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Chapter 16. Animation

Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation.

Walt Disney

As Walt Disney noted, animation is largely about explanation. Rotating an object provides information about shape and form. Doing a simulated walkthrough of a building gives a sense of how it would feel to be inside the building. Watching a character's facial expressions provides insight into the emotions the character is feeling.

With the latest graphics hardware and the OpenGL Shading Language, we can do even more realistic rendering in real time on low-cost graphics hardware. I was somewhat surprised when I found out how easy it was to animate programmable shaders. By developing shaders that modify their behavior over time, we can turn over even more of the rendering task to the graphics hardware.

This chapter describes how a shader can be written to produce an animation effect. Typically, the animation effect is controlled by one or more uniform variables that convey an application's sense of time. These variables pass a frame count, an elapsed time value, or some other value that can be used as the basis for chronology. If there are multiple objects in a scene and they are expected to animate in different ways, each object is rendered with its own unique shader. If objects have identical characteristics other than the animation effect, the source code for each of the shaders can be the same except for the portion that defines the animation effect.

A shader can be written to behave differently depending on these control values, and so, if they are updated at each frame, the scene is drawn slightly differently in each frame to produce the animation effect. Discontinuities in cyclical motion can be avoided by design, with a smooth overlap whereby the end of the cycle wraps back to the beginning. By controlling the animation effect in an OpenGL shader, the application need not perform any complex computations to achieve this motion. All it needs to do is update the control value(s) of each frame and redraw the object. However, the application can perform animation computations in addition to the animation effects built into a shader to produce extremely interesting effects.

Interesting animation effects can be created with stored textures, procedural textures, noise, and other mechanisms. In this chapter, we describe simple animation effects and discuss shaders for modifying the shape and position of an object and for simulating an oscillating motion.

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