Animations: Bringing Projects to Life
By David Coalter
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 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. 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. 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
Defense contractor presentations can make excellent use of animation to demonstrate concepts of operations or CONOPS for short. They can be used as proposal attachments, openings to oral presentations, or marketing communications materials. Traditionally a defense contractor’s customer is an advocate for the conceptual idea and feasibility of the program. Unfortunately high level budgetary decision makers are often non-technical. These customers often request multiple copies of these animations so they can explain a complex concept in 5 minutes to higher level individuals and generate a positive buzz in the local program office. If they have a clear understanding of the concept the program will be more likely to get the green light.
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.
Across 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.
Real estate has exposed many condominium buyers to sophisticated architectural walkthrough animations that include photorealistic representations. These animations have been instrumental in persuading people to make a huge commitment.
How it’s done
Once the engineers have decided to develop an animation for their program/project, they need to assemble data and information, raw materials for the animator to work with. This can be everything rom sketches and photographs to CAD files. Electronic files (particularly the many specialized variants of CAD) may need to be converted to common animation file formats. Animators typically have available file conversion programs for this purpose.
Typically a few meetings are required with the animator to brief them on the project. If the animator has an engineering background this can greatly accelerate this process. 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 and/or script. Once the work is in progress, the animator will usually e-mail still frames and test animations from various key moments in the animation for the engineering firm’s approval. That way the engineers can direct the animation’s progress. These “preview” 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. Animations can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months to complete. Generally, complexity = time and cost. Cost is as flexible as time, and can range from 5K to upwards of 40K.
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 animations 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 (24 per second) communicate faster than words. So, long before the client’s eyes glaze over from data overload and jargon fatigure, the “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 highly realistic with some abstract technical detail. 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.
David Coalter is Animation Director for Coalter Digital LLC. He has 10 years of Mechanical and Systems engineering experience coupled with expertise in animation and visual effects. His clients include Harris Corporation, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin among others. Several of his animated concepts of operations have been used to brief Congress.