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Thursday, May 31, 2007
Rob O’Neill: Animation and Anatomy

“dataProjections 003”
3D shape data collected from a Gorilla skull, visualized by Rob O’Neill to illustrate the gesture of the scientist.

Rob O’Neill, researcher/professor of animation at Pratt Institute and former character technical director at DreamWorks where he worked on Shrek 2 and Madagascar, leads a discussion next week at the Y on the State of the Art of Animation. The following is a guest post written by him for the 92Y Blog.

Something that I likely won’t get time to cover in Tuesday’s presentation is how modern animation techniques are being used outside of the traditional (filmmaking) means. One way is in the biological sciences. Animation techniques have been used in the past as a means of visualizing phenomenon over time. That continues and is constantly developing but these days researchers are also making use of access to animation systems as an apparatus for analysis. Two examples come to mind. The first is that of Stephan Gatesy of Brown University and the “Scientific Rotoscoping” technique. Rotoscoping is an animation technique in which the motion of the animated character is created by the tracing of live-action reference footage. This is a common technique in both traditional 2D animation and modern digital 2D/3D animation. Walt Disney even used rotoscoping on such classic films as Snow White (1937), for which he filmed an actress acting out the role and then provided the film to his animators as a 2D baseline of realistic motion from which they could begin work.

The motion derived from this method has a very realistic and controlled look when compared with that done without this frame-by-frame reference. Gatesy and his team are creating accurate 3D animations of the locomotion of animals (often birds) by filming them on treadmills and wind-tunnels with an X-ray camera. These X-ray movies are then imported into 3D animation programs in which hierarchical models of the bones, which have been meticulously sculpted (or scanned), are match-moved on a frame-by-frame basis to re-create the motions and thus create accurate animated 3D models of the motion. Scientists are now using what Disney and many others have relied on for years to recreate and study motion. 

While scientific rotoscoping takes a cue from animation techniques, a collaborative project between paleontologists at the American Museum of Natural History and computer scientists at the University of California at Davis takes its lead from classic computer graphics techniques, in particular morphing. Morphing is the transformation of one shape into another. The work being carried out, labeled “Evolutionary Morphing,” is actually the interpolation of shape transitions between extinct and living primate species in an attempt to mathematically fill in the gaps in the fossil record. With the advent of 3D laser-scanning technologies, the ability to capture, at high resolution, the shape and detail of anatomical specimens is changing the way in which data are collected and analyzed. Databases of specimens can be stored and compared using methods that rely not on the resolution of the scan but on the shape of the specimen. The power and, I would say, artistry, of this technique allow researchers to investigate the hypothetical shapes (and thus hypothetical species) interpolated in between them.

More examples of such work and how scientists informed the work of animators in the past and present is discussed in my article, “Emerging Congruence between Animation and Anatomy” in the April 2007 issue of “Leonardo" (Volume 40:2).

[Animation: State of the Art with Rob O’Neill: 6/5/07]

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