"EbSynth" is here, 40 years later...
4 decades ago I was just starting out on my animation journey on a job that should have been salutary but ultimately left a bitter aftertaste that has lingered to the present.
One of my first assignments at the small London animation studio that hired me on a freelance basis as a recent graduate was to animate and design an animated logo for MPL Communications.
I was acting on the instructions of my boss and founder of the studio, Len Lewis, who in turn was given the brief to bring to life the MPL logo in some way to preface all the audio visual work and an up-coming feature film, "Give My Regards To Broad Street", for Paul McCartney,...yes *that* Paul McCartney.
Len, I, and another freelance animator, Mike Smith, provided various directions in which the sequence, occupying a mere 15 seconds of screen time, could go based upon the logo, which was a rather Eastern European woodcut-inspired silhouette of a juggler juggling planets.
Ultimately, McCartney settled on a "crane shot" of the juggler, starting very close and then pulling out to reveal the final logo on an unforgiving white background, and "hand rendered" because McCartney was adamant that it should have a handcrafted quality, to give it the feeling of being made of black lacquered ebony to match a 3 dimensional rendition of the logo in the foyer of the MPL offices in nearby Soho Square.
Animated crane shots were not unusual in drawn animation and were somewhat in vogue following similar eye-catching work in films by the Richard Williams Studio as a way of escaping the flat nature of drawn animation and to emulate the freedom available to live-action film makers - it could certainly be arresting if done well besides showcasing the technical proficiency of the animator.
The appearance of black lacquered ebony depends very much on lighting and so to avoid the logo looking like a solid black shape throughout, this meant animated highlights to describe the surface and sense of volume for what in reality was a "2.5D" model in the foyer on the MPL office - again, that could be achieved simply by animating a highlight pass with the animation of the juggler.
Once the animation had been approved the next stage was to artwork it and the default approach was to trace the animation on to acetate "cels" and then paint them on the reverse, with the highlight achieved either by hand-rendering on the front with, for example, a wax pencil, or airbrushing, or as an "effects pass" by double exposure, but with the exception of the first option, every solution took the artwork away from being simply handcrafted and into the realm of separate elements combined in one way or another, so these approaches were rejected early on, even if the "look" was approaching what McCartney wanted, which was a visual match to the sculpture in the MPL offices.
Conscious of the time and budgetary factors because a significant amount of time had already been spent on R&D, but also to satisfy client demands, the only and preferred route was to hand-render each and every frame of the animation onto white animation paper and aim to keep the quality consistent to avoid distracting "boiling" that would appear more exaggerated on a large cinema screen.
A novel aspect of this job, bearing in mind the period during which it was made in the early 1980's, was the use of computer graphics to block out the craning camera movement and I was certainly aware of developments in that area, and some London studios, such as Cucumber, had already produced commercials using the basic computer graphics available at the time - in London there were only two companies equipped to create the kind of "wireframe" animation that we needed as a guide for the animation of the juggler to follow.
It made sense to leverage computer graphics due to the geometric nature of the planets - never much fun to draw or animate - but the juggler required more fluid animation, which I was assigned to do by matching the movements to the CG plotted-out camera and planet motion.
I should point out that in the animation community in general there was still a great deal of resistance to the use of computers since it was felt they would take work away from animators and even my boss was a little sceptical when I suggested using a computer to block out the crane shot but it made sense from the standpoint of time and he was able to sit with the computer operator to ensure that the move had the right sense of timing and composition, though it must have been tediously slow given the state of CG technology at the time - more importantly however, McCartney seemed to approve of this approach despite the high cost at the time, possibly because he wasn't against such advances in the animation process in principle.
I knew in my gut and from what I knew about advances in computer graphics that the entire sequence could have been created digitally, though it would have taken an unfeasible amount of time to achieve back then, but clients often have different agendas, such as McCartneys', of wanting physical and tangible animation artwork as evidence of human, and not computer-assisted, skill, but to do that often requires drafting in artworkers to breakdown scenes of many individual drawings and aim to maintain consistency, and I have worked on a few of those types of jobs since the MPL project and the end results certainly prove a point about a hand-made organic feel that can't be achieved easily any other way and that remains faithful to the designing artists' work.
Given that I had just come off making a 7 minute student film that I had animated and artworked myself and another 7 minute film where I had created very richly detailed hand rendered frames, I was relieved that Len chose to hire a small team of artists with backgrounds in illustration to render the animated frames while I oversaw consistency issues and checked for the inevitable stylistic differences between each artist.
