The Paperless Studio
Paperless 101
Old meets new: A Tablet PC makes its home in Mike Caputo's animation desk
Mike Caputo · October 16, 2003 | Are we ready for the paperless studio?

Purists will hold fast to the there-is-nothing-that-can-replace-paper-and-pencil thing, but the fact remains that technological progress can't be stopped, and it creeps into every aspect of our personal and professional lives. This is especially true in the field of animation. While it's true that right now, today, shooting digital video or high def isn't the same as shooting film, you're deluding yourself if you think that it will never be as good. Similarly, drawing on a computer either through a Wacom tablet or right on the screen of a Tablet PC isn't the same as drawing on paper. But it will be, and in some ways it's better (even today).

And sometimes it doesn't matter if it's better or even as good as. Look at the proliferation of digital still cameras. Some take pictures barely as well as disposable film cameras, yet people are buying them up and using them. It's all about immediate feedback.

Animation is quite a bit different from other art forms. It is dependent on technology for its creation (hey, the zoetrope was state of the art at the time!), requires some form of technology for viewing, it consumes vast amounts of resources during creation, and teams often create it. And it takes a great deal of time. For these reasons, it is expensive. Any tool, therefore, that can cut down the resources used or the amount of people involved or the time needed to create a film should be embraced, or at least looked into.

And now, technology has invaded that last bastion of pencil and paper: the sloping surface of the animator's desk. I'm talking about the Tablet PC.

Drawing tablets for computers are nothing new. I've had one since I had my first Mac in 1987, and have never had a computer without a Wacom since. I can't stand using a mouse, and bring in my own Wacom tablet when working on site for a client if I know he doesn't already have one.

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About four years ago Wacom introduced the Cintiq tablets, drawing tablets with built-in LCD screens. At last, you could draw right on the screen! There were two drawbacks, though: the Cintiq had to be connected to a desktop computer, and you had to mortgage your house or sell your car to afford one. (They've come down in price since then.)

Last fall, we took another step closer on the road to the digital sketchpad: the introduction of the Tablet PC. A Tablet PC is in essence a notebook computer with a touch-sensitive screen. Running Windows XP Tablet Edition, they come in several styles. Most have either a 10'' or 12'' screen, and are either a "slate" or "convertible" model. Slate PCs have a detachable keyboard and no internal drive except a hard drive (no CD or DVD drive). Convertible models look and feel like traditional notebook computers, but have a fancy hinge at the base of the screen that allows the screen to flip around and fold down, face up, covering the keyboard. These tend to be larger and heavier than the slate models.

Although both the 10'' and 12'' screens have the same resolution (1024x768), the 12'' model has a little more breathing room when drawing, almost equivalent to drawing on an 11-field. I find this to be barely big enough; the 10'' screen would certainly not cut it, and if not for the full-screen modes that some drawing software offers, the 12'' wouldn't cut it, either. The screens are pressure-sensitive to 256 levels. While not as refined as a Wacom Intuos tablet, it seems to be fine for most work.

My intention was to replace my animation disk with my Tablet PC, so I had a friend build a "carrier" for it that fit into the hole in the desk. It looks like an animation disk, but lacks the sliding rulers, and is a little thicker. The computer sits comfortably inside it after we cut notches for the necessary cabling.

It's possible to use it without either the power adaptor or the keyboard attached, but the battery only lasts about two hours if the screen brightness is turned all the way up (you don't want to turn it down too much), and the keyboard is essential in just about any application you use. Windows XP Tablet Edition includes a virtual keyboard that is always accessible and can pop up on screen upon command, but it gets in the way. Having the keyboard right there at your non-drawing hand's fingertips makes it easy to hit all those keystrokes in Photoshop or Painter or Toon Boom that let you change tools, hide palettes, go to full-screen mode, or pan the image around.

So what software do you run on this? Anything that runs under Windows, including Photoshop, Painter, and (a personal favorite) Toon Boom Studio. I'm going to get into the software and using it on a Tablet PC next time, as well as how it integrates into a digital studio.

New Tablet PCs are still pricey, starting at around $1800 or so, but I bought mine (a remanufactured Gateway, made by Motion Computing) on eBay for about $1400. Still not cheap, but you have to look at it like a device that streamlines production, a tool for saving time.

Quite a bit has changed since my first column years ago for fps. The focus is still about doing it on the low end, but computers are vastly faster and exponentially cheaper, the software has grown more powerful, and we can now author and burn DVDs right from the desktop. Today, we have digital video cameras that can shoot stills, still cameras that can shoot video, and Internet access everywhere. It won't be long before we see a Norman McLaren-type film shot entirely with someone's cell phone.

You may not be ready for the paperless studio, but it's coming.
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