Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The right textbook

Suppose you have to give a class about 3D animation for computer science majors; what textbook would be appropriate for such a course? A book about the software program being used that talks about all the hidden tools it has? No! The appropriate book is an animation bible.

Image: The Animator's Survival Kit, by Richard Williams.
This is the book we've been working with

Computer Science is governed by the "rule of good enough". This means that if the results are good, it doesn't matter if you're not following the rules to get them. As a simple example, throw a ball into the air and watch it bounce in front of you. Physics tells us this follows a parabolic trajectory given by the initial velocity with which you threw the ball, and the force of gravity. But suppose you draw the trajectory as a half-circle. The ball also seems to go up, slow down, then come back down. Good enough, right?

But when dealing with character animation, the bar is set pretty high due to the uncanny valley. Even if the character is perfectly realistic, even if the person knows all the tools of the program, the simple act of
making him or her move a leg can take days to get something "good enough" to someone who doesn't know anything about drawing, art, or animation. And people take the course mainly because they want to know.

The requirements to get into Computer Science (or anything computer-related) sadly have the ability to draw a straight line as its very last, despite the fact that over half of the things done in it are expressed through diagrams.

Image: Tom Preston, a digital cartoonist wearing a fedora, attempts to draw a line but comes out with a pixelated, scalonated squiggle. Caption:
Oh sure, blame the pen
(Copyright © 2011 Tom Preston. Used with Permission)

Priority is given to being able to see things as a math problem, because Alan Turing defined a computer as something that can solve any solvable math problem that can be imagined. This is counter-intuitive to the rule of good enough, and to how animation in general is done.

The result is that if a student has been rigorously following their studies, by the time they get to take a course like Computer Graphics, the artistic abilities they need for it (such as those little flip-books we all made as kids) have been sapped out of them, and need to be retaught.

And that is why we have been using a book based on Who Framed Roger Rabbit as texbook for a Computer Science course.

(I'll probably be writing more about it in the future.)


  1. Replies
    1. That's the thing about bibles. They're always really old. But if you click it, you can buy it!