CGI Advantages for “The Flash” Animated Series

Today’s guest post is by Dave Huang.

In 2011, Green Lantern is getting an animated series because of the feature film. The executive producer is Bruce Timm of DCAU fame, along with Giancarlo Volpe (director: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Star Wars: The Clone Wars) and Jim Krieg (writer: X-Men Graduation Day, Spider-Man, Ben 10) as producers. With a history of hand drawn animated DC shows, Green Lantern stands out as the first DC show done in CGI. This article considers the advantages of making The Flash the next.

The main reason to consider CGI is GL’s production. Overcome the learning curve for producing a quality superhero CGI show with GL with make the production team veterans for a polished Flash series and keep their experience from going to waste. Although Batman: The Animated Series was the first DCAU show, the universe wasn’t born until Superman: The Animated Series brought us “World’s Finest”. Until then, B:TAS was closed-off, much like GL is currently being developed to be (taking place 98% in space with no anticipated overlap with non-GL DCU at large). S:TAS established the crossovers and serial storytelling that expanded into the production of a full blown, lasting, and lucrative universe. A CGI Flash series following a CGI GL series can play the same role- bridging two worlds- as Flashes and Green Lanterns go together like PB and J… and CGI and The Flash may be a surprising fit.

While The Flash Family is no stranger to animation, their appearances tend to come in brief bursts, in part because of the challenges with bringing a speedster to the small screen in an animated format. On commentary tracks, Timm has remarked how difficult it is to keep Flash in frame and to convey a sense of speed cost-effectively, perhaps accounting for why he said in 2007 that he will probably not do a Flash series. However, some of the strengths — indeed the requirements — of CGI production might change his mind:

Frame Rate – The most basic way of representing super speed is to simply speed up the action for the observer or to slow it down to show the perspective of the speedster. For animation the amount of frames per second is fixed and interpolating the gaps to create the desired illusion by hand can be difficult to say the least. More often than not, the hand drawn effect will “cheat” using another effect or cut away rather than carefully rendering sped up or slowed down scenes. Additionally, the frame rate of hand drawn animation is typically lower (to alleviate the burden of drawing frames) than other video media, meaning the illusion might not work even with the technically correct frames. With CGI, if the animation is procedural (using inverse kinematics rather than individual key frames, for example), the frame rate or speed of any animation can be scaled at will making it easier to make convincing slow motion or sped-up action.

Debris / Particle Effects – Another way to show speed is by showing the speedster’s effect on his environment: whipping winds, clouds of dust, or flying debris. With hand drawn animation drawing all those bits and pieces, much less tracking them to make them behave correctly, is difficult (generally avoided or heavily stylized). With CGI such particle or wind effects can be physics driven (while still stylized). Floating debris with a rotating camera dramatically increases the effect of a slow motion shot and is done with relative ease in CGI compared to hand animation.

Camera Technique – Timm struggled with keeping Flash in frame because hand drawn animation typically uses relatively static and limited backgrounds viewed from a fixed perspective. That means panning is limited to a 2D plane and only over short distances, while changes in perspective require completely cutting to another view. With CGI, the camera is completely unhinged and the environments three dimensional. Panning and dynamic POVs can be used to keep Flash in frame and create the sensation of motion or flight. CGI requires you know where things are in Cartesian space so your hero and camera are less likely to get lost in choreography (compared to the many quick cuts of hand drawn animation).

Detailed Reusable Assets – Part of the reason backgrounds are so limited in hand drawn animation is because they’re often only used once. This limits the details, the angles, the size, and the amount of frames dedicated to any given backdrop or environment and thus a more limited camera. With CGI the effort you put into realizing Keystone City or Central City as a model for Flash to “fly” through continues to pay dividends every time you reuse the setting. This means you can afford to put more detail in- coming closer to city block filled with detail, debris, and rubble drawn by Scott Kolins- giving your environments real character and relying less on abstract shortcuts like all speed-line backgrounds. The precision and detail level of CGI means you can more accurately portray the construction of a building or bridge in a blink of an eye. Hand drawn animation reuses assets too (most notably recycling explosion animations) but CGI assets are more versatile and easily changed.

Additional Effects – Motion blur, light trails, elongations, and deformation are all used to create the sense of speed (the elastic snap of the Enterprise going to warp in TNG) and easily accomplished procedurally through CGI. The Flash also has a penchant for electrical effects, the glow of aura or friction heat, transparency and distortion of ice, the reflections of mirrors, etc. which can be done procedurally with CGI. Although things like realistic flame and water aren’t necessarily cost effective and may require a more stylized approach

The Flash may have struggled with slow motion, fixed perspectives, costly environments to fly through, and frame rate issues in the past but CGI is one way to mitigate those issues and really show off Flash’s speed with enough variety and flare to sustain an entire animated series.

Disclaimers:

  1. I still want a hand drawn direct-to-disc Flash feature.
  2. I am aware of other animation types (like vector-based).
  3. Without budget or time constraints these issues are moot, but this is looking at an animated series with a normal budget.
  4. I’m familiar with anime where super-speed is as prevalent a power as super-strength is in American media, however most anime techniques do not apply to portraying linear speed (where most anime studios will then rely on CGI environments to generate the sense of speed).

4 thoughts on “CGI Advantages for “The Flash” Animated Series

  1. Kyer

    Timm has remarked how difficult it is to keep Flash in frame

    My first reaction to that sentence was: Well, duh! After all that technical jargon going right over my head, I’m sticking with: Well, duh!. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Ken O

    I think during the Justice League’s first two seasons it was Timm who said they had trouble coming up with things to challenge the Flash. Obviously by the time they got to the JLU stuff that got used to working with him and gave him some more to do.

    Reply
  3. Sandor_Clegane

    I just wanted to say this article is very well thought out – and rather convincing, too.

    I suspect we will get a Flash animated series about the time Barry debuts on screen in 2013. At that point, the GL series will already be 2 seasons in. Since these days it seems DC shows last 3-4 years, GL and Flash would only run concurrently for 1-2 years, at best.

    But a team-up? Well, since the DC “U” is no more, a Flash/GL team-up would probably happen on the Flash show, with Hal showing up to visit Barry in Central City.

    But yeah – CGI all the way. Video games (especially car racing games) render speed and collision effects in real time. The Spider-Man CGI show had some fantastic camera movements / 3-D effects that you really can’t get from hand-drawn animation, at least without a lot of intricate planning and a higher production cost. So a Flash CGI series totally makes sense.

    Reply

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