Wednesday, April 9

High tech animation?

International anime fair has diverse themes: High technology and ancient history join familiar characters

Anime characters both new and familiar crowded the Tokyo International Anime Fair 2008 in the form of video clips, plastic models and costumed mascots, but the seventh annual event, which ran from March 27-30 at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center in Ariake, Tokyo, also showcased the newest in animation technology and the oldest in stories from ancient history.

The fair has grown considerably since the first time it was held in 2002, when 104 exhibitors set up display booths that drew 50,163 visitors. In 2007, there were 270 exhibitors and 107,713 visitors, while this year's numbers were 289 exhibitors and 126,622 visitors.

This year, in front of the Nikkatsu Corp. booth, a masked young woman in a slinky black costume posed as cartoon villainess Doronjo to promote the upcoming live-action movie version of the classic anime Yatterman. Elsewhere, people in robot and dinosaur costumes waved to passersby, as did numerous women in maid costumes throughout the hall.

However, no living human being could hope to replicate the icy stare of professional assassin Golgo 13 (a 40-year-old manga character soon to star in an anime series on the TV Tokyo network) or the bloated musculature of Kinnikuman (celebrating his 29th--or "ni-ku"--anniversary with the release of a collectors edition DVD boxed set), so those characters were instead represented by life-sized statues.

Even older characters were borrowed from ancient Chinese history. Shi Huangdi is remembered as the first emperor of a unified China, but after his death in 210 B.C., his heirs fell to fighting among themselves, bringing an end to his dynasty.

Chinese content promoter Koubun Shin of Koubun Co. had a booth at the fair, which she hoped would help her to sell the Japan TV rights to Fuun Tenka, a 100-episode drama about the aftermath of Shi Huangdi's death. She said that with the Beijing Olympics coming up later this year, "I think NHK and other [Japanese] media companies need Chinese content."

She added that the trade goes both ways. "China has a big market, and a lot of people...very much like Japanese anime," she said.

Fuun Tenka stretches the definition of animation in that it is performed by puppets, but at another booth nearby the Japanese firm Future Planet Co. was promoting its 52-episode Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a more traditional 2-D animated epic based on third-century Chinese history, which it coproduced with Beijing Glorious Animation, according to Shuichi Endo of Future Planet.

Despite these ancient influences, most of the fair was focused on the future, especially in terms of technological development and the cultivation of new talent.

Bunkyo Gakuin University in Tokyo was one of several schools that set up booths to promote themselves and their students. Bunkyo Gakuin student Megumi Inagaki, among those manning the booth, pointed to a video screen displaying student animation work and said she hoped that the brief clips might attract advertisers to hire students to do ad work.

Digital Works Entertainment aimed its career-development product at an even younger demographic. On May 22, it will begin to sell a Nintendo DS video game version of novelist Ryu Murakami's nonfiction book for children, Jusansai no Hello Work (Hello Work for 13-year-olds), which describes careers young readers might want to consider for their future.

Mayuko Matsumoto of Digital Works explained that the game, which includes extensive anime segments, creates a storyline by having a character named Miku (voiced by actress Kii Kitano) time-travel from the future to meet modern Japanese children who will have grown up into dull adults to "help them get back their feeling of how to enjoy working." The 29 featured jobs include teacher, mechanic, boxer, lawyer and--of course--game developer.

The overlap between games and animation seems to be growing. Anima, another exhibitor, specializes in making the computer-animated "movie" segments that link together the playable portions of many popular video games. Titles they have done include Sengoku Basara and Final Fantasy Tactics. Anima Producer Daisuke Chonan said his company would also like to branch out into standalone animated films. Snippets of footage for such possible projects were shown on screens at the booth.

Other exhibitors focused specifically on hardware or software. Gemini Technology set up a racecar driving video game at its booth, which demonstrated its ability to project images onto curved screens--in this case a screen that wraps around the driver's field of vision to immerse him or her in the animated world of the video game.

Two Canadian companies were offering animation software aimed at vastly different ends of the skills spectrum. Xtranormal pitches its product, soon to be available online, at people who aren't even beginners. "If you can type, you can animate," said the company's Richard Gratton.

He then demonstrated how a user might choose characters from an existing array, type in a bit of dialog and let the program's server-based voice synthesizer do the rest. Action can be added by clicking on a menu that includes waving, shrugging, basic dance moves, slipping on a banana peel, making rude gestures and so on. Camera angles and sound effects can be changed in the same way, or left to be done automatically.

Gratton compared the process to machinima--films "shot" in video game environments such as Halo or World of Warcraft. "If anything, it's machinima made super, super easy. You're not screen-capturing and then cutting and...overdubbing."

At the other end of the spectrum was Side Effects Software, whose Houdini software is aimed at professional animators.

"Our software has been focused on the feature film market in Hollywood for the past 20 years," account manager David Robert said, adding that various companies had used Houdini on the computer-animated portions of The Golden Compass, as well as recent Spider-Man and Superman movies, the upcoming Narnia sequel Prince Caspian and Pixar's next feature, Wall-E.

"But now we're moving into a phase of our development where we're trying to get more accessible for everyone," he said, explaining that anyone can learn to use the software by trying it for free via the Side Effects Web site, but that the resulting work would have a watermark on it. Anyone wanting watermark-free results would have to pay.

And anyone seriously interested in buying Hollywood-level animation software may also want to look into reserving a booth of their own at next year's anime fair.
(Apr. 4, 2008)

Just in case it got erased from the website, so I post it in verbatim. The original article is here.

No comments: