Outlook: 3D animation & design in 2023
Chris Carmichael
Issue: November/December 2022

Outlook: 3D animation & design in 2023

3D animation and design are everywhere. From big-budget VFX movies to advertising to social videos on our phones, the demand for animated content has been on a steady incline for many years now. The 3D animation and design industry has long relied heavily on evolutions in technology to push boundaries. Complex 3D scenes requiring animating and rendering of things like photorealistic products and scenes, digital humans and detailed physics simulations were once reserved only for bigger productions, which could facilitate a budget worthy of allowing the time and team required to create such things. 

Over the past year, at our studio Where The Buffalo Roam (WTBR), we’ve seen an increasing number of clients wanting these types of high-fidelity animations and rendering. Thanks to the ever-evolving technology surrounding 3D, we’ve continued to push forward and adopt new techniques, which are allowing artists to create more detailed, higher-quality imagery in faster times. So, let's dive into a few of these advancements and talk about how we might see 3D animation and design evolve in 2023.

Simulating the physical world: Unlocking the power of the GPU

GPUs pack an exponentially-greater amount of computing power compared to a standard CPU. In most cases, a GPU packs Teraflops versus Gigaflops – or multipliers of thousands of times – more computing power. GPU rendering has taken off over the past 10 years, helping to push the limits of photorealism within time constraints, but now, we are also seeing greater adoption among 3D software companies for other 3D tasks running on the GPU, such as complex dynamics simulations and simulating real physical interactions of objects in 3D scenes. 

Programs such as Janga FX Embergen, which does near realtime simulations of complex smoke, particles and fire, is a great example of this. Using Embergen, these scenes can be simulated in hours, if not in realtime, instead of days. This type of GPU implementation is also being adopted by popular 3D animation and VFX applications across the board. This shift to the GPU allows for more complex animations in timelines that were not previously achievable. This shift, along with tools getting more user-friendly, will certainly increase the number of animations and designs that are incorporating dynamic physics simulations; for example, animations of products made of squishy, cloth-like materials, and smoke and fire simulations. 

Realtime rendering

With advancements in rendering, we have begun to see a steady increase in usage of realtime render engines, such as Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, becoming used more and more in animations now that these engines are able to produce higher fidelity photorealistic results in realtime. Not only does rendering a scene in realtime allow for faster turnarounds of content, but it also has the added advantage of being highly interactive with inputs from the real world. Virtual production has adopted these tools in shows like The Mandalorian, utilizing a virtual background and camera to replace a more traditional greenscreen approach, but I think we will also see more and more interactive pieces leveraging realtime rendering to combine interactivity with high-quality renderings for ads, social, art gallery works and concert visuals. 

Web 3D

With 3D APIs for the web, like OpenGL, WebGL and Vulkan getting better and better, 2023 will, without question, start to see greater use cases of web-based 3D integrations across advertising, e-commerce and beyond. This, combined with broadband internet speeds increasing steadily and 3D model capturing tools getting cheaper and easier to use, may be a catalyst for wider adoption of Web 3D. 

Capturing the real world: Photogrammetry and motion capture

Photogrammetry and motion capture are nothing new in the 3D world, but for many years, high-end motion-capture suits, like those used in big production films, have been out of reach for the average artist. A company by the name of Rokoko has tightened this gap with their full-body Smartsuit, capable of recording actors' motions, as well as facial expressions, at a price point that’s well within reach for a small studio or even an individual freelancer. Combined with handheld devices becoming capable companions for processes like photogrammetry using apps like Polycam, which turns a set of photos into a 3D scanned object, this will result in a more fluid experience capturing and recreating the world around us in 3D. 

The elephant in the room: AI image generation and beyond

Surely at the forefront of many artists' minds looking forward to 2023 is AI and what its effect will be in the industry. It’s a hot topic of debate, and rightfully so, as many of these AI algorithms can create beautiful imagery in a matter of minutes, which would take an artist with traditional tools hours, days or weeks. The capabilities of AI to generate high-quality artwork have grown 10-fold just this year, and it seems every month the results keep getting better and better. We’re already beginning to see AI diffusion models integrating directly into 3D applications for things like texture generation, but it’s looking like 2023 will be a big year for AI tools going beyond just texture and image generation, and into creating full-on 3D models and videos. 

The implications of AI in the animation and design industry in its current state are rather ambiguous. On the one hand, we as artists can’t help but feel a little alarmed by something that could perceivably do our jobs for us, and possibly much faster. On the other hand, it opens up art and creative expression to thousands, if not millions, of people who were perhaps never great at drawing, painting or art in general, and can now create beautiful things and express themselves. As someone who spends hours upon hours every day, begrudgingly hunched over a computer in a tiny office designing and animating, there is something very freeing about the speed at which I can get ideas out using AI tools. Surely, we will continue to see more and more of these tools in 2023. 

In the end, I think the “wow factor” of AI art starts to fade the moment someone knows it was generated by AI. What was once extraordinary becomes ordinary, and in the end, it all comes back to the basics: the story. As artists, we need to focus on the heart of the idea, the emotion it elicits, and the tale it tells. After all, this is what drew most of us to become artists in the first place. Concept and idea will become king to executional luster. The tools we use to express our ideas have and always will continue to evolve and change, but the individual experiences and stories we tell will forever be unique.

Chris Carmichael is a Designer/Animator with Where The Buffalo Roam (https://wtbr.tv), a creative production company based in Oakland, CA.