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My introduction to Animusic came in the form of a technical demo that I received with my ATI video card in late 2003. It was a real-time interactive demo of an animated piece called Pipe Dream. I must have watched that demo fifty times. I visited their website and got my hands on a copy of their Special Edition DVD that contained the animation I had seen as well as six others. I enjoyed every aspect of the disc immensely and posted my review (linked at the end of this review). There was also a preview on that disc for Animusic 2 and showed off the first ninety seconds of a new animation called Cathedral Pictures. I have been looking forward to this DVD for a long time.

What is Animusic you say? It is music-driven computer animation. The visuals are created using similar methods that companies like Pixar use and the music is all done digitally using synthesizers. The two elements are put through some proprietary software that takes the MIDI data and synchronizes it automatically within the animation parameters. The task of matching the visuals to the music would be much more difficult if methods like keyframe animation were employed. This way, the song can be changed and the animation is updated accordingly.

Starship Groove
Feature
Animusic 2 features seven brand new animated musical pieces and one returning favourite from their original DVD. Starting things off is ‘Starship Groove’, which has a similar look and feel to ‘Future Retro’ that was the first animation on Animusic. It is set on a spaceship and has five robots playing futuristic-looking instruments. This piece kind of reminded me of Blue Man Group with the two robots in the centre playing the percussion instruments. Next is ‘Pogo Sticks’ which features the character that graced the cover of the first DVD. This time, there are several of these stick figures all playing different instruments as they make their way along narrow wooden planks that bend and curve around, stopping occasionally to pick up other players.

The third piece is called ‘Resonant Chamber’ and it is the mellowest one on the disc. Wayne Lytle, the director, says they like to have one of these pieces on each disc. There are generally not too many things happening at once in this animation and it gives the viewer a chance to slow down and take note of each different component. The fourth piece, ‘Cathedral Pictures’ is the first animation that has been done to pre-existing music. Hewlett-Packard approached them about creating an animation that they could use to demo their high-end projectors and wanted it to be done in high-definition as well as to a recognizable piece of music. This six-minute animation features excerpts from 'Pictures at an Exhibition', originally done by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. It is definitely the most detailed and complex animation on the disc.

Pogo Sticks
Fifth on the list is ‘Pipe Dream 2’, a redux of the most popular piece from the first DVD. Instrument-wise, it is identical to the original, which means that the creators were able to throw some new MIDI data at it, and a new animation was automatically created. Of course, camera moves needed to be tweaked as the point of focus is often different. Lighting is slightly different and the set has been 'aged' a bit. Next is ‘Fibre Bundles’ and it is my personal favourite on the disc musically as well as visually. It resembles some sort of 'alien brain' with electric pulses travelling down fibres activating a particular part of the brain. It has got a great beat and the colouring really sets the mood, plus it's just a very cool design!

The seventh animation is called ‘Gyro Drums’ and as Mr. Lytle mentioned in the commentary, it was the most troublesome to get right. From a creative standpoint, this is one of the more impressive animations. It is basically a huge gyroscope that gets assembled over the course of the song and by the end it has four sets of arms banging on drums that are situated all over the place. Impressive stuff! The last piece on the disc kind of 'leaves you out there' similar to how ‘Harmonic Voltage’ did on the first DVD. ‘Heavy Light’ takes place at an ancient temple with columns that rise to reveal additional instruments, all powered by different kinds of light. This is another wonderful piece as it is really neat to see how the different sounds are produced.

My initial reaction to watching the main program through in its entirety was that it was not quite up to the standards of the first DVD. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed these new animations a great deal and after having watched it through several times now, most of the pieces have grown on me. The Animusic team set the bar very high with the original animations and while Animusic 2 is undoubtedly worth owning, those originals tend to still be the ones I prefer.

Resonant Chamber
Video
The release of Animusic 2 was pushed back from its original intended release date to facilitate the rendering of two versions, 4:3 and 16:9, of each animated piece on this DVD. The reasoning behind this is mentioned in the director's commentary as well as explained in the included insert. Essentially, field-rendered material tends to look a little softer when a DVD player must re-scale 16:9 material to fit a 4:3 aspect ratio by placing black bars at the top and bottom of it. Rather than face a situation where consumers would be unhappy with the quality, the creators decided to just include both versions of each animation and be done with it.

Visually, there are two differences between the versions. Camera moves were optimized for each to give the best overall framing. Also, the 4:3 shows slightly more vertical information than the 16:9 version, but less horizontal information. Both versions look wonderful regardless of the shape of the display.

For this review, I viewed each of the 16:9 versions in 480p on my 47" Panasonic widescreen television. The resulting picture quality is nothing sort of outstanding. As with the Special Edition of the original Animusic Video Album, the bitrate is extremely high, registering at an average of 9.43Mb/sec. This, along with slow camera moves for the most part, all but eliminates any motion artefacts. I was initially concerned that the inclusion of two versions of each animation may have a detrimental effect on bitrate, but after careful viewing, it is not an issue for the most part. Problems still crop up from time to time, however. For example, the night sky in the background of ‘Heavy Light’ exhibits compression artefacts and the colouring is not a smooth gradient.

As with the original's Special Edition, there are no physical blemishes to speak of and the production house in charge of the encoding did an admirable job given the difficult source material. The incredible detail of the sets is shown off nicely and colours are vivid. Black levels are spot on as well. The overall quality is about as good as is capable with current DVD technology. Perhaps by the time Animusic 3 rolls around, they will be producing them for a high-definition format.

