3D medical animation has grown from being an extravagance, to a convenience, to an absolute necessity for explaining surgical procedures and pharmaceutical products. When Ghost Productions produced its very first medical animation in 1994, the experience felt a bit like what Tesla must have experienced at the Chicago World’s Fair. Almost nobody had ever seen electric lighting, much less in such a massive display back in 1893, and in 1994, 3D animation had so far been presented only as an experimental medium in some very expensive advertising campaigns.
A lot has changed since 1994 and what began as an experimental medium has created an entirely new industry in the marketing and education of all possible aspects of healthcare. Ghost Productions has been fortunate enough to have been one of the pioneers of this new technology and helped bring significant improvements to the field along the way. This year the company is gearing up to make even more contributions than ever before.
Ghost Productions is developing new pipelines that make 3D animation in the field of medicine significantly more affordable and accessible to more sectors of the medical industry than ever before. Even more exciting than just affordability are the strategies they are developing for making animation more affordable and increasing the speed and quality at which animations can be produced. It may sound impossible to increase affordability, speed, and price. To be fair, one should always be suspect when they hear claims that violate the laws of triple constraints. In the study of economics, business, and project management, there is only one known factor that makes it possible to improve all three variables; a massive improvement in technology making it possible to apply the principles of automation in a way that doesn’t decrease quality.
Ghost Productions hopes that by reducing the cost, increasing volume, and maintaining or even improving quality, will help 3D medical animation become even more widely utilized in markets that previously couldn’t afford to use such a premium media. The primary methods that Ghost Productions will be developing to make this possible are:
• Increasing the efficiency of the production method
• Utilizing newer and faster technologies and maximizing the computer’s ability to automate redundant tasks
• Building custom pipelines for high volume work capable of reducing cost and time to deliver by as much as half.
Increasing the efficiency of the production method:
Goodbye storyboards, hello animatics! – The traditional production method used to begin with converting a script or outline into a drawn storyboard to create a visual reference to what was going to end up on screen. Ghost Productions has discovered through various methods of trial and error that presenting 3D rough animatics to their clients resulted in better comprehension and required less time than drawing storyboards. Because these rough animatics show a relatively accurate depiction of timing, camera movement, and object orientation, it allows clients and producers to begin having conversations about details sooner that couldn’t be easily conveyed using drawn stills in a storyboard. Also, everything that went into making the animatic is likely to be used in the final animation. This means that from the very beginning, we’re working to build the foundation of a quality end result. This gives each project a significant jumpstart and bypasses a timely process that is no longer necessary because of technologies like realtime rendering that gives instant feedback to producers and clients.
Fewer revisions means faster delivery of the final project at a lower budget. Another improvement new to Ghost’s production method came from a discovery made after completing an exhaustive study of the previous five years of logistical data. The greatest killer of production efficiency, profitability, and delivery time was the number of revisions that each project required. Ghost was regularly producing between 6 and 7 fully animated drafts before achieving the client’s approval to begin the final rendering. Draft animations are a finished grayscale depiction animation except that they are not fully-raytraced movies. Final renders require a substantial commitment in computer processing power that gives a Ghost Productions animation the visual depth and highly polished results seen in their demo reels. Ghost Productions discovered that they could decrease the number of draft revisions per project by investing more care in helping increase the client’s understanding of each element being considered when viewing a draft. Now, their drafts contain critical nomenclature and are 100% accurate to the 3D animation and the final product. Ghost is now spending an average of 1 additional day to produce what they call, RealDrafts, with the hopes that the improvements will dramatically reduce the revision process by helping the client achieve final approval using half as many revisions as before.
