Computer Animation Course Puts Design in Motion

July 19, 2012

Blending technology and creativity, University of Virginia students in a summer computer animation course created virtual oceans – complete with waves, bubbles, reflections in the water, and even a boat that moves through the waves with a trailing wake.

It was all part of a hands-on lesson in fluid dynamics effects in School of Architecture professor Earl Mark's "Computer Animation: Design in Motion" course, during which students from a variety of disciplines explored 3-D modeling and movie-making.

Mark, who offers the course in the summer session and the fall semester, uses Maya, software employed by professionals in computer animation and movie production. Students apply the newly acquired technical skills in exercises devoted to geometrical modeling, the study of a process, the passage of time, an exploration of light, and a final project — a one- to five-minute movie based primarily on a visual narrative.

That's the hard part, Mark said. "Lots of students start with wonderful premises, but taking it into a story that comes to an interesting moment of climax, that arrives at an ending that's fitting, maybe slightly surprising, that pulls it together – that's more difficult. That's where I think the real creative struggle is."

Growing up in Atlanta, rising second-year engineering student Anna Greene often drove past the building where shows for the Cartoon Network were produced. She said she's always dreamed of doing computer animation.

She based her final project on a short story she wrote in high school about a girl who goes to an amusement park. She incorporated exaggerated point-of-view angles to show the girl's fear and dream sequences to reflect the resolution of her trepidation about riding a roller coaster.

Greene said translating the written story to a visual medium was a challenge. "There were so many things that were hard to transfer from writing – like style and point of view – but I ended up loving the way it turned out," she said.

Greene said she already sees ways to apply what she has learned to her computer science classes, or to creating animations of various materials as they expand, stretch or fracture in her materials science classes.

Most students tend to choose character animation, but others have explored more abstract applications. Students studying digital music tend to be as "oriented to the audio as they are to the visual and so a number of those projects are more experimental and visually abstract," Mark said. "There is still in every case a sense of story. Very simply, a beginning, a middle and an end."

This fall, students in the animation class will be able to incorporate motion-capture technology that uses a body suit with reflective markers to record real-time human movement, technology acquired in collaboration with the Robertson Media Center. "That will certainly change the possibilities for expressiveness and more completely studying movement," Mark said.

Mark emphasizes the creative possibilities of the software and of movie-making as a visual means of communication. Short reading assignments in animation, movie-making, philosophy, theories of perception coupled with screenings, and asking students to critique both their work and feature and independent films are all part of the course. They bring greater awareness to technique and ways of thinking about the media, he said. "It's about creating their own visual sensibilities."

"It's not typical that you have one individual do both production and editing of movies at the same time. Especially in larger feature films, those are somewhat separate roles," he said. "It demands a kind of self-critical stance on your own work, an ability to evaluate the capacity of your own work to communicate with others."

It's also about a mastery of craftsmanship. Students go deeply into some aspects of technology and in some exercises, where specific tools aren't available, they write short algebraic expressions and scripts to facilitate animation sequences. "It's like a painter knowing their palette."
The students share their work all along the way to gauge audience reaction. "When you are showing your own movies to a group of other students, you can sense a different set of tensions within the film or within the animation than if you are looking at it on your own," Mark said. "And you feel it in how other people are breathing and whether they are riveted or whether they are looking away. And then you sense it in their comments and in their reactions.

"It gives them a sense of how well their work communicates. The students get a lot from each other."

Students typically do their own individual projects, an approach that Mark learned from his own experience with learning documentary filmmaking and animation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. They are responsible for all aspects of production, including the visual images, music, sound effects and any narration. While some use sound and music from library sources, others have recorded and created their own sound tracks.

Former architecture student Tim Ouyang, now the lead singer and founding member of a successfully touring soul, pop rock and gospel band, Tim Be Told, created all the voices, sound effects, the instrumentation and vocals for his project.

"It's interesting to get someone to push their own limits and to be fully able to express themselves through every phase of the movie project," Mark said. "They are being challenged at a very high level and a lot of them do really well with it." Some students, such as Ouyang, explore interests in creative fields outside the boundaries of their original disciplines.

Mark said that computer animation applies to almost all areas of study. Architecture students may use it to simulate conditions of architectural space; biomedical engineering students could simulate skeleton or musculature to study body movement and function; drama and theater students might employ it to study lighting; and students in kinesiology might use it to analyze how people move. "Almost any discipline today is increasingly focused on visualizing their field," he said. "Learning these tools can give a way of reasoning in different fields where motion picture visualization has become a prime means of conveying ideas and analysis."

Catherine Medvigy, a recent graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences and a student of Japanese and studio art, developed a visual story based upon a master teacher and an incorrigible student.

Rising third-year urban and environmental planning student Clarke Templeton said he can already envision "how my future designs transform throughout the day with changing light and flows of people, which allows the designs to be understood on another level."

He said he "also sees how learning these tools can give us an advantage in the job market."

– by Jane Ford