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Tech Tips for Practicing Laserists

Animator Blends Old And New
Interview with Carl Graves of Laser Force
By David Lytle

“Smooth as butter” is how Laser Force President Chris Stuart describes the work of his animation director, Carl Graves. The company entered the ILDA Awards competition for the first time this year and took a total of six awards in four categories, including ISP Cel Animation and both the ISP and non-ISP Graphic Module categories.

The company’s pieces incorporate traditional hand-drawn frames, plus computer-generated animations, plus a third style that blends together the best of both worlds. This fall, Laser Force will begin releasing a series of compact discs chock-full of their trademark animations. The discs will also include “Module Makers” designed to help laserists easily generate customized animations from the stock frames. Laser Force plans to release one new themed disc each quarter, with the first disc focusing on fire effects. The Laserist recently talked to Graves about his special style of animation. To see examples of the animation and learn more about the Module Makers CD series, visit the company’s Web site at:

Laserist: Tell me about what you call “computer-enhanced animation.” How is that different from the way animators usually work?
Graves: Traditionally, laser animation has been very heavy on the digitizing side. Take the example of 24 frames for one second of film or laser output. In the past, I would draw those 24 frames by hand, then hand them over to a digitizer and then possibly someone else to colorize those frames. With the approach I have now, I may only need to animate 6 of those 24 drawings, and maybe only digitize one or two of those drawings and then let the computer do the math between the motions.

Laserist: How is that different than just giving the computer a start position and an end position and then letting the computer do the in-between animation frames?
Graves: Animation requires a lot of fine touches to be appealing. If I give the computer a start point and an end point it will give me a flat move from A to B. But I may change an eyebrow or move a lip or bend a finger to give the animation that extra bit of realism, that extra bit of action and ultimately appeal. You cannot get that with straight computer animation. With computer-enhanced animation, you create key frames and digitize those keys and then let the computer blend those two key frames for you.

Laserist: I’ve seen your work and it seems amazing that you can get such fluid, lifelike motion by only drawing a handful of key frames. How is that possible?
Graves: It’s all in the pre-production. As any animator does, you examine the movement from A to B, every part, every detail—you figure the motion, the path, the flow and pretty much calculate it. But instead of drawing every frame of it you can create the same kind of appeal and flow within a computer enhanced model.

Laserist: How much time does this save?
Graves: You save a considerable amount in the digitizing and colorizing end. If you can imagine 24 frames dwindled down to maybe 2, that is a great cut and you might be able to eliminate colorizing all those frames as well. But, because it is so reliant on pre-production, it doesn’t necessarily save a lot on the animator’s time. You are still plotting, still drawing and you will do reference keys and rough drawings.

Laserist: What about the tools you use? I understand you mix and match between hand-drawn animation, computer enhanced animation, and full-on digital animation all within the same show.
Graves: It is a balance between all the tools. If I am doing something that is very cartoony—something that is slapstick—I might want to go for more of a traditional look and not even use computer enhanced animation because I can’t capture the exaggerated look I want. Exaggerated motion doesn’t necessarily need to be as smooth as butter, so you use a more traditional style of art work. If you want mathematically correct perspective images you will go with a platform like 3D Studio Max (a conventional computer graphics animation program). If you want to kind of juggle in between, I think that type of animation is perfect for computer enhanced animation. It is just a matter of applying the right tool for the right job.

Laserist: I understand that some of these modules incorporate several styles.
Graves: Yes, it depends on the project. Various scenes might require one tool versus another. You may do 80% of your show with traditional hand-drawn animation, 15% with computer-enhanced animation and maybe 5% with LCMax [a Pangolin plug-in that renders 3D Studio Max output in laser light].

Laserist: I understand Laser Force is working on a series of animations and graphics that will be available for sale. Tellus about the additional tools these CDs will include to help people expand on the images.
Graves: Well, let’s say you are looking at a new or intermediate Pangolin user who generally will purchase graphics from another company and probably never use a lot of the tools that could possibly save them time or money. What I hope to do with Module Maker is not only offer great frames, but also include tips for Pangolin Showtime effects along with tutorials that help you get better use out of the equipment you have. It’s a whole suite of show-building materials that helps minimize production time.

Laserist: Can you give me a couple of examples of the effects in Showtime they might use?
Graves:For example, let’s say you want to create a star field moving through space. That is a very difficult thing to do by hand. You could do it on the computer and make that happen, but you might want some variations. You might want to go into a warp or you might want to pull out of a warp or slow it down or even change angles. Showtime effects can help do that without creating separate animations. You can change perspective, change scale, change position and add certain accelerations and decelerations within Showtime to achieve a different look. And most of these things we will show you how to do on the disk

Laserist: You aren’t afraid of giving away trade secrets, are you?
Graves: This is a service. It is something that we wish to share because of our passion for it, for the quality level that we wish to achieve. And it keeps us doing something we love and we have fun doing it, so I don’t think we are giving away too many trade secrets. Besides, when you boil it all down, it’s creativity and imagination that are most important.

Laserist: Let’s wind up here on the big picture. A lot of people look at lasers and they see them as a poor stepchild to traditional cel animation found in film and video. Critics don’t see laser displays on par with other forms of animation. How do you feel about that?
Graves: When I first started in the industry, I did share that opinion. I started in the traditional fields of animation, so doing lasers was really kind of an awkward thing. But the more I learned and the more I saw, I began to realize how it [laser display] really does the same things as traditional animation. You are not going to get the mega budgets for it, but you still get a lot of the same audience appeal. You can reach out and touch people in a variety of venues with lasers. It is more of a—I don’t know what the word is I am looking for— it’s a unique connection with the audience. I don’t think it pales in any way to other forms of animation. You are still communicating and you are still entertaining.