Delivering video over the Internet poses an interesting challenge to those who want to preserve the image quality of their video while giving the audience the best experience possible. Video delivered over the Internet must both look and sound as good as possible yet download quickly so that the audience does not become annoyed at waiting for too long before the video starts. The process of video compression for the Internet is a juggling act where numerous settings concerning picture quality and size, technical settings, and delivery-specific settings are set in one or more programs designed to prepare media for the Internet. More often than not, that program is Cleaner (neé Media Cleaner Pro), a specialized application designed to compress video and sound files for delivery to computers, especially over the Internet.
A professional compressionist is someone who knows about the intricate technical details about compression schemes while possessing an eye and ear for detail that borders on obsessive. Cleaner was designed for this type of person. It lays out just about every conceivable control of compression settings, image and sound enhancement, and Internet server settings. Using Cleaner, a knowledgeable compressionist can create high-quality video files that will play back smoothly from CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, streaming Internet video, downloaded Internet video, or just about any other means of electronic media distribution. However, Cleaner also has an option for less-technical people that walks you through an interview about your media its intended use. This "Wizard" interface is also provided as its own program, Cleaner EZ, which is often included for free with video editing programs.
I would not say that Cleaner is easy to use for those new to the process of compression, but it is designed in a very logical manner that is well documented with the included manuals and tutorials. One of Cleaner’s great strengths is its real-time preview of the compression process that shows the original image juxtaposed with the compressed version so that one can immediately see the results of particular settings. As far as I am aware, Cleaner is the only program that can do this with the many different formats it supports.
Cleaner’s greatest strength is its ability to batch process multiple clips and automate workflow. With Cleaner, a user can define a set of files to process while someone is away from the system. Cleaner also can watch a specific folder and compress all the files saved into that folder by different users at different times and then automatically upload them to an Internet server.
The latest version of Cleaner, 5.1, adds a few minor features, the most important of which is native support for Mac OS X. This is a welcome feature that will allow those on Mac OS X to use Cleaner without having to reboot into OS 9 or use the Classic compatibility mode inside OS X. However, one major drawback to using the program inside OS X is that it does not allow you to compress RealVideo. The Windows version of Cleaner also has a slight advantage over the Mac version because it supports the latest version of Windows Media while the Mac does not.
Cleaner is probably overkill for the average filmmaker who wants to post their work to the Internet, because that work could be adequately accomplished with Cleaner EZ or the standard compression tools inside various editing programs like Vegas Video, Premiere, and Avid Xpress DV. But for those who need to post video and audio to the Internet on a regular basis, Cleaner’s automation and reliability can make it an invaluable tool. As the use of the Internet to share video and audio grows, Cleaner and other compression tools will begin to be commonplace not only in post facilities and Internet media companies, but also in schools and organizations who want to use the Internet and media to their fullest extent.
Of course, one should have some knowledge of the techniques and concepts of 3D animation before proceeding with an expensive purchase of high-end 3D software. Luckily, we are in the midst of a renaissance of education and training in the art of 3D animation. At the forefront of this training revolution is a company called DV Garage, who sells a 3D training program called 3D Toolkit. I reviewed the 3D Toolkit in the November 2001 issue of The Independent. You may want to check that review out for a full description of the product. In a nutshell, the 3D Toolkit is a step by step guide to the basics of creating 3D objects and animating them. The tutorials are video clips narrated by Alex Lindsay, a former 3D artist at Industrial, Light, and Magic. Lindsay’s instruction clearly lays out the basic concepts upon which 3D animation is based. Making the 3D Toolkit an especially attractive buy is its inclusion of a working 3D animation program, Electric Image Animation System. By including an established animation package along with the training materials, the 3D Toolkit empowers you to create your own animations without needing to purchase anything else.
Of course, you will need more than training videos to learn enough to make a digital masterpiece. Part of the learning process requires communicating with your peers and those who have more experience than yourself. Many 3D animators have turned to the web to communicate with each other. DV Garage has forums on their website where questions about nearly every aspect of 3D production are answered by a knowledgeable commmunity. One web site I have found to be very informative is cgchannel.com, which each day posts general news concerning 3D and also has a lively forum where people post images of their work and ask for criticism. Someone could easily spend hours just looking at the different types of content people create and learning from the criticism and tips people have in response.
Another way to learn about 3D animation is to read some books devoted to the subject. The Art of 3-D Computer Animation and Imaging by Isaac Victor Kerlow (J Wiley & Sons, 2000; www.wiley.com) covers nearly every aspect of 3D production. From the most basic technical concepts to the latest advances in image rendering, Kerlow explains the steps of producing 3D content for films, video, stills, and video games. Although the book feels like a dry scientific textbook at times, it is an excellent primer for someone who wants at least a basic knowledge of the concepts of 3D animation.
For those who have already begun to create 3D images and animation and now want to learn the techniques that professionals use to create photorealistic or highly stylized images, I highly recommend the “[digital]” series of books from New Riders (www.newriders.com). Books in this series, written by prominent 3D artists, go beyond simple explanations of terminology and techniques and instead illustrate how these techniques are employed on projects. Speaking for myself, there were many concepts that I had a theoretical understanding of but was unsure of when or how they should be used until I read these books. Digital Lighting and Rendering by Jeremy Birn covers the lighting of 3D scenes and demonstrates that, as in lighting for film, lighting is an extremely important aspect of 3D production. Digital Texturing & Painting by Owen Demers shows how to create realistic and unique textures and colors for your 3D models by paying attention to real-world objects and taking cues from other artforms. Digital Character Animation by George Maestri helps identify how people move and how to apply that to 3D animation.
3D animation is no longer just for the Dreamworks and Pixars of the world. For example, take a look at Scottish animator Brian Taylor’s website, rustboy.com, where he documents his process of single-handedly creating a short film using a computer and software that are far from high-end. The stills and short sequences of Rustboy are stunning and indistinguishable from the content made by teams of animators with the most high-end equipment.
I suggest that anyone interested in 3D check out rustboy.com, cgchannel.com, download the “learning edition” of a program that looks interesting to them, and get to work.
In the next issue of The Independent I will provide a more in-depth look at the tools needed to produce 3D, as well as reviews some of the most popular 3D applications.