Motion Doodles

UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 6 | Jun.
5, 2003

Software makes computer animation accessible to artists
of all ages

By Gayle Mavor and Michelle Cook

Can’t draw a stick figure to save your life? New software
designed by two Computer Science graduate students may give
hope to all the budding artists out there blessed with more
enthusiasm than skill.

Motion Doodles can quickly turn even very young children
into amateur animators, say its designers Matthew Thorne and
Dave Burke. If you can draw with a pencil, you can use it.
That means anyone, regardless of their computer skill or artistic
ability, can create rudimentary animations.

“In less than a minute, you can have a figure up on
the screen and moving around doing leaps and somersaults,”
says Burke, who worked on developing the software’s character
sketching abilities.

All it takes is a simple swish of your mouse or stylus. In
a two-part process, the software lets you sketch a series
of basic loops representing a human head, torso, arms and
legs. Once you’ve got those seven basic body parts, you
can add hair and hands if you wish. The computer transforms
your doodle into a figure capable of replicating basic (and
some not-so-basic) human motions.

Then the fun really begins. Draw a forward circle with your
mouse and your doodle executes a front flip of Olympian caliber.
Drag your mouse in arcs and your doodle marches forward, with
each arc specifying the length and height of each step. You
can make the figure jump, tiptoe, stomp – whatever suits your
mood. You can even add a few landscape features like trees
and hills. You don’t even need to worry about proportion.
In the world of Motion Doodles, even a stubby legged animation
can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

“You don’t really need any art skills at all to
do this,” says Thorne, who developed the database of
motions that provides the user with choreography choices.

Motion Doodles may seem like a high-tech Etch A Sketch®
toy but in spirit it lies somewhere between the simple interfaces
used in computer games that allow players to steer characters,
and the more difficult-to-use “keyframing” interfaces
that professional animators use to control every aspect of
a character’s motion. There is currently no software
on the market quite like it.

Thorne has been working on developing Motion Doodles since
October 2002 as part of his master’s thesis on how to
“sketch” motion. His principal reference for the
project has been The Animator’s Survival Kit, a book
by Roger Rabbit creator Richard Williams. One of the biggest
challenges has been finding a set of appropriate doodles that
map to the natural motions of the human body.

Just as the musical notation system was created to write
songs or “capture” music hundreds of years ago,
Thorne has had to invent a notation system for motion, says
his thesis supervisor Michiel van de Panne, a Canada Research
Chair in Computer Graphics and Animation.

“We’re designing a new language, a system of shorthand
or gestural notations to create motion that is easy to understand
and use,” says van de Panne.

While the project is in its infancy, Van de Panne hopes it
will lead to more complex sketching software in the future.
The possibilities for both the 2D and 3D versions of Motion
Doodles are open to further exploration. Aside from its potential
as a fun animation tool for artists of all ages, it could
be used to quickly draw storyboards for film animation or
video games. It would also be useful as a choreography tool
for diving, dancing or gymnastics routines.

Before that van de Panne would like to see the software’s
repertoire of motions enlarged and get a prototype into the
hands of amateur animators for testing. After that, don’t
be surprised to see a doodle moonwalking soon on a screen
near you.