Saturday, December 29, 2012

Day 05 - Fan Animation

Have you ever wanted to control of the world?

 I mean complete control of your world and the people in it? Not only telling the people in it where to go and what to do but how to walk, what to say, controlling their emotions and reactions... everything!!!

 No, it isn't a psychologically questionable expression of megalomania, it's animation!

 Animation is becoming increasingly popular with individuals who have a grand story to tell, requiring a substantial cast of characters and considerable resources to replicate the world in which it is set in, but who don't have the time, contacts or cash to do this live. The practical considerations of building, buying, housing, maintaining and storing props, costumes and sets are extremely prohibitive! When you add in cameras, lights, casting, rehearsing, reshooting - even getting everyone together at the same place - creating a live action fan film is an immense task!

 Animation gives you control over virtually (and I use the term advisedly) every aspect of creating the illusion of the Star Trek world. If you are prepared to put in all the work yourself - many people don't work well in production groups - and have the talent for it, then animation could be for you. My only caveat is that, as an audio producer myself, I will never be able to accept a voice track that does not use a live voice acting cast. Personally, and you must bear in mind that this is a personal taste matter, it saddens me that a production that might have got "straight A's" will only ever rate an "E for effort" in this one aspect.

There are a bewildering array of methods that we can use to create these virtual worlds within which we can play, but I break them down into stop-motion photography, two dimensional graphics and three dimensional graphics. To save me going over old ground, if you are interested in fan animation I suggest you check out my earlier articles in 20082009 & 2011. I hope this is of interest but it can only skim the surface so - as always - keep an eye on Star Trek Reviewed and share any finds you make on social media.

I'll be watching!

Stop-motion photography
I think of stop-motion animation as a physical method because you need a real camera and physical, albeit very tiny, "sets". Pretty much all animation works on the optical illusion of movement that we get when a number of images, each minutely different from the one before, are flashed before our eyes. Stop-motion animation works by setting up dioramas, and photographing models or puppets that are moved against them. "Stop motion" is perhaps best known from the work of Ray Harryhausen who became famous for the fantasy scenes that he was able to create for movies like King Kong, Sinbad and Jason and The Golden Fleece.

After saying all that, Stop motion animation seems to have all but disappeared as a viable form of Star Trek fan animation! A rather sweeping statement and one that I would like to see proven wrong, but I have not even found any complete Star Trek Lego movies ( or their near-relative, MiniMate movies) made during 2012. Their demise seems to be because they rely on photography of physical sets and this combination of the three - a Lego / Star Trek fan who can handle stop motion photography - not a common combination. Check out Barb Reader's web page on Star Trek Lego movies and Larry Studios, who has made some great builds but no Star Trek videos.

Two dimensional graphics

When people think of animation, traditionally they think of something like Disney's classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or the Bugs Bunny cartoons of TV. These were Cel animated graphics which are hand-drawn and animated and whenever Trek fans think of Star Trek animation, they think of Star Trek: The Animated series which was made by Filmation in 1973. Amazingly some Star Trek fans, such as Curt Danhauser, are following this traditional route.

There's no way around it though, cel animation is very labour intensive and takes considerable artistic talent, because basically you are animating two dimensional artwork. Using a computer can now speed up the creation of the artwork and in some cases is the basis of a digital (as against a photographic) animation process. 

Toonshows or motion comics - Which bring a limited number of stills to life via fades and wipes 

Flash, an Adobe trademarked software, pretty much controls the market for animating 2D graphics but is priced above the average Joe's budget. There has been no major series since Enterprise Flashed and Marinerafter a good start last year, hasn't released anything this year. Go!Animate was a hot-bed of fun and creativity for Star Trek fans last year until they discontinued their free Star Trek line. It ranged from the vast majority of fans who were just wanting to have a bit of fun over a spare weekend through to animators who created multiple series and used the free game as a spring-board to Flash animation such as Caithlin Ferrera (Goanimator and Solarbaby) who is doing Star Trek: Absolution and RoTV who is doing Star Trek: Perseus.

Three dimensional graphics
So far we've been talking about creating and animating (bringing to life) 2d artwork but computers are capable of creating 3d worlds. Fan animators have a wide array of tools at their disposal that create three dimensional models that can be filmed in virtual sets. So many in fact that the resulting shows are as individual as their creators ... 

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the future of fan animation is software that creates the video for you. I don't mean to insinuate that it will pre-made, paint-by-numbers, join the dots type thing, in every case the value of a fan production is in what the creator puts into it! However, just as few programmers hard-code their own software these days, animation software is being designed to take out the hi-tech number-crunching of the early days.

Nowadays animation software is designed to be intuitive so that the animator can focus on making their creations as realistic as possible. They range from the low end to the high systems. The easiest is machinima: scripted, rehearsed and recorded gameplay from just about any game engine. The concept of using a game engine for film production was formalised by "The Movies", sold as a game but used to make films such as Star Trek: Frontier and Star Trek: The Way Back however it has probably been around as long as screencapture software has been with us! Arguably the most famous is "Borg Wars"  and today, the MMOG Star Trek Online (STO) has, to a certain extent, picked up the mantle from ST: Elite Force as the most common venue for creating Star Trek machinima such as Star Trek: Reunion

It is interesting to note that the copyright owners of ST Elite Force have donated the software to the fan community who have developed it into an RPG game  platform. Am I the only person who can see in these extensive, if a little clunky, online environments (RPG-X The Last Outpost / YouTubea perfect machinima studio?

This last year has seen a blossoming and withering of fan animation activity on two very different low-end animation platforms: Go!Animate (see under 2D animation above) and Xtranormal. They both had simplicity and speed on their side but suffered from limited characters and postures. At the start of this year, there were two very active animators using the State Plus extensions for Xtranormal State, Glenn at FemTrekz (Fb) and  Frank at  Star Trekz Empire (Fb) - what a difference a year makes! Glenn and Frank are still producing, but have amicably gone in different directions and Xtranormal have discontinued support of Xtranormal bringing out Xtranormal Desktop Beta which has not been well received by its previous users. To be fair though, they do have a set of characters for their new platform called Trekkiez.

The higher end animation software allows much more control over arm & leg, in fact all joint movement, however very little of it is free. Blender is the odd-one-out, being Open Source, and it has been used successfully many times. Tommy Gerencser used Blender 3 years ago to make Return to Triskelion in the style of ST The Animated Series but since then there have been some beautiful builds but very few complete films. DAZ and it's cousin Poser are popular, and although commercial are affordable - these days DAZ is free, although you pay for most of the models you use, whereas Poser is a full package for a fee. Probably the best example of their use has got to be Star Trek: Aurora. although Brandon Bridges' films  Star Trek: Specter, Star Trek: Retribution and his current project, Star Trek: Redemption are amazing epics of the animator's art.

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