Toys of the Trade

Part Four of "Bits and Bytes and Flickering Lights" by Brian Dennis.

Piece O' Cake

So you wanna make the next Toy Story. In the comfort of your own home. You use a computer every day at work. You've got one in your house. You know someone who has Adobe Premier and will let you copy it. Now all you need to do is find some animation software and actually write down that germ of a script that's been kicking around in your head.

Piece O' cake, right?


The Box

First of all you're going to need a pretty tricked out box to do any kind of serious video editing or animation. Digital Movie News, a nice howto site on making digital movies, recommends a PowerMacintosh 5400 with 40 megabytes of RAM. That's the 8 you get with the machine plus 32 more you buy. There's a few other pieces of hardware including a MIDI keyboard, a microphone, Avid hardware and software for video capture and output. Unfortunately, since Apple only sells the 5400 to K-12 institutions, you'll have to bump up a notch. In all actuality, you'll probably need to add a bit of hard disk and memory if you want to do any kinds of effects and want to make more than a 30 second movie. After cruising the Web  for a bit, I came up with a nice round figure just to get in the door.

$10,000 and I'm being generous. Think of it this way, it's twice the cost of a good used car with half the utility.

The Bits

And of course like any good used car, there's always a little bit of fixing up needed. In our case, you need to have some serious software to get anything useful done. Unlike other arenas there doesn't seem to be much of a shareware/freeware mentality in the video editing/desktop animation realm. Thus you're going to have to go to the big boys to get your tools.

Adobe is one of the leaders in this area, with its Premiere product. This is clearly the market leader although Videoshop seems to be a viable alternative. Under Windows you can also choose Video Action Pro or Media Studio. The cheapest of these packages starts at $400 and Premiere runs for $800.

Unless you plan on making silent features, you'll also need some sound editing equipment. Some good packages include:  Macromedia's Dec kII, Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge, and Digidesign's Sound Designer II. Once again though, prices start at roughly $400.

For those of you into animation, Specular's Infini-D kicks in at $900. Fractal Design's Ray Dream Studio. Other offerings from Lightscape and Softimage start out at $2000 and rapidly escalate.

There's also all sorts of other goodies that getcha later on in the process. For example, a typical movie has a 10 to 1 shooting ratio. That means you shoot 10 times as much film as you use in the final cut. You have to manage all that extra footage somehow, e.g. logging, where it's stored, when it was shot, compression, etc. Even ignoring the hardware you'll probably have to kick in another $2000 or so if you're serious.

All told I think a solid $4000 on software can get you going.

The Gear

Don't forget you actually have to get the images into the computer. You can either use a traditional camcorder and digitize from VHS, or go direct to digital. Both Sony and Panasonic have digital cameras. The first is $4000 the second $3200. Meanwhile, consumer grade camcorders go for about $500 and you can buy a VCR at Wal-Mart on the cheap. You'll also need a cheap supply of tapes for your ever expanding library of footage. Quality sound equipment will come in handy if you either get sound on the set or overlay a dub later on.

Whew. Now you're ready to start making movies. You're getting in the neighborhood of $15,000 and you haven't shot a frame of footage. That's okay though, you're going to make it all back on residuals.

The Talent

But wait, there's one other major thing that needs to be filled in: Actors. Actors are either notoriously expensive (c.f. Schwarzenegger, Arnold), petulant (c.f. your mother) or both. And while there have been advancements in Artificial Intelligence recently, computer technology isn't quite up to Sandra Bullock level much less Meryl Streep.

So you opt to go virtual and make an animation. Now it's just you and the computer. The folks at Pixar have a short outline of how they put animation together that might help you, but I'll summarize it here:

  1. Storyboard: draw lots of pictures of what you want to animate
  2. Model: get the computer to have some model of the shapes you want animate
  3. Animate: instruct the computer on the motion you want your objects to take
  4. Shade: put some surface colors on the objects
  5. Light: light the scenes to add mood and emotion
  6. Render: actually generate the final frames and emit to an output source such as film or CD-ROM

Note that all of these tasks are extremely labor intensive not to mention talent intensive. In steps 1 through 5, you do the work, not the computer. The computer really only takes the grungework out of the last step, allowing you to emulate a cheap Asian animation factory. Meanwhile you have to do the rest. If at any step you don't have a certain set of skills, you'll probably be disappointed. To get an idea of the limits of what's possible, you might want to take a look at what fairly motivated teams of UC Berkeley freshmen and sophomores were able to achieve in 15 weeks with the help of an energetic instructor.

The Truth

An individual amateur can't really make even a decent animation and put food on the table at the same time. While it is true that computer technology has reduced the barrier to entry to making films it's still at a level where independent artists are close to the starving level. This is nothing new for artists in more traditional areas like painting or sculpture, but it's a bop in the nose for the rampant futurists out there. For them technology always makes work easier, faster, maybe even nonexistent. In this case though, you can't replace talent with bits.