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3D animation helps preserve Indigenous history

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5 December 2011

Countrylines Archive image

A ground-breaking new venture between Monash University’s Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Information Technology (IT) is striving to preserve the history of Australia’s Indigenous population.

When the British flag was first raised in Sydney Cove 222 years ago there were 250 languages spoken by Indigenous Australians. Now, less than half remain.

Through the use of state-of-the-art 3D animation technology, researchers are working to recreate the dreamtime stories of the Yanyuwa people, located on the South-West coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Currently, only a handful of elders are fluent in the language – the last custodians of ancient songs, stories and customs bound up in the vocabulary.

The project itself is fascinating and the technology that underpins it is equally intriguing.

For the last three years, postgraduate researcher Brent McKee has worked to bring these dreamtime stories to life. This year Brent has been joined by Chandara Ung and Michael Lim, to form the Monash Countrylines Archive animation team.

The production process begins with landscapes. From a real 2D image every landscape has been transformed into a virtual world at the hands of Michael who has created the geometry, texture and lighting. Meanwhile, Chandara has painstakingly created dozens of 3D animal models, sculpting not only the external appearance but the internal skeleton, so that each animal can be brought to life through animation.

Finally, these landscapes and characters are compiled into a finished movie file by Brent, who has overseen the creative process involved in the animation, visual design, rendering and sound recording.

“It’s a very time-consuming process. The latest video, which is 15 minutes, has taken the equivalent of 6 months full-time work to complete,” Brent said.

“Take the process of adding colour to an animal; the image must first be ‘unwrapped’ from the 3D animation before you can apply shading and, once this is done, it must be reapplied to ensure that it appears realistically on the screen.”

This is the first time that this type of cinematic 3D animation, previously reserved for movie studios or commercials, has been applied to research by Monash University on such as extensive and consistent scale. According to 3D Animation Team Leader, Dr Tom Chandler this highlights the diverse ways that animation technology can be applied.

“3D Animation is more than just entertainment and special effects. All these models moving around in a simulated space means the medium has its own unique set of capabilities; this project has shown how these capabilities can be applied in a sophisticated manner,” Dr Chandler said.

While it is difficult to quantify the success of the project, the feedback from the Yanyuwa community indicates that it has been well-received and awareness of the cultural issues has improved. Even more encouragingly, four additional communities have expressed their interest in becoming involved in the project.