Today's computer-driven animated films and visual effects are amazing to behold yet incredibly time consuming to produce. Animators spend countless hours hunched over computer screens, arduously using graph editors, spreadsheets and control points, making the ultra-fine adjustments necessary to achieve the realistic movements and emotions portrayed by digital, animated characters. The process is extremely time consuming and laborious, but the payoff is tremendous when the acting enabled through the animator's hard work generates box office success.
Due to the work involved, animated films usually take one or two years to be produced. The process can be mentally draining for the animators. Since they are very passionate about their craft they are willing to sacrifice their time to bring characters to life. Yet the adage "work smarter, not harder" stills applies, and animators must be conscious of their time – an error in production can be very costly. Living up to the philosophy of working smarter, the ETH Zurich's Institute of Visual Computing has developed an ingenious solution that could help minimize an animator's workload with a 3D printed tool that is not only efficient but fun to use.
Since computer-generated characters are essentially digital puppets, why not use a 3D-printed puppet-like control device to create the virtual character's movements? This is exactly what has been done by Professor Olga Sorkine-Hornung and her team. They have invented a control device consisting of a 3D printed armature that mimics the size and form of the digital character on screen. Known as an "input puppet," the device consists of modular parts that can be rearranged to match a digital character's proportions. Each 3D printed module contains circuitry that controls the corresponding digital body part of the animated character. Turn the head of the armature, and the head of the character turns on screen. Move an arm and the digital character's arm moves in the same direction.
The input puppet's main benefit is "what you is see is what you get." In lieu of using abstract spreadsheets, digital controllers and input graphs, animators can focus entirely on the acting process and less on the computer interface. Not only would there be positive health benefits (say goodbye to hours spent hunched over the screen), the input puppet would allow animators to act improvisationally and explore a wider ranges of character movements in a shorter amount of time. The device would allow characters to be quickly placed into positions and enable the creation of simple movements for quick animations. Granted, this 3D printed control device has its limits – finer emotional nuances would still have to be created using keyframes within an animation software package.
Imagine the benefit this would have for small companies with a need for CG animation but lacking the time and budget to bring digital characters to life. This could make animation more accessible to anyone who needs to tell a story in order to market a product or idea. The Sorkine-Hornung team's input puppet is another wonderful example of the relationship between computer generated animation and 3D printing.