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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 relations tool.

Building a shared vision
with non-engineers

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 proceed.

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 presentation quality.

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 4C 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 audience

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 vivid detail.

Animation opens the door, then the engineer walks the client through it.


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Mike Efford Motion Design
69 Skylark Road, Toronto, Ontario Canada