Being an animator is painstaking work. Even the most advanced animation software, which uses all sorts of tricks to streamline the process, still requires a lot of drawing. After all, you're illustrating 24 frames a second.
A new system called Draco, developed by Autodesk’s R&D department, creates animated images in seconds. It’s not intended to animate the next Disney feature. Instead, Draco is designed to bring still illustrations to life through what the team calls "kinetic textures"—bits of movement, such as bubbles and leaves, that repeat and oscillate infinitely. And it's no small thing. In high-end animation, these are, after all, the kinds of details that top-drawer animators specialize in.
As explained in the video above, the methodology is as follows: You draw a few of the objects you want to animate (say, three raindrops), you indicate the spot where you’d like them to start from (the lower line of a cloud in the sky), and the path(s) along which you’d like these drops to fall. And you're done. Those three drops will become hundreds of drops that fall from the cloud to the ground.
From here you can tweak the aesthetic nuance—adjusting speed, the volume of drops produced, the micro wiggles of the rain, and more precise barriers around where those drops can fall. This might sound like a lot of work. In reality, you sketch a few dots, draw a few lines, pull a few sliders, and you’ve got rain. Within seconds you have an animation, and within minutes you have a highly polished animation.
Of course, there were costs to this ease of use. Namely, Draco is really only built to animate large, repeating objects (like bubbles, steam, waves, and schools of fish). You can’t use Draco to animate Pinocchio walking through a room or Buzz Lightyear flying through space.
"Because our primary goal was to provide a simplified user interface, there were limitations on the extent of features that we wanted to provide," Autodesk Principal Research Scientist Tovi Grossman tells Co.Design. "The existing system is quite flexible in terms of the types of animation effects it can produce, [but] there would be a trade-off in terms of the interface complexity if we wanted to enhance that flexibility even further."
The team will have to determine just which tradeoffs they’re willing to make in the pursuit of simplicity versus features. Draco premiered at the prestigious 2014 ACM CHI conference (for human-computer interaction) where it won several awards, so Autodesk is now exploring ways to package the technology for market.