Futurama Animation

I’ve been watching Futurama on Adult Swim and some of the animation is spectacular. When the show first debuted, I read an interview with Matt Groening who said that they were doing a new kind of computer animation with the program, but he never gave any more details (other than they were constantly having to “dial back” the effects lest the viewer be totally overwhelmed). Anyone know the geeky details?

My guess is that he’s referring to a recent trend to also invade the gaming industry. It’s a process known as “cell-shading”. It essentially makes a 3-Dimensional computer object look “flat”, or 2-D if you will. It simplifies the color scheme; for example, if you have a light source shined on a round object in real life, the object will display copious shades of color depending on the position and distance of the light source (if the object is red, it will be lighter near the light source and gradually get darker the further away the part of the object is from the light source). With “cell-shading”, these colors are minimized, perhaps to only a 2-color scheme. So if the light source is on top of the object, the top half will appear a lighter shade while the lower half will be a slightly darker shade, mimicking hand drawn art.

Another use of cell-shading is to add a black border around a polygonal model, also to help it blend it with the cartoon. You can see both aforementioned effects frequently in Futurama, especially with their spaceship.

I think another thing might be multiple animation cells. Granted, I don’t know a lot about animation, but from what I gather there is a cell that has all the moving stuff on top of a background cell that doesn’t change. I think that Futurama uses multiples layers of moving cells, so that there is a moving foreground, moving middle ground, and a stationary background. I think this account s for the way things look. I know that sometimes gthe way objects move seems “weirder” than regular animation, maybe this is why?

boub - if Groening said ‘new,’ then that isn’t it - Fleischer was a master of that multiple layers effect in the 30’s.

I swear it was an honest typo.

I remember that episode of the simpsons when homer got trapped in a 3-dimensional world. this may have been groening’s first use of computer animation. I thought it was some incredible stuff.

I was going to suggest cel-shading also. It basically gives 3-dimensional objects/animations a “flat” look by simplifying the color gradients and reactions to light sources. While it might not seem like much, think about how hard it would be for traditional hand-animators to draw sweeping camera movements around and through objects, and keep everything precisely in proper perspective. Modeling and animating everything in 3D makes this very easy, providing for an amazingly accurate sense of “correctness” in such shots where you may be zooming through an asteroid field (or city, as in the title sequence), rotating the camera in an interesting way, etc. The movement of things will seem more natural. Then, to keep it looking like real animation and not some cheap “Toy Story” imitation, flattening the colors and drawing the borders around the objects gives it at least the illusion of traditional animation.

I noticed from the 1st ep of Futurama that sometimes movements seemed much smoother than in previous animation, like often when the spaceship moves for example. I assumed there was some kind of CGI “help” to assist the animation process.

I like it. I like “pure” CGI, like “Toy Story”, but I always hoped that computers could be used to make classic-looking animation, like from the Golden Age of Warner Bros, but with a lot less effort and expense.

Someone wrote a tutorial on cel-shading for the modeling software that I use. Some more advanced software will probably do this automatically (or through a plug-in) if you want it to. The tutorial should give a basic idea, at least in the pictures, of the process:


Notice the donut in the original picture, a nice, round donut. The last picture shows the same object as it would appear after cel-shading. Basically what this guy does is removes all light sources from the scene so that the gradients and shadows will not be rendered at all. So, the whole scene is pitch-black. Then he sets the object to the color he wants and gives it an ambient light value, meaning that it will “glow” evenly across all of its surfaces without having to be lit by a light source. This makes it show up looking “flat.” Note that if you added a light source now, it would create shadows and you’d go back to the 3D-looking donut.

Discreet makes a 3d software product called 3DS Max (Used to be 3D Studio Max). It comes with what they call a “toon” renderer that creates animation cell effects. The program gives you a great deal of control over the look of the coloring and ink outlines. It’s likely that (or a similar program) is what they use in Futurama as well as other animated films.

The obvious advantage is that it is very dificult to smoothly hand animate complex objects like spaceships performing complex menuvers or changes of camera angle.

I’ve heard of a similar technique for outlining, to be used with a free 3D program called POV-Ray. The idea is to make a slightly-larger clone of an object, coloured black and somewhat transparent. A direct view of the surface looks normal (since you’re looking through only a thin layer), but around the edges you look edgewise through the larger copy and see the black. That does allow shading and shadows if you want them, or you can use only ambient lighting as in troub’s linked tutorial.

Neat tricks, both of them!

This is definately Cel-Shading. There are a lot of programs and add ons for programs similar to 3DS Max that do this. So it’s not clear on which program was used. I noticed this right off and loved it totally. I noticed the smooth 3 dimensional quality of the animation. You can see all sides of the buildings and of course the space ship. The transitions from one side of the ship are far too smooth and the perspective looks far too perfect for this to have been created with human hands. I think for a computer cartoon rendering, this has to be one of the best. I love it. And it’s also SUPER funny.


I personally think it’s funnier than the Simpsons, though only marginally. The Simpsons is hilarious.

So cel-shading is specifically for giving a cartoon-like quality to the image? Interesting - I always wondered how they did that. I find it very distracting when they mix conventional (photo-realistic) CG with animation, like in some of the Disney animated movied in the 90s.

Not always, but generally. A game known as Rouge Leader used the technique for highlighting targets to help stand out from the background.

The new Zelda game uses cel-shading throughout the entire game to accurately portray it as a cartoon. I’ve included a link to images from the game, looks hand drawn, doesn’t it?