If you watch cartoon classics like the Sorcerer's Apprentice on YouTube, you can read literally thousands of comments about the 'good old days' of animation. Thanks to EU-funded techniques for enhancing original footage, future generations will also be able to enjoy the animator's art form. The tools developed, which make a cartoonist's job much easier, will be released as a commercial product in the coming months.
© Fotolia, 2012
Generations of movie-goers raised on Disney animations like the Sorcerer's Apprentice or Fantasia vividly remember these masterpieces, as they combine music and emotionally powerful visuals and stories. For many, these early experiences evolved into a love of music, art and other cultural interests.
If only classic animation could still elicit this sort of emotional response. Daniel Sýkora, a Czech scientist, has no doubt that it still can. His research project 'Computer assisted renewal of classical cartoon animation' (CARToon) is bringing back the magic of hand-drawn animations for future generations to be similarly inspired by them.
The researcher has developed new software to automate the time-consuming colouring in of both hand-drawn animations and PC-generated sketches. The software – soon available as a commercial plug-in for use with an established graphic design program – helps cartoonists, graphic designers, short film-makers, video-game developers and even traditional artists.
But where did the idea come from? When asked by Czech television to colourise some black and white footage for a popular evening programme, Dr Sýkora realised how tedious and inefficient the process was using current painting and graphics tools. So he literally went back to the drawing board and developed a set of 'algorithms' (small computer programs) which retrieve structural and semantic information hidden in or behind the images.
These techniques – he calls 'LazyTools' – do not rely on style-specific features and can be applied to a broad class of drawing styles. This means interactive labelling and manipulation of hand-drawn animations is much simpler and more cost-effective than manually restored footage.
LazyTools consists of three algorithms: LazyBrush, LazyDepth and LazySnap. The tools have been successfully trialled by artists at Anifilm Studio, Prague, and used for the production of bedtime stories for children in its popular Doctor Animo series. "The trials were a great education," confirms Dr Sýkora. "The artists were so used to the 'alt-key' shortcuts in their current software that they expected new programs to follow the same principles."
But after several weeks of using LazyTools, the animators realised the benefits of this new approach. "The trials helped me refine the program when I saw how the artists were using the tools in new and creative ways," explains Dr Sýkora.
Advantages for animators
The LazyBrush tool, which has been described by Dr Sýkora in the scientific paper 'LazyBrush: Flexible painting tool for hand-drawn cartoons', has a key advantage over other approaches. It is less sensitive to imprecise brush strokes and the roughness of the drawing which actually makes labelling of hand-drawn images and touch-up jobs much easier.
Meanwhile, using LazyDepth's point-and-mark arrow system together with an advanced display, the artist sets approximate parameters by eye and the algorithm recalculates absolute dimensions for full 3D shading and reconstruction with the press of a button. This was all demonstrated in an award-winning paper, 'Adding depth to cartoons using sparse depth (in)equalities', that won the 2010 Günter Enderle best paper at the 2010 congress of the European Association for Computer Graphics (Eurographics), and was later published in the influential industry magazine Computer Graphics Forum.
Another technique, LazySnap, described in the paper 'As-rigid-as-possible image registration for hand-drawn cartoon animations', has been developed to simplify a range of tedious tasks, such as unsupervised 'in-betweening' (smoother transitions between frames), auto-painting, editing and motion retargeting. These are specialist techniques which require some practice, but animators have been very positive about the results, according to Dr Sýkora.
He says that the EU's Marie Curie Actions and grants gave him the freedom to develop a creative idea which could lead to a completely new way of thinking about graphic design. And the latest news is that LazyBrush is set for release as a commercial plug-in for Adobe Photoshop in the coming months.
From an idea to a product, thanks to Dr Sýkora's project the much-loved cartoon classics can now be 'reanimated' quickly and cheaply so that new generations of children can experience the magic of these masterpieces, too.