Animations: Bringing Projects to Life
Canadian Consulting Engineer Magazine, Oct-Nov 2008
by Mike Efford
Using 3D animations can
be a powerful tool for engineers
to overcome communication barriers and help them
explain technical concepts to non-engineers.
Many small and medium
size engineering firms are overlooking a potent,
made-in-Canada resource to sell their ideas: 3D computer
animation. I do not mean the CAD variety, used to
communicate amongst engineers, but animation created
with the same software used in film and television
productions, and created by professional animators.
Canada helped pioneer 3D animation. Companies like
Alias/Wavefront and SoftImage developed the industry's
leading software. Our training infrastructure is second
to none. MacLean's magazine has called Canada's Sheridan
College "the Harvard of animation schools -- on a
worldwide basis." Canadian animators are in huge demand
south of the border and constitute a large portion of
Hollywood's animation and special effects studios. Some
of the media-savvy large firms are using animations, but
smaller firms could also capitalize on this public
Building a shared vision
Engineering firms need all the help they can get in
creating a shared vision, and animation is the ideal
medium to quickly demonstrate an engineering concept to
a mixed audience. Many engineering firms must make
presentations to completely different stakeholders; for
example landowners, corporations who own large
industrial properties, financiers, law firms and
government bureaucrats. Creating a shared vision across
a group like that is costly, time-consuming in the
extreme and ultimately exhausting. Some of the most
influential decision makers among them are
non-technical. But at the end of the day they must all
see through the engineer's eyes if the deal is to
Herding a group of cats like that to see your vision is
possible with 3D animation. No other medium can match it
for demonstrating a quick summary of even the most
complex engineering concept.
Alcatel, a large multinational, won a $650-million
contract using animations to present a train signaling
system to financiers and upper level managers for the
London Tube subway. The 3D animations showed each piece
of gear operating at the right moment in a synchronized
sequence of action. The viewpoint transitioned from a
bird's-eye overview of the system's radar arrays to
close-ups of onboard equipment.
Animation is the visual equivalent of a "sound bite." It
is easy to understand, memorable, and ideal for packing
the most information into the shortest presentation
time. And time is largely what animation is all about.
Since a 3D animation is completely digital, built from
wireframe models and digital textures, all its
components can be controlled to the maximum -- even more
than with video. Time can be stretched and compressed to
suit the needs of the presenting engineer.
Where it's useful
Animation can be a real wake-up call. For example, the
slow effects of weather on a heritage building that
needs restoration could be animated at fast-forward to
make the client aware that their property needs serious
attention from a consulting engineer, and soon. The
coastline of Barbados is constantly being eroded by wave
action that undercuts the cliffs and seriously threatens
restaurant and hotel structures near its edge. One smart
geo-engineering firm used animation to demonstrate what
would happen over the march of time if an engineered
solution was not implemented.
Across North America there is a trend towards
sustainable design, or building "green." With this
change comes more regulation and Here again animations
can help. Increasingly projects have to go through
public consultations, where visual presentations are
required to show that engineered structures will not
have a negative effect on the environment. The project
proponents have to secure public buy-in and the public
has been conditioned to expect a high degree of realism.
The immersive realism of popular digital entertainment
such as video games has raised the bar considerably on
Canada's real estate boom has exposed many thousands of
condominium buyers to sophisticated architectural
walkthrough animations that include photorealistic
representations. These animations have been instrumental
in persuading people to make a huge commitment.
Consulting engineers can engage the public through the
medium of immersive computer animation that effectively
showcases the green aspects of their designs.
Civil and transportation engineering presentations can
make excellent use of animation to demonstrate projects.
As well, HVAC engineers can use animation to demonstrate
the dynamic flow patterns of air, heat and steam. An
"X-ray" animation of a building can reveal a 3D
schematic of its interior spaces, using hot and warm
colours plus moving arrows and animated wave textures.
With such a presentation the viewer can experience a
building's HVAC system as the almost living, breathing
creation it really is. My studio is currently developing
an animation of the Enwave deep lake cooling system to
demonstrate how 4°C water from 83 meters deep in Lake
Ontario will cool a proposed waterfront development in
downtown Toronto. Green technology, and all about flow.
For public projects especially, a green presentation
will be more likely to get the green light.
How it's done
Once the engineers have decided to develop an animation
of their project, they need to assemble data and
information, raw materials for the animator to work
with. This can be everything from sketches and
photographs to CAD files. Electronic files (particularly
the many specialized variants of CAD) may need to be
output or converted to common animation file formats
such as .DXF, .3DS, .OBJ, .LWO etc. Animators typically
have available file conversion programs for this
purpose. Sketches and photography can be surprisingly
useful to an animator, as well.
Typically a few meetings are required with an animator
to brief them on the project. After you have established
a working relationship, though, the briefing stage can
be minimal and an engineer can sometimes just hand off
drawings with a short explanation. Once work is in
progress, the animator will usually e-mail still frames
from various key moments in the animation for the
engineering firm's approval. That way the engineers can
direct the animation's progress. This "preview frame"
process works well when the company has many decision
makers, even when they're scattered around the globe.
The total development time required for a 3D animation
of an engineering project will vary according to how
quickly and thoroughly engineers can provide project
data, the complexity and scope of the project, and the
degree of realism required. Personally I have completed
animations in as little as two weeks and as long as
several months. Generally, complexity = time. Cost is as
flexible as time, and can range from $3,000 or $4,000 to
five figure sums.
Presenting to your
Ultimately, whatever the engineering vision and the
creative techniques used, an animation needs to be
integrated into your overall presentation if it is to be
persuasive. An excellent way to proceed is to show the
animation near the beginning of a presentation to
introduce the engineered design quickly and concisely.
Then, you can capitalize on the momentum created. Flesh
out that vision with detailed explanation, data and
specs. The beauty of this approach is that moving
pictures (30 per second) communicate faster than words.
So, long before the client's eyes glaze over from data
overload and jargon fatigue, they "get it." People are
far more receptive to an idea once they are introduced
to it properly. And first impressions count. The visual
impact of an animation like this is key. It should be
mostly highly realistic with some abstract technical
detail (e.g. cutaways etc.). The animation must succeed
in immersing the client in the engineer's world -- in
Animation opens the door, then the engineer walks the
client through it.
Copyright - Mike Efford. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.