Spinning a local toon

Out of the humble cube and sphere have risen many characters like Shrek and Scooby Doo. Now it’s time for some Arab cartoon characters to join the 3D league. Digital Studio reports.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  April 29, 2004

I|~|spin1.jpg|~|Team work: Aiham Ajib (centre) discusses the Disney project with his team.|~|Animators and graphic artists in Dubai are moving out of their dingy quarters into bigger premises. With more broadcasters investing in the production of local animation, there’s suddenly more work in the market, more appreciation for graphics and as a result, more money to be made. All of this has emerged out of the awareness that the young Arab populace needs local animation that can reflect their culture and which, they can identify with. No doubt, Dubai has taken a significant step forward here by creating powerful characters like Modhesh, but he is still a static figure. What the region needs are local figures that can walk, talk and emote and become as popular as the Disney characters. This is no remote dream. Already, Disney Channel is working closely with Dubai-based animation specialist Real Image Productions to create a series of episodes just for the Arab audience. The two-minute episodes, starring three Arab friends, will probably be the first most distinct attempt to venture into the region’s animation market, which still does not have a proper business model that can promise profitable returns. Still, Disney has dared to step into it albeit gradually. Real Image has been given complete freedom to create the characters and design the environment in a way that reflects the Middle Eastern community. All they have been given by the channel is a brief storyline for each episode. This again is a clear indication of the level of trust an international company is willing to place in local talent. What distinguishes this project from most others is that Real Image will have to create three unique Arab characters. They have to be unique in that wherever people see them, they must be able to identify them just as easily as they would do a Sinbad or Aladdin. ||**||II|~||~||~|This can only be possible “if they are designed in a credible manner and comes alive to the viewer,” says Aiham Ajib, creative director of Real Image. “Any person with an understanding of the software can probably animate a character but whether you can bring it to life is what is going to determine whether you are a good animator or a bad one.” One of the biggest issues that animators face here is lack of time, according to Ajib. The more time an animator is given to create something, the better the final result will be, he says. This becomes easier to understand when we see 3D artist Lloyd Almeida at work on one of the Disney characters. Almeida demonstrates the various expressions and the detail in each expression that he has given to each character. “This character emerges out of a single cube,” says Almeida, who works on Maya. “From there, we manipulate the image and keep on shaping it. It’s a bit like sculpting or modelling clay. The only difference is our characters have to be designed to emote like the actors in a movie. Even in terms of physique, you can’t just create bone. You have to go one step further and ensure that when the character moves, the rest of his body moves in-sync. The muscles must react to the bone movement.” As a result, it has taken the animator between a week and ten days to model each of these characters. It has also taken Real Image a total of 2000 hours to do the first two-minute episode. “This is the amount of time we have had to invest for the first episode because character modelling takes hours. The following episodes demand lesser time. This is also one of the biggest advantages of 3D, where you have to create the characters only once unlike cel animation, where you have to start from the white sheet each time,” says Almeida. ||**||III|~||~||~|Again, just like in a movie, stage direction, lighting and camera angles are of prime concern when the storyboard is being drawn. At this stage, the art director works out the camera angles for each scene, whether it must pan right or left, what amount of lighting is required and so on. “The animator is like a director, he has to know his angles, how to move his cameras, and also how to operate his lights,” says Ajib. Maya has different lighting options so that the artist can light up a room to indicate day light or put a character in the spotlight. “This kind attention to detail is crucial. For instance, when a car is moving down the road in a cartoon, you must also ensure that the wheels are turning,” explains Almeida. Once all these little details are taken care of, the artist leaves the whole work for rendering so that the wireframe is transferred into a video sequence. The video sequence is then edited. While there are several solutions available for animation, Real Image, like most other animators in the region, uses Maya. “It’s always important to use something that you are comfortable with so as to maximise your potential and the software’s potential as well,” explains Almeida. Maya is especially well known for its character modelling feature [see next page for a brief tutorial on how to model a basic character]. Disney is only one of the many projects that Real Image is handling now. Like many other animation specialists in the region, more clients have been approaching them to create animations. Even the Dubai government has been doing more local animations for different programmes like the Dubai Summer Surprises. With such initiatives from both the public and private sector, perhaps the region will have more local animation. More importantly, with more investment being poured into it, we will have animation that can meet international standards. ||**||

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