Saturday, November 29, 2008

Determining What Constitutes Good Flash Animation

Flash animation is often criticized for being cheap and limited. And, indeed, it often is. Ever since Mucha Lucha came on, more and more Flash shows have made their way onto the air. Why? Because Flash is much cheaper and easier than the traditional pen-and-paper method; you draw directly into the program, move stuff around using automatic tweens, and voila!

Unfortunately, most Flash animations take advantage of this for the sake of time and money and at the expense of quality. The truth is, you can animate pretty much anything in Flash (anything 2D, anyway). For example, take a look at this Cocoa Puffs commercial:



Just by watching this commercial, I had no idea it was animated in Flash. It wasn't until reading about it at Cold Hard Flash that I found out how the commercial was truly made. Why? Because the cartoon doesn't use any automatic tweening... or if it does, it does so very surreptitiously. More television Flash cartoons should be animated like this: frame-by-frame. It's still way cheaper than traditional cell animation, and it's pretty much indistinguishable. Instead, television studios usually just take the easy route and automatically tween practically everything along a 2D plane, and when something has to move along a 3D plane, they make the movement as quick and jerky as possible:



Mikey, supposedly animated in the "American" style, is super-duper 2D, and his motion primarily involves sliding his limbs around using automatic tweening. The Japanese characters, supposedly animated in the style of "Japanese animes", are animated frame-by-frame. However, their motion is pretty minimal and, when they do move, it's obvious that the animators don't care about going off-model. In fact, there doesn't even seem to be a standard model that the animators stick to. Yes, anime generally has a lower frame rate, but more detail and care is generally put into every frame. The animators of Kappa Mikey try to emulate anime style and fail miserably.

Here's an example from the first episode of the anime Death Note. Yes, yes, the English voice acting is awful and it ruins the whole show and all that. Just focus on the imagery.



There are several points during this clip in which there is little to no motion at all. However, it still looks good because each still frame has a lot of detail. Every shot is well-composed and dynamic, even if it's barely moving. Camera movement also helps add a sense of motion to an otherwise static picture. Sure, Death Note certainly had a higher budget than Kappa Mikey does, but the point is that even when Death Note used limited animation, it was still done with a sense of art and purpose.

And you know what? That Death Note clip could have hypothetically been animated in Flash (minus the 3D flythroughs; you'd need a separate 3D program for that). Heck, not just Death Note or another show which uses limited animation, but any cell-style 2D cartoon could hypothetically be made with Flash. Sadly, the fact that Flash makes things easier tends to make animators lazier. They resort to using practically nothing but 2D tweens instead of using them to supplement frame-by-frame animation. Frame-by-frame animation in Flash cartoons also tends to look like it was done by people who don't know how to keep the proportions the same between keyframes. This is probably because animators who learned Flash in animation classes and whatnot only learned how to use Flash's functionality, not basic-intermediate drawing and animation principles.

Now, do I think that a show that mostly uses tweening is always bad? Certainly not, as long as the tweening looks natural. Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law wasn't exactly perfect at making tweened animation look natural, but they often did a pretty good job within their limits (only two months to animate a single episode):



I think that clip looks pretty good. In fact, I'd say that, since Harvey Birdman had a very limited budget, its animation quality benefited greatly by moving to Flash. (Actually, in the first one and a half seasons, before it used Flash, Harvey Birdman looked a lot more like a classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon, partially due to the fact that the animation was so limited).

So, yeah... I think that Harvey Birdman's Flash animation works for it. It's practical and, while not entirely natural, it still works pretty well. In Kappa Mikey, the clumsy animation distracts me from the story and the jokes (which, in Kappa Mikey's case, is probably a good thing).

But what about Internet cartoons? Surely a single person can't be expected to constantly churn out television-quality animation? Yes, for Internet animation, I can understand lowering one's standards. Animation considered great for a Saturday morning cartoon could seem cheap and bland if used in a theatrical cartoon, and in the same way, animation considered bland for a television cartoon could be considered great for an Internet short animated by one person. For example, Fallen Angel currently dominates Newgrounds because of its fantastic animation (it must; the story has no originality so far and the acting is atrocious). But if it were shown on television, the animation would be considered sub-par.

But wait! Less cinematic Flashes would still seem to fit in pretty well on television, as is evidenced by the fact that the Nicktoons Network shows so many in their film festivals. For example, TANKMEN is primarily motion tweened with a bit of FBF animation, but since it's so simplistic, the tweening works rather well. It doesn't aspire to be very dynamic, and thus the simplicity doesn't hurt it. I don't think I ever found the jokes to be that funny, but apparently a lot of people do...

In truth, I like the visuals of TANKMEN more than those of Fallen Angel. Fallen Angel's animation aims for a lot of detail and cinematic quality. But because it does such, a lot of flaws stand out at me and distract me from what's supposed to be an engaging story. I know that's not how most people feel about it; they just admire it for what it does accomplish. I suppose that's part of my "condition".

Anyway, as for Enthalpy, I'm trying to make it look as natural as I can within reason. Yes, it uses a lot of tweens, but I'm hoping they don't look awkward like they do in Kappa Mikey. It also uses a whole lot of frame-by-frame animation, and that takes a very long time. If I had a team of talented animators working for me, of course I'd prefer to have it done mostly or entirely frame-by-frame. As it stands, however, I have to use a lot of tweens if I want to finish more than one episode every couple of years. I'm hoping that the still visuals are engaging enough that the limited animation isn't distracting, and that the tweens move in ways that you'd expect them to actually move.

If I didn't care how long it took me to finish a cartoon, and I wanted to spend upwards of a year on a five-minute short, I truly feel that I could make cartoons as lavish as those of Adam Phillips (see Waterlollies, for example)... however, whereas Phillips likes to animate on threes and fours and add as much shading and detail as possible into every keyframe, I'd go for the route of making the animation look smoother before adding porkloads of shading levels. Personally, I'd prefer to have two layers of shadow animated on twos than four layers of shadow animated on fours.

Before concluding this blog entry, I'd like to muse about Superjail for a moment. Superjail is animated entirely in Flash, and it's animated almost entirely frame-by-frame, which is practically unheard of in Flash television shows (especially for Adult Swim, which has a notoriously meager budget). However, despite the smoothness, the show's visual style has a lot of not-caring-about-staying-on-model. Characters' proportions often change as soon as they turn around, and the drawings themselves aren't exactly technically marvelous. I can't really decide whether I consider the animation "good" or not by a television standard.



The visual style is engaging to watch, and it'd certainly be considered great animation if it were an Internet Flash animation, so I suppose I like it... still, in stuff I make, I'd prefer to stay on-model and have fewer drawings that each look good than to have a lot of sloppy drawings. Superjail's drawings are indeed rather detailed, but they're still sloppy.

ADDENDUM: Another thing to take into account is that certain styles of animation work for different styles of cartoons. For example, while the animation in the Cocoa Puffs commercial is great compared to the majority of Flash cartoons, it would be incredibly out of place if used in Death Note. Death Note has great drawings (for the most part), but its visual style would be very out of place in Harvey Birdman. Motion tweens work well for Harvey Birdman partially due to the simplicity of the characters. I wouldn't say that the motion tweening always looks terrible in Kappa Mikey; what's annoying is that Mikey moves smoothly along a 2D axis and "pops" into the next position whenever he should be rotating in 3D.

1 Comments:

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