Computer animated films have always been a bit of a mystery to me. I’m one of those people who watches a movie and loses myself in what’s going on. I don’t really ever think about the fact that there are cameras, lighting crews, technical design people, computers, and actors that all make up the movie. Logically, I know that they are really there and part of the entire process but I don’t think about it. Cartoons and computer animated films have always fascinated me for just this reason. I never had any idea what went into the making of cartoons or computer animated films. It was so interesting to learn all about the process when I visited the Roy E. Disney Animation Building and got a behind the scenes look at how Wreck-it Ralph was made.
How computer animated films are made
The people involved in the creation of an animated story design what’s called a story board. The story board is basically a drawing that shows the story sketched step by step. As the story line changes, scenes are added and deleted. During this process, animators think about who the character is and what it will look, sound and act like. There will be many different sketches of the character as the process unfolds. Once the basic story is sketched, the members discuss what the different characters need to look like. The characters’ appearance goes through a lot of changes during this part of the movie creation. I was really surprised at how many different versions of Ralph there were before the members decided on his final form.
Once the characters have their final forms, the animators go about bringing them to life and giving them a full range of movement. They figure out how their arms and legs will move, what their facial features will do as they speak and react to the story. This process is called rigging and is really much more complicated than I thought. After you understand what the character will look like as it moves and reacts to the story, the character must be animated and all of the movements put together into a smooth process. The animation is done on computers. Each body part can be moved in a different way and these movements together make the character walk, talk and interact. I got to play with the computers that the animators use to do this and it’s really much harder than you think it is.
Once the movement of the characters has been decided, the team needs to work on what the scenery looks like. Not only do they need to decide what the sky, trees, buildings, etc. are going to look like, they need to work on what that scenery is doing as the characters move through the story. Have you noticed that when you’re in a movie, you see the sky when the character looks up and if the character runs down the road, you see the scenery moving up and down with each stride? This means that the camera needs to become the character’s eyes to give you that feeling. This part of the story creation is called motion capture and is done using a special camera and computer set up. I got a chance to check this process out and even try it myself which was really interesting.
There are cameras stationed around the room to capture a 360 degree view and an area taped off in the center of the room. Using special equipment and software called Maya by AutoDesk, the cameras can track each movement of the equipment to give you the feel that you’re seeing the film through the characters’ eyes. If you point the equipment toward the sky, it seems as though the character is looking up. If you jiggle it up and down, it seems as though the character is moving up and down. This process gives the computer animated films a real live action feel to them when you’re watching them unlike old style cartoons.
Take a look at the video of me playing with the motion capture video equipment used to create computer animated films.
Wreck-it Ralph is available on March 5th on Blu-ray and DVD.
Disclosure: I received an all expense paid trip from Disney that allowed me to share this information with you.