Look Behind the Scenes at Disney's Planes – The Computer Animation Department

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Recently I had a chance to visit, once again, the animators at Disney Animation Studios. This time I was given the opportunity to find out in a bit more detail about the process that goes into the art process. I knew that in today’s advanced world of animation that they did not draw pictures on paper and shoot them with a camera, but I did not realize how close computer animated art is to that original process.

After the storyboard process is over and the work is ready for actual animation, the project goes to a team of artists like Ethan Hurd, the Assistant Animation Director for the new movie Planes. There he takes the wireframe of the character and uses Maya 3D Animation software to manipulate the character around the screen. By this point the wireframe has already been covered with the “skin” of the character. In a movie such as Planes, the characters are technically inanimate objects, so to keep this feeling – only the eyes, mouths and wheels are permitted unnatural movement.

The animation department now takes these characters and moves them into the places in scenes, puts the mouths into their shapes, and tunes the eyes and other pieces into the correct still image. Then they basically paste that image into the timeline. The computer then connects the stills in the timeline to make fluid animation. Nothing has to be re-created and images can be copied and edited to make multiple shots. Hurd remarked that it is a lot like playing with toys in the computer. I did get a chance to work with the system and I must admit that it was very fun to tinker with.

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GeekDad Tony at the terminal, while Ethan Hurd cracks jokes

This part of the process is far from the final cut, but once this stage is done the producer and director has a working copy of an animated movie with sound to work with. This version then goes to the next several layers of finalization, including: lighting, shadow effects, texturing and proofing.

Come back next week when I will take a step back from this phase, and I will share the process of creating the storyboards for the movie Planes!

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