[-empyre-] visualization as the new language of theory

Lev Manovich manovich.lev at gmail.com
Sat Feb 6 05:48:55 EST 2010

Greetings, and apologies for not being able to participate over last
couple of days

I want to add something in relation to the questions of "limited" vs.
"full animation," animation vs. cinema distinction, and movement.

In contrast to twentieth-century animation, in contemporary motion
graphics the transformations often affect the frame as a whole.
Everything inside the frame keeps changing: visual elements, their
transparency, the texture of the image, etc. In fact, if something
stays the same for a while, that is an exception rather than the norm.

Such constant change on many visual dimensions is a key feature of
motion graphics and design cinema produced today - in contrast to
contemporary feature animations or anime where many elements do not
change because of figurative nature of these works ( for instance the
colors corresponding to diff. objects normally do not change from
frame to frame.) We can connect this preference for constant change to
the particulars of software used in media design.

Digital computers allow us to represent any phenomenon or structure as
a set of variables. In the case of design and animation software, this
means that all possible forms—visual, temporal, spatial,
interactive—are similarly represented as sets of variables that can
change continuously. This new logic of form is deeply encoded in the
interfaces of software packages and the tools they provide. In 2D
animation/compositing software such as After Effects, each new object
added to the scene by a designer shows up as a long list of
variables—geometric position, color, transparency, and the like. Each
variable is immediately assigned its own channel on the timeline used
to create animation.  In this way, the software literally invites the
designer to start animating various dimensions of each object in the
scene. The same logic extends to the parameters that affect the scene
as a whole, such as the virtual camera and the virtual lighting. If
you add a light to the composition, this immediately creates half a
dozen new animation channels describing the colors of the lights,
their intensity, position, orientation, and so on.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the general logic of computer
representation—that is, representing everything as variables that can
have different values—was systematically embedded throughout the
interfaces of media design software. As a result, although a
particular software application does not directly prescribe to its
users what they can and cannot do, the structure of the interface
strongly influences the designer’s thinking. In the case of moving
image design, the result of having a timeline interface with multiple
channels all just waiting to be animated is that a designer usually
does animate them. If previous constraints in animation
technology—from the first optical toys in the early nineteenth century
to the standard cel animation system in the twentieth century—resulted
in an aesthetics of discrete and limited temporal changes, the
interfaces of computer animation software quickly led to a new
aesthetics: the continuous transformations of all visual elements
appearing in a frame (or of the singular image filling the frame).

This feature of contemporary motion graphics makes it particularly
suited to cultural analytics approach. It is quite easy for software
to measure any visual parameter in each frame - amount of motion, hue,
saturation, texture, shapes, lines, edges, etc - and then visualize
how each of these parameters change over time. We can then see the
patterns of change and compare them across thousands of works. (Of
course the same approach works for feature length animation or any
other forms of moving image.)

Here is an example of how such graphs look:


In this example I compare four different works:



columns (left to right):
Betty Boop cartoon, 1930s;
Bjork  music video, 2005;
 3D computer animation by Ann Lislegaard (Crystal World, after J. G.
Ballard), 2006
video for “Go” by Common, directed by Convert/MK12/Kanye West, 2005

Row 1 (top row) =  key frames
Row 2 (next from the top down) -  a "slice" through a video
Row 3: visualization of changes in average (mean) brightness level
(each vertical line corresponds to the average brightness of each
Row 4: same information as a normal graph
Row 5: graph which shows frame differences (the number of pixels which
change from frame to frame)

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