Life”. In: Animation World Magazine. Issue 3.8, November 1998.
District 9. (2009). Directed by Neill Blomkamp. [Blu-Ray]. Tristar Pictures.
Horton Hears A Who. (2008). Directed by Jimmy Haywood & Steve Martino. [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
Up. (2009). Directed by Pete Doctor & Bob Peterson. [Film]. Walt Disney Pictures.
Wall-e. (2008). Directed by Andrew Stanton. [DVD]. Walt Disney Pictures.
Nash Information Services. (2010). (Sunday, February 7, 2010).
Smith, Anna. (2008). Wall-e UK Review. (July 18th 2008).

Live @ 5

Today was my live at five day which means me and four others animators were in the studio from 10am until 7pm, taking graphics requests from the broadcast journalism students. It was the most frenzied in the early morning for a number of reasons. Firstly it was early(ish) morning and we hadn’t quite got it together so the first 10 minutes was gathering our thoughts and then awaiting orders from “Mr Producer”: Hugh. Our first request was three weather maps to be completed in forty five minutes. This, it turned out, was a little unrealistic. We first had to create a map of Cornwall for today's and tomorrow's weather with a camera move and a nice "spreading frost" effect for one. This was tough to do quickly; purely because we had to create the assets from scratch. Things like the cloud/sun/rain icons etc. Darrien and Tom worked away in Photoshop to create the icons we needed whilst Liam created a map of Cornwall and arranged nicely in After Effects with places names of major landmarks and cities. We also used part of my title strap to signify whether it was today’s or tomorrow’s weather.
There third weather map was a surfer's forecast which was my job. I created some stylized 2D waves in Photoshop and then brought those into After Effects and separated them in 3D space, added a camera zoom some jiggling movement on the waves, a surfboard with "Surf Weather" written on it and the high tide times and a light to add something more aesthetically interesting to the flat Photoshop layers. The whole thing was supposed to resemble the kind of waves that might be seen at a play where 2D planes create the illusion of both movement and depth. It worked quite well but the initial camera move got cut of on broadcast, for what reason I don’t know, it wasn’t particularly long. Anyway, job done. An hour and a half after we were supposed to have been done. To a reasonable standard though. Gives you an idea of industry deadlines I suppose, unreasonably tight. The broadcast students must have been done three or four times; only for us to extend their deadlines.

The weather maps and surf map:

I also aided Darrien on his Turbine graphic which was going to be used to illustrate a wind farm on tomorrow's The World Tonight programme. Use of lights, pre-compose, and parenting (plus mandatory motion blur!). This ended up looking quite good, the brief had requested “The Lizard” area of Cornwall be highlighted in some way, so we took this literally and shone a spot light on it before zooming and better showing the 3 wind turbines with rotating blades and all. We also needed to create some title straps but, having left it a little too late, the broadcast journalism students couldn't make use of my animated one. So we took a still image from it and put the text on top of that instead which looked fine. At least it got used in the weather maps to announce whether it was today or tomorrow's forecast. Also they had to be saved using a certain technique were an alpha channel was made using a selection in Photoshop and then this was saved as a .targa file for their use in avid. Not sure why.

The title strap (animated):

The rest of the time I spent finalizing the title sequence I have been working on. It was all done except for the music. I had an after-thought to use some Amon Tobin for its instrumentality and dramatic dynamics. By some ridiculous fluke; the peaks of the music perfectly matched the imagery of the sequence. We took it to the newsroom and they "loved" the visuals but disliked the music (a lot from his tone of voice). So whilst my title sequence is being used (super awesome) the sound is being pulled from the old one. It sucks but another example of industry practice, compromise to please the client. A shame but I shall search for an alternative soundtrack that is more news appropriate and hopefully to their liking. The one piece of feedback we got from the industry professional was that the title sequence was good but to long in the middle between the live at five appearing and the V’splosion.

The title sequence (original soundtrack-I don't have their one):

The whole experience has been a lot of fun though a more even flow of work would've been good instead of jumping in at the deep end and then being stuck for jobs towards the end, I supposed they need certain elements sooner than others, or everything as early as possible. I can’t believe they're using my titles! I hope they continue to be used though Brian’s effort is a serious contender, a much classier and more appropriate take on news titles.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Suess' Disciple

I have now finished my third and final background which was actually the one for the first brief. The pencil drawn exterior. I'm quite pleased with the visual style as it pleasantly reminds me of Dr Suess. It was also nice to do a more stylised environment after attempting to correctly portray the amitious persepective of the Island background and the painterly lighting of the Jail Cell background.

please click to enlarge:
Having completed the backgroud project I have turned my attention to "Who Creates Meaning In Animation?", the essay question I chose to write about. I feel I may have found it easier to write about realism in CGI but I thought this question was more interesting. Though I love writing, especially about this kind of thing I often find it hard to generate large amounts of writing when I'm restricted in the things I can explore, so in order to reach the desired word count I had to wander a little and include analysis of three separate films, one of which is the Blue Sky Studio's adaption of Dr Suess' "Horton Hears A Who". So with all this Suessian study I'm have gleaned new meaning from his works, and am now a true disciple, maybe I should form a cult decidicated to his worship or something. I hope the level of analysis is in depth enough, though I worry its not. Though the themes are interesting and there is plenty of theory there. We shall see.

Bioshock 2 comes out this tuesday :) Its like a reward for what has been the most work intensive week of this course so far.