Decisive clients will pay less for their project. Changes to policy will also be a big part of Ghost decreasing the cost of the majority of their animations. Ever since the early beginnings Ghost Productions, clients had been offered a Done Right or Done Over (DRoDO) policy that allowed them to make nearly unlimited changes to the production. Ghost even offered clients a set of GoBack revisions to allow clients to make certain amount of changes to a various items in a project even if they had already approved the items in a previous draft. While the DRoDO policy speaks to the spirit of Ghost’s commitment to quality and was created as a direct opposition to other production studios that burned clients with excessive change orders, the numbers couldn’t be ignored. The vast majority of clients didn’t need nearly as many GoBack revisions as were offered and those that did resulted in projects that were inefficient and unprofitable. This made it obvious that Ghost could deliver a high quality product at a lower price to the majority of their clients if the few problematic clients paid for excessive changes and requests that were outside of scope. Ghost’s best clients are conscientious and decisive. These clients make it easy for Ghost to produce high-quality results with a profitable outcome. With this change in policy, those clients will pay less per project. Ghost’s worst clients, on the other hand, who are continually changing elements from draft to draft, sometimes back and forth, will likely pay more for their indecision.
Utilizing newer and faster technologies and maximizing the computer’s ability to automate redundant tasks:
Accelerating the process and working more efficiently means faster feedback and delivery of production assets. Over the past several years, Ghost Productions has logged every minute of every single employee in the company to find out how long each task took to complete. The software that collected the data automatically determined the most significant inefficiencies along the way. This helped the company identify the major problems and allowed them to focus their resources on functional solutions. One of the most offensive time-thieves was discovered in the lighting and shading department on test renders. Because this department is responsible for determining the look of the final animation, they spend most of their day making small adjustments to lights and surfaces of objects and then rendering a preview. Each of these previews took as long as several minutes using even the fastest computers on the market. Making a few hundred slight alterations to an animation’s lighting and shading added up to a significant amount of time every single day for every single artist working in the department.
Progressive and selective rendering to the rescue. In researching the process, it was discovered that every change, no matter how slight, required the software to re-render the entire preview area. This meant that if you rotated a single object 12˚ in a scene with 122 objects, the software was allocating a significant amount of processor time to re-render all 122 objects even if the change would only effect the one rotated object. This lead to the development of a progressive/selective rendering technology that only requires processing time on objects affected by changes. It also renders progressively, meaning that it instantly gives users feedback that appears slightly blurred at first and steadily becomes more refined as the processor calculates the render. This allows artists instantaneous glimpses of their work so they can respond faster and accomplish more in less time.
Delegating redundant tasks to computers reduces human time and error. Computer animation created a radical shift in the capability and capacity of the entire animation industry because computers can automate the majority of the work required by traditional animation. Ghost Productions is taking that even further by developing software that pushes significantly more duties from the artists and animators to the machines. At the end of 2013, the animation studio made significant resource investments in employees capable of designing automation technologies. Much of this investment was dedicated to the rigging department who is responsible for assembling 3D geometry and anatomy and establishing behaviors for their motion that can be easily manipulated by animators down the line. This makes it possible to take a very complex structure, like the human spine for instance, and articulate it into several positions and trust that the computer will know how to properly deform all the tendons, muscles, and connective tissues without any additional human intervention. This allows animators to make changes to 3D objects in seconds instead of spending weeks or months key-framing the thousands of corresponding connective tissues.
Building custom pipelines for high volume work capable of reducing cost and time to deliver by as much as 3/4:
In the same way that the Ford assembly line made automobiles affordable to nearly everyone, Ghost Productions is bringing animation to markets that normally couldn’t afford custom crafted high-quality 3D animation. Producing a single 3D animation for a new client is a bit like building a custom Italian sports car. Each client has their own specific needs and wants and it is very important that each animation be an original work of art. Obviously, it is expensive to have something made that is a one-of-a-kind original, customized to fit the specific tastes and preferences of each customer, but if that client needs not one but several animations that fit the same general design criteria, it is possible create a production pipeline that is capable of creating a large volume of work that excels in both quality and in value. For clients like Spine-Health.com who need hundreds of animation of spinal conditions, injuries, and treatments, Ghost Productions developed a custom 3D animation pipeline that dramatically reduced the time and cost to produce the animations. This pipeline contains all the tools that allow animators to quickly and efficiently deliver high-quality results without building everything from scratch for each animation. Though building a custom production pipeline is still a relatively large commitment, for a client that needs a lot of animation, it is a bit more like buying a fleet of production BMWs instead of a handful of Lamborghini Diablos.