Cathedral Pictures
Audio
As with Animusic's Special Edition, both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 stereo tracks are included. Obviously, the 5.1 mix offers much more opportunity for dynamic sound and although it is utilized to great effect, it is more subtle than you might think.

In an interview I had with Mr. Lytle after the original's Special Edition had been released, he explained that there are different philosophies to mixing 5.1, but in the end has to go with what works best for what is being dealt with here.  What he does is build a virtual soundstage, as if you have a perfect mix sitting front and centre at a concert with a bit of surround mix that remains no matter how wildly the cameras are swinging around. This is done so that the viewer is not distracted with gimmicky sound movement all the time. This is not necessarily a hard and fast rule, however. There are times when you may be watching an instrument and as the camera moves by the sound may pan with it.

One of the most aggressive audio pieces is Gyro Drums, where a multitude of drums are played simultaneously. I noticed many of the sounds were located in the surround channels as I am sure it was necessary to separate the similar sounding instruments more so than any of the pieces. As with the original, the overall effect is one of excellent envelopment. Although the original stereo mix is crystal-clear and a delight to listen to, the 5.1 remix enhances the experience even more. Those with a full surround-sound setup including a subwoofer are in for a treat.

Extras
All content is stored on a single-sided, dual-layered disc. It is housed inside a standard keep case and also has a very nice foldout insert. This insert contains loads of information including the disc's menu structure, an explanation of the special features for each animation and other little titbits about the release. Looking at it made me think of DVD's earlier days when it was commonplace for practically every DVD release to include an insert detailing, at the very least, chapter stops. It made the package feel more complete and it is nice to see the Animusic team choosing to include such an amenity when other mainstream studios are choosing the cheaper route of not including one.

Pipe Dream 2
Animusic 2 has a decent amount of bonus content to keep you busy after you watch the main program. Most of it is great stuff with a couple of weak spots. First up is a screen-specific commentary track from director Wayne Lytle. He starts off addressing some of the comments (good and bad) that consumers had with his commentary on the first DVD. He then proceeds to explain what Animusic is for the uninformed. His commentary track is full of technical information and he imparts this very well. It sounds as though he recorded each animation separately as the commentary stops at the end of each one and then starts back in at the beginning of the next. If you are interested to know how all this was done, definitely check this out.  There are also over two hundred and fifty production and design stills accessible from the sub-menu for each animation.

For the remainder of the extras, rather than trying to cram large amounts of bonus features onto this disc, which would have meant a lower bitrate for the main program, Lytle and Crognale elected to include one bonus feature for each animated piece. The features are quite diverse and together they cover just about every area of interest. The aspect ratio of each feature is in parenthesis.

‘Starship Groove’ has a multi-angle version (4:3) of the complete animation. The viewer can choose to switch between three angles on-the-fly to focus on a particular robot. This makes it easier to see and hear the different portions of the song that each is producing. ‘Pogo Sticks’ gives us a look at some 'rehearsal footage' (in 16:9). The seven pogo sticks are in an empty room and play the song in its entirety. When I saw the word 'rehearsal', I was kind of expecting to see some screw-ups and such. That would have been amusing. Unfortunately, it is not as interesting as it could have been as it is the exact version that was played in the main program. I understand, however, that it would have taken longer to produce something different to do this.

‘Resonant Chamber’ has a multi-view look at the complex instrument (4:3). The screen is split into six sections that clearly show each component. This is cool as it was difficult to ever show the whole instrument on-screen at once but of its size. Again, the whole piece is played except for a small portion at the beginning. ‘Cathedral Pictures’ shows set construction progression (4:3) where each of the components to the animation fades in one after another. It lasts approximately ninety seconds and is done to the 'Promenade' portion of the song.

Fiber Bundles
‘Pipe Dream 2’ shows the animation (4:3) in three different stages of completion—wireframe, solid and shaded. It loops through the three stages over and over through the course of the full-length animation and sometimes shows all three stages on-screen at once. Very neat to see how it progressed! ‘Fiber Bundles’ contains the most complex and interesting special feature. It shows the complete animation (16:9) with different viewing angles showing the three main components to the animation and a fourth angle showing it in its completed state. In addition to this, four audio tracks are also available (three for each of the corresponding components and one for the final mix). This allows for one video angle to be viewed while listening to another, ‘unseen’ portion to the animation. There are many different combinations to try. Great stuff!

‘Gyro Drums’ has a special feature similar to ‘Resonant Chamber’. Because it is difficult to see the entire instrument (or rather contraption) from any given angle, a multi-view (4:3) is accessible that breaks the screen into four sections each showing the animation from a different angle. ‘Heavy Light’ has two features. The first is similar to the ‘Cathedral Pictures’ set construction piece where the temple is constructed piece-by-piece (4:3) over about two minutes. The second feature shows us close-ups (4:3) of pieces we only got to see from afar during the main program.

Overall
Wayne Lytle and David Crognale deliver another awesome package! Their attention to detail and amount of effort put into every aspect really shines through. Technically, this DVD is a feast for the eyes and ears and the quality of the bonus content will make fans happy. If you are a fan of the first DVD, you'll definitely be pleased with Animusic 2. If you have never experienced Animusic, this DVD is a great place to start. Make sure you see the original DVD as well. Here's hoping for many more instalments (and in high-definition!).


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