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Particle Physics and Pony Fiction Experimentalist

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Extra Dimension · 12:01pm August 18th

Has anyone else spent the last few days repeatedly watching the My Little Pony: A New Generation trailer? Or is it just me?

A feature of the new film that hasn’t been discussed too much, at least on this site, is that it is a 3D animation, instead of the 2D vector art used for G4. We have seen our new little ponies as glorious three-dimensional CGI models, so fine you want to reach out and stroke that fetlock hair. This leads to the big question of this post: Do you prefer 2D or 3D animations?

I expect many readers will be inclined to dodge the question and say that they are both good, or at least they can be both good and bad, which is true. This is a site of writers, where we are more focussed on the stories than the medium used to tell them. We prefer to talk about plot twists, story arcs, and character development; than about key frames, animation layers, and the technical details of the production.

Meanwhile, artists are a different community, and they often have strong opinions about this. Back in March, Lauren Faust led an interesting discussion and collective grumble by 2D artists on Twitter:

So, uh, WORLD. Why you like 3D animation so much better than 2D? Asking for a friend.

This may have been kicked off by the new ponies, but it’s more general than that. We heard similar comments about this year’s Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, where many artists were cheering for the Irish animation Wolfwalkers (a beautiful 2D work). But the award went to Pixar for Soul. This debate is not new. Although 3D CGI films have only been around for some twenty years, 3D models have been used in stop-motion animation since the early days of cinema. If we go back further, you can imagine the Neolithic artists lamenting that those shaping their 3D model bison and mammoths out of wet clay could never achieve the living breathing feeling magic of smearing a pigment on your 2D cave wall.

But there seems to a fear that 3D is now taking over. I guess the stakes have risen since Disney stopped making 2D animations. It’s not just aesthetics – it impacts the job security of a lot of artists in Southern California. If you’ve spent your whole career sketching things in 2D, it can’t be easy to switch to 3D modelling. Maybe this is why they can get very defensive, and these discussions can get very, well, animated.

After reading all the passionate arguments for 2D, it’s hard not to sympathise with these artists. But there is a lot I like about 3D animation. Using 3D animated models seems appropriate for ponies, which began as 3D plastic toys. And 3D CGI is a wonderful example of applied physics and mathematics

Understanding the mathematics of perspective to render a 3D object on a 2D canvas is fifteenth century stuff. The arrival of fast computers let us exploit our knowledge of optics to do ray tracing – tracking the path of light between a virtual lamp and camera as it is reflected or absorbed by the mathematical objects it encounters. I remember trying this in the 1990s, when I programmed a very simple model of a sphere sitting on a plane, left my Atari ST to think about it for four hours and eventually it produce a low-resolution image. It was very exciting to see the shadows.

These days we have computers with the processing power and memory to build elaborate 3D worlds and characters and render high-resolution displays.

We also have much more advanced software, using statistical physics methods to render that all-important fluff and fur without having to consider the geometry of every single hair.

And we can model the mechanics of a multi-body system in a gravitational field and calculate the trajectories and rotation of flying objects.

It’s been great to watch the rise of Pixar, as well as the development of on-line communities producing their output using free software like Blender. While an understanding of physics and maths lies behind all this, in the end, you need artists to exploit the technology and make great films. One of the things I loved about my short time working with an animation company was mix of people you get working on projects, some who trained as artists, and others with a background in science or computing.

Comments ( 17 )

3D animation has a bad reputation because of a lot of examples of it being used badly. This is especially true in anime, where 3D is often used for backgrounds - why draw the same room 5000 times when you can build it once and render it from any angle? - and for motion that would be too expensive and time consuming to draw. They got better over time, but those mistakes left a strong impression.

For example, the Love Live: School Idol Project anime uses 2D characters for most of the show, then switches to 3D for the parts where they're dancing on stage. And it looks really bad, especially in contrast. Your eyes can easily tell when it switches, and it feels like the characters you were just starting to like got swapped with creepy dolls. Again, later iterations weren't quite as jarring - partly because they worked out how to incorporate 2D into the 3D, particularly 2D faces on 3D bodies.

When it's done well, 3D can make for absolutely gorgeous animation, either in its own or in combination with 2D art. Beastars is a mostly-3D anime (it jumps back to 2D for a couple of one-off shots) that uses 3D to put subtle expressions on animal faces. The most beautiful animation I've ever seen was on the recent Violet Evergarden movie, which seamlessly mixes the two. Every part of every frame looks like somebody painted it, yet the motion is smooth in a way that just wouldn't be possible with drawings alone.

The G5 trailer looks good to me. The fur looks scratchable, there are lots of pony-specific touches to the motion (like twitching ears), the characters aren't all the same shape, and all the places look different and well-realised. I'm looking forward to it.

We've reached a level of technology where rendering doesn't take forever any more, where even an ordinary PC can at preview shots live (at lower quality than the final render), which gives animators the freedom to try things out and get the placement, composition and timing right. I think that's a large part of why this is possible now. How long did somebody spend getting the timing right on that can of beans? And how long would it have taken them 10 years ago?

I love the trailer, and I love it more the more I watch it. I can't wait for the show.

My thoughts on 2d vs 3d are mostly formed not by animation but videogames, where the big jump to 3d happened in the 90s... and it was an extremely difficult shift and a lot of games did it very badly.

I think 3d gets a lot of backlash for a few reasons. For one thing it's (well, was) a new medium, so the impressive potential of the dream gets juxtaposed with a lot of very bad real examples just because the creators were still getting the hang of it. So the hype invited equal backlash. And because it was natural to compare it to 2d, well... early 3d cgi was extremely crude while 2d animation at the time had been polished to perfection over many decades. 2d animation had learned to make things as expressive as possible in a limited, stylized format. Shifting to 3d, historically, has meant losing a lot of that and having to learn it over from scratch.