However, by the completion of the artwork it was clear to me that there were subtle shifts in the style throughout due to the different artists involved and so I set about working over each drawing to bring it line with the black ebony quality of the MPL logo. This ended up taking almost as long as everything that had preceded it and got me into hot water with both Len and McCartney, who by now was becoming impatient to see the finished work and sign it off before moving on to other things.
I remember pulling a very long day and all-nighter before I reached the final drawing and by then I had vowed never to go anywhere near hand-rendered animation since there were days where I felt as if I had given up the will to live since the work seemed endless as I pored over minute details in the interests of consistency in each drawing.
Many jobs in animation end up being quite transient, for example in commercials, but where the MPL logo was concerned I had a feeling it would last a while and consequently the thought that I had allowed inconsistencies in the final rendered animation to escape notice bothered me a little - there's nothing worse than seeing work on screen that you know could have been better but in general a certain level of perfection is impossible to aspire to given schedules and budgets and this is a fact of life that you have to get used to in animation.
I was pleased to note that the logo is still in use as recently as 2019 where it preceded an animated pop promo for a new Paul McCartney song.
Soooo, everything I have outlined is really a lengthy preamble about a very recent assignment for London studio Hu_Sh that I can't share details about just yet but where the brief was to render, albeit digitally, hand-drawn animation frames to match the illustrative work of the designer.
It was quite a short sequence of just 4 shots (I had previously been hired to storyboard the same sequence) and my job was to render each frame to match key frames supplied by the animation designer / director.
Faced with the prospect of many long days and nights manually painting each frame single-handedly, even with very helpful information in the drawn animation for each area of texture / colour, I wondered if this might be the type of project on which to use some new currently free software called "EbSynth" (in beta at the moment) by its' creators, a team of programming whiz kids who call themselves, perhaps appropriately, "Secret Weapons".
I had seen what "EbSynth" was capable of, which is to use advanced image tracking to apply a stylised image based on a frame or frames of reference footage and then map this across a series of frames using the original footage as a guide, and was quite impressed by the results and inherent potential.
"EbSynth" requires "guide footage", ie it can't interpolate a series of stylised drawings without something to track, but could this be applied to 2D drawn animation ?
I had seen some tests online that proved that it could but this is not the purpose for which it was designed, which is to open up creative possibilities for animation designers in terms of image stylisation with motion. Additionally the creators of the tests typically didn't share the settings in "EbSynth" to achieve the results and so I knew I would have to run tests to see if it was a worthwhile approach to investigate without a signficant cost in terms of time and budget for the client.
The settings in "EbSynth" are quite opaque and so it's really a question of changing settings to see the results, which is time-consuming - additionally, higher settings result in longer render times for the software to compute the often unpredictable end result.
Admittedly the animation in the sequence wouldn't tax the capabilities of "EbSynth" too much - eg extreme angle changes require key frames to be produced in the style of the final animation which the software then uses to create the interpolated frames based on the underlying "guide" footage.
The first tests proved to be very successful and this presented the possibility of an illustrative style of animation being produced in a much shorter space of time than if it had been created frame by frame whether on real world media or digitally - I was working on an IPad Pro and using the Procreate app to create the key frames.
There was still some digital retouching to do on tricky areas where "EbSynth" encountered issues with tracking the 2D drawn animation accurately but this took a day or so at the most for several scenes, again working entirely within Procreate.
2D drawn animation differs from live-action and 3D CG animation in the sense that animators can introduce distortions in perspective and form that don't follow any particular logic - it's more about what "feels" right, and "EbSynth" works by following tonal areas in guide footage and not the often abstract linear information in an animation "line-test" - ie the drawn line animation before it is traced and coloured in.
When I contacted the developers they reiterated that "EbSynth" would struggle to interpolate based on images in animation line-tests since they lack the information necessary for accurate tracking but I found that I could get fast and accurate results by manipulating the source footage in various ways to work with EbSynth and achieve satisfactory results in a short space of time.
Overall, everyone seemed pleased with the end result and importantly, the designer was the delighted that her work had been translated so closely in the finished work.
It remains to be seen if "EbSynth" is adopted for more of this type of work but I can see it being very useful in future and I look forward to the final commercial release with a redesigned UI and additional capabilities.
Ravi Swami, 29/04/22