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Warner Brothers Scene Preview Technical Paper Review

by Stuart Bonwit

Washington Apple Pi Journal, March/April 2000, p. 20, reprint information

The SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) Journal for October 1999 has a fascinating piece entitled "Implementation of Intranet Scene Preview for Feature Animation," by Leonard J. Reder and Gene Takahashi. It describes a system with which every member of the team producing a feature animation from top management down to the lowliest inbetweener can have access to review any scene in the feature in its latest stage of development. The scenes are stored as QuickTime video clips and are available through a Netscape browser on the Warner Bros. Intranet and viewed mostly on Macs. That Intranet is cyberspace within Warner Bros. behind a very thick firewall.

Each scene may be in any stage of development: story reel of sketches; mechanical tests (for example, camera moves); ruff (their consistent spelling of rough); clean up; and final (color) animation. A scene is described as a continuous "take" without switching camera position; camera and lens moves are OK within a "scene." When any person on the team accesses a scene, its stage of development is clearly stated in a subtitle within the frame with the date and time of the latest update. A person working on a particular scene may want to see the scenes immediately preceding and following his/her own to insure continuity.

The final animation is stored as individual high resolution TIFF frames on magnetic tape for transfer to film. During the course of the film's development all the scenes in their latest stage are stored on tape. However, this data is not available to the large staff working with non-workstation computers. So, "software was developed to automatically generate QuickTime movies and to create HTML (HyperText Markup Language) pages for accessing them...The software ran automatically every night and made updates to the web pages while generating new QuickTime files for scenes that had changed." It even generated an e-mail message addressed to the whole team each morning notifying them exactly which scenes had been changed.

The generated QuickTime movies are created in two resolutions (both less than the final): low resolution 320x240 pixel frames compressed with the Apple Video codec (coder/decoder) (just the way I do it!); and higher resolution 720x540 pixel JPEG compressed. "The 720x540 format is D-1 video compatible resolution used in desktop nonlinear editing systems." (Note: D-1 is a standard digital format used by television program producers.) The user can choose between resolution and download time. All scene resolutions are recorded at the standard motion picture 24 frames per second.

The download speeds were indicated (not all listed here):


Machine (CPU)/Network connection:

Download speed (Kbytes/sec):

SGI (Silicon Graphics, Inc.) (R4400 MIPS 250 MHz)/ATM


Windows NT PC (Pentium II 133 MHz)/10baseT


Macintosh 9600 (PowerPC 350 MHz)/10baseT


NextStep PC (Pentium II 133 MHz)/10baseT


Macintosh 7500 (PowerPC 100 MHz)/10baseT


The process starts with a story reel of sketches that are locked after approval of the director. Temporary or final dialog is added. The reel is then broken down into individual scenes. The ruff stage of each scene results from a series of drawings by animators either by hand or computer and may omit frames. After the director approves these scenes, they are entered for the first time on the Web. Scenes on the Web in ruff stage are labeled "(Ruff Animation (r)." Next comes the clean up stage where image quality is improved and missing frames are created and inserted. These scenes are labeled "Clean Up Animation (c)." After clean up animation is approved, the scene goes into the final color stage involving many departments to insure that colors are correct and consistent. This stage is labeled "Final Animation (f)."

So far, this review has covered the first two pages of the paper. Twelve pages follow going into infinite detail on how the HTML and the web pages are created, and describing flow charts of the updating process and network configuration. Suggested enhancements of the system include streaming rather than downloading scenes and the addition of serving automatically assembled sequences of scenes.

Being in the middle of making my own homegrown animation, I felt a close kinship to the folks at Warner Bros. whom I have never met!

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Revised March 16, 2000 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
URL: http://www.wap.org/journal/