(Huh. I wonder if the 3d animation industry owes a debt to Final Fantasy 7 for being so damn good that the early 3d graphics that honestly haven't aged gracefully at all ended up being remembered fondly rather than laughed out of the room. I love that game too, but there's a reason people wanted a remake with better graphics since the ps2 era.)

Honestly, I was very worried about g5 until this trailer dropped. Because so much of the promo material released before it focused heavily on the human cast and showed only the barest hints of animation, even releasing things that looked like studio animation tests that were never intended for public consumption, I was afraid they were refusing to show us what the show would actually look like because they thought it was garbage. So when the trailer released and the animation was actually good it came as a huge relief to me.

I just want to say that Violet Evergarden is so damn good and I love it.

Argh! You would bring up a really interesting subject on the day I'm leaving on a road trip! :facehoof: Or maybe that's a good thing.

Yes, I'm watching the trailer over and over, and I'm liking it more and more as I do.

Let me just say, as a once professional 3D animator, I love 2D as well, and I'm a firm subscriber to the cop-out position you mentioned.

The big difference for MLP fandom is that it will be nearly impossible to produce fanworks like Picture Perfect Pony now... which is a shame. (But I'm betting there will be some really good Blender models out there in the not-too-distant future.)

The trouble is, it's not just about 2D vs 3D animation, and saying that they are as good as each other really isn't dodging the question. It's acknowledging that the style of animation is only one component of a bigger thing.

Les Shadoks. When I was a kid, this (or the English dub of it) was my number one favourite show. The animation was very simple stick figures, and not particularly inspiring on its own (and so many years before Order of the Stick...), but the characters and story sold it home.

Fantasia. Beautiful animation; left me completely cold, to the extent that I have almost no memory of watching it, save the few pieces kept alive by cultural osmosis.

The visuals don't really matter as much as people sometimes think - obviously they can't be so awful that you want to tear your eyes out, but there are only one component of the whole, and character and story matter far, far more.

Now, 3D (the computer-aided version) has had a harder hill to climb, as 2D has been around for far, far longer and also had a lot of prior art to draw from. I remember some of the very early 3D animation (this is going back as far as the late '70s) - a B-film that was shown with something like Star Wars. Wasn't bad to look at per-se, but very geometric and with very little character (oddly a simillar style worked very well in Tron a few years later).

As time went on, digital animation started being used in a lot of places, and it was often laughably bad. But it has improved, and what we are getting now is really pretty good - provided that time and money is spent to make it good.

Ist Einhorn! Ist Einhorn! (never gets old)

Im eagerly awaitingthe time that like having a phonetic speech system allows a book to talk to you, with dialects if carefully setup, for less resources than a Pi Pico, of any text you feed to it, any book, that a couple dozen simple dedicated Ai nets can build on each other to turn that text into a movie. Its a long walk to get there, but being able to compress a movie to a text file and guide meta data would really be worth it?

If you trained an AI on all the books, couldit propose intresting story lines, forother AIs to work on? Then again, 3D to 2D can be done by carefully selecting camera parameters. Second life showed how to do cell shaded 3Din real time 3D animation.?

2D and 3D, better together? I have often wondered if the motocross bikes in the Friendship Games are cel shaded 3D models...


I'm dating myself, but for dead simple 2D animation that is also freakin' brilliant, I recommend Stick Figure Theatre.

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Thanks for the tips on things to watch next.

Games in the 90s... Yeah, Pacman 3D was never the same as the original arcade. Of course, graphics design in games, where everything has to be rendered in real time on a console processor, is a very different challenge to making films.

Blender user groups can produce some really high quality stuff. There just never seems to be so much of it. I guess there just isn't so many of them.

I get a string of long interesting comments, with lots of detailed analysis of the topic... And then Georg... :pinkiehappy::heart:

Looking at the bikes in motion, you never see them turn, just 2D versions moving across the screen. I may be wrong, but I think those are rotoscoped 2D, not 3D.

You never saw my scores in college. 😊

Ah, that's also possible. I may need to rewatch the film for... uh.. academic research purposes...

It's quite common for vehicles to be in 3D, and they do have that sharp rendered line-art quality to them, so it's hard to be sure.

There are tons of Blender users out there, but Sturgeon's Law applies... :ajbemused:

As an enormous Love Live fangirl, I cannot disagree with any of this. Much as I adore everything about SIP, the dancing is...well, it shows its ages compared to Sunshine and especially Niji where they finally learned to nail it properly (Mmph, so gay for CHASE!)

I honestly don't get it, myself, like...I adore anime, since it's one consistent source of quality 2D, yet everywhere I read now everyone knows a massive crash is coming due to wage conditions in the industry.

It feels this way everywhere though, this fucking paradox of 'There is more prosperity than ever. There is more pressure than ever'

For me while I like 3d animation my favorite shows and animation are mostly 2d.

My favorite current shows include Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, Hilda, She Ra, The Owl House, and my big personal favorite is Amphibia. All of those are 2d in style and I just like how they look. Too often I find 3d has issues avoiding the uncanny valley, having ideas that their budget/capability cannot achieve, and often times I find they can feel slow and clumsy (probably due to my second point but still). Well done 3d can be great but I think it is harder for it to hide its flaws or it is easy to make it look bad.

I still like shows like reboot and Beast Wars but I give them a pass because that was the best they could do back then. I would not be as forgiving with a more recent show (I can say the same with 2d if She Ra had the animation like the original She Ra had it would be very hard to watch and unlike say Reboot the animation in the original She Ra was cheap and rather lackluster even for the time).

FiM used some cell-shaded 3D-models and the MLP-Movie in 2017 was cell-shaded 3D.

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