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August 2012

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animation ParaNorman uses rapid prototypes S By PHIL BROTHERTON Art Director, ParaNorman Laika Hillsboro, OR top-motion animation, one of the earliest forms of visual effects, was for decades the technique that helped many films win an Oscar. Filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have benefited from the application of miniature models along with puppets moved frame by frame to enhance their films. However, the limitations of stop motion became starkly apparent with the ushering in of computer- generated animation and effects. At first, CG struggled to match the tactile, Laika creates stop-motion characters with more emotion. Brian McLean heads up Laika's rapid prototype department. real-world textures and lighting that stop- motion animation could achieve. But as com- puters grew more powerful, they were able to take on VFX challenges that far surpassed the limitations of stop motion; the handcraft- ed aesthetic of stop motion came to be seen as an undesirable artifact of the technique. As studios, like Pixar, pioneered new soft- ware that could bring unparalleled subtlety to character animation, and a wide range of emo- tion to facial expressions, the appeal of stop motion began to flag even further, and the tastes of the average filmmaker and of the average film-goer began to shift toward the clean production values afforded by CGI. Con- sequently, the Academy of Motion Picture Sci- ences began heaping praise and awards on these studios for their technical innovations. When Laika opened its doors in 2005, it took on as its personal challenge the synthesiz- ing of tried-and-true, stop-motion techniques with the latest achievements in computer technology. One of the first and most difficult challenges they embraced was the creation of a process to provide greater subtlety and range of emotion to their characters' faces. In the field of industrial design, a new type of printer was gaining popularity for its ability to print an actual 3D object. The machine was used mostly for making prototypes, and was often referred to as a "rapid prototype machine. the face painting department is as big as it was on Coraline." On Coraline, the pioneering process of printing faces required three Objet 3D print- ers and nearly two tons of white acrylic resin. Each face was painstakingly hand painted by a printer material, a plastic polymer powder, allowed colors to be embedded deep into the layers of the faces, thus bringing subsur- face scattering to stop-motion animation. Still, these breakthroughs didn't guarantee success. The new printer powder wasn't stable The Norman character has the ability to display over 1.4 million unique expressions. team of artists, giving the young Coraline a total of 205,000 different facial expressions. As might be expected, most major stop motion-feature films since Coraline have adapted some variation of this technique. PARANORMAN With Laika's latest offering, ParaNorman, the rapid prototype team knew it could not rest on its laurels. In an effort to further their inven- tions, they looked to subsurface scattering, a rendering technique that simulates the way translucent objects absorb and reflect light. The challenge: How to give a printed, painted object translucent qualities? The solution: Put the painting process ahead of the printing. McLean's research led him to emerging " Brian McLean and Martin Meunier, already familiar with the technology, convinced Laika's CEO, Travis Knight, that this machine was the path forward, and through much trial and error, developed the animation techniques used to create Laika's first film, Coraline. "People tend to think that the addition of computers has simplified the process and taken away jobs from hands-on artists," explains McLean, supervisor of Laika's rapid prototype department. "Neither of those could be further from the truth. We have a department of 45 digital modelers and animators, and 52 Post • August 2012 systems for color 3D printing. Faces could be painted digitally, then sent to a color printer, or so was his theory. Early tests of color printing proved promising. Only after purchasing one of the expensive machines, did he discover that it could not reproduce accurate flesh tones. To solve this problem, McLean turned to his lead texture artist, Tory Bryant. Bryant's background as a practical painter had taught her that desired colors could be achieved through layering and cross-hatching of other colors, and through extensive trial and error, she was able to develop a means of "tricking" the new printers into delivering the colors she wanted. At the same time, the new enough to withstand the rigors of repeated animator handling. Providing strength without losing translucency became the new challenge. Eventually, the process of immersing each face in a bath of cyanoacrilite (a special super glue made by 3D Systems) was discovered. Of course, to meet the volume demand of ParaNorman's aggressive schedule, four color printers were required, each with its own set of technical peculiarities. In order to maintain qual- ity control and assure each character's faces had consistent color, the team assigned each charac- ter to a single printer and maintained rigid control over ambient temperature and humid- ity in the printing rooms. In the end, a record- breaking 31,000 faces were successfully printed and used for ParaNorman, and Norman alone, with his complex and subtle paint job, can dis- play over 1.4 million unique expressions. Through this technical exploration, Laika has engineered a system of puppet making that not only brings greater expression and warmth to its animated characters, but also opens up new possibilities for character design. "Some of the characters in ParaNorman are able to have thick silicone necks now, not your usual bobble-head designs" McLean points out. "That could never have happened before because the contrast between the translucent silicone and the opaque painted face just looked terrible. Now our faces hold up beauti- fully right next to the silicone."

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