The WorldsAway Art Process by Sheryl Knowles - WorldsAway Art Director

Originally published in the New Radio World News in March 1999. Reprinted with Sheryl's permission in 2020. Copyright to Sheryl Knowles.

The decision as to what art is needed in the WorldsAway project comes from many sources: the Art Director, the World Designer, the World Manager, or Marketing - depending on customer and partner requirements and requests. The Art Director is the ultimate authority on what art will and will not be drawn. Blame it on me.

Art for the WorldsAway project has three distinct stages. One person may handle all three tasks or three separate people may handle the tasks, depending on scheduling. All are Artists, but the division of labour is Renderer, Processor, and World Builder

The Renderer draws the art on a computer using any art program he or she is comfortable with, as long as the finished file is in a format readable by the Processing programs. We tend to use Electronic Art's Deluxe Paint, Adobe's Photoshop, and Jasc's Paintshop Pro, although we have used others - including 3D packages - at times in the past. Because of the WA feature that allows art to be "paintable", almost all art is drawn in no more than 16 colours from the part of the palette we call "replaceable" or "imaginary" colours. This allows the World Builder to substitute any of the other 200+ colours in the WA palette for the original replaceable colours in the final steps of world building. For many artists, this is the most difficult part in the conception of a piece of art, for what they see is definitely not what the user gets.

A piece of art that will be used as an object is usually rendered in three (or more views): front, side, and back. Head art is rendered in three views and with four animated expressions: normal, happy, sad, and angry. Complicated animation is broken apart into "pieces". For instance, an avatar may have only 3 torsos (in 3 views) but will have dozens of arms and legs which, when put back together, create the 600 frames of animation that go into an avatar. Frequently the arms and legs are broken apart into component pieces as well: upper arm, forearm, hand, thigh, calf, foot. A single file may include a hundred separate pieces of art. Avatars are the most complicated animations we do and they can take from 1 to 4 months to render and then another 3-6 months to process.

For most animations, we don't bother using an animation program. We tend to draw each "cell" of animation as a separate file. This is because the proprietary processing programs we use do not accept the file formats of the most commonly available animation programs. In other words, we tend to do animation very much like Saturday morning cartoons used to be drawn - relying on the artist's eye to know that the animation will work without 'flip book' feedback.

The animations are actually rebuilt and animated by the Processor in Macromedia Director4 or in Ray Tobey's Animax. However, the files built by the Processor are far more than simple animations. All art is put through processing in Director or Animax because the Processor has to build a "state engine" for every single object file. This is essentially a programming task, but requires an artist's eye. The Processor has to take all the pieces (torso, arms, legs, etc.) and actually build the entire frame of an object or an animation - just the way the renderer envisioned it. A mis-placement by as little as a single pixel can make the art look and behave wrongly. Then the processor has to place all the appropriate labels and hot spots precisely so that the animation engine can recognize the state engine's "program".

When the object file is finished, it must be converted to the WA proprietary format, tested, and checked into the database. Then it becomes available to the World Builders and the Cataloguer. (We keep a paper catalogue of all art - which never seems to be complete given that new art is being produced every day)

The World Builder uses a proprietary tool called Scene Builder to create the underlying structure for a new world or area. She or he determines how each locale will link to the next, generally following a "logical map" provided by the world designer. Then, calling up files from the database, the World Builder literally builds each locale from the ground up, determining each file's x-y-z placement in virtual space and colouring and arranging all art in as effective a manner as possible to facilitate the Purpose the World Designer has specified for that locale.

Then the locales are tested to make sure that all that must be is immobile and that overlapping and relative positioning within the x-y-z co-ordinates interferes as little as possible with the "suspension of disbelief" we are trying to achieve within the WA virtual realities. At that point, it is up to the World Manager to decide when to open an area or make available an object to the users of the WA worlds.