Fri 19th Aug 2011, by Meleah Maynard | Productfocus
Motion comics have been evolving since they emerged as a new type of entertainment more than a decade ago and Ian Kirby has been involved since the beginning. In fact, Wikipedia calls Broken Saints, a Flash-based animated film series released in 2001 that Kirby made in his parents’ basement with a couple of friends over three years, "one of the earliest examples" of motion comics. What is a motion comic? Utilizing a variety of techniques, a motion comic takes an existing comic book property and re-imagines it as an animated film.
Armed with a combination of 2D and 3D animation, visual effects, creative editing, direction, original music and voice talent, the creative possibilities for motion comics are virtually unlimited. Kirby is proving that today with Sequence—his Vancouver-based design and animation company. Sequence still makes motion comics, but their clientele has grown to include heavy hitters like Warner Bros. and Disney (among others). Having moved beyond Flash, they now rely on Adobe After Effects for 2D animation and MAXON’s CINEMA 4D for 3D animation.
Sequence used CINEMA 4D for several key Red Riding Hood scenes. To populate the forest, tree illustrations were placed on hundreds of 2D cards in the C4D scene.
Sequence’s latest project is a prequel episode to Warner Bros. feature film Red Riding Hood. Entitled Red Riding Hood: The Tale Begins, it combines live action and advanced motion comic animation. “The line between motion comics and traditional animation is almost indistinguishable with this project,” explains Kirby, adding that the animation style was very unique. “It's a fluid painterly animation with 3D walk cycles, full lip assignment and complex particle systems.”
C4D was used in several key scenes, including a dramatic pull back through a dense forest. Painted still imagery was projected onto the 3D geometry of the cabin to give it a texture and feel that integrated seamlessly with the 2D animation. Illustrated trees were then placed on hundreds of 2D cards in the C4D scene to populate the forest. As the camera pulls back through the forest, atmospheric depth and particle systems bring the scene to life.
The motion comic for Inception begins with a maze that, upon closer inspection, becomes a city.
Sequence has also created a 15-minute HD prologue to the film Inception for Warner Bros. that has been released as a special feature on the film's Blu-ray disc. The prologue opens with a shot of a maze. As the camera moves closer, however, the relatively abstract shape reveals itself to be a city. “The city grows out of a maze and you end up down at street level with the characters,” says Kirby, adding that after the city’s basic shape was created in Illustrator (from the film’s original artwork), it was brought into CINEMA 4D where its spline could be extruded to the correct height. The buildings, which were modelled in C4D in various shapes and sizes to create some natural randomness, were textured in the comic's style and imported into After Effects for final color correction and finishing.
Because filmmaker Christopher Nolan wanted the Inception prologue to have an "authentic" comic book feel, there is no voiceover, just a musical score and those quintessential text-filled bubbles floating strategically over peoples' heads that comics are known for. “We did voice tests, but ultimately decided that we wanted to stay true to the printed piece and leave the voices to the viewers imagination,” Kirby explains.
Animating Cobb’s totem correctly was crucial to the success of Sequence animators working on the project.
In the film, characters use "totems" to determine if what they are experiencing is a dream or reality. West recreated the spinning top totem used by Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) with C4D’s Lathe NURBS tool. Artist Andrew West used Photoshop to texture the totem to resemble the film’s original artwork. Once the totem was adequately prepared, animator Christian Whiticar used MoDynamics to make it spin. “We just set an initial rotation velocity that was strong enough to start the totem spinning,” he explains.
More Than a Trend
Though some have questioned the longevity of the art form, Warner Bros. has believed in motion comics from the start. Kirby remembers when the comic book publisher first approached Sequence about creating animated prequels for Will Smith’s I Am Legend. “We had moved on to doing other things, so I said no at first,” he recalls. But Warner Bros. persisted and Kirby agreed. “It was fun to create those back stories for the film, and that was what really got us back into motion comics,” he says. “It was a new generation. We were no longer dealing with the limitations of Flash. These were full HD animations.”
For Batman: Black & White, Sequence directed and animated 20 award-winning, short-form comics of the famous caped crusader. The series, which was released by Warner Premier on iTunes and Xbox LIVE, took Sequence about six months from start to finish. While working on the project, Sequence's artists focused consistently on the goal of expanding and enhancing the original artwork of Timothy Truman and Sam Glanzman while keeping the drawn page's original integrity intact. “The process of doing motion comics always starts with artists having to break down flattened artwork,” says Kirby. “Each project is completely different with a different art style that has to be matched, so it’s quite a challenge."
Things ramped up quickly after Batman and Sequence began work on Warner Bros.’ Jonah Hex. They had about six months from start to finish to produce 75 minutes of animated content for 7 episodes of the Jonah Hex motion comic, which were released to coincide with the film’s opening on iTunes, Xbox LIVE and video on demand. Since they had no digital files for Jonah Hex, artists worked off of old film scans. “We gave scans to the artists so that they could break them down into layers that we could use in C4D and After Effects,” Kirby recalls, adding that Sequence then produced original music, dialogue and sound effects to compliment said animation.
Kirby recalls a complex graveyard scene Sequence created for a particular episode. The gravestones were modelled in C4D using simple shapes before artwork was projected onto them. Trees and grass were projected onto flat cards, so they could be included in 3D scenes without Sequence having to model all of the complicated geometry.
The graveyard scene was modelled in C4D. Artwork was then projected onto the 3D shapes to create the finished look.
Having once considered moving on from motion comics, Kirby now says he is definitely interested in sticking with them and seeing where the entertainment form goes. “Motion comics are in a strange place right now as the line between what animation is and what motion comics are is blurring,” he says, adding that their goal is to “bring comics to life for a new generation of kids.”