*Warning – This is an opinion piece about an untested product toting to be a stop motion device. There is no evidence that this device works in a production pipeline and this piece challenges it’s existence.
SMODO a product designed to allow for stop motion hand animated puppetry to be converted into CGI movement has been getting a little buzz in the animation world. The announcement of the SMODO system was made at Annecy’s MIFA market, Pixelatl Festival, along with Animator Pro and Animarkt Stop Motion Forum. The SMODO system is estimated to be released in early 2019 both in an education version and a professional version.
So is this stop motion or just a gimmicky new toy that offers high return for the investment? For one thing the tool is a combination of a ball and socket puppet with colored spheres attached to it to serve as trackers for the custom animation software. This information is recorded using 4 cameras and a custom table matte which is then read by the software and translated to a CGI character rig. We know right now that the software for final animation will be in 3D Studio Max produced by Autodesk. Why this specific software was chosen is unclear given that MAYA is the industry standard for television and film. Plus 3DSMAX is limited to only PC users while Apple Mac users will be left in the dark. This points to some problems given that the majority of stop motion studios in the world are MAC based.
The claim also from SMODO is that the device/system will save the production up to 25% in cost. There is no way to calculate this right now since there is no listed retail sale price for the item anywhere on the internet and no data comparing this to a real production. For one thing the claim by the company that puppets cost a lot of money to produce is basing this on what production? A production by a student who hand builds the puppet in a week using wire, snip foam, and GI Joe Doll clothes, or from the McKinnon & Saunders level production builds which can cost tens of thousands to millions of dollars in a build. The other area focused on was sets, props, and lighting. Honestly without seeing the system battle tested there is no way to get a true bead on the usefulness of this product or how true these statements are.
From personal experience working both in stop motion animation and CGI productions along with motion tracking professionally I can tell you that true 100% stop motion productions are a fraction of the cost of a CGI production. Once stop motion productions incorporate CGI into the pipeline for facial animation or virtual sets there is an increase in the technically advanced pipeline and a whole new set of crew members needed to be involved. Here’s the issue… A set and prop department can build everything needed for a small production in a matter of weeks using cheap materials. These items will get shot on a stage along with a puppet. The animation for each shot can be 3 to 20 seconds or more a day depending on the complexity of the shot. Then it is sent to post production for cleanup and then finalized through edit, color, and sound. A CGI sculpt, texture, rigging, and setup for any kind of motion tracking before animation happens can take a long time. Really good characters, set, and prop builds in CGI take months just to make. Add to this once the tracking has been done it will probably be tweaked by the animation director, lighting fudged with by the DP, then you have the texture artists, the rendering process, and all the compositing that is required to finished the one shot. This instantly takes more people, time, computers, electrical energy, and money… especially money… For comparison LAIKA studios has a whole tractor trailer truck used for rendering CGI data on the KUBO and the Two Strings production.
There are many more questions that need to be asked as well. For one thing can you incorporate objects into the tracking? If you are animating a character using SMODO will the character be able to pick up a chair, walk across the stage, set it down at a table, sit in the chair, and then have a meal? From what I’ve seen of this product the answer is a big “no”. So how is this faster and easier than animating a stop motion puppet in an environment? The next question is can there be multiple characters in one scene being animated at the same time? Also, from what I’ve seen so far this is also a big “no”. Given that the tracking information is done with colored balls and not actual geometry it will be almost impossible for the characters to be tracked individually interacting in the same environment.
Hate to break it to everyone but there is already object tracking software out there that can be modified to allow an artist to hand animate stop motion puppets and bring this tracking information into the computer as animation poses and movements. Don’t believe me? Have a look at NewTek’s NevronMotion plugin for Lightwave3D. With a little modification using python coding an artist could in theory animate a puppet using multiple cameras and bring the data into the software as a motion capture. This is only one in many tracking softwares on the market to compare SMODO too.
So where does SMODO fit into a production pipeline? For one thing it will be great for VR Animation. 3D scanned puppets can be rigged and then animated using the SMODO technology. Video games could also benefit from the technology. But in both of these cases I can only see it being useful for a single hobbyist, tinkerer, or user who doesn’t have access to materials but wants to animate using the stop motion technique. This product definitely will not be of use for major studios since it requires space to be used and is very limited to what it can actually do.
Here’s what the SMODO kit can do to make it worth wild for the animation community and be adapted into the industry.
- First thing is to throw away the armature and focus more on real world object tracking. The armature tracking method will only cost money and hold back the advancement of the concept. Translate the cost of the armature into the technology and trash that odd looking thing that is supposed to be a tracking puppet.
- Next turn the concept more into a multi-platform software instead of a physical product. Stop Motion Enthusiast want to build puppets, sets, and props. That’s part of the whole fun. CGI artists who scan objects into computers love rigging and animating these objects using key poses and tweening. So why make a physical product that instantly isn’t appealing to the masses of either areas of animation? Most stop motion animators also have no knowledge of CGI software or CGI animation. So yeah…
- Lastly, really this is a dead end technology since the future of stop motion and cgi is in multi-camera photogrammetry and laser scanning which will allow multiple cameras to record images frame by frame and build geometry based on the objects in the images by processing them through a software and computer. This is the future of stop motion and not a toy you play with in front of 4 camera’s that forces you to use only one puppet, one type of software, and one type of computer. The future will consist of full stages with puppets being scanned and recorded in 3D without the use of rigs in a CGI software.
In conclusion I have to say without even trying this device I’m very disappointed in the media outlets out there in the world. There has been zero honest reviews and opinions about this device from a technical standpoint. Maybe it’s that those writers have zero experience in a production environment and are just historians. Maybe they are so far removed from the advancement of technology to know that there are already more advanced methods available to artists. Whatever it is the promotion of this product needs to be first hand observed and used in a production before it can go to market. Otherwise it is just an expensive toy that will waste your money and your time trying to get it to work. Want to learn more about SMODO go to: http://smodo.co/eng/
To the SMODO company,
You want to prove me wrong then send me a SMODO.
Sincerely, 3 Time EMMY Winning VFX/CGI/Stop Motion Artist – John Ikuma.
Watch the video below and decide for yourself.