When I was growing up, filming a roundup meant taking camera and crew out to a hot, dusty corral and watching cattle walking leisurely around in circles. Today, an overworked, behind-schedule filmmaker would sit in an air-conditioned studio in front of six computers and create an animated sequence of life-like cows walking in perfect Bezier circles. This roundup will serve as the preamble to a new EMedia column called 3D Space. In it, we'll examine some of the tools that our harried filmmaker or post-producer (you?) might use.
This roundup will introduce some of the key 3D and 2D animation tools that target the desktop post-production market and will suggest how those tools integrate with your digital video editing workflow. Since our interest is specifically how these tools can assist corporate and commercial digital video work, the article does not cover CAD, Web, or multimedia authoring tools. Nor does it discuss Non-Linear Editors (NLE), although these tools' ability to interact with NLEs is a keynote of our discussion.
Our target products would allow real-time previewing, without making you wait while they render each change. They should be particle-based, have a wide range and choice of effects, be easy enough to use that you can implement their signature features without dedicating your career to mastering them, allow rotoscoping, masking, and matte features, and should output to formats such as DV, AVI, QuickTime, or other files that an NLE (like Premiere, Final Cut, Edition, Vegas, Xpress DV, or Media Studio Pro) can import.
One of our criteria was price. We eliminated the low-end products that would not meet corporate needs, and meant to limit the high end to fit into the budget of someone who spent under $1000 on his or her primary editing tool, with possibly another $700 on a dedicated board. Ultimately, however, we have included a few high-end products because of their popularity and capabilities.
Almost any professional video production—and lots of enthusiast productions, too—use animation in some form, be it a spinning logo, a swooping title, or an animated menu. To do so with any reasonable degree of sophistication, you need an animation tool or plug-in that treats 2D/3D elements as objects (that can be moved and manipulated over time), with behaviors (what those objects can do over time), and textures (the "skin" that covers them and makes a given shape look like a real-world object; textures can be colors, images, or even videos). The program should also allow video producers a wide range of options for creating and managing these objects without requiring they become experts in 3D design, spline-based construction, or CAD.
However, our ideal program should import (and perhaps export) CAD drawings, as well as other popular drawing and animation formats. Many of the programs that we will cover here export scenes—complete with images, objects, surfaces, and animation—as Macromedia Shockwave files. These can be posted to the Web or integrated into Macromedia Director as Cast Members, combining your content with the interactive functionality of Director. Many also export to QuickTime Virtual Reality—a special version of QuickTime movie that lets a user view a 3D object from any angle, using the mouse to control the point of view.