GV – March 1998

Animation for Presentations and the Web
By Sheldon Liebman

The market for animation is growing. Five or ten years ago, animation software was very expensive to purchase, was extremely difficult to learn and use, required heavy duty computing power and was amazingly slow. As a result, many people stayed away from it. Those people that did take the plunge were also looking at a significant investment in video-compatible hardware so the results could be recorded onto videotape or film.

Today, the situation is very different. In many cases, software products are available for under $5000 and even under $1000. Advances in usability and third party content have made it easier to get started with a lot of the packages. Computers that can handle animation can be purchased for under $2000 in many cases. And the speed of rendering 2D and 3D images has improved to the point that instead of leaving for the day while a project renders, you may not even have time to get a cup of coffee.

Adding equipment to make your system "broadcast quality" is still significant, but even those prices have come down a lot. However, most people don’t care about that part anymore because they aren’t creating animation for television. Instead, short animations are being done for presentations and web sites.

Smaller is Better
When animation is created for television, it must be rendered at a relatively high resolution, Usually, this is at least 640x480 and often is higher. For truly smooth playback, many companies render 60 frames for every second of animation, further increasing the time it takes to produce a sequence. If your target isn’t video, these numbers don’t matter. Instead, the goal is often to add little snippets of animation that will increase the impact of presentations and web sites. The resolution may be as low as 32x32 pixels for a spinning logo and there may be only 10 frames to an animation. Not only does this increase the speed at which a sequence can be created, it also speeds up the download time for content that is destined for the Internet.

For presentations, animation can be rendered to .AVI, QuickTime and other formats that can easily be viewed on a computer screen with full speed and size control. In a PowerPoint presentation, for example, an embedded video clip can be played, stopped and/or repositioned at any time. Sound can be embedded in a clip or can be specified separately.

Animation can be created in 2D, 3D or as a series of still images linked together. Special effects and transitions can also be used relatively easily, depending on the software chosen. With the right tools, virtually everything available today to a Hollywood producer can be recreated on a smaller scale for use in other forms of presentation.

Small Animations, Big Choices
There are a lot of companies that offer products that can be used for low-resolution animation. This includes high end products from companies like Alias/Wavefront, Discreet Logic and Softimage, which are usually run on SGI workstations. Every one of these high end products can also be set up to operate at low resolution. Alias/Wavefront, for example, says that many of their customers also create low-resolution animation. If you’ve already spent the money for the system and the resources are available, it certainly makes sense to use what you already have.

Most of us, though, would not purchase a package running on an SGI if our primary target isn’t broadcast video or film. Lower end product that run on PCs and Macs are probably more appropriate. It isn’t possible for us to cover all the companies and all the products that exist, but we’ll talk about a representative sample here to give you an idea of what’s available.

At the high end of the price range are two products that are used very heavily in the broadcast world but may be affordable enough to use for other purposes. On the Macintosh side, you can look at the ElectricImage Broadcast Animation System, priced at $2995 without a 3D modeler. The lack of a built-in modeling program has always been a strike against Electric Image, but they have worked very hard to create translators that accept models built in or for other systems. Today, the system accepts over 30 different formats, including obsolete formats like "Movie.BYU" and "Cubicomp."

If that isn’t enough, the company is finally developing a modeler for the system. If purchased separately, it will be priced at $995. For current users of ElectricImage Broadcast, an upgrade to include the modeler is priced at under $300. The actual release date for the modeler is not available, but the company is working hard to complete it as quickly as possible.

On the PC side, the high end is very well represented by 3D Studio Max R2 from Kinetix, a division of Autodesk. When the original 3D Studio was released, it quickly became the top selling program for PC-based 3D animation. Max R2, which runs under Windows NT, is priced at $3995 and features support from a very large number of third party companies.

Even though the price is high compared to some of the other choices we’ll cover here, Kinetix claims that many people purchase this product to take advantage of the third party support. This support includes pre-created models, plug-ins for special effects and a variety of training programs. It also includes a lot of trained animators, which can help a company get up to speed quickly rather than trying to learn the software from scratch.

If the price of these two products is too high, there are a lot of other choices that have a lower price tag. In many cases, these are less capable versions of high end products. In others, they are full-blown products that are aimed at a wider audience.

Avid Elastic Reality
Elastic Reality is a powerful special effects system that combines the advanced warping and morphing technology with sophisticated 2D animation, color correction, matte generation and compositing tools. It is currently available in Mac, PC and SGI versions with support for over 25 different file formats. Because it’s from Avid, Elastic Reality also integrates well with the company’s Media Xpress and Media Composer systems.

CrystalGraphics Crystal 3D IMPACT! Pro
CrystalGraphics is the developer of TOPAS, which was originally marketed by AT&T and was a direct competitor to the original 3D Studio product. Over the past few years, CrystalGraphics has changed its focus to concentrate on lower-cost products. With a list price of $149, they don’t come much lower-cost than this. Crystal 3D IMPACT! Pro was released last December and is directly targeted at Web animators. Its biggest strength is its visual wizards, which walk users through the five basic steps of 3D title animation – lighting, text entry, beveling, material properties and motion control.

Linker Systems Animation Stand – Multimedia Edition
With a list price of $495, the Multimedia Edition of Animation Stand offers every feature that’s available from the full blown version except one – animations must be created at a resolution of 512x384 or less. For over ten years, Linker Systems has been selling the Animation Stand to animation houses around the world. It was the first 2D animation product available for all three major platforms – Mac, PC and SGI. Although the Multimedia Edition is only available on Mac and PC, that doesn’t pose a problem for most people. Currently, the system does not support animated .GIF files, but Linker Systems is in the process of licensing that format.

Newtek Inspire 3D
Newtek has a habit of lowering the cost of entry for the product categories it goes after. When they first introduced the Video Toaster, people didn’t think it was possible to do everything they said it would for the price they were charging. Their Lightwave 3D product, currently priced at $1995, is regularly used on television shows like "Babylon 5" and in feature films like "Men in Black."

Even though Lightwave 3D is already priced pretty aggressively, this month the company is introducing a lower-cost version of the product that supports most of the Lightwave features. Inspire 3D is limited on the video side to 640x480 resolution, although it supports up to 8K x 8K rendering of still images. Also missing are features like field rendering, which isn’t necessary when animation is being created for a non-interlaced environment. Anything created in Inspire 3D can be imported into Lightwave 3D, but you can’t go the other way. Newtek plans to sell this product directly over the Internet and through major retail chains like CompUSA and Computer City.

Strata MediaPaint, StudioPro and Vision3d
Although Strata products generally run in the Mac environment, the company is making more effort to offer Windows NT versions as well. The three products listed here are all available today for Mac. MediaPaint and StudioPro are being ported to Windows NT. StudioPro is Strata’s highest end 3D product, with features like deformation and inverse kinematics. Vision3d, priced under $300, doesn’t have all the high-end features but supports formats like QuickTime VR to create virtual worlds that can be viewed on the web. MediaPaint is a special effects program that allows you to paint on top of QuickTime movies with effects like fire and lightning. At NAB, the company will be demonstrating version 2.0 with support for animated GIFs.

But Wait, There’s More
The products listed above are just a few examples of what’s out there for high capability, low-cost animation for Presentations and the Web. If you don’t want to look any further, you can choose any of these products and have the tools you need to make animation. If you do look further, you might start by checking out stores like CompUSA and Computer City. Newtek isn’t the only company using this channel, they’re just one of the newest.

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