As technology progresses, the beautiful craft of animation becomes more and more advanced. We have now reached a level of detail close to photorealism, with Disney and Pixar leading the way in terms of production value in feature films. Raya and the Last Dragon, albeit a story with great potential at best, is a pleasure for the eyesand showcases the state of the art in animation. So what’s next?
Photorealism will always look stunning, sure, but the power of animation resides in being able to portray imaginary worlds with an abundance of colour, storytelling and style. That will never change, and as we realise that the means to achieve photorealism are entirely at our disposal, we will also seek new ways to innovate by following always new trends.
Beyond photorealism, rendering speed and detail, the future of animation is interactive. Here are 3 inspiring trends (that are happening right now) to explain what I mean.
Image credit: Imagination
1. Virtual Production
The Lion King live action raised the bar in terms of the level of photorealism in a film – to the point that some believed it was too much. The characters lost their expressiveness, the story felt a bit less magic, and in general it felt like a NatGeo documentary rather than a Lion King adaptation. Which is both a bad and good thing, in truth.
The level of realism achieved by The Lion King live action is beyond imaginable. Though it did not invent Virtual Production, the film set a new standard for the power of blending CGI and live action. By coupling game engine technology and real sets, the traditional approach of physical production was paired with VFX and CGI to produce real-time renditions of each shot, giving director Jon Favreau more control over every aspect of each scene.
In advertising, we’re seeing something similar, as game engines in the likes of Unreal Engine enter the realm of production. Imagination’s work with Epic Games is the perfect example of state-of-the-art virtual production, used not so much to achieve photorealism in the Lion King sense, but to conceptualise new worlds and conjure up creative experiences. In this sense, CGI and live action do not exclude each other, but rather are in a harmonious complementary relationship, where each side supports the other.
Image credit: Ryan Green, Amy Green, Josh Larson & Numinous Games
2. Interactive Animation
Another interesting trend for the sector lies in the realm of interactive design. Animation has always been a tool primarily for storytelling, enabling creators to tell stories from visionary imagination. As the gap between gaming and animation shrinks to the size of a pin, we will see more contaminations from one realm into another.
In truth, this has started happening long ago, though mostly confined within the gaming industry. Games such as That Dragon, Cancer or Cuphead are masterpieces of interactive animation, with the former especially being more of an interactive storytelling experience rather than a game. Through the power of interaction, players are able to explore the environment and piece together their own version of the story, building their experience as they go.
Outside the gaming industry, Google often plays around with its doodles to create little pieces of interactive animation. One of the first and most famous was the Hurdles doodle from 2012, though one of my personal favourites remains the Ludwig van Beethoven doodle for the musician’s 245th year. By building some basic interaction within the animation, these doodles enable users to be the makers of their own stories – to some extent, of course.
In interactive animation, game design and gamification are key. Knowing the principles of what makes a great game, from the reward system to player progression and gameplay loop, is fundamental to creating powerful, compelling and engaging narratives, though they must still be linked more to the story, rather than a player’s action – lest the ‘game’ elements become too prominent.
Wolves in the Walls, created by Fable Studio to showcase Lucy, was the first film with a Virtual Being to be awarded an Emmy.
3. Artificial Intelligence
Yet perhaps the thing that left me the most speechless is how some parts of the creative industry are working with artificial intelligence to blend it with animation. This is not just about facial recognition and Instagram filters – which, still, would have felt like science fiction merely a decade ago. I’m talking about proper avatars, characters and stories portrayed on screen, fuelled and powered by artificial intelligence and user interaction.
Though there are overlaps with the realm of interactive animation, the use of artificial intelligence in animation is substantially different. One example are the Virtual Beings by Fable Studio. The development studio conceived a series of ‘virtual assistants’ with a semblance of consciousness and learning. These assistants are able to reply to you, build memories about you, learn about you and essentially act as virtual friends you can speak to.
This kind of artificial intelligence goes beyond the realm of buggy chatbots. The folks at Fable Studio are a prime example of that. Lucy is a live avatar, with body language, smart machine learning algorithms and the capability to react to your actions, especially in a virtual reality environment. Lucy breathes, goes to school, has parents and a life outside of your interactions with her, and so she grows mentally (perhaps physically too, under the engineers’ discretion) as you interact with her.
Fable Studio is but an example, but a rather powerful one. Voice assistants are just the first step in the evolution of artificial intelligence; soon, assistants will become tools to deliver stories and meaningful experiences, and animation will provide the best and most powerful means to do so.
What is the future of animation?
What can we predict for the future of animation? Certainly that it will be interactive. Much like with Mixed Reality and Gamification, user involvement through interaction is where the future seems to be heading for animation, and I can easily foresee a new rise of interactive fiction in the future.
At the same time, and looking at the current formats in the sector, it’s easy to envision a return of the shorts. As we grow increasingly accustomed to consuming short content on a number of platforms, little animated shorts are likely to rise back to popularity in a matter of years, while the hearts of the most nostalgic fuel a return of traditional animation on the side.
Certainly the future of animation looks today brighter than ever. Hard to say what the future truly has in store – but keeping in mind what we are seeing thus far… I think we can safely assume that it’s going to be a blast.